7 Following


Fortysomething, photographer slacker, working in IT, living in Greenwich; failed polymath; drinks and eats too much, reads too little...

For Special Services - Gardner John "Inspector" was the dying word of a plane hijacker – a hijack that Bond, with the help of a couple of SAS soldiers, had just single-handedly foiled. Could this be the return of Spectre – even without Blofeld – you know it!

The fact that [a:Gardner|31672|John E. Gardner|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1310298607p2/31672.jpg] was entrusted with fourteen Bond novels implies that somebody thought that he was worthy of taking on [a:Fleming|2565|Ian Fleming|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1364532740p2/2565.jpg]'s mantle. What we get is a novel that, though better than the previous one, [b:License Renewed|1409545|License Renewed (John Gardner's Bond, #1)|John E. Gardner|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1183382520s/1409545.jpg|51308], is neither Fleming, nor Fleming's Bond. On the plus side, the story is fun and Gardner tries his hardest to keep the identity of the new Blofeld a guessing game for the reader. The hugely irritating "gee-whizzes" of the previous novel are thankfully, mostly gone – the turbo-charged Saab is a little gadget heavy still.

But the book also has a number of significant flaws. Despite his best attempts to hide it, the identity of Blofeld was so obviously telegraphed that I was never in any doubt. While the story was fun, it does seem to owe more to the movies (especially the Roger Moore ones) than the Fleming novels. Blofeld's retreat had a butler character called Criton – which seemed to exist purely so Bond could say "admirable" – purlease! And the balance of the book felt wrong. There was far too much time spent at the ranch that I was beginning to worry that Bond would run out of pages before the real Spectre storyline even kicked off. Then, as soon as it starts, it runs out of steam almost immediately. The cavalry just arrives and it's all over.

But the worst of the novel is the icky relationship between Bond and the Bond-girl – Felix Leiter's daughter Cedar. Obviously as the daughter of his friend she is off limits, but that doesn't seem to stop him thinking about it (a lot) and perving over her when a bad guy rips her top. As if sensing this difficult line, Gardner has Bond strike a brief feminist stand in the middle of the novel when another baddie tells an off-colour joke. Though, as it's so totally out of character for either the novel or the known history of Bond, he backs off almost immediately and never returns to any discussion of feminism while seducing his host's wife or thinking about his best friend's daughter. The worst of the worst is reserved for the final chapter though. A chapter which should just have been completely cut and never mentioned again. Instead of which we are rewarded for finishing the novel with a description of Felix Leiter 'gifting' his own daughter to Bond to be "whatever you want her to be". Really? Even in 1982 did people do that?

It seems as if Gardner is getting there. Slowly. This is a better Bond than the previous outing, but ultimately Gardner still manages to blow the novel at the eleventh hour. Two books into a series of fourteen, I'm just not sure I can be bothered to keep going through the rest, he's not getting better fast enough. I guess I'll see...


Spire - William Golding [a:William Golding|306|William Golding|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1198342496p2/306.jpg]'s [b:The Spire|1041866|The Spire|William Golding|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1180454777s/1041866.jpg|24161742] is another of those 'improving' books that my father bought me years ago. This edition claims to have been published in 1983, but that feels a little to early – 1989 sounds more likely. That said taking 'only' 14 years to read a gift still feels woefully inadequate. Luckily he doesn't have a Goodreads account, so he'll never know.

The Spire is the story of Dean Jocelin and his spire. He is a man who has been touched by a vision; a man who God has charged with the task to build a spire on top of his cathedral. He is driven to this despite the protestations of the master builder, Roger Mason; despite the increasing complaints of his colleagues in the cathedral chapter meetings; despite the increasing costs and lack of money; despite, most worryingly of all, the lack of substantive foundations for the cathedral and the increasing 'singing' from the building as the extra weight is laid upon it. Dean Jocelin believes he is anointed, that his spire is his (and God's) legacy, and as the spire goes up, so his own mental state takes an increasing turn for the worse. Initially he has his vision of the spire, but this is followed with hearing music and voices, repeated visits from both an angel and a demon to protect and tempt him respectively – like the angel and demon on the shoulders of a cartoon character. By any yardstick his mind is failing faster than he has the strength to force his builders to put up the spire.

The novel feels very densely written, very descriptive without it necessarily being clear what's being described. To the point that large parts of the novel are just plain confusing. Perhaps the first chapter would have been less confusing if I hadn't had the Amgen Tour of California cycling race on in the background, but the other chapters had no such excuse. Chapters heavier in dialogue are an easier read, but at times that feels like a relative comparison and several times I had to reread sections to be clearer who was saying what to whom. Even in it's ending, there is a sense of a lack of satisfaction. Too much is left unclear. It's assumed that Dean Jocelin's visions were imagined, but there's no clear narrative either way: the spire stays up against all the odds. Further questions around the Pangalls were left unclear for me too: Why does Pangall leave? Was it the bullying by the builders? Was it that he'd discovered he was being cuckolded? Or was he murdered by Roger Mason?. Ultimately, I found it an immensely challenging read, but a fascinating one all the same.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes -  Arthur Conan Doyle Continuing my way through the Sherlock Holmes canon, this is the first of the short story collections. After the previous two longer novels, the change of pace seems to suit Holmes as we race through twelve stories featuring some of the classic Holmes detectivism. Many of these stories seem to shy away from actual crimes, focussing more on mysteries – something even commented on by Watson in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle – with five of these stories being classed as non-crime stories (although Watson has a loose definition of non-crime, which includes blackmail, bigamy and fraud).

The first story, A Scandal in Bohemia starts the collection. Watson is married by this point and has moved out – as he has for the majority of the following stories – but he somehow always manages to turn up at 221b Baker Street at just the right time to be there to document the next case. The scandal in this story is one of blackmail (the kind of blackmail that isn't really a crime) and is Holmes's (and our) introduction to Irene Adler. Although she is already dead when this story is published I was surprised to realise that this is her only appearance as the TV and movies had led me to the belief that she was a more regular feature. This was also Holmes's first documented failure – of sorts – in that he completely underestimates the woman in question.

Some common themes throughout the collection were early forms of identity fraud, with people pretending to be what they are not in A Case of Identity, The Man With the Twisted Lip and The Adventure of the Copper Beeches. The first, A Case of Identity, was maybe laid on a little thick. As with so many of these shorter form detective stories, it doesn't seem to leave the author as much time to lay false clues, so the regular reader of detective fiction will normally be quick on the trail. A number of stories also seem to feature daughters with inheritances, which would add The Adventure of the Speckled Band to the list of stories with repeated themes. Which is not to talk the Speckled Band down, it's another of the classics of Holmesian fiction and with good reason.

A Scandal in Bohemia introduces his use of cocaine, at least I don't recall it in either of the previous novels. Immediately following that, The Red-Headed League starts to describe Holmes's manic mood swings: a strong suggestion that he also suffered from bipolar disorder?
The Hour: Sporting Immortality the Hard Way - Michael Hutchinson Another gift left languishing on my bookshelf – this time from my brother-in-law rather than my father – since 2006. I'd been putting it off for two reasons. Firstly, I have a lot of other books to read, and secondly, a biography of a cyclist that I didn't really know a lot about failing to break the hour record didn't exactly sound like a riveting read. However, I was assured that it was good, and as my brother-in-law had gone to the trouble of getting it personally signed to me for my birthday it seemed churlish to wait much longer than six years to read it.

Once they realised I was actually reading the book (finally), there was an admission that my brother-in-law features in the book (pages 44-52 in my edition if you wanted to check). The scene is set, Hutchinson has decided to attempt the hour record, but realises he doesn't have a suitable bike (due to various reasons of over-achieving administration only bikes that cyclists no longer use are deemed suitable for the hour record). Luckily, he remembers an old friend from university, a friend who won't ask too many questions – like why would a professional cyclist want to borrow my old track bike – our hero, Lemanski, who lends the author an old orange track bike for his early track tests.

It seems so uniquely British to write a book about failing to do something. Other people celebrate their successes, only we feel the need to proudly display our efforts and shortcomings. Although Hutchinson is from Northern Ireland he's obviously embraced this part of his personality, having decided to write a book about failing to beat the hour record. Twice.

Luckily, that's not all the book is. Yes, in part, it's the story of Hutchinson's idea to attempt the record, his preparation – the trials that befell him and the mistakes that he made – as well as the attempt itself at the Manchester Velodrome. But, it's also the story of the hour record as the blue riband event of cycling. The history, the previous winners, the rivalry between Boardman and Obree, the short-sightedness and ridiculous officiousness of the sport's governing body, the UCI. Interwoven with the story of Hutchinson's own attempt. Despite the fact that he's ultimately describing something that he failed to achieve, his passion for the record shines through. As does his humour, the book is amusingly written throughout, making it a book not just for cycling aficionados, but sports fans in general.

The Best of British SF 2

The Best of British SF 2 - Arthur C. Clarke, Brian W. Aldiss, Mike Ashley, J.G. Ballard, Keith Roberts, Kingsley Amis, Michael Moorcock, Bob Shaw, James White, John Wyndham, Colin Kapp, Kenneth Bulmer, Fred Hoyle, Arthur Sellings, Philip E. High Having read and enjoyed the first volume of Mike Ashley' Starting Course follows with the excellent story of Eddie the android, first of the factory line he's embedded into an ordinary family in order to finesse his social skills before he is sent off-world as part of the workforce of humanity's expansion into space. Each family member has a very different reaction to him: fear, mistrust, a desire to 'free' him from his perceived bondage, and even jealousy of his future off-world. As the family change Eddie for the better, so he also changes them. And as was revealed to him once he's ready to go off world, maybe that was always the point.

Kenneth Bulmer's The Jackson Killer describes the final job for an Why them? What do they have in common? Why have they been put in all together and where are they going? empire hitman. Assigned to a department that eliminates paranoid super mutants before they begin trying to overthrow the empire, he arrives on the planet knowing that they couldn't possibly have any technology that could prevent him completing his mission – he just has to find the guy and kill him. The story is used as a means of asking what the effect of a job like that might be for a person; how does the killing change their own personality and what is the retirement plan for an empire hitman?

John Wyndham's The Teacher is a story of a first contract operative. The Gaffer is trying to balance the risks of first contact. On the one hand, he desperately wants to bring the local human species up to a technological level that will enable them to survive, and even win, their war with a much more voracious reptile species. On the other hand he must make sure that they don't become overly dependent on him, make sure that their existing culture survives as intact as possible, as well as trying to make sure that he doesn't end up revered as a god, or hated as a devil.

Arthur C. Clarke' The Signaller finishes the volume off. An alternate English history story, and obviously party of some larger world (and this story is clearly written to provide more depth to that existing universe), a young lad wants to join the signallers guild, the people who man the large towers that visually telegraph messages across the country. As a big step up socially for his family, we follow his apprenticeship through to his first official posting. Probably the least SF story in the collection, this is speculative fiction in the historical fantasy vein.
Diary of a Madman and Other Stories - Nikolai Gogol, Ronald Wilks I never really thought of myself as a 'Russian Literature' kind of guy. But this was another one of those books that my father bought me, during my university years, when he was, I assume, trying to improve me (I have since realised that this was a regular enough occurrence to create a shelf, father-improves-me, to immortalise the collection). Obviously, my university years are behind me now by some way, so I figure I've put reading this one off for long enough.

I came to Gogol, brings more to the stories than he gets credit for?

The collection comprises five shorter stories, and it opens with the good stuff. Diary of a Madman is definitely the story that brings the five stars for this book. It is told through the diary entries of a lowly civil servant as he descends into madness and over-imagination – he falls in love with his boss's daughter; reads letters written by her dog; and realises that he's next in line to the recently vacated throne of Spain. Again, my test of any awesome book is that I need to read bits out to people nearby (in a moment of serendipity this time it was my father) and while the later stories didn't quite pass that test, Diary of a Madman did in spades.

The collection continues with The Nose the story of a man who wakes up one morning missing his nose. As something of a cocksman, his nose is suggested to be a metaphor for his more sensitive area, but it seemed more to me to be a deliberately ridiculous and pointless story, one that he could use to cock a snoot at the censors of the day, suggesting that there is nothing left worth writing about if all literature is to be censored. The Overcoat is another one of Gogol's more famous stories, and is the tale of an inconsequential civil servant who saves for a new overcoat. While mocked for the old overcoat, the new one makes him popular. The story seemed a little too long in the build up, although I wondered if that was deliberate to drag out the tension. The last two stories, How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich and Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt were amusing, but didn't feel up to the standards of the first three. Maybe Gogol's more at home with stories of nobody civil servants that he is with more middle-class landowners.

All the stories are of everyday folk and strange personalities. Gogol seems to have something of a preoccupation with civil servants, noses, geese and overcoats, as each of these items feature in multiple stories. Also, all the stories feature some narration which breaks the fourth wall. Gogol is telling us the story, but it's also a conversation with us as well.
Poirot Investigates - Agatha Christie My first anthology of the year, and my first [a:Christie|123715|Agatha Christie|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1321738793p2/123715.jpg] or Poirot anthology. It also marks the start of a run of four anthologies in my reading list. Anthologies are a difficult thing to get right. Apart from the need to manage the theme of the anthology, there's nearly always a couple of weaker stories in the mix. Somehow a weaker story in an anthology is that much more noticeable than a weaker chapter in a novel. This collection, [b:Poirot Investigates|16422|Poirot Investigates (Hercule Poirot #3)|Agatha Christie|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1309284512s/16422.jpg|1952109], represents the first collection of Christie's Hercule Poirot short stories. Initially published in the UK with only eleven stories, I read an ebook of the US edition which came with an extra three stories.

Opening with The Adventure of the "Western Star" and we're straight into the first Poirot story I already know from TV. Poirot has become fashionable. A disappointing ending and some casual 'chink' racism aside, it's a good opening story. Short stories don't give Christie as much scope to build a complex narrative, and many of these stories are simpler to fathom out once you assume that the obvious suspect is innocent (after all what would be the point of Poirot if he agreed with everybody else). The Adventure of the Cheap Flat is a clever little story, and also our first introduction to the venerable Inspector Japp. Having decided she likes Japp he appears again for no real reason in The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge – these top policemen seem to get assigned well our of their jurisdiction.

The sadly weaker stories providing some padding included The Tragedy at Marson Manor which is a very simple, and generally too long, story about a suicide; The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb seemed unusually confused; and The Kidnapped Prime Minister and The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman continue to play on the hackneyed "don't trust the foreigner" line.

Some of the stand-out stories for me were The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (another one I'm sure I'd already seen on TV), and The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim – a classic Poirot vs. Japp bet where Poirot has to solve the case with only his little grey cells and without leaving his apartment. The two ending stories would both have been perfect finishes – The Case of the Missing Will is a game of clever hide and seek with no crime to solve to finish the UK edition, and the final The Chocolate Box is especially poignant as it highlights Poirot's failure, reminding us that under that smug exterior that constantly loves to rub Hastings' and the Police's noses in their shortcomings, he is also human like the rest of us.

Soulless (Parasol Protectorate, #1)

Soulless (Parasol Protectorate, #1) - Gail Carriger It's hard not to fall in love with any book that begins with the heroine expressing some disappointment that her opening fight with a vampire has destroyed the treacle tart that she'd had her eye on. Our heroine, Alexia Tarabotti, is a spinster (at the ripe old age of 26) of mixed parentage – her father was Italian. Her parentage is repeatedly referred to as an embarrassing negative (being half-Italian is just so uncouth, the fact that he's dead just makes it worse), as is her slightly larger than ideal nose and her slightly less than alabaster skin. At times this joke lives up to it's expectation of humour, but sadly not always. As if Alexia didn't have enough to put up with, she's also a preternatural – she has no soul and this somehow cancels out the supernatural abilities of any vampires or werewolves that she comes into contact with (which seems to come in handy during the opening fight scene).

Vampires, werewolves, preternaturals, presumably ghosts and possibly other supernatural forms, all living in a Victorian London. It's a steampunk, paranormal, romance, comedy-of-manners, mystery story. That's a lot of genre (a number of which I'm generally not that fussed about, or would even actively avoid) to fit into a single novel and it could have so easily been a twee YA mess, but [a:Carriger|2891665|Gail Carriger|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1257289860p2/2891665.jpg] manages to steer her course, mostly safely, along the path of witty tongue-in-cheek. Yes, some of the prose gets a little clumsy and repetitive in places; yes, the weird style of changing the way characters are referenced from first name to surname and back again is off-putting (even annoying); yes, the blossoming romance between our heroine and Lord Maccon, the head of the supernatural special branch, was so obviously foreshadowed it should have been on the cover; yes, some of the 'hot' scenes were so awkwardly written that I doubted that Carriger had any real idea what it would be like to make out with a werewolf. But, for all of its faults, some of my awkwardness and annoyance aside, at no point did I ever consider putting the book down. It wormed its way into my affections as the witty prose and the interesting ideas won me over almost immediately. Also, treacle tart!
The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge  - Harry Harrison Slippery Jim diGriz returns in the second of [a:Harry Harrison|16147|Harry Harrison|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1196199650p2/16147.jpg]'s light-hearted science fiction series – The Stainless Steel Rat. Having stopped Angelina's homicidal scheme in the first novel, [b:The Stainless Steel Rat|1735615|The Stainless Steel Rat (Stainless Steel Rat, #1)|Harry Harrison|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1187557105s/1735615.jpg|824589], our hero promptly falls in love with her. Luckily, the technology of the Special Corps means that part of Angelina's punishment is that the homicidal parts of her brain are reprogrammed. Although, still trouble with a capital 'T', she no longer wants to kill people. Which is lucky as she's pregnant with their child and married in fairly short order from the start. Having skipped out on the Special Corps, they're holidaying in secret while robbing banks to pass the time together.

Tracked down again by Special Corps diGriz is offered the opportunity to redeem himself again through a dangerous mission to investigate a secretive planet which has been invading a number of nearby planets and starting to worry the corps. We're told that invading a planet is supposed to be nigh-on impossible. Planets are too easy to defend, too hard for an attacker to maintain control of. Presumably a bit like the idea, that we in the UK have held on to, that our island status makes us harder to invade – although the long history of us successfully invading smaller islands suggests it's actually far from impossible if you choose islands that are both small enough and significantly less technologically advanced to ensure a rout. Part investigating how the Cliaandians are managing to, repeatedly, successfully invade other planets; part trying to get in on the action and somehow stop them in their attempt to take over the matriarchal planet of Burada.

As with the first novel, [b:The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge|1930368|The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge (Stainless Steel Rat, #2)|Harry Harrison|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1225860466s/1930368.jpg|1048943] is a boy's own adventure, but invested with a much more exciting plot and more opportunities for diGriz to get into trouble, out of trouble and make use of his liking for sarcasm. There's also an Amazonianesque dalliance with gender-politics as Angelina while pregnant is far too frail to be allowed to accompany her husband on his dangerous mission, yet once she's finished giving birth she doesn't take no for an answer and immediately rushes out to check he doesn't need rescuing. At the same time, Burada is a planet that has been ruled by women and it's only when the disaffected men are helped into power that the invasion is able to begin. The now rebel forces of the previous ruling classes also prove themselves more than capable of helping diGriz fight off the Cliaandians.
Cocaine Nights - J.G. Ballard After enjoying [b:High Rise|70256|High-Rise |J.G. Ballard|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1170723892s/70256.jpg|2270643] so much, we went on a bit of a spending spree and bought several [a:Ballard|2889561|J.G. Ballard|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1254084247p2/2889561.jpg] novels to follow it up. In part because it was recently the work book club choice (although I'm not actually a member) [b:Cocaine Nights|862090|Cocaine Nights|J.G. Ballard|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1365514142s/862090.jpg|1232081] was the first one out of the pile. As with High Rise this is the tale of something we think we know, British ex-pats moving to Spain, but somehow corrupted beyond our expectations by some trigger event. With High Rise it was the loss of power; with Cocaine Nights it is the presence of the tennis coach – Bobby Crawford.

Charles Prentice arrives at Estrella de Mar to rescue his brother Frank, who has been wrongfully imprisoned for the starting a house fire that killed several people in the resort. Except when he arrives he is confused to discover that while almost everybody claims to believe Frank couldn't have committed the crime, his brother has already confessed to the police; and when Charles presses him to explain himself refuses to allow him to visit any more. Charles decides to launch his own investigation and is drawn into the community of Estrella de Mar – its residents, its clubs and committees, and its surprising underbelly of exciting crime.

Estrella de Mar isn't like any of the other resorts. Instead of tired ex-pats hiding away in their apartments watching satellite TV, it houses a vibrant community of friends who party, learn tennis, have affairs; and as we slowly realise sell drugs, engage in prostitution and commit petty thefts. They don't though, burn down their friends houses with their friends inside. Instead of clearing his brother Charles comes to understand (he thinks) how Estrella de Mar is such a success, and he starts to buy into Bobby's ideas of the link between crime and creativity. The resort has to maintain a low-level of crime in order to get people out of their apartments and forming committees and becoming active. The problem that Charles seems to miss is that, like the drugs that are circulating, the low-level crime slowly stops being enough. Eventually you need a larger event to push the community over the edge and into a permanent state of activity and creativity. Was the fire just such an event, and if so, why is Frank taking the blame for it?

While the story is delightfully clever and sociopathic, the book does feel a little slow in some of the middle sections. Whether this was Ballard's attempt to slow the conversion of Charles Prentice down a little (it does seem a little fast even then) or not I don't know, but I quite liked the speed with which Charles was won over. To me it added more credence to Bobby's cult-like charisma. The whole resort have been taken in, if Charles takes too long to join in it feels like he's being convinced through rational arguments. The speed makes much more of a statement that it's almost somehow viral. That just by being in Estrella de Mar and being in contact with all the other residents, he could get caught up in the whole thing within a matter of weeks.
Persuader  - Lee Child My name is James, and it's been seven months since my last Jack Reacher. The seventh in the series, [b:Persuader|2805851|Persuader (Jack Reacher, #7)|Lee Child|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1365634745s/2805851.jpg|224290] should follow the same, increasingly predictable formula. Except, something feels wrong; it doesn't feel like Reacher – from the unusual eagerness to get involved, and the carrying of two guns, to the shooting of a cop. These things are totally out of character for the man we've spent six novels getting to barely know. Then I realised, the biggest thing that feels wrong about this Reacher is the narrative. This first-person just isn't Jack Reacher. Yes the first one, [b:Killing Floor|900486|Killing Floor (Jack Reacher, #1)|Lee Child|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1300839411s/900486.jpg|4511038], was also written as first-person, but the last five books have all been solidly third-person. And, to be honest, Reacher feels more of a third-person personality. His detachment and taciturnity almost requires third-person – once we get in his head we'll get to know far too much about him, and that will just destroy the mystique.

The book itself? Rescuing a child about to be kidnapped, Reacher is slowly taken into their family protection unit. In true Reacher style, that generally means he's replacing people who just weren't good enough. Oh, and of course, the family is far from normal – they're clearly into some bad schtuff. Reacher obviously has his reasons for getting involved, getting stuck into other people's business is rarely something that Reacher volunteers for. In lieu of spoilers, anybody who saw the BBC spy series Hunted will pretty much know exactly what's going on here.

While I kinda think I understand why [a:Child|5091|Lee Child|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1205263586p2/5091.jpg] went with the first-person here, in that it allows a much more tightly controlled narrative – we aren't aware of anything going on outside of Reacher's direct experience, and that leaves the other characters motives much less well defined and cranks up the suspense. Ultimately I don't think it was necessary and it just feels too 'personal' to be in Reacher's head like that. Plus it allows Child to get a little carried away with his exaggerations in the fight scenes. I was running out of patience with the continual running commentary in Reacher's head during his fight with Paulie where every punch or kick would have killed a lesser man – really?
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell Wow! Probably one of the more complex narrative styles I've ever read. David Mitchell has managed to weave six unique stories into something larger. Instead though, of telling the stories sequentially or interlacing them chapter by chapter, the stories are told concentrically. As the reader, you recurse in through the first half of each story, then back out through the second halves of each story in the reverse order. Amusingly, each of the stories in the first half link back to the previous story in some way – a found book, letters, a manuscript, a movie and a recording – and in the second half, this connection becomes even stronger, as each story depends on the same item in order to begin. As they go, the stories repeat the themes of oppression and power over others being held by individuals – con-men, heroes and lovers – companies, systems and states; each time trying to approach the ideas from a different angle.

Each story is told in a unique style, a unique point in history, a unique narrative language. From the journal of Adam Ewing in 1850; the letters of Robert Frobisher in 1931; the manuscript of Louisa Rey's investigation in 1975; the memoirs (and later screenplay and movie) of Timothy Cavendish's ghastly ordeal in, presumably, 2004; the futuristic recording device of Somni-451's interview 100 years in the future; and finally Zachry's narrative from a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Over the top of the structural dependencies that Mitchell has built in, he introduces a number of recurring themes – for example the comet shaped birthmark that one person in each story seems to bear, the Cloud Atlas Sextet, the piece of music that Robert Frobisher composes in the second story and which is also an obvious metaphor for the whole novel, the ship from the first story reappearing in the third story, etc. If the amount of notes that I took reading this novel are anything to go by, Mitchell's research and cross-referencing must have been astounding.

Complex though it is, once you get over the awkward writing styles of the Adam Ewing and the Sloosha's Crossing sections, the novel's complexity didn't actually require as much concentration and 'just turning back to check what such-n-such was again' as I'd feared. The more I read, the more engrossed I became in the worlds building that Mitchell was attempting to do. It's all very clever, perhaps too clever at times, and I worried that I was enjoying the complexity itself rather than the novel at times. However, there were a number of annoyances which stopped this being a five-star novel. Sometimes the metaphors became more of a club than a metaphor as the point was rammed home without any subtlety – the awfully overdone ending as Adam Ewing tries to end his journal with a discourse on humanity; the seemingly out of character notes on past, present and future, penned by Isaac just before his flight; the tediously unsubtle deja-vu moments, as when Louisa Rey pauses by the Prophetess ship from the first story. Please, I got that these stories are all linked together, they're published in the same book by the same author as a single novel. I didn't need to be continually reminded.

I didn't find the idea that the Louise Rey story was a fiction too worrying (as some other reviewers have). Although, they are right to question if that one wasn't 'true' were the two before? It seemed that Isaac's notes about the past and the imagined past were an attempt to explain that. I'm not sure it worked, maybe part of that trying to be too clever thing, though it didn't annoy me. Ultimately, I didn't really think it mattered. I did enjoy the names of the two Prescients in the Sloosha's Crossing story – Meronym and Duophysite. Meronym, the almost fungible researcher for the Prescients, is something that is part of something larger. And Duophysite, the presumed leader, is pretty much the same as dyophysite, which is the term for the duality of Christ. Again, they amused me once I'd looked them up, but I'm not convinced that they really worked. Maybe it is okay to like the book more for it's cleverness.

Fed (Newsflesh Trilogy #1.5)

Fed (Newsflesh Trilogy #1.5) - Mira Grant I hadn't really planned to read this at all. An alternate ending to the book Feed, bubbled to the top of my next-in-series shelf before [a:Mira Grant|3153776|Mira Grant|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1282493757p2/3153776.jpg] had gotten around to writing it yet, so I substituted [b:Fed|13793128|Fed (Newsflesh Trilogy #1.5)|Mira Grant|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1337286924s/13793128.jpg|19427135] instead.

Grant herself describes this as: "It is not what happened. But it could have. We came very close." By which, I assume she means that this is the original ending, leaving Feed as a stand-alone novel rather than the first in the trilogy. While in Feed Georgia is infected and dies leaving Shaun to fall apart, in Fed Shaun is the one who is infected and Georgia is unable to cope and takes her own life. The similarities are striking – just reverse the names and instead of having two books for the survivor to fall apart and then hook-up with your clone, just have the survivor shoot herself in the head. Having read, and enjoyed, [b:Deadline|11528825|Deadline (Newsflesh Trilogy, #2)|Mira Grant|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1328341609s/11528825.jpg|13292985] and [b:Blackout|13602052|Blackout (Newsflesh Trilogy, #3)|Mira Grant|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1334434159s/13602052.jpg|13465100] this becomes a fairly unsatisfactory ending. I guess Grant thought so too as she changed the ending of Feed and gave us the rest of the universe too. Thank goodness.


Ragtime - E. L Doctorow For the first time, I've read a book purely because of its existence on the [b:1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die|2407757|1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die|Peter Boxall|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1265059356s/2407757.jpg|814053] list. [b:Ragtime|3985551|Ragtime|E. L. Doctorow|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1363622361s/3985551.jpg|551195] was the group read of the month, for January, in the accompanying Goodreads group. I immediately ordered it from my local library, and miraculously it turned up, nearly three months later towards the end of March. Upon collecting it from the library, not only was it now two months after the group had finished reading the book, but I'd somehow ordered the large-print edition. Finally, a book I can read without my glasses, from the other end of the bus.

Ragtime is the story of early 20th Century America told through the experiences of an unnamed family. Rather unusually they remain deliberately unnamed throughout the whole novel. Instead they are referred to as Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother etc. – all capitalised as if they are proper names; as if they are their actual names. While these characters are central to the story, ultimately they also seem unimportant to the story. Really the story is about the America that is going on around them – the residual racism left after the official end of slavery some 50 years earlier; attitudes towards class and success as unions are being formed; as well as attitudes towards both gender and sexuality – and the characters that they interact with, and the characters that those people interact with too. While the family are at the centre, the real story is the ripples that flow out from them and in to them.

Father's trip to the North Pole and business interests are key to the changes in his relationships within the family unit. But certainly the defining moment for the family is the adoption of a young black baby and his depressed single-mother. When the child's father arrives on the scene – a very dapper and self-assured young man called Coalhouse Walker – the story gently shifts and becomes much more focussed on these few characters and their place within the racial tensions of the time. Additionally, Doctorow has cleverly woven a cast of 'real people' into this story as secondary characters. Many of the characters that the family interact with were real historical figures: including Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Emma Goldman. These all allow Doctorow to place the novel firmly in time, as well as to make the family themselves even less special and more every-family.

I was fascinated by Doctorow's writing style. His short, staccato sentences. Following on, one from another, quickly leading you into the prose. The casual smattering of historical figures that almost feel like side-stories in their own right. The often hilarious descriptions of both the sexual repression of the family and the comical description of the sexual antics of Mother's Younger Brother which seem to be written in the same style – one as an understated matter-of-fact occurrence, the other a fantastical, joyous, out-of-control event that ends with the best description of free-falling jism that I've ever read.

New York Blues (Virex Trilogy, #2)

New York Blues (Virex Trilogy, #2) - Eric Brown As the next-in-series reading list rolls around, so I find myself returning to the New York of 2040 (although it's presumably 2041 or even 2042 by now). This is the sequel to New York Nights's interest in including slightly more sexy-sexy than is strictly necessary becomes apparent. That time it was continual references to the fact that some of the main characters were lesbians – it just about stopped short of uncomfortable, but it was noticeable. This time we switch out the lesbians and introduce a main villain with obvious paedophile tendencies. It's never clearly laid out like that, but we have a man who is using virtual-reality to approach and seduce much younger women, before kidnapping them. And, while Hal is angry at this, it feels like he's probably slightly more angry because it's happened to the sister of his client (who he's obviously going to fall for) rather than because she's so young. In fact, there's even an implication that some of the characters think that the activity (bar the kidnapping) is borderline okay because it's in VR, therefore it's not real. To an extent this is explored as an idea – on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog – but the awkwardness comes because it's not really investigated as an idea, more just left there as a convenient excuse for the villain to try and convince himself of.

Taken for what it's clearly meant to be: a sci-fi crime-thriller sequel; it's an enjoyable read. It could have been more though if it had dug deeper into some of the topics it starts to look at. Instead it skims over the top of them and risks just feeling a bit creepy. The third book hasn't been published as an ebook yet, so I may find myself waiting a bit to complete the set.

Acting My Life: The Autobiography

Acting My Life: The Autobiography - One of my two favourite British actors – Ian Holm the living one; [a:Alec Guinness|66891|Alec Guinness|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1209225692p2/66891.jpg] the dead one – since seeing him in [b:Alien|35125|Alien|Alan Dean Foster|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1332019229s/35125.jpg|35062] (obviously not when it came out, but once I was old enough – it was an 18 after all). As with Guinness's and [a:Tom Baker|109972|Tom Baker|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1240502409p2/109972.jpg]'s autobiographies it's amazing how little I knew about the lives of these actors. I bought this book back in 2004 as a nice signed-by-the-author hardback and it sat on my bookshelf from then (like so many other books on my to-read list) until now. Thanks to Goodreads allowing me to indulge my tendencies for lists and the like I was finally able to get around to reading it.

The book covers Holm's entire life to its publication. From his early years in Goodmayes (a mere 7 miles from where I grew up); his school days and actor training – each containing a disturbingly detached tale of what we would now clearly call child abuse – through military service and his acting career; his five wives and five children; finishing with presumably his most famous role, Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings films.

In fact, detached seems like quite an appropriate word for the whole book: from the Holm parents relationship to their son; Holm's attitude to his abuse; his attitude to his career; even his attitude to his wives and children. Not that he seems unaware of this either. There's a tone in the book that he thinks he aught to feel more about his life, that the people around him are all responding to things correctly, it's just him that isn't. And he blatantly does care about his career in the sense that he's professional and wants to do the best job he can, but he doesn't seem worried about the path of his career. And, as his serial-monogamy seems to show, he doesn't seem to plan for long-term relationships either. In spite of his detachment from his own life, what he presents the reader with is a thorough, frank and honest story of his life (at least I assume so, I guess you never really know for sure). It's an interesting, well-paced, and above all witty account.