Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Never a Dream, by Polina Traore and Dana Kaledin - 4 Stars

I melt into these sort of novels when they get me analysing dating dynamics in a dry and objective style that would never just happen consciously and that’s how I’m thinking now. It’s like a philosophy exercise where you reach new conclusions that were in your subconscious all the time, arriving finally on the page and radiating a squeak of universal truth. I guess that’s what the best songs do, plugging into our minds and hearts and connecting into something deep we always knew was there but could never put into words, always circling the heart but the singer touched it like he could see through us, to what is hidden inside.

Never a Dream is not too ambitious in scope but it’s an easy read that has the comfortable feel of a casual 20s about town, hedonistic, sassy web of characters making mistakes, finding their feet in careers, living life on their own terms and secretly needing their bones squeezed by love. The theme also explores the classic question for girls: When and why do men settle down? The next discussion of the core theme is going to be useful and unpleasant but it’s best to get it out of the system, a bit like a shewee.

The music star in this piece is a typical Michael Hutchens sort of heart-throb who, de-sensitised by easily obtained sex has lost sight of the ability to love. Despite his talents and looks, here’s someone who can’t do what other people find natural and easy, fall in love. On, for heaven’s sake, he hasn’t even stepped in it a few times? The star has writing and performing talent but essentially he’s a straight lad doing what they all do, to prioritise sleeping with any girl who’ll accept him, lose respect for her soon after the act because the chase was too easy and then move on to persuading the next prospect. I suspect that for the small number of men with this power, the routine really is de-sensitising and meaningless after a few years, when it becomes repeat, repeat and their names go in one ear and out the other. If a guy continues a quest for sex which is no longer thrilling (some give up: “I’d prefer a good cup of tea”, Boy George), they can then choose between extending their ethical limits into ever more perverse experiences (Caligula, Nero, de Sade, Ted Heath) or they can switch to a new set of criteria and look for a long term companion or marriage partner. This story catches the youthful rock-star at precisely this point of transition, the moment he grows up and changes from endlessly trying to score, becomes aware of adult responsibilities and then sees a girl he could commit to, The Girl. Pity she’s already got a boyfriend. Send in the ninjas [sadly, this doesn’t happen].

Here’s where I let the cat out of the bag because the female of the species performs this transition too. When the teenie crush phase has passed and you’re in your late teens and twenties, there are two categories of men. Category A is the standard leisure model, for all your entertainment and performance needs, in music terms they’re the rhythm section, with a glint in their eye and a hole in their pocket – but they are available for experience. Category B save their pennies, have no confidence, need to be told what to wear, don’t wear scent, shop for gifts at Tesco, always choose safe activities and remind you of your uncle slightly. Cat. A take you somewhere unexpected, change the plan on a whim when they arrive, you’re never quite sure they can pay the bill and you just might end the date climbing out through a window. They also borrow money and don’t stick to what they promised. Cat. B takes you to the same place and always, always, orders the second cheapest bottle on the wine list because they’re careful with cash but don’t want to appear completely cheap. Cat. A cheat on you, sometimes with your best friend, but that’s okay because you cheat on them and they’re so wrapped up in themselves they never know it. After the seemingly endless supply of Cat. As, when you wake up in the morning, look into the mirror and realise it can’t always be like this, the situation changes. It’s time to build a nest while you still have the goods to collect a quality Category B. Should you jump into security early, before all the best ones go off the market? This is not dropping standards so much as growing up. Both sides do it, if they can, if they’re not ugly bugly, but music stars are perceived as drenched in extra sexuality and they are given rights of skip-a-few-stages access, perhaps not by you but always by someone. The someones in this book are all called Kitty because he can’t remember their names. Red flag. There’s Kitty and another Kitty. There's a Kitty with a ring.

“Paul was sacked out in the chair”. That’s good imagery. Can I start using it? “This was the first time she’d ever looked him in the eye. It was like a shot of adrenaline. A straight line, a bounce”, that’s born for film noir. Then there’s this terrific quote from when the band members find a book in the dressing room: “The book was plain and it felt like it was stinging in his palms. Oh, his head started spinning as he tried to read the headline. Dostoevsky?”

Showing the star in a psychiatric session is a clever technique from these authors because it gives the reader a route into masculine motivations, not just a view of the surface you’re meant to see. His hierarchy of needs is pretty limited and entirely selfish but I can just about relate to the idea “if I didn’t do that, what would I be?” The number of conquests and bottles of Irish whiskey is just a score card to track how successful he is as a musician and song writer. There’s then a scene at about the 39% mark which is pretty steamy and, you know, you probably would, which is where this swearing, arrogant, moody, drunk, ignorant kid and centre piece of the book turns into someone else. Then he spoils it with more immature stupidity later.

Yet, he isn’t the centre piece, is he? That would be Rain, a secondary character in a Cat. B relationship who is artistic, imaginative, dreamy and grows on you until you acknowledge her importance in the story and remember her name. Someone compliments her name early on, which sounds silly to her and she sees it as a kind of pattern of what blokes are supposed to say on a date. Nowadays we all have friends called Rain, Wind, Snow, Sleet and Cumulonimbus, which we no longer associate with weather conditions and take them seriously (as if). Even so, Rain should find a new crowd to hang around with because she’s going places, if she can drag herself away from antique shops for long enough. She also has an unacknowledged guy who she meets in dreams and everybody knows they should be together except themselves.

Taking all of that commentary and pulverising it into a dough ball of essential life knowledge, to be mangled into the pasta of realisation, with the spinach of determinism, here I go, the perfect partner is a Category A (the three Fs: frivolous, fun) who then metamorphoses into a more stable and reliable form that you can emotionally invest in, who’ll pay a mortgage and will be there for the children, i.e. a Category B (the three ibles: sensible, dependable, reliable). If he can switch back into an A when the children are in bed, that’s quite cool. I think Cat. A guys eventually settle with Cat. B girls, the best they can get from the pool of slow-reacting women who couldn’t secure more reliable men before they all flicked off the confetti and went indoors. I’ll say it now: Before a girl about town finds her perfect B and settles down, the impulse is to try a string of Category As. To return to the question – When do men settle? About 29 years old. For women it’s about 24 or 25 (change your name and don’t stay in contact with anyone). First year at Uni though, promise your parents you’ll be getting plenty of straight As, like they wanted, make them proud, so proud; and the occasional interracial.

What the book doesn’t cover is how the charming Charlie can keep hold of her rock idol, a text book Category A but with a reliable income, both an F and an Ible. Thousands of famous people’s partners have never solved this control problem. If they are highly attractive and always away from home, what do you do? Just accept it and welcome home or are you going to spend your life shielding your investment from #them? Either way, when he’s bored or you have to leave early to look after the children, the rosy future can lose petals. Got him? Good. Your work has just begun, unless you freeze him in carbonite. So tempting.

The story is a fulfilling tale that does what it should and makes you feel warm and fuzzy but I’m not going to give it five stars because there’s room for improvement and I think the authors could do even better with the next one. That’s a challenge. In future I can imagine each pop star or actor might be followed by a drone which reports home but until that happens this is a bad industry to wed into, so the wise advice in real life is still to marry a Cat. B. Will she? No, of course not, so that’s good romantic fiction.

There are a few killer lines in this but here’s the one you buy it for: “Matt swept Charlie up”.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Alexandria, by Gregory Ness - 5 Stars

Just as there are there are several ways of writing historical fiction (an Elis Peters procedural to Nigel Tranter and the scion’s footsteps squelching in the marshes of destiny), there are also several ways of portraying a significant name from history, such as Agrippa. No one likes to admit it but a lot of what the public remembers about such magnificent people comes from popular culture and, notably, Carry on Cleo didn’t do Agrippa any justice with the punchline “Agrippa? You’d better watch it mate. I know a few holds myself.” That’s a painful way to write off the leading character of this series of books, then portrayed as a fat, bearded man and the butt of a cheap 1970s gag but if he’d lived one and a half thousand years later he could have led the Renaissance; a professional architect and simultaneously a professional statesman, a professional general and also a professional admiral (alongside Mark Anthony he defeated Brutus and Cassius at Philippi to avenge Caesar’s assassination, subsequently defeated Mark Anthony in the classical world’s most pivotal sea battle at Actium, set the siege of Alexandria), he supported Octavian to achieve his destiny and become Emperor Augustus (which gave us August), turned Rome from a fire-trap in wood to an organised iconic wonder in marble, oversaw the creation of building public infrastructure for all (roads, grain stores, ornamental parks, public baths, commissioned public art, sewage removal and aqueducts to channel free water from hills miles away), helped to design and then acted as architectural overseer for the building of the Pantheon (one of the most famous buildings in classical architecture), was a grandparent of Nero (oops) and Caligula (not his fault really, how did that goat get in here?) and was strangely interested in flowers, seeds and gardening. He was also a contrary person who loved Egypt and then as a result of his interest turned the floodplain of the Nile into Rome’s grain basket, free food for Romans but impoverishing the Egyptians. What is he to us now? This Roman, a floating name, lost in time, significance forgotten to most but, in truth, a headline in the lexicon of astounding high-achievers now ironically viewed and judged by our fatuous and vacuous society, which celebrates and lionizes people who do next to nothing. Simply then, when someone asks “What did the Romans ever do for us?”, tell them to look up one word: Agrippa.

Sorry for the spoilers. I’ll try not to give too much away. Now imagine, if you will, that we in the modern world had a direct route into the mind and experiences of this person. The premise of this novel (and Antioch, before it) is that we are fumbling our way towards doing exactly that and by 2025 an experiment makes the breakthrough. From the deep end of history, a young initiate Agrippa enacts a mystical Egyptian bonding ceremony sanctioned by the goddess Isis to join his immortal soul to an educated Egyptian girl through a paired sequence of lifetimes. There’s also a priestess in this bonding, playing gooseberry. Gladius-like, at the sharp and extending edge of modern times, the search for new energy, dark energy, has opened another portal to tap into the same layer of universal unknown not accessed since the high-life of ancient Egyptian mysticism. Without magic now, without the characters dissolving the barriers of reality with an ethnobotanical hallucinogenic illusion, without striding into the picture and reporting on themselves like Hunter S. Thompson, an immersive holographic experience will soon allow them to interact as passive observers to the lives of ghostly dream forms, real people who pushed their emotional mark into the pliable fabric of reality. Can we access and pry into real past lives with strange energy and a VR headset? Who cares, when it’s such a gorgeous multi-layered idea for a book?

With the bond of immortality entwining them, Agrippa and Samia resurface through the ages into new lives, in new places and behind new faces, a bit like a couple of Doctor Whos but they don’t get to see their own full story except through dream state flashbacks or tingly impressions. We see their lives and motivations vicariously, coming to understand them at a level absent from the history books, their everyday incentives as “Let’s eat some of that grilled lamb from Caesar’s chef” sounds a huge improvement on the Taco Bell or KFC dilemmas of other people’s Friday nights. Then, impossibly, one character is confronted by a dream vision that speaks to him directly, in a kind of reassuring yet CREEPY post traumatic therapy, working through subconscious issues retained from an event in his previous life. Shudder. I think I’d prefer a clean slate but how would I feel if something my current body wasn’t involved in came back to apply to me? Would multiple lifetimes of guilt being laid on you be worth multiple lifetimes of fascinating experiences or would you choose to put a cap on both? Would they weigh on your personality anyway? What a thought.

If the remote viewing technology became mainstream in the future, as it would, picture a situation where you can’t escape exposure, even by dying and taking your memories with you. What if your future self was a different sex and fell into an impossible voyeuristic love affair with yourself after attending moments you’d rather forget which should have remained forever private? Will they have a sense of decorum est? No, I don’t think so. Every new entertainment technology is led by a quest for improved sensation and although you might be keen to watch the scene with King Henry at court with the sucking pig, they’ll be bookmarking the moment when you got caught sucking (Enough). Death and locks on bedroom doors are there for a reason methinks.

As we’re discussing the subject, the bonding scene in this story is sexually charged but that is realistic given the context of ancient Egyptian practice. When straight-laced British archaeologists discovered Egyptian tombs with murals depicting rude appendages and ceremonies (look up the lotus drugging ceremony), the prissy Victorian prudes got their chisels out and edited them. That is absolutely true: comparatively modern people, uncomfortable with sexuality, habitually vandalised tomb murals that showed real scenes that the Egyptians really did, scenes from their religious practices and beliefs, because the western viewers of that time couldn’t bear the thought of their women fainting. Rome was little different to Egypt in this. Have you seen Pompeii? Those murals only survived because they were buried. Saturnalia really happened, accept it, so the part of the story portraying how these ceremonies were conducted is perfectly fair. Scorpions sting, you can’t change that, and Egyptians did ingest the blue lotus (in this case the dream fish) and then fooled around. What would you do to be blessed by Isis and get ahead in the afterlife? It’s a glittering prize little different to the celestial deals that fresher dates from other colleges make to get a dining ticket for a May Ball at Trinity.

Back to the celestial: Beneath the gaze of Sirius, aligned through the stone a shaft of a pyramid, we hear that the ancients had seemingly impossible knowledge of the spectral change of a star’s approach and retreat, not only, but also recording the presence of its second star without a telescope, orbiting darkly, the symbolic binary stars of Isis which we hear turned red ten thousand years before Caesar’s time to symbolise twelve thousand years of decline… so my maths says, by 2025, the age of decline is almost done. Whoop, whoop! What does that mean? If all empires go up, who goes down? The sticky ceremony is successful, livid fire flashes in the ancient temple, suddenly everything looks green and our understanding of time recedes as the room again seems brand new.

Underneath clumps of wooden debris and dust they see a faint, yet stunning, pattern in the floor. “It’s the top deck of a very large and strange ship” – Approaching not only through the floor but through time itself, drifting from this world to the next. I didn’t see that coming. Agrippa runs into a likeness of himself carved in stone thousands of years before, showing the remote viewing works from both the past and the future, which is quite creepy as well unless it’s a coincidence and you happen to look like Anubis. Possibilities open. The Hall of Records. The Temple of Thoth. Original wisdom from the early gods. Great. This is the stuff National Geographic film crews dream of, not forgetting the confined spaces and dungeons and dragons feel to the shrine and underground rooms, the torch light and the suspicious and menacing statuary. “That’s an amazing image. Let’s spoil it with an ad break and then re-use the same footage four minutes later.”

Representing Roman society, where what colour you were didn’t matter and you were valued for what you could do, Agrippa swears to make the world a better place (good idea) and to start by building a temple (silly idea), to be followed by all those aqueducts, roads, agricultural reforms and stone buildings (he could do all that) and the scenes roll by with a few characters in a room but you know it’s building up to where they’ll fling open the wide bronze doors at some point to reveal the full Cecil B. Demille bit with a crowd of thirty thousand Romans where the people who are no use to society will be playing dodge the lions (eat the Kardashians), but that’s me dreaming of a book yet to come.

The sensations though, the pictures of dust and colour where every decoration is made by hand, there’s the rare smell of lotus blossom oil in the bedroom and a palace graced with plants and flowers. Can we skinny dip in the finest bath Agrippa’s ever seen, with tepid, clear water, which must look like heaven after a year on the road? Cleopatra too, always processing, the drums beat as the barge sails through the current of the coursing, muddy Nile. Elsewhere, an army of thousands marches through Armenia and the roads swim with spies. I like this stuff. There’s a sense of geographical movement, of a professional background awareness by the characters about changes on an immense scale. Agrippa always selected the right side to fight on, clever boy, so I can absolutely imagine this awareness and judgement ticking along in the background. One slip and you’re on the wrong team, the wrong side of a movement and probably pitched over the side of a ship.
Then there’s the rest of the book, the half set in the modern age, with off-line meetings convened in a church stuffed with bones as a consortium of industries want to invest in the experiments but who do they represent? Are their donations to the historic Charles University turning the institution’s allegiance away from science and back to its see-no, hear-no, think-no, medieval past? Is this funding interest really a takeover approach by manipulative oligarchs with a plan to stop the research or to make crowds dance to their subconscious tune? Normally, you’d ignore them but in a time when the persecution of scientists has become mainstream, not quite the terror of revolutionary France but creating an edgy background, choosing your friends and spotting your enemies increasingly becomes an issue of survival, just like the politics of Rome. Could this happen? Would we burn the books again and actively hinder discovery? With electronic storage, preventing what’s been revealed already shouldn’t be possible but the threat to new knowledge and its priesthood of scientists is made apparent here, a seductive attraction for a fraction of the public who might prefer to slide into a simpler past and enjoy comfortable ignorance. So much less to worry about, until you get cancer. Selecting this state for yourself is fine but imposing it on others is pretty dark. Finding things out is perhaps what we’re here for, just a thought. Unlearning what we know is like trying to make the food to waste cycle run the other way.

I feel drawn, above all of the rest, the ibises and chariots, meta-materials and research conspiracies, exotic perfumes, head-dresses and treachery to this: The shining fantasy of tracking down and entering the original temple of Thoth, the earliest record of learning. You surely can’t burn green stone tablets, whether they came from above or not, so they must have survived to this day, somewhere out there, wrapped in the moving sands and with dehydrated poisoned priests flaking away into dust at the door. What a thought. I really like this series and the way the author weaves it around like sugar between two sticks in time. Is the message of the series that we should respect enlightenment and discovery or is it that we should honour our amazing yet less-informed past? Is it about places lost in time and the spirit of place, the undeniable genius loci of Alexandria and Prague? Perhaps, a radical suggestion, it’s really about the main man.

Agrippa? He knew a few holds himself.

Netwalking Space, by Joyce Reynolds-Ward - 3 Stars

Netwalking Space is a perfectly good science fiction novel that I personally didn’t tune into and I can’t put my finger on why that is. I mean, is it my fault I didn’t get into this or was it something to do with the writing? Nope, it’s a mystery, so I will probably just add a short review and advise everyone to read it for themselves and see if they get along with the story better than I did. As a reviewer, that's a complete cop out and admission that I’m rubbish but sometimes you have to be honest when you don’t particularly enjoy something despite not producing any reasoning why other people might feel the same way. I could be the odd one out. Maybe I’ll think of something as I write this.
The plan of the novel is sound: A seemingly alien device has caused havoc and then been overcome but those who did the overcoming had to take inhuman decisions which set them aside from the light. However, the alien tech has provided them with the opportunity, immediately after their death, to transfer their consciousness into a chip and thus extended families can interact together in this limitless new Netwalking Space (virtual reality). The netwalkers continue as legal entities, as they would if they were alive, plus their lifetime of knowledge and expertise guarantees their usefulness and continued power even after their cellular or corporeal death. As a new threat arrives, the netwalkers turn on their virtual heels to deal with it, or some of them do because there’s so much family bickering in this story that they have more hazards and personalities to overcome within their own clan than problems with the aliens, who act quite like hackers anyway but with the added tension of the ticking clock and a fleet jumping ever closer before they physically knock down Earth’s doorframe.
A proportion of this novel has been set aside for long family discussions and secretive revelations, as large scale concerns change to small scale and back, which interrupts the sci-fi ideas, so that’s only a problem if you were reading it for the sci-fi ideas, which I was. It’s a fairly long book for that reason, a sort of soap opera in virtual reality complete with matriarchal power banks and metallic shoulder pads. Even that’s unfair because it’s partly the story of transcending death by going into a virtual life, like Minecraft comes true, which is a sci-fi idea worthy of investigation, as in whether your virtual self has real life or is your soul dead and this is just a convincing illusion? What is life anyway in this place? Even then, would you mind so much if the humans got thumped by the aliens if you were safely playing in your virtual sand-pit with no skin to lose?
Given that, I understood the bit about continuing life in the wires very soon after starting the book but didn’t see why it needed as much as five hundred and thirty two pages to cover that idea in full. When you consider other books I’ve reviewed this year, one just now with about 40 ideas and an exceptional one with what must have been well over 100 a month ago, the difficulty with this book might have been the slow turnover of new thoughts and surprises in comparison with other novels I’ve read recently. If you remember the problem of the dog that didn’t bark, one thing I felt was missing was the general public’s reaction. What does the person in the street think of the netwalkers and how does their existence influence public culture? The netwalkers aren’t alone on the planet, so what about supporters, protesters and how they are reflected by the artists of the time? Has any comedian produced a joke about them? Nothing exists in isolation.
That’s it really, my incomprehensible review which doesn’t quite capture the book. It isn’t that I didn’t understand it. I also can’t predict that you wouldn’t like it. It’s just it didn’t capture my butterfly attention enough. Oooh look, quick chase it, a squirrel!

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Message to QM.

Sonia Jones and Faith Jones are different people who just happen to have read the same book on one occasion. The clue you should look for is when the first names don't match. The same thing goes for Indiana, Tom and Corporal, all of whom have further and different differences to us; and one brings his own whip.


Sunday, 19 February 2017

LARC Transmissions, by S. Shane Thomas - 4 Stars

Yes, this is what I was missing! Proper sci-fi imagination, where the first few pages have you swimming with augmented humans as they explore beneath a sheet of oceanic ice on Enceladus, one of the smaller moons of Saturn, as the indigenous life swarms up to see what they're doing and try to seduce them or nick their flippers, which anyone who's visited Cairo will find eerily familiar.
LARC Transmissions, by S. Shane Thomas, “Tales from the League of Atlantis Reborn Colonies” is a collection of 46 short stories on the theme of humanity’s expansion to colonise other, Earth-like worlds using LARC spaceships, which take batches of Earth’s excess population off-planet at the rate of half a million at a time. Seven or so LARC ships have ploughed a route to separate destination planets for hundreds of years and many of these stories are set within a few years of their arrival.
I should declare a format preference now, that I like the flowing complexity of novels more, but it isn’t legitimate to complain that LARC Transmissions isn’t a single developing tale because this project has been clearly billed as short stories, therefore any briefly introduced characters or fleeting coverage of themes is valid and in keeping with this format. That said, each short story is a moment in time from seven journeys as they draw closer to their arrival, so a semi-connected structure grows around rib-like episodes and, if you twist your head a bit, you can just about see it as the scattered chapters of a larger theme. This happens in folklore a lot, where for example the story of Noah is only a passing episode in the wider historical record of a tribe. If he’s been and gone in five pages it doesn’t matter because that glimpse was enough to be remembered. The book as a whole is not a single story but if there are enough points of impact, although it’s hell for an editor, the collection becomes publishable and that’s what it is, professionally publishable and enjoyable science fiction.
Each of these stories has the feel of a creative writing exercise, where a student has to compose an original stand-alone scene on the subject of… within the theme of interplanetary travel and colonies. As the student has an unusually interesting and productive mind, it looks like they’ve just kept having ideas and running with them, twisting their tails and then moving on to the next in a sort of whirling, scattering explosion of imaginative concepts. I have to emphasise this: S. Shane Thomas has filled this book with his bounding imagination, transporting the reader to a wealth of situations and visions that fully justify the cover price. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turns out he works for an advertising agency or in design and I’d even forgive him if he had imagineer printed on his business card because this writer has got something that so many others would kill or die for; an entertaining and original creative mind.
Are the short stories too rapid? Possibly, although some people only want to read one or two a night or maybe something bite-sized on their e-book screen as they travel from A to B. I have to conclude that sci-fi short stories work if they are entertaining and if they present a new idea or different way of engaging a thematic question. By those criteria, LARC Transmissions is a very decent pack of short stories and, although inevitably some are more credible or entertaining than others, the laundry monster only appearing realistic if you’ve just returned from Cairo, I do recommend that you read this because it is worth it. In the book it says there’s more to see for free on the author’s website: www.LARC-Sci-Fi.com
Now piss off and buy it!

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Rarity from the Hollow, by Robert Eggleton - 3 Stars (With Author's Response)

Do you know the plate spinning game, kids? It’s really fun. What you do is borrow the drill from Daddy’s shed and make a lot of holes in the floor of your front room, then you need to poke all the bean poles you can find from the garden into the holes but always make sure you can reach the top because that’s important. When it’s ready and you have a forest of sticks, carry out a couple of dinner service-loads of china plates from Mummy’s cupboards and place them one by one on top of the poles, swishing and swirling each pole around in a circle to make the plate spin on top of it. Isn’t it beautiful? Call everyone in the house to come downstairs and have a look, then do all of the plates like that, tens, twenties, try to do thirties, swirling and spinning, returning to the earliest ones as they slow down and begin to wobble, speeding them up again, circling the pole, quicker and quicker but not too much until everyone comes in to see what you’ve done and all these beautiful, complicated pieces are spinning in the air at once and you even have time to go and make a cup of tea and come back, not too late to miss the critical moment though, milking the tension, waiting for the final remaining seconds to count away as everyone holds their breath, then smile your finest lopsided smile, let your eyes go blank, far away and allow all of the plates to smash on the ground. Lovely. What a protest.

I should add that the first time I saw this trick, they got the ending completely wrong, saved the plates and no one talked about it at all. Part one of this book is the former, with so many plates in the air that almost all have passed beyond a child’s ability to control and it starts with some of the ugliest: an overwhelming portrayal of monstrous abuse and suffering within a family, child and wife-beating, fight or flight stress, perversion, exploitation and entrapment. The soundest advice would be to let the whole situation smash and then walk away and start again in a foster family. As it is, the social work hangover from the first third of the novel casts a shadow across the rest of the book, so even when the story lightens up it’s still in the context of the opening chapters.

The little girl reacts to each vindictive incident and her mind maladjusts into worrying, defensive trenches. Her behaviour at school is a clue, inappropriate sexual language and little screams for help. The father suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (some people shouldn’t return from wars) and is taking it out on his wife and child, so he’s more sick, evil and guilty than anyone he presumably joined up to protect his family from. It took me far outside my comfort zone and into territory I would never have chosen to explore. Until the book changed, I felt conned by being told this was sci-fi and I could see that the author wanted to convey the full impact of awfulness that the child was trapped into but, as a customer, I don’t select books to be sickened. I decided after reading The Omen, no more horror for me thank you Damien, so just push off would you? Go on, shoo! and take your little knives and tongs with you. Sunny side up for me please.

Imaginary friend escapism syndrome, that’s another thing this book picks up. Not only does the small girl talk to trees and thinks that one at least talks back because there’s a ghostly child inside it (more rottenness) but she is revealed to have a unique kind of imaginary friend who isn’t from her own neck of the woods at all, or even her own solar system. Hooray! Sci-fi at last. At first I thought this was a child’s way of describing the internet, as in you ask a question and it replies, like a search engine, but after staring at the page a bit longer I could see her bestie was some kind of automaton or life form, a sort of mechanised E.T.

What’s his name? Dot.com. What’s his game? That would be telling.

About a hundred pages in, I struck a seam of welcome humour which the author had held back until he’d had enough of the mood-pit he’d dug for us. “Lacy Dawn gave up on getting any attention from her father and decided to practice for the next spitting contest at school”, soon followed by “and there’s a door on my bedroom… it’s sure cool… open, shut, open, shut, open open open. Shit, I’ve locked myself out.” It’s lines like that that make me want to keep reading.

In the middle third of the book, the stressed child, Lacy Dawn is shown scenes of human pre-history, as her parents are re-educated. She’s then presented with a contract and a job to do, a big one, presumably to repay the repair work done on her parents. I don’t know how resilient children are but my guess is that she’s permanently damaged already and this would put her out of immediate danger from them but not from her mental damage. The father then says “I have to think of what’s best for my daughter”. That’s shocking too, in a way, because the reformed character has no insight into what he’s already done to her.

In the space of a sentence or two, members of the family nip off to another location in the Universe and the story changes to a sort of flamboyant alien capitalist heaven shopping fantasy, where the characters can spend as much unearned pocket money as they like. The cosmopolitan society they’ve entered is awash with alien species that, with the diversions of a whole galaxy open to them, all have one desire in common; hanging around in a big shopping centre. Saving the World, correction the Universe, also gets added to the adventure because there’s a new high level threat for the hick people to deal with. The irony is that, to me, the most alien characters encountered are this particular set of humans. I’ve got nothing in common with these people, so find them other worldly too. Cucumber sandwich anyone?

Is the book traumatic? Yes, I think that’s one aspect that the author wanted to include. Is it a mess of subjects? It reads like a child psychology professional creating some horrible fiction from the nasty things they’ve been exposed to through their career (to educate rather than entertain the reader) and then thinking they’ve maybe gone a bit too far and lightening the mood with an escapist fantasy that, to me, is a metaphor for the child having retreated so far into their own mind, looking for a safe place, that they’ve dislocated themselves from reality, curled up in a foetal ball, hugged their knees and started rocking. If you have no hope of being saved by anyone real, why not imagine your best chance is to meet an alien who makes your parents nice and really values you, for a change? It’s a variation of the knight on the white charger galloping to the rescue, on one hand a real-life disgusting nest of crime called “home” and on the other a fantasy solution which is never going to happen no matter how long you poke your nose out of the window of the dark tower and wave that silly handkerchief.

The closing third of the book has a different theme again, as the family direct their energies on a fantastic alien cockroach round-up, ye-haw, complete with dressing up in random fancy dress outfits, talking wood, chatty dogs and a squirming insect nation that Bill Bailey may have already sung about (does he know something?).

That’s three themes which I have trouble reconciling. I think criticising structure is valid because that’s a fair target and “what on Earth possessed you to put these three things together?” is a fair question not satisfactorily answered by the text.

Important: The fact that I don’t like the subject shouldn’t affect my assessment and rating of a book’s quality, although being objective isn’t easy when the neighbour’s sexually abused and murdered daughter who’s become a dryad has the same name as me. I know that if I don’t like sporks and I agree to review The History of Sporks, my inclination has to be set aside because the criteria must be strictly about whether it is, in relative terms, a high or low quality work of its type. Spork fans can then rely on the reviewer’s opinion and rest safely in their beds to rise tomorrow and make better informed spork-related purchasing decisions. Hail Spork! This is another metaphor. I only said hail spork because I won’t say hail child abuse. However, I am not going to rate the quality of the book lower because of my personal feelings about the subject (aversion). If the characters were designed with the intention of upsetting the reader, then well done because the writer has demonstrated that he has the level of skill to achieve that aim. Was it to make a point? Yes. Will raising awareness improve lives? Insignificantly, unless the book is issued in prisons. How many readers of this book already work in social intervention? Probably most. It will certainly also depress a few good people in the outside world. Some combinations work, Zen and Motorcycle Repair, some don’t, fish and bicycles. Domestic abuse vs sci-fi vs shopping vs bug hunt is a sub-genre with a population of one book so far and I can’t see that changing. Can I criticise it though when the author is setting out his stall to combat child abuse? Well, yes, but only if the rest is a cat’s cradle anyway.

Objectively then, is it a really cool and entertaining story about a horrible topic? No, not really. It’s a competent story covering a horrible topic but it isn’t literature and I don’t think the themes jam together very well or make pathfinding headway in sci-fi originality. The portrayal of an alien robotic presence and the way it changes to please the child is so/so, nothing special, and its society’s interest in commercialism has already been done thoroughly with the Ferengi of Deep Space Nine. The reason why the alien would be interested in saving the child is not as credible as a similar film called The Last Star Fighter, where the boy is chosen because he has a realistic skill (his reaction speed when playing Space Invaders is relevant to being a pilot). Is Lacy Dawn at the pinnacle of managed evolution and displaying an impressive problem solving intelligence? Well… disbelief suspends only so far when she so frequently talks about her pants.

I rate this as a reasonable read for people who aren’t as sensitive as me, a middling quality story with an unusual combination of themes that will certainly provoke thought and appeal to a defined audience of people who want to hear about social malfunction, some people adore their sporks, and sending all the profits to charity shows the author’s heart is surely golden but it isn’t the best thing I’ve read this year in sci-fi and squashing these subjects together in this way, like speed-dating for the good, the bad and the ugly hasn’t convinced me it’s anything more insightful and impactful than culture shock. Please give this book out in specialist prisons because that’s where the message can be used to best effect. Just don’t tell me this stuff is going on in the world, adding me to depressing mailing lists and send the clippings (head, bucket of sand), just call the professional bug services instead. I’m off shopping with fingers in my ears. La-la-la, la-la-la, I can’t hear you, cheering up already.

---- Footnote ----

Following this review and after discussion with the author, I now see that understanding the topical references made in the book is geographically dependent. If you are in the USA (5% of the global population, one of 198 countries), you will of course have read US domestic papers, seen or heard the broadcast media and know what the author is referring to. A reviewer without that sphere of influence and shared set of political references will find that many of the points the author has connected this story to will fly unnoticed straight over their heads. I acknowledge that this has happened to me as I'm unaware/ignorant of US domestic investment in child safety, locally infamous political comments broadcast in the media dehumanizing refugees and I haven't seen the current US leader's former appearances on television. There is clearly more to this book than I picked up when I read it and the cockroach connection has since been explained to me. Should it even be reviewed by a non-US citizen? I don't know. I would note though that the way I understood the book is representative of, or at least closer to, the way a non-US global audience will read and form views about it, as they are similarly unaware of essential background, which other reviewers have said add depth, historical interest and literary muscle to the book. I do wonder if the topicality will endure though if the story rests on these links too much - would an American reading this twenty years from now remember these things or would they understand the work in a shallow way, as I have?

I expect the author doesn't value my views at the moment but it seems to me that US reviewers only are needed for this. Anyone else will fail to make the intended connections and then think more like me. I can see now that the author wants to highlight problems in US social policy and call for changes, to improve the lives of vulnerable children, so what's important to consider is the view of the US reviewers. Forgive me for seeing the tips of icebergs and describing them as small. All readers are the products of their influences and I didn't get it, but I do understand why that happened.

----------------- A response to this review, by Robert Eggleton --------------------

Thanks for your great book review. It was very well written. I'm commenting about the review at your invitation. Thanks, again.

I'm a little disappointed that you didn't connect with or mention the political allegory in Rarity from the Hollow. As you are aware, my story includes pressing issues that America is fighting about today, including  illegal immigration and the refuge crisis, extreme capitalism /  consumerism. Mr. Prump, one of the characters in the story, was a  projection of Donald Trump based on the TV show, The Apprentice. Part of the negotiations in the story occur in the only high rise on planet Shptiludrp (Shop Until You Drop), a giant shopping mall and the center of economic governance, now more easily identifiable as Trump Tower. Mr. Rump, another character in my story, was modeled after Bernie Sanders. One chapter was titled: "The First Sexual Harassment Complaint on Shptiludrp." This also corresponded to one of the headline controversies about President Trump. Despite much praise that the ARC of my novel received by independent book reviewers (sixty-eight five and four star reviews), some reviewers of the ARC found the imminent threat to the universe in the story to have been silly: cockroach infestation. Please note the recent insult hurled at refugees by calling them cockroaches. http://freedomdaily.com/kick-the-cockroaches-out-sweden-to-deport-80000-muslim-refugees-over-migrant-linked-violence/. The political allegory in Rarity from the Hollow is much more obvious now that Donald Trump has become a household name, worldwide, and I was hopeful that it would be mentioned your findings. At this point, given the administration's announcement of upcoming budget cuts for social programs, its refusal to help with the refugee crisis, the deportation of mothers from their children born in the U.S. and related policies, my personal prayer is that the U.S. budget cuts will not adversely affect children's health and welfare programs in communities, worldwide. While there is no political advocacy in the story, it doesn't pick one side or another, I do hope that it sensitizes readers to the huge social problem of child maltreatment.

With respect to your review, the closing lines of the story were supposed to tie everything together. At the risk of spoiling the read for others, if you remember, Dwayne, the abusive father, first achieved insight that he had been abusive to Lacy and Denise, the downtrodden mother, when on planet Shptiudrp. Before then, he believed that harsh discipline of children and dominance over wives was supported by the Bible, an inter-generational predominant traditional value in the Bible Belt of  America where I live. (Of course, ET assistance for Dwayne's treatment was a metaphor to encourage Veterans to seek help for PTSD through the VA.) In the spaceship, on their way home after having saved the universe, Dwayne asked Lacy Dawn, "Will you ever forgive me?" She answered, "No but I will always love you." No amount of hard work by Dwayne on Shptiludrp could cause Lacy to ever forget her maltreatment or to forgive him. IMO, as a retired children's psychotherapist, this is the optimal solution in many real-life child maltreatment cases. As survivors and for reformed maltreators, we are not destined to live in the past or for past trauma to control our lives. Yes, I agree with you that this ending was not a bubbly HEA, but I feel that it was realistically hopeful and the practice of living in the present has empowered many survivors toward wonderful lives and accomplishments. Of course, the impact of having read my story is an individual matter and I certainly respect your opinion about how the book impacted you.

For those in your audience who may consider reading this novel even though it is not pure escapist science fiction, I hope that you, Faith, also permit me to share an alternative reaction the having read my book. This organization awarded the Advance Review Copy of my novel a Gold Medal. Here's an excerpt of the review:

"a hillbilly version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, only instead of the earth being destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass, Lacy Dawn must…The author has managed to do what I would have thought impossible; taken serious subjects like poverty, ignorance, abuse, and written about them with tongue-in-cheek humor without trivializing them.…Eggleton sucks you into the Hollow, dunks you in the creek, rolls you in the mud, and splays you in the sun to dry off. Tucked between the folds of humor are some profound observations on human nature and modern society that you have to read to appreciate. It's a funny book that most sci-fi fans will thoroughly enjoy…" http://www.awesomeindies.net/ai-approved-review-of-rarity-from-the-holly-by-robert-eggleton/

Monday, 13 February 2017

Refuge, by Judy Griffith Gill - 4 Stars

For the record, I’m reviewing The Refuge 2nd Edition and I haven’t read the original printing of this colonial science fiction series but as the page count has changed in this update, I thought that suggested post-publication improvements and extra content. I’ve since found a note from the author at the back which says that the changes were to connect the first book to later developments in the sequels.

This story is set at a future time when humans have spent one or two hundred years colonising other planets, yet still haven’t mastered the elements on this particular one, which suffers from terrible winters on alternate years, with wind speeds and cold at such a magnitude that even the Viking sagas couldn’t keep up with them. When walls are breached by the gale, people really do get sucked out to their doom, so the colonists rely on cryogenic technology to survive the winters. (Spoiler alert for the next sentence) What doesn’t work too well at this colony is the rule of law, as someone has been selectively tampering with the life support freezers.

Judy Griffith Gill has presented us with soft sci-fi of the children and families type, then spiced up the plot with psychic awakenings, murderous deeds and officials who don’t have their hearts in the right places. Survival is another strong theme, combined with parenting and protection. The pace is not fast but that’s good sometimes as you need time to soak in the atmosphere and believe it, slowly compiled drama, lengthy and solid like the early sagas, which the structure and open system setting that already suggests this instalment will fit into a longer form.

The original name for Star Trek was going to be ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’ and this story feels like that sort of journey, with men, women and children (not necessarily family) homesteaders exploring a new and untrusted territory and trying to work out how they can naturalise into it, to survive and not be rejected by the land, the sky and carnivorous beasties. It’s a voyage into ‘the Wide’, as the characters call it, the blue yonder of old, so paint yer wagon and herd the critters. Can they do it? Can they survive when even their own kind are resistant to change. In another sense, can these technological folk return to nature when their technological support fails and rusts, as it has to eventually? Taking a step backwards in tech is hard, particularly for those who have lost the knowledge because they never thought it would be useful to anyone again – the same reasoning behind me never bothering to learn how to knap flint.

I would normally classify this as a 3 star story, well told and plodmanlike, imaginative enough to avoid negative comments and so on, but what elevates it with a jolt is the inventive vocabulary. Just as many writers have done before her, Judy has assumed that language will have morphed and twisted in a few hundred years from now as it is a living tool that adapts to the people that use it. Quite correct. The grammar in this story has stayed the same but it would be a step too far to alter that too because it would harm the book’s readability, so another good bit of reckoning. Other writers have tried this method, adding language, particularly with elements of youth gang-slang (Anthony Burgess) but usually the invented words are not credible, just cop-out swear words like ‘frak’ or a string of nonsensical pants like Tolkien’s poems in Elvish. Judy’s dialect words are really good and very credible. Really good. I can imagine feeling comfortable (not ludicrous) saying I shouldn’t vetch (currently: “a widely distributed scrambling herbaceous plant of the pea family, which is cultivated as a silage or fodder crop”) as it’s a better use for the word than our time’s definition. I might start using it now. Vetch vetch, I love that crunchy sound, like slippers in the snow. Apolz is an obvious contraction, as it pute and lavo, all representing the end of an existing trend of shortening words in our hurried lifestyles (this process has already started in text language), which will presumably become more hurried and words will keep transforming. Then there’s the new plant, animal and object names, the glasses of sillyberry juice (yes please) and children chasing the dragonflitter (sounds fun), running in your gummies and a string of useful alien farm animals (the Earth species all failed to adapt). If the author can keep it realistic, I suggest she should keep going with this language invention because she’s done better than not only Star Trek and A Clockwork Orange (which was good for exploring crime and punishment, not for “blood running red and kroovy”. The more celebrated devotchka, chai and droog don’t even count as invented because they are loan-words) but has also matched the credibility of some of the stuff Lucas Films and Jim Henson invented.

If you don’t mind me going all decimal on you, this is my internal dialogue typing, towards the end I was forming an opinion and thinking a 3.6 value doesn’t deserve to be put down to 3 stars when it’s a more professional piece than that but raising it to 4 stars would need at least another layer, like a twist in the tail. Fortunately, this was provided in the nick of time by a sudden change of direction with a whole bunch of new input, like new characters, spaceships, FTL travel, nanobots, arrested ageing and reconnection with space travel heritage which hinted that the colony had been established on the wrong planet by mistake, which is a splendid way to start but only revealed at the end, all of which had the welcome feel of a fresh rain and oxygen into what was feeling like a fully explored and overly circled pool. The slider in my mind moved up to 3.9 as the new material gave a starting point to the next book. New is healthy and these were the first green shoots of a new phase. Every colony needs to plan for the future.

All in all, a fluid read with a rich diet of invented words and some creatures that I quite like. It’s set up like a part of a greater story, as one person’s life is just a part of their family story, which is a part of the history of their land, which we will find out about in greater detail through sequels. It isn’t at the intense and imagination-exploding level of inventiveness that it would need to be to get a top rating from me but it’s better and much more realistic than a whole swathe of colonial soldier yarns and the weather closing in did make my fingers go cold and stick to the Kindle. Still, mustn’t vetch.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Truth About Sharks and Pigeons, by Matt Phillips - 2 Stars

How do I feel about this book? I hate stabbing things because the authors try so hard and take it personally but I guess most of the sales of this title have already happened and it won’t make much difference if I do my job the way I should, as a reviewer.

The ordinary animal that suddenly speaks to a human, a pigeon, instantly made me think the author had read and enjoyed Expecting Someone Taller by Tom Holt, in which a badger gets run over and then unexpectedly speaks to the driver. This was an original surprise in 1987, when Holt did it. Tom Holt’s book wasn’t superficial either because it was set against the background mythology of three Wagner operas and his badger was a parody of Fasolt or Fafner, but this scene is built on no sort of cultural or intellectual foundation like that. Is it commendable when a piece of theatre that operates on two levels is recreated years later on only one? This isn’t a direct accusation of copying, just a suspected strong influence which may even have been subconscious. Tom Holt’s matter transporter is the Tarnhelm (more Wagner mythology). In this book it’s a matter transporter.

“What the hell’s that”, near the start, immediately made me think of Arthur Dent using the same line when he encounters the Dentrassi. I’m sure it’s been in a lot of other things too but, seeing as the author has read or seen the same cultural influences as I have and even my parents can quote from and he so dearly wants to be just like them, the other writers not my parents, it’s a fair bet the voice in the author’s head when he reads his own line aloud belongs to the actor Simon Jones. It doesn’t end there. In the Hitchhiker’s Guide, talking white mice secretly run the world and humans have completely misinterpreted their relationship with them due to their successful designs and intrigues that were intended to keep it that way. The similarity with this is that a different species of talking creatures secretly run the world and humans have completely misinterpreted their relationship with them due to their successful designs and intrigues that were intended to keep it that way. Subconscious again, she said, defending the author.

The use of an unlikely hero is fair enough and isn’t copying and aping because it’s a popular style. I prefer unlikely heroes, beta people, and many others would agree, including this author. Tom Holt always wrote unlikely heroes (except in Ye Gods, which sent up heroes) and so did Douglas Adams, so I think the author likes them both and thought it works out better this way, which it does of course. Other countries have the capable alpha hero and the hometown best friend but the English style is to dispense with the hero completely and drop the best friend right in it up to their neck. I think this writer’s choices have been formed around how other humourists have entertained him, so it’s not wrong and it’s good for the story and I wouldn’t want it changed but he is following an existing format without trying to stamp his individual style onto anything and make any theme in this book his alone, which he should try to do if he wants to stand in this sort of company. This is not a pioneering work, is it? Perhaps a comfortable re-tread. The story doesn’t say anything or do anything I object to. It just meanders along and involves a lot of talking animals, which fails to be unexpected when you’re into the third species.

Let’s recap: Inferior to the authors he's been influenced by and is trying to emulate. Friendly and bonkers, well intended, by someone who wants you to like it and them, but disappointing. Sort of fun but a wobbly fairground mirror reflection of what he was trying for. I want to read originality.

Is it funny though? I found two good laughs and they were good but two is two, last time I counted, and I get more laughs than that giving head. The idea with the mark they put on the hero’s forehead is funny slapstick and I did laugh out loud. The slinky in the torture chamber is sleek and effective humour, probably the high point of the book. You buy it, you take your chance, but if this publication ever gets reprinted and he puts “laugh out loud” or “sleek and effective humour” with the critics’ quotes on the back, I wouldn’t find that very amusing.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Loneliness of the Whale, by Lily Markova - 5 Stars

An opaque, porcelain bubble of a book written for people whose feet never quite connect with floors, “beautiful in ways that only senseless things can be”, fumbling in caverns of the soul, a whale sings at the wrong frequency and is never heard, a rushing man awaits a lift like a metal tortoise, the boy shakes his head with the strangeness of it all, powered by an internal organ, a lungeyeart, as he studies how other people would describe a sensation and stores that form synonymously like a reliquary of Aspergers in a psyche tainted by an exquisite torture, soon to fall apart like shoes from Marks & Spencer, as a bottle whistles and rattles like an old kettle in a world of benign assimilation and disconnection, they take you without asking, change you without explaining, drop you without warning, look through you without caring, where “crowded cities are the loneliest places on Earth”, a “chunk of ice adrift in an open ocean”, humanity is “that passenger on a crowded bus next to whom there’s always and empty seat”, “a name, a couple of fake words that don’t make any sense”, Christ, this woman writes like Hrabal, as “the Sun longs to hug us until we are ashes” and Joy departs happy, to elsewhere, a poignant allegory for the malady of splintered glass and renewal.

Neater than D.B.C. Pierre, beyond the valve of John Kennedy Toole and more soulful than D.H. Lawrence, here is an author growing, becoming outstanding, slipping past all three in my opinion.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

The Orthogonal Galaxy (Galaxy Series Book 1) by Michael L. Lewis – 4 Stars

The only book ever to pass the intrusive toffee test for scientific literature.

Michael Lewis’s debut novel The Orthogonal Galaxy is, structurally rather than functionally, a pair of jeans. Without giving away the plot, imagine a story that runs along two strongly differentiated threads, one hard sci-fi and one crime and punishment drama, so up until about page 260 the reader can’t see any reason why these two things should be in the same book, why do this, stop it, then the threads abruptly merge together to form the trunk of the trousers and suddenly you know you’ve got a good book in your hands and can really start to enjoy it, for the remaining 130 or so pages. I thought I was smart but I couldn’t see any way to reconcile the clearly unconnected stories until the line where the writer did it for me. Up to that point, I would have said take the court-room drama out as it was the less interesting half (speed readers might skip through it) and I didn’t care if the guy went to jail but after that integration point I could see that thread was essential after all. Patience is important in reading good books, understood, but I still think the courtroom leg could have been streamlined down even if it couldn’t be connected any earlier. Maybe start that thread later? I’m not objecting to carefully planned literary tricks but the glowing question mark did seem to hang in the air for a very long time. 

The book is very serious, leaning into materials engineering, and I think I only laughed twice but that didn’t matter. I’m saying this for context because I wanted to share my favourite line with you: “The name’s Guntherd Schenthtzen but folks around here find it easier to remember my prison number, 689214”. Super. 

Two pretty original science fiction concepts have been introduced in this novel, so I recommend the author sends copies to the major science fiction archives to get some historical recognition for publishing them first. The author contends that less that 5% of the Universe is observable, so why can’t we see the dark matter (the other component is energy)? He then answers his own question with an idea that’s so simple and rational that it may just be right (it would be a spoiler to tell you). To cap it off, the story introduces a new way for a craft to exceed the speed of light (can’t spoil that for you either). In all cases, throughout the book, new technology is accompanied by a full, hard-sci explanation, which you need to pay attention to understand. 

It was more or less at this point that my step sister, a modern girl who objects strongly to the sight of anyone being quiet, reading, concentrating or thinking, approached from behind and put a wet toffee in my hair. The reason I’m telling you about this, the relative importance of the event, is that I was so stuck into the book and thinking about the technical explanations that I didn’t notice this had happened. Enthralled? Arguably. Concentrating hard? Certainly. I wonder how many books there are in the world that can absorb your attention so completely that you lose track of your surroundings. Perhaps only a couple of thousand, yet there are a couple of million titles on Amazon alone. Remember that this is a debut author here. I’m not into revenge but she doesn’t like bookworms and she doesn’t like me and I know there’s no likelihood she’ll read about books online so, as I got it out with scissors, it seems only appropriate to apologise for my step sister because she isn’t a noticeable asset to the community and her careers advisor at college suggested that, given her appearance and the total sum of her experiences, skills and qualifications, she could consider a bright and well paid future in the City of London, as there’s always room at the top in executive prostitution. 

Back to the book. I have to say that in a raft of average characterisations, not exceptional or unexceptional, the standout personality that steals the show is ‘Blade’. This character has hidden depths, he’s likeable, where he’s from and how he’s got to here is believable and steals the reader’s attention and sympathies straight off the page. Having new ideas about physics is brilliant of course, well done author, but if you wanted to make this into a film, a popular entertainment, this single character would be what the film’s remembered for. This is Orthogonal Galaxy’s king-post, as Ripley is to Alien, except Blade’s use of language is more vibrant. 

If you talk about the feeling, the spiritual essence of the book that you’re left with when the words are long forgotten, the story should grow warmer with hindsight. When you’re in the process of reading the book and bogged down in the up-quarks and down-quarks, 26,000 mps div r Pi, composite atomic particles, legal jargon and all the rest, it feels like foot-slogging your way up a steep old mountain. Occasionally there’s a glint of gold to keep you going but I can imagine it’s an ask for someone who isn’t a regular hard-sci-fi devotee to tag along with the subatomic particle physics (which I personally gravitate to, oh yeah) in conjunction with wondering where the legal thread is going. When you’ve finished reading it though, after the rush and enjoyment of the last hundred or so pages when it all comes together and you finally understand what’s happened, the journey feels ultimately worthwhile. You’ll remember the two main ideas and the passion for exploration, you’ll remember Blade and you might even remember my rant about the toffee. You might even look up what orthogonal means, which was a new word for me. What I’ll remember is to wait a few months and check for the sequel because this series is warming up.