Sunday, 31 December 2017

Call For The Dead

Call For The Dead, John le Carré

Courtesy of Amazon's 99p Kindle offers, a bit of a dip into past classics this time. I've read le Carré before, but it's only ever been his more recent, post-Cold War work. This novel is instead from his early writing, and introduces his most famous character, George Smiley, to the world. Clearly framed as a spy novel, it's almost more of a crime novel, with a murder, followed up by gradual and diligent investigation, and capped off with the unmasking of the murderer and their motive. It's a great breezy little read with a simple but engaging central story, and a narrative that both provides a potted biography for Smiley, and a closing case report for those who've not quite followed its twists and turns. I'll be back for more.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Heroes Of The Frontier

Heroes of the Frontier, Dave Eggers

A breath of fresh air following Gould's Book of Fish. A straightforward tale of the travails of Josie, a former dentist, and her two young children in the wilds of Alaska, told with impressive ease by Dave Eggers.

Escaping from a career-ending lawsuit, and a disinterested man-child of a husband, Josie packs up Paul and Ana, rents a rickety RV and takes to the road. Ostensibly there's a plan to visit her adopted-sister, Sam, but Josie's slippery grip on her imploding life quickly takes her family into a succession of scrapes and near-calamities as they cross the state amid a series of wildfires.

Despite a rather unsympathetic lead with a knack for consistently - and annoyingly - making the wrong choices, this was an enjoyably off-kilter road trip. Sometimes alarming, sometimes funny, and sometimes touching on the profound, I ultimately enjoyed it as a low-key, Zeitgeisty freefall through the calamity of modern life. Helped, needless to say, by Eggers' great writing.

Gould's Book of Fish

Gould's Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan

I almost never fail to finish a book. Even John Irving's A Prayer For Owen Meany, which took me several years of intermittent attempts to finally finish and be disappointed by, got wrapped up in the end. But this one, an incoherent jumble of a book straddling the found-fiction, unreliable narrator and historical fiction genres, has succeeded where lesser books have failed.

Ostensibly the novel is the retelling of a 19th century diary of a convict transported to Australia by a present-day furniture restorer / scam-artist. But it just rambles on and on through page after page of incoherent episodes that might have something to do with colonialism, but mostly just come across as trying to be clever by banging on about fish. About a third in, I just gave up. While in my 20s I was prepared to tolerate Owen Meany's ridiculous parable, life's too short now that I've reached my 40s.

Unfortunately, this was the last of my picks from @mrbsemporium. However, it was the only duff pick of six books, and, given that they knew I'm an oceanographer, it probably seemed a safe one. Sorry @mrbsemporium, not my bag this time, but I really enjoyed the rest of your choices for me.

The Two-Bear Mambo

The Two-Bear Mambo, Joe R. Lansdale

Another @mrbsemporium pick, and another good one. Back in crime territory but somewhere in the middle of a series that I've never heard of known as the Hap and Leonard novels. The protagonists are friends who sporadically play investigators in their corner of the Deep South. Hap is white, blue collar and a former 1960s idealist, while Leonard is black, gay and a Vietnam veteran, making for a classic "odd couple" pairing.

On this outing, the pair travel to East Texas to track down Florida Grange, a journalist and former girlfriend of Hap, who's gone missing while covering a seeming miscarriage of justice. However, deep in Klan territory, a black journalists sticking her nose into a death in custody doesn't go down well, let alone the arrival of Hap and Leonard in pursuit. Cue violence and mayhem as the boys only gradually discover who they can trust, and who knows Florida's fate.

Considering that I jumped in some way into a series, I didn't have any trouble with this at all. Quite a rollicking read, somewhat akin to Carl Hiaasen, but with more violence and more serious undercurrents. And very satisfyingly twisty, although well within the normal bounds for crime fiction.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017


Merivel, Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain's 1989 novel, Restoration, was an unexpectedly - to me! - enjoyable work of historical fiction set within King Charles II's extended court, but taking in the Plague, the Great Fire of London and the early flowering of modern science. It was particularly memorable for its central narrator, Robert Merivel, whose journey into - and then out of - the King’s favour it told. Medically-trained but lacking - at least initially - the drive to do good, Merivel was an enjoyable character to spend with, and his rise, then fall, and then rise again made for an engaging tale.

Flash forward more than 20 years, and Tremain’s sequel, the eponymous Merivel, picks up his story in the latter stretches of the King’s reign. While back within the King’s favour, and doted upon by his daughter, he is listless, and looking for some new goal in his life. Taking a trip to the court of King Louis in France, he encounters new challenges, but finds a new amour, as well as renewed purpose in studying animals and promoting their rights. But life is never plain-sailing for Merivel, and his adventures are soon disrupted by a jealous husband, the serious illness of his daughter, and, in the background, King Charles’ own faltering health.

While enjoyable to a point, the pleasures this time are solely from meeting up again with Merivel. The events of his world are largely much less historic in nature, and Tremain really struggles to make them feel as significant as, say, the Great Fire. The novel is also rather excessively haunted by the spectre of illness, age and death. The preceding volume also had its share of death and strife, but its story gave this context and meaning, whereas here, everything it just feels hopeless. Which was maybe what Tremain was trying to achieve, but it makes for a much less satisfying read.


Finally, I can’t let Tremain’s closing coda to the novel pass without comment. Even for a novel already on a bit of a downer, its closing pages really are a kick in the teeth, and something of a betrayal of everything that’s gone before. This postscript serves no narrative purpose beyond, I interpret, Tremain burning her bridges.

Thursday, 14 December 2017


Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

With the preceding novel, Authority, closing in calamity, the final volume of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Acceptance, has the task of picking up the pieces and arranging them into a completed whole. Which, it half-does, and it half-doesn’t. It takes places partly in the aftermath of Authority, following Control and the steadily changing Biologist into Area X. But also partly in the form of filling in the backstories of Control’s predecessor, the Director, and her childhood acquaintance, the Lighthouse Keeper, both of whom have been significant characters, or presences, in the preceding volumes. Again, the novel does atmosphere well, and again it’s a fairly propulsive read. But, as I feared previously, it’s also more than a little bit flaky on clearly wrapping things up. By the end, it remains indistinct as to whether Area X is a protected part of Earth, not part of Earth at all, under the watchful gaze of Space Aliens, a consciousness-is-everywhere superorganism, or what. That none of these disparate explanations can be ruled firmly in or out indicates how deftly Vandermeer steers the novel towards revelation but never gets there. So enjoyable, but not entirely satisfying. Sometimes keeping the mystery in place works, especially in single volume books, but where a mystery has been teased extensively, and over several volumes, as here, this can be more than a little frustrating. But, despite this, I’d still recommend the trilogy – although I’m as yet unconvinced that it will make a successful leap to the screen, a journey that it now appears to be making.

Thursday, 2 November 2017


Roseanna, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

A crime genre classic this time with Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's 1965 introduction to their Swedish detective, Martin Beck. Remarkably fresh despite its age, with all of the conventions that we now take for granted already firmly in place (copious procedural detail, dogged but depressed detective, etc.). Though it still surprises with a realistically paced resolution to the crime, as well as a rather legally-dodgy denoument.

Thursday, 12 October 2017


Authority, Jeff VanderMeer

After an opening volume spent entirely within the otherworldly Area X, Jeff Vandermeer's successor novel, Authority, steps back to the Southern Reach facility at its border.

There, a new director - referred to by his new staff as Control - picks over the pieces of the mission described in Annihilation. Its leader, the Psychologist, was the previous director, who seemed to know more about Area X than reports record. And its only survivor, the Biologist, is standoffish, and doesn't quite appear to be what she seems. Control's investigation gradually uncovers the truth on both, a creeping derangement driven by Area X, as well as secrets from his own history and that of his family. All of which takes place as Area X seems poised.

While less of the horror of Area X seeps into this volume, it has some unnerving moments as its protagonist unravels some of Area X's mysteries. And while some unravelling takes place, the author does a grand job whetting interest while keeping Area X shrouded. A great read, though it does set a high bar for its concluding volume. Of which, more anon.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Stories Of Your Life And Others

Stories Of Your Life And Others, Ted Chiang

Though I had minor reservations about the film #Arrival, there was good enough about it to make me track down this volume of short stories by its author, Ted Chiang. As well as the source of Arrival - which is pleasingly similar and different to its adaptation - the tales take in the construction of the Tower of Babylon to reach Heaven, a steampunk tale grounded in performationist biology, and a faux-documentary on a technology that masks the ability to perceive human beauty so that users don't judge people by their appearance. Quite a spread, and all rather unique and enjoyable - I'll definitely be digging deeper into Chiang's back-catalogue.

Saturday, 23 September 2017


Marcher, Chris Beckett

An early title from Chris Beckett. It posts an alternative present in which immigration officers actually police the transit of people from alternative universes. Fuelled by an inexplicable drug called "slip", people pass through the novel's present day to either seek a better life, escape their crimes or to promulgate violent religions from their own universes. Starts well, has lots of interesting ideas, but its narrative doesn't really work on the end, and it kind-of fizzles out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's an expanded version of a short story that did work, but I just don't think Beckett knew where he was going with it when he started. Still, not a terrible read at all.

Uncanny Valley

Uncanny Valley, Greg Egan

More novella than novel, this is the first Greg Egan I've read in a while. His Orthogonal series was just too tedious to stick with. However, this is him back on form with a kind of "whodunnit" set in his memory uploading future. Except that the detective is the uploaded personality, and he's trying to find out what, and why, his recently-deceased original left out of his memories. Very enjoyable, if over all too quickly.

#book #sciencefiction #gregegan #kindle

via Instagram

Vinegar Girl

Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler

It's been a very long time since my last Anne Tyler. This one is part of a series of books by contemporary authors that retell Shakespeare plays - specifically The Taming Of The Shrew here. I rather liked this, though it does that trick whereby at some critical point it flashforwards to its conclusion, thus kind-of avoiding some narrative thorniness / gymnastics. I'm not au fait with the original, so this might be the same there, but it detracts a little from what's an otherwise amusing, if slightly implausible, yarn.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Let Me Be Frank With You

Let Me Be Frank With You, Richard Ford

Another check-in with one of my favourite literary characters, Richard Ford's former novelist, turned sportswriter, turned real estate seller, turned retiree, Frank Bascombe. It's not an extended stay with Frank this time, just four vignettes. While there's something about loss running through them - of a house, of an ex-wife, of an old "friend" - Frank is just a joy to spend time with. Even in this more truncated volume. I hope Ford's not done with Frank just yet.

Stuff Matters

Stuff Matters, Mark Miodownik

Another fab pick by @mrbsemporium - this time a non-fiction volume on the seemingly arcane subject of materials science. Using a photograph of the author drinking coffee on a roof terrace, it's a brilliant tale of 10 materials that we utterly take for granted in our modern lives. While it touches on the underlying science in places, it never comes close to being too heavy. And you leave it feeling much cleverer about the world around us.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Success and "failure" of Arrival

We finally caught the increasingly non-recent science fiction "thinker" (and 2017 Oscar nominee) Arrival. While I'd whole-heartedly recommend it for fans of the genre, nit-picker that I am, I have a few reservations as well. So this is less a review, more a niggle. Needless to say, spoilers ahead for those who've not made the journey so far.

First, what it gets right. Build-up is great, with only fleeting glimpses of the alien spaceships until the big reveal in a beautiful, cloud-wreathed valley in Montana. Their unworldliness begins with their design, as largely featureless geometric shapes, and is nicely underscored by the short distance they effortlessly "hover" above the Earth's surface. The aliens themselves are also handled well, if a little too much like squid, both in general appearance and in their use of extruded "ink". Making their audio extraneous for communication (an early misstep by their interrogators), and their language written yet initially indecipherable as communication works really well. And I liked what ultimately came to be their "gift" and why they made it, although it's mentioned so fleetingly that many may miss it.

What mostly-works but slightly-doesn't is that the film is one of those that makes more sense when you reflect on it afterwards. That's a good thing in my book, but I can well imagine that most people will leave this film utterly perplexed by what they've just seen. It's all there to make sense of it, but it's presented rather subtly at times, and often in an order that requires reflection to make sense of. For instance, a central conceit of the film (and a very clever one) is that Sapir-Whorf is true at a deep and fundamental level, but it's quite gently introduced to the viewer at a point where its relevance is opaque. And the consequence of this is illustrated by out-of-order glimpses of a child in what appear at first to be past memories, but which turn out latterly to be something else. However, the viewer is slightly misled by the presentation of some of this material upfront, seemingly as backstory, when it would arguably make more sense to introduce it latterly (narratively, perhaps, but maybe not emotionally).

My only "proper" reservation is, as ever, time travel - technically, I guess it's not exactly time travel, but, well, ... It's nowhere near as blunt as Interstellar (a film I forgave on a second viewing), but messing with the space-time continuum is a sure-fire way of getting my hackles raised. Especially here, where the film has its cake and eats it by allowing agency and then kind-of suggesting fatalism. However, it is still one of the cleverest uses of time-bending in film, so despite my hackles, I'm much more forgiving here.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, it really is one of the smartest science fiction films in recent years (or decades, even), presenting the sort of deep ideas that, while not uncommon in literary science fiction, rarely make it off the page. It does all of this gently and subtly without any of the distracting pace and action routinely misused in conventional "science fiction" films. And it does it while blending a human story of love and loss in with the central MacGuffin. Two thumbs up for sure.

P.S. I should just add that, with their relationship with time, the aliens reminded me of my favourite aliens, the Invaders of John Varley's novels. Although the Invaders still win because of their disinterest / disdain in humanity.

Friday, 21 July 2017


Dodgers, Bill Beverly

Another excellent pick from @mrbsemporium of Bath. A nicely literary crime tale that sees an underaged team of LA drug pushers sent on a cross country road trip to make an ambiguous hit. What starts out fairly conventional for viewers of The Wire takes a latter third turn where the lead character catches a long glimpse of a life more ordinary. Apart from a slightly rushed ending, a really enjoyable read.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Daughter of Eden

Daughter of Eden, Chris Beckett

An unfaultable return to Dark Eden by Chris Beckett. Revisiting richly-drawn characters from Mother of Eden, and playing up the role of storytelling in building the social fabrics of the Davidfolk and Johnfolk, Daughter of Eden is a worthy successor to its predecessor novels. Remarkable both for its presentation of a neo-stone age society and an exceptionally thought-through alien ecology. Highly recommended, though I fear it's the last visit to the remote, alien Eden and its band of displaced and struggling characters.

Monday, 29 May 2017


Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer

My second book from @mrbsemporium and what a good book it was. I don't usually go for psychological horror or distorted reality, but this book held me from the get-go. In part because it played its mystery well (easy when the Southern Reach sequels bear that load), in part because its protagonist was a biologist, but mostly because it's just so well written. As well as handling its weirdness with aplomb, it realistically fleshes out its protagonist's reflections on her predicament and how she came to be there. I'll definitely be seeking out its successor volumes.

Friday, 12 May 2017

The Collapsing Empire

The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

A fast, fun read set in a vast trading empire reliant on a cosmological force known as the Flow. As the Flow shifts and cuts off whole solar systems, the empire, and its squabbling guilds, belatedly face down the barrel of calamity. It can easily be read as a fable about climate change, but the author - a new one to me - is mostly having fun with an amiable cast in an imperial setting. I'll definitely be following him up.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, Brady Udall

Rambling, quirky to a fault, massively overlong - but not much of a miracle. It's a seemingly ambitious tale of an Apache child runover by a postal worker, abandoned by his parents, and consigned to abusive health- and social-care authorities. But its incoherence, mishandling of characters, overconfident stylistic florishes, and unjustified length just make it a big old slog. It's not terrible, but it's not an orphan I'd recommend making space in your home for.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017


Icehenge, Kim Stanley Robinson

A great triptych of linked novellas telling the stories of doomed revolution on Mars, a break for interstellar space, archaeology in ruined Martian cities, an enigmatic monument on Pluto (the eponymous Icehenge), and unravelling the secrets of a reclusive Saturnian businesswoman. Refracted nicely through the prism of autobiography and the limits of memory.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Mr. B's Emporium

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, Brady Udall

My @mrbsemporium reading subscription starts here ... with a book I've (very pleasingly) never heard of!

Wednesday, 5 April 2017


Revenger, Alastair Reynolds

A welcome, if unexpected, return to form for Alastair Reynolds. A whole new story, in a whole new subgenre (pirate-SF fusion), set in a whole new universe (and what a universe!), and all wrapping up sufficiently in one volume. I expect he'll be back to raid it again (appropriately enough), but as this is his best in several years, it deserves it.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Virtual Light

Virtual Light, William Gibson

An ostensible classic, but one whose great ideas get lost at times in Gibson's deliberately obscurantist prose. Even by the end, the full nature of the MacGuffin was a bit hazy - and what I could see of it didn't seem to justify the events it set moving.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

This Is How You Lose Her

This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz

This Is How You Lose Her, a most excellent - if philandering - read

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Poseidon's Wake

Poseidon's Wake, Alastair Reynolds

A disappointing conclusion to a minor trilogy by Reynolds. Stuffed full of boring or annoying characters, dulled by long-winded step-by-step plotting, and rendered immediately forgettable by the squandering of its own mysteries. None of which is helped by its packaging up of a basic fact of life ( = the universe is meaningless and finite) as a much-talked-about plot device, The Terror. Douglas Adams did that much better - and much funnier - with his Total Perspective Vortex.

Friday, 3 February 2017

The Twentieth Day Of January

The Twentieth Day Of January, Ted Allbeury

A trashy - but surprisingly Trump-prescient - 1980s spy thriller. Eminently quotable at the moment - though, compared to the book, the ending in reality is proving a lot less satisfying ...

War Factory

War Factory, Neal Asher

Trashy sci-fi - what I've come to expect (and secretly enjoy) from Asher.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Mother Of Eden

Mother Of Eden, Chris Beckett

A birthday book ticked off - "Mother of Eden". The best kind of science fiction - compelling, allegorical, credible but boundlessly imaginative.