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Stonemouth
Stonemouth
by Iain Banks
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.06

12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Familiar but disappointing, 7 May 2012
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This review is from: Stonemouth (Hardcover)
I am a big fan of Iain Banks' work; he is just about the only author whose books I get when they are released in hardback, rather than wait on the paperback publication. I've also started reading his Science Fiction works, published as Iain M Banks, but for the sake of clarity references to his oeuvre in this review are specifically to the "non-M" books.

After a number of books which failed to reach the heights of his previous works, his last book, Transition, was something of a return to form. It was with some anticipation and trepidation that I embarked upon Stonemouth. Would I be disappointed? Was Transition's improved quality partly because it was border-line science fiction? (I'm told that the Iain M Banks novels have remained more consistent than the non-M works)

The answers to those questions? "Yes and No" and "I think so".

Stonemouth is a (fictional) town in the North-East of Scotland, somewhere between Aberdeen and Peterhead. Our protagonist, Stewart, is returning to the town for the first time in five years for the funeral of Joe Murston - the patriarch of the local "mafia" family. Joe also happens to be the grandfather of Stewart's former fiancée, his wedding to whom was cancelled when he was run out of the town just a week before the nuptuals were due.

The subject matter is vintage Banks - a story told in flashbacks, telling of friendships and secrets, family ties and betrayals, all sprinkled with helpings of violence, sex, drugs and politics - although there is less violence than one may expect. The book shares a lot with its predecessors - The Crow Road in particular - but lacks their ambition. Where The Crow Road is an epic, multi-later, inter-generational tail, Stonemouth is more linear with less depth and less dramatic secrets. So yes, Stonemouth is in this respect disappointing, as if Banks' was only firing on two cylinders, recycling ideas, re-treading plots and updating previous novels.

This idea of him seeling to update previous works struck me in the first chapter where there are copious references to pop-culture in a way which will very quickly date the book. On page 10, for example, Family Guy, Cee Lo Green and "Tinchy featuring Tinie" get a mention. It seems as if Banks' is trying too hard to get into the mind of a 25 year old and the result is that it both jars and fails to be authentic: Stewart doesn't sound like any 25 year old I know - at least not initially.

(This lack of authenticity is compounded by unfortunate mention of the dominance and money of Celtic and Rangers and the perennial debate on them playing in England - although Banks' was never to know what was about to befall Rangers around the time of publication of the novel!)

It is a novel of promise but of poor execution. Elements of plot get picked up, played with and put aside. The attempt at creating an atmosphere of menace rarely does. Stewart seems content to spend longer than strictly speaking necessary in the company of those we are told are so keen to hurt him. And whilst the impending sense of doom does reach a climax, it also lacks a certain authenticity.

For all these criticisms - and a number more beside - Stonemouth is an enjoyable romp. After a few chapters I put my early reservations and aside and settled into the book as it settled into its stride. And in the end, I did kinda like it.

That said, I can't escape the conclusion that it is sub-standard compared to Banks' previous work and, if it weren't a Banks' novel, I wouldn't be rushing to read anything else by the author. Whilst Transition may have been Banks' back at (or close to) his best, it seems that his best is now reserved for works with a Science Fiction bent. He's still someway off his best when it comes to non-genre fiction.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 1, 2012 12:48 PM BST


Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Peter Coles
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars An Introduction not a Simplification, 9 April 2012
This is the first book I've read from Oxford University Press' A Very Short Introduction series. Launched in 1995, there are now over 300 in the range covering topics as diverse as Advertising and Wittgenstein, Christianity and Witchcraft. Each volume is reassuringly thin which must make even the more daunting topics seem accessible even before one starts reading.

The book on Cosmology is written by Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at Cardiff University, Peter Coles. His previous works include textbooks on the subject as well as popular science books on both Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

A Very Short Introduction to Cosmology is not the same as Cosmology Made Simple - a trick I imagine it would be impossible to pull off, even if this were the intention. Instead it takes a systematic approach to explaining the development of Cosmological thought through history and of Cosmology as a subject in its own right. It then moves on to explain the concepts that underpin our understanding of the universe (with understandable emphasis on Einstein) before explaining some of the problems presented to the current models in obtaining data (and, indeed, by some of the observed evidence) and some of the proposed solutions.

Central to the book is the Big Bang, which Coles is at pains to talk of as a Model, rather than a Theory. The difference being that theories should be self-contained whereas models can contain variables. Given that the normal laws of Physics seem to break down at the temperatures and high-energy states anticipated by the model, there are a great deal of variables and this seems a suitably cautious approach. Cosmologists cannot be dogmatic.

Indeed, Cosmological thought has a number of inherent uncertainties - not just those caused by the lack of visibility of the first moments of the universe but also those ingrained in Quantum Theory by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This is the principle that if you know the position of a particle, you cannot know its speed and vice-versa. The same can be said of the relationship between energy and time.

The book tackles the uncertainty principles - along with concepts such as wave-particle duality - with aplomb in short straightforward paragraphs that help build the reader's understanding bit by bit. Care is taken in explaining the more abstract concepts so that, even if these remain opaque to the lay-man, the issues they raise are clear.

The last chapter seeks to sum up the current state of play as well as to examine the challenges which face Cosmologists. The hope is to achieve a unified theory that will explain the observed evidence and overcome some of the problems in our current understanding. In particular, this will involve uniting our understanding of Gravity with the other fundamental forces - the Electromagnetic and the Weak and Strong Nuclear forces.

Overall, this is a great primer on one of the more challenging areas of human understanding and thought. I felt I understood the concepts as the were presented (although I may have struggled with the retention of multiple concepts, as the book went on.) Having read Simon Singh's Big Bang and Hawking's Brief History of Time (as well as seeing the ubiquitous Brian Cox on telly), some of the material was familiar. Singh's book is, perhaps, an easier read but this is a more rigorous and expansive explanation of the topic. If you're at all interested in the origins of the universe, you could do worse than start with this book.


The Hobbit
The Hobbit
by J. R. R. Tolkien
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Old friend, new observations, 1 April 2012
This review is from: The Hobbit (Paperback)
I'm not terribly sure how to review The Hobbit. It's a book to which I return again and again and know so well, it's hard to read it with a critic's eye - or to want to do so. It's also a book that's so well known (even ahead of the new films) that providing a synopsis seems to be of limited value.

This time through I was struck by two things, though. First I was reminded how much of a book for children it is: something I tend to forget. As narrator, Tolkien makes a number of asides to reader over and above the expository sections. The second thing that struck me this time is where the story hints at it's darker edge.

The first of these things has long been considered a problem in the filming of The Hobbit, particularly in light of the Middle Earth created by Peter Jackson in the Lord of the Rings films. Indeed, the lighter tone of The Hobbit itself is the reason why Jackson decided to make two films and to bring in material from other Tolkien sources.

The second, of course, offers the film-maker the opportunity to mine the story further - and to create a world more in keeping with that of Tolkien's later books. There were a number of occasions where I thought "oh, that could be exploited more in the film" and I look forward to seeing that realised.


The Edible Woman
The Edible Woman
by Margaret Atwood
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A novel with promise, 24 Feb 2012
This review is from: The Edible Woman (Paperback)
Although I consider Margaret Atwood one of my favourite authors, I had only previously read three of her 20 novels (which are but half of a body of work which includes, children's books, several volumes of poetry and a number of non-fiction works).

The Edible Woman was her first novel, published in 1969. It's main protagonist is Marian, a single woman in a changing, but male dominated, world. Unlike her single colleagues (the office virgins) or the older spinsters amongst whom she works, Marian is taken, and on the road to being engaged and married. This apparently conservative approach to life is contrasted by her flatmate, Ainsley (who wants a child but without the ties) whilst her future is envisaged in the form of another friend, Clara, who is married and pregnant with her third child.

All is not as it seems in her ideal world. As the novel progresses, Marian finds herself being torn between her future with Peter and a complicated relationship with Duncan, a student who remains un-named through much of the book. Her life changes out of it's routine and staid pattern becoming increasingly erratic as she is forced to confront what she really wants out of life.

This is a book of three parts - the first and third are written in the first person whilst the second is in the third person as Marian becomes somewhat detached from herself. I found I raced through the first part but that the book became less engaging in the second and as the novel went on - indeed, as Marian became more detached from her ideal life, I found myself becoming detached from engaging with the book.

It's a novel about identity and society, about love and expectation. About how our circumstances shape what society expects of us and how we, in turn, then choose to act. About how our expectations of life shape our behaviour and how our behaviour changes our expectations. Specifically, though (and in common with much of Atwood's work), it is a book about female identity; in particular, it is about individual feminine identity in a masculine world and the costs of asserting this against the grain of with societal norms.

In many ways it was a typical first novel - a good idea, and interesting structure, some grand themes and a great deal of promise but slightly disappointing execution. Whilst I would say I liked it, it's not on my list of books I love. I do anticipate I will re-read this at some point in the future - but only on account of it being an Atwood and not for its own sake.


The Kenneth Williams Diaries
The Kenneth Williams Diaries
by Russell Davies
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A lengthy but worthy read, 30 Jan 2012
"The preoccupation with diary writing is caused by various things: the desire to keep a record which can be useful later, and committing to paper what can't be communicated to a mentor... oh! all kinds of reasons, but fundamentally it is about loneliness."
Kenneth Williams, Diaries, Tuesday 8 March 1988

Having grown up without a telly, I knew Kenneth Williams primarily through Just a Minute. In later years, I became acquainted with the Carry On films, Round the Horne and H-H-Hancock's Half Hour.

There was, of course, much more to Williams' oeuvre than these examples, although it is fair to say that these are the things he is best known for. His career took in a period in the far east in forces entertainment, repertory and West End theatre and, latterly, work as a raconteur, author and regular chat show guest (and occasional host.) There was also a lot of voice over work over the years.

His diaries, published in 1993, were edited from over forty years of volumes that he kept from 1942 until his death in 1988 by Russell Davies. Mr Davies himself is mentioned in the diary on several occasions - never, it has to be said, in particularly glowing terms. The task was somewhat Herculean in nature but is achieved with skill and distinction. I got the impression that the diaries have been fairly edited to provide a rounded view of Williams, warts and all. The picture that emerges is one of a complex character, a man who was never truly at ease - with his sexuality, his work choices, his finances or with other people.

The book contains a biographical introduction and appendices detailing the addresses Williams lived at, the films he references in the diaries and an extensive index. I felt it could have benefited from a list of his various jobs over the years and some form of Dramatis Personae as a reference to the hundreds of people mentioned in the diaries. Indeed, now two decades have passed since publication, it may be possible for those not specifically named to now be so - and for the diaries to be re-edited with less fear of the libel laws.

I thoroughly recommend the diaries to anyone interested in Williams' career or the history of theatre and light entertainment in Britain.

This is an edited version of the review from my blog: [...]


The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly
The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly
by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Joyful, Stoical, Beautiful, 8 May 2011
"Write about what you know" is a maxim which has been taught to writers for as long as there have been writers to teach - or at least as long as there have been creative writing classes. Of course, the human mind's capacity for imagination and invention is much broader than this.

Without imagination, The Lord of the Rings would have been a treatise on Anglo Saxon and Nordic languages and Hannibal Lecter would have been considerably more mildly mannered.

There are some things, though, which it must be incredibly hard to imagine - like how would you cope if you lost almost all physical capacity while retaining control of your mind. This was the fate of Jean-Dominique Bauby.

The former editor-in-chief of French Elle had his career dramatically cut short by a stroke which left him with Locked-In Syndrome, unable to communicate other than blinking with his left eyelid.

For many people, this would be - and is - unbearable. Bauby responded by producing this beautiful book, dictated letter by letter, which is in part memoir and in part description of life with his condition.
The book is a - surprisingly - joyful read which is a testament to the stoicism of Bauby and the ability of the human spirit to raise itself in even the most tragic of circumstances.


The Gathering
The Gathering
by Anne Enright
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A beautifully crafted novel, 30 Jan 2011
This review is from: The Gathering (Paperback)
The blurb on the back of the book describes the novel thus:

"The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan gather in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam. It wasn't the drink that killed him - although that certainly helped - it was what happened in his grandmother's house, in the winter of 1968.

The Gathering is a novel about love and disappointment, about thwarted lust and limitless desire, and about how our fate is written in the body, not the stars."

While being accurate, I'm not sure this describes the book to best effect. I also feel that the book should maybe have had an alternative title.

The novel is narrated by Veronica who was the sibling closest to the deceased Liam. Through a series of flashbacks she tells a number of stories - that of her own life and marriage, her journey to Brighton to identify and reclaim Liam's body and the impact on the family of his death.

The gathering of the title doesn't actually occur until three quarters of the way through the book after the family history has been recounted. The central story is of an incident which may or may not have happened when Veronica, Liam and their younger sister stayed with their Grandmother, Ada. In explaining the incident, Veronica also relates the history of Ada, her husband Charlie and his friend, Nugent. How much of this backstory is true is, however, open to question - her "memories" contain a certain amount of conjecture.

The book explores how memory can work two ways; how the past, or our perception of the past, impacts on our lives and the choices we make and also how our experiences and knowledge affect our interpretation of the past. Another central theme is the how emotion motivates the behaviour and responses of individuals and those close to them.

The writing is beautiful with a richness of language which reminded me of another Irish Booker winner - The Sea by John Banville. Unlike that book, though, I felt I cared about the characters and the story in The Gathering. The beauty of the prose enhanced the story-telling rather than seeming to be an end in itself.

All in all, The Gathering is a wonderfully crafted and thought provoking novel. I highly recommend it.


Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

3.0 out of 5 stars Pleasant, but ultimately disappointing., 10 Jan 2011
Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my favourite authors. His books take the reader on voyages of the imagination; not just to other times and places but into the thoughts, feelings and memories of the central characters. He explores the power of the past on individual motives and actions. The unreliability of memory and the ways in which time, emotion and personal perception act as a prism to distort recollections are recurring themes.

It always takes me some pages to truly get into an Ishiguro novel. His writing has its own particular cadence and the dialogue is often stylised and - to my mind - betrays his Japanese routes even in those novels which aren't set there. Once I get into them, however, I find they have they have their own peculiar momentum and are ultimately satisfying.

Nocturnes is different. It is a series of five bitter-sweet short stories with a musical theme. The characters are all at some form of decision point whether personal or professional and reflecting on how they arrived at their current situation as well as their next steps.

For all that the stories were, of themselves, nice stories, the book lacked the impact that his novels have. Partly this was because none of the stories had a killer punch in the way, say, Remains of the Day does, partly this was because the short story format doesn't lend itself to the author's style. Ishiguro's books are populated with characters with complex feelings and motives which are developed and revealed gradually - many of the protagonists in Nocturnes are as well but these are underdeveloped. As a result, this reader was left with a lack of empathy for them.

Nocturnes is a pleasant distraction which belies the skill and talent of the author. One or two of the stories hint at something bigger - a story which could cover the canvas of a novel. Indeed, two of the stories share a character and I wonder if these might have originally been part of a greater whole in Ishiguro's mind. As it is though all that is left is, at best, a series poignant vignettes some of which could well have been critical points in a larger work but none of which left a lasting impression.


Young Bond: SilverFin: A James Bond Adventure
Young Bond: SilverFin: A James Bond Adventure
by Charlie Higson
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The essence of Bond, 18 Dec 2010
It's James Bond's first term (or rather, his first half) at Eton and things take a bit of getting used to. Odd rules and customs seem incompressible and some of the older pupils can be, well, bullies. Soon, however, it's the Easter holidays and a chance to rest at the home of his Uncle in the highlands of Scotland, near Loch Silverfin. Little does he know that things are about to take a dark twist and he will find himself drawn into an adventure he never expected...

This is the first of Charlie Higson's Young Bond novels, which are fully authorised by Ian Fleming Publications. In it he begins to construct a back story for Bond' and his early life as a child in post World War I Britain.

Higson has cleverly taken the essence of Bond's character - grit, courage and determination - and transposed it to into a younger, more naive vessel. He has also taken the best loved elements of the films - the manic villain, the chases, the Bond girl - and worked them into the plot, thus enhancing the authenticity of this as a part of the Bond canon.

Despite being set between the wars, he has given the characters - and their dialogue - a current feel in keeping with his young audience. Although slightly odd, from the perspective of an older reader, this approach does work and the target audience (11-13 year old boys, I'd say) will take it for granted.

There are a couple of places where, for me, he does misses the mark, though. For instance, I thought naming the girl Wilder Lawless was fun but naming her horse Martini was a bit much. Such squabbles were minor though and did not detract from my enjoyment of the book. Indeed, I liked it so much I have already added the next, Blood Fever, to my Amazon wish list.

I'd thoroughly recommend Silverfin to any fan of James Bond, young or old.


Dead Until Dark: A True Blood Novel: 1 (Sookie Stackhouse series)
Dead Until Dark: A True Blood Novel: 1 (Sookie Stackhouse series)
by Charlaine Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars One bite is not enough..., 28 Nov 2010
Dead Until Dark is the first of the Sookie Stackhouse novels and forms the basis for the first series. It introduces Sookie, a waitress in Bon Temps in Northern Louisiana with the power to hear other people's thoughts. She lives a simple life although thanks to her disability/skill/gift it's not as quiet as she would like. And then Bill Compton walks into the bar.

Bill is a Vampire who is attempting to mainstream, following the outlawing of discrimination against them and the availability of synthetic blood. Sookie's life is never going to be the same again...

The TV series can be seen as an analogy for black (or homosexual) rights but this subtext is less obvious in the novel. The issue of race does get a couple of mentions but the characters of Tara and her mother who are central to the one of the main sub-plots of True Blood series 1 are entirely absent. The absence of this plot - which would have left a whole in the programme - did not diminish the enjoyment of the book.

Dead Until Dallas is an easy and enjoyable read which is at least as good as the TV series. My initial reticence about what to expect in terms of the quality of writing proved pretty unfounded. Sure, it wouldn't make the Booker Prize shortlist but it's better than, say, Dan Brown's prose. Having just finished watching the second series, I'm looking forward to reading Living Dead in Dallas and the rest of the series...


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