Monthly Archives: August 2010

Review of Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

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If you read and enjoyed Niffenegger’s poignant take on time travel in her bestselling debut novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, you might well be interested in her second book. It is certainly a contrast. Instead of the intense, almost claustrophobic relationship between Claire and her time-travelling husband told from her viewpoint, this story is told in multiple POV through a range of arresting, unusual characters.

herfearfulsymmetryJulia and Valentina Poole are normal American teenagers – normal at least, for identical ‘mirror’ twins who have no interest in college or jobs or possibly anything outside their cosy suburban home. But everything changes when they receive notice that an aunt whom they didn’t know existed has died and left them her flat in an apartment block overlooking Highgate Cemetery in London. They feel that at last their own lives can begin – but have no idea that they’ve been summoned into a tangle of fraying lives, from the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives above them to their aunt’s mysterious and elusive lover who lives below them, and even to their aunt herself, who never got over her estrangement from the twins’ mother – and who can’t even seem to quite leave her flat…

Those of you who like high-octane non-stop action from page one aren’t going to find it here. Niffenegger copped a lot of criticism about the frenetic pace of The Time Traveler’s Wife and seems to have taken it to heart. This book initially proceeds with literary leisure as we are treated to extensive descriptions and a low-key start with Elspeth’s death and Robert’s mourning. Niffenegger has evidently spent a lot of time around Highgate Cemetery, a grandiose monument to death constructed by the Victorians at the height of that age’s gothic whimsy. Victorian families used to take walks and picnics amongst the headstones and statuary – a detail I picked up in the book. What Niffenegger does do, is completely capture the unique, eccentric charm of Highgate set within the buzz of London, giving us a cinematically sharp setting as events start to unfold. Because the pace picks up when the twins enter the story – and goes on steadily accelerating to the creepy, shiver-up-your spine climax that I didn’t see coming.

This well crafted book is layered with interesting observations on the themes of obsession, love and loss. Niffenegger handles her cast of extraordinary characters – Dickensian in their oddness – with deft skill that prevents them treacling into Victorian sentimentality or whimsy. There is certainly nothing whimsical about the shocking turn of events. I was sucked into Niffenegger’s world – and now, nearly a week and two books later, I still find myself thinking about the twins, Elspeth and Robert…

I generally steer away from horror for a solid reason – and this disturbing, ghostly tour de force has reminded me why, all over again.

9/10

What They HAVEN’T Told You About Our Public Libraries…

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Cash-strapped councils around the country must have thought Christmas had come, when a Government report was published earlier this week. This story broke with headlines such as:
‘The number of adults visiting libraries in England has fallen steadily over the last five years…

The same article later went on to say:
The number of weekly library goers in England has gone down by 32% in 5 years. More than 60% of us have not stepped foot inside a library in the last year.’ (BBC News Website, 24th August 2010)

The survey published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports paints a depressing picture of a steady decline in library use, although it did concede that the figures for children’s attendance had remained constant during the same period. Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, has been making concerned noises about the state of the library service since he took over the post, and in response to the Survey asked for people to think “imaginatively about where libraries could be”…

If that isn’t an open invitation for councils to forge ahead with a series of closures, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. After all, the Government’s figures prove that public libraries are an increasing irrelevance, don’t they? Stacked up against other tough decisions hard-pressed councils face, closing down your local library, shunting some of the stock and a few computers into the corner of a local Tesco will be a really soft option. Particularly because by the time they’ve done it, we’ll all be convinced that despite the fact that we miss our local library and its wide range of services, we’re the exception because everyone knows the public library service is a dwindling, broken thing. But before you shrug your shoulders helplessly and mutter about how modern life no longer seems to value the institutions that have defined our country for generations – such as a nationwide network of free lending libraries – take a look at ANOTHER set of statistics I’ve unearthed. This lot come from the LISU, a research and information centre for library and information services.

First of all, apologies for the BIG numbers. We are talking hundreds of millions, here. So if you were under the impression it’s just you and your Uncle Albert who still are quaintly old fashioned enough to regularly use your library, I’m sorry to burst your bubble – there’s more of us than you have been led to believe.

In 2008/09, there were 324,991,354 visits to libraries. Ah, you’re saying—there’s a bunch of libraries in colleges, universities and the odd private collection dotted around the country, she’s added those to the mix, to big up the numbers. Nope. That’s another set of numbers. These are just the visits to public libraries, like the one you currently have in your neighbourhood. So much for an increasing irrelevance… What is undeniable, is that the number of visits have been steadily dropping for the last five years. Hm. About that five year thing… The Government used percentages in their press release about their survey, rather than raw figures, I noticed.

But the numbers fluctuate more than you’d think from that press release. Just take look at the table below:

Table showing numbers of visits to public libraries

2000/01 2001/02 2002/03 2003/04 2004//05 2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09
*323,916 318,155 323,042 336,951 336,984 342,168 337,316 328,485 324,991

*Please add 000 to each figure, which I’ve rounded to the nearest thousand.

As you can see, although there has been a decline since 2005, there have been times when the numbers of library visits were below last year’s figure, while the highest number of visits were in 2005. Suddenly all those statistics, giving the percentage drop from 2005 to last year, make horrible sense. I believe there is a concerted campaign going on to convince us that our libraries are an outmoded, irrelevant part of our lives and need to be changed – ‘reshaped’ was the word that Mr Vaizey used. Or is it a massive coincidence that the Government survey used that 2005 spike, which just happen to emphasise the percentage decrease in numbers of visits?

The other little nugget of information I uncovered while scrolling through the LISU site, was tucked away under Other Services, – the number of visits to the public library website. I use this constantly to order books not available at my local branch, which cuts down the amount time I spend physically browsing in the library. Surely, I cannot be the only person whose visits to the library have lessened as the online facility has become more reliable? In 2006-07, the library website received approximately 64 million visits and last year that number had increased to around 113 million visits. And the ‘golden’ year of 2005? There are no available figures. So last year, if you add the virtual visits to the physical ones, you get over 437 million visits to our local libraries – an overall increase that makes the concern generated about our ‘failing’ library service look far less plausible.

libraryI’m not going to gloss over the problems – the number of adults who use public libraries is steadily dropping, while the number of children is rising, slowly and steadily, according to LISU figures. Which is another interesting variation from the Government survey, which claims that children’s visitor numbers ‘remain steady’. The other big problem is that the number of books in the public library collection is declining year on year and many libraries around the country have been subjected to reduced opening hours, just when the public have grown to expect a 24 hour service from other facilities.

But I have a terrible feeling that local councils, desperate to claw back some money on their overstretched budgets, will use the Government survey as an excuse to axe a number of libraries across the country. One estimate is that between 800 and 1000 libraries are at risk – that is approaching a quarter of the country’s libraries.

We all saw what happened to our local Post Offices when we sat back and left it to the Government to sort out. Rustington used to have a modern, well designed Post Office that was heavily used by the community. These days, the town’s Post Office is crammed in the back of a local shop. Queues often stretch out of the door and while shuffling around the aisles, jostled by shoppers, I reflect bitterly that I should have made more of a fuss when the apparently reasonable alternatives were being proposed – which at the time did not include our current grim reality. I’m not making the same mistake, twice.

I believe that if we want to hang onto our public library network, we’ll have to fight for it. The first step is to understand that the Government will look the other way in the name of ‘progress’ when local councils propose slashing the service. These heavily massaged figures are the start of a Government initiative to talk our library service into the ground.

Mr Vaizey more or less admitted it, when he said, “A strong library service, based around the needs of local people, can play a key role in our ambitions to build the Big Society by providing safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn and access a range of community services.”  Er. We’ve got ‘safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn… blah, blah,’ Unless, of course, he means safe, cheap and inclusive spaces. In which case, in the Big Society we are all learning to dread, you might find yourself dodging supermarket trolleys as you look for the latest good read…

Review of Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer

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I read a fair amount of science fiction. And as anyone knows whose read my reviews, I’m an enthusiast. My heart beats that little bit mindscanfaster every time I pick up a book with a cool cover and a promising opening page. Every so often that excitement is repaid with interest – as in the case of Mindscan.

Sawyer’s hero, Jake Sullivan, is struggling with a life-shortening, inoperable brain condition which could also leave him a vegetable – his father’s fate. So when he gets the opportunity to upload his consciousness into an android body, he takes it. At this point, we follow both Jakes. Sawyer’s unfussy, clear prose gives us a powerful insight into many of the emotional and practical problems following such a life-changing decision as both versions of his protagonist struggle to come to terms with their new status. His situation is alleviated by friendship with a feisty octogenarian, Karen, who also undergoes the same process. So far, the book is a masterful piece of storytelling that intelligently examines an issue that may well be confronting our grandchildren. But when Karen’s son sues, claiming that he has been cheated out of his rightful inheritance, Sawyer’s handling of the courtroom arguments for and against transferring human consciousness elevates this book from a good piece of science fiction to greatness.

Anyone in the privileged position of criticising the work of other writers has to be very clear about the yardsticks by which they grade authors and their work. For me, a ten out of ten read not only has to deliver a good story with a strong, believable world and convincing characters that I care about – but that ‘X’ factor is an intellectually rigorous examination of a theme or issue. I believe that great science fiction tackles important moral questions surrounding new inventions which are all too often side-stepped by politicians and scientists – often until Society’s need for some kind of judgement becomes overwhelming. Mindscan, with its wonderful overview of the issues surrounding human consciousness, has presented us with much to reflect on, amidst our enjoyment of this highly entertaining and readable tale.
10/10

Review of Code Noir – Book 2 of the Parrish Plessis series by Marianne de Pierres

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It took me a while to get into this cyberpunk thriller, partly because it is the second in the series and I haven’t read the first book. With no ‘Story So Far’, I found it difficult to get my bearings as de Pierres clearly expected those of us reading Code Noir to have already read the first book.

codenoirThe other issue is that the pace is breathless. So much so, that it took some time before I warmed to Parrish, which is unusual because I’m generally a real sucker for your gutsy, tough-but-misunderstood-heroine. Having for more years than I care to recall, waded through books with female characters either adorning the hero’s arm or providing action in the sex scenes, it’ll be sometime in the next century before I tire of heroines punching/shooting their way into and out of more trouble than you can aim a neuron disrupter at… So I thought, anyway. Parrish came perilously close to exhausting my patience.

I think the problem is that so much is going on, she never stops long enough to allow the reader to get properly acquainted with her until about halfway through the book. Eventually, however, I got drawn into the action, which is set in Australia making an intriguing change both culturally and scenically from the majority of such books.

The Tert War is over and Parrish Plessis had landed a big share of the spoils. Not bad for a girl with a price on her head and an uncanny ability to attract trouble. Problem is, power and territory mean responsibilities. And obligations. Like the small matter of her blood debt to the shadowy and dangerous Cabal Coomera. They need Parrish for a little rescue mission – one that’ll take her into the heart of teckno-darkness, the slum town of Dis. In return they’ll let her keep on living. Assuming she survives.

Once I did bond with the character and catch up with what was going on, I really enjoyed myself. I applaud de Pierres for giving her heroine a major facial injury. Unlike one or two other female protagonists sporting such trophies, I could fully believe that Parrish wouldn’t bother to get any sort of cosmetic surgery done to repair the damage. In these days with increasing pressure on girls to look ‘hot’, it was a shame, I felt, that the girl on the cover didn’t display her crooked nose and caved-in cheekbone. However, I’m not going to hold that against the author. It’s a pity that Orbit didn’t reflect more accurately what was going on between the covers when designing the jacket.

Meantime, I’m definitely going to get hold of the other major series de Pierres has written, Sentients of Orion. This time, though, I’ll take care to start with the first book.
7/10

Review of The Commons by Matthew Hughes

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This book isn’t a stand-alone novel, but number of short stories published in serial form in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Having said that, they have stitched together very well and without Robert J. Sawyer’s admiring Foreword, I wouldn’t have thecommonsrealised that The Commons was anything other than a straightforward novel.

For 100,000 years, Old Earth’s Institute for Historical Inquiry has mapped the collective unconscious of the human race. It has encountered all the archetypal figures – the Wise Man and the Fool, the Destroyer and the Redeemer – the ‘usual suspects’ that populate the myths and legends at the back of the human mind.

And now young Guth Bandar begins to believe that the collective unconscious has become aware of itself. Worse, it has an agenda. And worst of all, it can force Bandar to go deep into the darkest forest of the mind, where the only escape from madness is death.

This book charts Guth Bandar’s adventures in the Commons – the name for the collective unconscious – from his time as a young student trying to prove himself, to the climax of the story when he is in his middle years, still trying to prove himself. The protagonist is extremely well-drawn and likeable, as much for his failings that are charted in witty, unblinking detail – along with his strengths. So as he stumbles into yet another mind-threatening adventure, I was right alongside, hoping that he would prevail.

Despite the fact that the focus and subject matter is all about human psychology, there is plenty of visceral action here. The archetypes are ever-hungry for new people to populate their constant enactments of Situations and Events, even if the outcome leads to violent death. Which, being the human unconscious, happens only too often. However, don’t expect to be whipped along at breakneck speed a la David Gunn or Simon R Green, from one gore-drenched episode to the next. Hughes is offering so much more. The writing style is literate and restrained, even when the action gets bloodily heated – and there are constant shafts of witty humour.

For me the outstanding feature of The Commons is the intelligence that shines through the writing. Hughes is a bright guy – and, even better – he also assumes that his readers have more than a brain cell behind each eye to decode the words. Which ensures that as well as offering an unusually intriguing action adventure story, Hughes also gives us plenty to think about regarding the human mind. The role of story myths and legends within our society; the flexibility of knowledge, once we have identified and codified facts; how strongly expectation confines human behaviour… These are some of the ideas I found myself wondering about after finishing the book, which was gripping enough to keep me reading far into the morning.

If you have ever put down an H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, muttering ‘They don’t write them like that, anymore…’ then look out for Matthew Hughes. This author is their worthy successor.
10/10

Review of The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

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While you’ll probably find this book parked on the ‘General Fiction’ shelf of your library, for my money it definitely falls within the Fantasy genre.

thegargoyleOur unnamed protagonist, driving while high on booze and cocaine, crashes his car – a crash described in graphic detail, which doesn’t spare us the resulting fire and the agony of the driver as he is horribly burned. He wakes up in a burns unit, confronted with the prospect of months and years of painful treatment, disfigured and friendless. All he wants to do is commit suicide.
Until a beautiful woman, Marianne Engel, a sculptor, starts to become a regular visitor after informing him that they were lovers during the 14th century. It doesn’t help her case that she is also a frequent mental patient at the same hospital…
From this unpromising beginning, a relationship grows between the two of them.

It is a very ambitious first novel. We certainly don’t take the narrator to our hearts, initially. His cynical, boozy, drug-ridden former life as a porn star just about epitomises every sleazy cliché of our society. I have to say that I felt that Davidson was trying a bit too hard at this point. However, once Marianne appears, the mood and tone changes. For me, her character held the book together, which was why towards the end, I also found myself slightly less involved. But by then, of course, I was drawn into the story and wasn’t about to walk away.

Marianne whiles away the long hours at his bedside by recounting stories. She has a fund of them, told in minute detail. As far as I’m concerned, Davidson gets away chopping up his narrative timeline with these tales because they are entertaining and revolve around Marianne, who is certainly the fantastic element in this book. Nothing about her is ordinary or usual – and yet she still manages to come across as believable and sympathetic, which is quite a trick to pull off.

The themes of love, loss and redemption are probably the most mundane aspects of this interesting debut novel. Davidson needed to research a number of topics in some detail in order to write this book – the stomach-churning accounts of major burns treatments makes one realise just how far medical science still has to advance. He also needed to absorb a hefty amount of medieval history and bone up on stone masonry. However, he wears his knowledge lightly and we certainly don’t get any more detail than is necessary for the story. Maybe it is rather a stretch to believe that a ‘trailer trash’ kid who hardly ever attended school would be capable of such an eloquent narration of the story – but it is a fantasy tale, after all.

If you enjoy ‘magic realism’ and would appreciate a vampire-free fantasy tale with an interestingly different take on the genre, then I recommend The Gargoyle as an entertaining read that stays with you for a long time after you’ve finished the book.
8/10