6 December 2012

Review: "The Chosen Dead" by MR Hall

I should declare at the outset that I am a fan of M R Hall's series of books featuring Jenny Cooper, the Coroner for Severn Vale (and also that the publisher kindly gave me a copy of this book to review).

Cooper is one of those awkward types - not unfamiliar in crime fiction - who uses every last bit, and more, of the licence allowed by her job to investigate deaths that the powerful would prefer were quietly forgotten, always getting into deep trouble but generally finding out the truth despite everything.

At the start of this, Hall's 5th book, she has, though, calmed down a bit.  After confronting traumatic events in her own past, she no longer needs sessions with Dr Allen, or anti anxiety drugs, to cope with life, and she is also trying to mend her relationship with her son.

That's something I think that the fans of Hall's dauntless coroner had been hoping for - I know I have - given that in the previous four books she has been variously arrested, threatened, suspended from her job and had her troubled past, and her mental condition, used to try and control her.  And even when things are going well, there is always the odious Simon Moreton at the Ministry of Justice, her status-seeking consultant ex husband David and various families desperate for the truth.  Jenny's only support has often been her officer, Alison.  It soon becomes clear, though, in this book that Alison has problems of her own and this time she can only give limited help as Jenny gets caught up in another quest - I don't think this is too strong a word - not for justice, but simply for the truth - the  only thing she can give a bereaved family.  After a young girl does of meningitis Jenny sets off again, inspired by, of all people David, to expose, if she can a hospital cover up.  At the same time she is investigating the perplexing suicide of an aid worker, recently returned from Africa.

Of course, more emerges.  Of course, Jenny goes after the facts like an angry terrier, and of course, odium descends on her from assorted smug Government agencies who would prefer a more nuanced presentation of the facts (or perhaps, a more nuanced presentation of a few facts).

And as we have come to expect, even when she doesn't have a clue what is happening, Jenny digs away anyway, following every lead, reckless of the consequences, ignoring - pushing away - anyone who tries to stop her.  That may sound like the template for many a crime novel, but what sets Hall's series apart is Jenny herself - a magnificent protagonist, well portrayed, infuriating, deeply human, brave, intense.  And she never gives up, to a degree that makes the book painful to read at times, times when I found myself (nearly) wishing that Jenny would ease off, turn the whole thing over to the proper authorities, get in a pizza and a bottle of wine and give herself a quieter life. And throughout this she's berating herself for being a bad mother or accusing herself
of being cowardly (as if!)

In the end, Cooper unravels a chain of events stretching from Eastern Europe at the fall of the Berlin Wall to modern Africa to a 1980s biotech start in the US, and, finally, to Bristol.  She does what she has to do to get answers, and there is a cost.  Might there actually have been fewer deaths if Cooper had stood back and let others take over?  By the end I'm afraid some relationships may have been broken beyond fixing, and that that will lead to more anguish and guilt for Cooper.  We'll see.

This book has great verve (only slowing, perhaps, during a late stretch of exposition in the courtroom), a likeable, exasperating, central character, a disturbing and all too convincing premise and a real sense of danger.  It's a worthy sequel to the previous Jenny Cooper books, possibly even a bit pacier than they were, and a thoroughly good read.  Strongly recommended.

MR Hall
"The Chosen Dead"
Macmillan, 31 January 2013
ISBN: 9780230752030

3 September 2012

Review: Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson

"Alif the Unseen"
G Willow Wilson
ISBN 978 0 85789 566 0
Corvus, London

This is a magnificent debut novel by G Willow Wilson.  It is, though, difficult to pigeonhole.  It is a fairy story, but also a story of revolution, a cyberthriller, and a love story.

The Alif of the title (not his real name) is a hacker living in a nameless but authoritarian city state on the Arabian Gulf.  Alif hires his skills to anyone who will pay, but especially to political and religious rebels across the Middle East.  However, he and his comrades are steadily being hunted down by the Hand,  the almost godlike tool of State security.  And Alif’s love life is in turmoil as his girlfriend is destined to marry someone else.

Though a little slow to take off, the story really gets going when Alif acquires an ancient book, the Alf Yeom or Thousand and One Days.  Everyone seems to want this book, including the Hand, who wants to use it to devise new coding methods to trap the rebels.  But fairytale books are perilous and the danger of reading them is that you write yourself into the story.

In rollercoaster action Alif goes on the run and becomes involved with the djinn, mercurial and magical fairylike beings who are, like him, “unseen” by the mundane world.  Can he tell what is real and trustworthy from what is demonic and deceitful? 

This is an exciting story which brings to life a magical setting very different from the more typical European-flavoured background of much fantasy, weaving in a topical background of the Arab Spring and creating some wonderful incongruities, including an efreet (a sort of spirit) which employs Alif to fix its anti-virus, a pious vampire and an American convert whose bad Arabic is rendered as somewhat “‘Allo, ‘allo” style English.

It’s something rather different, very fresh and immense fun.

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book.

5 July 2012

Review: The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex
Charles Stross
Orbit, 416 pp
ISBN 9780356500980 

I find it difficult to review the Nth book in a series, where N >> 2. Genuinely review, that is: unless the series goes off the boil, you can be reasonably sure it will appeal to those who have read the N – 1 earlier books, but also that as N increases, the books will mean less and less to newcomers, who should instead to be directed to Book 1 for orientation.  Make that into a template and you can speedily review a series – and I suspect there are reviewers out there who have done this, consciously or not.

Well, that doesn’t work for Charles Stross’s Laundry series. Each book in the series gives his readers something new and distinctive, so while long term fans will enjoy “The Apocalypse Codex”, the latest instalment, that’s not because it is more of the same but rather the exact opposite. 

While the earlier books were each written under the inspiration of a different thriller writer, in the latest, he doesn’t so much adopt a style as borrow a character: BASHFUL INCENDIARY, codename for one of the lead characters, is modelled on the heroine of a long running newspaper cartoon series (can you guess who?).  Basically Stross sets her loose to bamboozle, assist and exasperate his long suffering IT manager-turned-spy, Bob Howard, who is now being groomed for the Senior Civil Service by the British occult service, the Laundry.  (Don't do it, Bob!  Please!)  Bob is however more confident in this book than any of the previous ones and pretty much gives as good as he gets.

Unlike, especially, the first two books in the series there is more of a plot arc developing here.  The Laundry exists to counter threats of the Lovecraftian variety, and the day is fast approaching when the stars come right, the Sleeper will awake, and the Great Old Ones return – not a consummation devoutly to be wished, unless you’re a crazed cultist, or a follower of a heretical Christian sect who has mapped Lovecraft’s eschatology onto a dodgy template of what might happen in the End Times.  A sect that sees a new potentially Prime Minister as helpful in furthering its aims…

I really enjoyed this book. While to a degree more straightforward than the earlier books – more of a plot rollercoaster, fewer of wheels-within-wheels – it has the same convincingly realised world as them, the same sardonic Bob humour, and is peppered with the usual SF and IT allusions.  I particularly smiled at the running joke whereby (Bob’s counterparts in the US equivalent to the Laundry are continually referred to as the Nazgûl.  We also learn more about the real nature and history of the Laundry, and about Bob’s apparent future role in it as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN approaches.  Most of all, it’s a really good story.

In fact, there’s only one part of my standard template for reviewing a Laundry book that I can use here: the standard grumble that there is no UK hardback edition…

11 May 2012

Review: "Railsea" by China Miéville

China Miéville
384 pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book.

Most of Miéville’s recent books have worked out the consequences of a big, central idea – two cities in one place in The City and The City, an alien race learning to lie in Embassytown, the city of what London rejects in UnLunDunRailsea follows that with… well, a railsea.

You might think that the point of a railway is that the trains go in, more or less, one direction.  But imagine the surface of the Earth, in the far future, being covered in a dense mesh of intersecting lines, looping back on themselves, switching and splitting and splitting again.  A railsea, on which, (with enough skill at working the points) you can travel more or less anywhere.

Upon a sea like that, what might you find?  Island nations, with teeming ports? Ruthless pirates, as merciless as any in Treasure Island?  A captain, consumed by the hunt for a great beast, like Ahab in Moby-Dick?  Desert islands?  Explorers?  Treasure hunters?  The fleets of many nations? Hunters of salvage (whether arche-salvage, nu-savage or alt-salvage)? Wreckers? Really, a boy like Sham, setting out on his first voyage as assistant doctor aboard the moletrain Medes, might encounter anything.

Miéville portrays the railsea so well, using such twisted, yet concrete language, bristling with his own invented rail jargon, that as you read you can feel the beat of wheels on the rails and see the distant horizons, the dangerous knots of lines and treacherous, the unmarked gauge changes that his characters negotiate.  And he makes them real, as well – Sham, the Captain with her philosophy, Sham’s crewmates, the strange Shroake siblings.

Like them, Miéville speculates on where the railsea came from, and how it persists.  In Sham’s world, people are inclined to attribute it to the old gods, such as That Apt Om, and the repairwork to mysterious angel trains.  Nobody really wants to get to the bottom of things, just to make a living.  But sometimes, one doesn’t have a choice…

This is an excellent book, which I think will appeal to Miéville’s different groups of followers – a story of adventure, more straightforward than Emassytown or City and the City, but more focussed and (even) better realised than UnLundun.

5 March 2012

Review: Intrusion by Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod
ISBN 1841499390
320 pages

I’d really been looking forward to this book, and I wasn't disappointed.

As with MacLeod’s other recent books, “Intrusion” is set in a very credible near-future which initially bears more resemblance to a thriller than to science fiction.  It is, I think, really three books in one.  The opening section is the one described in the blurb.  Mother-to-be Hope faces a dilemma:  whether to take "the fix", a marvel of“syn bio” (the endpoint of systematic genetic engineering) which would "cure" any potential genetic abnormalities of her future child. 

The Fix isn’t compulsory – not exactly – but this is a world where the needs of the foetus are placed so far ahead of those of the mother that most women of childbearing age can’t work (whether pregnant or not) in case they encounter decades old “fourth hand smoke” seeping from the structure of the workplace.  They are strongly encouraged to wear monitor rings, which record any contact with noxious substances, and are banned from drinking alcohol unless provably not pregnant.

Methods of persuasion are therefore employed to encourage Hope to take the Fix.  She would have a get out if she claimed to be religious, but she isn’t.  What should she do?

MacLeod portrays a scary future, a creepy, surveiled world where – for society’s good – AIs trawl one’s phone logs and movement records, putting 2 and 2 together, and no adult would dare be alone with a child unless monitored by cameras.

The second theme develops from this and is summarised in a conversation between postdoc Geena and her supervisor.  Geena is observing a group of Syn Bio engineers for her research into how science is done, but has run into a little trouble and asks for help.  Here the dialogue which this book seems to be having with “Nineteen Eighty Four” becomes overt – even with some phrases of Orwell’s repeated.  But it is also, I think, playing with themes from another dystopia, “Brave New World”. 

In one, control of society is achieved by brutality, surveillance, austerity and miltarisation.  In the other, it’s done through comfort and plenty.  In “Intrusion” there is a world of apparent comfort and plenty with no apparent external threats (apart from a degree of paranoia over foreign insurgents).  In each case, though, the result is the same – total control – and the same question applies: in the words of both Winston Smith and of Geena: “I understand how, but I don’t understand why”.  

In “Nineteen Eighty Four”, the answer is repugnant – power for its own sake – but somehow makes sense.  One can see a way out:  overthrow the Party.  In “Intrusion”, I take MacLeod to be saying that there isn’t a reason.  Nobody actually seeks power.  The control and coercion is something that society is doing to itself, always with the best of intentions.  There is nothing to overthrow, nothing to resist, because everyone is complicit.  “They got me a long time ago”.  That is, to me, actually much scarier and rather more plausible.

The third theme in this book is the SF plot, to which focus turns in the final third, and I won’t say much about it because it would be a shame to give too much away.  It has to do with the past and the future, and perhaps does offer a way out.

Overall this was is a gripping novel, with plenty happening, full of ideas and with some nail biting action.  Recommended.

10 February 2012


I love bookshops.

I'm sad that they are having such a hard time.  I fear that the drive to online, e-reading and competition from supermarkets will simply drive many to the wall.  If that happens, I'll regard it as a personal loss (that's one of the reasons why I object to e-books) but it will also make our streets so boring - there'll be nothing left but clothes and coffee shops.  What's the good of that?

The bookshops I use, and have used in the past, mean so much to me

For example, there was Willshaws in John Dalton Street in Manchester.  My father, whose office was in Manchester, introduced me to this and when I was a teenager I used to take the train into Manchester (about a 45 minute journey from our nearest town) and come back from there with armfuls of books, one or two months' supply at a time.  It's where I got my copy of "Nineteen Eighty-Four".  At that time, the paperback section was simply the Penguin section - a wall of orange.  (Why did they drop that? It made their books so recognisable that they practically owned the shop).

Or James Thin's on South Bridge in Edinburgh, "Scotland's Biggest Bookshop" (telegraphic address:  "Bookman, Edinburgh" -  I still have their bookmarks).  I found this on two very different occasions. 

The first time was during a  family holiday in Northumbria.  It was a holiday when everything went wrong that could go wrong, with a lot of falling out which I just wanted to get away from.  One day, we went to Edinburgh and I wandered past Thin's... and I wandered into Thin's... and that was when I started reading PG Wodehouse (which I alternated with Orwell).

The second time I found the shop was when I was a student at Edinburgh, I got most of my textbooks there, but it played a particularly important part in my life when I lived in a flat just round the corner from Thin's (New Arthur Place) and we had, in effect, no heating, or none we could afford to use.  I'd go round to Thin's, which opened in the evenings, just to warm up.  One evening I came across Robert Holdstock giving a talk, the first time I'd ever met an author, I think.

Obviously, particular businesses rise and fall, so I'm not going to get all sentimental - well, not too sentimental - about those that have gone, but I think it will be such a shame if there are none left at all. 

9 February 2012

Review: Transmission by John Meaney

John Meaney
London, 2012
ISBN 978 0 575 08535 0

This is the second book in Meaney’s Ragnarok trilogy, and if you enjoyed the earlier book, “Absorption”, published in 2010, I think you’ll like this too.  Both books are fairly similar – both deploy a startling range of characters across multiple timeframes, ranging from the eighth century (Viking warrior Ulfr) to the Second World War and after (chiefly Gavi, a German Jewish refugee scientist working at Bletchley Park) and the far future (scenes set in the 27th century are only a stepping stone:  there are also events in 5568AD and 502019AD (the latter looking forward another half a million years)

Again, most of the significant characters are being attacked by, or fighting back against, the mysterious Darkness (though a couple seem to be tainted by it).  The nature of this enemy is still unclear, as are the exact relationships between the characters (though there are clear crossovers and linkages) but the bigger picture is now beginning to emerge, both in hints (significant names, family relationships, reported history) about how the various storylines may combine and in the direct echoes between the storylines.  The trilogy resembles a vast,  canvas where small details become more significant in light of the overall design.  Some things are now explained (for example, the nature of the troll that attacked Ulfr's party in Absorption) while others are still mysterious (such as the ultimate relevance of Sharp's people) and some new threads are added (a new race, seemingly alien, but which might be far future humans).

It is perhaps a pity that this book wasn’t published last year, since there is a lot of detail in Absorption that it helps to remember in reading Transmission.  Meaney does repeat the main points, but I would advise rereading the earlier book if you can. 

This is though an excellent story, filled with mind bending concepts.  Just to name a few, Meaney weaves in resonances - both in nature and in the story structure – the Second World War, the history of martial arts, hypnotism, neurolinguistic programming, wave-particle duality and cryptography.  He seems to be equally at home with Viking runes and advanced physics.  In all, an excellent, engaging read. I’m looking forward to the final part of the trilogy (I hope I don’t have to wait another two years for it though!)

What else?  Well, I think family names are important in this trilogy, so keep an eye out for them.  And I think Meaney shows excellent timing in his concept of “mu space” – pronounced “moo” not “mew” – which enables faster-than-light travel through some kind of mysterious extra dimensions with fractal geometry – given the recent CERN experiments that seem to show faster than light neutrinos.


31 January 2012

Review - Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Diving Belles
Lucy Wood
Bloomsbury, 2012

I found this short story collection very impressive.

Lucy Wood conjures up a world where the most bizarre and the most everyday things rub shoulders easily. A care home caters for clients who aren't accepted anywhere else - chiefly retired witches and wizards. A company, the "Diving Belles' of the title story, helps women to retrieve their stolen-away menfolk from the sea using a diving bell (and net). You can even buy gift vouchers. A woman is distracted from urgent chores by her slightly annoying ex. The things she really needs to do (locking the windows, emptying the fridge, calling her boss to say she won't be at work for a bit) have to be completed soon, before she turns into a standing stone, a state of affairs which could last months or years. A boy visits his grandmother who has taken to living in a cave on the beach. The spirits on an empty house recall, with slight puzzlement, the ebb and flow of life over generations of its occupants. And so on. The stories are full of loneliness and regret. Couples meet and awkwardly fail to communicate. Things change and may be coming out right or they may not: the stories often take place on the cusp of changes or transformations, and often they don't quite give away what happened in the end. We just have to imagine it.

Wood has a real gift for making these extraordinary circumstances seem entirely natural - and thereby placing "normal" experiences and dilemmas (a teenager's uncertainty about "growing up", a sick parent, a grieving widow who feels guilty after her husband drowned) in a startling new light. This is summed up in the final story, where a storyteller wanders a small town, as if in farewell. Things seem to be coming to an end for him. As he recalls wrecks, smugglers and murder he seems only to be retelling the plotlines from the TV soaps he's recently taken to watching, yet at the same time he remembers events that he witnessed centuries before. Finally, though, he senses a story climbing towards him from deep in the abandoned mine workings. It could be a new beginning - or something very bad may be about to happen. That seems to me to capture the essence of the book, the weird blending of the fantastic, mythical and ancient with the everyday.

The book is also full of the sound of the sea, of sand, cliffs, things washed up on the beach - or lost to the waters. It's one of the most atmospheric books I've read in a long time, and deeply haunting.

21 January 2012

Stacking logs

We have oil heating, which is horrendously expensive in a big draughty house.  (It's draughty  because it's not our house - or I'd have it insulated to the hilt).  However we do have an open fire, which we'd never used much till last year.  Since then, we've been turning the heating down and using the open fire more.  While we still have to buy the logs, I think we're spending less overall - and the fire is very cosy!

The connection with books is - obviously - that the fire makes reading those books of winter ghost stories even more atmospheric.

So that's why I was frantically stacking our new delivery of logs this lunchtime, before the rain came down.  I managed it very neatly, don't you think?

Job complete

20 January 2012

Book glut

I buy more books than I could ever read.   The evidence is a bookcase behind me, four 1 metre shelves of books I've recently - say within the past two years - bought and not (yet) read, plus a pile on the floor.  Older books have been mainstreamed alongside those I have read.

This has been true for years, probably since I seriously started reading adult fiction. I'd say I have read between two thirds and three quarters of the books I own.  This is part of the reason for my aversion to rereading books - with so much written already, and so much more coming out, it almost seems wasteful.

Two or three years ago, I tried to take control of the situation.  I began using Amazon as a catalogue, searching for future books by authors I already liked and putting them into a "future reads" list.  I would only buy books on that list, and as they would be books I knew I'd read, everything would be fine.  That's the origin of the list in my previous blog posts, and I am working through it:  I've read Paul Torday's "The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall", the MR Hall book is on order I don't have it yet because I've ordered a hardback from http://www.goldsborobooks.com and I bought John Meaney's latest today.

However, I don't think it's working.  This month I have also bought "Diving Belles" by Lucy Wood, "Something of the Night" by Ian Marchant (I love literary nightiness), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (missed it when it first came out) and have also acquired Alison Littlewood's "A Cold Season" - I've just dived into Twitter, and the publisher was offering some free copies.  Until last week, I never knew that happened to real people, rather than to high powered book bloggers... though I have had books from both Waterstones and Amazon to review, in fact I have the next Graham Joyce book coming from Amazon.

So that's five off list books to two on list.  Not really good enough.