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Jason Mills "jason10801" (Accrington, UK)
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We (Momentum Classic Science Fiction)
We (Momentum Classic Science Fiction)
Price: £0.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Dystopia served cold and fast., 3 Jun. 2016
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"We" dates from 1924 and if it didn't 'inspire' "1984" then it was certainly part of literature's biggest coincidence...

In a distant future where lives are highly regimented by the ominous Well-Doer, our narrator, D-503, writes a diary to inform other worlds of the beauty of his rational society. He is building the Integral, a spaceship that will carry his society's wisdom to the stars. But D encounters I-330, a woman whose maverick ways exert an unfathomable influence on him, and revolution is in the air.

Zamyatin makes good use of the diary format: our narrator is at least as surprised by unfolding events as we are, and often lapses into incoherence. He does not think to explain technologies and practices that tantalise the reader (how does an aero fly? is every building entirely transparent?), nor do we learn what is unknown to him (just what ARE they doing in those tunnels?). The story rattles along, deftly serving up its subversive political message through action and inner turmoil.

The future, like all futures, is quaintly of its time: the spaceship sits somewhere between Jules Verne and Flash Gordon, students must plug in their electric lecturer, and the supreme technology of this surveillance society does not stretch to CCTV. More curious still is the imagery: "A glance at the mirror revealed my distorted, broken eyebrows"; "her knees... were like a... permeating poison". I'm not sure whether to attribute these and other peculiar usages to the depicted culture, the narrator's idiosyncrasy, the author's style or the translator's best endeavour; but they certainly make for original prose.

This is a livelier, simpler read than Orwell's take on a similar dystopia, less grim if no less bleak. Its influence on the flavour of rebellion-themed fictions like "Brave New World", "Planet of the Apes" and even "Star Wars" is clear, but this is the pure fresh stream, still refreshing and still shockingly cold. The Soviets knew what they were about in banning it.


Angelica Lost and Found
Angelica Lost and Found
by Russell Hoban
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Mad as a fish, but more fun., 16 May 2016
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This ben parbly the last of Hoban's novels, so I'd been hoarding it, and I'm pleased to report it's quite decent. His later novels, mostly London-based, have rambled amiably through galleries, museums and mythology, and have sometimes ended up forgettably insubstantial. (In this book's afterword Hoban says he writes without a plan.) "Angelica Lost and Found" won't change the world, but it's a satisfying yarn.

The novel begins in the same mythic territory that launched "Angelica's Grotto", the story of Ruggiero rescuing the eponymous maiden bound to the rock (of her beauty, Hoban cleverly adds). Our (first) narrator is Volatore, who introduces himself (Pilgermannishly) as Ruggiero's hippogriff, who has himself developed the hots for Angelica. Voyaging through time and space, he comes across her (literally...) in modern-day San Francisco; but even in our supposedly enlightened times it is frowned upon for a woman to take up with a mythological steed. How will they find a way to be together that is acceptable to polite society?

Hoban hops cheerfully, if sometimes a little confusingly, between several narrators. Whilst his text is much concerned with the nature of attraction and peppered with artistic references, his tone is always engaging and frequently amusing, and his choppy chapters guarantee a lively read. If he didn't quite go out on a high, at least he went out on a hippogriff.

Perhaps, when Drop John's riding on my back and I take the chimpanzee's hand, I can swim towards the golden-green light, tread the Trokeville Way, pass through the hidden lion and meet Mr Hoban beyond the last visible dog, there to sing to him through the head of a cabbage about what a treat his books were. Nnvsnu! Tsrungh!


The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
by JoŽl Dicker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

3.0 out of 5 stars Long and flat, 24 April 2016
Golden-boy writer Marcus Goldman wants to prove his mentor Harry Quebert innocent of a murder that took place 30 years ago. His investigation in small-town America is convoluted, and further complicated by his writing a book about it at the same time.

When I began reading this, it was the book du jour that everyone was whooshing through in a couple of days, but I didn't find it very page-turny, hence the loooooong read time. The prose is so plain that it seems almost intentionally boring (surely not the translator's fault, it's too unremitting). Likewise, the characters are cardboard cut-outs, and I couldn't give a monkey's about any of 'em. The plot is the only attraction here, and that too I found laboured and long-winded. The denouement came in a rush and required far too many untelegraphed revelations, so that there was no satisfaction of discovery in this reader, only an oh-really shrug.

A further problem is that most of the book is Goldman's narrative in first person, but there are third person sections describing the events around the time of the murder. It's never made explicit whether these are 'documentary' interruptions to Goldman's narrative, provided by the author, or factional reconstructions of events by Goldman himself. This bears on what authority the reader invests in those sections. If, as seems intended, we view them as Goldman's inventions, then we're obliged to doubt their content, since they're filled with details about which he could only speculate. Thus, we still don't know at the end if his version of events is remotely correct.

There's some macho Hemingwayish posturing about writing and boxing, some gimmicky structuring; but basically the novel is like all the mid-season "Twin Peaks" episodes, where David Lynch wasn't at the helm: complicated, far-fetched and parochial soap opera about nothing in particular.


Looking Backward 2000-1887
Looking Backward 2000-1887
Price: £0.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting old-fashioned futurology, a bit lacking in thrills., 25 Mar. 2016
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A nineteenth-century curio, this book presents a vision of twenty-first century society as an egalitarian state of common endeavour in which all industry is nationalised, all 'salaries' equal, and all competition and want eliminated. Our hero Rip-Van-Winkles his way to the future, engages in endless discussions with his benign host and, after a series of no adventures at all, wins the love of that gentleman's daughter.

Passing over the risible premise and slender story, what of the main course, the envisaged society? Much of what Bellamy presents is interesting and thought-provoking. For instance, the state tweaks the weekly hours of labour required in each industry so as to attract sufficient numbers of workers: sewer-cleaners might work just an hour a week. (That this future world still necessitated some drudgery and monotony apparently prompted William Morris to respond with his own utopia, "News from Nowhere".) Meals are served in private rooms of communal dining-houses, goods are ordered from Argos-like warehouses. Industries are led by time-served workers or retirees elected by their peers, and the nation's leader is chosen by similar means, supposedly ensuring that he (yes, 'he', though he has one woman in his cabinet) is wise, diligent and benign. Everyone retires from mandatory labour at 45, retaining their income and working on whatever they fancy.

There are features of this society to raise the modern eyebrow:

* Female citizens of this meh-topia are equal in Bellamy's eyes, less so in mine: they're given jobs in "lighter occupations", and the esteem of these fair flowers is the reward for which young men work so hard: men who are lazy failures end up celibate. (Mind you, the "most careful provision for... [women's] rest when needed" may be a coded but enlightened reference to PMT!)

* High positions in the female workforce are reserved for "wives and mothers, as they alone fully represent their sex." Sorry, Germaine.

* Marriage matches unhindered by class considerations mean that "sexual selection" can "let the inferior types drop out", which, piling up the implausibilities, has resulted in widespread "physical superiority" in just two or three generations.

* "The only coin current is the image of God" (the christian one, obvs) and the text appears unaware of sex or relationships outside marriage, let alone homosexuality.

* He who chooses not to work "is sentenced to solitary imprisonment on bread and water", while if a man accused pleads innocence and is found guilty "his penalty is doubled".

* Though the author's pondering on social organisation is (nonetheless) fruitful, his technological imagination is limited: he just about envisions live music streaming (classical of course), but expects orders for goods to be received and despatched via tubes...

Perhaps the biggest problem with Bellamy's dream is that he provides no real route for getting there: social difficulties simply reach a critical mass and a glorious future unfolds.

What lifts the book a little above merely interesting are the eloquent and impassioned passages towards the end, in which first a sermonising pastor and then the narrator himself excoriate the injustice, poverty and waste of the capitalist nineteenth century. These powerful sections fairly locate the book in a progression with the respective roars of Dickens, Mayhew and, say, Upton Sinclair. How disappointed Mr Bellamy might be, then, if he too, like his protagonist, woke up in the twenty-first century, but only to find most of his outrage still applicable...


The Golden Bowl - Complete
The Golden Bowl - Complete
Price: £0.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent achievement, turgid read., 17 Mar. 2016
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This one took me forever: I read it on and off, but that's because it's hard reading. Henry James engineers mighty sentences so perfect that you could drive a train over them, but the pace of his tale makes glaciers look frantic.

The saintly Maggie and her rich, successful father are devoted to each other. They meet a Prince in Italy to whom Maggie becomes engaged. By coincidence, he's had a past affair with Maggie's friend Charlotte. The love triangle develops into a love quad-wrangle, aided by everybody's confidante, society busybody Mrs Assingham, and her pricelessly irascible husband.

A couple more sentences would suffice to convey the entire 'plot', but then this novel is not intended as a twisty thriller - or not in the conventional manner. Prefiguring stream-of-consciousness writing, James reports each focal character's every thought, with intricate psychological nuance and immaculate precision. Without a single unconsidered word, he tells the least amount of story in the greatest possible time. It's an unquestionably impressive feat, but I fear it lacks mass-market appeal...

Yet if you can keep chewing it is strangely gripping in its own way. For all that characters think and say, it is what hangs unsaid between them that fascinates them and us, as every conversation is conducted round the corners of the ever-inflating elephant in the room. Decide for yourself if you fancy tackling prose like this:
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Her father had asked her, three days later, in an interval of calm, how she was affected, in the light of their reappearance and of their now perhaps richer fruition, by Dotty and Kitty, and by the once formidable Mrs. Rance; and the consequence of this inquiry had been, for the pair, just such another stroll together, away from the rest of the party and off into the park, as had asserted its need to them on the occasion of the previous visit of these anciently more agitating friends—that of their long talk, on a sequestered bench beneath one of the great trees, when the particular question had come up for them the then purblind discussion of which, at their enjoyed leisure, Maggie had formed the habit of regarding as the "first beginning" of their present situation.
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And if you're happy to overlook this:
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...the vendor of the golden bowl had acted on a scruple rare enough in vendors of any class, and almost unprecedented in the thrifty children of Israel.
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Or vulgar enough to snigger with me at:
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...the conscious quaintness of her ricketty "growler".


Time and Time Again
Time and Time Again
by Ben Elton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Smart but perhaps pessimistic inquiry into history, 27 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Time and Time Again (Hardcover)
In the near future a long-guarded letter from Newton explains how to travel back in time to 1914. Our adventurous hero Hugh Stanton and a bunch of crusty historians decide to use the opportunity to 'rectify' the twentieth century - by preventing World War 1. The process is hindered by the unexpected actions of individuals, and the snowball effects on the new century are likewise not as intended.

Later, the book accelerates into the infinite regresses of time-travel. There are clever surprises, but the tale is startlingly bleak, artfully poised on its soon-articulated conundrum as to whether history is made by mass forces or the actions of key individuals. Here, each feeds on the other, and there is neither a clear resolution to the question nor any escape from confronting it. In Elton's reading of history, it seems that however bad things were, they were the best we could do. It's for the reader to decide if that's consoling or depressing...

Elton's prose, plot and characterisation are solid and reliable. (I had but one quibble with a time-travel detail, which isn't bad going.) In his previous outing Two Brothers I found the dialogue's idioms anachronistic; here, more care has been taken, and when modern phrasing is used it's deliberate and to good effect. Sometimes, to maintain focus, the narrative skips past things that might have benefited from more concrete realisation: rooftop escapes that would make great movie scenes are simply taken for granted, and we see nothing of our protagonist's weeks-long stay in the wilds of Scotland (surely a helicopter montage?). But there is plenty here to chew on, in both the reading experience and the thematic aftertaste.


Bald New World
Bald New World
by Peter Tieryas Liu
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3.0 out of 5 stars You certainly get your money's worth., 1 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Bald New World (Paperback)
On the first page, everyone in the world goes bald, and there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Our hero Nick is a boy at the time and we catch up with him a few decades later, now a cinematographer. His womanizing film-director buddy Larry is also heir (pun if you want it) to a huge wig-making corporation. Trouble with a North Korean femme fatalle and some high-explosive industrial espionage sets Nick on a grim journey of (self-)discovery, including some more rather too literal gnashing of teeth...

This wasn't the book I was expecting, playing out some subtle yet widening social ramifications of universal hairlessness. Instead it was a Korean movie on the page, full of extreme situations and full-on violence. Sometimes characters emerged from these episodes (such as the thing with the teeth) with implausibly little physical and mental hurt (though the dangers of mind-melding with a cricket were an interesting exception). This is curious, because the book's larger theme is the struggle to escape the cycle of harm that the past forces on us (or at least on Nick).

The writing is slick, the imagined future hip, and the narrative colourful, whilst the denouement was "Bug Jack Barron" with chopsticks. I got a little befuddled in the plot, but that may simply be because I read it disjointedly. Overall I found it a piece of fusion cooking where the ingredients didn't entirely gel; but I wouldn't be averse to eating here again.


Marl's Tale;
Marl's Tale;
Price: £2.29

3.0 out of 5 stars Pleasing and original fantasy stories, 25 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Marl's Tale; (Kindle Edition)
There are four stories in this collection, all set loosely in the same realm surrounding the city of Elmspire. The furniture is mainstream fantasy - elves, wizards, etc. - but each story has an unusual and original focus. There's an introduction explaining that these are the tales of 'Morgallan the storyteller', but this seemed an unnecessary conceit.

"Marl's Tale" itself, comprising three-fifths of the book, follows a feckless, selfish protagonist who makes a unique entrance into the narrative and has to learn to behave halfway decently. The fate of the leaderless realm falls to him and his rather wiser companions as they deal with dark assassins, wolfweres(!), a city beseiged and an opinionated pony. This is a complex, colourful tale, full of deft humour, and culminating in well-engineered cheerful mayhem. I like the casual yet economic imagery:

"Ossum nodded fiercely with the kind of look one gives when you've just stepped harshly on their toes."

The hero of "The Grey Knight" is an aging knight, coming to terms with his own irrelevance and deteriorating eyesight. Although more of a meditative ramble than a story, it's suffused with understated dignity, and all the more poignant for its autobiographical nature - discussed in the author's afterword.

"In-Between Heroes" cleverly commences at the climax of one adventure and proceeds through what should be a period of quiet recuperation before the next. Our questing adventurers mill around in the eldritch tower-fortress they've captured, encountering all manner of enchanted complications as they try to simply rest up. It's an unseen slice of adventuring life, a little baggy as a narrative, but with its own satisfying developments of plot and character.

"The Shadow Queen", the book's short coda, displays the finest prose in the collection. It's a thoughtful allegory about the necessity of darkness in our imaginations and lives.

The text features a few of the author's nifty pictures, including the obligatory fantasy map. Typos are commonplace, but fortunately they are rarely obstructive. Characters are well-drawn and interesting throughout, and the stories are neatly planned and novel. There are gags and turns of phrase that made me chortle on the bus. Given that these were written in 2000, it would be interesting to see how Freels' purposeful, good-natured and accomplished writing has developed since then.


A Tale of Two Cities
A Tale of Two Cities
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5.0 out of 5 stars One of his best: vivid and gripping., 23 Feb. 2015
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This is one of Dickens' most satisfying novels. Although there is the usual scaffolding of coincidence holding things up, it's well buried, and the narrative feels tight and structured, the humorous and macabre early scenes of the Cruncher family being the only indulgence.

From the famous opening line to the even more famous close, the writing is solid and assured. There are magnificent passages of description, such as Mr Lorry's feverish dream and the French citizens scrabbling for wine from a broken cask, an overt and beautifully apt metaphor for the blood that will run in the streets later.

There is some sentimentality in the depiction of Dr Manette's fragile mental health, and his daughter's angelic nature is a stretch; but these are minor cavils. Whilst there is some meat on the bones of Charles Darnay, and Madame Defarge is as formidable as a Bond villain, it is the dissolute Sydney Carton who is the star of the book: his keen awareness of his own failure in life is affecting and compelling.

As the story grinds to its appalling and redemptive conclusion, it carries the reader along like a doomed prisoner in a tumbril heading to the guillotine, with the inevitability of Shakespearean tragedy. Dickens' horror at the Revolution's bloodshed is balanced by his righteous fury at the universal injustice that brought it about, leading to a novel that is nigh on perfect in its (if you will) execution...


The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strange and compelling., 14 Nov. 2014
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This novel opens in hilarity, with an account by the "editor" of a Scottish laird's ill-starred marriage and the two sons it produced. The couple and the sons are alike estranged, and the sons meet as youths in animosity. This leads to a fateful encounter, whose forensic aftermath is the clumsiest and dullest stretch of the book; but a third of the way through the narrative switches to the first-person memoir of the eponymous 'sinner', which is rather more interesting.

The sinner is 'justified' in that he considers himself chosen by God, his place in heaven reserved. Consequently, all his deeds, even his crimes, must be God's will. He is encouraged in this outlook by a mysterious stranger, a diabolical double who both fascinates and manipulates him, egging him on to ever greater atrocities.

In this, the novel is a satire on Calvinist predestination, but it also partakes of the Gothic, the folktale, the psychological thriller, allegory and tragedy. The inescapable bond between the protagonist and his nemesis calls to mind "Frankenstein", "Caleb Williams", and "Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde". The ingenuous editor, the discovered manuscript and its unreliable narrator form an intriguing metafictional artifice that adds another layer of provocative doubt. The principal interest is the process by which the intelligent, well-meaning and devout confessor is brought down by his own arrogance and his interlocutor's cunning exploitation of his own logic. It's quite a novelty, both a product of its time and weirdly original.


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