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My Real Children
My Real Children
by Jo Walton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 19.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Now or Never?, 22 Aug 2014
This review is from: My Real Children (Hardcover)
My Real Children is a masterpiece of understated brilliance.

The novel opens with the rambling thoughts of an elderly lady in a care home. Her sense of reality is confused. Stairs misplace themselves, lift doors appear where before there was only wall and did she have three children or four? Is she suffering from dementia, or is this something else? Is she remembering lives that never were, or did both happen?

The book is predicated on a simple 'Sliding Doors' premise. Patty's (rather peculiar) boyfriend asks her to marry him (in extremely unromantic circumstances). What happens if she says 'Now'? What if she says 'Never'?

The two stories then run concurrently, a chapter at a time. Each is mundane in its own way, but both are compelling and fascinating. It's a beautiful examination of how decisions might come to define our lives, but it's a whole lot more than that. Walton examines the role of women in the home and in academia, sexuality in the 1970s and the threat of nuclear oblivion. It describes the importance of family and humanity's need to form a collective unit. In essence the book is a peon to love: platonic, familial and romantic. It also provides a crushing reminder that as well as being capable of great love, humans can also be violently destructive.

So where's the SciFi?

Walton's brand of science fiction fantasy is delicate and subtle. Among Others contains references to fairies, but the real sorcery is in the power of books and the magic of libraries. Clearly, in My Real Children, we have two alternate realities. Walton cleverly dovetails these into wider conterfactual realities. So real are the stories Walton is telling, time and again I found myself puzzling over a wider historical inaccuracy, before kicking myself; this is a world of fiction. Some of the book is rooted in reality, whilst other branches shift under the moving sands of history. It's a great device, pulled off expertly. They could have easily overwhelmed the delicate plot, but the speculative fiction elements never jar the reader away from the central story. If Among Others was fantasy for people who don't like fantasy, this is science fiction for people who hate, abhor and would never ever read science fiction.

I absolutely, completely and without reserve loved My Real Children. It's a wonderfully clever book. Moving in the extreme. Nothing much happens, yet the stories told are utterly compelling. This is fiction of the highest quality and deserves to be read as widely as possible. Be warned. If you know me, this is what you're getting for Christmas.


The Word Exchange
The Word Exchange
by Alena Graedon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 8.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Word up!, 21 Aug 2014
This review is from: The Word Exchange (Hardcover)
Here at Robin's Books, titles that revolve around social media seem to be coming more and more prevalent. In the last few months I've read the writer's view, the scary vision of the future for grown ups and the scary vision of the future for young adults. All of these titles ask what exactly are we surrendering by putting so much stock in social networking; are we in danger of becoming homogenised sheep all shuffling after the next trend? If they had a coverall catchphrase it might be 'Think before you Tweet'.

The Word Exchange is definitely the most cerebral of these social media critiques and it's probably the hardest to read. Dense and thoughtful, the book suggests it's not just our personalities and our freedoms that are at stake. If they weren't enough, the very future of language might be at risk.

This isn't some Daily Mail, Gove loving, piece about teenagers using 'm8' signifying the death of the written word (does anybody use m8 any more? I'm too old to know). It's a serious meditation on how instantaneous information is changing the way our brains function. Recall of telephone numbers, facts and appointments is obviated by modern technology. I barely know my own number let alone anybody else's. But what if language went the same way? What if your device, here called a 'Meme' could supply that difficult word for you? Then, if large corporations were involved in supplying those worlds, how long before they tried to control the chain? It's quite a simple idea, but Graedon gives it a profound treatment.

The Word Exchange, as one might expect for a novel with at least three lexicographical experts (lexicographers even!), is rich and dense in language. Not only there are oodles of complicated words (that are nothing like 'oodles') there is also much discussion as language as a living entity. The metaphysical musings occasionally threaten to overwhelm, but there is lots of interesting stuff in here about how we communicate and how fragile the communication pathways that we take for granted are.

Kim Curran gave us Glaze and destroyed the world. James Smythe gave us ClearVista and did the same (one man's anyway). Graedon's Memes are sort of a combination of the two, with prediction and control front and centre. On the face of it they are all perfect iterations of social media, but behind each lie sinister forces. For sheer readability The Word Exchange is not in the league of the other two books, but all three can be read and enjoyed for entirely different reasons. It took me a long time to plough my way through Graedon's book, mostly because of the complex language and themes. I'm not honestly sure her central conceit 'Word Flu' properly hangs together but I must confess to not fully understanding everything that I read.

Nevertheless, Graedon makes some very important observations about the subtle ways being permanently hooked up to devices could change our society. It is a peon to the written word and a reminder that sometimes longhand is best. This is not a quick read; not one for the beach, but it is a clever and thought-provoking book that will appeal to anybody who loves language and reading.


Our Lady of the Streets (The Skyscraper Throne)
Our Lady of the Streets (The Skyscraper Throne)
by Tom Pollock
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Scaffwolves of London, 21 Aug 2014
The Skyscraper Throne trilogy is a fascinating series created by a one of the genre's finest new talents. Tom Pollock's inventiveness is astounding. His grimy London is filled with magical creatures, ghost trains and tower cranes; even the streets themselves rise up. When one of the major players in a novel continually and convincingly recreates itself from the rubbish and detritus of the city, you know you're reading something pretty special.

My opinion was divided on the opening two novels. Whilst impressed by Pollock's creativity in book 1, The City's Son, I felt he'd thrown too many ingredients into the pot, making for an uneven and often baffling read. Book 2, The Glass Republic, I loved unequivocally. He'd taken one of his excellent ideas and explored it in greater detail. The layers of meaning and depth of characterisation made it a remarkable book.

So, I opened book 3 with some trepidation. We are now back this side of the mirror, but London is well and truly cracked; sickened by fever. Beth, Pen and their rag-tag army of non-humans are all that stand between the megalomania of Mater Viae and the death of the city they love.

Our Lady of the Streets is a mixture of the brilliance of book 2 and the ideas overload of book 1. I loved elements of the book but others didn't really make sense to me. Or at least why they were happening didn't. I think part of the problem is the reemergence of Reach, a character whose premise is brilliant but whose full execution doesn't wholly chime with me. I struggled generally with the problem of motive. Lots of terrible stuff was happening very quickly, but I wasn't convinced as to why.

As before there are some stunning set pieces. Pollock's descriptive writing is excellent. The villains ooze menace and reading about the grubby streets leaves you wanting to wash your hands.

Two chapters in particular set this book apart from the standard urban fantasy offerings. Grown-ups often get fairly short shrift in YA novels, and The Skyscraper throne trilogy is unusual in making Beth's dad a positive influence on the story. Pollock highlights the parent-child bond; its strength and the love behind it. He does this without ever dropping into schmaltz. As a parent I thought he'd captured it beautifully and was greatly moved.

Later in the book Pen finds an elderly resident, holed up, waiting for the end of days. Again, taking a break from the magic and mayhem, Pollock writes a touching and reflective piece on growing old and making peace with one's lot.

In all three books Pollock shows he has imagination to burn; that he will be the urban fantasy go-to guy for countless readers. These two chapters show he is more than just about the weird and wonderful. Heartfelt and real, they demonstrate Pollock can handle and reflect on subtle and delicate emotions.

The end of the novel fits well with what has gone before. Pollock walks the thin line between frustratingly bleak and everything tied off with a bow, with barely a misstep. It's hard to get the balance right across a trilogy, but here the reader gets mostly want they want, with a few tantalising and painful omissions. The Skyscraper Throne trilogy heralds the arrival of a coruscating talent. It hasn't always convinced me, but it's never failed to impress. I very much look forward to reading what Tom Pollock writes next.


Meatspace
Meatspace
by Nikesh Shukla
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.09

4.0 out of 5 stars A Tale of Two Kitabs, 25 July 2014
This review is from: Meatspace (Paperback)
About halfway through Meatspace I was struggling a little bit. There were some great observations about the absurdities of modern life and the dangers of an addiction to social media, but where was the story? Or more, was I missing the story because this wasn't the book for me?

I like to flatter myself that I know about technology but the older I get the harder it is to remain convinced ( watching my 15 year neighbour reconfigure my 8 year old's Minecraft today revealed rather too much of my own ignorance). I like to think I know about social media, but frankly I use Facebook only to keep half an eye on what old friends are doing and, after a brain frazzling three weeks where I tried to read everything that everyone I followed on Twitter was saying, I now just check in occasionally, realise I've missed something interesting and then worry about what it was.

Kitab Balasubramanyam, the central character of Meatspace, is not like this. He comes out in a cold sweat if he is more than six inches from his phone; he tweets everything he eats. He lives in cyberspace rather than the meatspace that gives the novel its title. Social media and his online persona has taken him over. It's why his girlfriend left him on his own. It's why he never writes any words for his difficult second novel. Yes Kitab is a writer. He's also, as you may be able to tell from his name, of Indian descent.

The novel is heavily centred around three strands of life I don't know much about: Social media, the life of an aspiring author and being Indian in modern Britain (I'm as white Anglo Saxon as they come; my cultural references are terrible food, sunburn and forming an orderly line). The insecure author continually trying to compose witty tweets is rather lost on me. Apart from the fact I never write anything, I'd quite like to be a writer. Meatspace does not sell the experience. The obsession with staying connected also passed me by. There just wasn't a thread I could hold onto and say, 'Yes, I get this.' Yet at no time did I consider giving up. There was enough quality to keep me reading, even if I wasn't fully engaged. I'm glad I did. Meatspace is one of those novels that appears to be superficially about one thing before twisting and becoming deeper than I could ever have imagined.

The story essentially has two strands. The main one is the life of Kitab and his status obsession (a phrase that had a different meaning a decade ago). When he gets a friend request from the only person on Facebook with the same name as him, he thinks nothing of ignoring it. When Kitab2 turns up on his doorstep he proves a little harder to avoid. The second strand is in the form of blog posts from Kitab's larger than life, alpha male older brother. Aziz has travelled to New York, to meet his doppelgänger. So as one brother leaves on a quest for adventure, another arrives with almost the same intentions.

The novel is filled with great observations about the absurdities of social media, and the pitfalls of letting it rule your life. Greater than that though are its questions about identity. More and more novels are coming through about the duality of cyberspace persona and meatspace reality. As social media becomes more entrenched and people spend more time hooked up, which personality is true? There are lots of subtle touches here, such as comments on Aziz's blog that poke and probe author reliability and anonymity online. When the relationship between Kitab and Kitab2 goes sour, further questions are posed about the nature of personality and its potential for subversion on the internet.

None of this quite coalesces until the novel's final chapters. Before that it's merely diverting. Only with the final reveal do we see Shukla's full intentions, and realise just how good Meatspace is. In addition to the social media stuff, there's lots interesting comment on the importance of family in a fast-moving world. The fragility of self-esteem when nobody really knows you, and just how difficult it is to write a half decent novel. Meatspace will not suit all tastes but if your interested in the effect of social media on the societies it's supposed to connect, then you would do well to pick up a copy. Funny, intelligent and more than a little bit sad, Meatspace is well worth a look.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 15, 2014 8:25 PM BST


The Rapture (Strange Trilogy 2)
The Rapture (Strange Trilogy 2)
by Elliott Hall
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Something Rotten, 13 July 2014
I very much enjoyed The Rapture (sequel to The First Stone). I've been on a dodgy reading streak recently but this is a quality novel. It's inventive, exciting and thought provoking in equal measure, and a gorgeously rendered evolution of the P.I. novel; a dystoPIan novel, if I may.

The book is almost a prequel to 1984. Hall has deconstructed Big Brother's regime and tried to examine how such a beast might be built. Following on from events in The First Stone, Felix Strange is investigating the disappearance of an old Army colleague; a man who saved his life. Isaac Taylor isn't just missing, he's ceased to exist. There is no record of him. Strange's investigations reveal a shocking and deadly conspiracy.

It's quite hard to explain just how good this book is. Strange has maintained his distinctive voice from the first book - a wise-cracking PI in the Marlowe mould. The central mystery is compelling, bolstered by flashbacks to a fictional near-future American occupation of Tehran.

Beyond that there is the fascinating analysis of a totalitarian regime in prototype. I don't want to give too much away but Hall examines the various strands that a government might use to exert total control; fear, a common enemy, a riven population. He also explores what agencies might be used to bring these things about. The closer Strange comes to the truth the more sinister America's Christian Fundamentalist leaders become.

The society constructed is a curious blend of Stalinist and Nazi oligarchy. Hall's painstaking world construction is what make this novel so good. He has clearly done his research and sets out his vision with great clarity. This is a completely plausible work of speculative fiction and is all the more powerful for it. From looking at the paucity of reviews an Amazon these books are criminally under-read. They would appeal to fans of dystopian fiction as well as those who like a hard-bitten detective. It's an ambitious melding but Hall pulls it off with aplomb.

One final recommendation, if you are enjoying the Fexlix Strange novels, do check out Jonathan Trigell's Genus, another excellent dystoPIan novel.


Empress of the Sun (Everness Series)
Empress of the Sun (Everness Series)
Price: 2.98

4.0 out of 5 stars When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth, 25 Jun 2014
Empress of the Sun is the third novel in Ian McDonald's impressive Everness series. It dawned on me as I neared the end of book 2, that my assumption that this was a trilogy was incorrect. Since the author had gone to the trouble to create a billion universes, he can write as many stories as he wants in them. And so it is. By the end of this book, there is nothing resolved, no closure. Just more great storytelling and first class speculation.

I must confess this is probably my least favourite of the three, but it's hard to put my finger on why. As I thought the first two almost peerless in their brilliance, this is not necessarily much of a criticism. Empress of the Sun is just very very good, rather than exceptional (please don't ask me how this scale works). The central premise of the new world discovered by Everett is tremendous. What if the dinosaurs never died out?

This is hardly a new premise. It's the idea behind countless B-Movies and pulp fiction paperbacks, but I've never seen anybody do what McDonald has done with it. If T-Rex never died out, his descendants have had 65 million years to evolve. What we have here is solar system occupied by uber-advanced dinosaurs. Extremely hostile uber advanced dinosaurs.

This new system is fascinating, and the story that plays out in it strong. The overall story arc continues, but not that strongly and I think that might be why I didn't enjoy this book quite as much as the others.

The Everness series is a fascinating panoply of what-might-bes. It's imaginative fiction at its finest. Nominally a YA series, really it's a set books for anybody who likes science fiction of the highest calibre. There are no more Everness books obvious on the horizon, but I certainly hope it's a series that runs and runs.


The Corpse Reader
The Corpse Reader
by Antonio Garrido
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.64

3.0 out of 5 stars The Corpse Reader, 23 Jun 2014
This review is from: The Corpse Reader (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Antonio Garrido's The Corpse Reader is a solid, if unremarkable, historical whodunit. The premise is nothing new - an expert pathologist makes incredible leaps of intuition to solve unsolvable crimes - but its setting is a little different. I've not read too many (any) novels set in thirteenth century China, and whilst the honour and form of Confucianism got a bit tedious every now and then, it makes an evocative setting for a murder mystery.

We follow Ci from the moment he finds a headless corpse in a field. His loathed younger brother takes the fall for the crime, with Ci being instrumental in providing evidence. After that, things only get worse. There really are very few people unluckier than Ci, and this continual struggle and misfortune did drag occasionally. The book is probably a hundred pages too long, and there is so much bad luck in here some of it could have been left on the author's hard drive.

The workings and machinations of imperial China are well realised, and Ci often finds his hands tied by convention as he attempts to solve a number of crimes. Forever trying to escape his past (detailed in the book), Ci has to keep one eye behind him at all times. This creates a nice tension in the book. Ci is the good guy who might just end up finishing last.

The book is easy to read, though the translation is felt a little clunky. There were a few times where certain phrases jarred or didn't quite make sense. There is very little that is remarkable about this book, but it's central story is interesting, there are a number of diverting side plots and the characters are well rendered. Many of them are stereotypes, but Garrido adds enough colour to each to make them interesting. A diverting crime novel, ideal for those who want a change of scene.


GLAZE
GLAZE
Price: 1.53

5.0 out of 5 stars Anti-Social Media, 10 Jun 2014
This review is from: GLAZE (Kindle Edition)
In 1948 George Orwell wrote a book about a sinister dictator called Big Brother, who watches every move his citizens make (you probably know this). I wonder what Orwell would have thought if told that 70 years later we would happily give all our personal information away?

Big Brother would be Enormous Brother if he lived today; he'd never need get off his hairy fat arse. We continually tell the world, where we are, who we're with, what we ate and whether there was a cute animal involved. There is it seems almost nothing we won't photograph and slap on our timelines. Some people even feel the need to pass judgement on the quality of every single book they read and write about it at great length.

Kim Curran, author of the excellent 'Shift' series, writes compelling and highly relevant YA fiction. Glaze is a slap around the face for her readers. She wants them to wake up and see how much of themselves they are giving away. Set in London in the near future, 'Glaze' is the only social media app you need. It's like Google that automatically knows what you want, combined with a live data feed for every person and object you encounter. Due to the requirement to have a chip in your brain, entry age is restricted to 16. Pre-glazers are desperate to be on, post glazers have more or less checked out of the real world. The lure, every piece of information available about everything, whenever you want it. The rub? Well that's what the book is about.

Petri (so called for a fab reason that I won't spoil) is not yet on Glaze. All her friends are, but as she is year ahead in school, they are all sixteen and she isn't. It is, as one might say at that age, 'not fair'. Petri and her friends attend a protest, when the police turn up things start to go wrong. When private law enforcers from the company that owns Glaze turn up, things become more sinister. Petri makes a run for it, but ultimately gets caught. A tough sentence comes her way; a five year ban from Glaze. He life may as well be forfeit.

This novel isn't quite as smooth as the other two of Curran's novels I've read. The plot is helped along rather roughly by the odd coincidence or fortuitous intervention. Nevertheless this is a great read. In many ways it's the message rather than the story that's important here. Characterisation again is strong, as is Curran's dialogue; she has a good ear for the spoken word and it never feels forced or contrived.

The novel is in essence 1984 remoulded for our wireless generation. Big Brother uses his position to make decisions for the sake of people, and employs mass surveillance to make his world run smooth. In our world we give this information freely, and it doesn't seem too many steps before Google or something like it are no longer giving us what we want, but what it wants us to have. If information is power then a system that controls the flow of information sits at the top of the world. If a company starts to control what we do and where and when we do it, what does that mean for our civil liberties? If we freely hand power over to large corporations and governments are our liberties even being infringed? We're well on the way to this exact scenario, and with Glaze, Curran walks further down the path in search of its logical conclusion.

Glaze is an excellent book. It projects a credible future and reveals the potential all of us have to be complicit in our own downfall. With the novel's target audience being the most voracious users of social media, let us hope that it give them pause for thought before they unwittingly click their liberties away.


Speed Of Dark: A Novel
Speed Of Dark: A Novel
by Elizabeth Moon
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.19

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Are you normal?, 7 Jun 2014
This review is from: Speed Of Dark: A Novel (Paperback)
Reading the back of Speed of Dark, it seemed a little different from your standard SF fare. Set in the near future, this book is about a data analyst expert who sees the world differently to 'normal' people. Lou is autistic. The whole premise of the novel is over whether Lou should take a new treatment and become 'normal'. Should he overwrite his existing programming and become a new, 'more functional' person.

The book is slow and measured; almost nothing happens. Yet this is a beautiful deconstruction of identity and self, conformism and prejudice. It's a fascinating read. We watch Lou wrestle with the world; adapt to new experiences and decide what exactly it is that makes Lou, Lou.

We see Lou's work environment, his home life and most significantly are shown him participating in a treasured pastime with other, non-autistic, people. Medical advancements and understanding of his sensory needs, allow Lou to integrate well into everyday life, better than he could in our world. To the reader Lou seems to be a high functioning, intelligent, if socially awkward, regular guy. The help and preferential treatment, that Lou is given causes resentment amongst some friends and colleagues. It's an interesting point. Lou's skill with numbers gives him a highly lucrative career, but one that is only possible with help. Surely everybody deserves the chance to maximise their potential, autistic or not?

As I said very little happens in the book, but it is incredibly absorbing. The near-future setting is well constructed, still feeling a possible reality despite the book being over ten years old. The insight into Lou's thought processes, and the challenges he is subjected to and how he adapts to them are rendered very well. I felt for him over every small decision he had to make or new piece of information he needed to assimilate. As the book neared its conclusion, I was worried about the ending. So realistic was the book, 'a happy ever after' conclusion would have seem trite, but Lou is such an engaging character, I would have been gutted in anything bad had happened to him. It's a thin line, and Moon walks it well, avoiding schmaltz whilst allowing Lou to soar.

Whilst the Speed of Dark is essentially about the boundaries (or lack of) faced by people who are diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, above all it is novel about what makes us human. In an increasingly homogenised world, it questions the desire to make things conform. I would never have reviewed this book were it not for the review project, but I am so glad I did. It fits into a group of high calibre novels, those that alter your world view, just through having read them.


Keep Your Friends Close
Keep Your Friends Close
by Paula Daly
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.89

4.0 out of 5 stars With Friends Like These, 1 Jun 2014
Keep your Friends Close is the follow up to Paula Daly's family crime thriller, Just What Kind of Mother Are You?. Her début was a slightly preposterous but touching portrait of family life gone wrong. This book is pretty much the same. The plot has more holes in it than Swiss cheese, but Daly's readable prose and strong eye for the details of family life, once again, make it an entertaining read.

When Natty rushes to France to be by her sick daughter's bedside she has no idea the turmoil she is about to be put through. Her marriage to Sean is strong. They are successful hotel owners, owning a beautiful property in the Lake District. The popularity of the hotel is due to Natty's attention to detail. Nothing is left to chance, but Natty's preoccupation with the business is all consuming. What does this mean for faithful husband Sean?

Natty leaves Sean and old family friend Eve to hold the fort. They should manage just fine. But when Natty returns, Eve has become a permanent fixture, stealing Sean's affections. Natty finds herself on the outside, wondering where it went wrong so quickly, and just how much does she really know about her oldest friend?

I have mixed feelings about this book. JWKOMAY really struck a chord, but on reflection it probably isn't quite as strong as my review suggests. Keep Your Friends Close as a whole is unbelievable. It's stretches credulity well beyond its limits, with coincidences and secrets kept far too well and conveniently. But it is oh so readable, and once again there is its wider context. The thriller parts of Daly's novels are almost incidental. They provide her with a framework to examine the difficulties and pressures of raising families in modern Britain. Whilst I found the central mystery a little over cooked, the whorls of family tensions were simmered to perfection. This is backed up with some strong, likeable characters. Finally, Daly dishes up a wonderful spicy kick in the very last pages of the book. It doesn't change the story much, but it did make me gasp out loud.

For a quick, easy read that entertains, you could do a lot worse than read Paula Daly. This book is not perfect, but once again it's ideal for the beach. It's addictive and will help you realise your own family aren't that bad, and not worth strangling. Yet.


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