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Rules for a Knight
Rules for a Knight
by Ethan Hawke
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.43

4.0 out of 5 stars Is Chivalry dead?, 7 Feb. 2016
This review is from: Rules for a Knight (Hardcover)
"There have always been two ways to be rich: by accumulating vast sums or by needing very little."
Is chivalry dead?

Watching the news, reading comments on Facebook, and viewing some of the world's entertainment offerings (those not covered by GeekDad), you would be forgiven for thinking so. Ethan Hawke begs to differ. With his little book Rules for a Knight, Hawke shows that knightly virtues such as courage, humility, and honesty very much have a place in modern life, whatever we are doing.

Rules for a Knight was written for Hawke's four children. It's a series of allegories told by a knight on the eve of the battle that claimed his life. Sir Tomas Lemuel Hawke writes a letter to his children, passing on what he learned from his grandfather, and explaining how he came to be a knight. He wants his children to live a good and noble life, even without his hand to guide them.

And who wouldn't want that for their children?

Hawke walks the thin line between sage advice and over-sentimental homily, managing to stay on the right side throughout. There are many ways a Hollywood star giving out vaguely mystic advice could have gone horribly wrong, but Hawke avoids them. Much as Sir Thomas might have suggested, egos have been left at the door. The book's gentle lessons are delivered in an easy-to-read and entertaining style.

Rules for a Knight is lovely to read aloud. The chapters are short and their message clear, but are interesting enough to debate their finer points as you head up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire. The book is nicely presented: a small hardcover with a pleasingly tactile cover, and a bookmark ribbon. It would make a great, slightly different gift to mark a birth, christening, or Jedi knighting ceremony.

"A knight knows where he keeps his flint box...A knight does not need to be told how many arrows are left in his quiver. Responsibility, awareness and self-knowledge are his allies. Forgetfulness is his enemy". (The sort of quote you need when your son comes home without his coat, lunchbox, or tie. And it's only Monday.)

Rules for a Knight is a great little book, that, whilst on the surface archaic, is often right on the money for the modern world. If you're looking for a gentle way to show your children a more "mindful" way of living, then this book will probably do that - without making them throw up.

All royalties from sales of the book are being donated organizations working to help young people overcome learning disabilities. I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This review first appeared on GeekDad 1/2/2016


Concentr8
Concentr8
by William Sutcliffe
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

4.0 out of 5 stars The Drugs Don't Work, 6 Feb. 2016
This review is from: Concentr8 (Hardcover)
A few months ago I stumbled on an article in Independent newspaper. Ignoring its primary content for a moment, this was exciting for me as Sutcliffe is the author of one of my favourite books, Whatever Makes You Happy, a novel that offers a hilarious look at the mother-son relationship. I found it particularly apposite to my situation, and a whole lot cheaper than therapy. He also wrote the excellent Circus of Thieves books; hilarious stories for children aged 6+.

His new story promised a dystopian future based around a behaviour-altering drug given to children. This is the type of premise I enjoy in a book, written by an author I greatly admire, so I knew immediately I wanted to read, Concentr8.

The novel wasn't quite what I expected it to be. It's not set on a future earth, with a striated society and a mad dictator calling all the shots. It's a whole lot more subtle than that. Concentr8 is set in an easily recognizable London, with an easily recognisable (to British residents at least), but entirely fictitious, media savvy, tousle-haired buffoon, as Mayor.

London is in turmoil. Its population is angry. Much like at the time of the 2011 riots, there's a feeling that politicians and big-business are creaming off the top, at the expense of the little guy. The little guy has had enough. Enter five teenagers from inner-city London. Disaffected and bored, with little prospect things will get any better. As London consumes itself, Blaze and his followers decide to start a fire of their own. They kidnap and hold hostage a lowly government worker. Hiding out in an abandoned warehouse, the teenagers soon find themselves the attention of the nation's media.

As the stakes are raised, each child begins to analyse their reasons for being there; a heady mix of camaraderie, loyalty to a charismatic leader, and railing against a society that doesn't want them. Each member of the gang questions their involvement in a situation that becomes more dangerous by the hour.

Sutcliffe uses several different voices to tell his tale, including members of the gang, a journalist, the hostage, a negotiator, and the Mayor of London himself. Some voices appear more then once, others are given but a solitary airing. Sutcliffe uses his mosaic of narrators to build up a picture of shifting loyalties and motives, revealing a group of young people that have started something they can no longer control.

Sitting over the top of all this is fictional drug, Concentr8; a treatment for ADHD. As the novel opens, it has been discovered that Concentr8 has been controversially prescribed to countless children across the country, without proper testing. Due to cost cuts the drug has been suddenly removed from circulation. All of a sudden there are hundreds of school aged children suffering from withdrawl.

Sutcliffe states in his Independent article that one the inspirations for Concentr8 came from the current reality that, in Britain, it is possible to obtain disability benefit if your child is diagnosed with having ADHD. This, combined with the aim of the Concentr8 program being to ensure that, "The symptoms of criminality can be treated before they develop into the full-blown disease." forms the central axis on which Sutcliffe hangs the rest of his novel.

In the novel, children are preselected by teachers to be given the treatment. Their parents are given financial incentives to take up the program, the result being that swathes of children from disadvantaged backgrounds are medicated to keep them quiet. It's chemical social engineering. Like the best dystopian visions, the world Sutcliffe outlines is only one or two comparatively sane-sounding steps away from becoming reality.

The subject of ADHD is complex and deeply emotive. For sufferers and the parents of sufferers, life presents a series of specific challenges that must be overcome. Within the family unit, potential pitfalls can be allowed for, mitigated, or avoided. In the wider world, indifference and misunderstanding of the problems faced by an ADHD can exacerbate them. Medication is one method to return control to the sufferer, but should the continual increase in diagnoses of ADHD be cause for concern?

In the UK right now, huge emphasis is placed on school attainment. Rigorous testing and continual comparisons of results are now the order of the day. Schools can be severely reprimanded if they don't show continual improvements in test scores. If prescribing certain drugs to children can improve their performance in these, apparently vital, measures of competence, why wouldn't schools push for them? But at what cost? As The Onion put it 'Ritalin Cures New Picasso.'

What Sutcliffe's novel shows us, as any decent healthcare professional will tell you, is that proper diagnosis is essential. Behavioral and environmental factors must be carefully weighed up and assessed. ADHD is tangled conundrum, difficult enough to negotiate for a family with a sufferer, without trying to weigh up the influence of the pharmaceutical industry, political expediency, and education policy.

With selected (and often horrifying) quotes from anti-Ritalin literature, it's fairly clear where Sutcliffe is pitching his flag. To borrow from scourge of Big Pharma and the imprecise use of science, author Ben Goldacre, I think we'll find it's a bit more complicated than that. Concentr8 expresses a view, but what it shows is only coming from one angle.

Nevertheless, Concentr8 does pose difficult questions about medicating teenagers, particularly those whose lives and situations are difficult. Leaving ADHD aside, it highlights the difficulties faced by young adults that live in harsh urban environments, showing what few options they feel they have.

"If it was up to me I wouldn't never met nobody like Blaze or Troy or any of them. I wouldn't have ended up with friends that ain't even friends. I wouldn't have ended up like this, all on my own up some roof with no options, no choices, just boxed in on every side by different things I don't want - that nobody would want."

Vilified throughout the press, used as scapegoats by politicians, and excluded from much of the Capital because of its over-inflated prices, these children are bored and looking to entertain themselves.

Sutcliffe ably demonstrates how it's easy for the establishment to brand the behavior as criminal without really considering any mitigating circumstances. Compassion wins few votes and sells fewer newspapers, and it's children like the ones depicted in Concentr8 that suffer as a result.

This is a controversial and thought-provoking book, that asks difficult questions about how we treat our teenagers. Its position on ADHD medication will raise ire in some, but above all, Concentr8 shows the importance of ensuring that decisions about how and when these drugs are prescribed, remain in the hands of the clinicians. In a world where explosive political rhetoric can ride roughshod over common sense, it's an observation well worth making.


Story Box: Create Your Own Fairy Tales (Magma for Laurence King)
Story Box: Create Your Own Fairy Tales (Magma for Laurence King)
by Anne Laval
Edition: Cards
Price: £9.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Teach your children to tell tales, 24 Jan. 2016
We've been big fans of Laurence King's Story Dice Pirate Adventure Dice for quite a while. This new story box requires more space than the dice, but is a wonder to behold. Twenty beautifully illustrated cards that depict scenes inspired from traditional fairy stories. The cards fit together like jigsaw pieces and are double sided, so can be combined together in myriad ways. All laid out together they make a story 8ft in length.

The story building isn't quite so intuitive as it is with the dice, where it's easy to use the pictures in any order. Here if you draw pieces randomly there are sometimes some mental leaps needed, in order to tell a coherent story (for example if the wolf capturing the dwarf card, comes out after the dwarf being rescued card). There is of course nothing stopping you breaking the story in the middle and adding a bit in.

Indeed, in doing so, lies the Story Box's power. By altering the story up the chain, we found that our children liked to change what was happening further down, giving several different narratives during a single session. The story that evolved was also more collaborative than those generated by the story dice, as the boys discussed what they thought was going to happen.

The jigsaw pieces are made from strong card, and the illustrations very pleasing. They have really captured the imagination of my three year old. He loves putting the pieces together to make a "story train" and he's really taken to two or three of the cards and likes to explain what's going on with them.

My experiences with the Story Box have been magical, with all five of us working together to create something special. The older ones have even learned the rudiments of how stories are constructed; beginning, middle, and end, and the introduction of peril. One fun exercise we enjoyed was telling a story backwards. It's surprisingly hilarious.

This is a really great idea, beautifully executed. An ideal gift for imaginative children and those impossible to buy for.


Arcadia
Arcadia
by Iain Pears
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A cloth woven from gold, 13 Jan. 2016
This review is from: Arcadia (Hardcover)
Iain Pear's Arcadia is a piece of precision literary engineering. I've realised recently, that a novel's structure is very important to me. I don't like structure to overshadow the substance of a novel, but I do find quirky or unusual constructions very appealing.

So it is with Arcadia, a novel, if its app is to believed, that has chapters which can be read in any order. I read Arcadia in paper format, forwards from page one, so I can't verify the truth of this statement but I can confirm that story folds back over on itself. How does it do this? Pears, not traditionally a science fiction writer, employs some commonly used devices of the genre to create a mind-bending but wholly satisfying tale. To say more would give the game away.

As Arcadia opens, Henry Lytten, an Oxford professor, is a writing a fantasy novel. He's not the first to do this, and it will delight Tolkien fans that Lytten is a small-time member of the Inklings. Prof. Tolkien doesn't feature directly in the novel, but he does touch its edges a couple of times, which is a pleasing addition to proceedings.

Where Tolkien created Middle Earth as a vehicle for myth and language, Lytten wants to build a realistic working society.

"No goblins," he said. "This is serious, I want to construct a society that works. With beliefs, laws, superstitions, customs. With an economy and politics. An entire sociology of the fantastic."

Things become more interesting when a young girl who feeds Lytten's cat discovers a peculiar portal in the professor's basement. She walks through it and, like C.S. Lewis's wardrobe, it transports her into another world.

The girl quickly ducks back to her own world, but not before interacting with one young boy. This brief encounter has deep ramifications for the world she's visited. Things become more peculiar when Lytten subconsciously adds a young girl into his story. We are left wondering is Lytten controlling events with his narrative, or does his narrative somehow control the events around him?

Additional narrative strands are added, with chapters that detail life in the fictional state of Anterworld, and, more curiously, a tale from a dystopian far off future. This features an Earth with a ravaged surface, crumbling societies, and humans that are enhanced by implants. In the far north of Scotland, a brilliant but querulous mathematician and physicist has invented a machine that can open portals into alternate dimensions.

How does this fit in with Professor Lytten's comfortable Oxford home and his fantastic creation? The answer to that question forms the spine of the novel, and the reader's voyage of discovery to find its truth is rich and enjoyable.

The narrative's construction is faultless. Lytten manages to weave parochial college life, future dystopia, mythical fiction, quantum physics, and even Cold War espionage into a compelling, brain-massaging whole. I wouldn't want every novel I read to be like Arcadia, but I found the entire reading experience invigorating. By taking what are essentially tired tropes, Pears has created something innovative and interesting to read.


Slade House
Slade House
by David Mitchell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.09

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The House That David Built, 21 Dec. 2015
This review is from: Slade House (Hardcover)
This post first appeared on GeekDad on 10/12/2015

David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors.Ever since I first read his masterpiece of interlocking short stories, Ghostwritten, I wait impatiently for his next book to arrive, devour it almost instantly, and then start the wait again.

The sudden arrival of Slade House, a little over a year since I read The Bone Clocks, was a very welcome surprise (the usual wait between novels is around four years). When the book arrived, the comparatively fast turnaround time was explained. Compared with previous novels, Slade House is a slim 233 pages, and the print is fairly large too.

The basis of the stories in the book came from Mitchell's storytelling tweets from around the time that The Bone Clocks was published. Whilst Mitchell's internet presence is fairly low key, he's not afraid to harness its story-telling power.

I said that Slade House contains "stories," so is this a novel or a set of short stories? Both. Mitchell is the master of morphing short story collections into novels. He most famously employed this device in Cloud Atlas, a novel in which the stories are nested inside one another, and where the whole novel has an axis of symmetry through its central tale.

There's nothing so complicated here. What we have with Slade House is five stories told sequentially in time. Each story takes place on the 31st of October when, every nine years, the mysterious Slade House magically appears in the middle of a suburban street. The final story takes place on Halloween 2015.

Mitchell's stories are ghost stories in the grand tradition. All are spooky, menacing, and a little bit scary. All set in the eponymous, haunted, Slade House. Whilst each story in the books could probably stand on its own, each one builds on what came before. Little bits of information are drip fed to the reader as each set of characters enters the house to challenge the horror behind the small black gate in the wall.

Slade House exists in the same world as Mitchell's The Bone Clocks. Does this matter? Ultimately, yes. The first four stories would be fine, but number five, the one that contains the novel's denouement, would be greatly diminished were you not familiar with the concept of what exactly a Bone Clock is. I frankly think you'd be baffled and a little cheated that the novel ended they way it does. If you haven't read The Bone Clocks yet, it's a fine novel that will most certainly reward your attention.

Slade House is probably less SFF than both The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas. There are supernatural elements, and certainly something fishy going on, but until the final pages there is very little of the science fiction motif that underpins The Bone Clocks.

Why do I like Mitchell's novels so much? Partly it's the audacious structures he uses, but mostly it's his use of language. It probably helps Mitchell is about my age and his upbringing in "The Midlands" is similar to mine. His semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green, a story about a teenage boy, is set about twenty miles from where I spent my teenage years. Needless to say, I loved it. Mitchell's cultural grounding feels like my cultural grounding.

But you don't have to have lived just south of Birmingham (UK) to like his books. Like all great writers, Mitchell has that knack of pulling a short concise metaphor out of the air, that perfectly encapsulates a feeling or notion you've had, but can never quite describe. He notices the small details in life that you don't notice you've noticed. Things you don't realize you're aware of until Mitchell points them out to you.

I very much enjoyed reading Slade House. It is certainly one of his most accessible novels, and I would recommend it for those who had never read him, were it not for its dependence on having read The Bone Clocks to get the most from it.

Whilst the books is certainly enjoyable, I don't think this is a novel that will extend Mitchell's legend as a writer. It's an entertaining story, well executed, but it doesn't play with genre or structure in the way Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks does. A good novel then, but not a great one.


Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
by Salman Rushdie
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.24

5.0 out of 5 stars 1001 Nights Redux, 3 Dec. 2015
This review first appeared on GeekDad on 29/11/2015

“I’m not a fighter he told her. I’m not a hero. I’m a gardener”

I've never read any Salman Rushdie. He’s an author I’d been inclined to shy away from, but the mixture of epic tales and superheroes promised in the blurb for Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights, piqued my interest. T

First up, I did fall asleep several times when reading Two Years… This was partly due to my youngest reintroducing pre-5 am alarm calls and partly because, as well as telling a tale of epic heroism, Rushdie likes a bit of flowery contemplation too. I am, however, glad to have read the book. It may have occasionally sent me to sleep, but it’s full of the themes and ideas that have underpinned superheroic fiction for decades.

The book displays many genre conventions and references yet more. There are Jinn, the mythical and magical creatures that provide the main source of fantasy in the book. They live in an alternate world, parallel to our own.

One of the novel’s human heroes is a comic book artist (described as being “sub-Stan Lee”). The book’s narrator does so from somewhen in the far future, from a hinted-at, super-technological world. The story is an end-of-days tale culminating in the arrival of Armageddon. At one point, Rushdie invokes sub-atomic particles and Lewis Carrol, via the Cheshire Cat principle. There is much here for the geek.

Standing against four tyrannous super-beings bent on laying the world in ruins are a band of disparate heroes who come together to fight the incursion. This central stand-off evokes images of Superman 2 and The Avengers.

On the surface, Two Years is a fairy tale about the love of a Jinn for her human, philosopher husband, and the countless children they had; Jinn, it seems, are eye-wateringly fecund. It is these demi-jinn that will fight the incursion when it finally arrives.

Dig deeper, and, as one might expect, there’s quite a bit more going on. The original philosopher Ibn Rushd fights a philosophical/religious battle with another, more devout philosopher. These exchanges cannot be read without bringing to mind Rushdie’s own significant brush with organized religion. Not that he isn’t above poking fun at his own predicament.

“You mean,” she said, “that because we are not married our children cannot carry their father’s name.” He smiled his sad crooked smile. “It is better that they be the Duniazat,” he said, “a name which contains the world and not been judged by it. To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.”

Beneath that, as you might expect for a novel that’s a riff on 1001 Nights, this is a book about the power of stories.

“[T]o tell a story about the past is to tell a story about the present. To recount a fantasy, a story about the imaginary, is also a way of recounting a tale about the actual. If this were not true then the deed would be pointless…”

The novel is laden with allegory, some obvious, others less so. The baby that gives deceivers boils is the stuff of politicians’ nightmares. There’s a beautiful passage highlighting the plight of the migrant, even a welcomed successful one, that details the pain of being separated from one’s culture.

A dystopian fable warns against the glory of capitalism and the perils of grasping always to build the future. Another powerful passage decries western foreign policy, whilst simultaneously putting the boot into religious fundamentalism. This fable within a fable depicts the situation in Syria and the rise of IS with depressing accuracy. The blend of fable and hard-edged truth are what gives Two Years its power.

Rushdie’s language is sometimes overblown. Some of the esoteric and ethereal romantic pontification are what sent me to sleep, but other sections are beautiful and compelling. The story is suffused with humor and it wears its references lightly. There are a number of subtle riffs on superhero and comic book culture.

I’ve reread a number of sections of the book in order to write this piece and, in doing so, I have developed an even greater respect for it. Removed from trying to piece together the story, I have found it easier to immerse myself in Rushdie’s use of language; to enjoy each of his set-piece vignettes.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights will not be to everybody’s taste, but I have found it an invigorating read that has made me think about the stories we tell and how they fit into the world in which we live. It is a novel that will bear repeat reading and, as the first book of my literary science fiction investigation, it represents an unqualified success.

I received a copy of this book for review purposes from the team at Penguin Random House UK.


Pierre the Maze Detective: The Search for the Stolen Maze Stone
Pierre the Maze Detective: The Search for the Stolen Maze Stone
by Hiro Kamigaki
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.71

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get Lost in a Good Book, 16 Nov. 2015
Lots of children’s books come into our house. Many of which are very good. Some though are exceptional and make me almost uncontrollably excited. My childhood is well past me now, but the very best of of children’s books reignite that essence of child inside me, leading me to caper about in a way that embarrasses the children. Pierre the Maze Detective is one such book.

I loved puzzle books as a child and still do, but don’t often find the time to explore them. This one demands to be pored over, every page has a multitude of things to see; jokes, quirks and above all, mazes. I forgot to mention, I love mazes even more than I enjoy puzzle books.

I’ll be honest. Where’s Wally has never really done it for me. It’s diverting for a while, but at the end of the day it’s just starting a pictures. Pierre and his creators, Hiro Kamigaki and the gang at IC4Design take things one step further.

This is like the Ultimate Alphabet for maze-freaks. There is just so much stuff to see. Each maze pulls you in as you find more and more little details. This is the sort of book you sit down to look at for five minutes and find yourself still there half and hour later.

There are sixteen mazes in all. Each double-page spread has a theme and a main maze. There are many smaller mazes within and numerous hidden objects to discover too. Some of the hidden things are generic, such as gold stars and red trophies, whilst others are tailored to the page’s theme, such as the must-see exhibits at the museum. This gives the book an extra dimension and, combined with breathtaking attention to detail, makes it captivating.

The book’s highlights include:

A sky maze between colourful hot air balloons.

A maze made of railway tracks.

A haunted house, complete with resident vampire.

A chase across a crowded city.

Pierre the Maze Detective is one of the finest children’s books I have seen in some time. It’s engaging and entertaining, with so much going on for children to discover. I think it would suit a child over 7. My 10 year old loved it.Children younger than that will enjoy looking at the pictures, but their attention spans might not be up to the concentration levels required.

With Christmas coming this book makes for an excellent present. I’ve already brought two more copies and will be looking for excuses to buy extras. A brilliantly executed children’s book and a book you can literally get lost in…

Many thanks to the team at Laurence King Publishing (producers of some of the most beautiful children’s books around) for sending me a copy of this book


The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet: Wayfarers 1
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet: Wayfarers 1
by Becky Chambers
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars We're all Aliens Now, 16 Oct. 2015
Every now and then a novel comes along that changes what you think stories can do. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is just such a book. On one level its very ho-hum ordinary. It's about a group of spacefarers travelling in a spaceship to their destination. Stuff happens, perhaps people die, perhaps they don't. There's aliens, technology and new planets. It's a small scale Star Trek with less clunky scenery. But that's just one level. Not since reading Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, have I read a book that made me think so deeply about humanity, prejudice and the nature of acceptance.

...Small Angry Planet is about a 'tunnelling' vessel and its crew. Tunnelling, in Becky Chambers' universe, is punching through the fabric of reality in order to build wormholes that facilitate travel across vast distances of Space. The crew of the Wayfarer are damn good at what they do, but as a small outfit, they're restricted to minor jobs. The authorities who hand out the boring contracts (actually very exciting, ripping through time and space, and all that), have let it be known that if Captain Ashby Santoso had a more professional outlook, larger, more lucrative jobs could be sent in the Wayfarer's direction.

This is how Rosemary Harper comes on board. She has been hired as a clerk. Somebody to ensure that all the paperwork is up to date and filed on time. So...the basis of the story is, a young woman takes a job in the back office of a small company that has ambitions to expand. Exciting hey? Well not so much, but the story Chambers delivers is mind-blowingly excellent.

From the off Rosemary has a secret, but what is it? The Wayfarer's new mission is to a far flung sector of the known universe where an up-until-now hostile race of aliens have sued for peace and been invited to join the Galactic Commons. The GC is a federation of aliens and races that all pull in roughly the same direction to ensure harmony across space. The UN writ large. Humans, we learn a fairly new members of the GC; primitive and rather stupid ones at that. Our propensity to settle problems using violence has not gone unnoticed. Humans themselves are spilt into broad categories, including Martian's, those who escaped the Apocalypse on earth by going to Mars, and Exodan's, those who travelled into space hoping to find salvation amongst the stars.

The rest of the universe is made up with just about every other type of life form Becky Chambers was able to imagine. Which she does brilliantly. The races felt real, not just their physical appearance but their social structures, their habits, their interactions, their desires. They are wonderfully rendered sentient creatures, alien yet touchingly, for want a better word, human. There are several different species on board the Wayfarer, as well as three humans and a sentient (also incredibly important) AI.

The relationships between the crew are what makes this novel so special. To be honest, they could have just been taking a camper van trip somewhere remote, before spending a few days on the beach and coming home again. I could read Chambers' dialogue and character relationships all day long. It's impossible to pick a favourite character, they are all so good; so real.

Chambers uses her wide and varied cast of characters to poke at what exactly it is that constitutes humanity. How does compassion work? What is prejudice? I think I'm a pretty accepting guy, but reading Chambers novel, I realised I had prejudices that were so deeply hidden, I wasn't really aware they existed. ...Small Angry Planet explores the idea that we're all different in any number of ways, but there is nearly always some common ground on which to build.

The novel builds slowly to a gripping finale, about which I shall say little, lest I ruin its emotional impact. Whilst the book is beautiful and complete, I finished it desperate for more. Closing the covers felt like I was shutting the door on old friends. With its ensemble cast and lens-on-life motif The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet would make a wonderful television series. I light-heartedly compared it to Star Trek, but a series based on this wonderful novel would be a more than worthy successor. This is storytelling of the highest order and without a shadow of doubt my best read of 2015 so far.

Ok, I'll stop gushing now.

Except to say the cover is absolutely beautiful too.


The Hive Construct
The Hive Construct
by Alexander Maskill
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Call tech support..., 5 Oct. 2015
This review is from: The Hive Construct (Paperback)
My 2015 is starting to simmer nicely now. After a lucklustre first half, I’ve started to find some books that I am really enjoying. Alexander Maskill’s debut novel, The Hive Construct, continued the trend, by keeping me entertained throughout.

The Hive Construct dropped through my letterbox unannounced but I knew immediately it was a book I wanted to make time for. The premise looked interesting and it won the Terry Pratchett Prize for a first novel. Maskill is a graduate of Leicester University, as am I, and despite a twenty year difference in our graduating years, this lent me an extra affinity for the novel and its author. Maskill wrote The Hive Construct whilst studying for a computer science degree, which tells us he’s both dedicated and talented. The central spine of the novel owes much to his academic pursuits. Its integral components stem from speculation about the evolution of computers.

The Hive Construct is set in the nearish future, though the world is a very different place. Set into a crater in the middle of the Sahara desert is the city of New Cairo. It’s a technological melting pot, filled with just about every cultural reference you can imagine. Something resembling a future Constantinople. Like all cities New Cairo has its haves and have-nots, with the former ruling over the latter. Political unrest is an everyday feature of life in the city, but things have taken an ugly turn. The people of New Cairo have been struck by plague. The mysterious “Soucouyant” virus is causing deaths all across the city, but as usual it is the poor who are worst affected. With tensions bubbling, the city is closed to prevent the escape of the virus into the wider world. Now a sealed system, New Cairo is a pressure cooker waiting to explode.

Enter Zala Ulora. activist, hacker and wanted for multiple murder. She steals into the city to investigate the virus after it killed her friend. In Maskill’s world, people have hardware implanted inside them, to aid biological processes. Nearly everybody is enhanced in some way. The virus is attacking these enhancements, but is it a biological pathogen or something more synthetic, like rogue code? Zala’s investigations put her in the crossfire between government forces and the anti-government activists, vying for equality.

The novel is neatly split into techno-thriller and political-thriller. Maskill’s New Cairo is well-drawn and highly evocative. It felt very real, and not too far-fetched an extrapolation of what the future might hold. Perhaps not surprising considering his background but Maskill’s vision of how technology might advance feels entirely credible giving the novel great weight. The politics of the novel are simple but no less powerful for being so. The unwashed masses vs the ivory towered elite is a centuries old tale, and one that has rarely tired in the telling. The pace of the novel is good, and whilst the denouement won’t take your breath away, the journey there will certainly have you gasping. The cast of characters is strong, with likeable and less-likeable people on both sides of the argument. There are some great set-pieces, and with exciting but realistic action; Maskill has thought out his technology well.

The Hive Construct is a very accomplished debut from author apparently with ideas to burn. Highly recommended.

Many thanks to the team at Del Rey for sending me a copy of the book in exchange for a review.


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
by David Shafer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Great title, Great read, 21 Sept. 2015
This review is from: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Paperback)
I love to be taken completely by surprise by a book. I'd never heard of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, when its arresting cover caught my eye as I browsed in my local library. It's a book that, in the UK at least, seems to have been criminally overlooked. I loved every page of it, from first to last. It's pure geek manna.

At its heart, I found Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to be a less irritating riff on Dave Eggers one-dimensional polemic `The Circle`. I've read a few "Pitfalls of Social Media" novels, and I think WTF sits at the top of the pile.

The story draws three disparate characters together, as they become entangled in a web of international corporate espionage. There is a plot to gain a stranglehold on the entire globe's digital information, and the three are recruited by a shadowy counter-culture group to try to thwart the might of big business.

The foe they are up against is an unholy marriage of an Internet Goliath with a private military company and the book contains the inevitable ruminations about the power of mercenary outfits and the perils of allowing social media companies unfettered access to your data. Many of the traps outlined are but small extrapolations of existing, much touted features offered by Facebook and Google. Much of the novel's humour is derived from the arch depiction of Sine, a company that is the conglomeration of just about every huge technology outfit you can name. With their "node" they hope to revolutionise the way we control our lives, and in the process they aim to gain complete control of the way we control our lives.

The book derives its richness from its central characters, three flawed individuals given over to introspection. They pretty much fumble their way through the plot analysing the way the world works as they go along. David Shafer's distilling of the absurdities of modern life is entertaining and he has a keen eye for detail and a dry turn of phrase that kept me hooked throughout.

There is some carping on the internet that the book is far-fetched (true) and that the ending is ambiguous (also true). Neither of these things mattered for me. The story is in essence a vehicle for carrying ideas and suggesting caution in the way we handle our digital lives. The ending is abrupt, and might have you exclaiming and searching for extra pages, but you could say there's a clue is in the novel's title. I liked the ending, and found it in keeping with the rest of the novel. You should be pretty sure how things are going to play out after the novel's end, but you're left with a nagging doubt that perhaps it didn't. That feeling I found refreshing.

With its immersive look at the culture of technology and spy-craft Whiskey Foxtrot Tango should appeal to the geek in us all. There are lots of little hooks of information that require further investigation. I spend an invigorating half hour, trying to understand what a Markov number is on the back of a throwaway observation by a minor character. It's that sort of book. I thoroughly enjoyed WTF. It's testament to the power of good storytelling and the importance of the existence of libraries, without which I may never have discovered this entertaining gem of a novel.


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