book review

I Love The Bones Of You by Christopher Eccleston

Christopher Eccleston is probably my favourite Doctor of the revived Doctor Who, but it’s his public anger about the lack of opportunity for working class actors and his willingness to admit to mental health problems that really made me respect him. I watched Lemn Sissay and Christopher Eccleston discuss their memoirs for the Bradford Literature Festival in 2020, just the pair of them in conversation about their vastly different upbringings a few miles apart in what is now Greater Manchester. I honestly can’t remember whether I’d just read My Name Is Why or if I was intending to, but I know that a couple of weeks after that event I was buying an ebook on Kobo and spotted that I Love The Bones Of You was the 99p daily deal so I decided to give it a go. It’s taken me a while to be brave enough to read it because I got the impression it was largely about the effects of his dad’s dementia and my mum’s been suffering for a few years now. Indeed I cried my way through the last couple of chapters which do focus on his dad’s plight but although it’s mentioned earlier – foreshadowed if you like – it’s by no means the core of the book.

Thankfully it’s not a celebrity memoir either, full of name-dropping and amusing anecdotes. The trouble is, I’m not sure what it is. He does have important things to say about many things such as the stigma attached to mental illness, the assumption that anorexia only happens to girls, and how damaging a traditional northern working class stoicism can be when actually the stronger thing to do would be to ask for help. He also highlights how the opportunities he was afforded as a drama student in the 80s don’t exist for young people starting out now, and how in a precarious job market (like acting, but not only acting) there’s a pressure to conform and to put up with discomfort or bad behaviour. Also, shockingly, that post-breakdown he was seen as an insurance risk which could (and certainly would in a less-established actor) restrict his ability to work, thus encouraging people to cover up problems. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I do agree that sometimes ‘working class chip’ and ‘professional northerner’ are used to lazily dismiss genuine grievances.

There isn’t a simple chronological autobiography here, in fact I felt like I was floundering in a stream of consciousness in the early chapters, confused at times as to what era we were in and if that was before or after some particular event. On the other hand he does go off on short tangents now and then about making this TV series or that film. I appreciated his respect for writers who are trying to inform as they entertain, and I finished the book with a couple of TV series I wanted to watch. I often want to be that kind of writer but aside from Twelve Weeks’ Rest I’m not sure I’ve managed it. There’s an element of catharsis, writing-as-therapy, and I sincerely hope it helped him to explore for instance what masculinity means when you’re northern and working class, particularly in the 70s when he was hitting his teens. I recognised too much of that self-policing mindset that leads to internalised problems that erupt much later. It’s not my story to tell but someone close to me was also suicidally depressed in his fifties and to read Eccleston’s take on his own breakdown was painful.

Things being not your story to tell can hamper memoir, of course, and there’s some of that in I Love The Bones Of You. He has two older brothers and naturally they make the odd appearance but it would have been interesting to know how their getting married and having sons of their own informed his ideas of masculinity or his relationship with them or his dad. I sensed that he wanted to keep their tales private though, and their families are only mentioned in passing with reference to a funeral. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to keep your living family out of the limelight – his dad had been dead for seven years I believe, by the time the book came out in 2019 – but it’s a shame that some interesting angles were therefore left unexplored.

I didn’t give up on it, partly I felt I owed it to him for being so brave as to pour all that onto a page and send it out for strangers to read and judge. There’s a raw openness to it that I admired even as it made me feel uncomfortable. It’s not so much a warts and all portrait as a tight close-up on the warts such that you’re left wondering about the wider view. In summary, I’m glad I read it but I felt scoured out by the end. And for the record, I would watch a BBC Who Do You Think You Are about his farm labourer and factory worker ancestors; I’m from long lines of agricultural labourers, miners and mill-hands myself.

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The Split by Laura Kay

Lesbian rom-com, mostly set in Yorkshire and includes a cat. What’s not to love? I mentioned in September that I’d bought The Split after seeing Laura Kay at a Stay-at-Home litfest session on romantic comedy novels but hadn’t read it yet. Well, now I have and it was great.

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Unemployed teacher Ally’s been ditched by the love of her life in London, so she packs a change of clothes and the cat and crawls home to her dad in Sheffield. Much as she’d love to wallow while she waits for Emily to realise how much she misses the cat (and hopefully Ally), her dad’s not about to let that happen. It seems her childhood friend Jeremy’s crawled back home after heartbreak too and their respective parents figure they might cheer each other up as well as get each other out of the house. Reluctant at first, they soon fall back into their old groove and of course Ally’s going to sign up for the half-marathon in solidarity when Jeremy decides that’s the way to get his boyfriend back. Happily, though the training might well kill her, Ally’s at least found an attractive young running coach but she’s probably straight. Isn’t she?

The tagline was, ‘The laugh-out-loud read we all need right now’. I don’t normally trust ‘laugh out loud…’ quotes, in fact it’s often enough to put me off, but I genuinely did laugh out loud a fair few times. This was the easy-to-read rom com I was looking for all those weeks ago. It was much more me than The Cornish Cream Tea Bus and not only because I’m bisexual and not very feminine. It was full of normal people who work in shops, schools, a call centre, and go to old man pubs and chip shops. They regularly travel by bus, and when Ally leaves London she does so by train not car, in fact it’s mentioned later that she can’t drive. Training for a half-marathon doesn’t magically make them fit, slim, healthy and happy. And of course it’s set in Yorkshire.

The one downside is that Ally turns out to be an irresponsible cat-owner, which has put OneMonkey off reading it. On the whole though I zipped through and really enjoyed it. More than anything, it was a real affirmation of friendship.

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In search of written rom com

Despite being a curmudgeonly cynic I have in recent years come to appreciate the rom com film genre. OneMonkey is an unrepentant romantic and through my existing love of Fred Astaire and Cary Grant films he’s gradually introduced me to such cinematic delights as How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Notting Hill, and Music and Lyrics. Lockdown, and the subsequent self-imposed lockdown-light, hit my reading hard: lack of concentration, lack of enthusiasm, lack of empathy. I’d caught part of a session on the romantic comedy novel, at the Stay-at-Home litfest and I wondered if that might be part of the answer. Perhaps a novel of light-hearted fluff would let me zip through, enjoying the ride, without having to conjure up strong emotions for fictional characters when I felt wrung-out due to too many strong emotions at home.

I had the remnants of a kobo voucher to spend so I bought a couple of e-books: The Split by Laura Kay which was one of the books featured at that Stay-at-Home litfest session, and The Cornish Cream Tea Bus by Cressida McLaughlin which OneMonkey picked for me.

The Cornish Cream Tea Bus (The Cornish Cream Tea series, Book 1) ebook by Cressida McLaughlin

The Cornish Cream Tea Bus is the first of a series set in the fictional village of Porthgolow in North Cornwall, each featuring different main characters, though I believe Charlie Quilter is in all of them somewhere. Charlie’s beloved uncle Hal has died and left her his vintage Routemaster bus, on which he used to do guided tours of the Cotswolds. Although Charlie can drive the bus, she’s a baker by trade and neither wants to give up the work she loves nor neglect her inheritance. Maybe if she can just take some time out to think, away from the messy split with her cheating partner Stuart, she can figure out how to combine the two. Luckily, her best friend has moved to Cornwall and has a spare room and endless patience. Certainly more patience than me.

Naturally, Charlie has love interests, that’s kind of what you expect with this genre, but a lot of it left me baffled. I don’t see the attraction of wide-shouldered, heavily-muscled arrogant men who wear suits and run their own business. I don’t really see my life reflected in designer dog-owning emotional women who wear high heels (and find said buff, arrogant men attractive), whose best friends are in marketing or ex-boyfriends are investment bankers. Perhaps it’s easier to be detached when it’s on screen or maybe it’s as simple as I literally can’t imagine these people, and when I’m reading about them that’s what I have to do.

Having said that, most of the fiction I read probably presents me with main characters whose backgrounds and motivations are different from my own, but I rarely have this problem. I wonder if certain types of realist fiction (by which I mean set now, in our world, portraying lives and events that could happen and are in some sense common) assume a certain viewpoint and feel they don’t have to go into details, so I’m never invited in. If the novel was about a serial killer, motivation would need to be set out and explored, if it was historical there would have to be context, but presumably everyone reading The Cornish Cream Tea Bus should understand exactly why some particular conversation calls for a bottle of wine, or why an otherwise capable person would go to pieces because a man had muscles visible beneath his shirt.

For plot reasons, Charlie jumped to a couple of conclusions no sane person would jump to. She also entirely failed to put two and two together and solve a mystery that was blindingly obvious (mind you, nobody else in the village did either). However, I read the whole novel so on some level it even worked its magic on me. I suspect that if you’re more comfortable with the wine, the buff men, the thirty-something professionals, this will be an excellent example of its type. It was surprisingly chaste, definitely no sex scenes and even the smouldering kisses were few and far between. The scenery was beautifully evoked and was very much part of the book, it almost made me want to visit Cornwall. There were some lovely moments involving pods of dolphins, and tense moments of both the romantic and plain old dramatic variety. There are many imaginative cakes, pastries, and decorated biscuits described, and I wouldn’t recommend reading it before a trip to the supermarket unless you want to come home with half the cream cake aisle.

I haven’t read The Split yet, having been lured away by epic fantasy, but when I do I’ll let you know what I thought.

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Airedale by Dylan Byford

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Outside London, it’s pretty rare to find English sci-fi set in a real place. I can think of one or two set in Manchester, and Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel series set in and around Rutland, but beyond that I’m struggling. It’s fair to say I was intrigued when I spotted one of the first novels from new crime publisher Northodox Press was ‘a near-future thriller’ set in a place I used to live: Airedale.

If you’re a dog-lover you might be familiar with the terrier of the same name, but I’m guessing that outside Yorkshire (probably even inside most of Yorkshire) the name won’t conjure up a place for you. As you might have guessed, it’s the dale (valley) where the River Aire runs, and these days houses Leeds commuters, many of them living in buildings that forty years ago were textile mills. There is also a UNESCO world heritage site, the mill village Saltaire. Dylan Byford has cleverly taken this geography and history and extrapolated it into a messy future. An unspecified time when another industry is disintegrating in the periodically flooded dale leaving empty warehouses and unemployment, Saltaire exists in a protective bubble, and northern politicians look to Durham rather than Westminster.

Airedale is a cyberpunk police procedural featuring politics, subversion, riots and local businessmen. It’s full of wonderful details of integrated technology and state surveillance, what’s changed and what hasn’t. Haz Edmundson is a contractor working for the police, what we might call a forensic computing expert who doesn’t usually have to deal with dead bodies. Except tonight, when for one reason or another he’s there when the body of an activist is discovered and he can’t let it go when it’s officially marked as an accidental death. How far is he prepared to go to uncover the truth? And who can he trust?

Haz is a wonderfully human character. A hopeless, unreliable, scruffy single dad who’s good at his job but not hard-boiled enough to deal with death in a detached way. He’s also apt to ask the wrong questions at the wrong moment, and land himself in trouble. I would happily read more books about him. If he can hang onto his life or his job long enough to star in them. There were a couple of interesting strands that weren’t fully followed up, in my view, and I don’t claim to completely understand the conclusions but I had a fabulous time along the way. Except for the bit near the start that’s really not for the arachnophobes (grit your teeth and race through it, it’s only half a dozen pages and only one of them is horrifying).

I didn’t pay for my copy because I won it in a draw on Twitter but other than them once reading (and rejecting) the manuscript of a crime novel of mine set in Newcastle, I have no relationship with Northodox and I don’t know Dylan Byford either. If you like William Gibson but have always wished someone would write in a similar vein but with uncool characters in small town Yorkshire (it can’t just be me), you are definitely onto a winner here. Similarly if you enjoyed the Greg Mandel series from Peter F Hamilton (I reviewed the first and second books a few years ago), or if you’re a fan of British police procedurals and you have an open mind on the SF elements. It does have a great sense of place, and I was initially attracted to it because of the setting, but I was hooked from the first page and the setting soon became the icing on a fine cake. Highly recommended, whether you know where Airedale is or not.

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Slow Horses by Mick Herron

Offhand, I can’t think of any spy thrillers I’ve read before. Obviously I’ve seen The Ipcress File, and the Le Carre adaptations starring Alec Guinness, but I haven’t actually sat down and read any of the books behind them. I have my dad to thank for nudging me towards Mick Herron’s Slough House series, of which Slow Horses is the first volume.

About a year ago I started listening to the American spy comedy podcast Mission Rejected, and since I’d taken to calling my parents daily during lockdown and was somewhat lacking in conversation topics, I told my dad about it. He suggested I give Mick Herron’s novels a go, if inept spies were what I was after. Dark satire, rather than comedy, but most enjoyable. They weren’t available via the library ebook service, and pandemic restrictions have meant the Library of Mum and Dad has been off-limits for 18 months, plus of course if you’ve been here before you’ll know I’ve been trying to read the overlooked books on my shelves during lockdown. However, I read a Guardian interview with Mick Herron earlier this year and it prompted me to buy the first book in the series (as an ebook, to limit clutter).

“Plotting is pretty much secondary to me,” he says. “What really interests me is the characters and getting to grips with them, and them getting to grips with each other.”

Charlotte Higgins interview with Mick Herron, The Guardian, 15 Jan 2021

As you might guess from that quote, the mission is not the important bit, or rather, it doesn’t matter that much what it’s about. It’s all in the context of the War on Terror, with some stereotypical far-right nutcases kicking about. The meat of the book though is the relationships between the has-beens (or never-weres) at Slough House, and between Slough House as a whole and the ‘proper’ spies at Regent’s Park. None of whom bear any resemblance to the old-fashioned gentlemen in the Alec Guinness dramas. Jackson Lamb, the head of Slough House, is very much the Andy Dalziel of MI5 – crude, abrasive, but underestimate him at your peril. There’s also a walk-on part for Peter Judd, a right-wing politician described as a buffoon with floppy hair and a bicycle. Can’t think who he reminds me of…

Herron is good at sleight of hand, and there were a few places where I was misdirected and had to flick back a few pages to work out why. I also enjoyed his use of ‘if a passenger on the bus were to glance through the window, this is what they’d see’ kind of thing, rather than it all being from one character’s point of view. I doubt it’s a realistic picture of life in the modern secret service, but it’s full of interesting characters and I’m looking forward to working my way through the remaining six novels plus a few novellas.

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Miniaturiste - Jessie Burton - Babelio

This 2014 debut novel is set in late 17th century Amsterdam (October 1686-January 1687, to be precise) and since I like good immersive historical fiction I’d been contemplating reading it since I first started spotting it in charity shops several years ago. It had been actually written on my To Read list for at least a couple of years, and I finally borrowed it recently as an ebook from the library. It seems to have flipped my fiction switch – I romped through it, and once I’d finished I was yearning for another novel (I’m on the spy novel Slow Horses by Mick Herron now, review probably to follow in due course).

Nella Oortman has come from the country to be the new teenage wife of a successful Amsterdam merchant twice her age. He buys her a dolls’ house version of their own house as an amusing distraction from his perpetual absence on business. Nella finds a mysterious miniaturist to craft the furnishings she requires, as she tries to settle in with her new sister-in-law and the surprisingly forward servants.

The miniaturist and the cabinet house are the least satisfying elements of the story, to my mind. The essence of the book is bound up in the intrigue, the performative piety, and the things that are not as they seem. The hypocrisy of a society which is so puritanical and yet their fortunes rest on sugar (indulgence) and slavery. It was wonderful on detail and catering for all senses – the smells from the canal and the kitchen, the tastes of the food they’re eating, as well as the usual sights and sounds. Including the occasional reminder that in the evening with only a couple of candles burning, there are lots of shadows for a young girl to jump at.

Even after reading the whole novel and re-reading the first few pages I still don’t quite understand the prologue and it didn’t feel like it fit, to me. However, given the enormous success of this novel I’m probably in a minority (or, given that I loved the novel anyway, maybe it doesn’t matter). If you enjoyed Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier you will love this, maybe Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy will have set you up to be well-disposed towards it too.

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Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

Although I’ve been struggling through fiction this year I have been able to read non-fiction at a reasonable pace so I took the opportunity to dip into this book everyone’s been talking about and awarding prizes to. Dara McAnulty is an autistic teenage nature enthusiast and climate change activist from Northern Ireland that I follow on Twitter. The book covers the year he was 14, from Spring to the following first day of Spring. It’s in the form of a diary as you might expect from the title, though not every day has an entry.

Some of his descriptions are amazingly vivid, and I don’t just mean ‘for a kid’. There were passages in the book that were completely immersive, a joy to read – his focus and intensity really draw you into the scene and his enthusiasm is infectious. Because I grew up in the 1980s, the first thing that springs to mind for me when I hear ‘Northern Ireland’ is unfortunately sectarian violence. This short book (150 pages in the ebook I borrowed from the library) has introduced me to a part of the UK countryside I knew nothing about, and portrayed it as a place of wonder. It obviously has its problems, and he mentions the dwindling of bird species and problems with the reintroduction of red kites for instance, but there is a lot of hope and positivity here.

There is, however, also a fair amount of teenage angst. This is a diary first and foremost, and happens to be mostly about nature because of his interests. I have to say that reading about a child being bullied to the point of suicidal thoughts, in the child’s own words, made me feel deeply uncomfortable. That said, there is far more natural wonder than anything else, and his passion and drive are inspiring. If you want to rekindle a sense of childlike awe for the world around you, dip into this book and then spend some time outdoors watching birds in a tree or insects on a wall.

Ironopolis by Glen James Brown

I loved this novel set on Teesside and I wish I hadn’t tried to read it when I’m struggling to read fiction. It took me two months to get through and by the time I was near the end I couldn’t quite remember details from the start. However, I do know I was hooked by the second page and I recommend it without hesitation. There’s a housing estate being gradually knocked down and replaced, in or near Middlesbrough. We learn of the interconnected stories of a handful of its inhabitants from a variety of viewpoints, and through it all is woven the local legend of Peg Powler.

It’s not as simple as a novel written as a continuous narrative, but neither is it a collection of stories. It begins with a series of letters from the 1990s, but includes journal entries from the 1980s, transcripts of interviews in 2015 and 2016, as well as what you might call straightforward narrative. Through the different points of view and their memories and flashbacks the interlocking stories of the main characters build up in layers, from the 1950s to 2016. It has some pretty dark threads but also humour, love, belonging. It is excellent on the complicated nature of family relationships and the feelings people have for the place they grew up. It is full of the ordinariness of everyday life, wrapped up with some fairly extraordinary goings-on.

Overall it is a pretty bleak tale I guess, but maybe that made the moments of beauty or hope all the more precious. I thought it was brilliantly constructed, though Peg (or her story) didn’t appear as much as I’d expected. Imagine if one of the Angry Young Men of the 1960s had written a novel after getting really into dark folktales – now if that sounds appealing, go read Ironopolis. And if you’re not sure, read it anyway.

The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

The Bone Ships took me weeks to read despite being magnificent, so I’m hazy on early detail now – blame lockdown fatigue. However, the simple message is: read this book. If you like epic fantasy, or if you like adventurous tales of the high seas, and especially if you like both, you will love this novel. I happened to start reading it the same week OneMonkey and I started watching Hornblower (late ’90s adaptation of some CS Forester books, set in the Royal Navy in the late 18th century) on Britbox, and I realised how nicely they went together.

The Hundred Isles have been at war forever, it’s what they do. The war ships are built from dragon bones but nobody’s seen an actual dragon for generations. Until now. Whoever gets hold of that dragon will have a prize indeed.

That’s the rough gist of the blurb and it was enough to grab me, having never read any of RJ Barker’s work before. It doesn’t even begin to do justice to the inventiveness of this world, however: the myths, rituals and religion; the vegetation, geography and animals. The characters. Oh, the characters: Joron Twiner, Meas Gilbryn, and the gullaime for starters. But it’s so hard to say anything further without spoiling one of the many revelatory moments.

I could talk about the themes of bravery and loyalty, propaganda and political truth, environmental exploitation and unexpected allies. I could mention the fact that RJ Barker is, like me, from West Yorkshire (about as far from the sea as you can get in northern England), though I didn’t find that out until after I’d started the book – an added bonus, if you will. I will note in passing that subtle shifts in language like calling all ships he instead of she, talking about wings instead of sails, and flying the sea rather than sailing, were effective in shifting this firmly into another world. And I will say again, if either ships or dragons are your thing you will love this book.

I had just finished reading the penultimate chapter of The Bone Ships when it won Best Fantasy Novel at the British Fantasy Awards 2020 and I thought yes, that makes perfect sense. Book 2 of the Tide Child Trilogy is Call of the Bone Ships, which came out in paperback at the end of 2020, and I will be getting it for the Kobo forthwith.

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A book about archaeology at Ur

I’ve been trying to use lockdown as a prompt to read the books languishing unread on my bookshelves. It’s proving full of delightful surprises, and is also making OneMonkey and I clear out a stupid number of books – more of which in a later post, I’m sure. The latest discovery is this slim volume, Ur of the Chaldees by Sir Leonard Woolley, which I’ve enjoyed immensely. Woolley was in charge of British Museum excavations in the 1920s at the ancient Sumerian city of Ur in modern Iraq, and this is his account, written in 1929 (though I have the 1952 revised edition, and I think there are modern editions as well).

You may recall I read a book called Footsteps by Bruce Norman last year, about nineteenth and early twentieth century archaeological expeditions and the birth of scientific archaeology. This book on Ur was a nice coda to that, being an expedition right at the end of the time period covered in Footsteps. Woolley describes techniques that made me wince, and I’m sure Professor Mick Aston from Time Team would have thrown up his hands in horror at them, but he is using the most up to date techniques available to him and contrasts them with the plundering seventy years earlier which has damaged some of the remains. I mention Time Team not just because I love the programme, but because Woolley’s descriptions of techniques, practicalities and frustrations reminded me of it. It struck me that this swiftly-produced book was the pre-television age version: an insight into the excavations for a popular audience, educating and entertaining in equal measure.

The title is, I believe, a biblical reference which was lost on me, something to do with Abraham. However, I do vaguely recall Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus from primary school religious studies, and both those kings crop up here. As does Hammurabi, whose eye-for-an-eye code of law I remember learning about in history when I was about twelve. Basically, I know more about ancient Sumerian and Babylonian kings than I thought I did, and you probably do too. Not that it matters, because Woolley’s enthusiasm carried me through. The edition I have is 164 pages including the index, which is short enough to be casually and quickly readable. I did get a bit confused about layouts, because there are only twenty-seven black and white photos and a few line drawings in the whole book, but on the whole I got a sense of wonder and discovery as he described unearthing the different layers and artefacts. Amazingly, one of the places they excavated was a museum of antiquities! A site from around 600BCE where objects already at least a thousand years old were gathered as a teaching resource, it seems. A fascinating thought.

Trying to make out details on the small pictures included in this paperback, I wished I could see the objects themselves. He was digging for the British Museum, I realised – they must have pictures somewhere, they’re good at that. What they’ve actually got is a Google street view of the gallery, so you can (if you’re better at controlling street view than I am) walk through the gallery as though you were there. And the same goes for the rest of the museum, I think. I did also discover a British Museum blog post, which I haven’t explored but I think suggests there’s a new online Woolley/Ur resource somewhere. I had a wonderful time spotting objects in the gallery that I recognised either from the photos in the book or from Woolley’s descriptions. To have read about the difficulties of identifying or excavating them gave me much more of a connection than if I’d simply looked through the objects without reading about them first.

Possibly I’m just slow on the uptake and everyone else who’s missing museums has been tripping through the rooms of their favourites in a virtual way for months. However, I realised that in a similar way I could ‘visit’ museums I’ll never get to in real life. It is vaguely possible my London-based friend will persuade me to the British Museum once all this corona-horror is over, but I’ll never go to Cairo or Washington or St Petersburg but chances are their museums have virtual tours too. In the meantime I’ve also discovered, courtesy of OneMonkey, a reddit channel where people post photos of man-made objects, many of them ancient, from all around the world.

So, Ur of the Chaldees has earnt its continuing place on my bookshelves, next to Footsteps. Unusually for my second-hand books I have no recollection of where it came from or when I acquired it. It’s not ex-library, I can’t imagine anyone giving me it as a present, and I can see no evidence of a rubbed-out price from a charity shop. I have no idea what possessed me to pick it up in the first place, or why I then didn’t read it for years. However, I dare say I’ve appreciated it more after Footsteps than I might have done if I’d read it a couple of years ago so all in all, I’m glad I put it off.

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Giordano Bruno as a fictional character

Back in the Before times, when I browsed charity shop bookshelves regularly, I kept spotting SJ Parris novels and thinking for a moment they were CJ Sansom novels. That’s probably the intention behind the fonts and general vibe of the covers. Eventually I picked one up and discovered that they seemed to be sixteenth century spy thrillers, rather than the sixteenth century crime of Sansom’s excellent Shardlake series, and parked the knowledge for later. I have a history of getting confused by the subtleties of spy tales. However, I couldn’t entirely dismiss the series as the central character was Giordano Bruno.

If you’ve ever delved into the history of physics you’ll have come across Giordano Bruno, the mad monk. I talked about him briefly in my dash through celestial mechanics at York Festival of Ideas in 2018 because in among some of his more outlandish theories he suggested things that turned out to be true. Here’s what I said about him, in my section on challenging dogma:

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 after 7 years of imprisonment by the Inquisition, though before long most of his worldview replaced that of medieval Christianity. He wasn’t an astronomer, his theories were based on neither experiment nor observation, he dealt in philosophy, really, though I’ve seen him described as “a renegade monk” which conjures up an interesting image. He often comes between Copernicus and Kepler in history of science books, but that’s the benefit of hindsight again. He suggested that the earth moves round the sun and that the sun moves; that there’s no such thing as a point absolutely at rest; that the stars are at vast and various distances from the solar system and that they are themselves centres of comparable systems; that the universe is infinite and can provide no criterion of fixity, and that our solar system is in no sense the centre of the universe. Which, as you can imagine, kind of annoyed the church who liked the idea that Man was special. Anyway, alongside all this fantastic stuff, way ahead of its time, he also had some strange ideas in the same way as Kepler and his mysticism or Newton and his alchemy. So was Bruno a crank with some lucky guesses or an insightful thinker? And would you have known what to make of him, without several centuries of hindsight?

You can see why I might be interested, then. And why I couldn’t resist a book of three Giordano Bruno novellas by SJ Parris on offer for 99p when I was browsing the Kobo store for new reading material at the start of January.

The first story, The Secret Dead, is set in 1566 when Bruno is 18 and has recently taken his vows, and contains both a murder mystery and the dangers of exploring science when the Inquisition are on the prowl. It was a bit gruesome in the dissection scene – remember, at the time scientists didn’t stick to what we think of as different disciplines – but I zipped through it. It felt close to being a Shardlake-Cadfael mash-up and I enjoyed the first-person perspective on the hypocrisies of the church.

I ran out of steam during the second one, however, The Academy of Secrets, set when Bruno is 20. I think there are several reasons, some to do with reading it as an e-book and some to do with Bruno as a character. I’ve come to realise how much I rely on the blurb on the back of a paperback, which of course is missing from an e-book, though I could go to the website and read it there. I take my cues on what to focus on from what is deemed important enough for the paragraph on the back cover. So I’m wondering if the incident I’ve just read is an aside, a sub-plot, or the main thrust of the novella. And because I don’t know how far through that story I am (I can never remember how to set a bookmark so I can get back to where I just was, so I don’t want to check the contents list and lose my place) I don’t have the cue from page-count either – if I’ve got two pages left that’s very different from having fifteen pages left. Though I haven’t read an awful lot about Bruno, he’s cropped up now and then from my undergraduate physics days onwards and I’d formed some kind of idea of him that doesn’t match this rendering. From these stories, Bruno is being played by a young Rufus Sewell in my head – a handsome philandering youth who is also interested in forbidden scientific writings. I had always thought of him as an austere solitary thinker.

I wonder if part of the disconnect is Bruno’s youth, and not having enough story to get my teeth into. Both of which would be solved by reading the first novel, Heresy, which is set in 1583 so would make Bruno 35. The novella and a half (or maybe three-quarters) that I’ve read so far are well-written, and I imagine fans of CJ Sansom’s Shardlake or Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series would find much to interest them. I may well come back to the novellas, and dip into the first novel, when I’ve severed Giordano Bruno the fictional character from my idea of Giordano Bruno the figure from the history of science.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Light reading for the new year

I’m determined to write more book reviews and recommendations this year. I’ve persuaded myself that they needn’t be full-on 600 word reviews with references to previous works and links to where to buy them. I still might help someone find a good book to try, by writing a paragraph or two about why I did or didn’t enjoy it, and who it might appeal to. So here we go for the first two books I read in 2021, both of which were short and (to a greater or lesser degree) humourous: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos and Tales From the Folly by Ben Aaronovitch.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was on my To Read list because of the Backlisted podcast about it. I jotted down after listening last year that ‘apparently it’s quite PG Wodehouse’ and what with it being set (and indeed written) in the 1920s I was looking forward to reading it. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the Marilyn Monroe film of the same name but I only have vague recollections of a long-distance boat trip, I certainly don’t think the film follows the story of the book closely. While it has some laugh out loud moments and some flashes of great satire, this novel is not in shouting distance of the same league as PG Wodehouse. It’s written as a diary by dim-but-scheming gold-digger Lorelei, who has the ability to wrap any man around her little finger and make even the meanest English aristocrat dip into his wallet to procure her some expensive trinkets. I found her writing style tiresome after a while – beginning most sentences with ‘so’, scattering ‘I mean’ everywhere, and spelling the odd word wrong e.g. landguage. Lorelei and her wise-cracking friend Dorothy leave New York for an adventure in Europe, financed by a gentleman of Lorelei’s acquaintance, naturally. A series of amusing escapades follow, and Lorelei somehow manages to get out of all the scrapes she gets herself into. Readable enough, short, and very much of its time. I think if you enjoy the Mapp and Lucia books (which I didn’t) you’ll enjoy it more than I did. There is a sequel, I believe, but I’m not about to seek it out.

Tales From the Folly is a Rivers of London short story collection from 2020 and is strictly for the fans. As I understand it, this is a gathering up of all the short stories that Ben Aaronovitch has written for special editions of his novels and novellas. Each one has a short (paragraph-long) introduction saying when it’s set and what prompted it. The first half of the book is stories from the point of view of the main character Peter Grant, and the rest of the stories are centred on other characters. I’ve read all the Rivers of London novels except the latest one, plus one of the novellas, and I still had trouble remembering what some bits referred to. There was a whole first-person story from a minor character’s point of view, and I spent most of it trying to work out who the character was (no name being mentioned for a long time) and then trying to remember where that name had cropped up in the novels. That said, if you are already familiar with Rivers of London you’ll enjoy these extras and there are some good stories and interesting ideas here. I thought the Peter Grant stories worked better than the other characters, on the whole.

It’s no coincidence that I chose short, light-hearted fiction to start the year. I’ve seen people setting themselves reading challenges for 2021, and declaring that they’ll be reading outside their comfort zone, reading difficult books, reading a certain proportion of books by this or that category of author. I didn’t read as many books as I expected last year. I started a few and gave up, I took weeks to get through some, I had long periods when I didn’t seem to be able to read at all. Some of that is the lack of commuting (which is where I did most of my reading for the preceding 2 years) but the disruption and worry that lasted through most of 2020 played its part. I generally read for pleasure. I don’t want to read ‘difficult’ fiction now I’m in my forties, though I might have thought I was ‘supposed to’ when I was younger. Even if I pick up non-fiction, I choose books I think I’ll enjoy if I’m intending to read the whole thing rather than dipping in here and there for research. So my declaration of intent for 2021 is to read whatever the hell I fancy, and if that means sticking mainly within SF and crime (or SF-crime, like Rivers of London) then so be it. My dad tells me that fantastic fiction is useful for finding similar authors, if you’ve exhausted the back catalogue of your favourites.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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2020: a year of not much reading

The traditional look back over what I read during the year just gone, as an excuse to round up the reviews I wrote, and provide a few mini-reviews of the books I didn’t review at the time. I only read 20 physical books in 2020, most of which are pictured below, split into non-fiction and fiction. I also read 14 e-books and listened to 4 audiobooks, but for various reasons the audiobooks never get counted in any of my totals. I read even fewer books in 2020 than I had in 2019, and as I noted a year ago, 2019 was my joint-lowest book-tally of the decade. The proportions were broadly similar though: about two-thirds of it was fiction, just over half the fiction was sci-fi and fantasy and just over a third of it was crime. Some of it was both.

An eclectic selection of non-fiction I read in 2020

As you can see from the photo above, my non-fiction reading was pretty wide-ranging. I started with the pair of Simon Armitage books my sisters bought me for Christmas 2019. In Walking Home, Simon Armitage (now the poet laureate) walks the Pennine Way in the reverse of the usual direction, starting in Scotland and ending up near his house in West Yorkshire. It’s an entertaining journey through the north, sometimes walking with friends, sometimes with strangers and sometimes alone, but each night doing a poetry reading in an attempt to pay for bed and board. Walking Away is a similar format a couple of years later, but this time he’s walking in an unfamiliar part of the country, the south-west coast. I didn’t enjoy Walking Away as much, partly because I got the sense that he wasn’t enjoying the trip as much. He comes across as almost mourngy at times – his back hurts, his feet hurt, he’s not in the mood for a reading, he’s not enjoying the company of the strangers who’ve come to walk with him – and the book has a faintly dissatisfied air like a contractual obligation album from a band you used to like. If you’ve enjoyed any of his prose though, give Walking Home a go.

Common People is a collection of short memoir pieces from known and hitherto unknown writers from working-class backgrounds, several of whom I chat to now and then on Twitter, which gave it an added thrill for me. There are a variety of tales in there and I recommend it whether you think you might recognise any of the experiences in it or not. Maybe particularly if not. The Kinks book was heavily class-based too, but definitely for the Kinks fans as you need a certain level of familiarity with their early albums.

I wrote about Footsteps when I read it, and gave links to scanned-in copies of the original memoirs on archive.org, which is also where I found an excellent account of the Luddites around Cleckheaton. You might be surprised at the local history books or niche memoirs you can find there – have a nose around if you have even the slightest interest in history beyond the national level and the famous names. I also listened to the audiobook of Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem, via the library and the Borrowbox app. Lara searches the tidal Thames for historical artefacts and I found her account fascinating despite my unfamiliarity with London. I suspect I missed out on great pictures though so if you have the chance, get hold of the actual book.

I reviewed An Indifference of Birds a few months ago – highly recommended for the interested amateur birdwatcher, particularly urban-based. I haven’t reviewed English Pastoral by James Rebanks because I don’t know where to start but I think it should be read by every politician, everyone on the board at supermarkets, and everyone who has the luxury of choice when it comes to food (by which I mean, their first priority isn’t maximum nutrition per pound due to their tiny food budget). James Rebanks is a Cumbrian farmer and in this book full of love and a sense of responsibility, he looks back at the way his grandfather farmed, where it all went wrong in his father’s generation, and how James and his children might be able to start putting things right. It talks about soil health and the downward spiral of artificial fertilisers, but also about the land and the wildlife, and it’s written beautifully. In a similar vein but with a different focus is Wilding by Isabella Tree, which OneMonkey and I listened to (again via the library). I started out bristling at these entitled aristocrats but it is a fascinating account of switching from intensive farming to a system that’s more in tune with nature, and I learnt a lot about counterproductive government incentives for agriculture.

Some of the fiction I read in 2020. Mostly I read e-books

Now to fiction. I did read a few physical books, as shown in the photo above. Mainly they were second-hand copies that were already on the To Read shelf when lockdown hit, a couple were ordered via Hive (which supports independent bookshops) or the Waterstones site. Mostly, however, I read e-books: a couple via the library and Borrowbox, some direct from small publishers, several from Kobo (since I have a Kobo mini), and one out-of-copyright downloaded for free.

I did an SFF round-up in the summer, gave a quick recommendation of Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston, and individually reviewed The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes and Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. Big Sky was the fifth in a series where I’d read the preceding four, and there were a few similar continuations during the year (by Tad Williams, Reginald Hill, Georges Simenon, CJ Sansom, Vic James, Jodi Taylor) so I don’t think I have any more reviews to give. I will, however, mention the audiobook of Early Riser by Jasper Fforde. A standalone novel, this is set in an alternative Wales where Tom Jones is still known for Delilah, but most humans hibernate every winter to avoid the arctic conditions. Nothing is quite as it seems, and poor Charlie Worthing’s about to get caught up in a winter nobody wants to experience, least of all him. The level of detailed imaginative brilliance was breathtaking but the reading by Thomas Hunt gave it an extra dimension and I’m glad I listened to the audiobook from the library (so we could both ‘read’ it at once) rather than read the book.

I’ve already read two books in 2021, reviews to follow shortly, but if I just helped you find your next book to read you can always buy me a cuppa…

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An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth

An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth, in paperback

I don’t often review non-fiction and I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed ‘nature writing’ before, partly because I’m not sure how much of my audience will be interested and partly because I don’t feel qualified, somehow. I wanted to share this book, however, because I feel like it’s the most accessible nature book I’ve read.

An Indifference of Birds proclaims itself ‘Human history – from a bird’s eye view’ and in less than a hundred pages it rattles through a series of good turns and injuries we as a species have (mostly accidentally) done to birds both in general, and for specific types, times and places. In the process it lobbed handfuls of fascinating facts at me (which I then lobbed at OneMonkey), turned my perspective upside down and made me think hard about our place in nature. Which, to be honest, I’ve been thinking about a fair bit anyway.

Lockdown, we’re told, has made everyone in the UK appreciate nature more. Indeed, the BBC6Music breakfast show has a new nature-lovers’ segment, so mainstream has our Attenborough-fuelled appreciation become. No better time, then, to read this book. I will confess that Richard is a friend of a friend, which is what made me aware of the book’s existence but I’m glad I read it and I urge other interested amateurs to read it too.

I mentioned that ‘nature-writing’ can sometimes seem daunting, lots of technical terms for glacial valleys or Latin names for plants, or it’s written by someone who goes into raptures about trees while I’m sat here thinking trees are nice and everything, I love walking among them but is there something wrong with me that I don’t look at a 900-year-old oak and swoon? Richard’s book glows with enthusiasm, here is a man who clearly loves his subject and appears to know what he’s talking about, but he uses Latin names only about twice in the book where he needs to make a point, and if he uses a technical term he gives a simple gloss for the uninitiated. White-tailed eagles, we’re told, are ‘broad-spectrum feeders – they’ll eat any old shit’. This is the level of technicality I can deal with.

I’ve had the pleasure of reading a few of Richard Smyth’s short stories (some of which can be read at his website) and this book is also in a deceptively simple, readable style with occasional flourishes that leave you smiling. He makes the point in chapter 2 that our destruction of habitat isn’t solely down to late-stage capitalism and corporate greed, we’ve been doing this for centuries, and I love the way he says we’re ‘perfectly capable of wreaking handmade artisanal havoc at a community level’. That nudge to step back and think about what exactly the problem is and are our ‘solutions’ sensible recurs through the book.

I happened to have started listening to the audiobook of Wilding by Isabella Tree the week I read An Indifference of Birds and I once went to a talk about rewilding by George Monbiot, so I have a passing Guardian-reader’s interest in the topic. OneMonkey and I have had the odd conversation along the lines of ‘yes but returning to which state of nature – 500 years ago, a thousand?’ but I haven’t seen that problem articulated before. Richard makes the point that it’s tricky to talk about re-introduction of anything, as everything else in the ecosystem (including people and their habits, dwellings, waste) has changed in the meantime, and he raises some interesting moral questions about wiping out non-native species.

In short, if you want to find out some interesting things about birds ancient and modern, admirably contextualised, and be made to view the birds in your garden/town/city differently, and possibly be alerted to to the difficulties of noticing and stopping gradual changes (be it biodiversity loss or climate change), read this book. And if anyone knows of equivalently accessible volumes on other aspects of the natural world, let me know.

You can find out more or buy the book via the publisher.

If I just helped you find your way into nature-writing you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes

Tippy the triceratops is a detective at the Stuffed Animal Detective Agency. In fact he is the agency. Another world-weary private eye with a hip flask, battling his way through cases in the imaginary realms of the Stillreal. Another day, another Friend in need of his help. But wait – was that an actual death he just witnessed? An idea killed forever, never to return? This is an unprecedented situation for Tippy, but then this is an unprecedented book.

I bought this novel on a whim in the early days of lockdown, browsing the Angry Robot ebook sale. Noir starring a cuddly toy triceratops – it sounded mad enough to be bordering on genius, which turned out to be a fair assessment. Basically it’s set in the Stillreal, a place populated by ideas that are so real as to have become embodied in a separate existence. Some of them are things like discarded novel ideas, which you’ll be comfortable with if you’ve read Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, others are imaginary friends like Tippy and his pals in Playtime Town, or personified nightmares.

I should say at this point that if you’re out and out cynical this book is not for you. Tyler Hayes himself calls it ‘hopepunk’ (like cyberpunk but fuzzy?). I like my hard-boiled detective stories, but I also like Paddington Bear. Tippy is a hard-boiled detective as imagined by an eight-year-old, so that hip flask is full of root beer, his wisecracks are pretty tame, and he feels physical pain if someone says even a mild swear-word nearby. At the same time, it’s definitely not a children’s book, there is trauma and deep sadness, tension and death, but also friendship and love and yes, hope. As Tippy might say, it will make you feel all the feels.

My only slight quibble I guess is the way Tippy worries about invading personal space, and asks everyone he meets for their preferred pronoun – to me that doesn’t gel with either world-weary private eye or eight-year-old, but then I was eight in the 80s and things have changed since then, so maybe I’m out of touch. The world and its rules seem so well thought out as to be complete, I had total confidence and belief in the Stillreal as a place as I was reading. It is the most inventive book I’ve read in a long time (and back in July I thought The Interminables was original, I’m just being spoilt this year) and I would love there to be a sequel. You can read an excerpt on the Barnes and Noble blog and then buy it direct from Angry Robot.

If I just helped you find your new favourite fantasy novel you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

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Big Sky is Kate Atkinson’s fifth Jackson Brodie private detective novel, and if you haven’t read the first four I’d recommend heading there first (Case Histories from 2004 is the start of the series). Partly because they’re good books so why not, partly because characters from the past turn up in Big Sky and while I don’t think a Brodie novice would be totally flummoxed, there’s definitely deeper satisfaction to be gained if you’ve been there before.

If you are new to Jackson Brodie, don’t expect much sleuthing. He is, if not quite the world’s most feckless detective, at least the luckiest. He doesn’t so much go out and find answers as stumble across an answer while he’s looking for something completely different, and possibly even fail to recognise it as an answer for a while. My dad and I both read this in the same week – he got it out of the library ebook system after I mentioned I’d finally got round to buying it – and I wondered aloud if Brodie did any proper detecting at all in this one. My dad leapt to his defence and pointed out one thread that counted as such, but still, even by Jackson Brodie standards he’s something of a bystander in this story.

The novel makes for grim reading. And yet with Kate Atkinson’s usual lightness of touch and wry humour I found myself smiling more than I would have imagined, given the subject matter. There’s a tangle of historic child abuse cases, present-day grooming on the internet, and people-trafficking. All set in Yorkshire, mostly at the coast. The cast of characters is varied and nuanced (and tellingly detailed), and it’s not always easy to pick out the good guys and the bad guys. As ever with Jackson Brodie novels, coincidences and connections abound – if you’re new to the series, be prepared for pretty much anything that could be connected to be connected.

In the background of all this is Jackson’s feelings as a father having had a fall-out with his grown up daughter, and currently in charge of his adolescent son. How the world has changed, how old he feels, how nostalgic. And how some things don’t change. He’s suffused with as much melancholy as you’d expect from a middle-aged divorced man who’s a fan of female country singers, but overall the book has an air of hope. Well worth a read, which I guess you’d expect me to say since I’m such a big fan of Kate Atkinson but start at Case Histories and you will be too.

 

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A quick SFF round-up

Possibly as an attempt to escape from real events, I’ve spent the last 4 months almost exclusively reading fantasy and sci-fi. Some newish, most not, and due to slow reading and assorted distractions I haven’t felt capable of writing proper reviews of any of them. However, a quick summary may suffice to prompt some of you to check out some of them, so here’s a rattle through The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby, The Interminables by Paige Orwin, The Body Library by Jeff Noon, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, and Virtual Light by William Gibson.

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The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby was one of four ebooks I bought from Angry Robot at the start of lockdown, when they had their Shelf Isolation offer on. It’s easy-to-read comic fantasy in the Terry Pratchett/Tom Holt tradition which was a godsend in the early days of corona-anxiety. Marius don Hellespont is a corpse-rat, a looter of the dead on battlefields. He gets mistaken for a dead king and taken to rule the kingdom of the dead. They’ll let him go if he finds them a replacement king: cue highly entertaining quest/chase. It was Battersby’s debut, from 2012, and there is a sequel available.

The Interminables by Paige Orwin is another debut from Angry Robot (this time from 2016) with a sequel now available. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic 2020, which seemed too fitting! It’s also one of the most compelling and original fantasies I’ve read in a long time. The east coast of the USA is ruled by wizards (not the pointy-hat and wand variety, more like technocrats of a particular type) attempting to keep the fragile peace intact. The central partnership consists of a ghost and a jazz-loving near-immortal from the 1940s, and they need to investigate an arms-smuggling ring. Of course it’s never that simple, and there are secrets and lies aplenty, and I was on the edge of my seat for ages.

The Body Library by Jeff Noon was another of my Angry Robot ebooks (I haven’t read the fourth yet). Jeff Noon is more of a well-known name, and this book is the second of his Nyquist series, from 2018 (the first is A Man of Shadows, and the third, Creeping Jenny, has just been released). If you liked The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry and can stand your fantasy pretty dark, you’ll love The Body Library. Private detective John Nyquist is on a simple tail job that turns out not to be, and finds himself mixed up in something beyond his understanding. It was weird and unsettling, blurring the lines between the fiction we’re reading (the ‘reality’ of the novel) and the fiction within their world, focusing on worlds within books and the power of words. I haven’t read the first Nyquist book because it sounded like it was firmly in the horror genre, and I had a nasty feeling this novel was heading that way too but it pulled back from the brink. Still not for the overly squeamish, I think, but I enjoyed it.

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny is an odd (Hugo-winning) sci-fi novel from 1967. It’s set on a planet where the technologically-advanced have set themselves up as Hindu deities in a pseudo-heaven, while the masses toil and worship. Buddha, or Sam as he’s known to his friends, finds it tiresome and devotes his life (or lives) to disrupting the status quo. It’s not an easy read, not least because the chronology is not straightforward (I think Chapter 1 happens later than the next few chapters), and if you don’t have a passing familiarity with Hinduism and/or Buddhism I’d say you’re going to get confused more than once. It is ultimately a good and thought-provoking novel, however, so if that doesn’t put you off I’d give it a try.

Finally Virtual Light by William Gibson, which I can’t believe I hadn’t read. It’s from 1993 but set in 2005, which of course is now further in the past than it was in the future when Gibson was writing it. I had to laugh at the portable fax machines, but the masks and the passing mentions of pandemics resonated. It’s a proper thriller (albeit with a cyberpunk flavour) involving stolen wearable tech, bike couriers and a failed policeman, as well as weird millennial cults and big data. It occurred to me after reading it that so much Gibson (and many other stories) hinge on exploitative capitalist societies – people forced into situations because of their lack of money and/or status (need the money so bad to pay the rent/bills that they’re prepared to do something illegal or against their principles, or can easily be manipulated into such). Depressing as that is, it does make for a cracking read.

If you found these mini-reviews useful, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Oppressive regimes in recent SFF

In Vox by Christina Dalcher, America has been taken over by fundamentalist right-wing Christians: a woman’s place is once more in the home. Only this time, she’s only allowed to speak 100 words a day. The Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James is set in contemporary Britain with an alternative history, where only people with magic in their blood are full citizens with acknowledged human rights. Quite different styles and settings, but both give well-crafted and thought-provoking portrayals of oppressive regimes and how people react to them.

Vox has been on prominent display in three for two offers and the like at WHSmith and Waterstones on and off for months. It’s been in bestseller lists, and praised as a new Handmaid’s Tale left, right and centre. Which is why I’d delayed reading it, even though Christina is one of the flash fiction crowd I chat to on Twitter and I’d been so excited when she first announced her novel was going to be A Real Thing. Sci-fi that appeals to people who don’t read sci-fi is rarely satisfactory to those that do, in my experience (see my review of The Bees). I’m so glad that Vox turned out to be chilling, thrilling, near-future sociological SF with a healthy dose of science in it, and I can honestly say I really enjoyed it.

It’s hard to say much about Vox without giving away plot-twists. I thought the idea of the slippery slope was handled brilliantly, the glimpses of the path they’d gone down to get to the current state. At what point does behaviour cross a line between being the preserve of a weird minority it’s safe to ignore, and prominent enough that right-minded liberals (as the phrase would probably go, in the USA) should react against it? Can a person look back and pinpoint the moment they should have stood up for their (or someone else’s) rights, their last chance to change the course of society? What about if someone you love edges step by step along a path you abhor, following one seemingly reasonable (in isolation) argument after another? Then there’s the science element, laced with ambition and ethics. It’s all biology/medicine so I have no idea how real or plausible any of it is, but it did make me think about the way lots of scientific research can be used for good or ill, and all we can do is trust that it won’t be weaponised.

My one reservation is the epilogue; I personally would have preferred the book to end after the climax and do away with the hindsight summarising. However, I have similar views on the Jeff Vandermeer novel Borne, but that didn’t stop me loving the novel and recommending it. I’m happy to recommend Vox too.

I’ve only read the first two of the Dark Gifts trilogy so far (Gilded Cage and Tarnished City), though the third is lurking on my Kobo ready for me to dive into when I’ve finished the book I’m reading just now (Christmas-themed, therefore timebound). The main characters are the children of two very different families, ranging in age from ten to mid-twenties, with much of the action revolving around two boys in their late teens who end up bonded by circumstance in a fascinating (and not at all friendly) way.

Britain is powered by slaves; every non-magical person must do a ten-year stretch. Meanwhile the magical aristocracy (the ‘Equals’) live on their country estates in luxury, and the country is ruled by the heads of these powerful families. A mixture of propaganda and the silence of the traumatised ensures that the wider public never hear about, or simply don’t believe, the treatment of slaves in some parts of the country. When the Hadleys opt to do their slave-days as a family, on an aristocratic estate, their belief in the basic fairness of the system and the inevitability of slavery begins to wobble. Of course, even within the Equal society, some are more equal than others, and the tensions between and within families play out on a large scale.

Gilded Cage is very good on how ordinary people either turn a blind eye or simply miss the hints that all is not well – with busy lives and faith in basic decency they don’t want to rock the boat and assume the nastiest rumours are trouble-causing nonsense. It also portrays complexity and grey areas well, and the way that individuals don’t necessarily align with the group you expect them to. There are some fabulous characters in the trilogy, Silyen Jardine in particular keeps wrong-footing me and revealing yet another facet. Tarnished City kept the pace and tension and developed some of the characters in interesting ways, I’m looking forward to reading Bright Ruin, the final instalment.

All Points North by Simon Armitage

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This book had been sitting on my To Read shelf for weeks when Simon Armitage was announced as the new Poet Laureate, so it seemed only right to take it down and start reading. As you might expect from a Poet Laureate, he’s best known for his poetry and there are a couple of excerpts of it in All Points North, but only as they pertain to broadcasts or events he was involved in. On the whole, this is memoir and observational humour, as if Alan Bennett had grown up on the wild edge of Yorkshire in the era of Joy Division. Released in 1998, if the book came out now it would most likely have been a blog first.

There is ‘genuine memoir’ if you like, nostalgia and childhood memories, tales from his time as a probation officer or appearing in local panto (transplanted to the coast for an am dram conference), and the more recent that could be categorised as ‘scenes from the life of a poet’, like a visit to a film set or making BBC radio programmes. All of this reveals his poetry background: the creation of atmosphere, the lyrical descriptions of the everyday, the skirting of pretentiousness without ever quite falling in. There are also bits of local news deftly retold, snippets, fragments, snapshots, anecdotes from the pub that in another context or told in another way would be nothing.

Being, as the title suggests and his origins dictate, northern in character and largely about the north, the book is infused with dry humour and a keen sense of the absurd in the mundane. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue where the insurance firm phones (twice) to check he really is a poet (“Are you well known?”). The bulk of the book is written in second-person, as though he’s sat outside himself reminding another self of his actions and memories, which causes the odd tangle of position (who, then, is ‘we’?) but if you’re happy to accept that it makes for an interesting style.

I loved it and kept laughing loudly on the train as I read, but I would imagine All Points North to have particular appeal or relevance to those who know or love West Yorkshire, maybe also to those who know or love someone from West Yorkshire. If you read it without any prior exposure or knowledge, you may well come away with the wrong impression.

Climate change fiction: some recommendations

Climate change and impending environmental catastrophe have been in the news somewhat over the last couple of weeks. It seemed like a good time to recommend some novels which deal with the topic, a few of which I’ve mentioned here before. Obviously some are more realistic than others as possible scenarios go but they’re all good to read and if they get you thinking about what you could do right now, so much the better.

I’ll start with Kim Stanley Robinson because of the books I’ve read, he’s done it best. There is a trilogy (Science in the Capital) which starts with Forty Signs of Rain, which I read a few years ago and loved. It’s full of detail, being set in Washington with the main characters including a government policy wonk and his statistician wife, and shows a near future where climate change is producing noticeable effects but society is mainly still ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. OneMonkey tried to read it but pronounced it dull and gave up – too much detail for his taste. However, I thought it was excellent in the way it showed the clash between capitalism, day to day politics, and scientific prediction. Also there was an interesting thread of Buddhism, as I recall. It was written over 15 years ago so we’re probably well within that near future now (and still the politicians say ‘I’d love to, but…’).

The other KSR is a stand-alone novel from a couple of years ago, New York 2140. You can read my review of it at The Bookbag, but suffice to say it’s full of great characters in a flooded Manhattan. Again, man-made problems and capitalism’s disregard for long-term consequences are major themes but amazingly he still manages to be optimistic.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is set in Thailand and deals with climate change, genetic modification, rampant capitalism and their interplay and consequences. It was brilliantly written and suitably tense but there are some pretty nasty bits in it, so maybe not for the overly squeamish.

The word ‘capitalism’ keeps cropping up here, doesn’t it? I’m partway through Economics: The User’s Guide by Ha-Joon Chang at the moment and it’s got interesting things to say about the view of consumerism as the be-all and end-all. Even the Extinction Rebellion protesters in London had a load of new-looking tents, stickers and plastic bits and bobs in the photos I saw. It’s a hard one. But I digress…

The classic Ursula Le Guin novel The Lathe of Heaven (you can read my review at Luna Station Quarterly) is set against a backdrop of climate change, an unhealthy future that some people obviously wish they could go back and change. The main focus of the book is the reality-changing dreams of a man named George Orr, but the setting gives a good view of a 1970s vision of the future.

If you’ve already read those, or want to explore further, you can find a list of other novels to try at the Wikipedia entry for the subgenre. I haven’t figured out yet whether it’s more environmentally friendly to produce physical books (you can after all use recycled paper and vegetable-based inks but you have to transport them) or e-books (you have to build an electronic device with all its rare materials but you could charge using renewable energy sources, and then there’s the storage capacity). Borrow a copy from a friend or your local library, is my advice. If you use the library (in the UK at least), they even give royalties to the author.