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.


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. 

Feed them brains – City of Zombies by

cofzThis is pretty much my first game review, so bear with me if I don’t pitch the level of detail right. If you get bored, skip to the end to find the glowing summary. 

Just before Christmas, my son had his sixth birthday.  Knowing we were a game loving family, his godfather went into Eclectic Games in Reading (UK) and asked what they’d recommend. He came out with City of Zombies. (It later transpired that Eclectic Games is thanked for their support in the credits. Fair play to them, they back a good horse).

So, what’s the aim of the game?

Like most good games the premise of City of Zombies can be summed up in a single phrase. ‘Stop the zombies from reaching the barricades’.

How do you do that then?

With that little known anti-zombie agent, Maths.

Maths? Really?

The beauty of this game is that it becomes so involving for the players they don’t notice they are carrying out some fairly complex maths operations. It’s teaching by stealth. Better still, it’s a cooperative game, where you all help each other, so the older (or better at Maths) child isn’t always going to trounce his younger siblings. It’s even possible to play solo.

So how does it work?

The game consists of a number of zombie cards, descending towards your defensive barricade. Surviving zombies move down the board each turn, and new zombies arrive at the start of every turn. If the Zombies overrun the barricades you lose. Games are a set number of turns; 15, 10, or 5, depending how long you want to play/attention span of your players. Turns count down to 1, and the closer to the end of the game you are, the nearer the zombies start to your defenders. If you reach the end of turn one without being overrun, you win the game.

Right I get it, I have to kill the zombies, How do I do that? 

Each Zombie card has a number on it. A player rolls three dice (D6) and then can combine those dice rolls to exterminate as many zombies as possible.

Great! Err, what does that mean?

If you rolled 3, 4 and 5 and there were 5 zombie cards in play with the numbers 2, 3, 4, 5 and 12 on them, you have a number of possibilities. You could just use the roll values to kill zombies, 3, 4 & 5 or you could do something a little more clever, like 5-3 = 2 and use the remaining 4 to kill zombies 2 and 4. Alternatively, you could have 3*4 and use the 5, to kill zombies 12 and 5. The only condition that exists for this stage of the game is that you must use ALL of the dice. Not a problem in the example given, but it can often be awkward and that’s where the creative maths starts to creep in. In the basic game there are only simple numbers, but you can feed in other cards, to bring in 25, 36 and even prime numbers like 19 and 29.

cofz2The extra cards make the game brilliantly scalable. Not only do they have more complicated numbers on them, but some of them have (optional) special powers, like you must use all three dice to kill a particular zombie, which suddenly starts to soak up your firepower.

My boys (6 & 9) unsurprisingly have markedly different mathematical abilities. We play that the special abilities apply for myself and my oldest but not my 6 year old, who is free to use the dice how he feels. It gives him much greater power than us in the game and means he is using simpler maths. Another important point is that whilst the other players can give suggestions, it’s the player who rolled the dice  who gets the final say. So, if my youngest is unimpressed by his older brother’s mathematical jiggery-pokery he can completely ignore it. It can be difficult not to let the older ones run the show, but, with a bit of patience shown by all, it is possible!

So if our team survives we win, is there any more to it than that?

A little. There are a few non-zombie ‘event’ cards that are shuffled into the zombie assault. Some of these work in the player’s favour, whilst others hasten the onslaught. These can mess up your defence, or sometimes sweep the streets clean, saving your necks.

Each player also chooses a character card that represents them behind the barricades. Each character has a special power, but their use is restricted, so choose your moment wisely.

There are also other survivors who are hiding on your side of the barricade. If you survive they survive too. Extra survivors are gained if you clear out all the zombies on a given turn. This gives a method of scoring the game. If you save 72 people, then you have done brilliantly, if nobody else escapes, then you’ve won, but only just. You can use the number of survivors to judge how difficult or easy the game has been for your players, which can help you decide which cards and rules to use in next time. It also gives a ‘Hi-Score’ for your budding zombie-slayers to beat.

‘Nobody else escapes’? What’s happened to them?

They’ve been eaten. By zombies.

Eaten?, this game says its 5+. Is it at all suitable?

Clearly this is a judgement call for you to make. You know your children best. The basic cards have very cartoony zombies on them, which aren’t (I don’t think) scary at all. There are some more realistic cards, but they have the really big numbers on them, so they are for older children. The rules do say that survivors can just be ‘Frightened away’ if you prefer that to eaten. In reality It’s a lot like Pokemon; the rules might say ‘knocked out’ but it’scofzsimple rules very hard not to say ‘killed’…

Does the game play straight out of the box?

Yes. There are some quick set up rules included which explain the basic rules. There is also a full rules sheet, which explain variants and simple ways to ramp up the difficulty. The full rules are still only a few pages long. The game is exceptionally intuitive and one you’ve played it a few times, you’ll know exactly what you’re doing.

What about the first time?

Hmmm, it isn’t that tricky, particularly if you regularly play games that are slightly beyond the norm. Having said that, trying to play anything the first time with eager children jammering at you, is never easy. If you have time and opportunity, I think things will run more smoothly if you have a read through and a practice go on your own. This is doubly true if you don’t have much dice rolling experience beyond a Christmas game of Cluedo.

So this game is good then?

To be honest I don’t think I’ve ever played a better conceived children’s game. The concept is simple and engaging. The rules are simple and engaging. It’s a great family game, with enough danger in it to switch on young attention spans. It teaches them maths, without them noticing and encourages fast mental calculations. I should also mention the production values are second to none. It’s a beautiful product. It really is a fabulous game.

Is that it?

We’ve not used them yet, but the City of Zombies website has printable blank cards for you to make your own zombies and at end of the rules there is a mention of the Times Square expansion deck coming early 2015. This is to have a twelve sided dice and zombies up to 144! I can’t wait!

To buy from Amazon, click here

City of Zombies was designed by Matthew Tidbury and created by Thinknoodle games and has its own website, where there is all sorts of information and fun stuff about the game. @cityofzombies and @thinknoodle can both be found on Twitter 

Robots in Disguise – Replica by Jack Heath

replicaI was looking forward to reading this book, but I fear it may have been dammed by my high expectations. It shares many similar characteristics with one of my favourite books ever, Genesis by Bernard Beckett. Both books are short, about artificial intelligence and aimed at a YA audience. Both are written by antipodean authors. One is a truly extraordinary analysis of the boundaries of sentience and artificial intelligence, the other is Replica.

To give Replica it’s due, it does play with the idea of whether AI is alive. If something can feel pain, but can’t be killed, is it ethical to hurt it? If a person’s memories are distilled into a computer that can still behave and think like a human being, is that person still alive, or is the Robot somebody different? There is also a very touching question asked at the end of the novel, which I can’t reveal, but it gave the story a strong emotional conclusion. Added to that is an interesting storyline:- Chloe has been created by Chloe to protect Chloe’s family from whoever it is who’s after Chloe.

Yes it’s that sort of novel. Who is human, who is robot, and why are Chloe and her family being chased? Something to do with government defence. It’s a high-powered blockbuster plot, with a couple of great filmic set pieces.

The problem is, it just didn’t feel believable. Perhaps it’s because I’m way over the target age of the audience, but I just didn’t feel the world would operate in the way Chloe’s does. The daring do, and escapades are exciting but to me seemed implausible, so I found it difficult to fully buy into them. Things worked how they needed to work in the world of the novel, and not how they would in the real world. This was rounded off by a very dubious final escape, which snapped my overstretched credulity. Though it WAS exciting…

I feel that in having read Bernard Beckett’s novel, I’ve destroyed any chance of enjoying Replica. Genesis is philosophically more interesting and its plot is seamless. Everything works and is logically consistent. With Replica there are too many cracks in the veneer and it spoils the overall effect of the novel. This is in no way a bad novel, but for me, it doesn’t stretch much beyond OK.

Ultimately this isn’t so much a review of Replica but a lament that it isn’t Genesis, which seems mightily unfair on Jack Heath. Lots of people have enjoyed Replica, so you shouldn’t take my word alone. Why not read both Genesis, and Replica? Authors need all the exposure they can get. If you do so though, read Replica first it’s the fairest thing to do.

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

Three Square Meals? – Minecraft Recipes for Dummies

recipes-for-dummiesFirstly let’s clear up a mistake the dummy reviewing this book made. Just above the title of this book are the words ‘Portable Edition’. Being a bit of an old duffer, I conflated ‘portable edition’ with ‘pocket edition’. Pocket Edition as any nine year old will tell you is Minecraft on a phone or tablet. Portable edition refers to these slimmer narrower Dummies guides. The information in this book is not just for Minecraft PE. Realising this earlier would have saved me lots of conversations with my son that went something like,

‘What about Prismarine?’
*sigh* ‘not in the pocket edition Dad…’
*sigh* ‘not in the pocket edition Dad…’

So I gleefully noted lots of errors and omissions, ready to unleash a toxic review on this piece of misleading filth. Thankfully the pocket/portable thing dawned on me early enough. I’d lost some time but I still had my face.

It wasn’t time entirely wasted. There was some good father-son bonding, even with the sighing and poking around on Minecraft wikis I learned more about what my children spend a great deal of their lives doing, namely building stuff out of cubes. In my day this was called Lego and hurt a lot more if you trod on it.

So the book then.

Firstly, it has recipes from various platforms (PC, PE, Raspberry Pi and console) in it, which is certainly a good thing. It’s a Dummies guide, so a no-frills how to do it. These books are never style over substance, (again a good thing) but it is at least full colour. My son has read until broken the Scholastic Minecraft primers. I can’t really recommend these enough. If you’re looking for a way into Minecraft for your child, you’ll struggle to find anything better. This however is for a different crowd, it sort of assumes that you know the basics of how to play, and are into making as many different things as possible. It’s more akin to Scholastic’s latest blockbuster (get it!) the Blockopedia; a book I haven’t bought, because what would be the point?

Which leads me onto the rub with this book. It’s very nice. If you want a book with all the Minecraft recipes in, it does the job well. I’ve had the information checked a verified by a independent expert and he tells me it’s good. He was vaguely interested in Prismarine, which is something he hadn’t encountered before, but other than me asking him to take a look a few times, he has never picked it up. Why? Because he uses Minecraft an awful lot. He talks about it seemingly endlessly with his friends. They know all this stuff back to front. They pick it up by osmosis. If I’d paid for this book, I’d have wasted my money.

It’s possible, of course, you have dropped into Minecraft in isolation, haven’t really played it before and don’t have anybody to talk to about it.  In which case you’re probably an adult. Then you might want the book as a handy reference guide. Even then, you’re on a computer, Google what you want to know. It’s all there, catalogued by lifeforms far more geeky than you can possibly imagine. I can see the appeal of the Blockopedia for adults. It looks nice, wonderfully tactile and best of all it’s a cube! It is, essentially, a coffee table book for people whose caffeine comes in Coke cans. The Dummies guide? It’s functional, but it has a function you don’t really need.

In any case isn’t it cheating? To my mind the interesting bit of Minecraft, if you’re playing Survival mode, is working out what you can and can’t build. If you’re going to copy it out of a book, you might as well just play in Creative. Finally, the game will evolve and the book won’t; another thing not in its favour. With a cover price that comes in under the price of some of the unofficial magazines I’ve bought, this is a decent quality product, but with all the information already out there already, you have to ask yourself do I really need it?

I was sent a copy of this book through the Amazon Vine Programme. 

Last Seen Wearing – Retribution by Mark Charan Newton

retributionMark Charan Newton’s follow up to his fantasy whodunnit, Drakenfeld, picks up the story immediately where we left it. If you haven’t read Drakenfeld, you should probably read that first. Retribution does stand on its own, but much of the interplay between Drakenfeld and his companion, Leana would be without context and therefore diminished. In any case, it’s always best to start at the beginning (it’s a very good place to start).

Fresh from his success in the court of Tryum, Drakenfeld is posted to the city of Kuvash where a high ranking bureaucrat has requested the attendance of a member of the Sun Chamber, Vispasia’s neutral police force. A high ranking Bishop has gone missing. Unwilling to allow political unrest to foment in a region destabilised by the events of book one, the Commissioners of the Sun Chamber dispatch Drakenfeld in spite having received a second message stating help was no longer required. Unsure of what he is walking into, Drakenfeld arrives hoping to discuss matters with Sulma Tan, Secretary to the Queen of Koton.

On his arrival Drakenfeld is informed that the dismembered body of the Bishop has turned up. The man had clearly been tortured and died in agony, but there is little clear motive for his death. The Bishop was well liked, and as he was to soon leave the city, there is little political motivation for his murder. It is only after the discovery of a second body that patterns begin to emerge and Drakenfeld can begin to tease out clues as to the killer’s identity. Still unaware of what he is dealing with, Drakenfeld finds himself not only trying to solve two grisly murders, but fighting to prevent his own.

Retribution marks a step up in quality its predecessor. The original novel, though very good, dragged a little in the middle. There was lots of (fictional) politics and I found it difficult to fully buy into the complex machinations. Here, whilst the murder victims have political connections, the mystery is of a more visceral kind. There’s a serial killer on the loose; one who’s very good at hiding their tracks.

I don’t want to say too much more, lest I give something away, so I’ll stick to generalities. The Drakenfeld books are nominally fantasy novels, but whilst they are set on a fictional continent, this should not put off non-fantasy readers. These books are far more reminiscent of Samson’s Shardlake or Pariss’ Bruno novels than The Lord of the Rings. There are swords but only the barest whiff of sorcery. It’s unusual for the magic and monsters to be so pared down and it makes a welcome change.

Once again the world building is strong. Koton, a neighbouring province to Detrata from the first novel, is well realised, as its capital city. The flavour of the book is very different from the first, thanks to the cultural differences between the two settings. It is very much its own novel, but because of a wider overreaching story arc the two books dovetail together well. As with all the Mark Charan Newton books I’ve read, this is a book with a social conscience. Oppression and exploitation are never far away from his central plots and events often mirror real-world cultural dilemmas.

Retribution is an excellent novel. ‘Sherlock Holmes meets Game of Thrones’, some bright blurb writer might be tempted to say, which segues nicely into my final observation. Drakenfeld, Leanna and the enigmatic Sun Chamber would make tremendous television. Rich settings, strong characters, interesting politics and a outfit dedicated to solving crime, what more could you ask for? This is a series that could run and run, and long may it do so.

Many Thanks to Lauren and Clare at Macmillan for sending me a copy of this book. 

Nothing is Real – F by Daniel Kehlmann

FDaniel Kehlmann first impinged on my consciousness thanks to the consistently brilliant reviews of ‘Measuring the World.’ On the back of that acclaim I read and loved his tale of discovery, reputation and ultimately, reality. Fame, a series of interconnected short stories, was a little less coherent, though still enjoyable. His latest novel ‘F’ will no doubt polarise readers, but I think it’s another excellent work of fiction. All three are linked by the themes of faith, reality and existence.

F has a deceptive lightness to it. The words are very easy to read, almost fluffy. It took me a while to realise that between the lines something significant was going on. The story is about three brothers; Ivan and Eric, twins, and their half-brother, Martin. Their father, a failed writer and general shirker, abandoned them suddenly one day after taking them all to see a stage hypnotist.

The novel then reopens many years later. Their missing father is still absent from their lives but looms large as the author of worldwide bestselling self-help books; books that centre around the idea of self and existence. (One book is called My Name is No One) The brothers meanwhile have become a priest, a stockbroker and an art-dealer. All are pedlars of promises whose livelihoods and reasons for getting up in the morning rely on faith. Faith in God, faith in the money markets and belief in art experts’ suppositions about quality. All three rely on faith, and for all three their faith is suspect. These are three lives built on lies.

‘F’ is arch in tone. Other reviews suggest it is trying to be too clever, though there is disagreement whether this is by design or accident. Personally, I don’t really agree with either camp. I think this is an elegant work of fiction that poses interesting questions about the things we take for granted in life. Art and business, two things that are almost polar opposites, but Kehlmann shows, with a small amount of sleight of hand, they are rooted in similar faiths. He also demonstrates that whilst blind faith in God is pilloried by many sections of modern society, we are, when it suits, happy to believe in things equally uncertain.

The most interesting aspect of the book was the examination of Martin and his faith, or lack thereof, in God. As a non believing, non Catholic husband to a Catholic wife, raising Catholic children, I found it fascinating. An intriguing poke behind the scenes, in an irreverent yet respectful way. Kehlmann poses (and offers answers to) many questions I have thought to myself but never dared to ask anybody in the church, lest I offend them. There is a wonderful rationalisation of the Eucharist that is worth the entry fee alone.

The whole novel has something of a nihilistic outlook on life. The central tenet, that the bulk of life rests on lies, is merely the start. In a rather fragmented section of the book, Kehlmann traces one of his character’s ancestors back over multiple generations. This device explores the idea how quickly we are forgotten. I could tell you very little about my grandparents, and nothing at all, beyond their names, about my great-grandparents. Anybody who has spent any time tracing their family tree will know how quickly families, our flesh and blood and the reason for our existence, are lost in the mists of time. We know facts about them, but nothing about their personalities. The idea that our struggles, our hopes, fears and dreams, our successes and our failures,will be forgotten by our children’s children is a rather depressing one. In essence Kehlmann seems to be saying our existence is meaningless.

Except of course it isn’t. Perhaps from the perspective of a universal observer, existence is futile, but in the heat of battle with this thing called life, our presence is anything but meaningless. We make connections with one another all the time. Small differences, often unrecognised, always ultimately forgotten, but significant in myriad ways. If F tells is anything, it’s that life might feel meaningless and whatever we believe in may be based in lies, but we are here, we are alive and we all put our faith in something. How you do that is entirely up to you.

Overall, I thought F was a fascinating read. I don’t think the arch style will suit everybody, and neither will its ‘nothing is real’ core, but as contemporary authors go, Kehlmann is as fresh and invigorating as anybody. Highly recommended.

Many thanks to the team at Quercus and Tory Lyne Pirkis for sending me a copy of this book.