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Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
Price: £10.20

4.0 out of 5 stars Telling tales..., 27 Mar. 2015
In her afterword, Margaret Atwood describes this book as a collection of nine 'tales', evoking "the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales". She suggests that while the word 'story' can cover true life or realism, 'tales' can only be seen as fiction. Hmm...this seems like a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card to allow the author to make her characters dance to the puppeteer's strings rather than attempting to invest them with a feeling of emotional truth, but then I'm not a huge fan of the trend towards mimicry of folk tales in general. Certainly the tales that worked best for me in this book were the ones where, regardless of the fantastical elements of the plots, the characters' thoughts and reactions came over as 'real'.

There's a general theme through most of the tales, not so much of ageing itself, but of elderly people reviewing episodes in their youth and of the reader seeing how their lives were affected by them. Most of the time those episodes involve failed romantic or sexual relationships and, while as individual stories they are for the most part interesting, I found, as I often do with collections with such a strong theme running through, that it became a little repetitive and tedious after a while.

The quality of the prose, however, is excellent and, taken alone, some of the stories are highly entertaining. Perhaps in line with Atwood's desire for these to read like folk tales, there's something of a detached feeling about the narrative voice in many of them - a glibness that takes on an almost sneering tone at times, leading, I found, to a distance between reader and character which effectively prevented me from feeling much emotional investment in their fates. To compensate, many of them are clever and imaginative, and some of the characterisation is excellent even when the emotional response to them is absent.

The collection kicks off with three linked tales, telling of a long-ago broken love affair from the perspective of the woman, the man and the 'other woman' respectively. The first of these, Alphinland, is one of the most successful in the book, with a beautifully-drawn picture of an elderly woman struggling to recover from the grief of losing her husband by a kind of active retreat into the world she creates in her own fantasy novels. Despite the fantastical elements to this tale, there is genuine warmth here as the central character faces up to the necessity of taking on tasks that had always been seen as the responsibility of her husband. Although there's a lot of humour in them, the other two tales in the trio don't work quite so well, as the fantastical elements that were done with a lot of subtlety in the first are handled more crudely, and what was left ambiguous is made a little too clear.

Other stories include a kind of mini-Frankenstein story told from the perspective of the youthful monster; a tale of a horror writer who resents sharing the royalties of his most successful story with friends from his youth, who have held him to a contract he signed long before he had ever published anything; a crooked furniture dealer who finds more than he bargained for when he buys a job-lot of storage units; and a black widow out for revenge on the man who raped her in her youth.

And two that I particularly enjoyed are:

I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth - another tale of elderly women looking back, this time at the woman Zenia who stole a man from each of them in their youth, but this one stood out because of its sympathetic portrayal of the friendship between the three women, supporting each other as age takes its toll on them.

Torching the Dusties is the last story in the book. The premise is that young people, maddened by the economic mess left them by their elders, decide those elders should no longer be allowed to live on, eating up scarce resources. It's told from the perspective of Wilma, a woman living in a retirement home, who is almost blind from macular degeneration and has the visual hallucinations that sometimes go with it. Despite its unlikeliness, Atwood manages to make the premise chillingly believable and as the story plays out, she doesn't pull any punches. It's always wise to leave the best to last, and this story went a long way to improving my opinion of the collection overall.

I'm increasingly convinced that collections often detract from, rather than enhancing, the individual stories within them - it's a rare writer who can produce enough originality to maintain a consistent standard and avoid repetition. I'm pretty sure I'd have been impressed by any of these stories had I come across them in an anthology of different authors but, collected as they are here, I found myself sighing a bit as the basic premise was recycled again and again. I admired the book more than I liked it in the end - the tales are skilfully told, but on the whole didn't engage me emotionally, and I fear I haven't been left with a burning desire to seek out more of Atwood's work.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing.


Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea
Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea
Price: £7.47

5.0 out of 5 stars Mostly brilliant..., 25 Mar. 2015
It's June 1958, and French experimental submarine the Plongeur has taken off on her maiden voyage to test her new nuclear engines and her ability to dive to depths never before reached. The small crew is supplemented by the two Indian scientists responsible for the submarine's design, and an observer, M. Lebret, who reports directly to the Minister for National Defence, Charles de Gaulle. It is soon enough after the war for resentments against those who supported the Vichy government still to be fresh, and Lebret was one such, so there are already tensions amongst those aboard. The first trial dive is a success, so the Captain gives the order to go deeper, down to the limits of the submarine's capacity. But as they pass the one thousand five hundred metre mark, disaster strikes! Suddenly the crew lose control of the submarine, and it is locked in descent position. The dive goes on... past the point where the submarine should be crushed by the pressure... and on... and on...

This is a brilliant start to a novel that remains brilliant for about two-thirds of its length and then fades a little towards the end. Undoubtedly the most original sci-fi I've read in a long time, it's a mash-up of references, both explicit and in style, not just to Jules Verne and the Captain Nemo stories, but to lots of early sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers, from Alice in Wonderland to Poe, and even to Dickens. And I'm sure a more knowledgeable sci-fi reader would pick up loads that I missed. Stylistically it reads like a book from the early twentieth century, Wells or Conan Doyle perhaps, but it has a surreal edge and a playfulness with the traditions that keeps the reader aware that it's something more than a pastiche.

And the surreality grows as the adventure progresses and the Plongeur continues its dive to depths that should have taken it through the centre of the earth and out the other side. As it gradually becomes clear to those aboard that the normal rules of physics seem no longer to apply, their reactions range from panic to getting royally drunk to religious mania, while one or two are still willing to speculate that there might be a rational explanation. Arguments begin over what can be happening and what should be done, and the crew are soon at each other's throats. And when it eventually becomes a little clearer where they might have ended up, there's a Lovecraftian feel about the Plongeur's new surroundings and the creatures it encounters there. The book contains 33 illustrations by Mahendra Singh, and even in the Kindle version they work well in adding to the ever-growing atmosphere of horror. There's much science and philosophy in the book, especially around the nature of reality and God, and even a little politics, but this too all feels deliberately off-kilter - not quite in line with the real world and therefore not to be taken too seriously.

I thought I might be hampered by not having read the original Captain Nemo stories, but for the most part I didn't feel I was, though I suspect someone familiar with those would have got more of the references. There was only one point where I felt a little lost (when we were introduced to a character and were clearly supposed to recognise him from elsewhere) and a quick look at Wikipedia's pages on Jules Verne and Captain Nemo was enough to get me back up to speed. The story moves through the Verne originals and on beyond where they finished. But Roberts is playing with Verne's world rather than retelling it, just as he is playing with the real world and science of the '50s too. In the last section he gets a bit overly philosophical and a little too clever, and also takes us into a sequence that drags a little, unlike the rapid pace of the earlier part of the book. But while I felt the ending wasn't as strong as the rest, overall I found this an exciting ride, cleverly executed and full of imagination, and with a great mix of tension, humour and horror. Highly recommended, and I'm looking forward to trying some of Roberts' other books. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St. Martin's Griffin.


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Price: £3.99

3.0 out of 5 stars More is less..., 24 Mar. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is the story of two young men in New York, from the 1930s through to the post-war period, who team up to create a comic-book superhero, The Escapist. Sammy Klayman is a second-generation American Jew, street-smart and full of big ideas. His cousin Josef Kavalier has just escaped from his hometown of Prague, now under the control of the Nazis, and where the Jewish population is beginning to feel the weight of the jackboot. Sammy's head is buzzing with comic-book stories and Joe can draw. When Sammy talks his boss into giving them a chance, The Escapist is created and the partnership of Kavalier and Clay is born.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 and has been touted as a Great American Novel. I must say both those things baffle me. There's some good stuff in here - Chabon can write, there's no doubt about that. But the book is at least a third too long, perhaps as much as half, and I felt much as I did about Telegraph Avenue, that underneath the wordy dazzle there isn't much depth. And, unlike Telegraph Avenue, the quality of writing in this one varies from sublime to extremely dull, and just occasionally all the way to ridiculous ("with skin the color of boiled newspaper" - I considered boiling a newspaper just to find out what his skin looked like, but lost the will to live before I got around to it.)

The first sections, covering Joe's escape from Prague and the two boys meeting and forming their partnership, are very enjoyable and I felt I was in for a real treat. However Chabon then drifts off into what is clearly an immensely well-researched history of the comic book industry, and falls into the trap of passing beyond interesting into info-dump territory. By the 25% mark I was seriously considering abandoning the book, but persevered to see if I could work out why it has garnered so many accolades. To be honest, I couldn't.

Joe's story, of trying to battle both American and Nazi officialdom to get his family out of Prague, should be an emotional one, but the impact of his various setbacks is engulfed by the sheer weight of words. As often happens when an author is wishing to make a point, Chabon uses Joe's unfortunate family like puppets to show the whole range of abuses the Jews suffered under Nazi rule, from the early minor restrictions of liberty to their incarceration in concentration camps, though he stops short of taking us on into the full horrors of those places. But because everything bad that happens, happens to one of his relatives, it begins to feel unreal after a while, and since we never really get to know his family as individual characters in their own right, I found myself feeling detached from their plight. Joe's own reactions to the increasing guilt and desperation he feels are much more moving, but Chabon stretches each stage out for too long, describing everything, physical or emotional, to within an inch of its life, robbing it of most of its effect.

The best sections are those where Joe and Sammy are interacting with each other. Metaphorically speaking (which I try not to do whenever possible), Joe is The Escapist and Sammy is his boy sidekick. But despite this their relationship feels authentic - their mutual regard for each other is believable and gives the book its heart. It's also via them that the most original parts of the book come through, in the descriptions of how they create and develop their comic book characters, and how Joe in particular, but with Sammy's support, uses this medium to try to shame the US into entering the war against Nazism.

Unfortunately I found the love interests of both characters less believable. Sammy takes an inordinate amount of time to work out that he's gay; one feels even in the 1940s he'd have had some idea of why he seems to be attracted to men; and, again, it feels as if Chabon is using Sammy's homosexuality to make points about the society of the time rather than it being a real, integral part of the character. And Joe's relationship with Rosa never feels as if it has any depth, somehow - in fact, Rosa, the template for Joe's creation of the superheroine Luna Moth, feels like something of a caricature herself.

There are too many points where the story feels contrived - where I found myself sighing over the obviousness of the twists. In contrast, occasional passages move beyond believability into near surreality, though never quite making it all the way there, leaving the story dangling in an awkward space between reality and fantasy. The metaphor of Joe as The Escapist is taken too far at some points, particularly in the strange and somewhat forced sequences relating to Joe's war experiences. Too often I was aware of the author's hand controlling the characters' actions to serve his own purpose, making it difficult to get a true feeling of involvement in either the characters or the story.

So strengths and weaknesses - but, for me, the weaknesses outweighed the strengths, and it felt like a mammoth struggle to reach the too tidy end. And when I had, I found that I felt the long journey hadn't really been worthwhile. 2½ stars for me, so rounded up.


Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (Unabridged)
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (Unabridged)
Offered by Audible Ltd

4.0 out of 5 stars Mixed bag..., 20 Mar. 2015
This collection of short stories turned out to be something of a mixed bag. Ranging in length from a couple of minutes to an hour and a half (I was listening rather than reading), some of the shorter ones are so fragmentary as to be rather pointless, while a couple of the longer ones feel too long for their content. However there are some excellent stories in here too and, as I'd been told by so many people, Gaiman is a wonderful narrator.

As a fairly new convert to Gaiman's work I was surprised to find that there are several stories in here that I had already come across elsewhere in other formats. This made me wonder how much new stuff there would be in the book for established fans, so it would probably be wise to check the contents list before purchasing.

There is a long introduction in which Gaiman explains the rationale for the collection. This may have been better if I'd been reading rather than listening, but on the audiobook it takes over an hour, most of which is made up of short introductions to each story explaining the inspiration for it. Some of these short introductions are as long as the stories themselves. I fear I clicked out of the introduction after 20 minutes - snippets of how a story came about because of something some bloke called Jimmy said down the pub one night failed to hold my attention. One of the drawbacks of audio is that it's not possible to scan read sections like this, as I would with a paper or e-book.

I found the first few stories quite disappointing to be honest. The title, cover and introduction had all led me to think that the stories would be dark and chilling, but a lot of them aren't. And while I think Gaiman does dark and chilling exceptionally well, I was less enamoured of his musing on the writing process by using a metaphor of making a chair, for example. I also found, and this is down to personal preference, that, of the stories I knew, I had on the whole preferred them in written format. Both Down to the Sunless Sea and The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains had worked brilliantly for me when I read them - the first as straight text and the second as a graphic novel - but didn't have quite the same effect when listening, mainly because, although Gaiman's narration was excellent, the voices didn't gel with the ones I'd heard in my head. However, where I hadn't read a story before, Click Clack The Rattle Bag, for instance, then the narration often worked superbly.

These three stories were still amongst my favourites in the collection though, and here are another few that I particularly enjoyed:

Adventure story - a son sits with his elderly mother having tea and discussing his father, now deceased. In the course of the conversation his mother reveals the story of an adventure his father once had long ago as a young man. The adventure becomes progressively more fantastical, and the appeal comes from the matter-of-fact way the mother tells it and the son's astonishment. Quite a short story this one, but cleverly done and enjoyable. I suspect the narration made this one work better than it would have on paper.

The Case of Death and Honey is a rather good spin on the Holmes stories, which provides an explanation for why the great man went off to keep bees at the end of his career. It's set in China with Holmes on the trail of the answer to the ultimate mystery, and while it is somewhat far-fetched it's well-written and interesting, and Gaiman's Holmes feels quite authentic. This is another one I had already come across elsewhere - in the Oxcrimes collection published last year.

Nothing O'Clock is a Doctor Who story and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. It fits perfectly into the Doctor Who style and Gaiman's narration of the many characters gives a unique voice to each. The story is imaginative and nicely chilling, but of course with the traditional happy ending we expect the Doctor to provide.

So quite a lot of good things in here overall, but also some that I found rather dull or a bit lightweight. A mixed bag - I'd say most readers will find some things to like in the collection but, like me, may also find there's quite a lot that leaves them a little underwhelmed. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by the publisher, Audible UK.


The Shut Eye
The Shut Eye
Price: £6.02

5.0 out of 5 stars Dark story lifted by a touch of humour..., 15 Mar. 2015
This review is from: The Shut Eye (Kindle Edition)
Little Daniel Buck ran out of his house one morning four months ago and has never been seen since. Edie Evans was older when she went missing several months earlier, nearly a teenager, but the signs are even more sinister in her case, since blood was found beside her broken and abandoned bicycle. Edie's case still haunts DCI John Marvel, especially since he has convinced himself that she is still alive. In fact, so desperate had he become that he even put aside all his disbelief and cynicism and consulted a psychic. But to no avail, and the case is now officially classed as 'cold'. But when Marvel begins to suspect a tenuous link between the two very different disappearances, he's willing to clutch at any straw to have it reopened...

Belinda Bauer has the rare talent amongst crime writers of achieving a near perfect balance of light and shade, so that her books are always hugely entertaining even when they are addressing some pretty grim and disturbing subjects. In this book, she does this in two ways. Her third person multiple-viewpoint narration provides a tiny bit of distance between the reader and her characters, allowing her to show the emotional turmoil of losing a child without forcing the reader to spend too much time inside the bleakness of the parents' minds. She is also a mistress of the art of injecting little bits of black humour at just the right places to lift the tone without destroying the tension. Her humour is so black and so subtle, in fact, that it often feels as if it comes direct from the reader's mind rather than the author's pen, which is brilliantly disconcerting.

There are three main viewpoints in the book. James, Daniel's father, is riddled with guilt because he left open the door allowing Daniel to run off. But he's just about holding it together, providing strength and support for his distraught wife, Anna. James works in the garage across the road from his home and it was there that the last signs of Daniel were seen - his little footprints embedded in the wet cement of the new forecourt. The garage is staffed mainly by immigrants, legal and illegal, while James' boss is an unscrupulous bully. But this all-male environment gives James a kind of emotional support that helps him face things at home.

Anna is falling apart - she rarely leaves the house except to clean and polish the footprints to stop them from being worn away. Anna's story is the grimmest strand in the book - Bauer shows us the agony and guilt felt by a mother who loses her child, and when we first meet Anna we learn how close she is to complete despair and mental breakdown. But one day a flyer is put through her door for a spiritualist meeting and she is tempted to try to find out once and for all if Daniel has died.

The third viewpoint is DCI Marvel and it's in the sections relating to him that Bauer employs her humour. Marvel is a good cop, driven to succeed, but with little empathy for either the victims or his colleagues. Usually he sees each case as a competition between himself and the killer, but something about Edie has found his soft centre - maybe because she wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up, and this reminds him of his own boyhood dream. So when the Superintendent pulls him off a murder case to carry out what he sees as a trivial investigation, he's at first outraged but then decides to use it as leverage to force the Superintendent to reopen Edie's case. We also get to see Marvel's home life, and his relationship with his put-upon partner Debbie, which nicely rounds him out as a character. He loves Debbie but he clearly doesn't understand why she gets so frustrated with his behaviour. What's so odd about looking over autopsy pictures during dinner anyway?

There is a supernatural element to the book surrounding the spiritual church and the psychic involved in looking for Edie. Normally that would destroy the credibility of any book for me, but Bauer's writing is of such high quality that she carried me along and I was happy to suspend my disbelief. Marvel, too, is a cynic about such things and his down-to-earth scepticism prevents this aspect of the plot from becoming too fanciful.

Another excellent outing from Belinda Bauer, who seems to grow in skill and confidence with every book. Recently she has been producing standalones, as I believe this is, but I would be one delighted reader if she decided to bring DCI Marvel back for another case at some point - he's the kind of character who's fun to spend time with... complex, frustrating, sometimes unfeeling, but also amusing and likeable, and with a good heart. I may have to start a petition...

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.


The Winter Foundlings (Alice Quentin Book 3)
The Winter Foundlings (Alice Quentin Book 3)
Price: £3.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Baked beans and a bottle of plonk..., 14 Mar. 2015
Ten-year-old Ella Williams has been abducted and is being held prisoner. She's the third girl to go missing - the previous two have been murdered, dressed in white dresses of the kind worn by inmates of the old Foundlings Hospital, and their bodies left in cardboard boxes. The murders mirror those of psychopathic killer Louis Kinsella, now a resident in Northwood - a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane - and each time a victim is killed, the killer sends a token to Kinsella. Time is running out for Ella, and it's up to psychologist Alice Quentin to get inside Kinsella's mind and find out what he knows before it's too late.

This is the third in the Alice Quentin series, and I've enjoyed the previous ones. As before, Alice is a likeable protagonist and Rhodes is very strong at creating a sense of place. In this one, Alice has moved away from central London to take up a research post at Northwood. It is nearly Christmas and England is in the grip of a huge freeze, and Rhodes gives a very good sense of snow and ice adding difficulties to all parts of the investigation.

Unfortunately the plot doesn't match up to the atmosphere. It's so similar to The Silence of the Lambs that comparisons must be made, and they don't work in this one's favour. Kinsella is no Hannibal Lecter and Alice is a pale shadow of Clarice Starling. The story is split between Alice's first person past tense narrative and Ella's story, told as third person present tense. There's really very little to the plot - psychopathic killer copycatting another one, investigation wears on with nothing much happening till the big (unbelievable) thriller ending. So the book is padded out with Alice's social life - she keeps telling us she's working every hour to save poor Ella (quietly freezing and starving away in the background) but she manages to fit in three parties, several nights in the pub and a couple of love interests - all this in the space of a couple of weeks. No wonder she's emotionally drained.

Don, the detective in charge of the case and, of course, one of the love interests, has to be made to look incredibly stupid to explain why he doesn't do basic things, like interview the staff at Northwood (his reason being they must have been vetted before they got the job, so they can't possibly be doing anything wrong, can they?), or not searching places because the owners tell him there's no need. It galls me when the police are made to look incompetent for no reason other than to string a story out.

And I'm afraid I also found the ages of the victims made the plot distasteful. Why it should feel worse to read about a five-year old child being cruelly abused and murdered than a twenty-year-old-girl, I'm not sure. I reckon we have it programmed into our genes that we owe more protection to the young, even when they're fictional. But whatever the reason, it left a very unpleasant after-taste. Without wishing to get too psychobabbly, somehow descriptions of abuse and violence in a book that is trying to say something meaningful about a serious subject are bearable. But when they're done purely for 'entertainment', I don't find them so. And this book falls into the latter category.

Personally, I think the serial killer motif has been done now, and child-killing serial killers especially so. But hey! As I usually do, I've had a look to see what other people are saying and the book is getting 5-star reviews all round, so I guess it must be me! There's no doubt it's well written in terms of characterisation and atmosphere, so I guess if this is the kind of thing you like, then you'll like this. 2½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin's Press.


Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
Price: £4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars "Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end." Spock, 11 Mar. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Here we are back in our dystopian world of mid-20th century nightmares, when man has destroyed the planet in yet another global nuclear conflict. Most of the remaining humans have been persuaded to emigrate to other worlds, bribed with the promise of their own android if they go. Back on earth, the remaining population lives with the constant fear of infertility or worse, as a result of the radiation that covers the planet's surface. Most animals have died and it has become a status symbol to keep a live pet. But these are hard to come by and expensive so some people keep electric pets instead - so well designed they are indistinguishable from the real thing without close examination. On these pets, real or fake, people pour out their feelings of empathy, feelings boosted by the Empathy Box - a machine that brings all humanity together to share in the suffering of their religious prophet, William Mercer.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, hunting down androids who have escaped from the offworld colonies and returned to Earth. Rick owns his own electric sheep, his live one having died. He dreams of one day having another live animal to care for. As the book begins, he has been given the task of destroying a group of six of the latest model androids, so convincing it's almost impossible to tell them apart from humans. In fact the only test that works is one that measures lack of empathy - thus making this the characteristic that most defines humanity. If Rick manages to 'retire' all six androids, the bounty money will let him buy a real animal to cherish.

I've read this book three times now and each time I come away with the same feeling. It's very readable, has some interesting ideas and the characterisation of Rick is excellent. But fundamentally the book makes no sense. There are so many inconsistencies in it that I always come out of it wondering what message exactly Dick was trying to send. The thing is I know what he was trying to say, because he explained it in interviews - he was saying that no matter how humanoid the androids appeared, they were still soulless and heartless, but that the very task of hunting and destroying such human-like beings puts Rick's own humanity at risk. Unfortunately that doesn't come out as the message in the book. I can't help sympathising with the androids. They are created as superior beings then sold to be slaves (and Dick makes explicit reference to pre-Civil War slavery) performing domestic and agricultural chores. When they rebel, they are hunted down and killed. Humans on the other hand rely on machines not just to give them empathy but to control their moods. Seems to me that there's very little left of humanity in the humans at all.

Mostly what the book provokes in me is a series of unanswered questions:

Why do the androids return to Earth knowing they will be hunted - why not go elsewhere when they escape?

Why have humans given up all their existing religions and taken up Mercerism? And what is the point of Mercerism? As religions go, it's a particularly depressing one.

Why have some people decided to stay on Earth? There's little prospect of it recovering in the foreseeable future, and they will eventually get sick and die.

Why are the humans so freaked about the androids - they don't seem to do much harm except when enslaved or attacked. One of them has actually become an opera star - well, OK, soprano opera singers are a pestilence, I admit, but even so...

And the most basic question of all...

If humans are freaked by androids that are so human-like they can't be told apart from the real thing, then... why make them???

Perhaps I've been spoiled by all the subsequent brilliant exploration of what it means to be human via the world's greatest android, (no, not Marvin!), Commander Data. But I suspect Data owes his existence more to Asimov's robots than Dick's androids, and personally I think Asimov's robots were the superior creation.

So while the book is an enjoyable read, and one I'd recommend because of its status as a classic of the genre, it's lack of internal logic always prevents me from thinking of it as a truly great one.


Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece
Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece
Price: £11.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Looking beneath the mythology..., 9 Mar. 2015
Not so long ago, I re-read 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' for the first time since childhood, and came away from it puzzled as to why, firstly, it has such a reputation as a literary masterpiece and, secondly, and more importantly, it is seen as a great anti-slavery/anti-racist tract. My own feeling was that the portrayal of the slaves was hardly one that inspired me to think the book was in any way a clarion call for recognition of racial equality - I said "...the slaves really do come off as almost terminally stupid. It felt almost as if Twain was really highlighting something more akin to animal cruelty than endorsing any suggestion of true equality between the races, and as a result it left me feeling quite uncomfortable." The blurb for 'Huck Finn's America' promised that Levy would be taking a fresh look at the book, arguing that "Twain's lifelong fascination with minstrel shows and black culture inspired him to write a book not about civil rights, but about race's role in entertainment and commerce, the same features upon which much of our own modern consumer culture is also grounded." As you can imagine, I was predisposed to find his arguments persuasive.

Andrew Levy is Edna Cooper Chair in English at Butler University, Indianapolis, and it's clear that he knows his subject thoroughly. He also has the gift of writing in a style that is enjoyable and easily accessible to the non-academic reader. His position is that 'Huck Finn' must be seen through the double prism of Twain's own experiences and the questions that were exercising society at the time he was writing, so the book has elements of biography as well as literary criticism, and also takes an in-depth look at the cultural and political debates that were going on in the public arena.

The other main aspect of 'Huck Finn' is, of course, childhood, and here Levy argues that, rather than being some great paean to the joys of a childhood freed from the constraints of education, it is actually a reflection of the concern of society around bad-boy culture. He looks at contemporaneous news reporting to show that there was a huge debate going on around adolescent criminality, and the state's role in tackling this through education. There was concern that boys' behaviour was being influenced by the pulp fiction of the day, that bad parenting was a contributing factor, and there was a split between those who believed that more regimentation in education was the cause or the cure. If this all sounds eerily familiar, Levy suggests that is partly Twain's point - that history goes round in circles - nothing ever really changes because man's nature remains the same.

And, in Levy's opinion, Twain is saying something similar about race. He is making the point that emancipation had failed to achieve its aims at the time he was writing. Slavery may have been nominally abolished, but black men are being imprisoned in their thousands for minor criminality and then being hired out as labour for pennies. The Jim Crow laws are on the near horizon - segregation in the South is well under way. Levy suggests that the problematic last section of the book, where Tom keeps Jim imprisoned despite knowing that he is now a free man, should be seen as a satire on the status of black people nearly thirty years after emancipation.

However, while Levy accepts Twain's anti-racist stance in this last section, he also shows convincingly that much of the rest of the portrayal of race in the book comes out of Twain's nostalgic love for the minstrel shows of his youth. Thus Jim is not exactly a representative of 'real' black people, so much as the caricatured version of the blacked-up minstrels. Levy tells us that in the early days of minstrelsy, in Twain's childhood, the shows were less racist than they became later, and often were in fact used as vehicles for some fairly liberal views. But he also makes it clear that Twain was trying to recapture the 'fun' of this form of entertainment. He suggests that this aspect of the book would have been recognisable to contemporary audiences but, because minstrelsy has now become such a taboo subject, is generally missed by readers today.

Tying these arguments together, the fact that contemporary audiences would have recognised Huck as a 'bad boy' would have made it much more acceptable to associate him with a black man - both were seen as low down on the social scale, primitive even, and quite probably criminal. Levy acknowledges Twain's intellectual anti-racism in his later years, but suggests that he retained a nostalgia for the slave-holding world of his childhood and always continued to think of black people as being there to 'serve' him. Rather than a call for equality, Twain was using black culture to entertain white people, and only those from the Northern states at that. And again Levy makes the point that black culture is often adopted by white people in much the same way still - as Twain suggested, history is a circle.

I found this a very well-written and interesting book. Already having doubts about the extravagant claims made for Twain's anti-racist credentials, I admit that part of my enjoyment was because it gives a solidly researched and explained base to my own instinctive reservations about 'Huck Finn'. That's not to suggest that Levy is doing some kind of hatchet job on either Twain or 'Huck' - he clearly greatly admires both the man and the book. But he has brushed aside some of the mythology that has grown up around it over the last century and put it firmly back into its own context. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.


J: A Novel
J: A Novel
Price: £9.41

4.0 out of 5 stars "Equipoise of hate...", 7 Mar. 2015
This review is from: J: A Novel (Kindle Edition)
Set in a near-future society, this is superficially the story of two misfits who fall in love. But the society, a kind of benign dystopia, is one trying to find ways to prevent 'what happened, if it happened' from ever happening again. And whatever happened, happened as a result of anti-Semitism, which is the real subject of the book.

After what happened, all people have been given Jewish surnames, the study of history is strongly discouraged, art has been restricted to the inoffensive and unchallenging, and people are encouraged to go through a ritual of saying sorry, even when they can't think of anything they need to be sorry about. All of this is designed to prevent the build-up of the kind of antagonism that led to what happened. Although the convention is to say 'what happened, if it happened', it's pretty clear that something violently horrific did happen, but it happened mainly in the cities and our story is set in a small village on the coast, possibly of Cornwall, where probably no-one was directly involved. The problem is that the plan doesn't seem to be working so well - husbands and wives are becoming violent towards each other, friends and acquaintances are brutalising each other, and murder is on the rise. And our two main protagonists, Kevern and Ailinn, feel out of place - Kevern irrationally, (perhaps), fearful each time he leaves home that someone will break in, and Ailinn haunted by dreams in which she plays the part of the whale constantly running from an undefined Ahab.

This is an odd book that so very nearly works brilliantly, but just misses. The structure is unbalanced - the entire first half is filled with allusion and mystery with the reader struggling, somewhat like the characters, to work out what happened and why the society isn't working. The second half clarifies everything, but almost becomes too clear - it begins to feel a bit like a political statement rather than a novel in parts. I found it a little problematic in that, in its desire to show the repeating horrors of anti-Semitism, it comes close to suggesting that there are only two types of people in the world - Jews and those who hate them. Anti-Gentilism? The suggestion seems to be that, in order to maintain an equilibrium in society, we must have someone to hate, and it's easier to hate someone to whom we have already done wrong, hence the Jews are the eternal target. It is satirical, but somehow not quite satirical enough to justify the over-simplification of the message.

The quality of the prose is excellent, and in the early part Jacobson has a good deal of fun with today's popular culture, from jazz being banned because improvisation should be discouraged, to artists being encouraged to paint only pretty landscapes. But the humour doesn't always fit well with the overall tone, and the satire becomes rather unsubtle as the book progresses. The characterisation has a feeling of unreality about it - each one feels more like a representation of a part of this society rather than a real person. This works fine in the context of the book, but it prevents the reader from feeling much emotional involvement with the two lead characters. In fact, given the subject matter, the balance of the book is surprisingly weighted away from emotionalism towards a colder intellectualism - though this is not a bad thing, I feel.

The ambiguity of the first half worked better for me than the more didactic second half. The government is invisible, represented only by those who spy on others. But there is a pervading feeling that everyone is being monitored and that even the smallest infractions of the new social code will be punished, though how is left deliberately vague - that very vagueness being the most sinister aspect of it. There are shades of Brave New World here, in the way the people are controlled via seemingly benign means to keep them happy; and of 1984, in the suppression and distortion of history and truth. Although ultimately this book doesn't have quite the profundity or power of either of these, it's still an interesting and thought-provoking read that deserves its place on last year's Booker shortlist.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.


MONEY TREE
MONEY TREE
Price: £2.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!, 2 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: MONEY TREE (Kindle Edition)
When journalist Ted Saddler writes an article suggesting that the People's Bank in India is ripping off the poorest people in the country, he is approached by Erin, an executive with a big American bank, who suggests he's been fed false information and should do a bit of digging. A former Pulitzer winner, Ted is now middle-aged, world-weary and happy to be a desk journalist, but something about Erin's story intrigues him. When his boss decides he should go to India to follow the story, he soon finds his views changing, as he meets the head of the bank and some of the people it has helped. Meantime, at his request, Erin is working with a hacker friend of Ted to investigate the head of her own bank, who she believes is behind the attacks on the People's Bank. Cut in with this main strand is the story of Anila, a young woman from a village where the people live hand to mouth, who decides to ask for a loan from the Bank to set up her own little business.

The book follows a fairly traditional thriller format of goodies against baddies leading to a spectacular climax, but the quality of Ferris' writing lifts it well above average. There's a strong political message in the book, about how the poor of the third world are pawns in the power games of their own politicians and the rich and influential institutions of the West. Western banks and the World Bank don't come out of the story well - actually that's an understatement. They're shown as corrupt from the top down and run on the whole by maniacal, amoral power-junkies, while the People's Bank is shown to be an altruistic venture run solely for the purpose of supporting micro-businesses to help the poor rise out of their destitution. To be honest, I thought this aspect was all a bit too clear-cut - in reality, the situation on both sides is considerably more complex than I felt Ferris showed. However, it's difficult to fully explore a political argument within the context of a thriller so some degree of over-simplification is probably necessary.

The characterisation is excellent, despite being based on the cliché of the has-been journalist inspired by an attractive woman to take up the good fight. Both Ted and Erin are likeable and their growing appreciation for each other as the story progresses is well done. The story of Anila and the villagers is interesting and Ferris gives a real sense of life in a place left behind and almost destroyed by the march of so-called progress. We see Anila's life both from her own perspective and also through the eyes of Ted and Erin, which gives a rounded picture of how different and almost incomprehensible the lives of each are to the other.

Since the heart of the book is in the highly technological banking industry, the action is as likely to involve IT shenanigans as guns (though guns feature too - fear not, my bloodthirsty friends!) and this gives the book a feeling of freshness and originality. Ted's friend Oscar and his gang of hackers provide some light relief as they don their online personas and ride off to battle in the warzones of the dark net. The plot is not about the who - we know from the beginning who the baddies are. It's about whether Ted and Erin will be able to bring the baddies down in time to save the People's Bank - and themselves.

Overall, I feel the book starts a bit slowly but gradually builds up the pace till by the end it races along. The traditional thriller ending is enlivened by the technological element, which Ferris explains well enough for even the least nerdy person to follow. I understand from the bumph on the Amazon page that this is to be the first in a new 'Only Human' series from Gordon Ferris, which will be 'fast paced stories tackling some of today's global challenges'. I'll certainly be signing up for the next adventure. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.


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