When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth – Empress of the Sun

empress

This book is the third book in the Everness series, if you haven’t read the first two, stop reading now! 

Empress of the Sun is the third novel in Ian McDonald’s impressive Everness series. It dawned on me as I neared the end of book 2, that my assumption that this was a trilogy was incorrect. Since the author had gone to the trouble to create a billion universes, he can write as many stories as he wants in them. And so it is. By the end of this book, there is nothing resolved, no closure. Just more great storytelling and first class speculation.

I must confess this is probably my least favourite of the three, but it’s hard to put my finger on why. As I thought the first two almost peerless in their brilliance, this is not necessarily much of a criticism. Empress of the Sun is just very very good, rather than exceptional (please don’t ask me how this scale works).  The central premise of the new world discovered by Everett is tremendous. What if the dinosaurs never died out?

This is hardly a new premise. It’s the idea behind countless B-Movies and pulp fiction paperbacks, but I’ve never seen anybody do what McDonald has done with it. If T-Rex never died out, his descendants have had 65 million years to evolve. What we have here is solar system occupied by uber-advanced dinosaurs. Extremely hostile uber advanced dinosaurs.

This new system is fascinating, and the story that plays out in it strong. The overall story arc continues, but not that strongly and I think that might be why I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as the others.

The Everness series is a fascinating panoply of what-might-bes. It’s imaginative fiction at its finest. Nominally a YA series, really it’s a set books for anybody who likes science fiction of the highest calibre. There are no more Everness books obvious on the horizon, but I certainly hope it’s a series that runs and runs.

Many thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book 

The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido

corpse-readerAntonio Garrido’s The Corpse Reader is a solid, if unremarkable, historical whodunit. The premise is nothing new – an expert pathologist makes incredible leaps of intuition to solve unsolvable crimes – but its setting is a little different. I’ve not read too many (any) novels set in thirteenth century China, and whilst the honour and form of Confucianism got a bit tedious every now and then, it makes an evocative setting for a murder mystery.

We follow Ci from the moment he finds a headless corpse in a field. His loathed younger brother takes the fall for the crime, with Ci being instrumental in providing evidence.  After that, things only get worse. There really are very few people unluckier than Ci, and this continual struggle and misfortune did drag occasionally. The book is probably a hundred pages too long, and there is so much bad luck in here some of it could have been left on the author’s hard drive.

The workings and machinations of imperial China are well realised, and Ci often finds his hands tied by convention as he attempts to solve a number of crimes. Forever trying to escape his past (detailed in the book), Ci has to keep one eye behind him at all times. This creates a nice tension in the book. Ci is the good guy who might just end up finishing last.

The book is easy to read, though the translation is felt a little clunky.  There were a few times where certain phrases jarred or didn’t quite make sense. There is very little that is remarkable about this book, but it’s central story is interesting, there are a number of diverting side plots and the characters are well rendered. Many of them are stereotypes, but Garrido adds enough colour to each to make them interesting. A diverting crime novel, ideal for those who want a change of scene.

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

The Hundred Year Old Man Who Draw All Over The Walls – The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman

the-final-testimony-of-raphael-ignatius-phoenix-196x300It’s a little awkward reviewing this type of book. Paul Sussman was a highly acclaimed archaeological thriller writter, before he died suddenly, at a young age. This book was his first attempt at a novel, and was written many years before he garnered any fame. Dusted off and revised by his wife and a team of editors, this is first time the novel has been published. The process of bringing the book to publication is described in a moving foreword by Sussman’s wife, as being a cathartic and rehabilitating process. This makes offering an objective opinion difficult.

The book is uneven. There are some parts that work really well, and other bits where it drags and seems silly. It’s hard to know whether this would have made it to publication if submitted by a new author. I suspect not in its existing state. It might have done though; it resembles smash and surprise bestseller The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window by Jonas Jonasson. In its original form Sussman’s novel predates Jonasson by a significant amount of time, but it is only now being released for public consumption. Again, without TOHYOM, its hard to imagine this book would have been published. It isn’t of the same quality. But publishing likes to find copycats, and in the wake of Jonasson’s bestseller, RIP would have made it into a bookshop no matter who had written it.

The story follows the 99 year old Raphael Ignatius Phoenix as he approaches his 100th birthday. He was born on the first day of 1900 and he intends to die on the first day of 2000. He will commit suicide using a pill he has carried around for nearly his entire life.  Phoenix is writing the account of his life, peculiarly, on the walls of his castle home. Starting with the present day he peels back time, decade after decade presenting significant details from his life. Phoenix has had many professions – bank clerk, TV star and butler to name but three. Further frisson is added with the knowledge that in each decade of his life Phoenix committed a murder.

The tale is picaresque; a shaggy dog’s story full of humour. It’s laugh out loud funny in places, but is wearing in other. RIP is not a likeable character, but the scrapes he gets into, whilst often tend towards the ridiculous never fail to entertain. Whilst the stories are historical, they aren’t woven into history like The One Hundred Year Old Man, and this is probably why Jonasson’s is the better book. The ending of the book is downright strange, but peculiarly fitting considering the circumstances the novel is published under. This isn’t an undiscovered masterpiece, but it’s an entertaining novel filled with wit and humour. It probably won’t convert many people to Sussman’s writing, but his fans will probably be glad of the opportunity to read a final offering from an accomplished author whose light was extinguished too soon.

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

Anti-Social Media – Glaze by Kim Curran

GLAZE_New_Finalsm3In 1948 George Orwell wrote a book about a sinister dictator called Big Brother, who watches every move his citizens make (you probably know this). I wonder what Orwell would have thought if told that 70 years later we would happily give all our personal information away?

Big Brother would be Enormous Brother if he lived today; he’d never need get off his hairy fat arse. We continually tell the world, where we are, who we’re with, what we ate and whether there was a cute animal involved.  There is it seems almost nothing we won’t photograph and slap on our timelines. Some people even feel the need to pass judgement on the quality of every single book they read and write about it at great length.

Kim Curran, author of the excellent ‘Shift’ series, writes compelling and highly relevant YA fiction. Glaze is a slap around the face for her readers. She wants them to wake up and see how much of themselves they are giving away. Set in London in the near future, ‘Glaze’ is the only social media app you need. It’s like Google that automatically knows what you want, combined with a live data feed for every person and object you encounter. Due to the requirement to have a chip in your brain, entry age is restricted to 16. Pre-glazers are desperate to be on, post glazers have more or less checked out of the real world. The lure, every piece of information available about everything, whenever you want it. The rub? Well that’s what the book is about.

Petri (so called for a fab reason that I won’t spoil) is not yet on Glaze. All her friends are, but as she is year ahead in school, they are all sixteen and she isn’t. It is, as one might say at that age, ‘not fair’. Petri and her friends attend a protest, when the police turn up things start to go wrong. When private law enforcers from the company that owns Glaze turn up, things become more sinister. Petri makes a run for it, but ultimately gets caught. A tough sentence comes her way; a five year ban from Glaze. He life may as well be forfeit.

This novel isn’t quite as smooth as the other two of Curran’s novels I’ve read. The plot is helped along rather roughly by the odd coincidence or fortuitous intervention. Nevertheless this is a great read. In many ways it’s the message rather than the story that’s important here. Characterisation again is strong, as is Curran’s dialogue; she has a good ear for the spoken word and it never feels forced or contrived.

The novel is in essence 1984 remoulded for our wireless generation. Big Brother uses his position to make decisions for the sake of people, and employs mass surveillance to make his world run smooth. In our world we give this information freely, and it doesn’t seem too many steps before Google or something like it are no longer giving us what we want, but what it wants us to have. If information is power then a system that controls the flow of information sits at the top of the world. If a company starts to control what we do and where and when we do it, what does that mean for our civil liberties? If we freely hand power over to large corporations and governments are our liberties even being infringed? We’re well on the way to this exact scenario, and with Glaze, Curran walks further down the path in search of  its logical conclusion.

Glaze is an excellent book.  It projects a credible future and reveals the potential all of us have to be complicit in our own downfall. With the novel’s target audience being the most voracious users of social media, let us hope that it give them pause for thought before they unwittingly click their liberties away.

Glaze is available as either an UK ebook, US ebook or paperback.

Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

speedI knew almost nothing of Elizabeth Moon’s books before being offered this one to read. They didn’t really pique my curiosity. Judging by their covers they were spaceships and guns, not a subgenre that floats my boat (nor spacecruiser). So my heart sank a little when I opened this month’s lovely Hodderscape Review Project envelope.review-project

Reading the back, Speed of Dark seemed a little different. Set in the near future, this book is about a data analyst expert who sees the world differently to ‘normal’ people. Lou is autistic. The whole premise of the novel is over whether Lou should take a new treatment and become ‘normal’. Should he overwrite his existing programming and become a new, ‘more functional’ person.

The book is slow and measured; almost nothing happens. Yet this is a beautiful deconstruction of identity and self, conformism and prejudice. It’s a fascinating read.  We watch Lou wrestle with the world; adapt to new experiences and decide what exactly it is that makes Lou, Lou.

Many years ago I had a conversation with a friend in response to a radio news bulletin. I can’t remember the details, but it was something along the lines that a profoundly deaf couple were fighting for the right to choose to have a deaf child. Their argument being that they lived full and happy lives, did not consider themselves disabled, and neither would their child. My friend was extremely derogatory about this couple, but I had some sympathy with them. I outlined why I understood what where they were coming from; who we were to say that their lives were diminished, if they didn’t think so?

I was surprised to get a vehement ‘Why do you always have to argue the fucking toss,’ before my friend deflated in tears.

It turned out they had a cousin who was completely deaf and she had watched him struggle to grow up, adapt and fit in with society. Her feeling very much was, if you were given the choice to be fully functional you should take it. This is the central question of the novel. What should Lou do?

We see Lou’s work environment, his home life and most significantly are shown him participating in a treasured pastime with other, non-autistic, people. Medical advancements and understanding of his sensory needs, allow Lou to integrate well into everyday life, better than he could in our world.  To the reader Lou seems to be a high functioning, intelligent, if socially awkward, regular guy.  The help and preferential treatment, that Lou is given causes resentment amongst some friends and colleagues. It’s an interesting point. Lou’s skill with numbers gives him a highly lucrative career, but one that is only possible with help. Surely everybody deserves the chance to maximise their potential, autistic or not?

As I said very little happens in the book, but it is incredibly absorbing. The near-future setting is well constructed, still feeling a possible reality despite the book being over ten years old. The insight into Lou’s thought processes, and the challenges he is subjected to and how he adapts to them are rendered very well. I felt for him over every small decision he had to make or new piece of information he needed to assimilate. As the book neared its conclusion, I was worried about the ending. So realistic was the book, ‘a happy ever after’ conclusion would have seem trite, but Lou is such an engaging character, I would have been gutted in anything bad had happened to him. It’s a thin line, and Moon walks it well, avoiding schmaltz whilst allowing Lou to soar.

Whilst the Speed of Dark is essentially about the boundaries (or lack of) faced by people who are diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, above all it is novel about what makes us human. In an increasingly homogenised world, it questions the desire to make things conform. I would never have reviewed this book were it not for the review project, but I am so glad I did. It fits into a group of high calibre novels, those that alter your world view, just through having read them.

Many Thanks to Anne at the Hodderscape Review Project for sending me a copy of the book. 

 

With Friends Like This – Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly

keep your friends closeKeep your Friends Close is the follow up to Paula Daly’s family crime thriller, Just What Kind of Mother Are You. Her début was a slightly preposterous but touching portrait of family life gone wrong. This book is pretty much the same. The plot has more holes in it than Swiss cheese, but Daly’s readable prose and strong eye for the details of family life, once again, make it an entertaining read.

When Natty rushes to France to be by her sick daughter’s bedside she has no idea the turmoil she is about to be put through. Her marriage to Sean is strong. They are successful hotel owners, owning a beautiful property in the Lake District. The popularity of the hotel is due to Natty’s attention to detail. Nothing is left to chance, but Natty’s preoccupation with the business is all consuming. What does this mean for faithful husband Sean?

Natty leaves Sean and old family friend Eve to hold the fort. They should manage just fine. But when Natty returns, Eve has become a permanent fixture, stealing Sean’s affections. Natty finds herself on the outside, wondering where it went wrong so quickly, and just how much does she really know about her oldest friend?

I have mixed feelings about this book. JWKOMAY really struck a chord, but on reflection it probably isn’t quite as strong as my review suggests. Keep Your Friends Close as a whole is unbelievable. It’s stretches credulity well beyond its limits, with coincidences and secrets kept far too well and conveniently. But it is oh so readable, and once again there is its wider context. The thriller parts of Daly’s novels are almost incidental. They provide her with a framework to examine the difficulties and pressures of raising families in modern Britain. Whilst I found the central mystery a little over cooked, the whorls of family tensions were simmered to perfection. This is backed up with some strong, likeable characters. Finally, Daly dishes up a wonderful spicy kick in the very last pages of the book. It doesn’t change the story much, but it did make me gasp out loud.

For a quick, easy read that entertains, you could do a lot worse than read Paula Daly. This book is not perfect, but once again it’s ideal for the beach. It’s addictive and will help you realise your own family aren’t that bad, and not worth strangling. Yet.

Many Thanks to Alison at Transworld for sending me a copy of this book.