Thursday, 17 January 2013

Invisible by Paul Auster

This is going to be tough one to review, as I'm loath to give anything away.  I found a hardback copy in a second-hand bookshop with no dustjacket, so I went in knowing absolutely nothing.  Except that someone might turn invisible.  This never happens.  Spoiler.

I will say that it's really worth reading.  It has a lot of fun playing with different viewpoints, writing conventions, voices, unreliable narrators and the nature of memoir and fiction.  At root, it's all about storytelling really.  And evil.  And love.  All the good stuff.

I used to be well into my Auster in my teens.  I was hooked after reading Leviathan, about an ambigous academic turned Unabomber.  I can't remember if that was before or after watching the great movie version of The Music of Chance, where James Spader and Mandy Patinkin lose a game of poker and have to build a wall.  I especially loved Moon Palace, but all I can remember of that is that the protagonist at one point uses hundreds of books as his furniture.  And his New York Trilogy was a pretty big deal back in the day - three stories deconstructing detective fiction.  Not sure if I ever finished that.  Wasn't as keen on Mr Vertigo though, which had someone learning to levitate.  That's probably the reason I though someone might turn invisible in this one.  He's a great writer though - I'd say if you like Haruki Murakami you should give him a shot.

Alright, that's just a short review but now - finally - this brings me up to date with my reading.  Heading to Florida tomorrow. As well as Banks' Use of Weapons I've got the third Marid Audran novel (currently listening to the second and it's even better than "When Gravity Fails"), the last third of Peter F Hamilton's new one (which is fantastic), the complete GK Chesterton, so I can gorge on some Father Brown, Plutarch's Lives in case I get another hankering for the fall of the Roman Republic (unfortunately he talks about boring Greeks as well), a paperback thriller called The Terror of Living by someone with the unlikely name of Urban Waite (one pound in Asda!), and Orson Scott Card's book on writing science fiction.  Oh, and I'll have two new Audible credits in a couple of days.  Tempted to download a Hitchcock book after watching Toby Jones in The Girl over Christmas.  I'm fairly confident all my bases will be covered for the next fortnight.  I ran out of books on holiday once. Never again.

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

If you want to start getting Cultured, this is where you should start.  Unlike many of the others in the series, this has one hero, one clearly defined goal and one fantastic ending.

Our hero is Gurgeh - the Culture's top game player, who's grown bored with life on his Orbital.  There are no more games to conquer.  Through a bad misjudgement, he's pressured into joining Special Circumstances (the Culture's Secret Service) to travel to the newly discovered Empire of Azad in the Small Magallenic Cloud.  His mission is to play the most complicated game ever devised, in which the winner becomes Emperor.

I love this clear cut plot, and it's handled so well.  Gurgeh's journey from disaffected genius to reluctant diplomat and beyond is always convincing, especially when he realises the true stakes at play in Azad - which is the name of the game, as well as the Empire.  Even the game itself is explained in a great way - you get a feel for the different boards (which are the size of rooms) and the different strategies and tactics, but of course the game itself is always a mystery.  It's almost like a kung-fu movie, with a varied series of opponents the hero has to defeat.  And of course there are plenty of dirty tricks, distractions and genuinely shocking revelations along the way.

One of the great delights in many of the Culture books are the drones.  They're small floating robots who have full AI and personalities, and are considered as much members of the Culture as the meatbags, if not more so.  They're usually great fun, and two in particular shine in this book - the abrasive and sinister Mawhrin Skel, who's a friend of Gurgeh's on the Orbital, and the naive and prissy Flere-Imsaho, who accompanies Gurgeh to Azad, but seems more interested in birdwatching than the mission in hand.

This has been my favourite of the Culture books since I've been re-reading them - it's just a classic story told well without ten different plots going on at once.  Use of Weapons I remember struggling with years back, but it is highly regarded.  I'm off on holiday tomorrow with it packed on to my kindle, so I may be ready to give it another whirl.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Backstory by David Mitchell

I never know what to write about comedy books - or at least books by comedians.  Is it funny?  Yes - David Mitchell's a funny guy.  In fact, I'd rate Peep Show as the best British sitcom in the past ten years (if you include the US, it would be It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.)  So instead of a review, here are some David Mitchell facts I learned from his memoirs.

- He's never read a book by the other David Mitchell who wrote Cloud Atlas, because he's worried people will see him read it on the tube and think he's reading his own book.

- David Milliband once recognised him in a park and said hello, but confusingly mistook him for the other David Mitchell.

- He once slept with a hot groupie while president of the Cambridge Footlights.  And felt terrible about it.

- He drinks more than you'd expect, and taps fags off people when he's drunk.

- He hates Chinese food.

- He thinks the worst person to bump into on holiday would be Michael Palin.  And he likes Michael Palin.

- He actually enjoys going on those comedy panel shows where everyone shouts and the audience laughs loudly.  Awful.

- Robert Webb is straight!  Well, I was surprised.

- He claims Bruce Forsyth has a method for changing trousers in club toilets without dragging them on the urine sodden floor.  It starts by taking the end of one trouser leg between your teeth, but the rest is never explained.

- He's clearly very much in love with Victoria Coren and is quite aware he's batting above his average.

- The audiobook's great because it's read by David Mitchell.  Anyone else would probably be a bit weird.

- The beard's not working.  I didn't learn that from the book - just the picture on the cover.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

Banks has got his M hat on again, and he seems to be churning out the Culture novels again at a steady rate.  Good news for all sci-fi fans.

The main theme here is punishment. Not that this is ever an issue in the Culture, where it's an almost impossible concept.  But for some other civilisations in the galaxy it's a very big deal - so big that digital hells have been created.  The trope of uploading your personality at the end of your biological life (or before) is very common in SF these days, but the idea of this being used as eternal punishment in the afterlife is new, disturbing and interesting.  It's certainly a dig at religion, given Banks' strident secularity, but when faith is replaced by technology - is it still a religion?  One character from the pro-Hell side does say it would be the ultimate sacrilege to take eternal damnation out of the hands of God.  He's lying of course, but surely he's right?  Lots to think about.

Punishment also comes to the fore in the main plot line in the book - a slave girl who's murdered by her owner, the richest man in a society a few steps down from the Culture (though still well advanced of us) and who somehow reappears in virtual form on a Culture ship many light years away.  Her revenge is what drives much of the book, and it's possibly the most successful part.  This is largely became the tycoon Veppers is such a colossal bastard you can't wait for his murder victim to get even, despite the Culture's best efforts.  Banks does seem to love these kind of characters, and Veppers does stay just on the right side of panto villain.

The other stand-out character here is a machine - again not a surprise from Banks.  This is the Special Circumstances ship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints which does exactly what it says on the tin, or whatever Culture ships are made of.  Lots of fun and very badass.

I did find the book as a whole a bit sprawling and confusing though.  Too many storylines going on for my taste, and I never did quite figure out what was going on towards the end.  Still definitely worth a read, but not what I'd recommend for a first time Culture reader.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson

Who would have thought Isaac Newton - natural philosopher, theologian, would-be alchemist - would also have been a detective?  And arguably one of England's very first.

In the late 17th century the Royal Mint was a facing a crisis.  Strange to think now, but back then coins were actually worth their weight in gold.  Or, more often, silver.  This became a big problem when the price of silver started becoming more valuable on the continent.  Economists may be able to help me out, but I think this is because more gold was coming in to Spain and the rest of mainland Europe from South America, so silver could buy more gold across the channel.  This meant there was an actual shortage of silver to make coins, as well as the widespread clipping of coins and the equally widespread practise of counterfeiting.  In fact, one in five coins in circulation at this time was estimated to be fake.  None of this made King William happy, as he was running out of money to wage war against Louis XIV.

Newton was brought in as an all round braniac to sort things out, which he did admirably.  He figured out how deep in trouble were, and set about minting as many new coins as possible.  These had a milled edge, so they couldn't be clipped easily, and they were harder to counterfeit.  He also carried out possibly the world's first time and motion survey at the Mint - finding how fast the coins could be churned out before mistakes and accidents happened.  This not only increased production greatly, it cut the number of injuries to the workers.

But Newton didn't stop there - he also went after the counterfeiters by building up a network of spies and stool pigeons.  He frequented the seedy taverns himself to find out what was going on in the criminal underworld.  Not that all the counterfeiters were to be found in such lowly establishments - William Chaloner was the most brazen of the lot, and actually gave evidence to a House of Commons committee about how he was the man to sort out the problems at the mint.  He was pushing for a top position there himself, despite being the biggest faker of coins in London, and he was almost successful.  I won't give the rest of it away, but suffice it to say Isaac Newton knew how to hold a grudge, and he was man you messed with at your peril.

There's a lot of good research in this book - in large part because a "true crime" book about Chaloner was published shortly after his execution (spoiler.)  But I was especially interested in this topic because it's the background to much of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy, especially the final part System of the World.  This is where the modern world starts to take shape, with international markets, industrialisation and the seeds of modern banking.  And at the centre you've got the world's greatest scientist turned crimefighter!  Cracking stuff.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

This is the best drug-fuelled Arabic cyperpunk noir I've read in some time.  It's set a couple of centuries down the line and the Western world has effectively collapsed, leaving the Islamic world in ascendence.  Our hero is a lowlife fixer and drug addict called Marid who lives, works and parties in the seedy Budayeen quarter of an unnamed city somewhere on the Levant with his transexual prostitute girlfriend.  He is, of course, a knight in tarnished armour.  A shop-soiled Suleyman.

There's no space travel and machine intelligence going on here, but there is a lot of nice cyberpunk tropes.  Most people can download software into their brains - either "daddies" which give you certain skills while they're plugged in, or "moddies" which make you think you're someone else - historical figures, movie characters, porn stars. Marid doesn't hold with any of that, preferring to keep his mind clear with a mixture of uppers, downers, hallucinogens and booze.

The plot concerns a missing girl, a crimeboss with a offer which can't be refused and a murderer who's taken on the personality of James Bond, as well as some even less salubrious killers.  It's nicely complicated and has a really great ending - setting it up well for some follow ups.  A Fire in the Sun is next up, so I'll keep an eye out.

What's very interesting is its portrayal of the Islamic world.  This was written in 1987 when fundamentalism and Islamism wasn't really the stereotype.  For the Western reader in 2013, these Muslims are way too much into their booze, drugs and trannies.  Strange how the perception of an entire culture changes in just a few years.  I thought the religious and cultural aspects were handled especially well though, from the elaborate etiquette, to Marid's temporary rediscovery of his faith.  It's always a big part of the book, but it never feels like a gimmick.

The title by the way is a lyric from Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues."   At no point does gravity actually fail.  It's not that kind of sci-fi.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Something of a highbrown hit this one. The sequel to Wolf Hall and another Booker winner, which has to be a first.  Certainly well deserved, as this was even more fun and dark than the first one.

It picks up right where the last one finishes - Thomas Cromwell with Henry VIII at Wolf Hall itself.  He's only been married to Anne Boleyn for a few years, but the shy Jane Seymour catches the King's eye and the wheels are in motion for more machinations, justifications and ultimately bloodshed.  It ends with the execution of Boleyn and her supposed lovers.  Spoiler - though you should have paid more attention in History.

Talking of sequels, what it put me most in mind of was the Godfather part 2.  Cromwell's a pretty stand up guy in Wolf Hall.  Ruthless certainly, and he does organise the death of Thomas More, but in Mantel's telling he really was asking for it.  In this Cromwell's a lot more ambiguous to say the least.  For a start, there just isn't the same plausible rationalisation for working against the new Queen just a few years into their marriage.  She's young and healthy - give the girl a chance to pop out a boy, at least!

Cromwell's own motives start to become more suspect, too.  He's still serving his King throughout, but the gradual revelation of why he's chosen certain people to target is thrilling and chilling.  Don't mess with Cromwell!

I enjoyed this a lot more than Wolf Hall, which sometimes got a bit confusing and bogged down at times.  This seemed a lot more straightforward and entertaining.  Fingers crossed the third in the series doesn't go all Andy Garcia.