Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Narrow Roads of Gene Land: the evolution of sex, by W.D. Hamilton - 4 Stars

“The degeneration of the human genome in the absence of natural selection is the phase we are now entering.”

On a long car journey to Stratford Upon Avon, I was told a story that must be three times as old as I am that an elderly American tourist lady was leaving a performance of Hamlet and was asked what she thought about it. She supposedly replied “It was good but it was so damn full of clichés”. I remembered that story because as I read through this collection of papers and theoretical ideas by the evolutionary theorist W.D. Hamilton, I kept seeing original ideas by him (1945-2000 period) that I had previously attributed to other people. Standing on the shoulders of giants? Who were those giants? Him? Okay, they did a lot of work on them but they adapted ideas and, somehow, the public never saw past the headliner’s name. Game Theory (in biology, John Maynard Smith put in into Economics), a version of the Price Equation in the late 1960s, Selfish Genetics (Richard Dawkins), Kinship Theory, the genetic basis for altruism and related social sacrifice within Group Theory and the role parasites play in evolutionary development are all things that I associate with other people, as if they had the idea fully formed. He didn’t seem to care though. As soon as the insight was out, like a little floating paper lantern lapped out to sea, he moved along to the next problem, which could be a gene upgrade race, squaring Gaia theory mathematically (previously a hippie hallucination), checking to see if clouds could be adaptations by microorganisms used for their own dispersal, then seeing if our lofty ideas about ourselves are even compatible with our nature and how we reached this point.

Hamilton had original ideas, that’s the thing. For other thinkers you can often see that they indeed were ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, or had a peer group they fed from who were publishing similar papers, but Hamilton’s ideas often seemed to come out of a clear blue sky. He liked to go somewhere quiet and listen to bird song, which allowed him a space to think. Sometimes he went to a jungle, as he wasn’t sure how the human world worked.

Where do we come from and where are we going (e.g. in biological design and social adaptation)? What pushes our direction of travel? Why do we age and die? Why does our species have an equal sex ratio? Does natural selection favour spite? (spite means wars etc, not just selfishness and nepotism). Why do animals flock? Why do species extend to areas less favourable to the ones they are living in? (applications to economic markets are obvious but it’s also applicable to colonisation of the Moon and Mars). Why do leaves change colour? Why do drone bees come in two sizes? Why are species that reproduce asexually all small? Will our own advances in medicine weaken us dangerously to the point of dependence, as if the support was withdrawn we would be unviably defective?

The evidence suggests to me that he was autistic, probably Asperger’s Syndrome, as he had little empathy for humans and made un-PC comments with regularity. To justify this observation, when you read the book you’ll have your mind opened by this swimming, twisting shoal of ideas, the images by which Professor Hamilton made sense of the evolved world as he saw it, classic insights and derived meanings but then, just as you’re saying yes, this is really good stuff and I agree with it, you’ll say “hang on, where’s this heading, I’m not sure about that” and then you can see he’s lost the room because he’s said something ruthless and appalling that sensitivity dictates you can’t even think, let alone say out aloud. He knows this himself because, not digging out the exact words, twice he writes “If anyone has read this far” or “for the few who haven’t stopped reading” and then he sighs “sadly, I don’t expect anyone has read as far as this page” – which was a challenge to me to finish and try to understand it; the wisdom of the unsociable in the writing style of a surly crab who recalls the poets but does his thing, not their thing, because he isn’t built like that.

This is a man who expressed a kind of stunted-empathic indifference to the plight of others and yet had decided intellectually to do more for them than the people who care and have feelings would have ever done. He wasn’t interested in money except for the good it could do to others (a logical decision – think Spock) and was perpetually poor because he gave his money away (what a saint) and yet said shitty things like these: Why do people expect to keep their vegetable child? Why do they expect society to support it? If they want to do that, they should pay it themselves (meaning that the corrupted design would be treated harshly at the hands of natural selection. We’ve stopped natural selection by keeping this entity alive and potentially retaining and copying mutant genes harmful to the species’ survival in the future gene pool). The argument is probably better phrased like this: Hamilton thought the power of modern medicine to keep people alive might lead to the situation a few hundred years from now where every human being carries a couple of lethal genes and relies on medical props to stay alive. In the event of a catastrophe, if that supply wagon of support fails, the species collapses. John Maynard Smith recommended gene therapy instead (somatic gene engineering) to fix the lethal genes once and for all, rather than counter the symptoms. Hamilton countered that we have 3,000 million base pairs of DNA coding 100,000 genes capable of mutation or miscopying and protons shooting through our bodies, cosmic radiation, have the capacity to damage those at any second of any day, so the idea of a fix for the next corrupted gene is a pipe dream for one person, let alone 7 billion. In support of genetic engineering though, Hamilton said that “the public horror at the idea of tinkering with natural processes, that went on to create Dolly the sheep, might shortly be applied to humans” – as (paraphrasing) using antibiotics at all is already tinkering with natural processes, i.e. arresting the removal of the mistakes and failed designs by natural selection. The removal of errors is a natural process. Selecting in favour of those most able to survive is a natural process. Arresting this is tinkering with the natural process that made us. Death and removal is a grim thought for the individual but good for the group.

He wrote a reference for his graduate student, recommending her as “excellent at statistical theory, despite her sex” and presented a lifetime of observations that women aren’t as good as men at maths and spatial visualization, but apparently have a better sense of smell (for BS?). He appeared to be suggesting that he approved of people smoking and dying of cancer because people should die young (after passing on their genes) and their deaths would save society having to support them at the frail end of their lives when they were beyond reproduction (what about passing on learning then?). He then retracted the smoking comments, concluding that on the whole it should be banned, although he opposed the politically correct trend to bring pressure on smokers. He was unaware of the racial implications of his comments when refuting the idea that “all men are brothers”, saying that in the subconscious mind they are absolutely not (Kinship Theory, Group Theory), indicating that illusions like race were bizarre ways to assess things (people are just another category of things).

Hamilton travelled for five days in the rain forest with a native guide, whom he quizzed repeatedly on endless species of indigenous flora, yet never thought to ask his name or whether he was married or had children – all irrelevant to that man’s value for knowledge transfer. Another recommendation Hamilton made was that since HIV1 had crossed from the Chimpanzee species (who have some limited immunity to it) into the human species by sexual contact (it is thought there were at least three separate events of crossover), encouraging humans to have sex with chimpanzees could in theory transfer some of their immunity into the human population too. Lovely. His idea was that a human with hereditary exposure could do this, e.g. a Nairobi prostitute, who should then transfer it by sleeping with a different population group, e.g. Scandinavians, who could then propagate their immunity further. I sense a look of horror on your faces, or perhaps you’re laughing? When people showed no interest in his most absorbing ideas, or when the room went silent, Hamilton admits he doubted his own sanity. When you read that he wasn’t completely bothered by being infested with an Amazonian parasite because he liked the idea of being host to such an ancient life form, you’ll doubt his sanity too.

He liked other people’s theories and cast new light on them. The Prisoner’s Dilemma and its most efficient solutions was one. Another was his overlap with E.O. Wilson: If individual advantage is to be optimal, cheating is good – but society fails. If group advantage is optimal, individuals become dumb followers and the group’s leaders can then benefit themselves by exploiting them. The individuals then cease to trust the group (which fails) as the leaders have branched off into a sub-group, no longer providing optimal advantage to anyone in the group who is not in the leadership sub-group. Do we then benefit from group or selfish tactics or neither? Predation is good for a species as a whole, not the victims, because available food per head increases (fewer heads), but it sucks for the individual. Disease, war etc reduce numbers but also remove famine. With fewer prey, predator numbers fall then prey numbers rise as there’s more food but less predation – then Hamilton pointed out that lots of kestrels preying on an abundance of mice this year might be because the kestrels were feasting on an over population of voles last year.

Parasite theory is suitably creepy: Parasites kill and handicap animals but also force them to select in favour of alternative mutations that the parasite is less able to affect, so gradually the victim’s (eventual) descendants have designs that move out of reach of the parasite’s scope. The parasite then, to avoid extinction, must select in favour of something better able to attack the newly adapted form. Both change over time, both evolve. If separated, neither would evolve (except in response to different levers, such as changing environment). Parasites were one of the influences that prodded human evolution (not just – for all animals and plants) into the design we occupy today. Without these mechanisms, these agitations to change and adapt, we might still be simple clusters of cells.

Hamilton approved of and without irony applied James Thurber’s advice on debating with people: “He found it best not to listen to his opponent at all because this enabled him to keep his mind calm and keenly focussed on what he was going to say when his opponent stopped talking.”

W.D. Hamilton died in 2000, after an expedition to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he’d intended to get to the source of simian immunodeficiency syndrome. He thought he might stop HIV, not quite but almost alone, but mosquitoes and tablets for the symptoms of malaria cut him down. Hamilton, now referred to as the greatest evolutionary theorist since Charles Darwin, had a dying wish to be left on the Amazonian forest floor and be naturally dispersed by beetles to feed their larvae. It’s probably worth republishing in full because of the lively, colourful and biologically influenced turn of phrase from this wannabee poet:

“I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests. It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure; and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.”

He liked poetry, which for most people is a sensitive route of entry to the human soul but to him was probably attractive as might be the complicated spectrum of a forest canopy, teeming with bugs, as he drew forth his little killing jar. There’s a line of Wordsworth’s on the statue of Isaac Newton at Cambridge which seems worth quoting here: “The marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.”

Page 872 has flicked past I still can’t tell if Hamilton’s absent mindlessness and antagositic rudeness was affected or whether he was genuinely unaware as he said these things that they caused any offence. Richard Dawkins said it was real but I suspect that he was flicking matches on our haystack to see if any of them would go whooomph. This book would obviously get 5 stars for scientific thought and evidence, no question about that, but if I have to rate it as a publication, arrogance drags it down. If he didn't want to have his personal nature critiqued in a review, he shouldn't have put so much of it in. If he was unaware of his social needling, he wouldn’t have almost gleefully included mention of the many occasions when he’d so upset people and been so keen to tell us what he’d said. His self-importance shows through, in contrast to a robotic thinking machine that would be unaware of themselves in the greater scheme of science. As work, this is excellent. As a book, as a recounting of a human life in pursuit of one obsession, evolution, he doesn’t impress as much. His frequent inclusion of poetry is odd, personal ornamentation perhaps, but is he really asking us to feel endeared to him? Is this book about ‘truth’ and building blocks of knowledge, like the originality of the papers, or is it about the autist within? Me-stuff? He shouldn’t care if we feel sympathetic, amazed or annoyed by his ideas, so why’s he interested in our reaction? Yes though, these theories are an outstanding a legacy. He’s bundled together the science and himself in this publication and the man, the eccentric, is the flaw. I was advised at the start to just read the introduction (maths is too hard for women, surely) but, having read it all, my advice to a serious theoretician is to just read the journal papers, learn the theories (Red Queen Parasite is a hard nut) and cut the personality out of the equation.

If the way he was trying to portray his own personality was true (detachment, clarity), he wouldn’t have decorated it with ego.

As a final footnote to his nature as an unpractical and confused wanderer, this savant yet not-quite sympathetic man, he hadn’t the money in his estate to carry out his dying wish and he’d completely overlooked getting his last will and testament witnessed anyway. They left his body in Wytham Woods in England, which was cheaper.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Initialization, by Brian Basham - 4 Stars

This is a young adult adventure in which a competitive and athletic group of college students train for a computer generated combat game that takes the public’s minds off asking difficult questions about oppressive rule in their dystopian society. It should appeal directly to followers of the Hunger Games just as much as to anyone who got a lot out of Orwell’s 1984, in which fake wars (instead of war games) were presented as a diversionary control tactic. It’s also a bit of a blast, with overtones of espionage and springy footed rebellion driven through scenes of sporty paintball tactics and virtual reality, so this has the general pocket money chaos factor of mainstream arcade entertainment, except the reader lives it vicariously instead of working the controls.

I have to say though, with absolutely no suggestion implied that the author is aware of a precedent, the idea behind it isn’t quite original. For those of you who aren’t a hundred years old, intensive cosplay trufans or for some other semi-excusable or incredible reason do not own a Blake’s 7 Series 1-4 box set and are not aware of Series 3, Episode 12, Death-Watch (by Terry Nation of Dr Who and the Daleks fame), first broadcast at 19.15 on Monday 13th July 1981, this is the original version of the concept that’s been explored in this book: In a society where the population are encouraged to be passive, a lethal sport is played out in a computer generated urban landscape which opponents enter through separate doors or rooms, then hunt each other to the death. The public choose a disc (blue or green) which they stick on their forehead to follow the mind of their champion in virtual reality immersion as they duel. The winner’s population gains a fleet of ships or some other form of forfeiture from the losing side’s population. This system is entertainment, VR and reality TV rolled into one (in 1981, so that’s visionary) but it also allows intractable disputes to be settled between huge populations by a single death and within a controlled arena, with no overspill, so it is actually a pacifist concept.

In Initialization, by Brian Basham, there are clear differences and (good) further developments to that basic concept. It’s a team game and it’s got a college campus feel, with no disparity between the sexes. These virtual wars are not supposed to be to the death, which allows characters to re-spawn in the next round, like sitting in the time-out dugout of a hockey match. This provides two advantages over the previous work: (i) the readers can become more attached to the characters as they won’t be dropping dead all the time and (ii) the characters can take enormous and exciting risks because if they don’t come off, so what? If you regenerate in VR, there’s no need for competitors to hesitate and protect their lives. The audience probably don’t get that and think their heroes would have the same attitude about throwing away their safety in real fighting where one mistake in the woods results in permanent death and food for beetles.

Anyway, all the characters who have these sports scholarships to college are young, strong, have that essential romantic tug and the dystopian rulers have made the mistake of providing them with a route to fitness and military training. This is a little like when the villain always explains their plan and then leaves the room – why do it? I’d fill them full of greasy chips and make the doors to the palace thin so they couldn’t overthrow me. It isn’t a great leap to see that this sport will be a recruiting ground for counter-establishment forces, is it? The mysterious and ruthless rulers react to that predictable outcome with the power of the state; taking off the safety systems in VR, embedding infiltrators and monitoring players with implants. They should have tried the chips.

School was never like this and it builds a more imaginative and oppressive atmosphere for the story as Crenshaw College starts to feel like Spy School, which sounds a lot of fun, although I’d get sick of the dark glasses, then counter-intrusion tests these characters’ ingenuity when they try to break the shackles. There’s a lot of humorous schoolyard banter about being ninjas but that becomes less and less ironic as the youthful players’ athletic abilities grow beyond the norm. Everyone’s very capable and you don’t know whom to trust (I guessed early. Clever me), then students (it’s not as if there was any education curriculum happening at Crenshaw anyway) get fast tracked into the fight between the grownups. Suddenly, players who have been conditioned to take enormous risks with their lives in VR are still taking them even though the safety nets are gone. Excitement rolls.

There’s a developing line of sexual tension between these attractive athletes which remains unfulfilled because the characters are so well-mannered and polite, with Sunday school intentions in between their grenade hurling and kill shots. I can imagine the author has a clear idea of their target readership and has decided, conscientiously, to stifle this line of enquiry before its logical conclusion. Either that or they’re aware their own kids will read it. That re-enforces the YA classification in my eyes but, in a more global sense, I wonder why we think blood and perforated bodies aren’t shocking to teenagers but knowing a character has their thrilling biological moments is.

It’s a good adventure and should set up an absorbing series, so I can’t fault Initialization as an example of its type or for suitability to its intended readership. It’s punchy, it’s young and it has an open end (which logic suggests will result in the fall of a tyrant about three books further on). I like the nemesis character particularly and, if I’d gone into acting, this is a role I would definitely apply for as living life hard and being tantalisingly cheeky is just my sort of cocktail. Initialization would have to be completely original in concept to steal my breath away and get that last star but this doesn’t mean I don’t recommend it. I do recommend it, to young adults. I also think prompting our national leaders to look into the merits of VR warfare to settle their disputes might save a nuking IRL, if they’re prepared to explore the concept, although I can’t see the Nobel Committee recognising sci-fi salvation just yet.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Special Agent Mauve - Origins, by J.B. Trepagnier - 4 Stars

It seems improper, possibly even deviant to give a high star rating and a long review to an excerpt of just nineteen pages. What is this anyway? It’s too short to be a novella or a novelette but too long for a vox pop or a character cameo and you might even describe it as a comic without the pictures if the characterization wasn’t a bit deeper than that. It’s as if someone’s writing their life story but they’re aware they don’t have much ink and the cat needs feeding. At 99p, or 5p a page, I do feel I got a fair return for my money because I liked the ideas but what is this trend for introducing a character and then walking away for a long break? Is it a way of testing the market so an author can see if their new character is going to be accepted before they go to all the trouble of writing a book? Probably it’s to generate demand for a later novel. Huh, marketing. Can I really give it more stars though than I would to some hardworking writer who has strutted and fretted through 375 pages of decent entertainment content, where if you cherry-picked the best bits out and built them into 19 pages it would be better? Does it merit the same grade as another work of exactly the same standard of writing that is twenty times longer? Is it a good example of its kind – What is its kind anyway? 19 page books? That’s a wedding list and this is perplexing.

I’ve already mentioned it’s short but it has a lot of plot packed within it. There’s no drift, a strong fictional premise to kick off the scenario and one, single, solitary well developed female protagonist; but within this page count it’s too much to expect concentration on building more than one character. I don’t like the economically short sentences, often in rapid bursts of seven to ten words, although I have to concede that verbosity isn’t in keeping with individuals inclined to military training and exercise either. A character who’s previous job was on the phone though – wouldn’t they be chattier? I keep criticising it and then excusing it, so I don’t know where this review is heading. Dunk me.

The naïve humour carries this character, so if this series continues I do encourage the author to persevere with that. Realistic inbuilt imperfections are a bonus but there’s a line to be trod here because lazy slapstick would ruin it. Okay, well done. Too many of these secret agent types have the capabilities of a demigod and I think that this one, with her down to earth mishaps, is something I can relate much better to. This woman is also up for anything and expendable, so the author can have a lot of fun chucking her into situations and testing her initiative. Have you seen the French film Nikita (no, not the awful remake)? There’s a restaurant scene where she thinks she’s on a date but it’s really a mission to test her, well, that’s where I’d like to see this character go. What’s going on? Aah! Improvise.

The flaw in this introduction is that field operatives are presumably chosen for not only their initiative (which she displays in abundance) but also for their problem solving intelligence. This agent appears to have a muted and average IQ, offset by other strengths such as athletic endurance. She might climb out of a box but could she think her way out of one? (Money on the box).

The protagonist isn’t a plaything of the Universe, a reactor, and she isn’t a triumphant agitator either, so it looks as though she’s a bit of both. The agency pushes and she rolls – but she also initiates trains of cause and effect on her own. This could be interesting as she wobbles either side of the line between victim and hunter, as most socialized humans do.

Apart from the funky plot and action, which is all good stuff, the main thing that appeals to me is the character’s human flaws and propensity toward unintended humour. I can’t call this a book, so I’m giving a strong nod to the character here.

I would very much like to review the full novel, when it’s eventually written, as this character could go far.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Meringue, by Christine Lemieux - 5 Stars

The author’s aim is sparklingly clear as she’s improvising upon a fool-proof literary recipe where it’s supposed to be inconceivable for a reviewer to say anything apart from “a delightfully charming romantic tale in a gastronomic setting whose plot threads tie together as neat as a string of garlic in the kitchen of your dreams”. After all, there’s a mouth-watering reference to cuisine or ingredients on almost every page, picture postcard scenery, cultural mystique, a best friend with indulgence problems, three daughters bobbing about on a loose end of twine like romantic magnets in sensible shoes, unsuccessful shots at independence from which the magic valley always draws them back, an elder generation highly skilled with the lobster bisque, a sense of danger from a competitor setting up shop next door and a drifting family business that needs to wake up, urgently.

This pattern works, as we already know from Ang Lee’s mighty Eat, Drink, Man, Woman with its life changing announcements and Joanne Harris’s Chocolat with its sprinkle of tempting delights, both of which were projects that exuded charm from every dripping piping nozzle. According to the Chinese Book of Rites, the primary desires are to eat, drink and have each other on the kitchen worktop (paraphrased), although desire strangely carries more tension in a pastel clean romance like this. Although Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence tells an entirely different story, so they can’t be compared in that way, both that and Meringue build layers of aromas, spices, bountiful colours, textures and juices on the tongue to marinate the reader into the world they’ve constructed. The author isn’t connecting you through thought, they’re toying with your senses, curling a finger into your hair, caressing your neck and whispering “I cooked something for you. Will you stay?” Time passes differently in these idyllic faerie dells and, like Brigadoon, no one ever leaves for long.

Meringue is a book intended to pull the same “recipe for food and love” trick as the works above, so without comparing and contrasting it with the other two, does that happen? Now let’s set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide, hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit to see whether it is humanly possible to read Meringue by Christine Lemieux and not make a meringue at the end.

“But it is vital to not be mistaken; sweets are nothing other than a marriage of simple ingredients enhanced by the use of sugar.”

The first thing to consider is the premise. The reason why the family got into meringues in the first place is because they had a lot of sugar and the reason they had a lot of sugar is not only elegant and credible but I can imagine it might have actually happened, so that’s a top piece of writing right there. A family line emerges and time changes all, including countries, then we’re into the pine-scented air and bitter cherries of a new Eden, French Canada.

Then, and the egg cracked, an event has befallen the owner which has caused them to stop making meringues overnight, as a metaphor to reflect something that has gone very wrong in life, a disturbance in the fuzzy aura of candyfloss happiness that these characters naturally deserve, even the men, but there’s always a wasp. The key to the whole plot, meringue, affects all. If, as usual, the kitchen is a metaphor for the spiritual heart and comfort of a family, the absence of meringue in a restaurant called Meringue is a devastating scream in the wilderness. Crikey, another good piece of writing that’s not over-concocted.

A heavy swathe of this book is about suppressed personal feelings between the women of the family and their knights errant, can I, can’t I, how is it possible I feel this way, make a date, break a date, fall into those eyes, I’m lost, no, I’ve changed my mind, rejected, the shame, a life alone, despair, I’ve made the worst mistake of my life, come back!, I’m overcome, I’m yours, whisk me. Succulence does need time to develop, so these threads take a lot of pages to work through as characters who can’t express their feelings associate their love with edible pleasures. How to make a Canadian quilt? Is it just me or are these characters all different kinds of attractive puddings, wholesome ingredients of the story that could go together in different combinations?

With apologies to the author, I have to find some small aspect to challenge the perfection of all this or the other critics would circle around me, turn their backs and snip off my buttons [how do you do that by the way? Without looking?]: In Meringue, the technique and artistry of gourmet food preparation is not elaborated upon, which suggests it is more of a lifestyle romance than a cook book, which is fair enough or I would have bought a cook book, but I think that’s a shame because I wanted to interact with this book, to hear a reproducible and authentic sauce constructed one fresh herb at a time, including how an experienced professional saves it, with élan, when something messes up. When a life messes up, can they salvage and transform it in the same way, perhaps discovering something better? Can calories be teased into philosophy? There’s a lot of talk about food and the craft is shown to have happened as trays come out of the oven but the final product is there with its fancy name but without the method, so the author has embraced and communicated their passion for food (associated with love and home) but perhaps is less passionate about the process of converting raw ingredients into a dish. Yes, it’s an art-form but show us some sculpting and not just the sculpture, as Ang Lee’s master chef Chu does when he inflates the chicken with his breath and Juliette Binoche does when she shows her understudy how to make Nipples of Venus. This doesn’t spoil the book; it’s just me being pedantic.

Anyway, there was one exception: “The eggs should be separated cold but need to be at room temperature when you whisk them.” Knowledge is a wonderful thing, unless reading this book costs me a tooth. I’ve already looked up the chef that all of this stems from, Francois Massialot (1660-1733), and started foodie side-tracking. He was the first to publish the crème brûlée recipe as well, so there’s the sequel already potted into a ramekin for you.

I was going to give this feel-good story four and a bit stars but then it had a great ending, so up it went. “At that moment the first firecracker whizzed up into the dark sky, exploded and sprouted into a multitude of luminous trails, falling down like dazzling raindrops toward the ground.”

This isn’t about a chef inhabiting a zone of artistry and weaving magic with their spatula. This is about a woman who has struggled all her life for her children, to give them a loving heart for a home and make them complete, at last. Meringue is where the familial circle starts and where it all ends and, of course, it has to have a gooey middle.

Is it humanly possible to read Meringue by Christine Lemieux and not make a meringue at the end? Apparently it isn’t because the oven’s on. I’m so impressionable.


Monday, 3 April 2017

Author interview: The multi-layered immersions of Gregory Ness

I’m starting the new month with an author interview and although I have reviewed both Antioch (full length novel) and Alexandria (a novella continuation of the same series) recently, Gregory Ness has continued to bounce around sublime observations and interestingly untested points on Goodreads and I always get the feeling that he’s not one to avoid a fascinating conversation if there are receptive brains in the room to rattle. is Gregory’s website and there you can find links to the books in which he blends historical fiction with the modern and future world through description, cameos and dreamscapes.

I have to say that if you are planning to get accidentally sealed in an ancient Egyptian tomb for a few days this summer, you could sling fruit for three months from the steps of the Cairo Museum without hitting a single raconteur who could fill the time with classical conversation as well as this author.

Why do respectable and level-headed people from the Silicon Valley world of technological, engineering and communications business, like yourself, become futurologist dreamers poking the weak spots in reality and testing the boundaries of fiction?

Gregory Ness: I’m not sure there are that many level-headed people in Silicon Valley, at least when it comes to the tech startup scene. We’re all a bit crazy under the hood. The Valley is a kind of breeding ground for people who want to take a few pokes at reality or even peel back a few layers to get to something no one has considered.
I’m surprised more techies haven’t made the leap. I know a few who would be brilliant. For me personally it was about getting a good sleep. I was being woken by disturbing dreams that finally dissipated when I started writing.

I think I agree with the techie comment. There should be a public programme to round up brilliant minds and force them to write sci-fi fantasy – and there’ll be no more pizza until they do!

What are your favourite artworks and objects from the ancient world of Egypt, Greece or Rome and what message can we learn from them?

Gregory Ness: Since 2005 I’ve been fascinated with the Pantheon, obelisks and images of very old temples. For me they symbolize what can be lost and that there was probably a time when people had convinced themselves that their legacies and institutions would be permanent.

Well, that’s true. Whether it lasts five minutes or eighty years, buildings and consumer items are now effectively rented for a limited duration. Like the cultures and religions far behind us, permanency has also become a myth and we don’t have to wait for entropy to wear things down because our designers inflict calculated obsolescence upon us. “Let’s build something that lasts!” – “I can’t tell if you’re mad but you’re clearly not an economist. If it doesn’t break, how would you sell them another one?”

How do you manage the boundary between historical record, science fiction and fantasy?

Gregory Ness: I like to respect the historical record because it is a kind of consensus as to what likely happened. I’ll deviate when I feel like history is too much a victim of the victor. For example, Cleopatra’s suicide at the end of the Ptolemy era. I like fiction to be authentic and grounded. Surreal. I want to feel as if I’m so deep in a scene that I can smell Caesar’s cologne or the scent of the dead on bonfires drifting through the air.
I’m not looking for an escape but rather a kind of deep, layered immersion. I want to be there in as true a reality as possible. Not because I want to live in the past. Hell no. I want to know just how barbaric and depraved it was, beyond the veil of Hollywood and the normal fiction conventions. “Et tu, Brute?” was never enough for me. And I think there is a lesson: we don’t want to go back. We want our institutions. We don’t want them to run our lives but we do want them there to put out our fires, etc.

That reminds me of something Joyce Grenfell is supposed to have said: “Anarchy is all very well young man, but who will be responsible for the drains?”

When I ask people what their influences and inspirations have been, they’ve mentioned everything from the classics to a throwaway moment, from polar explorers to The Muppet Show. Where do you see yourself on that scale and which unique people or great ideas might be responsible for getting you there?

Gregory Ness: I have a long list. I’ve sprinkled a few like Easter eggs throughout Antioch and Alexandria. The first books to really stir me were Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. They set me on my journey.

I’d love to see something I can’t explain, something to make me question whether everything I’ve ever learned about reality is wrong. Sadly, practical explanations have always served and despite an open mind, no supernatural occurrences have ever happened to me. Have you ever witnessed anything inexplicable or had one of those moments where you’ve had to question whether our dimension and the physical laws of the Universe are all that there is?

Gregory Ness: Yes. I’m certain it will happen when you least expect it, perhaps after you’ve given up thinking about it. I wasn’t looking. I was in my forties. If it had happened sooner I’m not sure how I would have handled it.

Intriguing…  particularly as a major theme in the book is close to the sort of experience subjects have reported from past life hypnotic regression. If any readers have tried this, please get in touch and tell me what happened.

What is ‘dark energy’ and should we dabble before we understand? 

Gregory Ness: It’s a massive force proven to exist but only through indirect effects, not direct observation. And I’m certain there is a theoretical physicist somewhere who will disagree with me. By its nature it is an unknown, so could be described as anything larger beyond our ability to reason.

Thank you for your time Gregory Ness and I hope the readers out there who have not yet read Antioch to start the series will check out some of the reviews of your multi-layered opus through time and plunge in.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Power: The Shadows, by J.J. Angel - 3 Stars

Here’s a placeholder review because this is a novella (146pp) in the pre-publication stage and the author has sent me an uncorrected manuscript to review. I picked up a number of errors and communicated those to the author, so will speak of this book on the assumption that the spelling and punctuation issues will be fixed before it’s published and you get to see it. I also understand that the first few pages might be tinkered with.
Observation No.1: This would work much better as a script for television or film, as the edgy atmosphere of being hunted by a capable alien beastie communicates very well to the reader. It isn’t a slasher horror but that feeling that a presence is going to jump out or prowl toward you, which can outrun you and there’s no help, is psychologically thrilling in the arena the author has devised; and builds from fantasy into situations that make you tangibly nervous. When something gets dropped in the story and the author writes “CRASH!”, the reader jumps. The red colours and shadows, deep woods and isolated characters are very Scorsese, especially the use of reds. He must be doing something right.
The movements between alien tragedy, impending storm, scary woods, diversity, scientists, schools and then confrontational fantasy are all workable elements. The momentum of fear in the story was building beautifully and then got dissipated when too many pages were spent following a group of boys at school. It’s up to a writer how a book is structured but I do wonder if introducing the characters could have happened in the first third and then some core characters could be followed through the rest of the tale as the momentum builds, so the wave gets heavier rather than going up and down and up. The problem tied in with this is that for most of the book we don’t get to know characters in any deeper sense because they are introduced and then drop dead in increasingly disposable succession. Part of me wants to follow one character throughout but another part of me cheers when authors break boring old formats, so you might be able to convince me either way but I do know the only way readers are ever going to care about a character is if the character is allowed to grow on them. It is possible that this book, the first of a series, is to introduce the two characters of Amare and Rupert, so they can grow on the readership and establish a following across the series. If so, that’s fine.
The writing style could be worked on as it isn’t exactly Masefield. However, anything truly televisual isn’t either, which is deeper, further and even slashier evidence that this might be in the second or third choice format. The Friday 13th script would make an awful book because the way people speak is entirely different to the masterclass that people expect when reading novel-standard prose. They occupy different layers of cultural geography, like the mantle and the stratosphere, both equally valid but either would look uncomfortable if they were seen in the other’s format. The definition of a weed is “Any plant which is out of place”, so any flower at all, no matter how beautiful, becomes a weed in the wrong location. Multimedia suggests that a single project can be reproduced in several different ways, the book of the film of the song of the game, so all I’m saying is this story is ready-made for the visual, performance arts, to which the author’s use of language would be best directed.
I’m rating it at 3 stars because it does have imaginative value and it does change the way the reader feels (unsafe), which is what the story is supposed to do, like a date film which makes your bf act all protective, like he might be needed at any moment to save you from shape shifters or whatnot. This is a book with a good spoonful of fantasy that does make you scared. It should be a script though.