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Sarah A. Brown (Cambridge)
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The Machine
The Machine
by James Smythe
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.39

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful and disturbing, 2 July 2013
This review is from: The Machine (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I had not previously come across James Smythe's works, and my first thought, when I looked at the brief list of his novels so far - The Testimony, The Explorer, The Machine - was that he shared Christopher Priest's fondness for titles starting with 'the'. This is not the only link between the two writers. Both seem to hover on the border between sf and 'literary fiction', both have a spare and coolly compelling style, and both are preoccupied with issues of identity. The near future world Smythe conjures up is reminiscent of the 'cosy catastrophe' settings of earlier British sf writers, but although in some ways it's impressively textured and subtle, it also seems we aren't really being encouraged to *believe* in it. But a sweltering and claustrophobic Isle of Wight provides an effective bleak backdrop for Smythe's exploration of memory, selfhood and morality through the plight of Beth who is hoping to use the same Machine which destroyed her husband to rebuild his identity. The monstrous Machine dominates both her house and the novel:

"Sudden and abrupt, the fans kick in, and the whole thing makes a grinding sound, filthy and enormous, and Beth is almost kicked back onto the bed by the shock. The screen goes blank, replaced with its own blackness - false and printed on, pixels approximating the tone that's so exact and pure on the outside - and then the noise abates, slightly."

I strongly recommend The Machine, and am looking forward to catching up with Smythe's first two novels.


Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life
Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life
by Sari Nusseibeh
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars A captivating and engrossing memoir, 6 May 2013
Sari Nusseibeh's account of his life, interwoven with more general reflections on the history and politics of Israel/Palestine, is utterly absorbing from beginning to end. Even though the subject matter is often traumatic - or simply dispiriting - it's also a very exhilarating book, and Nusseibeh never seems to lose hope or humanity.

Nusseibeh's father is the focus for the first part of the book - and the part he played in the decades leading up to the creation of Israel in 1948. Naturally events are told from a Palestinian perspective, yet Nusseibeh tries to offer a balanced picture, and one in which the British, as much as either of the `sides', seem culpable.

He offers fascinating insights into the complexity and variety of Palestinian politics - the various factions and the subtly shifting dynamics over the decades. We read of the growth of religious extremism, and about the gradual rise of Hamas, from a small and unobtrusive grouping, to a major player. Nusseibeh writes particularly engagingly about the cat and mouse games he had to play in order to produce dissident leaflets during the first Intifada.

Although politics looms large in the book, Nusseibeh also talks about his interests in philosophy and literature - as well as more popular culture. I loved his account of how he got obsessed with the cult 1980s treasure hunt book, Kit Williams's `Masquerade', and became convinced (quite wrongly) that he had found the key to the mystery - the secret location of a jewelled hare buried somewhere in the English countryside.

Nusseibeh isn't (and couldn't be) a dispassionate writer, and he communicates a strong sense of loss, injustice and displacement. It could be argued that there are gaps and biases within his account. But this is going to be true of any account of this topic, even one not written by an interested party, and Nusseibeh is always receptive to overtures of peace from Israelis. For example, when he is arrested he describes his fear that he has been left alone with his Jewish cell mates in order that they might murder him. `They looked like assassins and drug addicts conjured up by some malevolent spirit to haunt the place. One man had a tattoo on his neck. Another was scar faced.' Then his fears are overturned when he finds out the prisoners are amused to hear that he is thought to be a spy - and bring him tea and biscuits.

He emerges as a liberal, open-minded, whimsical figure, who tries to hold on to his values in the face of huge obstacles from more extreme figures on both sides, persevering in his search for a just peace which seems as elusive as that jewelled hare. As a moderate, he is in some ways seen as a more dangerous and unwelcome figure by the Israeli right than zealous extremists - and some, supposedly on his own side, consider him a traitor. I thoroughly recommend this to anyone with even a passing interest in the region.


The Geneva Option
The Geneva Option
by Adam LeBor
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.40

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classy international thriller, 6 May 2013
This review is from: The Geneva Option (Paperback)
Having thoroughly enjoyed Adam Lebor's `The Budapest Protocol', I was keen to read `The Geneva Option' - and wasn't disappointed. The novel opens with a woman being pushed to her death from a balcony at the UN headquarters in New York, and then introduces us to Yael Azoulay, a skilled negotiator, accustomed to dealing with disreputable and even dangerous figures. After it looks as though she has been leaking confidential information she is suspended from her UN post. However she then discovers clues to a frightening corporate conspiracy which could put hundreds of lives at risk, and goes undercover in an attempt to discover and expose the truth ...


Doctor Who  The Wheel Of Ice (2nd Doctor Novel)
Doctor Who The Wheel Of Ice (2nd Doctor Novel)
by Stephen Baxter
Edition: Audio CD
Price: 12.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid but not stand out, 6 May 2013
I was particularly keen to read 'The Wheel of Ice' as I am a great fan of Stephen Baxter's science fiction. However, I felt he had perhaps compromised too much in trying to hit the right tone/register for a novel aimed at a rather younger market. Nevertheless this was still an enjoyable novel - the characters were well drawn, the plot was quite inventive, and the novel had plenty of narrative drive. The flashbacks connecting the future setting of 'The Wheel of Ice' to our own day, via a series of vignettes of a single family through several generations, were also well done.


Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and The Corruption of Britain
Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and The Corruption of Britain
by Tom Watson
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Compelling - if a little clunky, 7 July 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Dial M for Murdoch is fast paced, full of detail, and written (not surprisingly given Tom Watson's close involvement with the case) with a sense of great urgency. I'd recommend it to anyone who wishes to catch up with the series of events which eventually led to the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry. One slight criticism I'd make is that there is so much information included in the book, so many names, dates and facts, that it becomes difficult to hold the whole story in one's mind. More importantly, I didn't feel the writers always did quite enough to flag the *really* killer points, to make them stand out from the mass of accumulated data.

The writers' passionate interest in their subject is both a strength and a weakness. I would have liked them, more often, to have stepped back from the breathless narrative, the build up of evidence and outrage, in order to reflect on the bigger issues at stake in a more dispassionate way. One such issue is the relationship between governments and the media. The idea of a newspaper proprietor being able to manipulate government through his perceived power over the electorate is chilling - but so of course is the idea of a newspaper which is afraid, or simply unable, to criticise the government.

A still trickier balance to get right is that between freedom and privacy. Having recently read Nick Cohen's excellent You Can't Read This Book, I paused on a detail included in a footnote on p.75. Paul Dacre is quoted pointing out that `this legislation would have made Britain the only country in the free world to jail journalists and could have had a considerable chilling effect on good journalism'. That assertion seemed worth dwelling on, even if only to prove that it was misleading or distorting in some way.

Watson and Hickman see things from the perspective of people who have had their privacy invaded. But freedom of speech, freedom of the press, is important too, and it would have been good to acknowledge more clearly that there are dangers involved in curtailing press freedoms, even if the catalogue of deplorable incidents charted in the book doesn't, quite understandably, encourage the reader to remember that fact.


Eve (Eve Trilogy)
Eve (Eve Trilogy)
by Anna Carey
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful dystopian thriller, 18 Mar 2012
This review is from: Eve (Eve Trilogy) (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Anna Carey's 'Eve' is never less than pacey, but it manages to be genuinely thought provoking too. When we first meet the heroine, she is looking forward to her graduation from the protective environment of a girls' boarding school, set up to look after the few children who survived a devastating plague. Eve, a small child when the plague killed her mother, has always been told that she will have an exciting career ahead of her - so is shocked to discover the real fate which awaits her and all her friends ...

If you stop and think too much, some aspects of this future world and its government fail to convince. But Carey is good at evoking the landscape of a ruined world, and creates a poignant sense of nostalgia for our present, Eve's distant past, when the world was full of people. She has also created some convincing characters - Eve is a rather bookish, introverted heroine, not unlike Twilight's Bella, and her fairly predictable romance is complemented by a more complex relationship with a female friend, Arden. All the girls have been brought up to fear and distrust men and there is rather a nice scene in which Caleb and Eve earnestly debate the gender dynamics of Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse'.

Carey's novel will remind the experienced reader of many other dystopian fictions, 'Never Let Me Go', 'The Postman' and, in particular, 'The Handmaid's Tale'. But for many readers this may be their first taste of the genre, and it seems perfectly designed to draw young adults into the pleasures of sf.


From The Dead (Tom Thorne Novels)
From The Dead (Tom Thorne Novels)
by Mark Billingham
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars A pageturner - and something more, 24 April 2011
I found the previous novel in this series, Bloodline, just a little disappointing and routine, but 'From the Dead' represents a real return to form. It's very well plotted and paced, and grips from the opening pages. It lacks the queasily compelling sheer nastiness of earlier books in the series, but (partly because we know the main characters so well by now) it's one of the subtlest Thorne novels. The character of Anna Carpenter, the young private detective who joins forces with Thorne, is particularly well done - she is spirited and witty, yet also vulnerable and insecure. Even though Billingham deals with evil villains and brutal acts of violence, he is a very humane writer, and he is probably the crime writer whose novels I watch out for most eagerly. Although I strongly recommend 'From the Dead', I'd advise readers who are new to Billingham's novels to go back to the beginning of the series.


Earth Abides (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
Earth Abides (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
by George.R. Stewart
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.91

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic of post-apocalyptic science fiction, 24 April 2011
I have a morbid fascination with post-apocalyptic sf, and am not quite sure why it's taken me so long to get round to reading this undoubted classic of the genre. The protagonist, Isherwood Williams, is a young academic, a geographer who is camping in the wilderness when disaster strikes - a measles-like illness which kills almost the entire human race. We, like Ish, don't experience the outbreak at first hand. By the time he returns to what used to be civilisation, it's essentially all over. This is typical of the novel's general restraint - Earth Abides is an elegiac and rather cerebral novel, at times very painful, but less horrific than many in the genre.

It takes its tone from the main character. Some readers hate Ish - I've come across reviewers on other sites who complain that he is boring, elitist, imperialist and over-fixated on the importance of books. Despite, or because of, these perceived flaws, he is a very effective witness to apocalypse - a thoughtful and intellectual young man, self-contained and slightly socially awkward, yet also considerate and humane - in a detached sort of way. The novel is interspersed with passages from his own notes, careful observations about the wider effect of the plague. He calmly documents the rise and fall of various non-human species, the changing appearance of the landscape and, eventually, casts an anthropological eye on the progress of `The Tribe', a small group of survivors and their descendants who look up to Ish as their patriarch.

The novel is a wonderful meditation on civilisation, humanity and the meaning of life. Both the achievements and shortcomings of mankind are thrown into relief by the very different world which emerges from the ruins, the return to a more primitive way of life, a changing language and a new mythology.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 17, 2011 5:13 PM BST


Divergent (Divergent, Book 1)
Divergent (Divergent, Book 1)
by Veronica Roth
Edition: Paperback

11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing YA dystopia, 5 April 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I'm a great fan of near future dystopias, and thought `Divergent' was an excellent addition to the genre. `Dystopian' may be too strong a word. Although Roth's first novel is clearly predicated on some future collapse of society, a crisis focused on dwindling resources, this issue isn't to the forefront in `Divergent'. Instead its focus is on the way society in the US (or in Chicago at least) has split into distinct factions or tribes: Erudite, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Abnegation. This is an original idea I think - many dystopias feature such splits, but normally they are connected to social class, as is the case with Robert Swindells' `Daz 4 Zoe', for example.

All young people are offered an assessment, informing them whether they should stay with their parents' faction or move to a different group, which will almost certainly mean a total break with their family. Most, though not all, opt for the faction with which they show most affinity, although it is possible to go against the grain, and make a choice which doesn't match aptitude. But the penalties are harsh - anyone who fails their chosen faction's initiation test must join the `factionless', a marginal group who get by on support from selfless Abnegation members.

What's so interesting about this book is the way in which it makes readers reflect on their own characters, their own strengths and weaknesses. The heroine is confronted with some genuinely tough choices - sometimes there simply is no right answer. The most obvious question posed by Roth's `thought experiment' is - what faction would I join? I teach literature at a university, so I was surprised to find myself drawn to Candor rather than Erudite - which I hope will encourage potential readers to take my word and give `Divergent' a go. If you enjoy sf or fantasy I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 17, 2011 5:17 PM BST


The Savage Altar
The Savage Altar
by Asa Larsson
Edition: Paperback

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars absorbing and atmospheric, 6 Mar 2011
This review is from: The Savage Altar (Paperback)
This novel begins dramatically, with the description of the final thoughts to go through the mind of a handsome and charismatic young preacher, Victor Strandgard, from Kiruna in the far north of Sweden. We then move to Stockholm, where we meet the novel's central character, Rebecka Martinsson, a driven and rather guarded young Stockholm lawyer. She is called back to Kiruna by her old friend, Sanna, the sister of the dead preacher, and a prime suspect in the murder enquiry.

There are really several mysteries in play here, as we turn the pages to find out, not just who killed Viktor, but what is the full story behind the highly successful church he was associated with, and why does Rebecka have such conflicting feelings about Sanna and her other former friends.

As a thriller, I thought this was good, but not great. But as a novel it had much to recommend it - intriguing and quite original characters who seemed to possess some convicingly human inconsistency and sometimes made me unsure how to respond to them - Rebecka's boss, for example. I'd certainly recommend this to anyone who enjoys the genre, and will probably go on to read more by Asa Larsson.


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