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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: 1.95

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: 2.94

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

0 of 1 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.


No Harm Can Come to a Good Man
No Harm Can Come to a Good Man
by James Smythe
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.89

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You Are What You Tweet, 22 May 2014
James Smythe's books are strongly about identity and what defines us as humans. Is it our thoughts or actions? With his latest book he takes things a step further, asking whether we could be defined by actions that have yet to happen.

Smythe's previous books have to a greater or lesser degree been science fiction, a moniker that will inevitably put some people off. This book is set in a future so close it's practically contemporary, with science slight and plausible enough to make the fiction seem like fact that hasn't got around to happening yet. The plot centres around a computer app, ClearVista, that predicts the future by trawling through and processing information found on the internet. The technology is 100% plausible and feels eerily close to becoming reality.

This is not a science fiction novel, and is Smythe's most accessible yet. He's recreated Stephen King's small-town America and thrust it onto the stage of the presidential thriller. It's like a reverse Dead Zone, where everybody can see the future except the person it's happening to. Smythe delivers an excellent political thriller, where the sanity of the main contender is at stake. The story is compelling and exciting on its own, and that's what gives it its position in the centre of the mainstream. But this is a James Smythe novel and they are always layered like the finest French mille feuille.

You don't have to have read Smythe's previous novel The Machine (a dystopian Clarke award nominee) to enjoy No Harm... but they dovetail seamlessly to make a fascinating portrait of what defines us as humans. They complement each other beautifully. The Machine is about memories. Are we the sum of our memories? Without them, are we the same person? Take away memory of a terrible experience, what do we become, stronger or weaker?

In No Harm... the questions are external. They are based on society's over-reliance on the internet as a source of information. We have have reached a watershed where an opinion or thought, correct or not, can gain a huge global following. The very existence of this following gives the original 'fact' credence, and its provenance becomes warped or forgotten. There are countless numbers of such truths doing the rounds on social media every day.

The ClearVista software at the heart of the novel can predict the future based on your activity on the internet and the activity of everything that is pertinent to the question you ask. In its simplest form, it can answer should I bet in this horse? Will I like this car? What job should I apply for? All simple discrete questions, with fairly straightforward answers.

Laurence Walker wants to be President, most of the Democratic Party want him to be President, most of the country wants him to be President. He's a shoe-in, until a family tragedy strikes. After he re-enters the race Laurence fills in his ClearVista questionnaire, and when the results are returned they are disastrous. Despite Laurence being overwhelmingly popular, ClearVista does not rate his chances. Images being infinitely powerful than words - the software makes a composite video of what the future might hold. When this hits the media all hell breaks loose. A world used to believing everything it sees, reacts badly to Walker's montage. He is assumed guilty of what it shows. ClearVista is everywhere, it is trusted, it is believed. Laurence Walker's career stands on a knife edge.

The thriller elements are all there. Where did these results come from? Is Laurence being set up? Who gains from his downfall? Is the software as trustworthy as it seems? ClearVista is as ubiquitous as Google and Smythe poses interesting questions about taking it too much for granted. We accept more and more of this tailored technology into our lives with little thought of the consequences. As Laurence becomes more and more frantic trying to prove his results are anomalous, the more they look like becoming the truth.

Can he overcome his destiny? This is the nub of the novel. This sort of technology could be here within a decade. If everyone can can ask the possibility of success for absolutely everything, surely this will have massive effect on how we live our lives. Could you affect the answer to your question, merely by asking it? Would our predicted future shape our actions? Laurence Walker spirals out of control as he becomes caught in a whirlwind of self-appointed prophecy.

As ever, Smythe's prose is economical. This is a lighter read than his previous books; a true page-turner. The novel's final chapters are classic Stephen King; with the community of an american small town consuming itself. It's Smythe's trademark; not ending a novel quite how you expect it to, often with great ambiguity. Those who like their thrillers tied up neatly with a bow are probably going to howl at the end of this one, but I think it's inspired. Smythe is an author unafraid to give the reader what they need, rather than what they think they want. I've said before, but it bears repeating, James Smythe is carving himself out a fine, thought-provoking career. All of his books are good and No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is no exception. As it's his most accessible to date, it might just be the perfect place to start.


Kimberly's Capital Punishment
Kimberly's Capital Punishment
by Richard Milward
Edition: Paperback
Price: 4.92

3.0 out of 5 stars Heaven or Hell?, 21 May 2014
Kimberly's Capital Punishment is the strangest novel I have read in some time. It is roughly 5 parts genius, 3 parts peculiar and 2 parts revolting. It's not a book I could possibly recommend because the last chapter is so gross, gratuitous and borderline misogynistic, that it almost renders what came before obsolete. Which is a shame.

Whilst the of the book is not without gut-churning sexual-violence, it did at least seem to be mitigated by the narrative and themes of the novel. The final pages of the book say nothing at all, and add nothing of value to anything anybody might ever say about anything, ever.

In places Milward's turn of phrase and observation take the breath away. He is clearly a man with writing talent to burn. The novel opens when Kimberly Clark finds her boyfriend hanging from the bars of a children's playground. Her role in this tragedy? She wilfully made her beau's life a misery, and now he's killed himself.

Not surprisingly this has a detrimental effect on her well-being. Just as she hits rock bottom she has something of an epiphany, and decides that in recompense for hounding her boyfriend to death, she will start to do only good deeds. A brilliant plan, only it turns out being altruistic can get you into a lot of bother.

Milward's depiction of the grimy streets of North London, is vivid, almost tangible. He captures the voice of young adults trying to make the best of life on limited funds and a surplus of time. It's an accurate snapshot of twenty-first century urban living. (I think; I'm forty and live in Surrey). Kimberly's attempts to make other people's lives brighter, are funny and filled with pathos. If there is a wider point here, it may be something as simple as 'nice girls finish last.' Her attempts to cheer up the lives of seven men by juggling dates with them ends with predictable disaster.

Whilst elements of these dates are entertaining and make valid comments on contemporary society, it was at this point that Milward started to lose me. Some of the events start to turn unsavoury and downright peculiar. I don't consider myself a prude, but perhaps I am; I certainly I found some passages in very bad taste. The rough and not-entirely-consensual sex Kimberly undergoes as she does her penance, began to make the novel tawdry and uninteresting.

Just as the novel begins to lose its way, there isn't so much a change in direction as a leap off a cliff and plummet into a parallel dimension. With this abrupt turn of events, the book becomes something else altogether; a 'choose your own adventure'.

Well it doesn't really. There are multiple endings, which can theoretically be read in any order, but you'll probably still read them straight through. From here the book becomes wildly inventive before crashing down in an unholy mess.

I really enjoyed some of these section. There is a disturbing, entertaining and freakishly plausible rendering of heaven. A wonderful depiction of reincarnation and a mind-bending post-modern court room drama that pulls the reader and writer into the narrative. It had me in thrall until the end of the court scene when then wheels start to come off in a very bad way.

I wish I could have the time back I spent reading the final chapter of the book. Until then, this was a greatly inventive novel. Not all of the ideas worked, but enough of them did, brilliantly, to make this a invigorating if uneven read. I just don't get what the author was trying to show at the end here (well I sort of do, but he fails), and it left me with nothing but the bitter taste of disappointment. There is some excellent writing of great value here but the destination was definitely not worth the journey. Proceed with caution.


The Song of Achilles
The Song of Achilles
by Madeline Miller
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

3.0 out of 5 stars Emperor's New Clothes, 9 May 2014
This review is from: The Song of Achilles (Paperback)
I was really looking forward to reading The Song of Achilles. It has sold well and is highly regarded, even winning the Orange Prize in 2012. One of my favourite books of 2013 was Tim Leach's excellent The Last King of Lydia- a retelling of Herodotus, that informs and reflects modern day political and social discourse. I was expecting much the same from Achilles, such was the acclaim. Leach's book hasn't won any prizes, and I don't imagine it's sold by the bucketload from supermarkets, but it is by far the better book.

Perhaps I have been victim of my own expectations (a problem I have often written about), but I found the Song of Achilles little more than ordinary. Having grown up on a diet of swords and sandals (admittedly more often with wizards), I feel the book offered little more than your average genre fare. Manfredi and Gemmell have delivered equally interesting reads set in similar circumstances. Being a retelling of Homer, obviously the story is sound, but whereas Leach's Lydia is multi-layered and thought provoking, Miller's Achilles is a simple, flat retelling.

There is nothing wrong with the book. It gets you from A to B via violent filicide. Yes, there's a wonderful loving relationship in trying circumstances, there's a tragic ending, there's pride (so much pride) and there's a fall (well many falls), but I didn't find any of it more remarkable than anything I've read before. It's well written, but bar a few of the more colourful details, it could be a retelling for 11 year olds. I guess, it seems a bit churlish to bemoan a book for doing little more than telling a good story, but seeing as it's not an original story, and it won a prestigious prize, I feel justified in expecting a little more.


Kindred
Kindred
by Octavia E. Butler
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars A Classic Reissued, 2 May 2014
This review is from: Kindred (Paperback)
Kindred is a time travel book, though the mechanics of temporal dislocation are largely irrelevant. The point of the book is that a black woman from 1976 travels back to the 1800s, where she interacts with one of her forebears. She travels back in time to save his life. As Kevin is a careless belligerent fellow Dana finds herself a frequent traveller. Unfortunately, the only way for her to travel back to her own present, is to come close to death herself. Since Kevin lives when the yoke of slavery gripped the United States, this happens all too frequently.

The story here is almost irrelevant. What's important about this book is its depiction of slavery and the debilitating effect it had on those held under it. Dana, an upwardly-mobile young woman in her own time, soon finds herself adopting the role of slave, or at least tolerating oppression at a certain level to avoid something else altogether darker and more violent.

Whilst on the surface Kindred is about slavery, it doesn't take much reading between the lines that to see it's about oppression generally. The psychological effect of being forced to exist contrary to one's will, either through violence or emotional pressure is rendered in brutal detail. Butler's prose is simple yet effective.

As a white middle class male who grew up in the white middle class heartlands of the UK, I am supremely unqualified to comment on many of the issues examined on this book. I have never experienced racism practised against me and never will. None of my ancestors have ever been persecuted for the colour of their skin. All I can say I was deeply moved by it. Before reading Kindred, I was aware of the slavery in historical terms; a humanitarian travesty on a grand scale. I had very little exposure to the consequences of slavery on a human scale. The effect on individuals and on families. It's a hard book to read without flinching.

Published in 1979 there is very little context to any prejudice Dana found in her own time; her 1979 seems idealised. I imagine in reality a mixed race couple would not escape being plagued by the narrow-minded. 35 years on this lack of context feels like a missed opportunity to document attitudes across two time-frames. Of course at the time of writing that is not what Butler was aiming to do.

Kindred is an excellent book. Apart from the time-travel device it's not really science fiction. It's evocative and compelling historical fiction. Books this good should never disappear and I am glad Headline decided to reprint it.


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