Fate or Chance? – The Coincidence Authority by J W Ironmonger

coincidenceIn fiction, I don’t really like coincidence. It’s often too convenient; a lazy way to move the plot forward. Which is why it’s perhaps surprising that I could find a book predicated on coincidence such a joy. The difference is that the whole point of this book, maybe, is to show how those million to one chances that pepper our lives, the chance encounters that seem impossible, are in reality far more likely than we realise.

Thomas Post is a philosopher. He is interested in the idea that coincidence might be evidence of predetermination. To over-simplify Post’s work (and Ironmonger’s storytelling), reducing coincidence to a set of probabilities could go some way to disproving the existence of God. Then, in walks Azalea Lewis, a girl whose life appears to be predicated on coincidence. Romance inevitably ensues.

What followed was far from expected. I had anticipated a boy meets girl, boy irritates girl by rational approach to chance, boy proved vaguely right, boy saves girl from crushing fear of coincidence, boy marries girl, type story with some interesting psychology, philosophy and jokes thrown in. Well I did get that, but there is considerably more meat in Ironmonger’s pot.

Azalea’s backstory, her life dogged by strife and improbable coincidence is artfully constructed and masterfully told. Where the novel cuts deepest is with its portrayal of Uganda, Azelea’s one-time home.

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The tone of Ironmonger’s omniscient narrator delights throughout. The passage I’ve chosen in the photo, I think best shows the strength of the writing. It’s good when it’s funny, but when serious, he encapsulates the absurdities of life and the desperate disinterest the first world has in Africa. Joseph Kony, a shadowy figure barely heard of in newscasts at home, is the leader of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). This real life super-villain has killed multitudes of Africans and enslaved thousands of children, conscripting them into his army. Many of the novel’s events are precipitated from when Azalea’s missionary parents and the LRA collide. But Azalea’s bad luck did not start there.

From the time she is found as a toddler in a Devon field to the end of the novel. Azalea’s life is a tale of misfortune and unlucky happenstance; Ironmonger constructs it beautifully. It’s one of those books that’s difficult to unpick for review without sullying the magic. I loved if from first page to last. The light writing style is easy to read, yet packs a great emotional punch. There is a perfect balance of light and dark; strange things happen by coincidence but the very worst humanity has to offer is by a combination of design and indifference. It’s a sobering thought.

The Coincidence Authority is what we book lovers constantly crave; a great story, well told. I’ve read some very strong novels in 2013 and this book is in amongst them. Highly recommended.

Many Thanks to Jess at Orion books to consenting to send me a copy of this book to review, from what was little more than a shameless beg… (with, I’ve just realised, the title consistently wrong!) 

Your Number’s Up – ‘Game’ by Anders De La Motte

gameYou can never tell with thrillers. The premise as written in the blurb always sounds mind blowing. If every book was as good as its tagline suggested we’d never have invented TV.

Game is no exception. A secret game, played over a mobile phone. Dares for points, but are these mindless acts of mischief and violence or is there method behind the mayhem? Who is playing the Game, and what are the stakes? An enticing prospect, but would the book live up to its billing?

Yes.

Game is a brilliantly exciting novel. Scandinavian crime is in a good place at the moment, but for some books (including the very popular ones) the delivery doesn’t quite match the hype. No such problems with Game. There are more twists and turns in this book than you’d find in a bendy straw factory.

I often have a problem with this type of book and their reliance on convenient coincidence. It always spoils things. There are no such problems here. Indeed De La Motte goes one step further by making you think there is one, before punching you hard in the solar plexus; punishment for lack of faith. This is a well constructed house of cards, that you can only gape at in admiration.

The novel is strong from the start, and it’s the illicit frisson generated by the game itself that gives the book it’s appeal. A sleek high-end mobile phone found on a train. A mysterious invite, a harmless prank and some money in the bank. Add into that a leaderboard and an anonymous fan base clamouring for more, what could possibly go wrong? It turns out it’s amazing what lengths fragile egos might go to in order to retain their fame. It’s easy to see how almost anybody could start their way down this slipperiest of paths.

De La Motte exploits the anonymity of social networking, combined with its flip side; how easy it is to gain notoriety. It’s an almost perfect marriage of technology and psychology. By continually throwing curve balls, the author keeps his reader off balance. It’s impossible to tell where the boundary between the game and real-life lies. Who is playing who? And do they even know? It’s an onion of duplicity.

I really enjoyed Game. It’s fast-flowing. Makes some important observations about society and keeps you guessing until the end. Despite the sleight of hand I think it remains plausible throughout. Christmas is on the way and this book is the perfect gift for the thriller lover in your life. The first in a trilogy, Game deserves to be huge.

Many Thanks to Jaime and the rest of the Harper/Blue Door Books team for sending me a copy of this book. It’s out in the UK on December 5th.

Muck Cart or Wedding? ‘The Potter’s Hand’ by A N Wilson

The-Potters-Hand-195x300I must confess that when Alison at Atlantic books contacted me about reviewing The Potter’s Hand I wasn’t the excited at the prospect. A family saga about a Victorian industrialist is hardly my typical reading material. Yet there is something compelling about the name of Wedgewood, a powerhouse of his time and still a household name today.

My wife is a voracious, hard to please reader, so I figured that if she liked the book, it would be a worthwhile read. She’s from the Potteries, from a family that has lived there for several generations, so I thought the book would interest her. Alison was kind enough to send me the book, even though all I could promise is that my wife would at least start it.

Mrs Brooks’s verdict was that it was worth a read.  Still unconvinced it would ever reach the top of my reading pile without further incentive, I persuaded my Book Group to read it too.

Whilst the journey wasn’t entirely plain sailing I am very glad I made the effort, and dragged others along with me. The book was an unalloyed success at book group, receiving the approval of every member. A rare event. As I expected I had the least favourable view, but I must concede that overall The Potter’s Hand is an impressive and immersive piece of fiction.

Ostensibly it follows Josiah Wedgewood from his formative years right up to his death, but it’s main focus are the years after his marriage to Sally. The other principle characters are their daughter Sukey, nephew Tom Bryerly, a Cherokee Indian (A woman Tom met whilst on a mission to procure white clay for his uncle) and Caleb Bowers, a childhood friend of Josiah’s.

The plot of the novel is short but exceptionally broad, taking in many of the important players of the Industrial Revolution. The tumultuous history of the time dovetails seamlessly with the novel. The American War of Independence, abolition of slavery, even the French Revolution butt up against The Potter’s Hand, which sits in the middle, offering a lens on them all. At the centre of the novel is Josiah Wedgewood, lynchpin of so many deeds and events.

As I’ve grown longer in the tooth, I’ve noticed how little context the things I learned in school (and even university) were given. Each topic was studied in isolation, with little time or consideration as to how one might have impacted the other. For example, during my degree important scientists were mentioned in reference to their discoveries but it was never mentioned that they all hung out together. It probably wasn’t important to what I was learning at the time, but through subsequent wider reading of books like The Potter’s Hand it is possible to see and understand the evolution of modern science and technology. I think it unifies understanding of the subject.

There were times when the sheer volume of characters and the depth of detail threatened to overwhelm me. Where was the story? The book felt not so much a novel but a fictionalised biography of Josiah Wedgewood. Snapshots placed in chronological order. Immensely detailed snapshots, but ultimately just pictures without an overriding story arc. If it hadn’t been for the extra interest generated by my knowledge and relation by marriage to the area, I may have given up.

Had I done so I would have missed out. Because yes, on the surface this a novel about events and famous historical characters. It’s detail heavy; names, places and processes. It’s interesting, sometimes but riveting? Rarely. And then I came across a passage of such elegant beauty it stopped me in my tracks. It was though a veil and had been lifted and suddenly I could see with the utmost clarity. The real story here goes on between the details. It’s about the relationship between love, work and art. It’s only as we reach the end of the novel we see A N Wilson’s full picture, and it’s quite something to behold.

Characterisation is mostly strong. Josiah is wonderfully rendered as is his wife and daughter. There is a dichotomy between Wedgewood’s progressive republicanism and abolitionist stance, and his blinkered view towards emancipation and women’s rights. Even the world-wise and enlightened Sukey is shackled by the attitudes of the time.

The main players are supported by varied and colourful secondary characters, including the less sympathetically drawn Darwins. Such is the hatchet job done on the Father of Evolution’s forbears, it’s hard not to wonder if Wilson is a closet Intelligent Design adherent! I have no idea how much basis in fact there is for portraying Erasmus Darwin as a lecherous molester, but it certainly adds a piquancy to the story.

Overall, I am very glad I decided to give The Potter’s Hand a go. It is a vivid portrayal of the industrial revolution, with a nugget of gold at its heart. Of the 7 people I know who have read the book, all thought it was something special. 7 opinions for the price of one. Recommendation indeed!

Many Thanks to Alison at Atlantic for sending me a copy of this book with only the flimsiest promise to read it! 

Don’t keep it a Secret – Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

GoblinSecretsCover2I have three children. I love books. It’s no surprise then that we have a lot of children’s stories in our house. Very few of them are of the quality of Goblin Secrets. Reading William Alexander’s prize winning novel has been a wonderful experience for father and son alike. I find it hard to describe the relish with which we both approached our bedtime read. It’s one of those books that is so good it occasionally ended in a tantrum at the end of a chapter. An unfortunate but curiously welcome side effect of the best children’s books. A burning desire for the tale to keep spinning.

Goblin Secrets follows Rownie, an orphan and ward of Graba, a curious mechanical Fagin with a family of desperate Dodgers. Rownie lives in Zombay, a city split by ‘The River’. It’s two halves, the haphazard Southside and the neat regimented Northside are joined by the Fiddleway, a bridge where miscreants can find sanctuary and buskers duel it out with their competing tunes. In the centre of the bridge sits a mechanical masterpiece, a wondrous stained glass clock tower. In Zombay, for reasons not initially explained, acting is outlawed, at least it is for normal ‘unchanged’ children. Stagecraft and acting is the domain of Goblins; wizened creatures who steal children for nefarious purposes.

As the novel opens Rownie is hoping to find word of his older brother, Rowan. Rowan flaunted the city’s rules by forming an acting troupe, and now he has disappeared. Hiding, dead or fled? Rownie knows not, but his story is driven by his desire to find the truth. That and the attribute that propels many a children’s story, curiosity. When he discovers a Goblin caravan is to perform in the city, he can’t help but use Graba’s money to purchase himself a ticket…

What follows is a lyrical story every bit as good as Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Spellbinding is a word often used to describe fantasy fiction, but in this case I think the word is fully justified. There is something magical about William Alexander’s prose. His description of places and events in Zombay had two generations of Brooks’s bewitched. The rendering of city, the goblins and their masked plays are so evocative, you can hear, taste and smell them. It’s a festival of imagination.

I can’t overstate it enough. Goblin Secrets is children’s fiction of the highest calibre. Its existence solves our birthday party present dilemmas for the foreseeable future; every child deserves the chance to hear about Zombay, Rownie and the magical masks of the Goblins. Finishing Goblin Secrets left us bereft. Would we find as good a book to share again? Handily a companion novel, Ghoulish Song has just hit the shops…

My son is 8 years old and loved this story. I would say six months ago some of it may have gone over his head, and even now I am not sure he fully understood the depth of the ending. The novel’s end has the potential to be disturbing, so some caution is warranted for younger or sensitive readers.

Many Thanks to Sam, Grace and the team at Constable for sending me a copy of this most amazing book.

One final note about Goblin Secrets.  My 17mth old. Loves this book too. He loves the picture of Rownie on the cover. It’s repeated three times and he spends great chunks of time pointing at each in turn going ‘Ro, Ro, Ro…’ Truly a book for all the family!

You can go now – Homeland by Cory Doctorow

homelandI first encountered Cory Doctorow when I read his young adult novel, Little Brother. At the time I thought Boing Boing was the sound rubber balls made. In one of my first ever Amazon reviews I described Little Brother as ‘evocative and exciting’ and a ‘counter culture blockbuster’. For me it set the techno-thriller benchmark and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

On the back of that enjoyment I have read a couple of his follow up novels ‘Makers’ and ‘For the Win’. Whilst interesting, these are much patchier affairs. Doctorow has a tendency to let his depth of knowledge and passion for his subject overwhelm the story he’s trying to tell. This may be fine if you are an über geek, but if you just a common or garden variety like me, you can’t help but wish for a tougher edit.

This is the first Doctorow novel I’ve read since he switched publishers to Titan books. I have no idea if the switch has brought about greater editorial control, but Homeland is a worthy, compelling sequel to Little Brother. If you haven’t read LB yet, you really should start there. Whilst Homeland just about stands on its own, reading LB will give it much greater context.

“There’s something wrong with our world.”

“Somehow the ideals of friendliness, neighborliness, and justice have vanished.”

“To be replaced by a cult of greed, shortsightedness and whatever you can get away with.”

Homeland is set several years after LB. Life for Marcus has returned to some level of normality. He is still something of an Internet celebrity but he no longer attracts unwanted attention from US secret services. The world’s financial crisis is biting the San Francisco area hard. Marcus’s parents have lost their jobs, and he has had to give up going to college through lack of funds. He has diligently been searching for a job, without success.

The novel opens with Marcus trying to forget his woes at the Burning Man festival. A zero impact festival, something like a hi-tech Glastonbury in the middle of the desert. When two associates from his past turn up with a flash drive filled with incendiary data, Marcus feels himself being dragged back towards his old life. When he witnesses his Nemesis kidnapping his old friends, he is flung headlong back into the world of secrets, encryption and the occasional 3D printer. (Everything I know about 3D printing, I know from Doctorow. It’s clearly a favourite topic.)

The plot is slight and some of the arguments made are over-simplified, but that doesn’t really matter. What is important is the novel’s tone. This is a left leaning polemic about freedom of information, the abuse of anti-terrorism laws and corporate greed. It’s a book that can be distilled into any number of aphorisms, but it’s overriding message could well be ‘Tech don’t kill people, humans do,’ all the while asking that vital question, ‘Who watches the Watchman’. (The are a number of similarities between the themes in this book and the recently published The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar. The books are nothing alike but have a thematic harmony).

There is a lot made of the fallibility of the political system, much of which is entirely justified. It seems a fact of life that an idealist with an agenda for change will wind up a conformist, focused on defending their position. ‘It’s complicated’ runs the excuse. Marcus and Doctorow suggest that perhaps it isn’t.

Whilst never being quite as eye-opening as Little Brother, Doctorow once again reveals the frightening capabilities of modern technology to track every mote of our existence. He explains complicated constructs in a simple fashion, mostly refraining from bombarding us with detail. Once again Doctorow has provided a clarion call for the disaffected and technologically savvy youth. The geek may inherit, but what they do with it is entirely up to them. For a man entering his fifth decade, this idea is slightly worrying, but with ethically and socially conscious writers like Doctorow providing guidance there is hope for us all. Maybe.

I ran a Thoughtstream for my read of Homeland. I’m not sure it’s interesting, but it’s there all the same! 

The Welsh Wizard – The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

review-project

It’s fair to say that the books chosen for the Hodderscape review project have taken me by surprise. I was, I suppose anticipating them to be a little more cutting edge. Instead we are drifting slowly back in time. First there was the Eyre Affair, a book from ten years ago. Then the thirty year old The Shining, and now a book written before I was born. Which these days means it’s pretty old.

I must confess, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading The Crystal Cave. For a start I hadn’t heard of it, which though it may vainglorious, made me think it couldn’t be much good. Secondly, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with tales of Arthurian legend. I always feel I should enjoy them, but more often than not they let me down. My interest in Arthur and his Knights reached its nadir with the execrable BBC series Merlin. (I keep trying, because I know people who like it, but I can find nothing to recommend it.) So a whole novel about Merlin’s formative years did not appeal.

The-Crystal-CaveOnce I started reading, things looked up almost immediately. The setting is more historical than chivalrous. 5th century Britain, Celtic settlements and Anglo-Saxon warriors. The positioning of the novel put me in mind of the Pendragon cycle by Stephen Lawhead, books I loved when growing up.

The story is slow and unpretentious. The novel feels slightly dated, but not to its detriment. I imagine a modern treatment would have been grittier with more blood, guts and cursing. This is a more subtle affair, with gentle political manoeuvrings and lyrical description. Yes there are battles and fights, but they are almost a by-product of Merlin’s grand plan. If one exists.

Merlin in this book is not a fire wielding mage, a caster of spells. He is a wise young man, in touch with the earth and possibly spirits. He channels feelings, sometimes catching glimpses of the future or distant events, but he is controlled by his power rather than having mastery himself. Much to his King’s chagrin Merlin cannot augur at will. This is a nice aspect of the book.  Merlin is a man of strong, if malleable religious conviction, and the reader is left to wonder whether his power is down to magic, divine intervention or just simple coincidence and intuition. Much of Merlin’s influence is derived from superstition and exaggeration of his deeds by credulous peasants.

The novel overall is a quietly paced reweaving of British history and mythology.  It didn’t blow me away, but it did keep me in thrall to the very end. I’m glad to have read it as part of the review project, but will I pick up any of the others?  Maybe, but with so many book clamouring for my attention, Stewart’s Merlin trilogy may struggle to be heard.

Men and Supermen – The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

violent century

Osama‘ won Lavie Tidhar the World Fantasy Award. It feathers reality with fantasy, and though occasionally confusing it delivers a wonderful meditation on violence and terrorism in modern society. In many ways The Violent Century carries on in the same vein. Whilst more accessible than Osama, this book too has an unusual structure. Its scope is wider, focusing specifically on World War Two, but more generally on war as a phenomenon. At its heart is a simple question. What makes a hero?

Once again Tidhar’s premise is elegant and compelling. In the 1930s a quantum experiment carried out in Nazi Germany imbued a small percentage of humanity with superpowers. The resulting novel is a string of vignettes of pivotal moments of World War Two, reimagined with superheroes or Übermenschen.

The central narrative, if not weak, is at least diaphanous. The structure of the novel is haphazard, broken down into several sections which are divided further into lots of small chapters. After a brief present day prologue, the narrative returns to before the war, resting on Fogg and Oblivion, two new recruits in the British government’s shadowy ‘Retirement Bureau.’ From then on each section roughly follows on chronologically from the previous one. Within each however, the timeline jumps back and forth, returning often to a present day interrogation of Fogg, by the enigmatic head of the Bureau, ‘Old Man’.

This is not a traditional superhero story.  The presence of Übermenschen on both sides gives the tale balance, and an equilibrium that means the major events of this alternate history play out much as the did in reality. (I wasn’t completely convinced by this. I feel the mere presence of super-humans in the war would greatly have altered its course.  Much like the effect of the invention of the machine gun on the cavalry charge.  But no matter.  This is not what the novel is about.)

The Übermenschen were one moment in time creations.  The result of a single experiment, at a fixed point.  Superheroes created en masse.  All ages affected, all nationalities, all walks of life.  This gives rise to that staple of all superhero fiction, and often the most interesting part, the genesis story.  At the risk of denigrating Tidhar’s work I found it reminiscent of the opening chapters of the TV series ‘Heroes’ where we meet the characters and learn their powers (ie the bit where it was good).  Here Tidhar’s creativity is all to the fore, and his melding of new concepts and twisting of old tropes is masterly.

At the heart of the novel is the concept of heroism.  The traditional comic book world is black and white.  Heroes and villains; good vs evil. And so it is with broad stroke depictions of World War Two. Today, more so than ever, society’s view of our fighting forces is predominantly that they are all heroes, almost regardless of what they may actually be fighting for.  

In truth, war sees heroes and villains abound on both sides, also the indifferent, the unlucky and the in the right place at the right time.  What effect does having a super power have on this? As we all know, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’, but how true is that observation?

Placing superheroes in World War Two is not a new concept, but this is the first I’ve read something that analyses exactly what it might mean.  Is it possible to hold yourselves as the master race, when the other side has a man who can will things out of existence?  Tidhar poses some interesting questions, such as, whether a beneficial result gained from a Nazi experiment can ever be a good thing. Were all monsters created equal, or were some (the rocket scientists) more equal than others?  He answers some but leaves others hanging.

Stylistically some might consider the novel a challenge.  You have to have some chutzpah to open a chapter with ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round.’ but Tidhar pulls off this type of literary quirk time and again.  There are countless references to his source material, including an opium filled self-referential homage to the genre, which I loved, but others may find passée. The point of view is unusual, with the more than the occasional insertion from an omnipotent narrator, to us, the reader. This sort of device is often irritating, but I felt it suited the espionage nature of the novel. Webs within webs; who is controlling who?

As well as being a superhero story, The Violent Century is also a spy thriller. For reasons explained in the novel, the British superheroes use cloak and dagger, leaving the brash theatrics to the Americans.  The Brits are spies with special powers.  Fogg, unsurprisingly fits the bill perfectly for this wartime skulduggery.  This final dimension to the book is what gives it its solidity, adding that final coda of modern superhero stories, and the real post 9/11 world – Who watches the Watchmen?

Tidhar teases us with what Fogg and Oblivion are trying to find, why Fogg dropped off the radar, and why, decades later, the Old Man has called him in and reopened old wounds.  The answer is surprising and surprisingly tender.  Like a shape in the fog, suddenly revealed, the story that you thought was about one thing, turns out to be about something else altogether.  Literary sleight of hand this accomplished can only be applauded.

Many Thanks to Anne at Hodderscape for sending me a copy of this book. 

For other great reviews do try to ever reliable Kate   at For Winter Nights and Matt at Reader Dad.