Officially a GeekDad

cropped-logo-geekdadLast week, I was offered a chance to become an ‘occasional contributor’ to the GeedDad, website. GeekDad is a glorious mish-mash of life-as-parents, games, books and shiny technology. I’ve been following GeekDad for around a year, and have been led to all sorts of interesting things as result.

Just before Christmas, they asked on their site for new contributors, and seeing as nothing ventured is nothing gained I applied. I was accepted and taken on in the second wave of new contributors. Suddenly I felt like a very small fish in a big pond. GeekDad gets more visitors most hours than I’ve had altogether, ever. Also my geek credentials suddenly felt rather lacking. On the school-yard, I’m the grandmaster geek; just knowing that something called a D20 exists, is enough to make me that. Now I’m privy to whole computing conversations I barely understand!

Last night I submitted my first post. It was unsurprisingly a book review. A wonderful children’s book, called The Wonder by Faye Hanson. There’s probably a better way of doing it but if you want to read the review, click here.

Hopefully it’s the first of many. I have a few ideas, I suspect I shall predominantly write book reviews but it will be nice to try some different things too.

the wonder

Gods and Monsters – The Iron Ghost by Jen Williams

ironghostJen Williams’ Copper Promise was one of my stand-out novels of 2014. It is an accomplished debut filled with first rate character writing. It’s players are compromised heroes, yet the novel is in no way dark. They’re not villains, not heroes, simply humans.

I was filled with second book trepidation when picking up The Iron Ghost. I would expect great things in this book, where I had only hoped for them when picking up book 1. Would I find that it shined brightly like the burnished Copper Promise, or would The Iron Ghost show rust spots?

Sebastian’s internal struggle with demons, both metaphorical and literal, was the pinnacle of The Copper Promise. There isn’t anything that quite reaches those heights in The Iron Ghost, but it is a fine novel all the same. Williams delivers an epic battle against a force of great evil. Yes, this is a standard trope, but Williams is an author who can handle the complex side of human nature, which gives her storie an added dimension.

The villain may be a towering force of evil, but he is not a shadowy faceless Dark Lord. He is a man with deep psychological problems, exploited by an unscrupulous manipulator. Yes, Bezcavar is back, and, once again, he is where the true wickedness lies. It is clever device. The character who is wholly and irredeemably evil has only limited power. He is strong of mind but weak of body, and must find others to do his dirty work. Bezcavar is a creation of the highest order. Consumed by malice, chilling to the core, he steals every scene he’s in.

As the novel opens the Black Feather Three have decamped to an icy continent, hired to settle an internecine dispute. One faction (the Skalds) uses a magical stone, to imbue giant golems with life. The other (the Narhl) believe this is heresy of the highest order and that the Skalds are defiling the mountain Gods. Who’s right will turn out to be very important. Things of course don’t run out as expected. Whilst Wydrin, Frith and Sebastian are going about their quest, somebody else’s plan is coming to fruition. Suddenly there’s a new mage on the block, and he can do things Frith can only dream of.

The rest of the novel is effectively a quest to put the genie back in the bottle. It will take the characters (particularly Frith) to some dark places. No tool in the arsenal can go unused, no matter how dark, if the Black Feather Three are to save the world. This raises interesting questions about whether the ends justify the means, though events do rather steamroll over the answer. The Iron Ghost lacks some of the subtlety of The Copper Promise; it starts to feel like a procession of set pieces, each more preposterously lethal than the last. The exception to this is the continuing story of the brood sisters. This is an interesting thread about self expression and stepping out of your parents’ shadow. Again something you don’t usually find in fantasy fiction.

There may be lots of action, but its quality is always high. It’s forever exciting. Once again Williams delivers the feeling of playing D&D in the best ever dungeon crawl. I’ve not encountered this before, and whilst I wouldn’t want it in every book I read, it makes the Black Feather Three books uniquely exciting. By maintaining strong characterisation and visceral action scenes, Williams avoids the ‘difficult second novel’ problem. The 500+ pages whip by, with numerous surprises that I won’t spoil here. Whether we see the Black Feather Three have another outing remains to be seen, but whatever Jen Williams does next, I’ll be there.

Many Thanks to Caitlin at Headline for sending me a copy of this book. 

 

Stings like a bee – The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon

the mime orderThis book is the sequel to 2013’s The Bone Season. If you haven’t read that, you probably want to stop reading now.

I enjoyed reading the Bone Season. At its core it’s a wonderful mix of Pullman’s Northern Lights and Orwell’s 1984. My overriding memory of it though, is that it was unnecessarily complicated.  There’s an awful lot going on in the Bone Season. Almost too much. The combination of London setting and ideas to burn, put me in mind of Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne series. Pollock’s first book, The City’s Son was too bewildering for me. The follow up pared down the ideas to one or two of the really good ones, making The Glass Republic an exceptional novel. So it is with The Mime Order. Having opened up a multitude of paint cans for book one, this time Samantha Shannon uses only a few shades to paint something wonderful.

The Orwellian overtones of the first book are largely gone. Scion still sits over the story, but their totalitarian regime hovers over proceedings without interfering too much. Shannon has essentially ring-fenced her storylines. There are concentric circles of plot, with the mysterious (and murderous) Rephraim on the outside, and the oppresive (and murderous) Scion inside that. Residing in the middle are the oppressed (and murderous) syndicate of clairvoyants.  The events of the Mime Order take place at the heart of Shannon’s creation.

Paige Mahoney has one eye on the architects of her misery, but the action here deals almost exclusively with the mime-lords and their quasi-Dickensian London. After escaping from Sheol I, Paige quickly realises that she has little chance on her own. Despite their argument at the end of book 1, Paige’s latter-day Fagin, Jaxon Hall, has offered her a place back at his side as his ‘mollisher’. When a brutal murder takes place at the top of London’s clairvoyant syndicate, a power vacuum is formed in the city’s underworld. There’s a space at the top and only one person can fill it. Paige is faced with a choice. Aid Jaxon to a likely victory, but forever remain under his yoke or double cross the man who trained her. Jaxon isn’t interested in her tales of the Rephraim, he won’t let her go up against Scion, but if she becomes head of the syndicate she can reveal the truth to her fellow voyants. She could spark a revolution.

The Mime Order channels Dickens and Gaiman, with colourful characters in an oppressed criminal underworld. I do love a good alternate London, and Shannon’s is one of the best. Once again, the choice of Seven Dials as a key setting is inspired. I love it around that area of London and the dials is so otherworldly it’s perfect for a tale of myth and magic. Shannon plays deft homage, whilst banging out a great story.

The plot of the Mime Order has little out of the ordinary. Criminal factions play off one another, each vying for supremacy. What sets the novel apart, once again, is the world building. The gangs of voyants are marvellously drawn, as are their colourful leaders. There’s skulduggery aplenty. Lies, plays and double crossings, back-stabbings and full frontal assaults; it’s all here. The magic and clairvoyance upon which the novel is based are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story. This adds great atmosphere; almost anything could happen. Shannon’s writing is highly addictive, I read this book for great chunks at a time, desperate to find out what would happen. The story swings back and forth with several twists, building up to a (possibly overdone) humdinger of a reveal.

It’s no secret this is a projected series of seven novels. The overreaching arc is left wide open for volume three; loose threads abound. The Mime Order was such a compulsive read, it’s going to be hard to wait for the next book. I’m eager to find out where the story will go next. Having constructed her world like an onion, Shannon has plenty more layers left to reveal. There are five more books to go, so lots yet to happen. If they’re all as good as The Mime Order, I’d happily read 50.

Many Thanks to Madeleine at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of this book. 

Religious Disorder – Arab Jazz by Karim Miské

arabjazzArab Jazz was one of those books that fell through my letterbox unexpectedly, landing on the outlying edge of my reading interests. It’s the sort of book that I’d love to read, if only there weren’t five more in the queue that I’d love to read equally, or even a little more. These books cause me great angst. They fill my shelves, waiting for somebody to invent a machine that slows time so that I can read them all. It’s a wonderful privilege to receive books unasked for, in hope of a review, but it cuts me up that I can rarely fulfil my side of the bargain; even if I never made it in the first place.

Arab Jazz was probably destined to remain somewhere near the top of the never-quite-read pile, when along came this tweet from Matt Craig at Readerdad (a fine blog, that you should read, especially if you like crime thrillers and Stephen King)

I’d half forgotten I even had the book, and hadn’t related its subject matter to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. The link forged by Matt, I thought I’d give it a try.

The book vividly brings to life the melting pot of Paris and its 19e arrondissment. If you asked what Paris meant to me, I’d say something typically clichéd about the Tour Eiffel, the cobbled streets of Montmartre and the centre Pompidou. If pressed, I might grab desperately for a superannuated pop culture reference and say ‘Royale with Cheese’. I like Paris, love to visit it, but in reality I know very little about it. Arab Jazz brings the real city, the city where people live, to life. Paris crashed into our newstreams this year, but only with a sense of hyperreality. Miské’s novel is grounded in the real Paris.

Here we see Jewish residents brushing up against Muslims, alongside Christians and communists. There are policeman and shop-owners, teenage girls and manic depressives. Barbers and bar owners. Wannabe pop-stars rub against ardent lovers, whilst criminals of every hue lurk in the shadows. The whole of life is found between the covers of this book.

Arab Jazz opens with a murder. A violent violation of an air stewardess. The ritualistic cant of the murder scene suggests religious fanaticism. The body of Laura Vignole is discovered by Ahmed, a reclusive young man with North African heritage. Quick to realise he’s in the frame (our reclusive hero reads masses of paperback crime novels, he can spot a set up when he sees one), Ahmed flees to his room to await the inevitable arrival of the police.

Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot immediately see that Ahmed is not responsible for the murder, even if the victim did have an unrequited love for him. Kupferstein and Hamelot are fabulously drawn characters, with heritage that deviates from the norm. Together, and with help from Ahmed who is running a separate investigation alongside, they try to uncover exactly what has been going on.

Arab Jazz is both helped and hindered by the recent events in Paris. Firstly they give some novel some context. Most notably a couple of references to Charlie Hebdo which would have sailed right by me a couple of months ago. The simmering tensions in the city have been freshly examined by the media. They may have used a rough grade magnifying glass to do so but the worldwide analysis of real-life events in Paris have given the (non-French) reader a frame of reference.

Miské’s story is a subtle one. When compared with the sledgehammer blow of overwrought news reports, it feels mundane. It took me a while realise that although this is fiction, the picture painted is far closer to reality than the recent sensational reporting. The characters here are not merely French, Jewish and Muslim but Breton, Ashkenazi and Salafist. Nobody fits a broad one-word label; the labels that make headlines, that polarise communities. This is a novel grounded in subtle distinctions.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. In many ways it’s not important. The key to the novel its cast. All different, all human, all living alongside one another. It’s not a perfect novel. I wasn’t keen on some of the flashback scenes, they felt like shoe-horning information in solely for the reader’s benefit. The colourful streets brought to life motif, does give the novel a rambling, ramshackle feel. If you like your crime fiction lean, mean and tightly plotted you might be put off. For me though the vivid portrayal of the 19th and it’s inhabitants is what sets the novel apart from the field. Overall this is an excellent début.

In Arab Jazz the murder takes second stage to the people caught up by its aftermath. The novel gently suggests that in a world where we run screaming from the demons pedalled by the media, the truth is often a little more prosaic. No single section of society has cornered the market in villainy. This is a fine novel that asks you to look beyond the stories we’re fed, forcing us to think that little bit deeper. Which is exactly what good fiction is meant to do. Apparently Arab Jazz is the first in a forthcoming trilogy of novels. I look forward to reading what follows.

Many thanks to the team at MacLehose Press for sending me a copy of this book.

Matt Craig’s full review can be found here, and his excellent interview with Karim Miské, here.

Take the bait – Fishbowl by Matthew Glass

fishbowlFishbowl is a lo-octane thriller that will appeal to anybody with a geeky side. At the centre of the novel is social media start-up Fishbowll and its creator Andrei Koss. The novel opens with Andrei coming up with a concept. What if there was a way for you to meet online somebody with a very specific interest you share? From this idea he builds Fishbowll.

The book, is in essence ‘The Social Network’ in novel form. At the start Andrei is a student in Stamford. He blows off his courses to concentrate on marathon ‘wheelspin’ coding sessions that sees Fishbowll go live . He and two friends thrash out the idea fully, then implement it. Before long they have hundreds of users, not long after, thousands, with people are joining all the time.

Fishbowl (the novel) tracks the journey from start-up to behemoth. As Fishbowll grows, decisions have to made. How to generate revenue, where to spend it. Who’s advice to take. Before long, a new investor is found; a veteran (though of course still young) of some vaguely successful internet start-ups. He’s the character who would be played by Justin Timberlake; the one who adds a more commercial and hedonistic side to the group. He’s useful to counteract Andrei’s high concept purity. The relationship between these two forms the backbone of the novel.

On the face of it, there isn’t a great deal of excitement in Fishbowl, yet at times I found it utterly compelling. The details of the website and company growth are fascinating, from both a technical and conceptual perspective. Much is made of the Andrei’s wish to create something truly visionary and altruistic, whilst at the same time recognising the need for his creation to survive. The discussions around the compromises Andrei needs to make are interesting and thought provoking, none more so when it is discovered terrorists may have used the site to discuss their plans.

‘The world is getting exactly the internet it deserves.’

The problems Andrei and Fishbowl face felt very real. This gives the novel a slightly mundane feel, but also grounds it in reality, anchoring its debates on things like the right for free speech and personal responsibility when using the internet. Much is made of the need for advertising. The idea that the only way to keep costs down is to advertise. If something isn’t free, then us, the users, aren’t interested. We’re happy to give almost any piece of information about ourselves away for free as long as we can keep using our social media. Fishbowl is essentially an extension of the idea that mankind has created an incredible network that allows instantaneous access to almost the entire sum of human knowledge, and we use it to watch cats fall out of trees.

The novel is not without its flaws though. It would be impossible for me to call this novel exciting. It’s not a thriller in the traditional sense and its a long book to have so little action. This of course is fine, action is not a prerequisite for a good story, yet Clancy and Crichton are namechecked on the cover, but not one person gets eaten by a dinosaur. More troubling is the ending. As the fishbowl gets bigger heading beyond Olympic swimming pool size, it’s obvious something bad is going to happen, but one is hard pushed to think what that might be. You can’t help think that the author had the same problem. When the ending comes, it is very much forced by outside agency. How the end comes about is abrupt and unsatisfactory. Having said that, what Glass does with this end is powerful, shocking and quite likely to leave you howling in anger. In a good way. It almost justifies the novel’s deus ex machina. Almost.

All in all Fishbowl is a good novel. I think it’s slightly niche. It’s geek mana that I lapped up, but I think without at least a passing interest in technology and social media, you wouldn’t find enough in the novel to make it worth reading. It is over-long.

Fishbowl is thought provoking in its discussion of the role social media has to play in society, in particular in regards to free speech, national security and personal responsibility. It’s one in the eye for the trolls, but I doubt they’d notice. Perhaps the novel’s greatest asset is that it’s easy to see that Fishbowl could exist, and even easier to see how its development would be tainted by the darker hues Glass paints his canvas with. Fishbowl is a strong addition to a growing canon about the new ways in which we interact and the continuing battle between freedom of expression and making a buck.

See also

No Harm can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe

Glaze by Kim Curran

Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Word Exchange by Amelia Graedon.

Many Thanks to Alison at Corvus/Atlantic for sending me a copy of this book 

One final observation of book marketing, something you hear that goes on, but I’ve never noticed first hand. The book’s cover quote says ‘ The heir to Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton’ -THE ECONOMIST – but when you read the Economist review it’s talking about it says – ‘the publisher is already describing Mr Glass as the heir to Tom Clancy (for “The Hunt for Red October”) and to Michael Crichton (for “State of Fear”, his diatribe about global warming).’ So the Economist didn’t really say it did it…

 

 

Bollocks and Ladders – Block Tech Blocks ‘n’ Ladders

bnlI must confess to being biased against this product from the outset. I have a thing against Lego knock-offs. Half the price, a tenth of the fun; the pieces never stay together properly. When my son brought ‘BnL’ downstairs to play, my heart sank. I was holding out for another round of City of Zombies. BnL was a gift from a friend at my 6 year old’s birthday party. It’s horrible choosing gifts for these occasions; I never know what to buy.  From the outside this looks a pretty good bet. Snakes and Ladders, only you build stuff as you go. Brilliant!

If only.

The board doesn’t lay flat, since it’s only a (thin) cardboard square, this is inexcusable. The pieces are in non-resealable bags. The idea of the game is to build and rebuild the specified models each play, so something to keep the pieces from being mixed up between games would have been nice. Some of the pieces are poorly moulded and it would transpire later that they weren’t all there. Then there’s the minifigures. Their faces are very badly painted on; some of them are truly terrifying. They look like ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ after a trip to President Business’s beauty salon.

Despite my reservations we settled down to play. The first thing that caught my eye was the casual sexism. There are four characters, three male and one female. Their roles. SWAT team Policeman, Fireman, Dinosaur Ranger and… Fashion Model *sigh*. They each have their special squares where they can use unique abilities: Catch Criminals!, Extinguish Fires!, Follow tracks!, and…er… answer the phone… *double sigh*.

Only a fashionista can take that call...

Only a fashionista can take that call…

The game itself is straightforward snakes and ladders. You roll the die, move, then follow the instructions on the square you land on. These are normally ‘Take X pieces.’ The game says it’s for 5+ but my six year old who can manipulate Lego with no problem, really struggled. The pieces don’t fit together well and so he had to keep reattaching them. To his credit it took him the entire game before he lost his temper. The instructions for all four models are one double sided piece of paper. They are tiny and only one person can use them at once. You can cut the paper in half (which we ended up doing), but because they are double sided, it still means only two people can build.

These issues are exacerbated by the fact it doesn’t actually take very long to roll a dice.  Everybody has to either sit around whilst each person builds or just keep going collecting more and more pieces, getting further and further behind with their build. Each build has a wildly different number of pieces, which might be unfair, if it weren’t for the fact we’d all collected all our pieces around the half way mark. Three of us hadn’t built our models because we couldn’t see the instructions. We just had small heaps of Flego (Fake Lego) in front of us, but pressed on up the board as fast as we could in order to end the pain. By the end of the game my 6 year old finally managed to put his helicopter together, only for us to discover that his minifigure didn’t sit in properly. At that point he had a tantrum, and who can blame him?

This is a terrible game, devoid of thought or care. It is bound to end in misery for any family that tries to play it. Had this game been made by Lego it would surely have cost three times the price, but then I would only have to play it three times to get the same value for money.

Dear Anne, – Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack

randomThis book forms part of my irregular, one man book club based on Jo Walton’s What Makes this Book so Great. Jo’s review for Tor.Com can be found here

Walton’s review states Random Acts is one of her favourite books. As a man who has recently discovered and (mostly) fallen in love with Walton’s own work, this makes it a must read. I was really looking forward to reading this book. My self-appointed book club reads are few and far between, but I knew the next one I read would not be a random act. The problem with this sort of expectation is that it can strongly influence your opinion of a novel. There was almost no way I could enjoy this book as much as I wanted to.

I often struggle with ‘classic’ science fiction. During my formative fiction reading years, around 1990, I found it dry and difficult to absorb. By classic I’m talking about the stuff my Dad used to read. Asimov, Heinlein, Anderson; books written in 60s and 70s. I found Random Acts similarly hard to find a way into. It’s technically accomplished, but it didn’t grab me. Reading it was an exercise in putting one word after the other, to build a story, rather being flung headlong into the narrative. It reminded me of reading those ‘old’ novels again. Curiously, it was written in 1993. It was cutting edge at the time I struggled with old masterworks. I think 20 year old me would probably have hated this book.

Current dystopian fiction is rarely character based. It tends to be plucky characters (teenagers) sticking it to the man. They turn over on the back of rebellion and the reclaiming of freedoms. Whilst the central protagonists are agents of great change, they themselves usually change very little. Characters in the modern dystopia are born ready for their roles. Womack’s treatment is altogether different. It’s far more character driven. It’s also set on our side of the downfall. No single, evil megalomaniac has set up the world to be unfair. The world is merely unequal. The privileged few live in isolated luxury, whilst the majority of the masses live in penury. Sound familiar?

The premise of the novel could have been taken from any number of post-austerity documentaries about middle class, white collar families, who suddenly find themselves jobless and all but unemployable. Lola Hart is a middle class girl, whose writer parents buy her a diary for her birthday. She goes to a private school and lives in a large apartment in Manhattan. As the novel opens we learn that all is not well in the rest of New York and the USA but, for now, Manhattan stays wide awake in splendid isolation.

As Lola writes in her diary, we see world affairs and the state of her home life. Wars and riots are given brief tantalising mentions, the minutiae of the dinner table and playground politics a whole lot more. A short way into the novel, Lola’s parents are forced to relocate northwards to the fringes of Harlem. Suddenly Lola and her sister a forced to commute miles across the city in order to get to school. The change in postcode (ZIP!), makes them social pariahs amongst their classmates. Beyond that, Lola wrestles with her awakening sexuality, giving the novel an additional personal dimension. There are many struggles going on here.

The most remarkable thing about Random Acts is its narrative voice. As Lola’s view of the world shifts, so does her language. As Walton points out in her review the subtle shift in language is one of the novel’s key devices. Having said that, I wasn’t totally convinced. Firstly, speaking in a patois is one thing, children readily ape the mannerisms of their peers, but I’m not sure this translates into their written language so smoothly. The shift seemed too fast for me.

Another problem I often have with diary based novels is the level of detail recalled about dialogue and events. I’m not sure people really record their conversations word for word when they write them down. Even if they could remember it fully, I think only a general sense of the dialogue is what would be recorded, with maybe one or two choice quotes.  This however is a technical point, and doesn’t really interfere with the novel’s enjoyment.

But did I enjoy it? Well, the story is very slow. Very little happens. It’s descent by degrees. I certainly wasn’t urgently compelled to read on. The introduction of dialect didn’t help me. It’s something I often struggle with. Rare is the novel where I become so caught up in altered speech, that I cease to notice. It was only on finishing the book that I appreciated how good it is. The novel has a left-wing bias; the have-nots are portrayed an underclass, left to battle amongst themselves whilst the rich live untouched. The book may be twenty years old but its still massively relevant, perhaps now more so than ever.

Womack offers a strong position on the nature vs nurture debate. All those who think those in poverty are born lazy, idle and criminal would do well to read this book. It’s as poignant decline as you are ever likely to read. So whilst at times I found the book a bit boring, reading on only out of respect for Jo Walton, I’m so glad I finished it. It’s one of those books that worms its way beneath your skin. Even now, days after having read it, little flashes of it return. It’s a clever and disturbing chronicle of a personal downfall. It also chimes scarily with the current political climate. I wish my book club wasn’t a solo effort as there is lots to discuss here. This book is the first of Womack’s Dryco series, and whilst it’s much the easiest to get hold of, I will definitely be trying to track down at least one more to see what else he has to say.

 

By Robin's Books Posted in Books

The Mutability of Story – Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

rabbitI read this book over Christmas. I thought the Finnish setting and wintry backdrop might somehow be enhanced by the festive period. Boy was that wrong. Chances to sit and read for any length of time were few and far between and as books go, this one is definitely a large hot-tub full to the brim with expensive Christmas-gift bubble bath. You don’t want to be dipping in and out. You want to luxuriate in its baffling, quirky majesty.

From the town of Rabbit Back hails Laura White, an international bestselling children’s author. White has written a series of fantasy books featuring anthropomorphised animals. She is in essence the love child of JK Rowling and Kenneth Graham. She’s also not in the book very much. Twenty or so years ago, Laura White started the Rabbit Back Literature Society in order to find and nurture hopeful young writers. By young, I mean school age. To be chosen was a great honour and there were only ever to be ten members. For years there have been nine. The tenth was never discovered. The existing nine all went on to have successful literary careers of their own.

Lonely Ella Milana, a literature teacher with little remarkable about her, finds herself being invited to be the tenth member; a talent worthy of Laura White’s time and energy. Laura is initiated into the society where she discovers at its heart a curious game. Beyond that, strange things are afoot in Rabbit Back, not least of all a mysterious library copy of Dostoevsky with the ending changed.

This is a wonderful mishmash of a book, with the impossible residing next to the mundane, and fairy tales snuggled up to the kitchen sink. It is in essence a story about stories. About how they change over time, and how they depend on the reader. It’s also greatly concerned with the creative process. ‘The Game’ is a method in which members of the Rabbit Back Literature society could peel back layers one another’s psyche, probing their innermost secrets in order to gain material for novels. It’s peculiar, yet enthralling; an examination of the myriad ways one can look at something. This is particularly noticeable by the way the fledging Ella asks very factual questions, whereas the experienced novelists she’s thrown in with see the world in altogether different way, asking far more subtle and psychologically testing questions.

I’ll be honest and say I struggled with this book. It’s continual rubbing up of the surreal, real and psychological made for an uneven read. The narrative was forever shifting and I found it difficult to keep hold of a sense of story. Ironic for a novel about stories. The writing though is fabulous. Evocative words and sentences jump of the page. It’s a beautifully observed novel, but I failed much of the time to find a sense of whole. It was like a patchwork quilt of clashing colours, where the finished article is less than each individual square.

The book was a book group choice, and it was only after sitting and discussing it with friends, that I realised how much I had enjoyed it. How many little things I had absorbed without noticing. How many things I completely missed. Each member of the group brought something different they’d noticed about the novel to the table. It made for one of our best conversations yet (out of 8 years and counting). After the group discussion, I felt much more kindly towards the Rabbit Back Literature Society. It is a very accomplished novel, cleverly constructed. There are dozens of references and influences. It is indeed a patchwork, and while its colours clashed at first, there is something unique about its riotous splendour. It’s a definitely a book that would bear rereading, and in light of all the things we discussed, this is something I aim to do. Just not at Christmas.

 

 

Love thy Neighbour – Alice and the Fly by James Rice

aliceAlice and the Fly is causing a stir in the publishing world. Written by someone at the coalface (a Waterstones employee), it’s a tale reminiscent of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and last year’s Costa Winner The Shock of the Fall. It’s a debut with some stellar hype, but is it worthy of it? On balance, I would say, yes.

The narrator’s voice reminded me of my 2013 favourite The Universe Vs Alex Woods. Both are gently humorous tales, narrated by a teenage boy with a singular view of the world. Here though, Greg is not simply an intelligent loner. He is one step disconnected from the rest of us. There is clearly something not altogether right about him. We are reading his diary, written on the suggestion of a teacher to help Greg understand himself. His classmates call him psycho and he has a morbid fear of spiders, referred to only as ‘Them’. It’s only towards the end of the book that we learn fully what is the matter with Greg, but we know from the outset that he is a deeply troubled teenager.

I worked in Waterstones for a few years and pretty much everybody there was writing a book. James Rice probably had more chance than most of seeing his dream become reality, having completed an MA in Writing. The book does have a creative writing graduate feel to it, though whether I’d have noticed if I hadn’t known in advance, I couldn’t say. It’s certainly a cleverly constructed tale. Rice is an expert in showing rather than telling. The central mystery of the book is cleverly drip fed to the reader. It holds the attention beautifully. Even at the end, we’re still not told everything; just given enough pieces to build our own jigsaw.

As the book progresses the reader is pulled into Greg’s world and it’s impossible not to feel great empathy for him. Empathy the other characters in the book, even his own family, sadly lack. Empathy that very few of us (including myself) would feel if we encountered Greg in real life. This is the aspect I liked most about the book, and the area where I feel the novel felt most like it was the product of a creative writing graduate.  Not for nothing was Greg’s English class studying An Inspector Calls. One of the novel’s central themes focuses on the idea expounded in Preistley’s play. The idea that not enough people get involved.

Greg is largely ignored. He is a problem people hope will go away. But it’s not just him. Alice, Greg’s grandmother and a neighbour are all, to greater or lesser degrees, victims of indifference. Even a teenage party gets the treatment. Time and again the idea of indifference feeds back into the narrative. Interspersed between Greg’s diary extracts are the transcripts from police interviews.  In a curious inversion of An Inspector Calls, the policeman tells those he’s interviewing,  ‘It’s not your fault’. Yet really it is. No one individual is wholly responsible for the seismic events of the novel, but all of us are culpable. In the twenty-first century, where we are all connected, never unable to communicate with one another, we rarely reach out to others. We rarely stop to help.

The biggest thing I took away from Alice and the Fly, is how much better the world would be if we looked out for each other a little more. So profoundly does Rice make his point, it’s prompted me to look hard about how I interact with the world around me. I consider myself a empathetic character. I care about people, their feelings and my place in the world. I’m also a hand-wringer, often crippled by indecision, hating to interfere. In Alice in the Fly a number of lives would be made better, if people, sometimes specific a person, but mostly just anybody, had interfered. The idea that we can each make a difference is a powerful one.

Reading Alice and the Fly was like watching a car crash in slow motion. I haven’t read one of those for a while. These type of books are almost too painful to read, but remain utterly compelling. It’s nigh on impossible to tear your eyes from the page, as you enter the book’s final third and Greg spirals towards well-meaning disaster. Alice and the Fly is an excellent book that I think will find a great following during 2015. I have no doubt it will be featuring on Christmas round-ups at the end of year, and more than likely appearing at a book group near you. This is great storytelling providing plenty of food for thought and opportunity for discussion. Full marks to Mr Rice.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine program.   

 

Badbook – Goodhouse by Peyton Marshall

goodhouse-cover-200x300Either I’ve been reading too much dystopian fiction recently or Goodhouse just isn’t very, well…err… good. It wears its influences like a badge and fails to live up to any of them. The entire time I was reading, I was reminded of other books. At no time did I think ‘this is quality and original fiction’. It adds nothing to the canon that has come before it.

The novel is set at the turn of the 21st century. Scientists have been able to determine whether somebody is genetically predisposed to becoming a criminal. If so, they are sent to a ‘Goodhouse’ to learn to override any negative impulses they may have and so become model citizens. Like all places where boys are sent to be reformed this entails being mistreated on a regular basis. Strong medication, electronic tagging and almost continuous surveillance allows no time for personal space or freedom of expression. The inmates have been found guilty before doing anything wrong.

The Goodhouse is effectively a fictional representation of the Stanford Prison experiment. The guards (proctors) are horrible, the ‘Class Leaders’, (students elevated to a position of authority amongst the Goodhouse population) are worse. Abuse is endemic but the powers that oversee the Goodhouses don’t much care. The system is meant to prevent the creation of criminals, but it’s evident to us as readers that it does the complete opposite.

This is the first problem of the novel. It’s too heavy handed. We are left in no doubt as to the rottenness of the system. It has no redeeming features. It’s hard to credit such a system could exist. I’m not suggesting this sort of thing didn’t, doesn’t or wouldn’t go on, because it’s a massive problem in all penal systems, but the whole system here seems to have been set up to abuse children innocent of any crime, and it doesn’t ring true. Compare this with devastating analysis found in Rene Denefeld’s The Enchanted, and Goodhouse starts to look like the Shawshank Redemption written with a crayon. The system is so obviously going to cause criminality it’s akin to trying to prevent obesity with continuous access to cream cakes.

On the outside there are Christian fundamentalist terrorists who want all the Goodhouse boys to burn. The lead character (James) has been their victim before, when his previous, more provincial, gentle Goodhouse was burned down. These fundamentalists take their cue from a particular passage in the bible pertaining to the eradication of weeds by fire. I quite like this literal-reading-of-the bible-gone-wrong approach, but the ‘zeros’ feel like action movie equivalents of the groups in Elliott Hall’s excellent Strange Trilogy series. Their symbol is a lightning bolt through a circle, a symbol that brings to mind, altogether too unfortunately, the Mokingjay pendant from The Hunger Games.

fredThe the less obvious villain of the piece, a school doctor, who may or may not be on James’s side, again feels like a substandard import from other books, in particular the manipulative doctor from Julianna Baggott’s considerably more ambitious ‘Pure’ trilogy. In my Fuse review, I described Ellery Willux as Mayor Prentiss (from Patrick Ness’s sublime Chaos Walking trilogy) with much guile and subtlety removed. Goodhouse’s Dr Cleveland is further down the ladder still. It perhaps best displays how much I failed to buy into this book (and how two-dimensional I found it) that I pictured Cleveland to be the duplicitous mayor and Fred’s dad from Scooby Doo – Mystery incorporated. Not a ringing endorsement.

The plot consists of James being mistreated and pushed from one dodgy part of the Goodhouse to the next, being demerited for stuff he didn’t do. Inevitably he gets pissed off and his darker side comes out. There’s some convoluted plot about the terrorists that doesn’t really make much sense and a big explosion. There is, inevitably, some love interest. The girl from the good family, who wants a bit of rough, who is far more devious and underhand than the potential criminal she’s attracted to. It’s all so predictable. Throw in some implausible coincidence and you have the perfect recipe for a frustrating book.

I’ve gone to town on what’s bad about this book, but it does have some good qualities. It’s readable. Despite my misgivings, I didn’t want to stop reading. Partly in hope that hidden depths would be revealed, but mostly because I did care about what happened to James. There are some worthwhile observations made about the perils of incarceration and institutionalised abuse. As the novel closes there are also some touching moments between the boys who have had to bond together in order to survive their ordeal.

All in all though this is not a happy dystopia. The set up was interesting but a heavy handed approach has obliterated the chance to explore the case for nature over nurture. Old tropes and characters have been reused to bring nothing new. Goodhouse is readable, but then so is a cereal packet.

Many thanks to the team at Doubleday for sending me a copy of this book.