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Micro
Micro
by Michael Crichton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.14

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tiny humans, massive bugs!, 9 Jun 2012
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This review is from: Micro (Hardcover)
The day Michael Crichton died I was in my parents' house watching BBC 24 and the news scrolled along the bottom of the screen. My reaction was to shout the F word at the top of my voice and put my hands on my head. This was the man that made me want to be a writer. There had been no word that he was even ill, let alone dying. Memories of the times I spent reading his books as a teenager tumbled, of the day I bought Sphere in WH Smiths and got home and simply could not stop reading, of spending the entire week of a family holiday in Builth Wells engrossed in Jurassic Park, and then Congo. Of reading The Lost World the night before starting my A Levels and Binary when I should have been revising for my first year exams in university. I remembered asking my economics teacher about shady Japanese business practices after reading Rising Sun; reading his amazing autobiography-cum-travel journal, Travels, whilst working in the video shop during the sunny summer of 1995. I read his books throughout my teens and continued doing so as each new one came out in my twenties, and the joy of sheer imaginative fiction never diminished. Even though I disagreed with what he said about climate change in State of Fear the thrill of the story was just as fresh as ever and, anyway, his point was more about the dangers of politicising science than global warming. He was a constant companion through my life, the only author whose back catalogue I have read in entirety, and he had died the same he way he wrote; matter-of-fact and without fuss.

I was devastated when he died. To me, he is irreplaceable. I mostly read serious books by serious authors these days and new Crichton releases were joyous interludes.

That's not to say Crichton wasn't a serious writer because he was. His novels are head and shoulders above his contemporary techno-thriller authors. He just decided that ideas and excitement should take precedence over finding truths about what it is to be human. His bad guys were pantomime, but brilliantly and deliberately so. How else can you tell such fun stories without fun characters? Even in his final bow, Micro, the villain is gloriously over the top.

Any fan of Michael Crichton knows that each novel is prefaced by a short essay on the scientific subject matter of each book. They reveal the author's opinions on the field and finally, ingeniously, he melts reality and reforms it into the world of the novel by speaking briefly of the events that are about to take place in the book in your hands as if they actually happened. The essay is present in Micro and I read it and got to the end, which was truncated. It stopped mid-flow and was followed by the word, unfinished. It really hit hard, reading that. I knew before opening the book that it was going to bring up some emotional feelings but that word unfinished reminded me not only of how I'll miss him just being in the world, but also the stories he never had time to write.

Micro itself is pure Crichton. A cutting edge technology firm has discovered how to shrink people and a hapless group of research students find themselves in battle against the ants, wasps and other bugs of the Hawaiian rain forest.

The way he takes ideas that appeal to the child in us and makes them, however speculatively, real is his greatest skill. There's not a person on the planet who didn't see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and think, that's so cool. Just as Spielberg has never lost his inner child, neither did Crichton. The addition of speculative science justifies our reading such stories to the adult part of our minds but really, these stories remind us of the people we were before life knocked us into shape. A novel about being chased through a jungle by giant insects is, simply, massively appealing to anyone who remembers the spirit of adventure you feel as a child.

And it pays off too. It wasn't just his death that made me like this book; it is great in its own right. I enjoyed this in the same way I enjoyed the books I read when I was younger. The plot rattles along, the characters are the usual Crichton archetypes that work so well in larger than life stories, and just when you think it can't get any better they start flying around in tiny planes!

Michael Crichton always had a way of perfectly balancing a rollicking plot with lessons about nature, the sort of nature you long to be taught about in school. Here you learn about poisons, bug behaviour, and the weapons insects have to rip tiny humans to shreds. There are some twists and turns and a truly shocking moment towards the end that I totally didn't see coming.

The book was unfinished at the time of his death and brought to completion by Richard Preston, author of the brilliant non-fiction, The Hot Zone. He's done a great job in realising Crichton's vision, as well as capturing his writing style which is so often aped but never matched.

And so Micro is a superb swan song from the creator of the techno-thriller and grand master of the modern adventure story. Inside the cover is an ink drawing of the rainforest in which the novel takes place. If you look very carefully, just near the waterfalls, in type so small you might need a magnifying glass to read it, you find the words, 'Numquam obliviscemur Michaelis Crichtonis' which means Michael Crichton, never forget. I never will. So long Michael, and thanks for the memories.


From Hell
From Hell
by Alan Moore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Victorian London, 17 Mar 2012
This review is from: From Hell (Paperback)
Alan Moore's massive tome about the Ripper killings of 1888 postulates the theory that the Whitechapel murderer was Sir William Withey Gull, Physician-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria. Folded into this vast narrative are royal conspiracies, Masonic ritual, psychic episodes, and a detective trying to knit the threads together. It conjures the world of Victorian London as a dark and dirty place full of vivid characters trying to survive terrible conditions.

I loved the way the story is told. It moves so fast and looks at every aspect of the case from lots of angles so much so that the reader is treated to a bird's eye view of London at that time. If you love dark horror stories you don't get much darker or more horrific than this, but be warned: this book is extremely grisly and not for the faint-hearted.

The soon to be murdered prostitutes that Moore depicts are not sweet innocent girls who lost their way but complex characters making bad decisions under the clutches of alcoholism. At one turn they are sympathetic, at others just nasty, and these characterisations ground the story in a convincing realness that gives the book depth.

The lead characters are William Gull and the detective trying to solve the case, Fred Abberline, one a demented mason convinced that history is a curving arc of repeating events that will one day distil time into a single instant, the other is a disenchanted cop who stumbles his way through the investigation as events reveal themselves.

For anyone interested in the Ripper killings this is a must-read. Even if not historically accurate the sense of place and detail in Victorian London is second to none.


Wild Abandon
Wild Abandon
by Joe Dunthorne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.68

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars End of the World, 7 Mar 2012
This review is from: Wild Abandon (Paperback)
I really enjoyed Joe Dunthorne's first novel, Submarine, so was very much looking forward to Wild Abandon. The novel is set in a Gower commune and follows the disintegration of the founding family. It's different from Submarine in that it deals with adult characters and mind-sets, though the adults in the book still have a childlike innocent that gives the novel its charming tone. It's funny and tender and though I'm not sure I enjoyed it as much as Submarine it marks Joe Dunthorne as a perceptive and funny writer who writes beautifully at times. The characters are rich and fully realised and as a reader I invested in them. If it had a fault I'd say that it ran out of steam before the end and felt like a train coasting to a halt at a station rather than slamming into a wall. Okay, that metaphor went wrong somewhere. For me, I like to see a story arc and whilst it could be argued each character's story completes, which they do, I would have preferred a more cohesive direction at the end. Having said that this is still a great book that I'd thoroughly recommend.


Underworld
Underworld
by Don DeLillo
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Massive and amazing, 14 Feb 2012
This review is from: Underworld (Paperback)
Don DeLillo's Underworld opens with a baseball game at the Polo Grounds in the 1950s. The Dodgers are playing the Giants and we're introduced to the stadium through a black kid jumping the turnstiles and watching the game. In this opening salvo the point of view then switches from Cotter, the kid, to Frank Sinatra to Jackie Gleason to J Edgar Hoover. The game is a classic in American baseball history that saw batter Bobby Thomson hit a ball into the stands deep in the final innings to take the Giants to victory. It just so happens that on this day, October 3, 1951, the Soviets conduct a test nuclear explosion, and so begins two of the three intertwining themes of the novel: the journey of the baseball after Cotter manages to grab it in a scuffle, and the nuclear story that took place over the second half of the Twentieth Century. The final theme is that of civilisation's garbage; how we control and dispose of the rubbish we generate. There are other themes, art and media, religion and information, but the three mentioned above come back time and time again.

It's an incredible book, the most impressive I've ever read, if not the most enjoyable. Some parts are sublimely good. After the baseball game, for example, we are told the story of the Texas Highway Killer, a man who assassinates people by shooting them from a moving vehicle going the other way down an expressway. And there is the section where the novel's lead character, Nick Shay (if the novel has a lead character then he is it), visits a garbage site that stretches as far as the eye can see and where he tells us about a ship floating around the world's oceans that no country will allow to dock because the stuff on board, secret stuff, is so toxic that even letting it come near the shore is considered too risky by most nation states. When reading these sections your eyes fly across the pages, the prose picks you up an sings you through fifty pages without your even realising it.

There are more difficult sections as well but you never get the sense that you're reading anything less than a masterpiece, which is what this is. It's a book that is there to paint impressionistically the idea of America in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Italian immigrants struggle from working to middle classes, artists try to find street punks painting incredible frescos on the sides of trains, marital infidelities are discovered and forgiven and always there is the shadow of nuclear war.

For me, the book is at its best when DeLillo is dealing with the three main themes. The baseball crops up in the most intriguing plotlines and you get a sense of silent things moving through history, the sections about human waste are stunningly grim and the bits about the bomb, from test bombers flying over blasts holding pillows over their faces and still seeing the bones in their hands to Nick's brother trying to justify working on the bomb technology are unputdownable.

The book jumps around from story to story, like a roving camera moving across the country and the narrative goes backwards in time, starting in the 1990's (after the prologue) back to 1951 when Nick is a teenager in the Bronx. This jumping is confusing if you're looking for a traditional story but if you forget that and try to think of Underworld as soaking up an experience then it works beautifully.

The real star of the show is, of course, the prose. The way he writes is hypnotic. You start reading and it's difficult but after while you fall into the rhythm, the repeating motifs that recycle throughout certain sections, the long sentences, and those little details of humanity that make total sense.

Make no bones about it, Underworld is a dense and difficult read. It's a book for the head more than the heart. When it's good it's near perfect but there are bits that are slow. Over the eight hundred plus pages it pushes what is possible from fiction right to the edge and, given that it was completed in 1997, it is almost prescient, hinting as it does to Islamic terror and the total ubiquity of the internet. But if you love words and language you can't really beat this. In the New York times it was voted 2nd in a list of best American books of the past 25 years and you can totally see why.


Winter's Bone
Winter's Bone
by Daniel Woodrell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ozarks are awesome, 23 Nov 2011
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This review is from: Winter's Bone (Paperback)
Ree Dolly's father has gone missing and she needs to find him before the bail bondsman takes her family home. He's mixed up in some pretty nasty business - his major talent is making drugs - and nobody is saying anything because it is the way of the Ozarks to keep to your own devices.

I love stories about way out of the way places in America, those hidden folds, and when they're written with the extraordinariness of Winter's Bone I'm in heaven. American fiction is a funny old thing because it's hard to say what is its defining style. Is it modern, clever writing a la Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo, or the solid old time landscape reflecting humanity a la Cormac McCarthy and John Steinbeck? Well it's the latter section that Woodrell falls into. His description of the Ozark mountains is stunning, and the way these cold barren places make cold, dark people is brought vividly to life. His writing thrusts you into that environment of frozen soil and freezing rivers and the story he drops on you is simple and lyrical.

The way of life is seen through the eyes of the rough and ready Ree Dolly, a girl of school age who is tasked to look after his mentally ill mother and two young brothers because her father is more often than not absent. She dreams of joining the Army, getting away from her roots, but how can she when there's nobody there to run the homestead? Her character is beautifully rendered, her resilience demonstrated in a series of frightening and awful scenes where she has to deal with unfriendly locals who don't like being asked difficult questions. You really find yourself rooting for her. This book is on a par with the Franzen but in a wholly different way.


The Corrections (Fourth Estate 25th Anniv Edtn)
The Corrections (Fourth Estate 25th Anniv Edtn)
by Jonathan Franzen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £24.04

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the correction, 26 Sep 2011
For my birthday I got Fourth Estate's 25th birthday edition of The Corrections. It's about a family called the Lamberts and their struggles with modern life in very selfish times. Enid, the mother, wants her children to spend a final Christmas in her mid-western family home but can the kids extricate themselves from their hectic lives when, in truth, they don't really want to go home?

Each lengthy section deals with each of the kids in the run up to this final Christmas. Talented artistic progeny, Chip, has lost his way having been fired from his lecturing job following a misguided affair with a student and somehow winds up befriending a Lithuanian businessman intent on establishing his home country as a financial mecca for American investors. Gary, the solid family man, can't persuade his wife to leave Philadelphia at Christmas. Denise, successful chef but unsuccessful in the relationship department, fears going home to an overbearing mother who is devastated that she hasn't yet managed to land a man.

Each disparate route to the middle class town of St Jude is hugely entertaining. J-Franz manages to paint the most brilliantly real characters on the pages. Each one has their good points but these are heavily outweighed by their bad points. Each of the characters behaviour is squirmingly immoral and selfish. But realistic.

For me, the best character is pater familias, Alfred. Suffering with dementia he is a man of discipline losing his dignity and not having the functions to do anything about it. His decline is both hilarious and devastating and the author doesn't pull any punches in his description of mental decay. I loved it when I was plunged into his mindset during a cruise trip in the first third of the book.

Jonathan Franzen has written a depiction of America in its late stage capitalist state at the beginning of the twenty-first century with all of its idiosyncrasies and individualistic philosophies. And in this depiction there is minute detail about the landscape and industry that makes the book a complete joy to read. Every single sentence is beautiful. If you read it, check this claim. His breadth of knowledge is scary and you can't help but wonder just how much effort must have gone into creating this novel. I loved Freedom but think I preferred this one.


Diamond Star Halo
Diamond Star Halo
by Tiffany Murray
Edition: Paperback

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Musical, 27 Aug 2011
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This review is from: Diamond Star Halo (Paperback)
When I was in my late teens I was fascinated by a place in Wales where all my favourite bands came to record their albums. Could this be? I wondered. A place in Wales that does something that's actually exciting? It turned out that it was true. And it was called Rockfields Studios. I used to read in the NME about Oasis decamping there, or Cast, or the Bluetones, I heard stories about the Stone Roses driving round the lanes with no lights on because they had been sucked into the countryside almost into non-existence whilst trying to make The Second Coming. I read about the keyboardist of The Charlatans getting killed in a car crash there when, soon after, they would put out the amazing Tellin' Stories. I was also aware that Queen were there once recording one of the best album ever made (in my opinion); A Night At The Opera. And The Libertines were there too. In fact, pretty much every big band you can think of have been there.

A few years later I drove past a little sign on a road whilst on the way to the Rolls of Monmouth that said "Rockfield Studios" and I thought, I am going to have to go and check that place out one day. But I didn't. One day I will go there though, especially having just read Tiffany Murray's "Diamond Star Halo." The novel is set in the fictional Welsh recording studio of Rockfarm but perhaps it's more that just a coincidence that Tiffany Murray grew up in Rockfield Studios. She brings a bucolic creative setting to life in the first part of the book, establishing the layout of the farm and the main characters who occur throughout the book, over several decades. The place itself acts as a basin-like character into which everything falls back.

The story is about a girl called Diamond Star Halo living her life at Rockfarm. It centres around her familial relationships, especially with her adopted brother Fred, who happens to be the son of a famous musician. Halo falls for Fred and the novel examines that heart-breaking separation that springs up in life when you wish it wouldn't. As the novel progresses the characters come to life on the page and the plot swings between being lovely and sad. At it's heart I think the book is about a person struggling to face the real world because the world her childhood gave her was so magical. I think if people thought hard about things they would ask themselves: why exactly am I doing what I'm doing when I used to be happy. Maybe that's just me but I would love to still be out in the woods building dens and climbing trees. Anyway, back to the book. As the years go by the saga of the Llewelyn family unfolds and I found myself willing Halo to get together with Fred, even though they are brother and sister. Does it happen? Well you've to read it.

It's a really quite beautiful book, this. When you read it the images will all be at sunset with midgies hanging in the air. And it keeps you tuning the pages. The last hundred or so pages are just excellent as the author refuses to cut away from the most painful of scenes. You're there with the characters, going through their trials with them when lesser novels paper over the things that are hard to write.


Robopocalypse (Robo 1)
Robopocalypse (Robo 1)
by Daniel H. Wilson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.16

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Immense Fun!, 2 Aug 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Robopocalypse (Robo 1) (Hardcover)
Some of my favourite films are Ghost In The Shell, I, Robot, The Matrix and the first two Terminators. And what do all these stories have in common? Bad robots! Bad, superintelligent, sentient robots in fact, the type that want to wipe out humanity, and this rich vein of storytelling is enriched still further by Robopocalypse, the first novel from Daniel H Wilson.

The novel is actually a series of collected scenes much in the same style as World War Z but instead of zombies we have Rob, as they are called. Through the scenes we see how the robots became sentient (through robot leader, Archos), how they decimated mankind, and how pockets of resistance got together and used the robot technology to their own gain in order to retaliate against their new aggressors. The structure has been done before but here each section adds to the cohesive whole of the narrative, that is extremely well plotted. You can tell the author likes science (he has a PhD in robotics) because the plot is machine-like in its construction. It reminded me of solving a particularly long-winded equation in A Level maths - the same sort of satisfaction that comes from understanding something at a logical level.

It also reminded me of a Michael Crichton book, not only because of the technological bent but because of the simple prose that drops in technical terms that always sound cool for some reason. In this respect the novel can be enjoyed by a wider audience than pure sci-fi fans (who would also enjoy it).

Steven Spielberg is planning to direct the film version in the next few years and I for one will be buying a ticket. This is a fast-paced, fun, interesting read that doesn't go too deep into emotions because it doesn't need to. If you're looking for something light and fun, but which is also intelligent, then Robopocalypse is perfect. I say light and fun but there are some extremely grisly bits in it. Thank God!


On Writing
On Writing
by Stephen King
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for wannabe writers, 6 July 2011
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This review is from: On Writing (Paperback)
I've been meaning to read this book since it was released almost a decade ago. Whilst I've not read much Stephen King (I've read The Mist and also have a copy of Full Dark, No Shadows ready to go) I have, of course, always been aware of him.

This book is absolutely fascinating. It starts of as a hundred page memoir where we learn all about how much he struggled to become a writer, working jobs for long hours to pay for a young family whilst spending his free time trying to create. By the time I was reading about his agent calling him to tell him that Carrie was going to make him rich I felt like punching the air with joy.

The next section, the main section, is about how he goes about writing. He tells how he builds up a toolbox of instruments that he calls upon - sentence construction, dialogue, paragraph construction. He also comes up with a great tip: 2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%. He also explains how to achieve this. It really is a great book for aspiring writers to read, chock full as it is with handy tips.

The final section centres on the event that almost killed him - being struck by a van whilst out walking. He writes about hw writing helped him through his recuperation and how it continues to be something that he needs to function.

There are a few postscripts as well - an example of how he edits, and a list of good books he read around the time of writing "On Writing."

And then, right at the end, is a short story by someone called Garrett Addams. He was the winner of a competition the publishers ran to coincide with the publication of this book. The story is really good, with a fantastic ending.


The Highest Form of Killing (Point - original fiction)
The Highest Form of Killing (Point - original fiction)
by Malcolm Rose
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Point, 2 July 2011
The local Co-op next to my place of work has recently installed a charity book table whereby members of the public bring in their unwanted books for the public to buy. When I saw The Highest Form Of Killing by Malcolm Rose I knew I had to have it. Why? Well, because it is a Point book. I used to love Point horror novels when I was a kid and have always had a hankering to pick one up again if only for the sake of nostalgia.

The Highest Form Of Killing is the story a secret chemical weapon being developed by the MoD. When animal rights campaigners stumble across it a dog infected with the weapon is released, only for its degenerated carcass to be washed up on a beach a few days later. The main protagonists in the story, Mark (18), Derek (33) and Sylvia (19) must battle the powers of the government in order to stop this deadly weapon being developed still further.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Highest Form of Killing and it threw me right back into childhood. Whilst discerning adult readers would laugh at the novel (I chortled a lot) you have to remember that it's written for youngsters and it has the kind of plot that is easily understandable and exciting to boot. These were the sorts of stories that I loved as a child, though I swear I remember them being a little more disgusting - maybe that's just rose-tinted memories though.

All in all a good book that's very much of it's time (it was written in 1991).


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