The Southern Reach Trilogy – final part

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

What began in Annihilation, follows on in Authority, concludes in Acceptance. Although I’ll give scant details of what happens below, discussing the third part of a trilogy will necessarily reveal small facts you may prefer not to know if you intend to read these books. See also my reviews of the first two parts: Annihilation and Authority.
Southern Reach Trilogy covers

The clue is in the title. In Acceptance, we have a coming to terms with the nature of Area X – but I never said it was going to be easy!

If you’ve read the first two, you’ll know that Authority ends with Ghost Bird and Control effectively breaking into Area X. We’ll come back to them in a moment, but after a prologue in which The Director, who has also gone into Area X talks directly to us, we’re back in time before Area X with Saul the Lighthouse Keeper. We meet Henry and Suzanne from the Séance & Science Brigade – a scary research organisation studying paranormal phenomena, “Prebiotic particles, … Ghost Energy” as Henry puts it. They are obsessed with the lens of the lighthouse and Saul doesn’t trust them one inch. We are also introduced to Gloria, a nine year old that plays on the beach, and Charlie – Saul’s lover. With those introductions, our cast is complete.

Acceptance jumps back and forth between the three story strands: with Saul before Area X, with the Southern Reach Authority during the period of the expeditions, and with those last unofficial explorers into Area X. We find out that the layers of conspiracy in the SRA are labyrinthine and totally bonkers in their complexity. We find out how the military used Area X – as a garbage can for space debris – sending dead satellites into the border to wink out of existence. We learn the truth about the biologist/Ghost Bird and why the lighthouse is so important. We also encounter more of the (de-)evolved creatures that made the first volume so scary:

The flesh had sloughed off, runneled down the sides of the bones, vanished into the soil. What remained was a skeleton that looked uncannily like the confluence of a giant hog and a human being, a set of small ribs suspended form the larger like a macabre internal chandelier, and tibias that ended in peculiar nub-like bits of gristle scaenged by biards and coyotes and rats.
‘Its been here awhile,’ said Control. (p34)

It’s fair to say that with its non-linear narrative, Acceptance lacks the singlemindedness that made the first two volumes so compelling. But, in order to resolve the story, there is a lot we need to know in each of the strands. This makes it more messy and you’re less able to devour it in a page-turning way as each revealed nugget leaves you trying to place it in the mix. That said, I still really enjoyed the book and think I understand how it finally reaches the end! Acceptance may be the weakest one of the three, but taken as a whole, The Southern Reach Trilogy is amazing. The first two parts have grown on me since I read them and the mind-boggling concepts between the brightly coloured endpapers of each volume have kept me thinking about them. Having read Ballard’s The Drowned World immediately before reading Acceptance also made a fascinating counterpoint – swapping one account of de-evolution for another!  (7.5/10)

Southern-Reach-UK paperback-covers

UK Paperback covers – out July 2015

 

I shall leave you with a little ditty that seems sort of appropriate, although the home-video accompanying the song is charmingly amateur… From 1969, I bring you Erika Eigen’s song ‘Lighthouse Keeper‘ (which was featured in the soundtrack Kubrick’s film, A Clockwork Orange, repopularised a couple of years ago in an advert for M&S for you fact-fans!)

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer – pub 4th Estate, hardbacks:
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Feb 2014, 4th Estate, 208 pages.
Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – May 2014, 352 pages.
Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Sept 2014, 352 pages.

A near-future techno thriller…

Deja Vu by Ian Hocking

deja vuThis novel is one of the first publications from a new indie publisher called Unsung Stories, specialising in ‘genre fiction that defies categorisation’. Déjà Vu is essentially near-future science fiction with a techno-thriller slant to it.

It is 2023. Saskia Brandt is a Berlin-based detective in the European FIB. Returning from a stressful holiday during which she became single again, she finds her receptionist has been murdered – and she has been implicated. Her boss Beckmann gives her twelve hours to prove her innocence.

Meanwhile in Oxford a university professor, David Proctor, is getting up – he dresses in ‘his usual loafers, chinos, shirt and blazer; clothes that Joyce, his girlfriend, called CGC, or Consultant Gynaecologist Chic.’ (that tickled me for some reason). David is instructing his prototype AI computer, Ego, when a call comes to tell him the other Ego units have been stolen. No sooner has he finished the call than he realises that a door is open somewhere, then he feels a weapon pressed into his back and Ego starts talking to him telling him it’s been hacked, and that he has return to Scotland when he gets a call from Colonel McWhirter about Onogoro, the virtual world he had created with his old colleague Bruce Shimoda. ‘Onogoro must fall,’ the voice tells him.

In Nevada, billionaire John Crane arrives in secret at Helix Base. He searches out Jennifer Proctor (David’s daughter) in her lab. Jennifer has been putting the finishing touches to the Déjà Vu project – enabling time travel – and her employer Crane needs her to send him back in time…

Even though they don’t know it, the fortunes of Saskia, David and Jennifer are already closely linked. David had previously been accused of trying to blow up the West Lothian centre, his wife Helen had been killed in the explosion – surely he couldn’t have done it?  Why do they want him to come back there? Saskia has a big personal shock in store for her once her twelve hours are up. Surely the key is going to be Jennifer’s project – is whatever will happen already pre-destined due to the impossible paradoxes otherwise of time travel? It’s telling that Saskia has a recurring dream of the three Fates of Greek myth: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos who respectively spin, measure and snip the thread of life.

I’m not going to deliberate further on the plot of this novel as it is complicated with the layers of conspiracy and paradox. At its heart though is the simpler re-kindling of the relationship between father and daughter, wrenched apart when Helen died, together with Saskia’s search for her true self. To understand the present you need to understand the past and untangling the threads of what happens when is the key.

Published in print and e-book form by Unsung Stories last year, the technology in the book seemed too futuristic for less than ten years into the future – but doing some digging afterwards revealed that Hocking originally self-published this novel in around 2005 and has penned two more self-published Saskia Brandt novels since. So if it was originally written some more years ago, that definitely fits this vision of the near future better – although Apple are probably not so far off the Ego computer with its fledgling artificial intelligence – Ego could be the iPhone 25 or something! Much more futuristic is the implant chip in Saskia’s brain which controls and modulates her to some extent – does that make her a cyborg or bionic?

Apart from that niggling incongruity between the publishing year and the technology, what also irritated me were little bits of over-writing here and there: “The high ribwork of the orangery joined a sternum thirty feet about the floor.”  In its defence, the techno-thriller plot was quite fun, having a feel of the brilliant 1980s TV series Edge of Darkness to it in many ways (a political/nuclear thriller drama from the BBC). I did like the character of Saskia though and I hope she develops in her further adventures which are to be published too. (6/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Deja Vu by Ian Hocking. Unsung Stories, 2014, paperback 328 pages.
Edge Of Darkness – The Complete Series [1985] [DVD]

The Southern Reach Trilogy #2

Authority by Jeff Vandermeer

AuthorityI had been planning to eke out my reading of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy over three months but, after the comments on my post about the first volume (see here), I couldn’t wait – for a variety of reasons.

  • I was hooked, of course.
  • Commenters said that the second volume wasn’t as strong as the first – I wanted to check that for myself.
  • What’s with the rabbits!

I deliberately didn’t read the blurbs of the second and third volumes, so would come to them fresh. However, given that Annihilation introduced us to the Garden of Eden-like Area X and maintained the secrets of its genesis (pun intended) throughout – there are only really two directions that a sequel can go in:

  1. To send in another expedtition. This is what happened in sequels to 2001: A Space Odyssey in 2010, and more recently in The Echo – James Smythe’s brilliant follow-up to The Explorer (which I reviewed here and here); or
  2. The sequel can eschew sending another expedition which may suffer the same fate, and try to work things out from outside the anomaly.

I had expected a variation on the former – it’s the usual approach, but instead Vandermeer has given us option two.

If you’re planning to read these books, this is where you should leave…

The Southern Reach, the agency which guards and researches Area X, is in disarray after the return of the 12th Expedition chronicled in Annihilation. The director has gone, the returnees are uncommunicative, the demoralised staff fear for their jobs. The government authorities send in a fixer, John Rodriguez, who has the childhood nickname of ‘Control’ to sort it out, he is to report to his anonymous boss only known as ‘The Voice’.

Control arrives to find that everyone is against him – well what did you expect?!  None more so than the assistant director. She is naturally protective of the director, whom we find out in the opening pages had overridden all protocols to go on that last expedition herself. She was the psychologist, and she was the one who didn’t return. Control is thrust into an office full of the former director’s papers, scribbles, notes, theories and a rather familiar quotation written on the wall behind a door. He soon finds that everyone in the organisation too has an axe to grind and each has secrets, lots of them.

Then there is the biologist, the narrator of Annihilation. Control has to find a way to get through her barriers, to unleash her memories about what happened in Area X and in a series of interviews he starts to build up some rapport. Along the way we start to build up a picture of Control the man too, through flashbacks to his childhood. With his wild Grandpa and secret agent mother he was perhaps bound to fall into a similar line of business, for they groomed him to fit.

Although I really enjoyed Authority I did have some problems with parts of it which I’ll come to in a minute.

Firstly I have to comment on ‘Control’.  I suspect the author’s choice of nickname for Rodriguez was because of the literal meaning of the word – and the subtext throughout of who (or what) is controlling whom, but I enjoyed thinking of Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s boss ‘Control’ every time I saw it. It seems I can’t help but spot possible influences in these books – Control’s childhood seems rather close in a way to that of Jeff Lindsay’s avenging anti-hero Dexter in that he is channelled into becoming what he is and then controlled all the way…

The-Grand-Master-mi-high-cbbc-20559774-720-405Then there is an image that got stuck in my head and won’t let go… In the BBC children’s series M.I.High – about school-kid secret agents who are fighting the (James Bond) SPECTRE-like organisation SKULL led by The Grand Master, who has not a white cat on his lap like Blofeld but a white rabbit – called Flopsy no less! (right)  This has double significance, because of a) the rabbits on the cover – yes, we do find out why they were there, and b) because we never see The Grand Master’s face, we only hear his ‘Voice’.

All this is leading me towards saying that Authority is significantly different in style to Annihilation, and it is not the same dystopian eco-thriller that the first volume was.  Authority is all about internal espionage and Control in this book is much closer to Le Carré’s George Smiley and his mission to find the mole than the X-Files‘ Fox Mulder.  That’s OK – it worked for the most part, but the frequent intrusion of Control’s mother into things seemed unnecessary (again, it reminded me of M.I.High where young agent Blane’s mother is a double-agent working for the baddies!) How I wished he could cut those apron-strings that seemed to tie him like a puppet to her sooner rather than later.

There is a sense of world-weariness to Authority – we mustn’t forget that the expedition in the first volume was actually the twelfth, so really Annihilation could be viewed to start at my option 1 above as a sequel to an unwritten prequel if you see what I mean. Control’s ‘Smiley-like’ investigations into the Southern Reach, an organisation that had been forced, by the nature of the secrets it was guarding, to be inward-looking and ended up spiralling in on itself aren’t necessarily the stuff of great drama. I believe that many clues have been laid though, and we do finally get some action as the ending set us up for a great final act. (8/10)

From eco-thriller to spy-thriller to … what?
Will they find out the secrets of Area X?
Will they be able to ‘accept’ what they find?

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer – pub 4th Estate, hardbacks:
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Feb 2014, 4th Estate, 208 pages.
Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – May 2014, 352 pages.
Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Sept 2014, 352 pages.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré, paperback.

The Southern Reach Trilogy

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

annihilationHaving just read Annihilation, the first volume of Vandermeer’s series known as The Southern Reach Trilogy, I think I’m really going to enjoy the other two parts – entitled Authority and Acceptance. This trilogy was published last year – with three months between volumes. They’re lovely things too in hardback with attractive covers and bright endpapers – but what’s inside?

Annihilation is the story of the 12th expedition sent in to investigate Area X – an area of an environmental disaster, monitored by a secret agency known as The Southern Reach. They’ve been monitoring it and sending in expeditions for thirty years – few return alive, and those that do are never the same as before.

The 12th expedition is a team of women: led by a psychologist, the others are a surveyor, an anthropologist and our narrator – a biologist who is never named. Their mission is to take samples, chart the land, keep journals – to help the Southern Reach understand Area X better.

The method by which they are transported through the mysterious border into Area X is unknown. The candidates for the team had all had to go through months of training and psychological conditioning including frequent hypnosis. They just awake in Area X and set off for base camp which had been set up by previous teams. There is real tension between the four women right from the start, and it’s not long before things start to go wrong.

It kicks off when they discover an uncharted tunnel, that appears as a tower built down into the ground. Some of the team start to descend including the biologist. It’s not long before they discover lush and glowing fungal growths on the walls – which releases spores onto the biologist. She doesn’t tell the others, but can immediately sense she’s changed.

The first thing I noticed on the staging level before we reached the wider staircase that spiraled down, before we encountered again the words written on the wall… the tower was breathing. The tower breathed, and the walls when I went to touch them carried the echo of a heartbeat… and they were not made of stone but of living tissue. Those walls were still blank, but a kind of silvery-white phosphorescence rose off of them. The world seemed to lurch, and I sat down heavily next to the wall, and the surveyor was by my side, trying to help me up. I think I was shaking as I finally stood. I don’t know if I can convey the enormity of that moment in words. The tower was a living creature of some sort. We were descending into an organism.

Later, the biologist realises that the spores have made her immune to the psychologist’s controlling hypnotic suggestions. It becomes clear that the psychologist has her own plan too which doesn’t include the rest of them, and the pressures on the women in this lush Eden-like world take their toll. Soon it’s just the psychologist and the biologist, and the psychologist decamps to the lighthouse – the main structure that was on the map, perhaps a remnant of this world pre-Area X. On her way to the lighthouse to challenge the psychologist, the biologist is on the canal bank when she catches a movement:

Then the dolphins breached, and it was almost as vivid a dislocation as that first descent into the Tower. … The something more wrenching occurred. As they slid by, the nearest one rolled slightly to the side, and it stared at me with an eye that did not, in that brief flash, resemble a dolphin eye to me. It was painfully human, almost familiar. In an instant that glimpse was gone and they had submerged again, and I had no way to verify what I had seen.

Before I started reading it, I had wondered whether it was going to be all conspiracy theories and X-Files style cover-ups – the rest of the series could be of course, but I was very happy to find a dystopian SF eco-thriller with horror overtones! I’ve deliberately not looked at where the story goes in subsequent volumes – the first volume does have an ending, but it can be read in several ways.

Annihilation started slowly, almost keeping us at bay as if we weren’t allowed into the minds of those who went into Area X. Once the biologist is exposed to the spores however, she changes, and this frees her to confide to us why she volunteered for a potentially fatal mission.

This novel also triggered so many memories in me of other books I’d read and programmes I’ve seen over the years:

  • thissideofparadisehd244Descending deeper and deeper into the tower reminded me of Mark Z Danielski’s wonderful and very weird novel House of Leaves.
  • The word ‘spores’ will always for me associated with the classic Star Trek episode This Side of Paradise from 1967 – in which spores from a flower make Spock experience bliss. One of my favourite Star Trek scenes came from this episode – when an infected Spock is hanging like a sloth from a tree branch, grinning away!
  • The dolphin reminded me of two things:  The Underwater Menace from the Patrick Troughton era Doctor Who, in which a mad scientist in Atlantis is operating to turn humans into Fish People – and the Doctor has to save sidekick Polly from this fate. Scared me stiff that did!  Then, more recently in Star Trek: The Next Generation -there was an episode called Genesis (1994), the crew begin to experience strange symptoms which lead to them starting to de-evolve. Captain Picard is infected and starts to become anxious and fearful and Data says he might soon de-evolve into a primate like a lemur or marmoset!

Vandermeer has created a beautiful yet dangerous world in Annihilation. I didn’t want it to stop. The tension was very well done and it was really rather creepy, I can’t wait to carry on and find out more about the controlling biological force in Area X. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer – pub 4th Estate, hardbacks:
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Feb 2014, 4th Estate, 208 pages.
Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – May 2014, 352 pages.
Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Sept 2014, 352 pages.

House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski, pub in 2000 by Doubleday, 736 pages.

Riding the slipstream …

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The-Adjacent-Christopher-Priest-198x300 Today I shall direct you to another review I wrote for Shiny New Books:- The Adjacent by Christopher Priest, now out in paperback.

Priest is one of those authors who defies genre, yet routinely gets categorised as a science fiction author. True his books often have some SF elements in, and The Adjacent was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award this year (losing out to Ann Leckie).  However, to me, he’s more a spec fiction writer – riding the slipstream rather than pure SF.

Those of you who have seen the film The Prestige will have encountered the mind of Priest, (although the film did remove one whole contemporary plot-strand which would have complicated things to much for the big screen), so you’ll realise that a level of the fantastic is a part of that story.

Priest is a great ideas man. This novel with its central echoing romance, goes from a bleak future back to WWI and through WWII before coming full circle. I really enjoyed it.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (pub 2013, Gollancz, paperback 432 pages).

The clue is in the title …

The Echo by James Smythe

When I read The Explorer last year, Smythe’s novel of a failed deep space mission, I had no idea he planned a sequel, let alone making it part of a quartet. I disengaged my reality check and went along for the claustrophobic ride with the mis-matched crew who were mysteriously picked off one by one, leaving just Cormac, a journalist. In the second part of that book, it got seriously weird but fascinating, and I loved it so much I got my book group to read it, (shame they didn’t concur really.)

echo

I have, however, been looking forward to reading the sequel, The Echo, for months now and I pre-ordered it before Christmas so I could legitimately read it when it was published in January during the months of the TBR Dare I’m taking part in.

It’s twenty-three years after the Ishiguro and its crew went missing in deep space. A new mission is being mounted to go and explore ‘the anomaly’, an area of black nothingness into which it is assumed the Ishiguro went. The mission is directed by identical twin brothers Tomas and Mirakel Hyvonen. They’ve spent years developing the science to make the new ship, the Lära – named after their mother, more efficient, faster, failsafe – everything has been tested. Mirakel describes their motivation to try again …

Everything was to be different to the way that they did it last time. … They set us back decades, I believe. When they disappeared, ever to be heard from again – as if space is a fairy story, something less than tangible – all funding went. Private investors, the life-line to the modern scientist, disappeared. Everything they did was wrong. I can pick holes. They launched from Earth, even though it made no sense, even back then. They spent money on automated systems because they believed they would add efficiency. … They spent billions developing ridiculous gravity systems, … They took a journalist with them, because they spun their mission into something commercial, something outside science. … What did that cost them, that folly? They played everything badly, a product of moneymen rather than scientific design. It drove Tomas and myself insane. And when they went missing, the balloon deflated overnight. No more space travel. There is nothing new out there to find, and no glory to be garnered from dying in the cold expanse of space as they surely did. … Most of us – scientists – felt as if they let us down. That’s a hard truth, but a truth nonetheless. When Tomas and I decided that we would do this, we decided that we would do everything better. This – space, discovery – it deserved better.

One of the twins remains behind to run Mission Control, able to run all the ship’s systems from Earth. Tomas and Mira played a game to decide; Mira, our narrator doesn’t say whether he won or lost – but he will be the one to go into space.  They launch from the International Space Station and everything starts off fine. Once awakened from sleep, the crew are all getting on with each other and are kept busy doing their jobs. The improved communications with Earth mean it’s almost as if Tomas is there with them.  It’s almost humdrum.

Then they begin to approach ‘the anomaly’, and soon it’s a case of – what the…! Here we go again.  If you take what happened to the Ishiguro’s crew and especially Cormac in the first novel, multiply it several-fold in tension, add the shock-factor of what happens and the echoes of what follows that – it kept me on the edge of my seat… until it began to become clear how there is only one way out, (I think!).

The author piles on the twists and turns as Mirakel struggles to get to grips with what is happening to them, and finds that the truth has been founded on lies that he is part of. The sibling rivalry leaps off the page, but it is mostly Tomas who has control, twisting the brotherly knife ever deeper by making Mira jealous.  It is Mira’s developing relationship with the Russian doctor Inna that I found rather entrancing though, for she is a fascinating character, strong and passionate; the rest of the crew were of less interest – wearing metaphorical red shirts as you might imagine.

Smythe has certainly maintained or even bettered the quality of writing in this second volume, and by upping the drama The Echo is even more of a psychological thriller than The Explorer.  By allowing us to bond with Mirakel, something that didn’t happen with Cormac, the ante was upped and there was less detachment. I enjoyed it even more – in the same way that the equally ‘edge of your seat’ Aliens was better than the art-house Alien as a thriller on the big screen, (certain memorable scenes excepted).

Knowing that this is a planned quartet of books, I’ll be fascinated to see where he takes us next.  Surely the final part will see Earth taking on the Anomaly? But who will win?  What will happen in between?  Can it get any bleaker? I can’t wait. (9.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Echo by James Smythe. Pub Harper Voyager, 16th Jan 2014. Hardback, 320 pages.
The Explorer, paperback.

Book Group Report – A new SF classic?

The Explorer by James Smythe

the-explorer Our book group does read the occasional full-blown SF novel, or novels with some SF concepts in like Slaughterhouse-5 which we read last autumn.

I chose this book, selling it to the others as like the film Moon but even more messing with your head. It being a year since I read it, I re-read the novel and, if anything, enjoyed it even more second time around, so for me it was still a 10/10 book.

But what did our book group think?

NOTE: If you haven’t read the book – see my original review here, for it will get a little spoilery below…

Oh well…  No-one except me liked the book – but I don’t care! I still loved it, and I started reading the sequel, The Echo, when I got home from book group and am loving that too already. It made for quite a good discussion though.

I was challenged to say what I so loved about it. I replied that I had a strong visual sense of this small crew in a big ship all alone – rather like in one of my favourite SF films Dark Star – but with the sort of enforced cameraderie like the crew in Alien – all together before the chestbuster scene.  I relished the claustrophobic atmosphere of it, and didn’t foresee the twists.

One comment was that there wasn’t much to like about any of the crew, except for Arlen, who got killed off quickly like Claire Goose in the first episode of Spooks (remember that!). But you don’t have to like the characters when you read a book.

One of our group though did like the writing and thought it captured the sense of isolation and living at work really well, but she also found it depressing and not good for reading late at night. A couple of the group found it very creepy; well, it is more of a psychodrama that happens to be set in space than hard SF and wasn’t quite what some had expected, not SF enough?

The others didn’t like it for an assortment of reasons.  We wondered why the looped Cormac didn’t talk to the real one? Guilt over having caused Arlen’s death perhaps?  Guilt over his wife?  They also were confused by the design of the ship, and how the looped Cormac was squeezing here, and running through the voids in the hull there. There were more questions than answers.

One of the group really disliked the whole book, except for one sentence on p251 which completely summed up how she felt! :

I always said that the thing I was saddest about, when they had pretty much stopped printing books, was that I couldn’t tell how long was left until the end.

You can’t win ’em all. It was a brave book group choice but will go down as one of our few failures.

Next month we’re discussing Life after Life by Kate Atkinson – an author I’ve yet to gel with – but with this book’s Groundhog Day type premise – I’m looking forward to comparing and contrasting the time-looping with The Explorer!

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Explorer by James Smythe; 2013, Harper Voyager paperback – Buy at Amazon UK
The Echo by James Smythe; Jan 2014, Harper Voyager hardback – Buy at Amazon UK

Mix Douglas Adams with Jewish Mysticism, Marco Polo, a dash of the X-Men and time travel for weird fun!

A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor

Rachel CantorIf I said that a wacky speculative fiction novel about a 21st century world governed by the philosophies adopted by fast food chains was actually great fun to read, you might begin to doubt my sanity.  I wasn’t sure about this book before I started reading it, but on the back cover is a quote from Jim Crace, an author I respect:

It’s as if Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino collaborated to write a comic book SF adventure and persuaded Chagall to do the drawings. One of the freshest and most lively novels I have encountered for quite a while.

That sold it to me, and I’m glad I gave it a go, for it was a total hoot.

Leonard lives in his sister’s garage in which he has a totally white room where he works the night shift for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, fielding customer complaints. Leonard is a natural listener, and this job suits him fine, for except for meeting his sister’s son Felix off the school bus, Leonard doesn’t go out.

One night Leonard gets a call from a guy called Marco, who tells him all about his exploits as a 13th century explorer. His sister, meanwhile theoretically works for the Scottish tapas chain Jack-o-Bites, but is more likely than not to be involved with her ‘Book club’ with whom she keeps disappearing on missions, leaving Leonard to look after Felix.  She’s totally unsympathetic to Leonard:

You sedate the postindustrial masses with your pre-Socratic gobbledegook, she said, running a pick through her red afro. Pythagorean pizza is the opiate of the middle classes!
Is not! Leonard said.
Is too! she replied. Pass me my tam.
Carol only pretended to be a Jacobite: in fact, she was a neo-Maoist. According to her, the revolution would originate with suburbanites such as herself. It had to, for who was more oppressed, who more in need of radicalization? She took issue with Neetsa Pizza’s rigid hierarchy, its notion that initiation was only for the lucky few – the oligarchy of it!
Pizza, she liked to exclaim, is nothing more than the ingredients that give it form.
No! Leonard would cry, shocked as ever by her materialism. There is such a thing as right proportion! Such a thing as beauty!
Leonard lacked his sister’s sense that the world was broken. He’d been a coddled younger child, while she had been forced by the death of their parents to care for him and their doddering grandfather. No surprise she found the world in need of overhaul. In Leonard’s view, bits of the world might be damaged, but never permanently so. It was his mission, through Listening, to heal some part of it. No need for reeducation, no need for armed struggle.

Leonard’s calls from Marco end, and someone called Isaac who sounds exactly like his dead Jewish grandfather calls, telling him that he passed the test with Marco and that he must give up his job, and go to the library where he’ll meet the grandmother of his grandchildren.

Leonard who is not used to being outside, eventually engages his inner rebellious streak, and does what Isaac says. Taking Felix with him (for Carol has not returned from her ‘Book club’) goes to the library where he meets Sally, a librarian and Baconian (after Roger Bacon), who shows them this ancient Jewish manuscript written in an unsolvable code, which it turns out Felix can read.

However, they are interrupted by the police and have to flee, and eventually end up time travelling back to the 13th century where they have to pretend to be pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela and escape the Spanish Inquisition to get Felix back, who was taken off by Abulafia, another mystic whom they have to stop to save the world.

Once Leonard is hooked, the story becomes one massive adventure, with Leonard as the archetypal fish out of water, who has to overcome his neuroses and show hidden reserves of gumption to survive.  Initially Sally is stronger than he is, but these roles reverse once they time travel and Leonard starts to come into his own, finding his inner-hero and living up to his grandfather’s expectations.

The wackiness and wordplay reminded me strongly of Douglas Adams minus speech marks – the author doesn’t use any, but who says what is pretty clear so that didn’t matter. Some of the set pieces could have been Monty Python sketches. I also liked her weird vision of this 21st century via Brave New World crossed with the Summer of Love with its kaftans and afros.  The whole was great fun and I rather enjoyed it, despite (still) knowing absolutely nothing about Jewish mysticism! A diverting and humorous tale of pure escapism. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor, pub 23rd Jan 2014 by Melville House UK,

A Trio of Short Reviews

I thought I’d sneak a couple of short book reviews into that week between Christmas and New Year.  Too bloated with turkey, booze and chocolate to concentrate on reading, I often find I’m scouring the web at this time for stuff to read and do!

The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee

last kings of sarkThis is the story of new graduate Jude, who is engaged to be a tutor during the summer to Pip, a sixteen year old boy and Sofi, a young Polish cook from Ealing. The action takes place initially on the island of Sark (one of the smaller Channel Islands between England and France).

It’s an odd household. Eddy, Pip’s father, is often absent, away on business. Esmé, Pip’s French mother, mostly stays upstairs and never appears to eat anything. Pip doesn’t want a tutor, but it is to prepare him for school on the mainland for the sixth form. Sofi, meanwhile is full of life, and not a very good cook!  When Eddy goes away on an extended trip, the three drop lessons and get a life. Needless to say summer doesn’t last forever and the trio have to part after an extended farewell. The last part of the novel looks back several years later at where the three of them are now, and how they wish they could rekindle that summer.

This was a beautifully crafted novel, but not enough happened in it for me. Narrated by the quieter Jude, Sofi dominates the story and her weird little flashes of insight can’t make up for her limited ambitions and love of partying. Pip is underdrawn, and I couldn’t bond with Jude either, and wanted to know why Esmé was so reclusive. This could have been brilliant, but was rather so-so for me. (6/10, review copy)

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

orphan choirThis was another novel I really wanted to love – Sophie Hannah turning her hand to a short horror novel in Hammer’s new imprint.

Set in and around Cambridge and Hannah’s invented Spilling, The Orphan Choir concerns Louise Beeston, a woman who is slowly being driven mad on all sides (we think): by her neighbour’s late night parties that always end with the same Queen song played at loud volume; by her husband who wants to get their expensive house sandblasted, which will mean covering the windows and living in the dark for weeks; by Dr Freeman, the choirmaster of the boarding school where her seven year old son is a chorister – Joseph has to board, and he is taking him away from her; and the voices of children singing! She finds escape, persuading her husband to buy them a second home in a gated community near Spilling, but after an idyllic start the voices start again. Is she going mad?

While I could understand Louise’s problems, especially with her son having to board at only seven years old, I didn’t like her at all. The first half of this quite short book went on for so long with the spat between Louise and her noisy neighbour, I got a bit fed up with it, then the second half rushed by, getting twistier and twistier in Hannah’s trademark style, and I reached the end thinking what just happened?  However, Hannah is always readable, and her twisty plots are something else – I look forward to her next horror outing, but this one missed being a hit for me. (6.5/10, own copy)

Dr Who: Last of the Gadarene by Mark Gatiss

bbc-book-50th-3I love all Mark Gatiss’ TV work, but I’ve not read one of his novels before. This Dr Who one, reissued as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations probably wasn’t the best place to start, I should have tried one of his Lucifer Box novels perhaps?

This novel features the third incarnation of Dr Who, as played by Jon Pertwee together with his assistant Jo Grant. The Dr was Earth-bound at this stage of Who-history and worked for UNIT, investigating supernatural phenomena.  Set in a disused RAF base in East Anglia, which is taken over by a secretive organisation. Local villagers go missing, only to return grinning inanely, having been taken over by the Gadarene who are invading Earth as their own planet is dying.

It may have had a classic plot, but there were quite a few boring bits in this novel, and the Doctor didn’t appear until over a quarter of the way in. I didn’t quite warm to Gatiss’ style of writing here either – a little overdone in places, and quite adverby. Basically though, I’m not a fan of the third doctor – his outfit, cape and yellow vintage car (Bessie) wasn’t my cup of tea, even if the Maggots (remember them?) scared me stiff (though not as much as the Yeti).  (6/10, own copy)

Sorry to end my book reviewing of the year with several books that didn’t quite make the grade for me – but you may think differently!

I will be back in a day or two with my BOOKS OF THE YEAR post.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee. Pub Virago Nov 2013. Hardback 288 pages.
The Orphan Choir (Hammer) by Sophie Hannah. Pub Hammer Oct 2013. Hardback 336 pages
Doctor Who: Last of the Gaderene: 50th Anniversary Edition (Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Collection) by Mark Gatiss, pub 2000, BBC paperback 320 pages.

Brian Aldiss, still going strong at 88

On Thursday evening, I was privileged to attend the book launch of veteran author Brian Aldiss’ latest novel Comfort Zone at Blackwells in Oxford.

Given that it, and his entire backlist is being published by imprint The Friday Project, I also got to meet TFP’s head honcho Scott Pack for the first time too. Scott’s blog Me and My Big Mouth was one of the first I discovered when I dipped my toe into the blogosphere all those years ago, and we’ve been Twitter and FB friends for ages, but never met. He was lovely, (and his wife makes gorgeous ceramics, see here – a pair of her Christmas tree ornaments are now hanging on our tree, hopefully out of kitten reach!).

SF ART THE FANTASIES OF SF COVERBack to Brian … I read a lot of his books in my twenties, notably the wonderful Helliconia Trilogy which is epic SF following a civilisation over a thousand years on an Earth-like planet with seasons which last for centuries. I recently bought a copy of Hothouse – an eco-SF novel from 1962, when Penguin Modern Classics brought out an edition a few years ago. Apart from that the only other book by Aldiss residing on my shelves is Science Fiction Art (right), a history of SF illustration from the 1920s to the 1970s, published in the mid 1970s. All those wonderful pulp SF covers and magazines – fab stuff with a mixture of colour and monochrome illustrations; being a large format softback it was too big to fit in my handbag to get signed though.

comfortAlthough most famous for his SF, Aldiss has written many non-SF works, poetry and is also an accomplished artist. He has said that the Finches of Mars published earlier this year will be his last SF novel, and his latest book Comfort Zone is certainly set close to home – in his immediate neighbourhood of Headington, Oxford. It explores what happens when plans are made to close down the local pub and put up a mosque in its place – Brian is not scared of controversy, and it also looks at ageing. I’ve heard it compared to Jane Gardam’s Old Filth in that respect so am looking forward to reading it a lot. You can read more about Comfort Zone and Brian in this article from the Oxford Times.

Brian Aldiss, 19.12.13  pic by A.Gaskell

Rather than read extracts from the book, Brian, recumbent in a leather armchair, regaled us with tall tales – telling how he got started as a magazine columnist, writing a weekly humorous column for a publishing magazine for starters. Then, in a bit of a shaggy dog tale (obviously much loved and a bit of a party piece), he told how he got to rewrite Russian history on a visit to the USSR. If I remember correctly, he was waxing lyrical to his minder about Stalin’s favourite film being Springtime in the Rockies (1942) starring Alice Faye. This story came full circle back to him some time later, when someone expressed surprise at knowing what Stalin’s favourite film was. He chuckled at the retelling, as did we.

When I got him to sign my books, I told him about my treasured book of SF Art. He recounted how he had collected the covers for ages, keeping them in photo albums with his text about the books opposite – he chuckled as he remember how some of his text for that was quite abrasive, as not all the books were very good.  I then said how my favourites of his books to read (so far) are the Helliconia trilogy, and he told me his story about having done two years research for them, and it was great to write them in Oxford, for you could knock on a door and find an expert to answer questions for you so easily in those days.  He was great fun to meet, and I hope he keeps on writing and entertaining for years to come.

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To explore titles mentioned further on Amazon UK, please click below
Comfort Zone pub 19.12.13 by The Friday Project, paperback, 300 pages.
Helliconia: Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, Helliconia Winter: “Hellonica Spring”, “Helliconia Summer”, “Helliconia Winter” (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
Hothouse (Penguin Modern Classics)