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P. Jenkins "Paul S. Jenkins" (Portsmouth, UK)

Page: 1
by Stephen Baxter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Convincing alternative history, with some reservations, 15 July 2012
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This review is from: Voyage (Paperback)
Voyage is the story of a mission that never was. In this long and meticulously researched novel Baxter speculates that if John F. Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt in Dallas, he might have provided the political impetus to allow NASA to extend beyond the Moon-landings and initiate a manned mission to Mars.

Voyage is a very detailed, convincing portrayal of realistic characters with genuine human traits, striving towards a breathtaking technological and political goal. It's written like 'faction' -- a dramatic narrative of known facts -- except, this is fiction.

Baxter himself applied to NASA to be an astronaut, went through various tests, and was eventually turned down. Writing this novel must have been the next best thing.

Just occasionally the style displays a klunkiness that's possibly the result of hasty editing, but generally it's a smooth and engrossing read, despite the abundance of hard SF detail.

The story of NASA's manned trip to Mars is told in converging threads: the outward flight itself, and the lead-up to the launch. It's cleverly done, so that although we know from the first few pages that Baxter's protagonist -- the American geologist Natalie York -- is going to Mars, we don't know exactly how. The narrative thread culminating in the launch gradually reveals her path into history.

Watching Tom Hanks' From the Earth to the Moon (Tom Hanks HBO Signature Edition) [DVD], I was struck by the number of events depicted in its presumably factual account of the Apollo programme, that have almost exact parallels in Baxter's fictional account of the Mars mission. Hanks' TV series is partly based on Andrew Chaikin's book A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (Penguin Magnum Collection) (Penguin 1995), which it seems likely Baxter has read, either incidentally or as specific research for Voyage. I haven't read Chaikin's book, nor do I know how much of it is in Hanks' TV series, but several of the telling events and conversations -- for example concerning the crew's opinion of the spacecraft ("a lemon"), the meeting to announce the crew assignments ("the men who are going to Mars/the Moon are in this room, looking at me now"), or the enforced retirement of the head of the engineering company that made the spacecraft -- all these appear in both Hanks' story of Apollo and Baxter's story of the Mars mission. Such parallels would be legitimate, it seems to me, if the Mars mission was an alternative to Apollo, but it is supposed to be subsequent to it, and so the parallels appear as a case of history repeating itself. I draw no conclusions from this, but it did make me wonder.

On the whole I was impressed by Voyage. It reads like the dramatisation of real events, which means that as fiction it succeeds. One proviso, however: Stephen Baxter is British, and he has written an American book. As a British reader I found it totally convincing; an American might take a different view.

Consider Phlebas: A Culture Novel (The Culture)
Consider Phlebas: A Culture Novel (The Culture)
by Iain M. Banks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.48

5.0 out of 5 stars An SF debut promising much -- and delivering, 15 July 2012
One of the questions that novice writers are told to ask is, "What's the worst thing that could possibly happen to your main character?" Banks has obviously asked this question, and he answers it on the first page of Chapter One. Consider Phlebas opens with the protagonist suspended in a rapidly filling tank of ordure. By the end of page two he's holding his breath because the excrement has risen above his nose.

This is an all-action space opera. Bora Horza Gobuchul, a 'changer' able to alter his physical appearance using a kind of metamorphic trance, takes the side of the Idirans in their galactic war with the 'Culture.' It's not long before nail-biting action sequences are relentlessly piling in, each related in breathless but intricate detail.

I came to this novel, Banks' first book in the 'Culture' series, having read only one other of his -- Complicity, written under his Iain Banks identity, the missing middle initial indicating 'mainstream' rather than SF. I wasn't sure what to expect, but whereas Complicity uses some unconventional techniques, Consider Phlebas is -- with a few digressions -- a straightforward single-viewpoint third-person narrative.

Consider Phlebas introduces the Culture in some detail, but the passages describing various aspects of it seem largely irrelevant to the plot. Banks is obviously setting up his milieu for a series of sequels. In appendices he gives details of the war, and the subsequent exploits of the novel's survivors. The outcome for his main character is such that the sequels are guaranteed to be different, not just more of the same.

The scope of the novel is vast, conjuring huge civilisations, humanoid aliens, non-humanoid aliens, artificial intelligences, sentient spacecraft, hyperspace, anti-gravity, and all manner of generally acknowledged SF cliches. But Banks' handling of all these is so assured, one just sits back and enjoys the ride. His style is direct, detailed and transparent. At about 450 pages (not counting the appendices) the novel is fairly long, but there's a lot in it. For its ingredients Banks has borrowed from the best, and mixed a rich stew. Highly recommended.

Frankenstein Unbound
Frankenstein Unbound
by Brian W. Aldiss
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A master of literary SF has fun with a classic, 15 July 2012
This review is from: Frankenstein Unbound (Paperback)
It is the year 2020, when nuclear explosions appear to have done something serious to the space-time continuum, resulting in 'timeslips' -- whole sections of geography slipping temporarily back in time.

The protagonist, Joseph Bodenland, tells the story of one of these travels to the past, by means of letters and transcripts of his tape journal.

Bodenland, driving his 21st century car, is separated from his family and plonked into a Europe of the early eighteen hundreds, where he meets Mary Godwin -- soon to be Mary Shelley. But he also encounters (and this is where the story departs from the classic style of time-travel narrative) Victor Frankenstein and his monster. This he rationalises as a version of the currently fashionable SF trope (though Aldiss wrote this in 1973), 'alternate or parallel universes.'

There are hints of shifting or unstable reality (as in the novels of Philip K. Dick), and an almost Wyndham-like Englishness, despite Aldiss making his protagonist American.

The ending is possibly slightly rushed, but still conveys the right degree of uncertainty -- questions for the future -- and satisfying ambiguity.

As well as his delightful encounter with Mary Godwin, Bodenland meets Byron, and Shelley himself; these scenes are utterly convincing. Although initially I had some reservations about the plot of this story, these were quickly dispelled by Aldiss's deft skill in his favoured literary genre.

Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America
Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America
by William Lobdell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gripping autobiography of conversion and deconversion, 15 July 2012
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William Lobdell's compulsive autobiography is an honest, open chronicle of his conversion to evangelical Christianity -- and his subsequent de-conversion as a result of his exhaustive journalistic investigation of religion. His book's subtitle, How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America -- and Found Unexpected Peace, accurately describes the arc of his story. We see how he became enamoured of Christianity, and how the church of his choice didn't quite live up to his expectations, and how he nevertheless reconciled his misgivings and embraced his faith.

We read of his perseverance in pursuit of his dream job, eventually landing the post of religion writer for the Los Angeles Times. And by his own account he seems to have been very good at that job. But still the church didn't quite meet his needs, and he decided to become a Roman Catholic. Even while undergoing special Catholic training classes he continued his investigative journalism, often into priest-paedophilia. At the very moment he was due to be formally accepted into the Catholic Church, he was breaking a big story of Catholic priests sexually abusing children in their care. Nagging doubts that hadn't been of too much concern now rose to the surface and he decided to delay his official conversion. The appalling catalogue he helped to unveil continued to grow, and as it did so his faith dwindled, until eventually there was nothing left of it.

Losing My Religion is a page-turner that grips from beginning to end. It's an honest description of what it's like to fall into religion, and out of it again, and on the way we discover the true horror of the Catholic-priest-paedophilia scandal in America.

The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ (Myths)
The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ (Myths)
by Philip Pullman
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A valuable illustration of myth-making, 15 July 2012
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Philip Pullman states clearly that this book is not intended to be an accurate portrayal of historical events. The back cover of his novel proclaims "This is a STORY."

But it's a story that could, given the historical events on which it is based, be one account of the possible truth. It's the story of Jesus, and of Christ, and in Pullman's narrative these are two distinct people -- twin brothers, in fact. Jesus is the preacher, Christ is his unacknowledged public relations man. It's told from the viewpoint of Christ, who is constantly in awe of his brother and his wise preacherly ways.

Only once, near the end of the book, do we get to hear the thoughts of Jesus himself, when he goes into the garden at Gethsemane to commune with his God. And we learn that the wise preacher has doubts -- doubts so deep that he can be safely described as an atheist.

The character of Christ is by far the more interesting of the two. It is to Christ that the business of recording the historical events falls, and like any good PR man he knows that the facts will need to be spun. We see the process of myth-making, sometimes deliberate, sometimes fortuitous. It remains a mystery, however, who the stranger is who occasionally comes to instruct Christ in his endeavours. Christ never learns the stranger's name, and believes he is an angel, but the stranger could just as easily be Satan, or more prosaically, a subversive fixer from an organisation that sees the cult of Jesus as beneficial.

The book is written in a simplistic, almost childlike style. No echoes of the King James authorised version of the Bible penetrate the flat narrative. Because it's so transparent, the framing and blatant spin of the facts at hand are seen for what they are: we are left with a simple story retold many times, incorporating the necessary features for making the myth.

Pullman clearly demonstrates that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is not holy writ. It is, as he says, a story. But it fits the known facts, and raises a question: if a story like this can be made up to fit the facts as we know them from history, how do we know that the other stories that fit the same facts aren't also made up? The answer is, we don't, and while that's an interesting literary question, it's not something on which the moral imperatives of a huge percentage of the world's population can be legitimately based.

The Jewel of Medina: A Novel
The Jewel of Medina: A Novel

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not deserving of condemnation, but likewise not up to the hype, 15 July 2012
The Jewel of Medina had been in my pre-order/save for later list on Amazon for many months, waiting for it to be finally published. The self-censorship chill surrounding this novel after it was unceremoniously pulled by publisher Random House had piqued my interest in what could have made them so jumpy, given that until they received an unfavourable report from one of their pre-publication readers they were keen to spend tons of money to promote it. Then the British publisher was bombed and yet again the book was withdrawn.

Much has been made of the Prophet's paedophilic tendencies in taking a wife aged nine years (she was betrothed to him at age six), but in this fictional account of her marriage to Muhammad, though A'isha is indeed married aged nine, it's not until she is 15 that her marriage is consummated. I've no idea how accurate this narrative is. Sherry Jones, the author, who is not a Muslim, explains in a Q & A at the end of the book that she did take certain liberties with the historical account, but this particular aspect is not mentioned.

Being the first-person story of a child, this is inevitably a self-centred story. A'isha is headstrong and full of her own importance, alternating with bouts of extreme self-doubt, with the result that her fickleness tends to tedium after a while. The shallowness of her vision is reflected in the narrative, though this might be expected in a child's story. It might also explain why we never get any real sense of place; Mecca and Medina are locations of geographical uniqueness, but A'isha, constrained as she is in purdah and subsequently in Muhammad's harem, tells us little of what these places are like. She makes frequent visits to the poor in a "tent city" but all too frequently we are confined in her thoughts of other things.

At one point she runs away, almost indulging in a fling with her childhood sweetheart -- this is giving nothing away, as the conclusion of this event is what opens the story. Unfortunately it looks as if this messing with the structure of the novel might have been done at the last minute, as the text appears to have been simply clipped from the middle of the novel and plonked on to the beginning, with only rudimentary attempts to fix the ragged edges left behind.

There are some moments of pithy and evocative writing towards the end of the novel, but not enough to balance the shallow and often leaden prose that goes before. This may have been the author's intention, to show A'isha's outlook and intellect maturing, but it seems ill-judged to fetter the majority of the narrative for such small effect.

One aspect of the novel's style, which I'm assuming isn't an artefact of its formatting for the Kindle, is an unconventional quirk in the way dialogue is shown. Conventionally, when someone speaks and then someone else speaks -- whether or not there are dialogue tags (he said, she said and the like) -- the second speaker's words are shown in quotation marks, but in a new paragraph. Many times this format is used in The Jewel of Medina, but it turns out that the same person is speaking. Unfortunately this format quirk isn't sufficiently different from the conventionally accepted (and most popular) style, with the result that it simply confused me, and I had to stop and re-read. Anything that drops the reader out of the narrative is undesirable and an impediment to good novelistic style.

The Jewel of Medina is not a bad book, but it isn't a particularly good one either. Its interest lies in its historical subject matter and, inevitably, the controversy surrounding it. I read somewhere that the novel, dealing with the Prophet's intimate relations with his wives, was pornographic. It isn't.

Tricks Of The Mind
Tricks Of The Mind
by Derren Brown
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written insight into the mind of a master illusionist, 15 July 2012
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This review is from: Tricks Of The Mind (Paperback)
One thing any book needs to be to win me over, whatever its subject, is well written. A few years ago I read several articles by Sam Harris on the web, and regardless of his message, his prose delighted me. I wanted to read more of his writing, so I bought a copy of "The End of Faith" and wasn't disappointed.

Derren Brown's "Tricks of the Mind" isn't quite in Harris's class, but it is well written, its scope is definitely wider(!) plus there are more jokes. Brown relishes the literary trick (likely beloved of conjurors) of setting up a paragraph clearly pointing in one direction then entirely undermining it in the final sentence.

Wry humour and amusing tricks aside, this is a serious book from a master illusionist, mentalist and showman. Brown not only tells how a trick is performed, but goes on to analyse its underlying psychology, explaining not just how it works, but why. Don't expect him to reveal the intricacies of more complicated tricks, but his discussion of the psychology of conjuring is revealing in itself. He includes personal anecdotes throughout the book, though how much of the "real" Derren Brown these truly reveal is impossible to know, considering the man's profession.

Later on Brown explains memory systems, with many practical exercises that demonstrate they do actually work. He also covers hypnotism in depth, even inviting the reader to try it out. I've had my suspicions about the true nature of hypnotism, and was pleased to see them confirmed (though I appreciate that's hardly conclusive proof of what I suspected). After a diversion into self-help motivational techniques he moves on to unconscious communication and lie-detection, describing how it is possible for a skilled, practised and perceptive operator to tell whether or not someone is speaking the truth.

In the last part of the book he looks at pseudo-science, alternative medicine and scepticism in general, including critical thinking, statistics and probability. From there he moves on to comprehensive and passionate coverage of psychic mediums and cold-reading -- laced, however, with irony and wit that make these serious chapters a pleasure to read. Finally we have a generously annotated reading list, plus references and an alphabetical index.

My recommendation? Read it - you'll be entertained as well as informed.

Don't Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic's Guide to Life
Don't Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic's Guide to Life
by Richard Wilson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Sceptical concerns that should concern us all, 15 July 2012
The book's subtitle, "The Sceptic's Guide to Life", may be a bit ambitious as an aim, but the content offers excellent advice on how to check if what you're being told can be believed.

Wilson covers dubious advertising, news stories that are no more than uncritical rehashes of press releases, manufactured controversies and much else besides, all with examples and copious footnotes (so if you have any doubt you are free to check his sources -- many of which are available for free on the web).

By way of example he goes into detail about Trofim Lysenko's bogus attempts to reform Soviet agriculture, as well as examining Clarence Cook Little's initially successful efforts in the 1950's to obfuscate the growing concern about a link between tobacco and lung cancer.

There's a chapter about AIDS denialism -- the claim that there's no evidence HIV causes AIDS, and that anti-retroviral drugs actually cause AIDS. He deals with the tendency to invent neologisms to disguise and defuse serious problems, whether factual or ethical, and he goes into some detail on the religious question, in response to the "new atheist" publishing phenomenon.

He touches on corruption in high places, mentioning the secrecy surrounding MP's expenses (the book was published before the widespread scandal -- which is probably a good thing, else it would be twice the length and dominated by a single issue).

The book is a comprehensive overview of matters that should concern us all, by someone who appears to be of a generally liberal/left persuasion (something that he doesn't conceal -- nor should he). It covers a selection of sceptical subjects, but gives the overall impression that these are but a fraction of what's going on, and with which we should be engaged. In the modern world he could probably write another book with entirely different examples, and we should therefore be eternally vigilant.

by Stephen Baxter
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating world-building with a human face, 15 July 2012
This review is from: Flux (Mass Market Paperback)
You know something's not normal as soon as you start the first chapter of this strange novel. The people in it are human -- it says so, right there on the page -- but you soon realise they're not the same kind of humans you meet on twenty-first century Earth.

Certainly they seem to have the same feelings, desires, hopes and fears -- the same character -- as present-day people, but they inhabit a world physically far different from our own.

Baxter's achievement in Flux is to have created a believable world out of a single extrapolated idea so bizarre that a lesser (or in SF terms, 'softer') novelist would have balked at: his characters inhabit the mantle of a star. They are genetically re-engineered, microscopic humans, designed to suit their almost unimaginable environment. It is to Baxter's credit that we do imagine it, even though the novel does, at times, have the feel of a medieval fantasy. Baxter's aliens, the Xeelee, also feature in the background of this story.

The physics and biology appear to be well worked out from the initial science-fictional extrapolation, and readers who like their SF hard will have fun analysing Baxter's world-building.

The story is mainly that of Dura, a young woman who scrapes a living in the 'upflux' -- a kind of scavenging area away from civilisation, crossed by lines of concentrated magnetism. One of the periodic 'glitches' in the 'magfield' leaves her homeless, and she and the few other survivors of the cataclysm have to find a way to live. A group of them decide to head for Parz City -- a place they've heard about but never visited.

Dura and her younger brother have adventures on the way, as well as at the city itself -- an enormous wooden structure suspended at the pole of the star. We also see something of the life of the city-dwellers, and learn of the city's ultimate purpose.

Baxter's writing style is robust but smooth, not unlike a less-honed version of Arthur C. Clarke, and is thus eminently readable. Although Flux is a story of characters in a unique but consistently imagined world, the events that occur are derived directly from that strange world's peculiarities. This is hard SF of a rare kind.

Playing For Keeps
Playing For Keeps
by Mur Lafferty
Edition: Paperback

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A super book about not-so-super heroes, 25 Aug. 2008
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This review is from: Playing For Keeps (Paperback)
Mur Lafferty's first published novel is set in Seventh City, where superheroes form part of the local government infrastructure, with superpowers resulting from unexpected side effects of a drug administered during pregnancy. In this way the author grounds the fantastical element in just enough plausible scientific rationalisation to make it believable.

But the novel isn't about the superpowers, quirky and imaginative though many of them are (my favourite is the waitress's power of being able lift anything - so long as it's on a tray). No, the focus of the story is the effect on a group of people denied the coveted 'hero' designation because their powers are simply not good enough to qualify for government endorsement and funding at the Academy. These are the Third Wavers, many of whom hang out at Keepsie's Bar - the proprietor so nicknamed for her power of being able to 'keep' anything she owns safe from loss or theft. The Third Wavers regard the Academy with understandable suspicion and resentment, and the feeling is mutual. Add the fact that some of the actual superheroes are insufferably smug and arrogant and you have the makings of a superpowered conflict.

There's also a good deal of comedy, and some adult language, though nothing with which a teenager wouldn't already be familiar. And while there's plenty of action, right from page one, the personal lives of Keepsie and her friends are portrayed with sensitivity, giving the novel depth and realism.

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