Nod by Adrian Barnes

NodNod by Adrian Barnes was first published in 2012 and was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2013. Titan Books have now reissued it with a beautifully striking, not to mention extremely creepy, cover.

Nod is an end-of-days, quasi-zombie thriller, with literary pretensions. It’s deeply unsettling and not for the faint of heart. Set in Vancouver, British Columbia, it charts the world’s descent into madness after most of the planet’s population stops being able to sleep. Nod is apocalypse by sleep-deprivation. A feeling most readers of GeekDad will identify with (he says, trying to remember the last time he had a full night’s sleep).

Like many dystopian visions of societal breakdown, whilst most of the planet is affected by the novel’s overreaching plot device, a handful are not. This sets up a “Them vs Us” dynamic, with the “Sleepers” being heavily outnumbered.  Main character, and narrator, Paul is a Sleeper and we are reading his account of the last days of society. Things start gently enough. After the first night, the lack of sleep is merely a curiosity, but after night two, panic and dread flood in. In a matter of days the veil of civility that keeps society functioning is torn away, with predictable consequences.

Nod‘s narrator, Paul, is a writer. He’s also a misanthrope, giving his story a bleak tone, even before the world unravels. As the novel opens Paul is working on a project called ‘Nod’; a treatise on lost words. Later, Paul’s manuscript falls into the hands of a charismatic, borderline psychopath. In his hands, The Land of Nod, a place of sleep, takes on mythical proportions.

Barnes prose style is spare, almost brittle. There is a palpable sense of edginess brought on by lack of sleep. His writing conveys the feeling of needing some peace and quiet, but instead having to deal with a querulous world (toddler). Being about to snap, but holding it together, despite that desperate ache behind the eyes. It could almost be parenting 101.

Nod is steeped in geek culture, with many references to seminal works; superheroes and magic rings.

“He wore khaki shorts and a torn and stained T-shirt with Captain America on the front…We’d put so much stock in T-shirts. Personal flags replacing, perhaps, national ones in an age of ascendant ego. But here in Nod the single nation state of Captain America has been overrun, it’s flag torn and trampled.”

The formation of a cult, led by the ‘Admiral of the Blue’, and the misappropriation of Paul’s writings as a religious text, offers food for thought on the rise of cults and the nature of religion. It examines the need for humans to belong, and their willingness to be led, unthinking. To do any number of unspeakable things in the name of collectiveness and belonging.

I read a lot of dystopian fiction, and have often thought, that for a father of three, it’s a pretty depressing thing to be into. I’ve consumed countless bleak, destructive, visions of my children’s future. Nod is one the grimmest proffered. “What happens to the children?” is often a question left quietly unexplored in these types of books (unless they’re YA novels, but then the answer is usually, “Tool up and overthrow our oppressive masters”).

Barnes is unflinching in letting us know how bad it will be for the children. Bad enough for the children who don’t sleep, but far worse for the Sleepers. As a parent, this is heart-rending. Not as painful as Cormac McCarthy’s The Roadbut certainly the most devastating thing I’ve read since.

“The Chrysalids and Animal Farm. Lord of the Flies. 1984. Apocalypse and dystopia. Despairing visions. Every high school had taught these books. Every teen had been injected with them. What had possessed us?”

There is something compelling about reading about the destruction of the planet. Considering the volume of dystopian visions offered, in over a century of writing, it’s not a new trend. Tales of our end of days have long been popular, perhaps because they often rail against the prevailing political and social climate of the time.

Perhaps I like them because of the slightly self-satisfied feeling I get knowing I would never behave in such a morally dubious fashion (moral certitude is always simple from a warm comfortable armchair). I sincerely hope that the visions outlined in dystopian fiction are overly bleak. I hope that humanity would rise above the evils dystopian authors have them commit, but there is a voyeuristic, visceral thrill, in suspecting that it probably wouldn’t.

In truth Nod is not a dystopian vision but an apocalyptic one.

Barnes’ vision of humanity shuffling about as sleep-deprived zombies is horrific. Some characters rise above the need for self-preservation, but with the sleep deprived only given a few weeks to survive, societal breakdown is inevitable. Barnes’ chronicle of its descent is simple and unsettling. If you like this type of fiction, then you will greatly appreciate this deft addition to the canon.

This new Titan edition also carries a copy of Barnes’ essay My Cancer is as Strange as Fiction. A brief and moving account of his diagnosis of brain cancer, and the similarities, between Paul’s fictional decline, and the author’s own, very real one. Barnes’ diagnosis came after Nod was completed, but the parallels are remarkable. The essay makes a sobering end-piece, for a sobering novel.

Abi Stevens Unofficial Nod Cover

Unofficial cover inspired by the novel, created by UK artist Abi Stevens (abistevens.squarespace.com). Image used with permission.

A copy of this book was sent to me by the UK publisher Titan Books. Many Thanks to Abi Stevens for allowing me to use her excellent artwork. One that very much invokes the horror of the novel.  This review first appeared on GeekDad in March 2016 

Blog Tour: ‘All Their Minds in Tandem’ by David Sanger

Hello! Today is my turn for the All Their Minds in Tandem blog tour. My contribution is a short review of this unusual and thought provoking book.

All Their Minds in TandemMemory. Loss. Redemption. Three words that govern David Sanger’s debut novel, All Their Minds in Tandem. The book is a peculiar blend of western and supernatural thriller. A pairing you might think ought not to work, and to be honest, it probably shouldn’t, yet Sanger makes it so.

I struggled a little at first. It reminded me of novels of similar setting and ambition, Son by Philipp Meyer and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. Both of these books were highly feted by critics, but didn’t particularly win me over. They had much to admire, but didn’t convince me as a storytelling whole.

All Their Minds in Tandem however held my attention, right up to its gripping finale.  It has an interesting setting; a lawless frontier town, not long after the American Civil War. More appealing though is the theme of memory that runs through the novel’s. It dovetails perfectly with another of my recent reads, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Both books examine the nature of memory and to what extent it encapsulates our humanity. Without our memories, what are we? To have no memory is considered a curse, but would humankind be better off, if it couldn’t recall the slights done to it?

The book centres around Emerson, a travelling something; A ‘storyteller’ by his own description. Emerson claims to be able to give you new memories, for a fee of course. His arrival in New Georgetown barely makes a splash, yet the effects of his arrival ripple through the small town like a tsunami.

There’s the peculiar doctor to whom he is administering his special treatment, and the three sisters who own the house in which he rents a room. Each of them see Emerson as something different. There’s the young lad who loves to play the piano, and his sister, a barmaid. Finally, there’s the mysterious ‘Bird’ who entertains drinkers in the bar with wondrous music, yet nobody has ever seen the person behind the voice. Emerson’s arrival will effect each of them in different ways, but is he a truth-teller or a charlatan, a blessing or a curse?

They all have memories, they all have secrets. Does Emerson know them? Can he take them? Did he put them there in the first place? And why is he uncannily familiar? Such is the peculiar sense of dread that pervades the novel and Emerson’s quiet residence in the town, it starts to feel like it was written by Stephen King.

The creeping edge of menace is what give All Their Minds in Tandem its extra dimension. From about half-way through the book a sense of something ‘other’ starts to pervade and it kept me reading.

The front we show the world are stories we project. Stories that show the world the way we want to be seen. We might each have several stories for different aspects of our lives, but almost nobody but us alone, knows the entire truth. With Emerson and his ability to rewrite personal narratives, David Sanger examines this premise and weaves it into a spellbinding story of memory, loss and above all, redemption.

Buy the book on Amazon here.

I was sent a copy of the book buy the publisher in order to take part in the All Their Minds In Tandem blog tour. 

 

It’s a Kind of Magic: ‘The Buried Giant’ By Kazuo Ishiguro

This review first appeared on GeekDad.com in March 2016

robball ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Robert Ball. Used with Permission (http://www.robertmball.com/)

‘Should I fall and you survive, promise me this. That you’ll carry in your heart a hatred of Britons.’

‘What do you mean, warrior? Which Britons?’

‘All Britons, young comrade, even those who show you kindness.’

When I started my investigation into the current trend of “Literary SFF”, one of the books I was most keen to read was Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. The point of this series is to discover what literary heavyweights might create when using tropes that are traditionally considered genre. Whilst Ishiguro has written books with science fiction-fantasy elements before, most notably in Never Let Me Go, The Buried Giant caused something of a stir when it was first published, as it is out and out fantasy. There are no blurred lines. You can’t call it magical realism. It’s not speculative. It’s fantasy.

Whilst the labeling of novels can be helpful, particularly if you own a bookstore, they can also be misleading and used as a way to pigeonhole, denigrate, or ignore a novel’s worth. Define a novel as “genre,” and it is all too easy to dismiss. Conversely, labels can over-inflate opinion. Calling a novel “literary fiction” adds gravitas. Critics will often line up to sing a novel’s praises even if it’s dry and boring.

Of all the books I’ve read so far for the series, The Buried Giant is the one that most destroys the myth of labels. It contains many tropes associated with the fantasy genre–a quest, knights, ogres, and dragons–but it is also a work of rare beauty. A novel where every word has been weighed before use. The result is a story filled with layers and multiple meanings that might just be a work of genius.

The Buried Giant feels like a work of early fiction. A fairy tale filled with allegory, one shade away from oral storytelling. It recalls The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, and above all, The Death of King Arthur. (Arthur is named-checked a couple of times and Sir Gawain is a principal character–a nod to Professor Tolkien, perhaps?).

The setting is Dark Ages Britain. A time of myth and superstition. Even moving from town to town brings a sense of mystery and foreboding.  Villages of “Britons” lie close to newly forged Saxon settlements. Distrust exists between the indigenous (my word) population and the new arrivals. Mistrust is in the air.  The real-world parallels here are obvious.

This is not a traditional fantasy setting, which tends to feel like heroic quests in agricultural northern Europe. Instead, Ishiguro’s Britain feels like an agoraphobic’s worst nightmare.

…navigation in open country was something much more difficult in those days, and not just because of the lack of reliable compasses and maps. We did not yet have the hedgerows that so  pleasantly divide the countryside into field, lane and meadow. A traveller of that time would, often as not, find himself in a featureless landscape, the view almost identical whichever way he turned. 

This featureless and the difficulty of long distance communication is essential to the themes of the novel.

Above all, though, The Buried Giant is a quest story. Axl and Beatrice set out to visit their son, who left many years ago, and now lives in a settlement several days away. The couple are old, their usefulness to their community on the wane. One senses this is to be their final journey.

Much like the Wizard of Oz, they  meet people on the way, travelling the same road, who join their quest. They journey with a young boy cast out from his village, a formidable Saxon warrior, and the ageing Sir Gawain, one of the few remaining Knights of the Round Table. As the journey unfolds, a sense that all is not right gradually seeps into the tale. Most notably that memories are hard to keep a hold of. Nobody can remember very much other than shadows of the past.

buried giant covers

The US and UK covers side by side.

The prose is spare but beautifully constructed and, unlike most genre fantasy novels, there is little embellishment of the details. Like many fables and legends, The Buried Giant is laden with allegory. There are myriad interpretations and real-world parallels. Themes of loss, acceptance, and the dangers of ignorance bubble to the surface again and again.

‘…where once we fought for land and God, we now fought to avenge fallen comrades, themselves slaughtered in vengeance. Where could it end?’

The Buried Giant examines human nature, most particularly our inability to learn from the past. Closed-minded attitudes, superstition, and fealty to outmoded, incorrect assumptions seem reasonable when placed in the Dark Ages. Yet, transpose these attitudes to the 21st Century, which I believe Ishiguro intends us to do, and they begin to look like willful ignorance.

There were places where I worried that The Buried Giant’s delicate confection was going to fade away into nothing. The middle section left me restless, but as the novel moved into the final third, towards its devastating conclusion, I was gripped. On finishing, I was left wrung-out and overawed. The Buried Giant is no swords and sorcery epic, but a novel of rare and delicate beauty. Fantasy in setting, mythic in tone, but relevant to today, with a deep emotional resonance, I doubt I’ll read a better novel this year.

The wonderful illustration used at the top of this piece is by British illustrator Robert Ball. He has all sorts of equally awesome and geeky works of art at on his blog and at robertmball.com.

Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities

divine cities

This piece first appeared on GeekDad.com in Feb 2016

Robert Jackson Bennett’s  first Divine City novel, City of Stairstook me a little while to work my way into. I am happy to confess this is because I’m a little stuck in my ways. I like traditional epic heroic fantasy, probably because that’s what I grew up with. It’s my comfort food.

Reading City of Stairs was like my first experience in an Indian restaurant. My teenage self, up until that point had had a culturally sheltered, white middle-class upbringing. A group of us were taken deep into the city of Birmingham (UK), near where I grew up, for a curry. I had no idea what to expect.

I tentatively poked at my food, wondering whether it was safe to eat, before placing the hot, pungent, and slightly sour, meat-in-brown-sauce into my mouth. More dishes came; The famous Birmingham Balti, Sheek-Kebab, some onion in hot red sauce, the like of which I’ve never found since. The taste sensations that exploded in my head, where incredible and began a love affair with Indian food that is nearly in its thirtieth year.

My relationship with Jackson Bennett’s books is only fledgling in comparison but I am equally happy to gorge myself on the spicy, other-worldliness of his novels. At its heart, City of Stairs is a murder mystery, but what sets it apart is its setting. Part China Mieville, part Alif the Unseen, its an arabesque tale set in a secondary world. It’s a novel filled with allegory and allusion. It’s a modern day The Master and Margarita for the War on Terror generation.

The Divine Cities novels are about seeing things from the other person’s point of view. The books are set in a secondary fantasy world but Jackson Bennett subverts traditional genre ideas, particularly those of race and gender (i.e. he  doesn’t view everything from the perspective of white males). Doing so allows him to wipe the slate clean, erasing his readers’ preconceptions, before building something else equally magical. I think it’s the reforging process that makes the novel a slightly bumpy read. There’s a lot of information to process. Nothing is certain; everything is new and open to interpretation. There’s work to be done by the reader and that’s tiring, but then I found reading Bulgakov hard work too.

City of Stairs takes place in a world where gods once roamed the earth, only now they have gone, destroyed by a godless race they once held in thrall. It’s an intriguing platform on which to build a novel. How does a world used to dealing with deities and their miracles continue in the aftermath of their destruction?

The novel examines the perils of accepting religious dogma as truth, but also the importance of attempting to understand why a group believe the things they believe. With layers of story built up over centuries, and the mixed agendas held by those writing those stories, the true intention of a religious practice may have been lost. City of Stairs stresses how vital it is to understand those who are different to us. Knowledge may be power, but it can also be used to set us free. The real-world parallels are abundant.

citystairsart

A wonderful rendering of the City of Stairs by artist John Petersen. Copyright Broadway Books. Used with Permission.

I hadn’t necessarily expected a follow up to City of Stairs, but I was thrilled to find that there was one. Unlike its predecessor, I had no difficulties finding my way into City of Blades. Again, at the story’s heart is a criminal investigation. This time, missing persons. Once again, the nature of religion is the novel’s overriding theme.

City of Blades takes place several years after City of Stairs, in a completely new location, but one that is as vividly unusual as the setting of the first book. Some characters from the first book appear in the sequel, but not all of them. Time and politics have moved on.

I’m not sure whether it was because I had already tuned into the author’s world-building but I found the second book much easier going than the first. The story is excellent and the characters beguiling. There’s all manner of things  going on here, and the plot is neat and elegant. The narrative concerns the mysterious City of Blades, an afterlife for those who worship the Death Goddess, but as the Gods and their works were destroyed decades ago, can it really exist?

The Divine Cities series makes for an invigorating read, one that rewarded the effort needed to find my way into the first book. There is one more book in the pipeline, City of Miracles, a book which on the strength of Stairs and Blades, I am very much looking forward to reading. If you haven’t read any of Robert Jackson Bennett’s particularly flavor of fantasy, I can wholeheartedly recommend you do. Roast chicken and vegetables are always tasty, but few things excite the palette like an expertly prepared curry.

The Divine Cities series are published by Broadway Books in the US and Jo Fletcher Books in the UK. More of John Petersen’s artwork can be found hereMany Thanks to Jo Fletcher Books for sending me review copies of these two books. Robert Jackson Bennett tweets entertainingly at @robertjbennett

Beyond Sodor: Books About Trains You’ll Actually Want to Read to Your Kids!

This piece first appeared on GeekDad on 5/2/2016

trainmontageWhen I was growing up, I loved the Rev. W. Awdry books, these days better known as Thomas and Friends. Back then the books weren’t a marketing behemoth. There were no television series, no films, and no wooden railway. There were just twenty-six small hardback books, each containing four stories that centered around a single train.

I had a mismatch of books, from all sorts of places, some new and some hand-me-downs. I loved them with a passion, carrying them all over, wherever I went. My collection survives today and has found its way into my children’s bedrooms. If you can get a hold of some of the original books then, whilst dated, they contain nicely written stories that hark back to the golden age of steam in the UK. They have a warmth and wit that is lacking in the more modern stories. Particular favorites are book No. 2, the original Thomas the Tank Engine stories, and No. 16, Main Line Engines, featuring the first appearance of the mischievous Bill and Ben, the twin engines.

In the intervening years, lots more books and trains have been added. A few of the traditional type–hardback with four stories–but more to the Thomas Story Library, which comprises thin, single-story, softback books. Somebody brought us fifty of these a few years ago but now there are 65. Some of the Story Library books feature the original engines, with the stories largely copied verbatim from the original books, but many of the others are wholly new tales, which are, frankly, terrible.

Clearly, it’s been recognized that new book + new train = toy sales, with each train being sold in three major formats (Take and Play, Thomas Wooden Railway, and Trackmaster). Whilst each book might add to HIT Entertainment’s profit margins, it adds little value for us, the parents, who have to read the new stories.

You could be forgiven for thinking the new books had been written by a computer; there’s definitely a formula. New engine comes to Sodor, new engine can’t make friends. New engine proves “Really Useful.” Homily inserted about working hard. New engine assimilated into the “Fat Controller’s” bizarre dystopia, where fealty to the job is more important than having a personality. It’s easy to imagine “BEING REALLY USEFUL” stuck on a bill poster next to “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Having to read these stories night after night can make bedtime something of a chore, so if you are currently stuck in the seventh circle of Sodor, here are a few other train-related books that might distract your little ones from Thomaspeak.

little red train detail

The Little Red Train: Image Copyright Benedict Blathwayte

We’ll start with Benedict Blathwayte’s Little Red Train Books. The best thing about these books are the illustrations. The stories are readable, usually about the plucky red steam train and his driver, Duffy, overcoming the odds, but it’s the pictures that will keep children entranced for repeat visits. They’re filled with bucolic, quintessential, English countryside–farmyards, lakes, and crumbling stone castles, but the gems are in the details. The cows have hidden maps in them; sometimes the clouds are shaped like animals, and, in The Runaway Train, children who know the story can spot the troubles ahead in the background of each picture.

There are some beautifully illustrated children’s books out there, and The Little Red Train are among the best. Our favorites include the onomatopoeia of Faster, Faster Little Red Train, the Europe-touring Green Light for the Little Red Train, and the sheer excitement of The Runaway Train. 

Rather simpler is Child’s Play’s rendition of Down by the StationThis is a simple retelling of the popular nursery rhyme, but one that forms part of the publisher’s Classic Books with Holes range. Each page has a hole cut in it that reveals one more vehicle that is “down by the station” causing the station to gradually become more and more cluttered. There is also plenty of toot tooting and beep beeping for little ones to join in with. All the books in the series are great, and Down by the Station has had many repeat reads.

Another of my childhood favorites is Ivor the Engine, written by the team who created British television cult classics The Clangers and BagpussIvor lives in the “top left-hand corner of Wales” and the narration for the TV series has a wonderful Welsh lilt, which, if you’ve heard it, is impossible not to drop into as you read the books.

The writing is wonderfully lyrical–“Jumping cold it was too, that morning, but bright as a pin and Ivor felt glad to be alive and steaming.”–and the stories are great to read aloud. Ivor is the engine of the Merioneth and Lantisilly Railway Traction Company Limited, a beautifully archaic and evocative sounding name. The tales feature Welsh choirs, fish suppers, the incomparable “Jones the Steam,” and mythical, heraldic Welsh dragons. There are six books in all and they’re lovely, though they are now out of print and tricky to get hold of.

A more modern train tale, though still with steam is The Cat, the Mouse and the Runaway TrainThe title pretty much tells all. With vibrant illustrations, we follow the tale of a cheeky mouse and his nemesis, Carruthers the cat, and an out of control train hurtling towards the station. What follows will change the Stationmaster’s, the cat’s, and the mouse’s lives for ever.

After a couple of reads through, it’s easy to pick up the book’s rhythm–just like a train hurtling across the countryside. Reading it becomes very reminiscent of W H Auden’s classic poem The Night Mail.

More classic poetry can be found in Crossing, a modern reprint of Philip Booth’s 1957 poem of the same name. A friend brought us this book from a thrift store, and we had little or no expectations of it. Bagram’s Ibatoulline’s idiosyncratic illustrations don’t necessarily give the book immediate appeal and neither do the broken, staccato, and deceptively simple words of the poem.

Yet this book has become a firm family favorite. All of my boys have loved it and even now my ten-year-old will sit and listen to the poem’s hypnotic rhythm. Again, it takes a few reads to catch it, but the meter of the poem does match the slow rumble of a huge freight train as it clanks across the crossing in a tiny mid-western town. The illustrations fit the poem perfectly, and they too are deceptively simple. There’s lot’s going on, which we still notice after many, many repeat readings. I’ve often had to read this book ten times straight, and, such is its quality, it has never got tired.

So there we are, a journey around the books our somewhat train-obsessed family have enjoyed, but there are many others. Railways, buses, and trams are an endless source of fascination for children, and there are so many good books out there beyond the island of Sodor. Do you have any railway favorites? Which public transport tales have you had to read more times than you’ve had hot dinners? I’d love to read your suggestions in the comments below.

Rules for A Knight

knightsuk

“There have always been two ways to be rich: by accumulating vast sums or by needing very little.”

Is chivalry dead?

Watching the news, reading comments on Facebook, and viewing some of the world’s entertainment offerings (those not covered by GeekDad), you would be forgiven for thinking so. Ethan Hawke begs to differ. With his little book Rules for a Knight, Hawke shows that knightly virtues such as courage, humility, and honesty very much have a place in modern life, whatever we are doing.

Rules for a Knight was written for Hawke’s four children. It’s a series of allegories told by a knight on the eve of the battle that claimed his life. Sir Tomas Lemuel Hawke writes a letter to his children, passing on what he learned from his grandfather, and explaining how he came to be a knight. He wants his children to live a good and noble life, even without his hand to guide them.

And who wouldn’t want that for their children?

Hawke walks the thin line between sage advice and over-sentimental homily, managing to stay on the right side throughout. There are many ways a Hollywood star giving out vaguely mystic advice could have gone horribly wrong, but Hawke avoids them. Much as Sir Thomas might have suggested, egos have been left at the door. The book’s gentle lessons are delivered in an easy-to-read and entertaining style.

Rules for a Knight is lovely to read aloud. The chapters are short and their message clear, but are interesting enough to debate their finer points as you head up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire. The book is nicely presented: a small hardcover with a pleasingly tactile cover, and a bookmark ribbon. It would make a great, slightly different gift to mark a birth, christening, or Jedi knighting ceremony.

“A knight knows where he keeps his flint box…A knight does not need to be told how many arrows are left in his quiver. Responsibility, awareness and self-knowledge are his allies. Forgetfulness is his enemy”.

(The sort of quote you need when your son comes home without his coat, lunchbox, or tie. And it’s only Monday.)

Rules for a Knight is a great little book, that, whilst on the surface archaic, is often right on the money for the modern world. If you’re looking for a gentle way to show your children a more “mindful” way of living, then this book will probably do that–without making them throw up.

Rules of A Knight is available from Hutchinson. All royalties from sales of the book are being donated organizations working to help young people overcome learning disabilities. I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.  

This review first appeared on GeekDad 1/2/2016

Concentr8

This review first appeared on GeekDad 30/1/2016

concentr8A few months ago I stumbled on this article by William Sutcliffe, published by the UK’s Independent newspaper. Ignoring its primary content for a moment, this was exciting for me as Sutcliffe is the author of one of my favourite books, Whatever Makes You Happy, a novel that offers a hilarious look at the mother-son relationship. I found it particularly apposite to my situation, and a whole lot cheaper than therapy. He also wrote the excellent Circus of Thieves books; hilarious stories for children aged 6+.

His new story promised a dystopian future based around a behaviour-altering drug given to children. This is the type of premise I enjoy in a book, written by an author I greatly admire, so I knew immediately I wanted to read, Concentr8. 

The novel wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. It’s not set on a future earth, with a striated society and a mad dictator calling all the shots. It’s a whole lot more subtle than that. Concentr8 is set in an easily recognizable London, with an easily recognizeable (to British residents at least), but entirely fictitious, media savvy, tousle-haired buffoon, as Mayor.

London is in turmoil. Its population is angry. Much like at the time of the 2011 riots, there’s a feeling that politicians and big-business are creaming off the top, at the expense of the little guy. The little guy has had enough.

Enter five teenagers from inner-city London. Disaffected and bored, with little prospect things will get any better. As London consumes itself, Blaze and his followers decide to start a fire of their own. They kidnap and hold hostage a lowly government worker. Hiding out in an abandoned warehouse, the teenagers soon find themselves the attention of the nation’s media.

As the stakes are raised, each child begins to analyse their reasons for being there; a heady mix of camaraderie, loyalty to a charismatic leader, and railing against a society that doesn’t want them. Each member of the gang questions their involvement in a situation that becomes more dangerous by the hour.

Sutcliffe uses several different voices to tell his tale, including members of the gang, a journalist, the hostage, a negotiator, and the Mayor of London himself. Some voices appear more then once, others are given but a solitary airing. Sutcliffe uses his mosaic of narrators to build up a picture of shifting loyalties and motives, revealing a group of young people that have started something they can no longer control.

Tottenham_riots

Concentr8 Feature a London in turmoil much like the city in 2011. Photo: “Carpetright store after Tottenham riots” by Alan Stanton

Sitting over the top of all this is fictional drug, Concentr8; a treatment for ADHD. As the novel opens, it has been discovered that Concentr8 has been controversially prescribed to countless children across the country, without proper testing. Due to cost cuts the drug has been suddenly removed from circulation. All of a sudden there are hundreds of school aged children suffering from withdrawl.

Sutcliffe states in his Independent article that one the inspirations for Concentr8 came from the current reality that, in Britain, it is possible to obtain disability benefit if your child is diagnosed with having ADHD. This, combined with the aim of the Concentr8 program being to ensure that, “The symptoms of criminality can be treated before they develop into the full-blown disease.” forms the central axis on which Sutcliffe hangs the rest of his novel.

In the novel, children are preselected by teachers to be given the treatment. Their parents are given financial incentives to take up the program, the result being that swathes of children from disadvantaged backgrounds are medicated to keep them quiet. It’s chemical social engineering.

“Doctors have a huge influence and power to turn our social and cultural expectations for children’s behaviour into medical definitions of physical health, with those who do not conform to our social and cultural expectations being labelled as medically dysfunctional in some manner.”

Excerpt from Sami Timimi, Naughty Boys: Anti-Social Behaviour, ADHD and the Role of Culture. Quoted as a chapter heading in Concentr8 

Like the best dystopian visions, the world Sutcliffe outlines is only one or two comparatively sane-sounding steps away from becoming reality.

The subject of ADHD is complex and deeply emotive. For sufferers and the parents of sufferers, life presents a series of specific challenges that must be overcome. Within the family unit, potential pitfalls can be allowed for, mitigated, or avoided. In the wider world, indifference and misunderstanding of the problems faced by an ADHD can exacerbate them. Medication is one method to return control to the sufferer, but should the continual increase in diagnoses of ADHD be cause for concern?

In the UK right now, huge emphasis is placed on school attainment. Rigorous testing and continual comparisons of results are now the order of the day. Schools can be severely reprimanded if they don’t show continual improvements in test scores. If prescribing certain drugs to children can improve their performance in these, apparently vital, measures of competence, why wouldn’t schools push for them? But at what cost? As The Onion put it ‘Ritalin Cures New Picasso.’

What Sutcliffe’s novel shows us, as any decent healthcare professional will tell you, is that proper diagnosis is essential. Behavioral and environmental factors must be carefully weighed up and assessed. ADHD is tangled conundrum, difficult enough to negotiate for a family with a sufferer, without trying to weigh up the influence of the pharmaceutical industry, political expediency, and education policy.

With selected (and often horrifying) quotes from anti-Ritalin literature, it’s fairly clear where Sutcliffe is pitching his flag. To borrow from scourge of Big Pharma and the imprecise use of science, author Ben Goldacre, I think we’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that. Concentr8 expresses a view, but what it shows is only coming from one angle.

Nevertheless, Concentr8 does pose difficult questions about medicating teenagers, particularly those whose lives and situations are difficult. Leaving ADHD aside, it highlights the difficulties faced by young adults that live in harsh urban environments, showing what few options they feel they have.

“If it was up to me I wouldn’t never met nobody like Blaze or Troy or any of them. I wouldn’t have ended up with friends that ain’t even friends. I wouldn’t have ended up like this, all on my own up some roof with no options, no choices, just boxed in on every side by different things I don’t want – that nobody would want.”

Vilified throughout the press, used as scapegoats by politicians, and excluded from much of the Capital because of its over-inflated prices, these children are bored and looking to entertain themselves.

Sutcliffe ably demonstrates how it’s easy for the establishment to brand the behavior as criminal without really considering any mitigating circumstances. Compassion wins few votes and sells fewer newspapers, and it’s children like the ones depicted in Concentr8 that suffer as a result.

This is a controversial and thought-provoking book, that asks difficult questions about how we treat our teenagers. Its position on ADHD medication will raise ire in some, but above all, Concentr8 shows the importance of ensuring that decisions about how and when these drugs are prescribed, remain in the hands of the clinicians. In a world where explosive political rhetoric can ride roughshod over common sense, it’s an observation well worth making.

Concentr8 is out in both the US and the UK, published by Bloomsbury. Many thanks to Bloomsbury UK for sending me a copy of the book for review. 

Adventures in Storytelling: Help your children learn to tell tales

A version of this post appeared on GeekDad.com on 14/1/2016

Story Box_Front2Towards the end of 2015, a new phenomenon entered our household. We have always read lots of stories together, but suddenly my children were filled with a desire to tell stories too. It has been a pleasure and delight to gather together at the end of a wearing, fractious day, and unwind collectively creating a story. A story, which for reasons I’ve long since forgotten, usually involves an elephant called Bill.

This new found passion for creating stories of our own has been aided an abetted by some lovely products from publisher Laurence King.

First up is coloring book, come crazy ideas generator, My Crazy Inventions Sketchbook. This inventions handbook is filled of partially complete pictures, and springboards to inspire creativity. Being a sketchbook, its primary medium is pen and pencil, but by looking over my son’s shoulder, I was able to ask him questions about why his invention did what it did, why it looked like it did, and how exactly does it do what it was supposed to do. Soon we were creating stories about his inventions and how they were going to save the world.

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Crazy Inventions Sketchbook: Mess optional. My house already looks like this.

The next product we used in our storytelling odyssey were some Pirate Adventure Dice. These are essentially the same as Rory’s Story Cubes, but themed around ocean going freebooters.

If you haven’t used story dice before, the pictures on them provide a framework upon which to hang your story. Each of Laurence King’s sets come with nine dice, eight of which you roll, giving a total of 48 different pictures with which to construct your story. The pirate pictures include things like a treasure chest, a mermaid, and a message in a bottle

The ninth die is the “superhero” die, which is rolled when one of the special superhero swirls comes up on one of the original eight dice. This die is then rolled to generate a superpower for one of the eight pictures you’ve already generated. This could lead to a super-strong mermaid, a talking message, or time-travelling treasure.

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Boxes of storytelling delights

The pirate dice were a huge hit in our house. We can quickly create collective stories, and easily fit two or three rounds into the bedtime routine. They proved so popular that over the holidays Santa Claus left us two more sets; Space Travel and Magic & Fairy Tale. So now we can add enchanted mirrors, giant computers, and even the Statue of Liberty buried in sand.

We also have the Rory’s Batman Story Cubes. These are great, particularly if you like the setting, but my seven year old prefers the Laurence King dice. The concepts depicted on the pictures are easier for him to get a handle on, and, as  a result, he finds it easier to think up story links.

There are a couple of other small reasons why I prefer Laurence King’s dice to Rory’s cubes. They’re large, and made of them wood, making for a more pleasing tactile experience, especially for small hands. Similarly the tough, brushed cardboard, boxes have a nicer look and feel to the plain black plastic that the Batman cubes come in. The instructions, and more importantly, picture descriptions, all fit inside their boxes, whereas the Batman sheet doesn’t, making it much more likely it will get lost.

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Fairy Tale Story Box. Featuring awesome giant rabbit card.

The final stop on our storytelling journey is the new Story Box: Create Your Own Fairy Tale.

This requires more space than the story dice, but it’s a wonder to behold. Twenty beautifully illustrated cards that depict scenes inspired from traditional fairy stories. The cards fit together like jigsaw pieces and are double sided, so can be combined together in myriad ways. All laid out together they make a story 8ft in length.

The story building isn’t quite so intuitive as it is with the dice. If you draw pieces randomly there are sometimes some mental leaps required, in order to tell a coherent story (for example if the wolf capturing the dwarf card, comes out after the dwarf being rescued card). There is of course nothing stopping you breaking the story in the middle and adding a bit in.

Indeed in doing so, lies the Story Box’s power, by altering the story up the chain, we found that our children liked to change what was happening further down, giving several different narratives during a single session. The story that evolved was also more collaborative than those generated by the story dice, as the boys discussed what they thought was going to happen.

The jigsaw pieces are made from strong card, and the illustrations very pleasing. They have really captured the imagination of my three year old. He loves putting the pieces together to make a “story train” and he’s really taken to two or three of the cards and likes to explain what’s going on with them.

Because the pieces are uniform, it’s easy to see new Story Boxes adding further adventures and settings. Fairy Tales, Pirates and Space Travel could easily be incorporated. Beyond that I’d love to see branded versions of the concept, as is common with popular board/card games. Marvel, DC and Star Wars editions would surely be popular; you could create your own spoilers.

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The story box: Tending towards infinite possibility.

My experiences with the Story Box have been magical, with all five of us working together to create something special. The older ones have even learned the rudiments of how stories are constructed; beginning, middle, and end, and the best time to introduce peril. One fun exercise we enjoyed was telling a story backwards. It’s surprisingly hilarious.

I’ve have been thrilled by this new found enthusiasm my children have for storytelling. Their new passion has been enhanced and encouraged by these excellent products from Laurence King.

The Pirate Dice, Inventions Sketchbook, and the Story Box were all sent to me by the publisher for review.

 

 

Salman Rushdie -Two Years Two Months & Twenty Eight Days

This review first appeared on GeekDad on 29/11/2015

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I’m not a fighter he told her. I’m not a hero. I’m a gardener”

As I mentioned in the introductory piece to my literary science fiction-fantasy investigation, I’ve never read any Salman Rushdie. He’s an author I’d been inclined to shy away from, but the mixture of epic tales and superheroes promised in the blurb for Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights, piqued my interest. The desire to try the book formed the inspiration for this series of posts; could traditionally “high brow” authors write accessible and entertaining science fiction? This is how I fared on novel number one.

First up, I did fall asleep several times when reading Two Years… This was partly due to my youngest reintroducing pre-5 am alarm calls and partly because, as well as telling a tale of epic heroism, Rushdie likes a bit of flowery contemplation too.

I am, however, glad to have read the book. It may have occasionally sent me to sleep, but it’s full of the themes and ideas that have underpinned superheroic fiction for decades.

The book displays many genre conventions and references yet more. There are Jinn, the mythical and magical creatures that provide the main source of fantasy in the book. They live in an alternate world, parallel to our own.

One of the novel’s human heroes is a comic book artist (described as being “sub-Stan Lee”). The book’s narrator does so from somewhen in the far future, from a hinted-at, super-technological world. The story is an end-of-days tale culminating in the arrival of Armageddon. At one point, Rushdie invokes sub-atomic particles and Lewis Carrol, via the Cheshire Cat principle. There is much here for the geek.

Standing against four tyrannous super-beings bent on laying the world in ruins are a band of disparate heroes who come together to fight the incursion. This central stand-off evokes images of Superman 2 and The Avengers.

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On the surface, Two Years is a fairy tale about the love of a Jinn for her human, philosopher husband, and the countless children they had; Jinn, it seems, are eye-wateringly fecund. It is these demi-jinn that will fight the incursion when it finally arrives.

Dig deeper, and, as one might expect, there’s quite a bit more going on. The original philosopher Ibn Rushd fights a philosophical/religious battle with another, more devout philosopher. These exchanges cannot be read without bringing to mind Rushdie’s own significant brush with organized religion. Not that he isn’t above poking fun at his own predicament.

“You mean,” she said, “that because we are not married our children cannot carry their father’s name.” He smiled his sad crooked smile. “It is better that they be the Duniazat,” he said, “a name which contains the world and not been judged by it. To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.” 

Beneath that, as you might expect for a novel that’s a riff on 1001 Nightsthis is a book about the power of stories.

“[T]o tell a story about the past is to tell a story about the present. To recount a fantasy, a story about the imaginary, is also a way of recounting a tale about the actual. If this were not true then the deed would be pointless…”

The novel is laden with allegory, some obvious, others less so. The baby that gives deceivers boils is the stuff of politicians’ nightmares. There’s a beautiful passage highlighting the plight of the migrant, even a welcomed successful one, that details the pain of being separated from one’s culture.

A dystopian fable warns against the glory of capitalism and the perils of grasping always to build the future. Another powerful passage decries western foreign policy, whilst simultaneously putting the boot into religious fundamentalism. This fable within a fable depicts the situation in Syria and the rise of IS with depressing accuracy. The blend of fable and hard-edged truth are what gives Two Years its power.

Rushdie’s language is sometimes overblown. Some of the esoteric and ethereal romantic pontification are what sent me to sleep, but other sections are beautiful and compelling. The story is suffused with humor and it wears its references lightly. There are a number of subtle riffs on superhero and comic book culture.

I’ve reread a number of sections of the book in order to write this piece and, in doing so, I have developed an even greater respect for it. Removed from trying to piece together the story, I have found it easier to immerse myself in Rushdie’s use of language; to enjoy each of his set-piece vignettes.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights will not be to everybody’s taste, but I have found it an invigorating read that has made me think about the stories we tell and how they fit into the world in which we live. It is a novel that will bear repeat reading and, as the first book of my literary science fiction investigation, it represents an unqualified success.

Next up of my Literary SFF reads is a slimmer, more conventional novel, Slade House by David Mitchell.

I received a copy of this book for review purposes from the team at Penguin Random House UK. 

 

A Foxtrot Alpha Bravo read. ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ by David Shafer

This review first appeared on GeekDad on 14/9/2015

I love to be taken completely by surprise by a book. I’d never heard of WTFUKWhiskey Tango Foxtrot, when its arresting cover caught my eye as I browsed in my local library. It’s a book that, in the UK at least, seems to have been criminally overlooked. I loved every page of it, from first to last. It’s pure geek manna.

At its heart, I found Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to be a less irritating riff on Dave Eggers one-dimensional polemic ‘The Circle‘. I’ve read a few “Pitfalls of Social Media” novels, and I think WTF sits at the top of the pile.

The story draws three disparate characters together, as they become entangled in a web of international corporate espionage. There is a plot to gain a stranglehold on the entire globe’s digital information, and the three are recruited by a shadowy counter-culture group to try to thwart the might of big business.

The foe they are up against is an unholy marriage of an Internet Goliath with a private military company and the book contains the inevitable ruminations about the power of mercenary outfits and the perils of allowing social media companies unfettered access to your data. Many of the traps outlined are but small extrapolations of existing, much touted features offered by Facebook and Google. Much of the novel’s humour is derived from the arch depiction of Sine, a company that is the conglomeration of just about every huge technology outfit you can name. With their “node” they hope to revolutionise the way we control our lives, and in the process they aim to gain complete control of the way we control our lives.

The book derives its richness from its central characters, three flawed individuals given over to introspection. They pretty much fumble their way through the plot analysing the way the world works as they go along. David Shafer’s distilling of the absurdities of modern life is entertaining and he has a keen eye for detail and a dry turn of phrase that kept me hooked throughout.

There is some carping on the internet that the book is far-fetched (true) and that the ending is ambiguous (also true). Neither of these things mattered for me. The story is in essence a vehicle for carrying ideas and suggesting caution in the way we handle our digital lives. The ending is abrupt, and might have you exclaiming and searching for extra pages, but you could say there’s a clue is in the novel’s title. I liked the ending, and found it in keeping with the rest of the novel. You should be pretty sure how things are going to play out after the novel’s end, but you’re left with a nagging doubt that perhaps it didn’t. That feeling I found refreshing.

With its immersive look at the culture of technology and spy-craft Whiskey Foxtrot Tango should appeal to the geek in us all. There are lots of little hooks of information that require further investigation. I spend an invigorating half hour, trying to understand what a Markov number is on the back of a throwaway observation by a minor character. It’s that sort of book. I thoroughly enjoyed WFT. It’s testament to the power of good storytelling and the importance of the existence of libraries, without which I may never have discovered this entertaining gem of a novel.

If you enjoyed Whiskey Foxtrot Tango, here are a few books in the same vein,

Fishbowl by Matthew Glass. In which Ivy League geek invents the perfect social media program and wrestles with profit over perfection.

No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe. The life of a presidential candidate is derailed when a popular social media programme predicts he will hold a gun to his own family.

Glaze by Kim Curran. A YA novel on the perils of giving too much of yourself away.

The Circle by Dave Eggers. Social Media is baaad M’Kay.

The Word Exchange by Aleana Graedon. Over reliance on social media and phones for information threatens to destroy the art of written communication.