Book Reviews

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Anthology #12

The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan

I am guessing that the name of this book is a reference to the Hänsl & Gretel fairy tale, where the candy [aka gingerbread] house is used as a lure, but here the lure is a piece of equipment connected to a supercharged version of our current internet, by which memories & subjective experience can be shared to the collective consciousness. I found the way this book was structured rather confusing: there is so much detail [a lot of which I would consider superfluous], in different voices, and a variety of presentational styles—narrative; memo/notes; and emails, for whole chapters, that it was difficult to keep track of characters in different time periods, how they all meshed together, so in the end, I struggled to care about them, which is a shame, because the book’s premise is good, IMO. The memory upload facility invented by one of the characters; but clearly not the primary one; is very interesting whilst simultaneously very worrying—think Facebook times 10, with immersive involvement. Unfortunately, I found myself having to wade through acres of biography which skirt around the book’s theme, which is a shame, and it meant I couldn’t share the enthusiastic soundbite back-cover reviews [there are many more inside] of authorities such as Vogue, Guardian, The Irish Times [Best Books of 2022], and the [British] Telegraph. For me, this was a good opportunity fumbled. The paperback I read was published in 2023 by Corsair, London [2022, Corsair UK; 2022, Scribner USA] ISBN 978-1-4721-5094-3.

Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

Dr Ryland Grace is a man on a mission; this mission is very simple: save humanity. So: no pressure, then…. This is the only rationale I can perceive for the book’s title, the mission’s name, because there is no religious content anywhere in it. I can only detail the beginning of the narrative, because to reveal any more would spoil an excellent plot; the back story is revealed piecemeal as the first-person narrative progresses, but for a very good, and plausible reason: Grace wakes up in an unfamiliar environment, which he soon determines is a space vehicle, and he assumes that he has been in some sort of suspended animation, or a coma. There are two other people in this area but they are, unfortunately, both dead: one more degraded than the other. When his memory starts returning, he realises that he is on his way to a nearby [twelve light years, actually—space: it’s relative] star called Tau Ceti. Why? Because the heat/light radiation output of Sol, earth’s sun, is being significantly reduced by a band of red light, arcing from there to Venus, with drastic, quite short-term consequences for humanity. Astronomers have determined that whilst Tau Ceti is also being similarly affected, its radiation output has not diminished: how come? Hence Grace’s mission; and that of his dead fellow passengers. I have enjoyed Weir’s other two books—The Martian, and Artemis, and whilst the premise here is similar to that of the first book: lone astronaut, having to use his ingenuity to survive; this one is cleverly, and engagingly written [not that the other wasn’t!], and I have no hesitation in recommending it, if you like sci-fi that isn’t completely implausible; although the protagonist’s Ned Flanders-style language did make me chuckle. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Penguin Books, London [2021, Del Rey, UK; 2021, Penguin Random House, USA],  ISBN 978-1-5291-5746-8.

Confidence, by Denise Mina

Having enjoyed this author’s pootling about on television with Frank Skinner [aka Christopher Collins] in various locations, celebrating the lives of various literary figures, some better known than others, and found her personality engaging [and her choice of clothing refreshingly eccentric], I very much wanted to enjoy this first example of her writing which I had hitherto discovered. I sort of did, but I also found the plot a bit confusing. Anna, the narrator, whose given name is not revealed to us until some pages in, is a podcast co-creator; so, very contemporary. She runs out on an unenjoyable holiday in Scotland, reprehensibly leaving behind her two young daughters, in the care of her ex-husband and his new partner, and accompanied by Fin, who loves her, but is too timid to either tell her or stand up to his younger & volatile Italian girlfriend. They have heard about a young woman who is part of a group who practise urbex; urban exploration, usually abandoned & neglected old properties, and post films about it on YouTube. She has gone missing, but discovered a possibly priceless silver artefact in an abandoned Château. After that, the artefact, and those who want to possess it for their own various reasons, become the focus of the story. I suppose the premise is plausible, but in the end, I couldn’t raise a lot of enthusiasm about the characters; not a bad read, otherwise. The paperback I read was published in 2023 by Vintage (2022, Harvill Secker), ISBN 978-1-5291-1181-1.

Here Goes Nothing, by Steve Toltz

There aren’t many books, thankfully, which make me want to throw them across the room in disgust, when I finish them but this, sadly, is one. I would have expected some sort of resolution for the protagonists after a reasonably good setup, but the reader is left in limbo; no pun intended; and that’s not where I like to be at the end of a story. It starts in Australia [the author’s nationality] and Angus Mooney is dead, but his unexpected afterlife is rather different from the version described in The Purgatory Poisoning, by Rebecca Rogers, reviewed recently. Here, it is very similar to earthbound existence, but in a different landscape. As is often the case, Mooney’s backstory intersperses the current timeline, and we learn how he was murdered by a deceitful ‘cuckoo in the nest’ in the form of Dr. Owen Fogel, who disingenuously inveigles his way into the house of Mooney [while he is out] and his wife, Gracie, by spinning the yarn that he grew up in that house, and his father died in the garden, after falling and hitting his head. He tells the current occupants that he is dying, from an aggressive  brain disease, and he would love to spend his final days in his childhood house; Gracie is empathetically taken in, but Mooney is sceptical, and ends up being murdered for it. Unfortunately, there is far too much existential musing for my liking, and a lot of it is just nonsense, which spoils what could have been a good premise. Plenty of critics [the ones quoted, of course] loved it, but I beg to differ. The paperback I read was published in 2023 [2022], by Sceptre, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, London , ISBN 978-1-5293-7160-4.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #11

Joe Country, by Mick Herron

The name of this book isn’t an eponymous singer of folk songs of questionable provenance, but a reference to the name of the meta-territory in which espionage agents operate, used by the author’s anti-hero Jackson Lamb, in the sixth episode in the Slow Horses canon—a couple of his previous stories have been reviewed here: Dolphin Junction [novella in a compendium], and London Rules. As much as any of the stories could be considered pivotal, this one definitely is, but its import is not evident until the end, when the repercussions are indicated. After the murder of one of the Slow Horses by Frank Harkness, the American father of one of the remaining ones, River Cartwright, Lamb unwisely condones [if not actively encouraging] a seek-and-destroy mission, because it becomes apparent that Harkness is back in the country, running a covert mission to murder a youth in Wales. The lad, who happens to be the son of the deceased Slow Horse, witnessed illegal activity at which a very prominent member of the royal family [no name, but not many guesses required] was present, has gone into hiding, but one of Lamb’s team, who was the dead Horse’s mistress, takes off unofficially to protect him. The dire winter weather is only one, albeit the worst, factor which causes the operation to founder for both sides. Another tense edition of this series, and well worth reading. The hardback I read was published in 2019 by John Murray (Publishers), London, ISBN 978-1-4736-5744-1.

The Purgatory Poisoning, by Rebecca Rogers

Without wishing to be pedantic, the title of this book is misleading, because the poisoning in question doesn’t happen in “Purgatory”, but in its defence, notwithstanding the alliteration, it could also be a sly pun, using the other meaning of purgatory: as an adjective. As a non-Christian, I had to be consciously objective, but if as a reader you are prepared to accept the necessary tenets of Christianity—one God: check; heaven, hell, and the eponymous Purgatory: check; angels with supernatural powers: check; then the wishful thinking element of this engaging fantasy will not be difficult to accept—in fact, you might accommodate it as perfectly plausible. Dave Walsh is dead, and he wakes up in Purgatory which is, naturally enough, difficult to accept, at first. In this he is aided by Angel Gobe, who just happens to be the image of Michael Palin [I won’t spoil this origin story] and, although the fact of his murder should not, normally, be an issue to engage God & minions, it transpires that there are “blocks” in his past, and these engage Gobe and his enthusiastic assistant, Arial, who both decide to investigate, somewhat unofficially. Revealing anything beyond that Dave’s grandparents embraced the dark side would spoil the plot, but there is a reality-based human element of all the usual emotions & pretensions here, so the fantasy is a vehicle to carry them. Light-hearted fun, aside from the religious [and, by implication, moralistic] aspect. The paperback I read was published in 2023 by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London,  ISBN 978-0-0085-5302-9.

Slough House, by Mick Herron

I was lucky enough to find this book in very quick succession to the one reviewed above, and this one follows chronologically. The eponymous backwater [or Oxbow Lake?] and its unfortunate & unwilling occupants are under threat as never before. The existence of the last resort has been expunged from the, by now, customary digital records by order of First Desk Diana Taverner at Regents Park [a smaller, more secret version of MI6 HQ], ostensibly for the purposes of training her new agents in surveillance, but the rarely used old paper records still exist, and the identities of the Slow Horses are clandestinely copied, in the mistaken belief of the Russian GRU that these losers [in the opinion of Slough House chief Jackson Lamb] constitute an assassination squad. Consequently, they are being systematically eliminated by a pair of Russian killers, which comes to Lamb’s attention too late to save the first two victims. In this miasma is also Taverner’s involvement with a project to set up a supra-governmental steering organisation beyond normal oversight, with funding from unspecified, but clearly inadvisable foreign sources; plus the Yellow Vest movement, whose spokesman is being groomed for leadership by the ex-government minister at the top of the putative coup in all but name, Peter Judd, who now runs a PR company by the name of Bullingdon Fopp; and a rich young man running a GB News-style television company, also being used by Judd to promote his agenda. Fascinatingly close to reality, and very cleverly observed, and I hope the series will continue. The hardback I read was published in 2021 by John Murray (Publishers), London, ISBN 978-1-5293-7864-1.

The Dark Net, by Jamie Bartlett

I think there’s a good chance that the reaction of people to the name for this book [subtitle: Inside the Digital Underworld] will be determined by their age: people of my generation, say 50 and over, will find the concept disturbing and, possibly, even frightening [most likely influenced by the political bias of their choice of news media], but that might be mitigated by a reasonable familiarity with digital technology; adults younger than that, and older teenagers, are likely to find it less concerning, and possibly even exciting. Although the author states that he has used pseudonyms where appropriate, there is nothing to suggest that he is not using his own name, which could either be very brave, or foolhardy: take your pick. Although now a few years out of date, this a very comprehensive guide to what is available below the level of the ordinary internet; but some of that is accessible from the latter, if one knows where to look. Whilst avowedly not “a guide to illegal or immoral behaviour online”, it does cover Libertarianism [aka “Freedom”], Narcotics, Pornography [of every conceivable flavour], and even Transhumanism! I made several notes as I was reading, but to include them would make this review too long, so I can only recommend that if, rather than eliciting a knee-jerk response of revulsion at the thought of learning about it, you can put preconceptions aside, you will find this book a fascinating examination of how human nature in the twenty-first century can be given free rein to indulge in all manner of vicarious action; although that is not to condone any of the more heinous aspects which, sadly, will probably always be enacted in some form. The paperback I read was published in 2018, large print version, by W. F. Howes Ltd., Leicester [2014, William Heinemann, London], ISBN 978-1-5100-9804-6.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #7

Three Debts Paid, by Anne Perry

This is a decent enough story, but in my humble opinion, the author takes an excruciatingly long time to reach the dénouement, sending two of the main characters round in unnecessary circles, and asking the same questions more than once, both of themselves, and others whom they need to or want to question. There are two main threads happening: the first, a series of brutal & violent murders, in which the victims are stabbed & slashed, then an index finger segment removed post mortem; apart from the latter detail, the only other common aspect is that they all occur in pouring rain on the streets of London in the February of 1912. The second is a legal case of plagiarism, which is complicated by a charge of assault against the defendant. The main characters all know each other: Inspector Ian Frobisher is investigating the murders, and he was at Cambridge with Daniel Pitt, the barrister who is recommended by Frobisher to the defendant, Professor Nicholas Wolford, who taught Pitt, whose father just happens to be head of Special Branch. There is also a potential love interest, between Daniel and Miriam fford Croft, who has recently qualified as a pathologist, but she had to do this in Amsterdam, as the facility was not available in Britain; she also happens to be somewhat older than Daniel. The murderer is not too difficult to identify, but this takes around 300 pages! The court case near the end is rather messily terminated, and I didn’t think clients were able to instruct barristers directly, as is the case here. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-7527-1.

This is the Night They Come for You, by Robert Goddard

At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy this story, but it didn’t take me long to decide that I definitely would! Also, the author’s name seems familiar, but if I have read another of his books, I can’t find a review for it; he has written twenty-nine other books, according to the flyleaf of this one. The story revolves around the politics of Algeria, a country about which I know very little; there are also associated threads in England & France. It is set in the present day, and Covid has left its mark on Algiers, but lurking in the background, there is the spectre of the revolutions and tragic bloodshed which have riven the country since the War of Independence, whose true horror was exemplified in the massacre of Algerian protestors by the Paris police on the night of 17 October 1961. An Algiers police superintendent is charged with bringing a high-level embezzler to justice, and he is obliged to work with a rare female security service operative. A French woman has been offered a written confession made by her English father, who ran a bookshop in Algiers, before he was murdered, apparently by moslem extremists. An English man is also interested in the Algerian embezzler, because he is convinced that the latter murdered his sister, who was the bookshop owner’s girlfriend in Paris. The threads are very cleverly woven together, and they build to a dramatic climax, so I can recommend this book. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Penguin [Bantam Press], London, ISBN 978-0-5521-7847-1.

Until the Last of Me, by Sylvain Neuvel

This author, as his name suggests, has French ancestry, but is a native of Québec. The book being reviewed is [again!] the second of a prospective trilogy, classified under the title of Take them to the Stars, and it is a type of alternative history science fiction; it is also, for me anyway, an allegory of the seemingly eternal, sadly, struggle of the female gender to overcome the at best dismissal, and at worst outright violence of the patriarchy. This should not spoil the plot, but the theme is only barely disguised. The plot is that a race of humanoid extraterrestrials, known as Kibsu, have lived among us for 3000 years, and for only vaguely explained reasons have “shaped Earth’s history to push humanity to the stars”, by using their skill with mathematics & astronomy to assist our technological development. Somewhat implausibly, they are all female, only using indigenous males for procreation; to complicate matters, however, the women are hunted, and regularly eliminated [but not enough for the race to die out completely] by the Tracker, a lineage of males, whose purpose seems to be simply to prevent the Kibsu from achieving their goal. The dénouement of this story is climactic, but not sufficiently to prevent the plausibility of a conclusionary sequel; I did enjoy it in the end, but it took a while before I was sure. The hardback I read was published in 2022, by Michael Joseph [Tom Doherty Associates], ISBN 978-0-2414-4514-3.

The Locked Room, by Elly Griffiths

It is now February 2020, and Covid is starting to bite; although, not as hard as it would, as we now know with hindsight. Dr. Ruth Galloway, the head of the Archaeology Department at the University of North Norfolk, is enjoying some quality time with her illicit, and only barely concealed lover, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, because his wife, Michelle, is isolating in Blackpool with their son and Harry’s mother. Harry and his team are investigating a series of apparent suicides of elderly people, but they are having to operate a skeleton staff in the office because of safety requirements. Ruth has just cleared her recently deceased mother’s house in London, and discovered a photograph which shows her cottage taken before she moved in, with the caption “Dawn, 1963” on the back; meanwhile, she has a new neighbour, a nurse by the name of Zoe, but she seems strangely familiar… Two students at the university go missing, then Ruth’s neighbour also does. There is also a significant scare [including for regular readers of this series] when one of the least likely main characters is struck down by Covid. At the end of the book [but not the end of the series: the next instalment is previewed here] Ruth has two very significant decisions to make: both of which have been forced upon her, and neither of which she is enthusiastic about having to make. Another very enjoyable instalment! The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-5294-0967-3.

Book Reviews

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Anthology #3

Fall, by John Preston

This book is subtitled The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, and is described on the front cover, by no less a reviewer as Robert Harris, as “… the best biography yet of the media magnate”: despite not having read any of its predecessors, I am very happy to accept that assessment. It is difficult not to stray into hyperbole when describing this repugnant man, who was a consummate con-artist, notwithstanding his tough & demanding background of poverty in Czechoslovakia, before reinventing himself as many times as was necessary to enable him to achieve almost unimaginable [although perhaps not by current Bezos/Musk standards] wealth & social standing, before it all came crashing down, when the extent of his deception was revealed. The main question, which [spoiler] the book doesn’t conclusively reveal, is whether he took his own life, was murdered, or died as a result of an accident aboard his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislaine: whose name also has a current resonance, which is touched upon briefly at the end of the book. Perhaps his criminal activity has taught the high-flying financial world a well-deserved lesson, but I am prepared to believe that it didn’t, when the lure of financial gain is too strong to resist. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Penguin Books, [Viking], Random House UK, ISBN 978-0-2413-8868-6.

Capture or Kill, by Tom Marcus

This is the first novel by “Tom Marcus”, a pseudonym “to keep his identity hidden” [at the insistence of MI5] “to ensure he stays safe”, given that “it’s the first true ground-level account [of “the real story of the fight on our streets”] ever to be told”; that might or might not be true: it all sounds a bit ‘boys’ own’ to me, and the writing style used in the first-person narrative is a bit rough around the edges, including some basic spelling mistakes & grammatical errors which the editors should have picked up, but that could be deliberate, to convey that the author “grew up on the streets in the North of England … [and] left the Security Service recently, after a decade on the frontline protecting his country due to being diagnosed with PTSD.” The protagonist, Logan, is personally selected by the DG of MI5 to join an ultra-secret, deniable action agency called Blindeye, to identify and, if necessary [it generally is, apparently] eliminate threats to the safety of this blessed realm. He is weighing up if this should be his future when a tragedy occurs, which decides the question; before long, however, he discovers that all is not what it was supposed to be, so drastic action is called for…. If the covert activities presented here are true, it could be ammunition for both conspiracy theorists & civil rights activists, but ultimately, there is no way for Joe Public to know the truth [and survive]. The way is left open at the end for a sequel, so its appearance can be more or less guaranteed. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Pan Books [Macmillan], an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-6359-4.

The Bourne Initiative, by Eric van Lustbader

Aside from the exotic, film-staresque sound of the name of the author, who is continuing the highly successful series originated by the late Robert Ludlum, this is one of the latest novels featuring this by now almost mythic freelance operative, who freed himself of the shackles of his Treadstone background some years before. As usual, he is trying to live a quiet life, whilst being only too aware of diverse threats to his existence, and in this story, he is dragged into a chase to discover the whereabouts of the eponymous Initiative, which turns out to be, ostensibly, a highly dangerous tranche of computer code, created at the behest of his erstwhile, now dead, Russian compatriot, General Boris Karpov. In the course of the narrative, during which, as ever, so it would seem, Bourne doesn’t know whom to trust [but that’s espionage for you, I guess], he is forced to accept at least one potentially life-threatening collaboration. The action is virtually non-stop and, apart from the slightly unrealistic capacity Bourne has for absorbing physical punishment and quickly recovering therefrom, the progress to the dénouement is reasonably plausible, so if you like fast-paced spy thrillers, this is one I can recommend. The paperback I read was published in 2017, by Head of Zeus Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-7866-9425-6.

Elsewhere, by Dean Koontz

I don’t remember if I’ve ever read any work by this author before, or whether the subject matter is exemplary of his normal output, but suffice to say that I was easily drawn in by the topic of parallel universes: another branch of the ‘what if’ scenario, although I was occasionally slightly irritated by the apparent stupidity of the protagonists by their actions in stressful situations; that is possibly presumptuous, however, because I’m not an eleven-year old girl, or a somewhat naïve American man who has suffered a trauma in his marriage. Jeffery [aka Jeffy] Coltrane is entrusted with a cardboard box by an eccentric, but presentable vagrant with whom he has struck up a relaxed friendship, and exhorted to not open the box under any circumstances, but to keep it safe. Of course, circumstances dictate that the box is opened, initiating a series of breathtaking & [in the ‘normal’ world] barely believable events. Jeffy’s daughter Amity proves to be mature beyond her years, but not strong enough on her own to defeat the forces of evil with apparent government backing who are seeking to destroy both them and the wonder which has fallen into their hands. This is a real page-turner if you like this sort of fantasy fiction, so it comes highly recommended, even if the dénouement is perhaps just a tad too ‘pat’ for credibility. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020, Thomas & Mercer, Seattle] by HarperCollinsPublishers, London, ISBN 978-0-0082-9127-3.

Have a go!

Have you ever thought about sharing ideas with your friends, but you find platforms like Facebook & Twitter, etc. intimidating? Why not start a WordPress blog: it’s easy! Click the link to read the post. There are plenty of different templates to choose from, and if you have something to promote, there’s nothing to stop you; for example, I use my blog to promote the biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon: Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, which can be bought direct from my own website (follow the link, and don’t be put off by any browser warnings: the site is perfectly safe—it just means I haven’t converted it to https yet, but it’s coming soon 🙂 ), but I also like to share reviews of books I’ve read, and other things related to books & publishing, so it’s not just a hard sell. Even if you only post now & again, it’s rewarding being able to share your thoughts with other people; check out the blogs I follow, from the links on the right, as well: there are some lovely, friendly people out there. As they say on The Prisoner [one for the teenagers!]: Be seeing you!

Book Review

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The Christie Affair, by Nina de Gramont

This author is American, and is a newcomer to speculation about the Agatha Christie ‘disappearance’ mythology: it “began in 2015 when she first learned about the famous author’s eleven-day disappearance. Christie’s refusal to ever speak about this episode particularly intrigued Nina, who loves the fact that someone who unravelled mysteries for a living managed to keep her own intact. The Christie Affair is her fourth novel.” I’m not sure if saying Christie “unravelled mysteries” is entirely accurate, because since she created them in the first place, and required them to be plausible, they wouldn’t have required unravelling by her, would they? That could safely be left to her readers. It’s possible that the author didn’t write her own bio, of course. This story is loosely based upon the facts as we know them, according to Christie’s Wikipedia page; some names have been changed, for obvious reasons; but this narrative falls into the ‘what if’ category, rather than a parallel universe scenario: the author describes it as “an imaginative history of sorts”.

As the narrative progressed, I was wondering why so much space was being given over to the backstory of the narrator, Nan O’Dea, who is this story’s substitute for Archie Christie’s real mistress, Nancy Neele, but the reason for that eventually became clear, and that is the subtext of this narrative: forced adoption of babies by the Catholic church in Ireland. I can’t reveal the reason for that, because the plot revolves around it, but it is a major element of this story. In fact, very little more of the plot can be revealed, but the major aspects of it conform to the real story, whereby Agatha Christie left her home in Sunningdale after a disagreement with her husband, in early December 1926, and after eleven days she was located at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate; although a different name for the hotel is used in the story. The period atmosphere is quite nicely realised so, apart from a few unfortunate Americanisms, which is understandable, given the author’s nationality, the story is a pleasant, undemanding read, even is some of the events do seem a touch implausible: given that this is fiction, I suppose that is forgivable.

It is difficult to speculate as to this book’s target readership, but Christie connoisseurs might enjoy it; as a thriller, it is very lightweight; it probably falls more comfortably into the romantic fiction category; but as stated above, it is undemanding, so it should be possible for different categories of reader to enjoy it. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Pan Books [Mantle], an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-5419-4.

Book Review

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Tomorrow, by Damian Dibben

This is a book narrated, unusually [but probably not uniquely], by a dog: specifically, the eponymous dog of the book’s title. It might seem like an unusual name for a dog, but it is very significant for the dog’s owner, Valentyne, and the book’s premise is depicted quite clearly on its cover, with a handsome & intelligent looking dog lower centre, and surrounded by images suggesting his & his owner’s travels, and a pocket watch to signify the passage of time: a lot of it, in fact, and this is also suggested by a broad ribbon which crisscrosses the cover from top to bottom, whose colour progresses from pale at the top, to dark at the bottom. Valentyne is immortal; so is Tomorrow; but they are no super-heroes: Valentyne discovered a method whereby a fluid carefully & painstakingly distilled from a rare mineral could be injected into a specific place in the body, and repeated several times, until a living stone grows to cease the ageing process, so he bestowed this gift upon his beloved companion, as well as himself. This being the case, they have lived several lives [Tomorrow arguably many more], Valentine’s including physician, philosopher & soldier.

Valentyne is imbued, perhaps as a result of his immortality [which can only be terminated similarly to the premise of the Highlander stories, by hanging or decapitation], with a seemingly insatiable wanderlust, which takes him from his home, of which he never speaks to Tomorrow, to Venice, London, and Denmark: specifically, Elsinore Palace, in 1602, by which time he is already over a hundred years old. Unfortunately, he has a nemesis whose name, we learn, is Vilder, and the peripatetic pair seem to be forever trying to stay at least one step ahead of him, for reasons which are not, initially, specified; although, when they do happen to meet, early in the narrative, Tomorrow cannot help but feel the magnetic power of the man. It might seem strange for a dog to be so apparently eloquent, but that is a plot device which must be accepted with a suspension of disbelief; his conversations with other dogs are helpfully translated for us; although I am of the opinion that the occasional grammatical errors which crop up are human, not inserted deliberately to make the dog seem less than intelligent.

Inevitably, both man & dog have romantic relationships which are inherently doomed, because of the disparity in their respective species’ lifespans, so this is a major element of pathos in the narrative, and both Valentyne & Tomorrow have to learn to accommodate this inevitability; of the two, Tomorrow seems to be the more philosophical, although the death of his one love does affect him deeply, and he also mourns the loss of a true friend, acquired against his better judgment at the time. Despite Valentyne’s constant avoidance of Vilder, or perhaps because of the need for it, Valentyne takes on a mission in life, to be a peripatetic battlefield physician, following military adventures over a wide geographical area, with no obvious partisan loyalties save the relieving of suffering, for which his apparently magical elixir, which he calls jhyr, is occasionally but sparingly put to use. Unsurprisingly, after Valentyne goes missing in Venice, and Tomorrow waits for him for over one hundred years, there is a confrontation & a reckoning between Valentyne & Vilder; before this, Tomorrow, with his travelling companion, Sporco, is abducted by Vilder, and he learns that Valentyne was imprisoned in the same building: it had once been a sumptuous mansion, but it was now a prison by any other name.

I make no secret of the fact that I generally enjoy stories which use the concept of time as their theme; this is only time travel inasmuch as the direction is exclusively forwards, but it does allow the protagonists to experience different periods, with their individual fashions, mores, and personalities, and there is also the slightly furtive frisson to be enjoyed from being aware that the protagonists know something that their contemporaries don’t, provided they are discreet, which these are, of necessity; apart from one confession to an empathetic clergyman in the Carpathian mountains which, luckily, doesn’t put Valentyne in any additional jeopardy. The dénouement is not entirely unexpected, and its message of forgiveness is worthy; whether it is plausible depends upon one’s view of human nature. This book appears to be a one-off, but the author has written another book, which was set for publication in 2020, so it should be available now; that one is set in Renaissance Venice [so he seems to have a penchant for this city, as it features heavily in Tomorrow], and is about how far artists were prepared to go to discover new colours [when they weren’t available in millions, simply by using the correct combination of pixellated pigments]: “Think Perfume, for pigment.”  The paperback I read was published in 2019 [2018, Michael Joseph], by Penguin Books, part of the Penguin Random House group of companies, ISBN 978-1-4059-2578-5.

Book Review

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The Furthest Station, by Ben Aaronovitch

DISCLAIMER: This is not a Harry Potter story!* This is a small, and relatively short book; indeed, the final 18 [unnumbered] pages are devoted to an interview with the author by Paul Stark from [the publisher] “Orion’s audio team”, although, to be fair, this is quite instructive within the context of the subject matter, and the author’s views on it; so, at only 118 pages, it could probably more accurately be described as a novella; but whatever, it is self-contained, and perfectly able to stand on its own, as part of the PC Peter Grant series. It is something of a Curate’s Egg for me: I was attracted to it partly by the cover, which is quirkily eye-catching, but also because it includes the London Underground in its locations, and at least one of the characters is an employee of this august workhorse of an organisation.

PC Peter Grant is an officer in the Special Assessment Unit; otherwise known as the Folly; presumably a section of the Metropolitan Police [although that isn’t specified], and his superior is Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale, who appears to be some type of wizard; or else, a normal human who has become adept at magic, whose existence in this alternate reality is a given. Grant is able to perform minor magic, such as non-physical personal defence, and conjuring what is known as a werelight, which appears to have magical properties over & above simple illumination; he has been called in by his friend & colleague Sergeant Jaget Kumar of the London Underground division of the British Transport Police, and technically, the latter works directly for the Chief Constable as a troubleshooter and “go-to problem solver, but really he was there to deal with the weird shit on the Underground.” Kumar had been given a file of complaints handled by Project Guardian, “a joint BTP/Met/Transport for London/City Police initiative to deal with sexual assaults and offensive behaviour on the transport system.”

They had received a cluster of complaints about assaults on Underground trains using the Metropolitan Line by a ‘man who wasn’t there’, but when the complainants were questioned, their memories of the events, if it was immediately following, were sketchy, although that isn’t unusual for such cases, but if some time subsequently had elapsed, they denied all knowledge of the assaults. Hence Kumar & Grant’s involvement. The scenario does involves some acceptance of the fantasy element, but it is not so far removed from many people’s belief in the possibility of the existence of the paranormal, and phenomena such as ghosts, so it is not too fantastical, and there is some humour in it as well, which leavens the drama. *Many readers might see some similarities, in the magical knowledge & experience possessed & demonstrated by Grant & Nightingale, with the almost improbably famous Harry Potter stories, but I don’t think that this story and, presumably, others in the series, are a serious attempt to emulate them, and they should be read as such.

What brought me to the Curate’s Egg assessment was the colloquial language employed by the protagonist; I readily admit that I am pedantic with regard to the use of the English language, especially written, where preselection is not only implied, but expected, and I happily concede that PC Grant is not the most erudite of policemen, notwithstanding his relative youth, and [whatever his ethnicity] he is not going to think or speak the language as correctly as an English professor at one of our revered universities should [verb chosen advisedly], but it goes against the grain to read the prime example of this where he says, more than once in his first-person narration, “… me and [A N Other]” instead of “[A N Other] and I …”. I’m not sure what the reason for this might be: is it to make our hero seem ‘street-smart’, or is it to appeal to what I fear is a predominantly young[er than I], linguistically challenged audience; or both? Either way, and I make no excuses, but I just don’t like it, and its use grated on me. Otherwise, I enjoyed the book as a whole, and the dénouement was satisfying. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [2017] by Gollancz, an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-4732-2243-4.

Book Review

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Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson

If this book, and the previous one by the same author which I have read, Cryptonomicon,  [albeit a much later book in his canon] are representative, then they are all [13] very long indeed; this one runs to 697 [!] pages, and the font used for the text is small—possibly 12pt—but I can genuinely say that this was a book I really didn’t want to end. It will probably be classified as SciFi but, given that it has been written within the last couple of years, on recent evidence, I would describe it as prescient, because IMHO one doesn’t have to be a tree-hugging, panicking environmentalist to discern that the scenario presented here is all too plausible; even possible—I hope against hope it is not probable. It is the near future; although the exact year is not specified, but COVID-27 is mentioned [subsequent to COVID-23 and our by-now familiar COVID-19], so it could be in the region of ten years hence, at least, and the climate has significantly worsened. The explanation for the book’s title will follow some further background information.

There are several different strands to the narrative, starting in different locations, but the reason for that will soon become clear. I had to put my republican sentiments into suspended animation for the duration of this story but, thankfully, that wasn’t too difficult, despite one of the main characters being the fictitious queen of the Netherlands, Frederika Mathilda Louisa Saskia, although the Dutch ‘royal’ family is famously low-maintenance; Saskia, as she prefers to be known by those close to her, is also a likeable person [but that has no bearing on my principles, as in the British situation]. A Texan billionaire, T.R. Schmidt [aka McHooligan, the publicly marketed persona for his chain of truck stops] has invited a somewhat disparate group of prominent persons to a conference in Houston, to discuss the climate crisis, and Saskia is one of these; although her constitutional inability to act directly & unilaterally is explained in great detail [as is much else: one of the commendable aspects of Stephenson’s narratives]. Unfortunately, her incoming self-piloted jet aeroplane crashes on landing at Waco airport; Houston being unavailable as a result of the intense heat; but she, and her minimal entourage survive, albeit with a few non life-threatening injuries, to continue the journey, and during her rescue from the cause of the crash, feral swine [and, randomly, although not much more, an alligator], she encounters another main character in the story: Rufus [Red] Grant, a self-employed operator trading under the name FERAL SWINE MITIGATION SERVICES.

Another character, who initially also seems like a rather random inclusion, is a young Canadian man by the name of Deep, although he generally goes by the nickname of Laks, which is derived from the salmon he catches for a living; when he can’t do that in his native British Columbia, out of season, he works as a welder. Initially, these aspects of his character, in addition to his high level of fitness and toned physique, and the traditional Indian martial arts he enjoys practising because of his Indian heritage, don’t seem to connect with the rest of the narrative, but slowly & surely, through the literal, as well as emotional journey he undertakes, the author draws these loose strands together, and they later connect very satisfactorily.

Schmidt’s proposal, which is demonstrated after all the scrupulously polite & accommodating preliminaries, is to spread the sulphur which he has available in vast quantities into the upper atmosphere, providing a global reflective blanket to mitigate the greenhouse effect of the sun, which has been exacerbated by human-produced carbon dioxide. He is going to do this unilaterally and, it transpires, has already started doing it [the technical details are quite involved, so better absorbed from the narrative]; he hopes to also encourage other strategically placed nations to do the same, hence the conference, although the invitees are not necessarily the most geographically, or politically, obvious. Hence the jeopardy in the story: a scheme such as this has been proposed in similar forms previously, but a scientific consensus was never reached so, with a nod to his location, Schmidt decided that he must take the metaphorical bull by the horns and use his money for humanity’s benefit. Unfortunately, not all of humanity would be similarly benefited, and nations such as China & India, which were not invited, are significantly concerned, for political as well as geo-climatic reasons.

The title is the name of what is generally reckoned [using the climatic data currently available to the scientists] will happen if climate-mitigating measures, such as that proposed, and already put into action by Schmidt, are precipitately terminated: the climate would go into a sort of shock, from which it might never recover; or, at least, not in a way which would be conducive to long-term survival of the human race. For several different reasons, I cannot recommend this book highly enough: whether it would convince waverers, or hardline climate change sceptics, of the need for rapid & decisive climate mitigating action is debatable, but aside from the politics, it’s a damn good and well-written story—I would also recommend Cryptonomicon, if you have any interest at all in cryptography, but the history aspect of it is also illuminating, and written in a very approachable way. The [large!] paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by the Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0084-0440-6.

Book Review

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Over A Torrent Sea, by Christopher L. Bennett

This story is one of the multitudinous episodes in book form in the Star Trek canon, and this particular one is an adventure of the Star Ship Titan; although I wasn’t familiar with this ship, or the events which precede this story, the fact that I know the captain, William Riker, from the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, means that I felt comfortable reading it, without a steep learning curve required to acquaint myself with a lot of new characters [although there are quite a few]. I’ve never been able to understand how the Stardate system works, but at the beginning of the story, we are given an equivalence between Stardate 58126.3 & 2381 in the current western system: no doubt I could look it up online, if I could be bothered….. There must have been a series of books preceding this one, entitled Star Trek: Destiny, detailing “devastating events”, according to the book’s cover, presumably involving The Federation’s arch-enemies, the Borg, who have, also presumably, been defeated, enabling “Captain William Riker and the crew of the U.S.S. Titan … to resume their deep-space assignment, reaffirming Starfleet’s core principles of peaceful exploration.”

They encounter a very unusual planet, one consisting of a global ocean, with no apparent solid land to be seen anywhere. They [as in, the English-speaking ones] name the planet Droplet and, initially, it appears that it is devoid of any life, sentient or otherwise, but luckily, there is in the crew an aquatic lifeform, Aili Lavena, who is able to explore the oceans freely [and joyfully], unencumbered by the life-support suit she is obliged to wear in gaseous atmospheres; she has also, because her species is unashamedly promiscuous at a specific period in their life-cycles, enjoyed a brief but rewarding liaison with Will Riker, which will become a matter of some embarrassment for him as the story unfolds, especially as he is now in a serious relationship with the ship’s Counsellor, the Betazoid empath Deanna Troi, who must have moved with him from Enterprise, for that very reason: she is in the late stage of pregnancy, having tragically lost a previous baby by miscarriage.

It is discovered that there are, in fact, lifeforms in the ocean, capable of living at great depths, but it isn’t clear whether they are sentient, or simply ‘animal’; because they look like an amalgam of a whale & a squid, they are called squales. The question of sentience is almost resolved when Lavena is rescued from a predator, and it is confirmed when the squales destroy probes which have been submerged to warn them away from an area which would be dangerous for them, as a result of an underwater tsunami; also, Lavena has been able to establish primitive communication with them, as her own language bears some basic similarities, so she learns that technology appears to frighten them. Inevitably, the Federation’s Prime Directive has to be considered when a rogue asteroid appears to be on course for the planet, and Riker has to decide whether they can reveal their extraterrestrial origin, something which has thus far been carefully concealed. Revealing any more would probably spoil the plot which, if you enjoy science fiction in general, and the Star Trek canon specifically, is exemplary of the Star Trek ethos; in particular, how all life, in its great diversity, is precious, and that difference in all forms should be respected, and not feared. The paperback I read should still be available, but it might necessitate some effort in locating: I like to think that effort will be rewarded. It was published in 2009 by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., under exclusive licence from CBS Studios, Inc., ISBN 978-1-4165-9497-0.