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on 11 January 2013
Yellow Blue Tibia is, among other things, a serious novel about the nature and consequences of belief, but don't let that put you off; you could get through the whole thing and have a great old time without noticing the serious subtext, let alone have it ruin your evening.

That's because it's an extremely accessible, fast-paced, exciting and, above all, very funny book. The humour is embedded in the telling of the tale, in first-person narrator Konstantin Skvorecky's droll, deadpan account of the preposterous events he endures, but it also comes from the vividly-drawn set of characters he encounters. As a Proper Reviewer notes in a blurb on the back cover of the paperback edition, "Skvorecky is a great creation, comic and moving", and while that's absolutely true, it fails to highlight the big yoks which come from the likes of Saltykov (an Asperger's-afflicted nuclear physicist turned taxi driver, and if you're thinking Travis Bickle crossed with Sheldon Cooper, you're getting warm, though Sheldon dominates), Frenkel (the KGB commander whose attempts to hide his rage beneath an urbane, rational exterior are only partially successful) and Trofim (Frenkel's assistant, and a lovely spin on the usual "dumb henchman" trope).

Yellow Blue Tibia is also that rarest of creatures, an SF novel with a totally original concept and plot. There's been nothing like it before, and there won't - can't - be anything like it again, as it's completely non-replicable. In brief, it starts just after the Great Patriotic War, with Stalin ordering a group of Russian SF writers (including Skvorecky and Frenkel) to come up with an alien invasion concept to be used as propaganda to maintain patriotism among the Russian people. After a few months, he changes his mind, and the concept is suppressed and forgotten. Then, in the 1980s, it appears to be coming true, as Skvorecky gets involved in a series of increasingly farcical and strange incidents, culminating but not concluding with some High Weirdness at Chernobyl. Plagiarise that!

The ending is ambiguous and leaves some aspects of the tale unresolved. Some readers have had a problem with this, but no other ending makes any sense for a book which asks us what - or which stories - we believe in, and why. All the characters embody different aspects of belief, and believe in different stories. Frenkel believes in Soviet Communism, even though it is visibly dying around him. Trofim believes what he's told to believe. Stalnykov believes in the palpably untrue alien invasion story which Skvorecky, Frenkel et al conceived for Stalin. Skvorecky's unlikely love interest, Dora, is an empiricist who believes in what she can see, which is Skvorecky. And as for Skvorecky himself, he starts off believing in nothing (an ironic stance which makes his dry, wry narrative voice so funny) and, after his bizarre experiences, ends up believing in - well, what, and why? In this context, tidy resolution would run entirely against the point of the book. Food for thought aplenty, for them as likes that sort of thing.

All of which may make it sound appallingly pretentious, but it's anything but, because - to paraphrase Honey Bruce discussing husband Lenny - it's just so goddam funny.

*Chernobyl fallout
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on 22 March 2011
In the last 12 months I've tried to challenge myself with my reading, attacking all those books and authors I was too scared of in the past. So far, I've ploughed through the 850 page behemoth that is 'Vanity Fair', the intellectual rollercoaster of Saul Bellow's 'Ravelstein', a whole pile of Tolstoy, and way more Booker Prize winners than is strictly healthy (top tip: some of them are rubbish).

When I picked up 'Yellow Blue Tibia' I thought, 'Great... A bit of sci-fi. Something a bit lighter than everything else I've been reading lately. Should make for a nice break.'

Ha. What a moron I truly am. 'Yellow Blue Tibia' actually proved to be one of the most challenging, thought-provoking books I've read all year. The metaphysical aspects of its climax left my brain feeling like I had been smacked about the head with a piece of two-by-four - a sensation I last experienced while reading Philip K. Dick, and if anything Dick is the author whose work this most reminds me of, particularly in its skillful stitching together of historical fact and mind-bending fiction. The recreation of Stalin's Terror in particular was stunning, so much so that I may have preferred it if the book were focused more on that era, but this is a very minor complaint.

The Russian/Soviet state went through so many political and cultural convulsions in the second half of the 20th Century, an outside observer might think the whole country was suffering from a prolonged psychotic episode. Appropriately enough, Adam Roberts pretty much makes that the subject matter of this timely, and often very entertaining novel.
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VINE VOICEon 19 April 2009
Although technically it could be classed as sf, `Yellow Blue Tibia' isn't perhaps a characteristically science fictional novel. Set in Soviet Russia, its narrator hero is Skrovecky, one of a group of Russian sf writers who are given a strange task by Stalin: to write a compelling piece of science fiction describing an alien invasion of Earth. Decades later it seems that the group's `story' is coming true and Skrovecky is caught up in a series of increasingly surreal and complex events as he tries to work out what is really going on, and becomes aware of an array of multiplying realities. A few things puzzled me - for example, in a novel whose linguistic self-consciousness is ever present (most obviously in its title), why did two characters discuss the double meanings of `bluff' (p.190) as though these ambiguities were present in the Russian, as well as the English, language? The novel's many shifts and tricks perhaps prevent the reader getting fully involved in the story, but `Yellow Blue Tibia' is certainly a remarkably impressive, clever, playful book which recalls, by turns, Kurt Vonnegut, Samuel Beckett and Philip K Dick.
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on 20 June 2011
Yellow Blue Tibia

Well, I was sucked in by several aspects of this book. A couple of people had recommended it or had suggested that it was well worth the read. The premise was sufficiently quirky and engaging that I felt it worthy of my time and the paperback cover was seriously eyecatching ("A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" played the same trick on me. Shallow? Me?).

The story is well covered in the blurb and other reviews, so I won't waste space on recounting that for you. The setting is (mostly) in mid '80's Russia (Moscow & Kiev) which adds some novelty to the affair and the plot follows a Russian science fiction writer as he uncovers a UFO conspiracy that he was in part responsible for starting. The cause of the Challenger shuttle and Chernobyl disasters are laid at the feet of his fictional (or are they non-fictional?) aliens and interestingly the Church of Scientology gets a look in as well.

Yes, it's a diverting story. Yes, the characters are interesting (I can only agree with a fellow reviewer that Saltykov, with his "syndrome", deserved a novel all to himself). Yes the plot is engaging and intriguing. Yes it's really well written (I can't agree with another reviewer about the authenticity of the Russian language - I have no expertise in the matter, but the majority of readers will share my handicap and are unlikely to be disturbed by the linguistic nuances). so on. This is a book that really should have worked.

Unfortunately, for me, it didn't. I found the plot horribly confusing (and confused) and by the time I reached the last page, the only aspect of the story that really got resolved was the title. Questions remained (for me) unanswered... Were the aliens real? If so, what did they want and why? What was Frankel and Skvorecky's part in the development of the events? ...and others that would be spoilers if I listed them here.

Perhaps the book needs another reading and maybe things would be clearer, but all in all, I found this deeply unsatsifying - a little like finishing the first two courses of a 3-course gourmet meal, only to be told that the desert is off the menu after all.

In my opinion, if you took out the UFO/conspiracy theory element and simply presented the characters and settings as a "slice of Russian life", this would be a novel well worth reading and if you try to read it as it stands but on those terms alone, then yes it's worth a go. As sci-fi though, despite the promising premise, it falls flat for me.
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on 25 September 2011
I'd not come across Roberts' work before, but it didn't take long to realise that this chap can write. Narrated in Skvorecky's first person viewpoint, the character is beautifully realised - right down to the odd Russian contradictions such as his (completely understandable) world-weary cynicism, along with the touching belief in love. The book recounts Skvorecky's adventures leading up to the Chernobyl disaster and how an encounter with a couple of American Scientologists changed his life.

Roberts deftly portrays a Russia suffering a crisis of confidence with everyone scrabbling to cope with Gorbachev's cataclysmic changes involving perrestoika against a backdrop of crumbling Communism. It isn't a pretty picture - especially filtered through the viewpoint of an aging, burnt out ex-alcoholic. By rights it should be unremittingly grim enough to make the likes of Dan Simmons and Roger Levy look pink n'fluffy in comparison. However Roberts leavens the underlying awfulness of his subject matter and backdrop by dollops of humour, to the extent there are laugh-aloud moments in this book. I found myself chuckling during Skvorecky's interrogation when the official questioning him gets in a muddle as to when the tape is turned off and on.

The book veers from moments of acute danger, high farce and reflections on the dreadful circumstances within a couple of pages without jolting the reader out of the story. It takes a writer at the height of his powers to pull this off. And Roberts really does flex his `show off' muscle in this book - the narrative voice denoting English as a second language, complete with amusing puns and odd confusions; Skvorecky's entirely believable transformation from a miserably cynical has-been to someone a lot more hopeful and proactive; the swooping changes of mood from moments of high drama to farce... But then, if I could write like this, I'd probably be performing the literary equivalent of dizzying pirouettes, too.

Interestingly, science fiction as a genre and belief system comes under close examination in the book, right from when Stalin decides that aliens should make the next unifying threat to keep Mother Russia together. Skvorecky maintains his belief throughout that alien abductions and spaceships do not exist - that even when he was a respected science fiction author, he did not believe in such things. Science fiction becomes a metaphor for a population's credulous belief in things without any proper foundation. Or does it? Roberts plays the sorts of games with the reader that we are more used to seeing from the literary end of the spectrum, such as providing us with an unreliable narrator. Generally I have limited patience with such gimmicks - but then they are often employed by authors who don't possess Roberts' skill and humour.

Any niggles? Nope. Not a single one. I've read reviews that have grumbled that some of the interesting issues raised in the book are not fully developed - but that's FINE with me. This is a piece of fiction designed to entertain. In addition, Roberts has also chosen to give us food for thought along the way - what he didn't do was to hold up the narrative pace to extend those reflections beyond their use in the story. A writer that - despite his stylist flourishes - puts the needs of the reader above his own hubris. Hallelujah! In short (in case it's already escaped your attention) I think that this is a superb, funny, sharp read by a clever author who knows exactly where he's going... Go on - track it down, you be thanking me if you do.

And if you're scratching your head about the odd title - apparently the Russian phrase Ya lyublyU tebyA, meaning I love you, sounds roughly like yellow, blue tibia.
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on 11 January 2011
Style: it is so mind blowingly well written that I stopped reading to pause in awe on several occasions.

Plot: weak by istelf, it is rescued by its outlandish crazyness, clever - if a bit overdone - structure and, of course, style. You wouldn't think a plot could simultaneously survive a heavy use of foreshadowing, several extremely dumb serial fumbling killers, flat characters involved in multiple cliche situations that seem to come straight of 19th popular theatrical comedies... but it does: the reader is so busy marveling at the style, well at least I was, that he doesn't care.

Fun: worth a A, but hard to describe without spoiling it. Did I tell you about the style?

Problems: the cardinal sin of this book is the lack of fact checking. I have worked with Russians and couldn't help but notice several imprecisions and mistakes. While they probably won't break the suspension of disbelief of a reader who doesn't know anything about Russian behaviour or the Russian language, it broke my flow.

But the real killer was the title thing. As a polite reader, respectful of literary conventions, I was of course patiently waiting for the book's title to be explained in one the last chapters of the book. In truth, given my basic Russian knowledge, I knew what our heading was. I was just wondering _how_ the author would bring it on the table.

"The wound to the arm is a little more serious" <snip> "The tip of the blade had scratched the tibia"

Ouch, it does indeed hurt! But a wound to the arm it ain't.

To summarize: the book started as a wild ride but its wave function collapsed suddenly, kicking me out of its alternate reality.

Read it anyway: at the risk of repeating myself, click clack, click clack, the style is amazing.
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on 2 August 2010
This is an enjoyable read. The first half of the book contains a lot of humour that is quite like the Russian humour found in the work of Vladimir Voinovich (see The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin) but, IMHO over does it a little.

The hero of this novel is a Science Fiction author who is reduced to working as a lowly translator. He fought in the Great Patriotic War and was subsequently asked, by no less a personage than Joseph Stalin, to work, in secret, with a number of other Science Fiction authors, to produce the story of an attack on Earth by aliens from outer space. This collaboration is started shortly after WWII and is not a very long lived venture.

The story then leaps to the 1980s and we are provided with details of what was really behind the disaster at Chernobyl.

The first three quarters of this novel could be considered plausable, or the incredulous elements could be explained away by rational explanation. The final quarter is a different matter.

I have heard great things about the work of Adam Roberts, but this book has not encouraged me to rush out and grab another by him. Luckily, the version I have contains the first chapter of his next book, [The New Model Army], so I can sample that before handing out cash.

A good read, but not a must read.
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Heard this book referred to as "the best Science Fiction book of the year and worthy of the Booker Prize" - or words to that effect. Although no sci-fi aficionado I was intrigued....

Yellow Blue Tibia only loosely falls into the science fiction genre. It is in essence an alternative history of the Soviet Union. Konstantin Skvorecky and a group of fellow writers are brought together by Stalin and tasked with constructing a convincing alien plot. It had to be a serious threat that could be told to the people. After working cooperatively on this they were then told to forget all they had done there on pain of death and were sent on their different ways.

Years later when Skvorecky is working as a translator strange things begin to happen - and it seems that the story concocted by sci-fi writers appears to be coming true.

The strength of the book lies in its humour and quirky dialogue while at the same time raising questions of truth, belief and and reality. He raises the need for an enemy or a serious threat in order to galvanise the population - very prescient in a world of dodgy dossiers and alleged weapons of mass destructions.

My favourite scene was when Konstantin is confronted in a Moscow street by two KGB men threatening to kill him. Passers-by think that something is about to be sold and begin to form a queue hoping that there may be oranges or vodka on offer!
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on 10 April 2011
Best part of this book is one wonderful character, not the main one, but the taxi driver, Saltykov, with his "syndrome". How wonderfully interesting it would be to spend time with such a man. Whether I would be patient enough I doubt though! I enjoyed the beginning and the end, but I thought the book was probably too long with large sections basically just padding the story out. I did like some of the ideas presented at the end covering multiple universes, but essentially am left with the feeling that this is a science fiction story where the author decided to hide all of his good ideas. It is a long time since I've read much science fiction, and this makes me wary of returning to what was at one time my favourite genre.
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on 5 July 2010
Yellow Blue Tibia is one of those wonderful books that transcends genre and yet leaves you knowing a lot more about the genre that it leaves behind. It's a science fiction, yes. But it's also not really. It's a philosophical thriller. But also a love story. It's a mockery of Bond and Bourne. And it's about the power and manipulation of thoughts and belief.

At the centre is a curmudgeonly yet beguiling narrator, Konstantin, who is a perplexed OAP stumbling through a new mystery around the existence of UFOs - based on a novel he concocted with peers on Stalin's behalf several decades before. It takes him into the presence of an obese American believer and her escort, a possible KGB agent, another dimension and Chernobyl.

The plot is linear, the atmosphere and setting isn't, and that's what makes the novel so fun. You understand on what level what is going on while being completely confused and awaiting the next reveal on another level. Konstantin's voice is dry, witty, real and sarcastic, and he begins to make you chuckle and then belly laugh at some of his thoughts and observations. You start off almost indifferent to him - by the end, you're terribly fond of the old bugger!

I found myself liking the book while I read it, enjoying the 'meta' plot, and since finishing it, have thought about the book often, which has elevated it even more in my opinion. It's a book I have recommended to friends who like sci-fi and friends who like Cold War spy novels, and those who like 'literature'. It makes a great gift! I recommend giving it a whirl as I think most readers will be pleasantly surprised.
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