Saturday, 17 December 2011

Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds

Another Reynolds book?  Most of them have had some pretty flawed, though entertaining, and I didn't even finish his most recent - Terminal World.  I was right to stick with him, though: the sequel to Revelation Space is a cracker.

This trilogy is all about the Fermi Paradox - given the estimates on intelligent life in the galaxy, why can't we see any evidence of it?  Is there something stopping civilisations making that jump to interstellar travel?  Something robotic and scary perhaps?

The plot's great. I like the characters and the themes (redemption's a big one) are handled really well.  But where this book excels are in the science and the space battles.  Reynolds' day job is with the European Space Agency and he not only knows what he's talking about - he knows how to communicate it.  Travel between stars, different dimensions, messages from the future and the best way to rip apart a solar system are all dealt with in a realistic way. The military side of things is fantastic too, and the tactics and manoeuvres are really clever and exciting, but again rooted in reality.

There are a couple of odd jumps in the narrative - two thirds in and in the last chapter - where huge important chunks of the story are missed out.  Both sections would probably take up a novella to tell, and they sound like great stories, but it actually kind of worked.  We find out the bare bones of what happens, and the rest is left to our imagination.  I was reminded of the end of the Hobbit where we never see the big battle with Smaug at the end, but we imagine it was pretty cool.

One more book in this trilogy to go - Absolution Gap - and as often with these SF series, a couple of books which come before which I possibly should've read first - Chasm City and the Prefect.  Unlike Peter F Hamilton though, you don't need to read them first to really enjoy this series.  I've abandoned a few science fiction novels in recent months, but this has renewed my faith in the genre.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carre

Or, What George Smiley Did Next.  This picks up where Tinker Tailor ends - Smiley's uncovered the mole, but the Circus has been deeply compromised.  Operations are being wound up across the world, and the cousins (CIA) are poised to fill the vacuum.  George is getting increasingly obsessive about Karla at Moscow Central, but is he ignoring other threats closer to home?

This is mostly set in the Far East, Hong Kong especially.  Another Karla operative is uncovered there and journalist and spy Jerry Westerby is called out of semi-retirement to investigate.

There's lots to love about this book.  The Circus stuff is great, especially seeing Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke in the film) back at the centre of things.  You've also got Westerby stirring things up in Hong Kong, and making dangerous detours through Cambodia at the height of the Khmer Rouge, and meeting crazy mercenaries in the jungles of Thailand.

But I didn't enjoy it as much as Tinker Tailor.  When I finished the first thing I did was look up wikipedia to find out what happened.  That's not a good sign.  That's partly because, having checked, the ending doesn't really make sense.  It's like the author just wanted everyone in the same place to make it more dramatic.  But I must take some of the blame for my confusion.

I was listening to this as a book on tape, and I suspect there were some chunks missing.  And I think with something as subtle as this, you really need to have it written down.  I remember quite often re-reading pages of Tinker Tailor to get it all clear in my head - here, it was just gone and I was on the next chapter.

I was also a bit disappointed by the direction it takes.  It's set up as Smiley taking the fight to Karla through his own moles, but that's not what happens.  Instead, you get Le Carre's growing detestation of America (or the CIA, to be fair) which has come to the fore in his more recent novels.

I'm getting a bit suspicious of his portrayal of women as well.  The main female character in this really is a pain in the neck.  The beautiful, tragic victim/whore we've seen a million times.  Then you've got Smiley's pathologically unfaithful wife Ann still lurking off camera.  Peter Guillam manages to seduce a member of the circus, but the only thing we find out about her is she starts off a bit frigid.  The only woman who really shines is Connie.  But then she's old, dotty, drunk and in a wheelchair.  One of the boys, really.

Still, I've got the concluding part of this semi-official trilogy to go - Smiley's People.   I'm not sure  where it's going to go after the end of this one, but I'm still looking forward to it.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Here's the good news.  If you're worried about being a psychopath, then you're not a psychopath.  Jon Ronson's more worried that he's an anti-psychopath: socially inept, low self esteem, and worried about things like whether he's the opposite of a psychopath.

The scary thing is it's not a mental illness.  Psychopaths aren't psychotic.  It's not a disorder listed in the "Big Book of Mentalism" the DSM IV.  It seems more like being a vampire, an android in Blade Runner or the Thing.  It's the old problem of consciousness.  How do you really know someone doesn't feel empathy if they've programmed themselves to act exactly as somebody with empathy would?

Ronson meets one prisoner in Broadmoor, who beat up a tramp and convinced the
authorities he was crazy by quoting Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet (which should do the trick.)  But the psychiatrists refuse to let him go, saying faking mental illness is something only a psychopath would do.  He meets a top US businessman who could be a psychopath.  Maybe he's just ruthless.  Where's the line? And how easy is it to abuse the test when you're in a position of power?

There's lots more here beside straight-up psychopathy - there's an examination of the growing medication of children, the hazards of psychological profiling when tracking killers, and the strange case of David Shayler...

He' s the former MI5 officer turned whistleblower who later cropped up as a 911 conspiracy theorist.  Then he went on TV to claim the planes which flew into the World Trade Centre were actually missiles overlayed with holograms of planes.  Then he became a transvestite......then he announced he was the son of God.....and interest has faded since then.

Ronson tracks that media interest, and finds the holographic plane theory was when Shayler peaked - that's when he was the right kind of mad.  Too much becomes banal.  The subtitle of this book is "A Journey through the Madness Industry" and the media, along with Ronson himself, are part of that industry.  There's money in madness, as long as it's the right kind.  Psychopaths, for instance.  They look just like you and me, but underneath they're very different.  What could be more fascinating?

This is a great read - accessible, thought-provoking and unusual - and my first book on Kindle.  I'm liking it a lot.  Very easy on the eyes, the forward and back buttons are intuitive, it's light and it fits in my pocket.  I bought this book for under a fiver and downloaded it in 2 minutes.  Another source has has meant even more than my usual backlog of half-read books, so I'll do another round-up soon.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

H. H. Holmes was one of my favourite serial killers when I was growing up, and I finally got hold of this nonfiction account of his crimes from my mother

Holmes was a textbook psychopath operating in Chicago in the 1890s - just a few years after Jack the Ripper was tearing up London.  A doctor and a conman who charmed women, stole their money and murdered them. 

But what set him apart was the industrial scale he operated on.  He took over a whole city block, rebuilt it and turned it into a hotel designed for murder.  There were airtight vaults where he could suffocate his victims; rooms were turned into gas chambers; and there was a specially built incinerator in the basement to get rid of the evidence.  Many times though after disecting his victims, he merely sold their skeletons to a medical school.  No-one knows how many he killed.

Like Jack the Ripper, HHH was a product of his times.  Industrialisation meant more women coming to cities on their own to make a living.  Their parents would've generally grown up and lived their whole lives in the same small communities where even knew each other.  The coming 20th century meant more freedom for most (especially women) but also more dangers.

But there was another factor which fed Holmes' predatory nature - the Chicago World Fair in 1893.  This became the biggest peacetime event in history and attracted hundreds of thousands of sightseers from across the states and beyond.  The other half of ths book tells the history of the fair, the men who built it, and the huge obstacles in the path of success. Both sides of the story show the different ways in which the world became modern, for good and for bad.

It's a fascinating story, and always told in an engaging manner.  I see Leonardo De Caprio's bought the rights to the book, and Katherine Bigelow's meant to be directing.  Fingers crossed for that.

I've bought myself a fancy-dan Kindle, and I've already polished off my first book on that.  More psychopaths coming soon.....

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Peter Cook: A Biography by Harry Thompson

You don't hear much of Peter Cook these days, and it's not just because he's dead.  His biggest TV hit Not Only...But Also was mostly wiped by the BBC.  His movies were usually awful.  His radio work mainly consisted of 3am calls to LBC in character as a lonely Norwegian fisherman.  But back in the early 60s he was the single most important comedian in the world.  This is a brilliant account of his amazing rise and tragic fall.

Like many comedians, his material was formed in childhood.  Cook had a very priviledged upbringing, though it probably didn't feel like that at the time.  He got through boarding school by making people laugh.  His impression of the boring and bizarre school butler (?) Mr Boylett became a craze among his classmates. A few years later it became a sensation among the undergraduates in Cambridge, then in London when Beyond the Fringe hit the West End.  The same thing happened when the show went to New York, and it happened again when Not Only...But Also was shown on the BBC.  But Cook didn't like to say how the character came about, in case it hurt Mr Boylett's feelings.

He was widely hailed as best and brightest of the satire boom of the early '60s, though he was never very satirical.  He just wanted to make people laugh.  All the time.  Throughout his life Cook would turn up somewhere and have everyone in stiches for hours.  You get the feeling that no medium ever captured him at his best - you just had to be there.

His compulsion to be funny was also his tragedy.  Very few people really got behind the wall of silly voices and absurd conceits.  People started to find him draining.  He became an alcoholic, apparently overnight, in the early '70s and the remaining two decades of his life make for desperately sad reading. 

He completely alienated his long suffering comedy partner Dudley Moore.  He grew estranged from his family, whom he loved dearly.  He became bloated, wore ridiculously mismatched clothes and spent much of his time with drug addled fantasist called Rainbow George.  Peter took stacks of drugs himself, but he drank more and he cried a lot as well.  Despite it all he made everyone laugh wherever he went and people loved him.  But the Peter Cook comeback never happened.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

A cracking whodunnit set in Fife, which is a lot nicer than most Scots would have you believe.

The first half is set in St Andrews in the '70s when four students who've been friends since childhood stumble across a murdered girl on their way home from a party.  With no other suspects, suspicion falls on them, leading to breakdowns, violence and more tragedy.  The second half picks up twenty five years later as the case is re-opened and someone starts targetting the four friends.

I'm not going to go into too much detail, as the joy of a good thriller is having everything laid out for you at just the right time.  And the pacing here is great.  The question of who-actually-dunnit isn't addressed until surprisingly late in the game, but the plot grips throughout.  The main focus is the relationship between the friends and how that changes when something horrible happens to them.

As well as friendship, the big themes are false assumptions and prejudice.  It comes out in the characters as well as the plot - two or three of them just don't act how you'd expect them to in a book like this.  Very refreshing.  And although it might seem unlikely, I really liked the fact that people automatically think the four friends murdered this girl when there's nothing at all to suggest they're guilty.

We like to think the world is fair and reasonable, but anyone can find themselves behind bars if they're in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Ask Amanda Knox or Luke Mitchell.  And if the unthinkable does happen to you, try to avoid being a Marilyn Manson fan or doing cartwheels in the police station.  When there's a dead girl knocking about, people tend to think the worst.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

1985 by Anthony Burgess

Another bonkers dystopian novel, but not a good one.

This is a sort of re-imagining of 1984, and you've got to wade through a lengthy critique of Orwell's book first.  There are some good points, a few laughs (Burgess calls A Clockwork Orange "not very good") and quite a bit of abstruse nonsense.  It means you've only about 115 pages for the novel itself.  If it had been much longer I don't think I'd have finished it.

Here's the set up - the unions are all powerful, and every line of work is a closed shop.  Constant strikes have crippled the economy and the country's in hock to the Arabs, who're plotting to turn the country into an Islamic state.

Now, this is pretty strong stuff, and seems carefully crafted to wind up Guardian readers.  And it's the most enjoyable aspect of the book.  It's both bizarre and believable, at least for the time.  Remember, this was written in the late '70s.  The Winter of Discontent was just around the corner and OPEC was holding the west to ransom.  A worrying time to be looking to the future, and I think this vision of the '80s would've seemed a lot more likely at the time than the one we got.

 The problems of the novel are pretty deep though.  The plot's very episodic and the main character moves from scene to scene making speeches about freedom.  Dramatically unsatisfying.  And some things are just plain odd.  There are violent gangs of teenage rapists, but instead of listening to Beethoven, they quote Latin and beat people up for not looking like Don Quixote (yes, this happens.)   They're supposed to be rebelling against the dumbed down, politically correct education they get at school, but it's just silly.

What's even stranger is the treatment of the main character's 13 year old daughter.  She's a slack jawed moron who watches TV constantly and tries to get her dad to fondle her.  I thought she just represented overly-sexualised, under-educated youth, but we find out pretty late on that she is actually brain damaged.  And yet she's always treated as an object of disdain and disgust.  She ends up being given over to an Arab prince as a concubine with her father's tacit consent.  It all feels very unpleasant.

Here's my recommendation:  give 1985 a miss and read 1984.  If you've read it before, why not read it again?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Don't call it a comeback, and no - I didn't retire.  I'll have you know I've been doing some hard reading over the past month!  I managed to plough through this modern epic, and left another couple of books abandoned at the side of the road.

Lanark's got a bit of a reputation as a difficult read but although I started flagging a couple of times, something great always managed to pop up in time.  It's really two novels welded together into one.  It starts in a dystopian version of Glasgow called Unthank where the sun never rises and people vanish as they turn into dragons.  It feels more like a bad dream than science fiction, and it's never completely convincing.

The book takes a turn for the better as the lead character (Lanark himself) is shown his previous life from a child to a tortured young painter.  This is the most successful part of the book, and it's strongly autobiographical.  It doesn't stop Gray painting the character Thaw as a weird, selfish, socially dysfunctional little prick.  I think there's more than a touch of self-flagellation going on here from the author.

The last part of the book picks up Lanark's story again.  I liked this better than the first fantasy section, as our hero travels back to Unthank with his beloved girlfriend (who clearly hates his guts) and accidently becomes a prominent political figure.  There's a lot of really sharp satire here - stuff I haven't seen before.  How Scotland changed from a manufacturing to a public sector economy; the transformation of Glasgow's skyline over the decades (not least the M8) and the way the elites in local government and business behave.

But the biggest target of the satire is the book itself.  Alasdair Gray himself turns up towards the end, ripping right into his own masterwork.  There's even an "index of plagiarisms" which show what ideas, scenes and dialogue he's stolen from where, even down to where he's stolen the idea for a boring fake index in a novel.  What's really interesting is when you notice many of the entries are about chapters which go beyond the end of the book, and give you clues about what happens next, even while mocking the whole stupid plot.  We've seen this kind of po-mo thing before with mixed results, but I loved it here.

Not a perfect novel by any means, but really enjoyable.  I wonder though if I got more out of it from growing up in Glasgow.  The Cathedral and the Necropolis especially loom large both in Thaw's city and Unthank.  It does feel like he's writing his hometown a valentine and poison pen letter in one.  All great cities deserve such a treatment

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Broken Compass by Peter Hitchens

MORE THINGS PETER HITCHENS DOESN'T LIKE (see also The Abolition of Britain)

....the media, the parlous state of political reporting with its focus on manufactured "scandals" and "gaffes" in place of analysis of policy, lazy and stupid journalism, the centre-left bias, cosy lunches between reporters and MPs, opinion polls (a device for manipulating public opinion, not measuring it), the vicious media bullying of Gordon Brown when he was prime minister, the backroom deals which decided the Tories were now "electable", our new permanent centre-left UK government.....

....communism, western apologists for communism, the TUC's decision not to support striking Polish dockworkers in the 80s, former communists in positions of power (John Reid, Peter Mandelson), the singing of communist anthem The Internationale at Donald Dewar's funeral, P Hitchens' own past as a Trotskyist agitator....

...Enoch Powell's rivers of blood speech, the switch from the idea of "racialism" to the more nebulous "racism", the concept of "institutional racism", mass immigration, the impossibility of discussing mass immigration because of accusations of racism, the BNP, laws against homosexuals, laws in favour of homosexuals, laws in general which pertain to your private life, the lowering of the age of consent, civil partnerships, the oppression of women, Mick Jagger's misogynist lyrics, the pressure on women to become "wage slaves" aka having a career instead of having children...

..the decline of standards in British education, the abolition of grammar schools, the hypocrisy of the elite who move to expensive areas to get their kids into a good school but who decry any selection on the basis of academic merit, the consequent decline in social mobility...

...Doctor Beeching and the dismantling of Britain's rail network, generous public subsidies for the road network, the increase in traffic, the detrimental effect on small towns and villages...

...the war in Iraq, left wing commentators making common cause with US neo-conservatives (both heavily influenced by Marxist utopianism), "strong" foreign policy being used as a distraction from left-wing and undemocratic agendas on the home front....

......the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the outmoded conceit that there's such a thing as "left" and "right" in our political system, the decline of the adverserial nature of British politics, the widening gap between the public and the parties who hold them in such disdain..

And I've actually found a list in the last chapter of people Hitchens blames for much of today's problems...Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Herbert Marcuse, Margaret Mead, Alfred Kinsey, Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Antonio Gramsci, R.D. Laing, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Marie Stopes, Monty Python (?), John Lennon and Mick Jagger.   But I've already mentioned him.


ummmm....nope, I'm out.   Changing your mind, I suppose.  He was going to write a book with that title, but thought nobody would buy it.  Who likes to admit they're wrong?

I've got one - a good index!  This has got more than 30 pages of entries for a book which is under two hundred pages long.  Includes the classics "Wolstonecraft, Mary - eloquent pleas reduced to grunts and squeals of 'Girl Power'" and "G, Ali - author smells rat when asked for interview by"

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Popes: A History by John Julius Norwich

Popes, popes, popes!  More popes than you can shake a stick at.  They're all here, from Peter (who was almost certainly never a pope) to Benedict XVI  (who gets a bit of a pasting on paedo priests) and all the assorted bigots, psychos, doddering fools, sickly wimps, nepotistic bastards and occasional good eggs in between.

Here are some of the best bits:
  • The 9th century Pope Formosus being put on trial for heresy - seven months after he died.  And yes, they actually dug up his body and put it in the dock.  He failed to clear his name.  
  • Rome being so disease ridden, violent and generally horrible in the Middle Ages that the papacy moved to Avignon in France for the best part of a century.  
  • The Papal Schism, which saw rival popes in Avignon and Rome.  Cardinals from both sides attempted to fix the problem by electing a third pope.  It didn't work.
  • Pope Julius III in the 16th century, who after being elected immediately made his 17 year old boyfriend a cardinal.  Classy
  • Various Borgias, Medicis and other scumbags during the Renaissance, who had a great time and at least made Rome a bit prettier.
  • The Jesuits being kicked out of pretty much every Catholic country in Europe in the 18th century for winding everyone up the wrong way.
  • Napoleon treating more than one pope as a Corsican peasant treats his donkey.
  • Pius XII turning the blindest of eyes to the Holocaust.  Not that he condoned it exactly, but he was never a massive fan of the Jews.
  • The recent absurd growth in canonisations (Pius XII's is in the post.)  By 2068, we will all be saints.
This is a first rate history covering the best part of twenty centuries at breakneck speed, and it's always entertaining.  A couple of things struck me when reading it - firstly, European history (when compared to British history) is insanely complicated.  I'm still not entirely sure what the hell the Holy Roman Empire was, but I'm pretty sure it was stupid.  And I learned that Catholic countries appear to hate the pope even more than protestant ones.  Especially France.

In the end, the Catholic Church doesn't really come out of this book smelling of roses.  And yet, I know if my sanity finally does snap and I start thinking there's a God, there's nowhere else I'd turn.  If I ever become a protestant, kill me.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Half Read Round Up

There've been a few interesting and not so interesting books I've made a stab at in the past month or two.

Somersault by Kenzaburo Oe - I made it to page 70, when two characters started to disect the work of an obscure Welsh poet.  No.  Pretentious and dull.

Man Without a Face by Markus Wolf - The memoirs of East Germany's legendary spy-master.  A fascinating and well written account by a man clearly still wrestling with his conscience.  Turns out they never even told him the Berlin Wall was going up.  Plays havoc with your spy network, that kind of thing.


 Byzantium by Judith Herrin - Right up my street, but never grabbed me for some reason.  I can recommend a book I read a year or two back called Justinian's Flea, which looks more closely at that Emperor's reign, and the devastating impact of the Black Death.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville - Alright, I've thrown in the towel on this one.  Brilliant first half - grimy fantasy steampunk with sentient beetles and cacti.  A wonderfully realised world with lots of colour.  Unfortunately half way through all the plot lines seem to be abandoned while everyone looks for a monster.  Lost interest.

Mao's Last Revolution by Roderick McFarquhar and Michael Shoenhals - A fascinating period of history.  It takes balls to start a revolution.  It takes massive swinging counterintuitive balls to start a revolution in a country you're already in charge of.  This is a very well researched and detailed account of who did what, when.  But I think the problem is, not of that really mattered.   None of the cultural revolution made any sense, so the maneuverings of various loathsome apparatchiks (with names which are way too similar) became depressing and repetitive.

The Man Who Ate Bluebottles by Catherine Caufield - A list of first class weirdos, from psychopathic duelists to rich tramps and from hermits and misers to clergymen who decided to eat everything on Earth (William Buckland of the title - bluebottles and moles came bottom of his list.)  I also liked the first entry - John Alington, who made his estate workers build replicas of the streets of London, the Battle of Sebastapol and even the British Isles in the duck pond.  He performed religious ceremonies on a four wheel bike, while wearing a leopard skin and shoving snuff in people's faces.  Alington also enjoyed being carried around his estate in an open coffin.  Proper bonkers.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Osterman Weekend by Robert Ludlum


Godawful garbage, but not without its quirky charms.

I do have a soft spot for Ludlum - his thrillers are easy to digest, they have a unique feeling of paranoia and hysteria and they always handle the most ridiculous things with the utmost seriousness.  But the balance here is far too heavy on the ridiculous.

The main character is a TV executive called Tanner who lives in a upmarket village on the outskirts of New York.  He's got a wife and kids, and he's close friends with three other couples - two of which live in the same village; the third couple work in Hollywood.  These are the Ostermans, and their visits are known as Osterman Weekends.  It's a great pulpy title, if nothing else.

As often happens in Ludlum, our hero is taken to a secret room by a CIA agent and told what's really happening.  Turns out some or all of his friends are ruthless, deep cover KGB moles who are due to bring down capitalism in just under a month.

This nefarious plot's quite intruiging actually - the spies gather blackmail info on key people in the US economy, and at the right time each is told to, say, withhold a loan or issue a stock warning or whatever these people do.  Recent events have thrown light on the precariousness of our system (though not capitalism itself) so I was hoping this would figure in the story.  No - it's just the maguffinest of maguffins.

What it's really about is Tanner trying to figure out which of his friends are spies.  The CIA rattle their cages with late night calls and mysterious encounters to make them suspect Tanner.  This does make them nervous, but it becomes clear very quickly that none of them are secret agents.  It's a case of the reader being a step ahead of the book, which always sucks.

So when the eponymous Osterman Weekend finally arrives, there's no dramatic tension because you're already pretty sure none of these people are in the KGB.  Luckily there's some shooting and a dog gets decapitated to keep you interested.

What it felt like was less a spy thriller and more a bad dream.  That Ludlum hysterical paranoia is pumped right up, but when you take a step back none of it makes any sense.

Having said all that, I polished it off in two sittings.  I didn't feel good about it though.  I've got some highbrow fare out the library as penance.  I'll see how far I get through Somersault by Kenzaburo Oe.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Wireless by Charles Stross

Science fiction, the Cold War, HP Lovecraft, PG Wodehouse.  King.

I'll just do a quick description of some of my favourite short stories here.

"Missile Gap" sees the cold war of the 60s transported onto a massive flat disc in the Magellanic Cloud.  The Americans and the Soviets try and explore seemingly endless oceans and continents, and have to deal with the physics of living on a flat surface, rather than on a globe.  It also features Yuri Gagarin re-imagined as Captain Kirk, on the bridge of an ekranoplan, which is used to far greater effect than in that awful Bond book.

"A Colder War" sees the cold war of the 60s, 70s and 80s dealing with the Cthulhu mythos.  Features a Shoggoth under tarpaulin at a May Day parade in Moscow, and Colonel Oliver North at the Mountains of Madness.

Lovecraft returns in "Down on the Farm" but on a lighter note.  This is a satire about a branch of British intelligence which deals with magic.  Really fun and creative but with enough of that creeping horror and nameless dread to give it an edge.  Stross has written a few novels in the same world - The Jennifer Morgue and The Atrocity Archives - which I'll be keeping an eye out for.

And "Trunk and Disorderly" is Jeeves and Wooster in the far future.  Features a dwarf mammoth and a drunken dalek.  Nowhere near as terrible as it sounds.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Looking Glass War by John Le Carre

Whether it's James Bond, Jack Bauer or Danger Mouse, most fictional secret agents have one thing in common - they're good at their job.  You don't often get an inept spy, unless it's played for laughs.  There aren't many laughs in this book.

This isn't set in the Circus, home of George Smiley (though he does have a shadowy supporting role), but in "The Department" which deals with military intelligence.  A force to be reckoned with in the Second World War, certainly, but in terminal decline for the two decades since.  The novel starts with a juicy lead about possible missile deployments in East Germany, which gives the out-of-touch spymasters a chance to get the upper hand on the Circus once more.

The story's in three parts - a courier picking up a roll of film in Helskini; a member of the Department sent to Finland to find out what happened; and the re-training of a dusted-off spy who'll be sent behind the Iron Curtain to investigate.  Blunders abound and hilarity doesn't ensue.

There's a lot of good spycraft in this - cover stories, radio communications, the relationship between agent and handler - but more importantly it shows you what happens when good practise isn't followed.  Le Carre was a spy himself for MI5 and MI6, and there's a sense of anger here at good and perhaps misguided people being put at risk because of sloppiness and red tape from those higher up the food chain.

Still plenty of unanswered questions at the end, but for once that was completely justified in the story.  The only problem was a few impassioned and unrealistic outbursts towards the end, but that's pretty minor.  Having said that, this isn't nearly as good as Tinker Tailor, but that's because few books are.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The City and the City by China Mieville

This is based around one of those ideas which hit you like a punch on the nose:  simple, original and convincing, but which seems so obvious, you wonder why no-one's thought of it before.

It's really a murder mystery set in the city of Beszel, somewhere in Eastern Europe.  But the policeman protagonist soon discovers the victim was actually killed in another city - Ul Qoma.  This is a problem, because both cities are in the same place.

Now, this could've gone down the line that the cities are in different dimensions (think Zelda or Metroid games) but here it's all done psychologically and culturally.  Some neighbourhoods and streets are all in one city or the other, while some are in both.  And they don't interact.  The system's kept running, in the main, through taboo.  People of each city are trained to "unsee" people and things in the other city.  The way that folk walk and talk, architectural styles, even certain colours will tell a citizen that they've seen something which they should immediately disregard.  Driving seems to be a particular problem, although at least they both drive on the same side.

But the masterstroke here is the realism.  You've got certain dynamics being played with - East and West, democratic and authoritarian, Christian and, well not exactly Muslim.  The Ul Qomans seem to follow Zoroaster or Mani more than Mohammed, but you get the idea.  But these aren't abstract ideas of cities; they're convincingly fleshed out.  You've got the broad strokes of a deep history between the two which means, for instance, that Bezsel has coke while Ul Qoma has Canadian cola because of a US embargo.  And there's certainly no good city/bad city thing going on either.

What I really liked about this book is how it plays with the idea of cities split by history, politics and culture.  Berlin certainly, but also Belfast, Istanbul, Budapest - even Edinburgh.  Most cities, in fact, have a bit of that duality going on.  Here it's taken to ridiculous, but believable extremes.  I also love the notion that it's the people themselves who're conditioned to perpetuate it.

Now there is another force called "Breach" keeping the people seperate, and the way it's gradually explained is nicely handled, but I'm not convinced it was really needed in the book.  In fact, it raises more questions than it answers.

Looking at the plot, this is a fairly conventional thriller with some politics and archeology thrown in.  Some of the parts work better than others.  There's the traditional Hollywood double-baddie reveal towards the end. The first part concerns the most minor and shoe-horned-in of characters, and is pretty unconvibcing.  It also expressly refuses to explain the significance of the Maguffin, which I was a bit annoyed by.  The last baddie reveal is handled much better.  Not a massive surprise, but a lot more convincing psychologically and thematically.

Still too many unanswered questions overall for my taste, but there's certainly scope for more thrillers set in the city and the city , so fingers crossed.

I'm actually halfway through another book by Mieville called Perdido Street Station which is a big, sprawling, Dickensian, steampunk affair.  It's also really good, but it's a book on tape and I've been listening to a lot or music and podcasts recently.  I'll finish it when I finish it, but I will finish it.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumey

A strange but engaging novel.  It's made up three very different sections.  It starts with a boy called Robbie growing up in a small Scottish town in the 70s.  He's fascinated by science, his dad talks about socialism all the time, and Robbie dreams about becoming a soviet cosmonaut.  This is a funny and effective coming of age story, and I'd guess it's partly drawn from the author's experiences (he's Scottish and has a PhD in theoretical physics.)

It then jumps forward a few years and sideways a lot into a different universe.  Robbie finds himself in a Stalinist version of Scotland, coming to what had been his home town in another life, but turned into the "Installation" - a closed off research facility which no-one ever appears to leave.  And it looks like he could become Scotland's first cosmonaut.

This middle section is fantastic.  It paints a bleak and sinister picture of the UK under communism; of people trying to lead normal lives while constantly afraid.  The characters are very well drawn, including Robbie himself, as as he slowly decides to take a stand

The shift from the first part is really interesting - Robbie as a boy keeps on slipping into vivid daydreams, and at first this section just seems like an extended version of that.  Everyone he meets is like a version of someone in his "real life", and The Wizard of Oz is referenced a few times.  As well as the preoccupations with space and communism, there's a lot of stuff about sex, and the shift comes right after young Robbie has his first kiss.  And although it feels very real, some bits seem like they're in a schoolboy's mind - the plot for instance concerns a black hole which has "entered the solar system" like it was a comet, and the scientists are planning to reach it.  Very odd.

All this could've been difficult to pull off, but the author does a fantastic job and I thought it just added to an already convincing story.

The last shorter section jumps again, and this part is less successful.  It's certainly not predictable, but it leaves rather too many unanswered questions for my taste.  There's some great stuff here as well though, particularly about loss and growing old.

So, this gets a hearty recommendation from me.  Crumey's got another book - Mobius Dick - which has a better title than this one at least, so I'll be keeping an eye out for that.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

More fantastic and flawed sci-fi from the author I've read more than any other in the past year.

This is another stand-alone novel like Reynold's Century Rain but with the awesome sweep of something like Robert Reed's Sister Alice.

It's set millions of years in the future, and across the galaxy humanity's evolved down countless routes, from furry winged people to whale-sized worms, from underwater slugs covered in barnacles to planet-spanning posthuman gods.  But the characters we follow take a wider view of things.  They're immortal clones and sentient robots, compared to whom the other interstellar civilisations rise and fall in the blink of an eye.  They call it "turnover."

This huge scale is made possible not just by immortality, but space travel.  Reynolds always seems to have a bee in his bonnet about faster than light travel, and good on him I say.  It takes hundreds, even thousands of years to travel from one star to the other, but this becomes integral to the plot and the way the characters interact.

What also works well are the descriptions.  Worlds which feel like they've come from the cover of a Yes album.  Vast spaceships in the shape of headless swans and "art-deco rhombuses."  It feels like how I always thought sci-fi should feel when I was a kid.  And on top of all that you've got brilliant action scenes, engaging characters, and a great plot with big galactic mysteries to solve.  Yet it still doesn't really work.

I'm going to speculate that it comes from a certain slapdash attitude to the plotting.  For instance, one of the most interesting characters is killed off fairly early on in very suspicious circumstances.  It's never mentioned again.  The main story concerns a big massacre, but the reason for it being carried out is deeply unconvincing.  It just seems to be there to move the story along, and I remember a very similar problem in Century Rain.  By the end there are so many loose ends, that you don't care about the big awesome finale.

This is such a pity because for much of the time I was enjoying this book more than any other I've read this year.  Seriously, sort it out Reynolds.

I've already finished another book, Sputnik Caledonia, which I'll review soon.  And I should rattle through a slim volume about great British eccentrics fairly quickly.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton

That's it - the Void trilogy in the bag!  I reckon that's at least two thousand pages worth, all told.  I reviewed part two The Temporal Void  back in October, so I've already gone over the main plot of the book.

So, was it worth it?  Not really.  Turns out two thousand pages isn't nearly enough.  It's a very odd feeling to get deeper and deeper into a book as it gradually becomes clear that you don't really know who anyone is or what's going on.  And yet you're almost at the end, so you may as well push through.

I mentioned this problem in the last review - many of the characters had already appeared in two earlier books (not part of the trilogy!) set more than a thousand years before.  In the final part this becomes ridiculous, with more and more people turning up - folk like Ozzie, who's become such a legend that people say "Ozzie damnit" etc without thinking.  But there's very little exposition to tell you why this guy's so important.  Other "old favourites" have become space fairies (cooler than it sounds), or live as demi-gods inside asteroids, or are brought back as assassins (either mind-wiped or as clones), or are shown as holographic reconstructions/sex toys, or have become a central religious figure in the galaxy, or have become a central religious figure in a seperate dimension.

Even if I knew who these people were, I think this would still be a tough read.  I kept on trying to count how many main characters I was following in this book, and I always forgot a couple.  They popped up every so often, bombing about in spaceships of increasingly absurd speed (in this book it starts as "ultra-light speed"  and progresses from there) and I had to retrace my steps trying to figure out, as usual, who they were and what they were doing.

And yet, and's still pretty damn good.  Although it's very demanding, this really is good quality sci-fi, and by the end I had a pretty good grasp of what was happening and what was at stake.  And it's a nice big satisfying ending.  I've heard criticism of Hamilton that he always ends his epics with a deus ex machina.  In this book a machine which actually makes gods plays a big role in the finale.  I think it's probably a joke.


A few abandoned books recently - my Chinese Cultural Revolution book was just way, way too boring, which is a puzzle as it's one of the most interesting periods in 20th century history.  I was enjoying Douglas Copeland's Player One, but there's a stupid policy with Aberdeen Library that you actually have to hand back (i.e. can't renew) a book after having it out for three months.  Haters plainly gotta hate.  And I gave up on the Hobbit on audiotape, because who needs JRR Tolkien when we've got Peter Jackson?  I can wait till next year.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee

A trip to Waterstones to actually buy a book!  Three for two offers ignored (because they're a lie, obviously) and straight for the last copy of Stewart Lee's memoirs/stand up transcripts.  Partly because I've been enjoying his new series, partly because people will borrow it off me and another partly because it's named after one my favourite songs of the moment by Mission of Burma.  Two minutes of postpunk gold.

And the book doesn't disappoint.  It's built around the three stand-up routines which made up his post-herring comeback after a difficult period (fat, bitter, increasingly surreal) in the early 2000s.  There are bits of biography and analyses of stand-up comedy to explain each set and copious footnotes throughout the verbatim transcripts.  I loved all this.  He's always intelligent, always passionate and always funny. 

The high point is the middle set  '90s Comedian from 2006.  He sets up the background before the transcript - the death threats and threat of prosecution for blasphemy over Jerry Springer the Opera; his moment of epiphany on watching the documentary The Aristocrats, about a secret joke told between American comedians which has become an exercise in obscenity; and his interest in sacred clowns from medieval France and the Hopi people of the South Westerern USA.  It culminates during the act in an unpleasant and unforgettable encounter with Jesus in his mum's toilet.  Stewart Lee's mum.  Not Mary.

The whole book's really an investigation into stand-up comedy itself.  Cheap laughs versus hard won respect, saying the unsayable versus just being a dick, political correctness gone mad gone mad and the politics of plagiarism.  It's also interesting to learn Lee started his trick of losing an audience just to try and win it back ages ago, just to stop himself getting bored.  I liked this quote, from one of his many footnotes "...Within a few years these 'jokes'...will have been entirely purged from my work in favour, exclusively, of grinding repetition, embarrassing silences and passive-aggressive monotony."  I wouldn't have it any other way.

Right, think I've fixed the comments problems, so the hordes need no longer batter at the drawbridge.  Still half finished a big bunch of books, but the next looks like it's going to be Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.  That Mieville's so hot right now.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A Simple Act of Violence by R.J. Ellory


Playing LA Noire on the Xbox put me right in the mood for a good police procedural to pick up some tips. This book was no help at all.

It comes across at first as the expected serial killer trash with highbrow pretensions. The chapters switch between the detective and the killer's viewpoints. Some like their whodunnits in the classical mode, but I've always been a fan of Columbo so I don't mind if you see what the other side's up to.

But here's the thing - there's too much of the killer. And, as becomes apparent very quickly, he's not really a serial killer, he's a rogue CIA assassin. This should be a spoiler, but isn't. You get lots of backstory about him getting recruited and getting his hands dirty with the contras in Nicaragua, and it's all really good.

But on the other side you've got a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown who wanders through everything in a daze. I'm racking my brains to think if he picked up any clues which the killer didn't put in his path deliberately. And he even has trouble picking these up.

I can see the point being made - the unfathomable gap in skill between a CIA agent and a homicide detective. But what becomes comical is that the CIA doesn't appear to cross the detective's mind until far too late. He has a bunch of murder victims whose identities are all false. They're in Washington, where the CIA are based. There are planted clues about Nicaragua. Even when he finally speaks to the killer as a suspect (guided by the killer himself, of course) the guy, apropos of nothing, immediately launches into a speech about the CIA bringing in drugs from South America. The penny stays undropped.

By the end though everything's tied up nicely. And it's really well written throughout, with interesting themes and excellent suspense. It's not a bad book by any means, but the dynamics of a decent thriller are all wonky. Part of the problem is it's way too long, so you end up with far too much of the CIA stuff, when it'd be more effective in snapshots. But the big issue is a complete lack of dramatic tension. Why should you care about a detective who should really be in be in a different book, solving a far easier crime?

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Bollocks to Alton Towers

A day at Alton Towers isn't to be sneezed at of course, but sometimes you just want to root around a derelict military site from the second world war, or an ugly 70s pseudo-Corbusier monstrosity made by someone who hated humans. My idea of fun.

Here are some in this book which caught my eye: Imber - a village on Salisbury Plain which was taken over by the army in WWII and never handed back. You can still visit on a few days a year, and it looks like it's been preserved in the 40s, but also done up like a training level on Call of Duty.

Orford Ness sounds even better. It's a peninsula off the coast of Norfolk where they tested secret weapons, including components for the atomic bomb. There are big creepy pagodas dotted around which seem to be designed to collapse in on themselves if something horrible happens.

There are some cracking sights I've visited already in this book, from Portmerion to Avebury. It even has Tebay Services on the M6, which I visit (twice) every time I make a trip to Shrewsbury. The only motorway service station which doesn't make you want to kill everyone.

But the one place that intrigues me most is the Williamson Tunnels. It's a baffling, Escheresque labyrinth built under the streets of Liverpool by a rich nutcase two hundred years ago. Nobody knows what it was for or how far it stretches. It's currently being excavated by people who have clearly never read any HP Lovecraft.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The New Machiavelli by Jonathan Powell

It's got Machiavelli on the cover, it's about Tony Blair's time in power, and it's written by Blair's chief of staff - an important political figure in his own right.

But the dominant character here is none of these. One person casts a gloomy, vindictive shadow over proceedings. Gordon Brown.

This is a first rate hatchet job from a genuine insider. There was lots of talk about Brown being psychologically unsuited to being prime minister. This book suggests he was psychologically unsuited to being a human being. It's not really anything we haven't heard before - he's a bully, a coward, a liar, paranoid, self-deluding and consumed with jealousy and hatred - but I find it endlessly fascinating. I'm missing him more than I thought I would.

This book comes firmly from the Blair camp, but it does have the ring of truth. Blair himself comes across as personable and capable, but vague and without that killer instinct. A central point of this book is that he should've sacked Brown early, rather than let him poison the whole of government.

Now, I'm not a fan of Blair. My big problem with him is what he and Powell see as his strength - centralising power, wanting to cut through "red tape" and "civil service bureaurocracy" to do exactly what he thinks needs to be done. They see it as efficiency, I see it as dictatorial and wrong-headed. But I can recognise that the intentions were good (road to hell, etc.) Brown's a different kettle of fish. He just wants power for power's sake.

There's some more interesting stuff in the book about other cabinet figures, etc, but nothing earth shattering. The Machiavelli lessons are only partially successful, but that's possibly because his writings have become political common sense. It did make me want to check out his Discourses, which are about Roman politics rather than renaissance Italy.

I'm blaming my peripatetic lifestyle of late for embarking on five books simultaneously - Peter F Hamilton's conclusion to the Void trilogy, a big book about Mao's Cultural Revolution, The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, the Hobbit on tape, and an amusing travel book, which I've finished and shall review soon.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre

Astoundingly good. I've read Le Carre books before and really liked them, but this one blew my socks off.

George Smiley is a former spy master who's been forced out of MI6 (the Circus) after some bloody debacle in the Eastern Bloc. But he's summoned back to secretly investigate suspicions of a mole at the highest level of the Circus.

So the plot's pretty straightforward but this is head and shoulders above the run of the mill spy thriller. Le Carre was a spy himself, and was forced out when another high level mole Kim Philby blew his cover, so the spycraft described is very convincing. What's apparent is that it's not glamorous in the least. A dirty, lonely job where you have to lie and betray people, and you can't even trust your own side. Being a spy doesn't appear to be very good for you psychologically.

Smiley's a fantastic character. Middle aged, tubby, polite and unassuming. He's repeatedly cuckolded by his beloved wife - we never meet her but it sounds like she badly needs to be shown the pimp hand. But you can see his skill and subtlety as he winkles information from various other damaged people who've been sacked from the Circus.

A lot of the book's in flashback from these interviews, and it has bits in Hong Kong, India, Czechozlovakia. But it's the portrayal of Britain in the 70s - London in particular - which is the most striking. Seedy bedsits, shabby people, soggy raincoats and bad food. The sense of place and time jumps off the page.

It's told in quite a subtle and rich way and I sometimes found myself re-reading pages to get everything out. But it's certainly rewarding. By the end when you see how wonderfully all the plot points have been put together, you realise it's pretty much the perfect thriller.

Now, I'd seen the TV version of this years back, so I knew who the mole was. Actually I knew who the actor was, but luckily I couldn't remember who he played. And it's impossible when reading this not to think of Alec Guinness in the Smiley role, even though the book makes it clear he doesn't wear a hat (his wife says it makes him look ridiculous.) There's a film version out soon from the director of Let the Right One In. Gary Oldman as Smiley, which I can definitely see. But I'd urge you to read the book first.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire by Fik Meijer

It's hard not to think about Celtic and Rangers when you read this book. Thousands of frenzied fans decked out in green and blue. Chants of hatred. Claims of bias by the authorities. Riots spilling out onto the streets. Best of all, they didn't have to watch boring old football. They got to watch the greatest sport of all time.

Chariot racing was already well established when Homer wrote about it, and it was a passion in Rome from at least the time of the kings. By imperial times it was massively popular. There were race days around twice a week - far more than gladiatoral contests. And the numbers involved beggar belief. A conservative estimate puts the capacity of the Circus Maximus at 150,000. To put that in perspective, Wembley (the English Hampden) holds 90,000. It wasn't even the only circus in Rome, and there were many others across the empire.

It sounds incredibly exciting. A very light chariot, usually with four horses, and seven laps with two long straights to get your speed up and two 180 degree turns. The reins were tied around the charioteer's waist so he could have his whip hand free. Useful, except when there was a crash and you were dragged along behind your horses. Crashes seem to have been pretty common.

The way the racing was organised is fascinating. There were stables named after colours, with the Greens and the Blues being the most prominent. Charioteers often transferred between stables, but the fans never did. The supporters were fanatical, and knew all the stats of their favourite charioteers and even horses. And it crossed all the rigid social divides in Roman society. Even emperors had a side, and were expected to by the crowd. Mostly they were for the Greens, at least in the early Roman Empire. But the reasons for supporting one stable over another are murky. We don't know if it was geographical, or possibly to do with different professions. Family allegiance presumably played a part, but it seems politics and religion did as well.

Chariot racing gradually died out when the empire's capital moved to Constantinople. But it went out with a bang. The introduction of paid "clappers" (nasty cheerleaders, presumably) for each stable saw the hatred and violence cranked up even more, as did the religious controversies of the time. Fighting between Greens and Blues under Justinian led to the destruction of much of the city. The crackdown in the Hippodrome under the legendary general Belisarius was hardcore - more than 30,000 fans killed.

There's a great description of the typical chariot hooligan of the time - a long beard in the style of ancient Persians, a mullet with shaved front and a brightly coloured cloak with gold stitching with a dagger hidden inside. They roamed in gangs attacking anyone at the slightest provocation. Presumably while looking like prog-rock bands.

The author's done a great job, considering the paucity of evidence, both written and archeological. Nice and short as well, which I like in a history. And it's strangely comforting to see such fanatical rivalry made so strange and pointless through the lens of time. What's latin for "there will always be nutters"?

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Cosmonaut Keep by Ken Macleod

The last book I read by this crazy Scottish sci-fi lefty was Newton's Wake, and despite stacks of great and bizarre ideas, it wasn't completely successful. I wanted to try out one of his sagas, so this is book one of the Engines of Light trilogy.

Well, it's certainly different. And interesting. And not entirely successful.

It skips between two different stories. One is set a few decades in the future - the USSR is still going strong (obviously) and now incorporates the EU (I knew it.) Alien contact is made for the first time on a Soviet space station around an asteroid, but the story follows an Edinburgh programmer/hacker as he goes on the run with important data. This is the cyberpunk part of the story, and it's pretty enjoyable, but as usual with this genre I'm probably missing a lot of computery stuff.

The other story (the chapters alternate) is set some time in the future on a different planet and is very different. As well as descendents of cosmonauts in the other story, there are humans who've been there much longer - three species in fact. There are also sentient beings called Saurs and space-faring squid called Krakens, who navigate the other species around the planets at light speed. And although it's never explicit, it gradually becomes apparent there may not actually be any aliens in this book. Ooooh.......intriguing!

As always with Macleod, I enjoyed the soviet porn. One meeting held in VR is modeled on the Baku Congress of the Eastern Peoples in 1919. You don't get that in many science fiction novels. I also liked the different levels of technologies going on here - things are much more advanced in the past on Earth, whereas the saurians and krakens have the upper hand on the other planets so the humans are much less technologically advanced. Despite that, things are still pretty utopian. Which may be part of the problem with this book. Needs more conflict. It also needs more interesting characters.

I still plan to read the other books in this series, but it just doesn't have that massive scope you get in Peter F Hamilton or Alistair Reynolds. Well, it does, but it's just not portrayed as effectively. I can tell there's a lot more to come out about this universe, so maybe I just have to be patient to get the full effect.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Imperial Bedrooms by Brett Easton Ellis

Well, he's tried Stephen King. What about Raymond Chandler? Lunar Park I didn't like much, but this is a lot better. How much, I'm still not sure.

Like Chandler it's set in LA and nobody knows what's going on. People are followed, other people go missing. The narrator is repeatedly told he's not seeing "the big picture." It's a murder mystery where the murder happens at the end and the identity of the killer isn't a mystery.

Luckily we have our hero Clay on the case (as well as many of the Less than Zero cast.) Not exactly a knight in tarnished armor, Clay. As mean as the streets, in fact. Detached to the point of autism, manipulative, sadistic, capable of horrible things and unexpectedly needy. His character is one of the most succesful aspects of the book.

So...the nasty bits. Well, it's really all contained in a sequence towards the end which is connected to the rest of the story only obliquely. It's certainly very disturbing, and it works character-wise. But a hater (not me, clearly) would wonder if it's been shoehorned in for the fanboys. I remember reading an interview where Ellis said he had to get wrecked for days at a time to write the infamous bits of American Psycho. How hard is it for him these days?

I've had a bit of a rocky relationship with this book. It took me a couple of goes to get into, then I was hooked - Ellis back to his best. Then I'm thinking - actually this is just the same as his early stuff - what's the point? I was disappointed when I finished this a couple of days back, and I'm liking it the more I think about it.

Here are the weak points - it's too short. It's not funny, like Psycho or Glamorama. I didn't understand the ending and had to look up wikipedia (I think this was me being stupid, rather than a clever chandler-esque end to the novel.)

But the big plus point - this is proper Bret Easton Ellis.

What I'll need to do is re-read Less Than Zero, then this again. And maybe Glamorama again. Maybe by then I'll be up for American Psycho again, though I've read it to death (ho!) Then, perhaps, a revisiting of Lunar Park whereupon I'll realise it's a misunderstood modern classic.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

1491 by Charles C Mann

In the late 15th century the Inkas controlled the largest empire in the world. It encompassed some amazingly inhospitable terrain - high mountain ranges, deserts, rainforests. Yet there was a road network covering 25,000 miles. Populations were moved around on a scale not seen again until Stalin. And there was no money. The government controlled everything.

It took fewer than 200 conquistadors to overthrow the Inka Empire. There were no Spanish casualties.

Pre-columbian American history is some of the most fascinating you'll ever read, but it's treated almost as an afterthought in most histories of the world, even modern ones. This book takes a much needed look at exactly what was going on over there, and why it all stopped. It turns out most of what we assume is wrong.

First off, the "new world" is a bit of a misnomer. The cities of the Norte Chico in Peru date back at least to the 30th century BC. That makes it the second oldest civilisation in history, after Sumer. And they had pyramids centuries before the Egyptians.

The scale of the history here is amazing. From the Mississippian mound builders to the ancient Olmecs with their massive, beautiful stone heads. From the awe-inspiring cities of the Maya and the Aztecs to the untold thousands living in the Amazonian rainforest, sustaining themselves in ways we're only beginning to understand.

If you've ever read your Jared Diamond you'll know what went wrong. Not so much the guns and the steel. More the germs. The Americas never really had any domesticable animals, so people never lived in close proximity to livestock. That means they didn't have generation after generation building up resistance to their diseases. The number of people who lived in the Americas in 1491 is still hotly disputed, but as much as 95% of the population may have been killed by smallpox.

This is how Pizarro was able to defeat to the Inka empire - the epidemic had caused untold deaths and then civil war. But it's also why in North America there built up a myth of the noble indian living in harmony with nature. We've heard about the herds of thousands of bison sweeping across the plain when the white man first arrived. That's because smallpox got there first and killed most of the people. The bison had the place to themselves.

There's lots to ponder here. Guilt, for one. In the main, this was accidental genocide. The conquistadors and pilgrims didn't know about germs and there's no way they could've predicted the epidemics. They thought the indians lived like degenerate savages, not realising that these people were like post-apocalyptic survivors. It was the Europeans' fault, but they didn't mean it.

The second issue if about the determinism of history. The book has many stories of history hanging on a horseshoe nail - the Mayflower pilgrims surviving their first winter, Cortes taking Tenochtitlan, Pizarro defeating the Inkas. But these American societies were doomed from the moment they first had contact with people who were, if not necessarily "more advanced," certainly more riddled with disease.

Yes, this book is without doubt heavily inspired by Jared Diamond (Collapse, as well as Guns, Germs and Steel) but I prefer 1491. Diamond is certainly fascinating and groundbreaking, but his writing can be a little flat. Mann is a journalist and knows how to tell a story from many different angles. He's also great on the vicious, petty squabbling which seems endemic among historians and archeologists.

I've actually been listening to more music recently (thank you all the bloggers on Advance With Sound) so I haven't been listening to books on tape. Inspired by the Gagarin anniversary, I've already started Cosmonaut Keep by Ken Macleod. He of the "communism in space" fetish. So far, not enough communism.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Stone Junction by Jim Dodge

A forward by Thomas Pynchon would usually be enough to put me off a book, but I'm glad I started Stone Junction. Not so glad I finished it, however.

It's about a chap called Daniel Pearse, who grows up in a idealised counterculture with his mother in California. He's then passed between a series of tutors who show him how to meditate, play poker, grow and take drugs, disguise himself and, finally, perform actual proper magic. Then there's a heist which goes....strangely.

I really enjoyed much of the book. It's very earnest, there's a lot of pseudo-mystical balderdash and the lead character's kind of a blank slate. But I did like the folksy American style and the love of rebelliousness. I'm no fan of hippies of course, but there's always something to be said for sticking it to the man. There are also some great passages - a botched plutonium raid, rebuilding a riverboat casino, playing a high stakes lo-ball game. And the writing style won't be to everyone's taste, but it rattled along nicely and was nothing like Pynchon.

But this is a failed novel. From about the halfway point it starts going downhill and gathers momentum until the truly horrible ending. It's hard not to suspect that the writer didn't know where he was going, so he thought big handfuls of drugs would dig him out of a hole. This makes it sound better than it is.

In fact, there is a decent plot going on. There's a big mystery about what happened to Daniel's mother, and two people trying to figure it out and there's even a relatively satisfying answer, but it gets buried under truckloads of bollocks about magic, love, madness and a big diamond. Again, sounds like it could be good. But not good in any way.

It's a real pity because I was loving this at the start, and there are so many interesting avenues I thought it was going to go down. Colourful characters appear and vanish a couple of pages later. One important character from the beginning turns insane, then disappears until the last couple of pages. They never get the riverboat casino back under steam!

My suggestion would be to read the first half, then make up the second half yourself. And you should probably take less drugs than the author.

Now re-reading an excellent history of pre-columbian America and listening to a very interesting book by Tony Blair's ex-chief of staff, looking at his rise to power and the challenges of office through the lessons of Machiavelli.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Good thing I managed to avoid the movie version in the cinemas. It's much harder to go from film to book (tried it with the Damned United recently) than the other way around. However I still imagined Skinny, New Spiderman and The Other One when reading it. They were pretty good, actually, even if they were just in my head.

Mild spoiler time - this is science fiction. It's set in shabby genteel England in the 80s and 90s, but it gradually becomes apparent that something's very different and very wrong in this society.

It starts with Kath, who's a "carer" for "donors," looking back at her time at a kind of boarding school called Hailsham, then into adulthood, with her two friends Tommy and Ruth. Tommy's an angry misfit, almost a rebel. Ruth is what Cartman would describe as a "super king kong megabitch", but it's not really her fault.

The genius here is the focus on their relationships. The real story - their actual situation - is, for the most part, kind of a side issue. It's assumed we know about it. There's a great bit when they discuss how they're gradually told at school about what they are, but always when they're slightly too young to understand it. It's like boiling a frog - do it bit by bit so it always feels normal. The same trick is played on the reader.

It's a very creepy and horrible world that's portrayed here, and totally believable. Civilisation is always good at rationalising evil, if the benefits are worth it. Slavery's an obvious comparison, but for some the farming of animals and abortion are equally abhorrent. Most people don't really want to think about it, and we use euphemisms like "beef" for "dead cow" or "abortion" for "killing a fetus." Here it's "donations" and "completion."

I really liked this book. It made me angry. There's a similarity with Ishiguro's Remains of the Day - that friction between the repressed characters who accept their position, and the emotional turmoil that's being portrayed. Masterful stuff.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Morality is how we want the world to work. Economics is how the world actually works. Abortion reduces the crime rate. Taking your child to museums won't keep them off drugs. Guns don't kill people, swimming pools do.

Freakonomics is a study in comforting lies and unintended consequences. It reveals a world which at first glance appears counterintuitive or chaotic, but is in fact driven by incentives which you can tease out by asking the right questions of the data.

What's made this book a big hit is the range of systems it looks into - cheating by sumo wrestlers, weird baby names, the history of the Klu Klux Klan and dealing crack. It's all about getting information, collating it and finding out what's happening.

So there's a lot of light-hearted stuff here (crack and the KKK are funny, right?) but there's some in depth looks at big issues - bringing up your children for instance. It turns out parents have a big influence on the future success of their brat, but it's all stuff which happens before the birth - income, education level, etc. None of that endless fussing seems to make much difference. Even whether parents are still together or not isn't a big deal.

Of course, this is a book about using statistics to look at complex systems, and there's always going to be questions over how you use the data. There's been a big stramash over the authors' assertion that legalised abortion caused a steep decline in the crime rate seventeen years later. That's been criticised heavily on economic as well as moral grounds. The most interesting accusation is that Levitt whitewashed his earlier finding that a higher rate of abortions by black mothers-to-be in US cities was in fact the important factor in the crime drop. Now if that's true, what happened to economics over morality?

Anyway, it's always a very interesting read, and a great reminder not to put your faith in received wisdom and wishful thinking.

PS christ knows what I've done to the font. I actually posted this to Advance With Sound by accident, then had trouble getting it back. Now it's all wrong.