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.

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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. 

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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.

 

 

A Woven Cloth of Gold – ‘Arcadia’ by Iain Pears

This review fist appeared on GeekDad on 4/1/2015 

arcadiaukIain Pear’s Arcadia is a piece of precision literary engineering. I’ve realised recently, that a novel’s structure is very important to me. I don’t like structure to overshadow the substance of a novel, but I do find quirky or unusual constructions very appealing.

So it is with Arcadia, a novel, if its app is to believed, that has chapters which can be read in any order. I read Arcadia in paper format, forwards from page one, so I can’t verify the truth of this statement (Pears explains in this interesting Q&A, how the book format is but a single narrative route through his creation), but I can confirm that story does fold back over on itself.

How does it do this? Pears, not traditionally a science fiction writer, employs some commonly used devices of the genre to create a mind-bending but wholly satisfying tale. To say more would give the game away.

As Arcadia opens, Henry Lytten, an Oxford professor, is a writing a fantasy novel. He’s not the first to do this, and it will delight Tolkien fans that Lytten is a small-time member of the Inklings. Prof. Tolkien doesn’t feature directly in the novel, but he does touch its edges a couple of times, which is a pleasing addition to proceedings.

Where Tolkien created Middle Earth as a vehicle for myth and language, Lytten wants to build a realistic working society.

“No goblins,” he said. “This is serious, I want to construct a society that works. With beliefs, laws, superstitions, customs. With an economy and politics. An entire sociology of the fantastic.”

Things become more interesting when a young girl who feeds Lytten’s cat discovers a peculiar portal in the professor’s basement. She walks through it and, like C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe, it transports her into another world.

The girl quickly ducks back to her own world, but not before interacting with one young boy. This brief encounter has deep ramifications for the world she’s visited. Things become more peculiar when Lytten subconsciously adds a young girl into his story. We are left wondering is Lytten controlling events with his narrative, or does his narrative somehow control the events around him?

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The route through the maze. Schematic of interlocking worlds from the Touchpress ‘Arcadia’ app.

Additional narrative strands are added, with chapters that detail life in the fictional state of Anterworld, and, more curiously, a tale from a dystopian far off future. This features an Earth with a ravaged surface, crumbling societies, and humans that are enhanced by implants. In the far north of Scotland, a brilliant but querulous mathematician and physicist has invented a machine that can open portals into alternate dimensions.

How does this fit in with Professor Lytten’s comfortable Oxford home and his fantastic creation? The answer to that question forms the spine of the novel, and the reader’s voyage of discovery to find its truth is rich and enjoyable.

The narrative’s construction is faultless. Lytten manages to weave parochial college life, future dystopia, mythical fiction, quantum physics, and even Cold War espionage into a compelling, brain-massaging whole. I wouldn’t want every novel I read to be like Arcadia, but I found the entire reading experience invigorating. By taking what are essentially tired tropes, Pears has created something innovative and interesting to read.

Arcadia is a fine novel that I think achieves everything it set out to do. Whilst I haven’t read all of the electronic version, the Arcadia app is elegant and appealing. Touchpress, the company that built the app, also created the excellent Elements app, so it has been built by a team with a great pedigree. With the app, Pears offers his readers yet another layer of innovation to his genre-borrowing yet ground-breaking novel.

I was sent a copy of this book to review by its UK publisher, Faber & Faber. Arcadia is out now in the UK

‘Slade House’ by David Mitchell

slade houseThis post first appeared on GeekDad on 10/12/2015

Having started with an author I’d never read for my first literary SFF read, my second choice of writer put me on much more familiar ground. David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors.

Ever since I first read his masterpiece of interlocking short stories, GhostwrittenI wait impatiently for his next book to arrive, devour it almost instantly, and then start the wait again.

The sudden arrival of Slade Housea little over a year since I read The Bone Clockswas a very welcome surprise (the usual wait between novels is around four years). When the book arrived, the comparatively fast turnaround time was explained. Compared with previous novels, Slade House is a slim 233 pages, and the print is fairly large too.

The basis of the stories in the book came from Mitchell’s storytelling tweets from around the time that The Bone Clocks was published. Whilst Mitchell’s internet presence is fairly low key, he’s not afraid to harness its story-telling power.

I said that Slade House contains “stories,” so is this a novel or a set of short stories? Both. Mitchell is the master of morphing short story collections into novels. He most famously employed this device in Cloud Atlas, a novel in which the stories are nested inside one another, and where the whole novel has an axis of symmetry through its central tale.

There’s nothing so complicated here. What we have with Slade House is five stories told sequentially in time. Each story takes place on the 31st of October when, every nine years, the mysterious Slade House magically appears in the middle of a suburban street. The final story takes place on Halloween 2015.

Mitchell’s stories are ghost stories in the grand tradition. All are spooky, menacing, and a little bit scary. All set in the eponymous, haunted, Slade House. Whilst each story in the books could probably stand on its own, each one builds on what came before. Little bits of information are drip fed to the reader as each set of characters enters the house to challenge the horror behind the small black gate in the wall.

Slade House exists in the same world as Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Does this matter? Ultimately, yes. The first four stories would be fine, but number five, the one that contains the novel’s denouement, would be greatly diminished were you not familiar with the concept of what exactly a Bone Clock is. I frankly think you’d be baffled and a little cheated that the novel ended they way it does. If you haven’t read The Bone Clocks yetit’s a fine novel that will most certainly reward your attention.

Slade House is probably less SFF than both The Bone Clocks and Cloud AtlasThere are supernatural elements, and certainly something fishy going on, but until the final pages there is very little of the science fiction motif that underpins The Bone Clocks.

Why do I like Mitchell’s novels so much? Partly it’s the audacious structures he uses, but mostly it’s his use of language. It probably helps Mitchell is about my age and his upbringing in “The Midlands” is similar to mine. His semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green, a story about a teenage boy, is set about twenty miles from where I spent my teenage years. Needless to say, I loved it. Mitchell’s cultural grounding feels like my cultural grounding.

But you don’t have to have lived just south of Birmingham (UK) to like his books. Like all great writers, Mitchell has that knack of pulling a short concise metaphor out of the air, that perfectly encapsulates a feeling or notion you’ve had, but can never quite describe. He notices the small details in life that you don’t notice you’ve noticed. Things you don’t realize you’re aware of until Mitchell points them out to you.

I very much enjoyed reading Slade HouseIt is certainly one of his most accessible novels, and I would recommend it for those who had never read him, were it not for its dependence on having read The Bone Clocks to get the most from it.

Whilst the books is certainly enjoyable, I don’t think this is a novel that will extend Mitchell’s legend as a writer. It’s an entertaining story, well executed, but it doesn’t play with genre or structure in the way Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks does. A good novel then, but not a great one. 

Many thanks to Nicky of Hodder Books UK, for sending me a copy of this book for my literary SFF project. Next up is Iain Pears’ multi-dimensional, time travel novel Arcadia.

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. 

 

Get Lost in a Good Book – ‘Pierre the Maze Detective’

I started writing this review on Friday afternoon. It’s a book that presents fictional representation of Paris. In the meantime terrible events took place in the real city. Pierre the Maze Detective takes place in a happier world. My heart goes out to all those affected. I wish that the world was a simpler place where its worst crime was a dastardly mastermind stealing a maze stone, and that all problems could be solved by a diminutive detective wearing plus-fours and stripy socks. Sadly, things just aren’t like that. 

pierreLots of children’s books come into our house. Many of which are very good. Some though are exceptional and make me almost uncontrollably excited. My childhood is well past me now, but the very best of of children’s books reignite that essence of child inside me, leading me to caper about in a way that embarrasses the children. Pierre the Maze Detective is one such book.

I loved puzzle books as a child and still do, but don’t often find the time to explore them. This one demands to be pored over, every page has a multitude of things to see; jokes, quirks and above all, mazes. I forgot to mention, I love mazes even more than I enjoy puzzle books.

I’ll be honest. Where’s Wally has never really done it for me. It’s diverting for a while, but at the end of the day it’s just starting a pictures. Pierre and his creators, Hiro Kamigaki and the gang at IC4Design take things one step further.

This is like the Ultimate Alphabet for maze-freaks. There is just so much stuff to see. Each maze pulls you in as you find more and more little details. This is the sort of book you sit down to look at for five minutes and find yourself still there half and hour later.

There are sixteen mazes in all. Each double-page spread has a theme and a main maze. There are many smaller mazes within and numerous hidden objects to discover too. Some of the hidden things are generic, such as gold stars and red trophies, whilst others are tailored to the page’s theme, such as the must-see exhibits at the museum. This gives the book an extra dimension and, combined with breathtaking attention to detail, makes it captivating.

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My favourite picture

The book’s highlights include:

A sky maze between colourful hot air balloons.

A maze made of railway tracks.

A haunted house, complete with resident vampire.

A chase across a crowded city.

Pierre the Maze Detective is one of the finest children’s books I have seen in some time. It’s engaging and entertaining, with so much going on for children to discover. I think it would suit a child over 7. My 10 year old loved it. Children younger than that will enjoy looking at the pictures, but their attention spans might not be up to the concentration levels required.

With Christmas coming this book makes for an excellent present. I’ve already brought two more copies and will be looking for excuses to buy extras. A brilliantly executed children’s book and a book you can literally get lost in…

Many thanks to the team at Laurence King Publishing (producers of some of the most beautiful children’s books around) for sending me a copy of this book

 

We’re all aliens now – ‘The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet’ by Becky Chambers

The-Long-Way-To-A-Small-Angry-Planet-616x947Every now and then a novel comes along that changes what you think stories can do. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is just such a book. On one level its very ho-hum ordinary. It’s about a group of spacefarers travelling in a spaceship to their destination. Stuff happens, perhaps people die, perhaps they don’t. There’s aliens, technology and new planets. It’s a small scale Star Trek with less clunky scenery. But that’s just one level. Not since reading Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, have I read a book that made me think so deeply about humanity, prejudice and the nature of acceptance.

…Small Angry Planet is about a ‘tunnelling’ vessel and its crew. Tunnelling, in Becky Chambers’ universe, is punching through the fabric of reality in order to build wormholes that facilitate travel across vast distances of Space. The crew of the Wayfarer are damn good at what they do, but as a small outfit, they’re restricted to minor jobs. The authorities who hand out the boring contracts (actually very exciting, ripping through time and space, and all that), have let it be known that if Captain Ashby Santoso had a more professional outlook, larger, more lucrative jobs could be sent in the Wayfarer’s direction.

This is how Rosemary Harper comes on board. She has been hired as a clerk. Somebody to ensure that all the paperwork is up to date and filed on time. So…the basis of the story is, a young woman takes a job in the back office of a small company that has ambitions to expand. Exciting hey? Well not so much, but the story Chambers delivers is mind-blowingly excellent.

From the off Rosemary has a secret, but what is it? The Wayfarer’s new mission is to a far flung sector of the known universe where an up-until-now hostile race of aliens have sued for peace and been invited to join the Galactic Commons. The GC is a federation of aliens and races that all pull in roughly the same direction to ensure harmony across space. The UN writ large. Humans, we learn a fairly new members of the GC; primitive and rather stupid ones at that. Our propensity to settle problems using violence has not gone unnoticed. Humans themselves are spilt into broad categories, including Martian’s, those who escaped the Apocalypse on earth by going to Mars, and Exodan’s, those who travelled into space hoping to find salvation amongst the stars.

The rest of the universe is made up with just about every other type of life form Becky Chambers was able to imagine. Which she does brilliantly. The races felt real, not just their physical appearance but their social structures, their habits, their interactions, their desires. They are wonderfully rendered sentient creatures, alien yet touchingly, for want a better word, human. There are several different species on board the Wayfarer, as well as three humans and a sentient (also incredibly important) AI.

The relationships between the crew are what makes this novel so special. To be honest, they could have just been taking a camper van trip somewhere remote, before spending a few days on the beach and coming home again. I could read Chambers’ dialogue and character relationships all day long. It’s impossible to pick a favourite character, they are all so good; so real.

Chambers uses her wide and varied cast of characters to poke at what exactly it is that constitutes humanity. How does compassion work? What is prejudice? I think I’m a pretty accepting guy, but reading Chambers novel, I realised I had prejudices that were so deeply hidden, I wasn’t really aware they existed. …Small Angry Planet explores the idea that we’re all different in any number of ways, but there is nearly always some common ground on which to build.

The novel builds slowly to a gripping finale, about which I shall say little, lest I ruin its emotional impact. Whilst the book is beautiful and complete, I finished it desperate for more. Closing the covers felt like I was shutting the door on old friends. With its ensemble cast and lens-on-life motif The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet would make a wonderful television series. I light-heartedly compared it to Star Trek, but a series based on this wonderful novel would be a more than worthy successor. This is storytelling of the highest order and without a shadow of doubt my best read of 2015 so far.

Ok, I’ll stop gushing now.

Except to say the cover is absolutely beautiful too.

Many Thanks for the team at Bookbridgr and Hodderscape for sending me a copy of this book.