Monthly Archives: March 2011

Review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot


This non-fiction book has become an international bestseller, charting a remarkable story that consumed the author for a decade.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer whose cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first ‘immortal’ human tissue grown in culture, HeLa cells were vital for developing polio vaccine, helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization and gene mapping, and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta herself remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the ‘coloured’ ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to East henrettalacksBaltimore today, where Henrietta’s children and grandchildren live, and struggle with the legacy of her cells. Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family – especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into Space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Reading a variety of scientific articles and books over the years, I’d already heard about these remarkable HeLa cells and was prompted to track this book down when I read about it in the New Scientist. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks follows an amazing story, helped by Skloot’s vivid writing which grabbed me by the throat and sucked me into this incredible tale. I was appalled at the grinding poverty endured by the Lacks family and horrified at Henrietta’s treatment which seemed every bit as barbarically brutal as anything you’ll find in Tudor apothecary notebooks. It didn’t help that Henrietta was coloured at a time when the south was divided along institutionalised racial lines. However, I don’t think poor Henrietta stood a chance against the rapacious cancer that ripped through her – the sheer toughness of those cells that are still going strong today, decades after her death, is a testament to the aggressiveness of this particular cancer.

Henrietta was only thirty-one when she died, leaving behind a young family. A good portion of the story deals with the painful grief of children who were never given sufficient information to come to terms with their mother’s involuntary role in a whole number of scientific breakthroughs. While the rest of the world marvelled at the sci-fi headlines describing the HeLa cells and their contribution to humankind’s knowledge, Henrietta’s daughter was riven with horror at that thought that some debased Alien-type version of her mother was locked up in a laboratory somewhere, enduring endless torment.

In America, the law currently says that once patients have had growths/moles/tumours removed, these tissues are no longer belong to them. Furthermore, if researchers and biotechnological companies find a useful gene or cell, they are entitled to sell off these portions for a profit – and American citizens can’t do anything about it, according to the latest Supreme Court ruling. However, this book isn’t in the business of portraying scientists as unfeeling villains – George Gey who removed the tissue sample from Henrietta and was responsible for growing it on, worked tirelessly on the project and freely allowed other scientists around the world access to the HeLa cells, making it possible for the large number of advances and scientific investigations to occur.

What this book starkly highlights is that the myth that science can somehow operate outside the messy business of living, is just that – a myth. The fact that a bunch of cells harvested from a young woman dying of cancer were responsible for a number of number of medical breakthroughs, doesn’t alter the fact that her children suffered by being completely ignored by that process. And if Rebecca Skloot hadn’t arranged for a portion of the royalties from her book to go towards a foundation to help Henrietta’s descendants, the hard fact is that they probably would be still unable to afford medical insurance.

Review of The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker


Your gaze rests lovingly on your battered copy of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, wondering why no one writes like that anymore… Well, I’ve uncovered another gem in the same mould, folks. Based on Baker’s Hugo-nominated novella of the same name, this is space opera at its rollicking best. While still set in Baker’s world of The Company – her series about time-travelling immortals plundering Earth’s history – it is entirely stand-alone to the extent that you don’t need to be aware Baker has written anything else, in order to appreciate the story.

empressofmarsWhen the British Arean Company founded its Martian colony, it welcomed any settlers it could get. Outcasts, misfits and dreamers emigrated in droves to undertake the gruelling task of terraforming the cold red planet—only to be abandoned when the BAC discovered it couldn’t turn a profit on Mars.

This is the story of Mary Griffith, a determined woman with three daughters who opened the only joint selling alcohol on the Tharsis Bulge. As such, she and her bar, The Empress of Mars, are the beating heart of the bereft colony of eccentrics struggling to survive in the face of BAC’s corporate indifference. However, that indifference switches to something more threatening when an unexpected discovery suddenly makes Mars more important in the scheme of things…

A classic frontier tale of rugged individualistic grit pitted against shadowy religious and corporate ambition, Baker is very upfront about the influence of the Wild West in this book. This emphasis on the individual allows Baker free rein in her depiction of the gloriously mapcap characters peopling Mars as the plot weaves through a series of hurdles that Mary and her family have to scramble under and over. The characters leap off the page as the action sweeps them through edgy tense drama to humorous interludes verging on farce – classic Baker, in other words.

The setting is wonderfully realised. Mary’s bar… the Celtic settlement… the bleak red Martian landscape… without holding up the action, Baker has managed to make Mars and the Martian environment pivotal to the whole story – an element often missing in modern space opera. With their current obsession for character-driven plots and plenty of snappy dialogue, many modern writers treat their uniquely different science fiction settings with nonchalant carelessness. However, Baker never lets you forget that this is Mars – an untamed planet right on the edge of viability for human habitation.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable, well-crafted offering by a scandalously underrated writer, who tragically died at the beginning of last year after a brave battle with cancer. I’ve been banging on about her Company novels ever since I accidentally stumbled across them a couple of years ago. Give yourself a treat, track down this book – and you’ll see why…

Review of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow


This fascinating little book was Doctorow’s first novel, which he released under a Creative Commons non-commercial licence that allowed anyone to download and read the book for free, alongside its release by Tor.

DownandoutJules is a young man barely a century old. He’s lived long enough to see the cure for death and the end of scarcity, to learn ten languages and compose three symphonies… and to realise his boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World.
Disney World! The greatest artistic achievement of the long-ago twentieth century. Now in the care of a network of ‘ad-hocs’, who keep the classic attractions running as they always have, enhanced with only the smallest high-tech touches.

But the ad-hocs are under attack. A new group has taken over the Hall of the Presidents, and is replacing its venerable audioanimatronics with new, immersive direct-to-brain interfaces that give the guests the illusion of being Washington, Lincoln, and all the others. For Jules, this is an attack on the artistic purity of Disney World itself. Worse: it appears that this new group has had Jules killed. This upsets him. (It’s only his fourth death and revival, after all.)  Now it’s war…

I generally find it difficult to really get enthusiastic about books featuring post/transhuman characters – for the simple reason that they are so different, I don’t feel any emotional bond with them. Not poor old Jules, though… despite his technological advantages, he is very humanly flawed and believable, driving the tempo and tone of the story forward as it teeters between farce and tragedy without losing our interest. The whole world works really well – although I have to say that the term ‘whuffie’ scraped across my synapses, rather. And for those of you scratching your heads over that one, in a society where food and shelter are freely available and money is obsolete, your reputation/standing or whuffie, is what people work towards boosting. Those with high whuffie gain admiration and respect, if not outright fame from everyone else. However, it has to be constantly worked at and it is all too easy for those with a high whuffie rating to lose it by making a series of bad decisions. I hasten to add, that it isn’t the concept that bothers me – I happen to think that it’s a smart, slick idea with plenty of purchase – it’s the word. ‘Whuffie’ puts me in mind of a small terrier breed of dog with a bristled coat and uncertain temper… However, I’ll freely admit that it is a very picky point, and not one that merits knocking off any points as it didn’t dent my enjoyment too much.

I can understand why this slim volume created such a stir, in addition to receiving a nomination for the 2004 Nebula Award.  The plot drives forward with plenty of twists that provide real pageturner appeal, which doesn’t prevent Doctorow from making some nicely pertinent points about his society.  The fact that the battle plays out for Disney World – a prepackaged shot of nostalgia that never existed in the first place – creates a sense of wierd hilarity, while becoming a symbol for something that transhumanity has lost.   There are a number of books who have attempted to describe a transhuman society, where technology has shifted Man’s perspective so far away from our current concerns, that sociological and personal goals are completely different. Mostly, they fail. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is among the select handful I’ve read that actually have succeeded in creating a plausible scenario where transhumankind live and breathe – and I care that they do so…

Review of The Margarets by Sherri S. Tepper


Let me put my cards on the table – I’m a fan of Tepper’s writing. A Plague of Angels absolutely blew me away. I still vividly recall the main details of the plot years later – something that happens with only a handful of books, given my shocking memory. So it was a red letter day, when I discovered this book on the library shelves.

Margaret Bain is the only child on Phobos, a human colony working on a doomed project to transform Mars into a garden planet. To keep away the suffocating demons of loneliness and boredom, she invents imaginary companions, for her own alter ego – a queen, a spy, a tough boy, a healer…

When the Phobos project is shut down, Margaret is forced to return to Earth with her parents. Mankind’s birthplace is impoverished, themargaretsreduced to trading the only viable product the planet has left to offer: human slaves. No longer a little girl, Margaret’s imaginary friends are lost to her, but in this harsh new world she is forced to make some hard choices and each life-changing choice results in a different Margaret spinning off: her imaginary selves are refining their own personae, acquiring their own histories, living their own lives.

And as the Margarets scatter off across the universe, unaware of their other selves, each has to struggle to survive by her (or his) wits – until the discovery of a threat to Earth and to the whole of humanity. It’s time for the Margarets to return home, for the survival of the human race depends on them… all of them.

Like all Tepper’s plots, it is a nifty twist on a familiar theme underpinning many a fantasy series – that of a special person selected by reason of his/her ability and birth to fulfil a particular prophesy. What Tepper does, is give that fantasy staple a science fiction spin, so that we have a classic space opera adventure spanning a number of worlds – think of Elizabeth Moon meeting Juliet Marillier… The various worlds and the particular plight of humankind are depicted with the clarity and precision you’d expect from a writer of Tepper’s pedigree, giving the reader a rich, three dimensional universe to enjoy. But what holds this book together is the narratives of the Margarets as they struggle to survive in a variety of difficult and largely life threatening environments.

It is here that I ran up against a problem – there are seven Margarets out there and for my money, I’d have preferred five, or even three. This is a fairly hefty book at over 500 hundred pages of reasonably small print and after an absolutely cracking start, the pace sagged slightly in the middle as I struggled to keep up with them all. Tepper makes the task as easy as possible – each Margaret’s name is altered, depending on where she ends up, with one changing gender, while the scene changes are clearly labelled as we switch viewpoints. There certainly was no bland blending of their experiences, which could have all too easily happened in the hands of a lesser writer. However, the fact remains that I did get a bit bogged down in the middle and I do believe that having so many major protagonists to follow is a very big ask for the reader.

The effort certainly paid off, though. As the book neared the end, the pace once more picked up and as we approached the climax, I was completely immersed in the plot. I love the mix of science fiction and fantasy within the story – no one does it better than Tepper and the ending produced some unexpected twists with a completely satisfactory conclusion. If you are a fantasy fan who doesn’t generally dip your toe into the techie world of science fiction, or a sci fi follower who can’t be bothered with all that wafty magic stuff – give this book a try. It is a substantial, enjoyable read by one of the best speculative fiction authors of her generation.

Review of The Secret Hangman by Peter Lovesey


Maybe you are already aware of Peter Diamond’s police career in the beautiful city of Bath – but The Secret Hangman is my introduction to Peter Lovesey’s work.

secrethangmanPeter Diamond is managing as well as can be expected after the shocking murder of his wife, three years earlier. He certainly doesn’t need his boss, Georgina, fussing about him. Neither does he need the attentions of the woman who writes, asking for a date. Not that he’s got much time on his hands to brood – not after a woman is found hanged in a children’s playground, to be followed by her husband a few days later whose hanging from a viaduct in a busy part of Bath during the rush hour throws the city into chaos. Despite urging from Georgina to close the case and concentrate on the ram raids the high-ups are concerned about, Peter has a bad feeling about the hangings. The facts his team uncover don’t add up.

But only when another hanged woman is found, the nasty possibility that they are dealing with a serial killer surfaces – and subsequent events leave Diamond and his team at the sharp end of an investigation where only their efforts stand between the next victim and a horrible death…

This excellent whodunit is the ninth book in the Peter Diamond series. The character is a grumpy widower, who has thrown himself into his career to compensate for his bereavement. I very much enjoyed the parallel storyline relating to Diamond’s personal life, which merged in a satisfying twist at the end of the book. And no – I’m not saying more than that.
Bath is an effective backdrop to the murders, although it features less than Booth’s gritty Derbyshire landscape as mood music to the grisly events. Not that there is much blood and gore in The Secret Hangman – a refreshing change to the current trend both in books and on TV to make murder corpses as bloodily graphic as possible. Lovesey doesn’t need to rely on blood and guts to keep the pages turning – he is a master at keeping the tension coming, while at the same time attending to the small details that give this tale a hard-edged reality. The denouement is thoroughly satisfying – especially with the extra twist in it regarding Diamond’s personal life. I was happy to see that in addition to the ten Peter Diamond books, there are also eight Inspector Cribb tales; three Bertie books and three Inspector Hen Mallin stories.

More books to add to the stack teetering dangerously by my fireside…

Review of Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts


I picked this book off the library shelf (something I won’t get to do much longer, if the Government and local councils have their way…) because I thought the cover intriguingly different.

Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky was one of a group of Russion SF writers called together by Josef Stalin in 1946. Stalin, convinced that the defeat of America was only a few years away, needed a new enemy for Communism to unite against. Skvorecky and the others were tasked with creating a convincing alien threat; a story of imminent disaster that could be told to the Soviet peoples.

And then after many months of diligent work the writers were told to stop and, on pain of death, to forget everything. Little is known yellowbluetibiaof what happened to the writers subsequently but in 1986, Skvorecky made a dramatic reappearance at Chernobyl claiming that everything that he and the others had written was coming true. His assertion was widely disbelieved but Skvorecky claimed (tastelessly many believe) that the Chernobyl disaster and the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle conformed to the pattern set by Stalin’s scenario. Skvorecky believes that alien invasion is ongoing.

I’d not come across Roberts’ work before, but it didn’t take long to realise that this chap can write. Narrated in Skvorecky’s first person viewpoint, the character is beautifully realised – right down to the odd Russian contradictions such as his (completely understandable) world-weary cynicism, along with the touching belief in love. The book recounts Skvorecky’s adventures leading up to the Chernobyl disaster and how an encounter with a couple of American Scientologists changed his life.

Roberts deftly portrays a Russia suffering a crisis of confidence with everyone scrabbling to cope with Gorbachev’s cataclysmic changes involving perrestoika against a backdrop of crumbling Communism. It isn’t a pretty picture – especially filtered through the viewpoint of an aging, burnt out ex-alcoholic. By rights it should be unremittingly grim enough to make the likes of Dan Simmons and Roger Levy look pink n’fluffy in comparison. However Roberts leavens the underlying awfulness of his subject matter and backdrop by dollops of humour, to the extent there are laugh-aloud moments in this book. I found myself chuckling during Skvorecky’s interrogation when the official questioning him gets in a muddle as to when the tape is turned off and on…

The book veers from moments of acute danger, high farce and reflections on the dreadful circumstances within a couple of pages without jolting the reader out of the story. It takes a writer at the height of his powers to pull this off. And Roberts really does flex his ‘show off’ muscle in this book – the narrative voice denoting English as a second language, complete with amusing puns and odd confusions; Skvorecky’s entirely believable transformation from a miserably cynical has-been to someone a lot more hopeful and proactive; the swooping changes of mood from moments of high drama to farce… But then, if I could write like this, I’d probably be performing the literary equivalent of dizzying pirouettes, too.

Interestingly, science fiction as a genre and belief system comes under close examination in the book, right from when Stalin decides that aliens should make the next unifying threat to keep Mother Russia together. Skvorecky maintains his belief throughout that alien abductions and spaceships do not exist – that even when he was a respected science fiction author, he did not believe in such things. Science fiction becomes a metaphor for a population’s credulous belief in things without any proper foundation. Or does it? Roberts plays the sorts of games with the reader that we are more used to seeing from the literary end of the spectrum, such as providing us with an unreliable narrator. Generally I have limited patience with such gimmicks – but then they are often employed by authors who don’t possess Roberts’ skill and humour.

Any niggles? Nope. Not a single one. I’ve read reviews that have grumbled that some of the interesting issues raised in the book are not fully developed – but that’s FINE with me. This is a piece of fiction designed to entertain. In addition, Roberts has also chosen to give us food for thought along the way – what he didn’t do was to hold up the narrative pace to extend those reflections beyond their use in the story. A writer that – despite his stylist flourishes – puts the needs of the reader above his own hubris. Hallelujah! In short (in case it’s already escaped your attention) I think that this is a superb, funny, sharp read by a clever author who knows exactly where he’s going… Go on – track it down, you be thanking me if you do. And if you’re scratching your head about the odd title – apparently the Russian phrase Ya lyublyU tebyA, meaning I love you, sounds roughly like yellow, blue tibia.

Review of the The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip


I’m not much into nostalgia. Yes – I thoroughly enjoyed reading the likes of Tolkien, Clarke and Heinlein way back, whenever. But I don’t look back fondly on any particular era as a ‘golden time’ because I’m too busy wading through current books piled up beside my bed. However, I do enjoy dipping into the Fantasy Masterworks series as I’ve come across some cracking reads in the process – and this is one of them.

forgottenbeastsSybel, the beautiful great-granddaughter of the wizard Heald, has grown up on Eld Mountain with only the fantastic beasts summoned there by wizardry as companions. She cares nothing for humans until, when she is sixteen, a baby is brought for her to raise. A baby who awakens emotions that she has never known before. He is Tamlorn, the only son of King Drede and inevitably, Sybel becomes entangled in the human world of love, war and revenge. There was a solid reason why Heald retreated from the affairs of mankind. Now Sybel has become embroiled in their plots, can her beasts save her from ultimate destruction?

For those of you who haven’t cut your teeth on Tolkein, the prose style will strike you as somewhat odd – while the rest of us will immediately recognise it as silmarillionese. I would urge you to persevere past the first few pages when it is particularly obtrusive if you do find it a problem; personally, it was like meeting up with a long-lost relation… But if you can grit your teeth at the start, I would hope that the story sweeps you up and takes you for a wonderful ride into a past when Fantasy didn’t mean conflicted vamps and weres prowling in search for blood, sex or both…

In amongst the high-flown prose and stately surroundings, McKillip gives us an interesting insight into the life of a wizard. An isolated, lonely life. A life spent constantly searching for power and ruthlessly snatching it as a defence against such similar attacks. Sybel’s character is interestingly complex and sympathetic and McKillip’s prose might be rich and textured, but that doesn’t stop her whisking the story along at suitably brisk pace.

Without sounding too much like a gushing blurb byte, this story is old fashioned fantasy at its very best… Oh – ok – I give up, I DO sound gushy. But in my defence, I opened the pages expecting to find an intriguing slice of 70’s fiction and instead was whisked away to a truly magical place to encounter beings and characters I’ll never trip over in Sainsburys if I live to be a hundred. This is unashamed magical escapism without a hint of self-conscious parody – the kind that over-aware modern authors could no more write than breathe fire.

It wasn’t a surprise to read that McKillip won the first World Fantasy Award for this book in 1975 – it’s a very worthy winner. And in my humble opinion, one that has more than stood the test of time. But don’t take my word for it, give yourself a treat and get hold of this enchanting book.