Once Upon a Time in the West – The Son by Philipp Meyer

the sonI must confess I’m slightly baffled by the almost universal brilliant reviews this book has received. The star givers on Amazon can be a fickle bunch and this sweeping but detail heavy epic has, I would have thought, much to put off the casual reader. Certainly I’ve seen less forgiving reviews on books (often only partially read), that were much more accessible than ‘The Son’.

Around page 250 I nearly gave up. I’d slogged through graphic details of rape, murder, scalping, pillage, horse riding, landscapes and oil wells, but found the book lacked urgency and direction. Despite this, I pressed on and I am glad I did.

For a brief time I thought ‘The Son’ was going to be one of those books that requires perseverance but ultimately pays back its readers’ persistence with interest. A novel where the effort and exercise of having read it make the fruit it bears taste all the sweeter. Some of my favourite novels fit into this category and The Son was almost there, before fading away to a rather flat conclusion. Flat yet fitting.

There are three narrative threads, but they unwind at a glacial pace. Even the story of the young Eli McCullough witnessing the cold blooded murder of his family before being abducted by Comanche Indians failed to hold my interest across so many pages. The other stories describe further generations of McCulloughs, all descended from ‘The Colonel'; family patriarch Eli, who lived to be one hundred years old and was by all accounts a right royal bastard.

Peter McCullough writing in 1917 is something of a black sheep in the family; he appears to have a conscience. He is caught in a maelstrom of events as a family of Mexicans are gunned down after an alleged cow rustling incident (unless it was horses, it was a lot of pages ago). Jeanne Anne McCullough, narrates her story from 1980’s, towards the end of her life. She is the head of a oil company, and a tough woman in a man’s world.  Each of the three narratives is told in chapters one after the other. ie Eli, Peter, Jeanne, Eli, Peter, Jeanne… As the novel progresses the three strands weave together forming a tapestry of the history of Texas.

Whilst not completely convinced by the novel as a whole (It’s too long and Jeanne Anne’s tale is significantly weaker than the other two), it contains much to admire and enjoy. There are some breathtaking passages with language that is rich and authentic. The view given of Texas, its inception and rise to oil-fuelled supremacy is fascinating. It’s a subject I knew little about, and it inspired me to do a little further reading to find out more. Meyer’s brutal but sensitive depiction of the Comanche tribe is often fascinating despite slowing the pace of the narrative. This is not a novel for the faint-hearted. Its violence is unrelenting, vivid and unflinching. Life was hard and cheap in frontier America. It’s a land soaked in blood. (I flicked through the my copy today, stopping randomly. On any given page there was at least some reference to violence and death.)

Above everything, The Son offers a view of contemporary society through the lens of the past. There is a beautiful chapter about the capture and slaughter of a buffalo that says as much about modern consumerism and waste than it does about the eating habits of the Comanche. There is great weight lent to the idea that the hard work of our forefathers is often squandered by later generations. Wealth and comfort breed laziness and a contempt for the hard work that gave us the warmth and security in the first place.

Finally, there is a definite sense of the impermanence of man. The Son unexpectedly dovetailed with my previous read ‘The King and the Slave’; two tales about empire separated by 7000 miles and 2500 years. Both novels examine the idea that rulers come and go. Those ousted first ousted somebody else. Nothing is permanent and legends outlive empires. The sense of the land being scarred but unmoved by the events of The Son is very real. The land lives on long after those who walk it are dead.

The end of the novel irritated me. Having stuck to over 500 pages in his 1,2,3,1,2,3 structure, Meyer suddenly adds a fourth voice. This is a personal bugbear, but I think if an author chooses a device they should stick to it. To deviate feels like cheating, but perhaps that’s just me. Overall I found The Son to be a desperately bleak novel. It gives a depressingly dim (accurate) view of human nature. It is no way a comfortable read and as such I find it difficult to recommend, but as an examination of culture, habits and history of the American west, it is a fascinating and illuminating read.

The Myth of Power – The King and the Slave by Tim Leach

the-king-and-the-slaveThe King and The Slave is the follow up to Tim Leach’s The Last King of Lydia, one of my favourite books of recent years. LKoL is very readable historical fiction based around the writings of Herodotus, and is a book with great depth and meaning. I’m always wary when reading follow ups to beloved novels. Often the sequels can only disappoint. So how does The King and The Slave compare?

I must confess, I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as LKoL, though I think to do so was almost impossible. I’d come to the first book without expectation and was taken completely by surprise by its brilliance. Once again, the events in this book were recorded by Herodotus. As historical fiction, the King and the Slave is highly readable, but I found it didn’t quite have the depth of the its predecessor.

I suspect this is due to the source material. At the centre of LKoL was Croseus’s discussion with Solon about the nature of happiness. Throughout the book there are questions of power, happiness and whether one can lead to the other. Leach was further aided by depicting Cyrus the Great, a compassionate and thinking leader, whose philosophical conversations with Croseus added much to the book.

This book opens with the death of Cyrus and the ascension to the throne of his son Cambyses. Immediately Croseus is pushed to the periphery of the court, so he is less influential in the story, but worse, from the point of view of subtlety and nuance, Cambyses is as mad as a hat box full of frogs.

In place of subtle discourse, we have atrocities perpetrated by an insecure monarch out of control. Cambyses decisions are driven by a desire to step out of his father’s shadow. In an attempt to show his strength he becomes a brutal dictator. As he works to expand his empire Cambyses is uncaring of friend and foe alike.

There are some truly horrific passages in The King and the Slave. It makes for brutal reading. Cambyses’s indifference to loss of life made me feel queasy. Croseus tires to mitigate his new master’s actions but with little effect. Leach portrays Cambyses as an ancient equivalent of Stalin, with meaningless purges and subordinates terrified to offer advice. It’s an interesting take on ancient leaders; I’m much more used to seeing twentieth century leaders depicted in this way. It ties in with one of the themes of LKoL. The idea that humanity has changed very little in the 2500 years.

Introspection can be found in the novel, not in the discourse between king and slave, but in the friendship of a triumvirate of slaves, Croseus, Isocrates and his wife Maia.  Their relationship is subtle, complex, almost unfathomable, but forms the core that holds up both books, particularly tKatS. Through these three Leach explores the nature of love and sacrifice.

The final chapters of this book elevate it towards the same heights as its predecessor. Delicate and emotive they even open up the title of the novel to interpretation. Who is slave and who is king? Leach offers several alternative candidates for both. The Croseus novels examine the power of myth and the myth of power. They analyse the mutability of history and the seductive nature of a good story. History might be written by the victors, but it’s not always easy to tell who has won. With The King and the Slave, Tim Leach has once again delivered top notch historical fiction.

Don’t take my word for it, other reviews can be found by Kate at For Winter Nights and Parmenion Books 

Many Thanks to Alison at Atlantic for sending me a copy of this book. 

Prophecy, Mage, Destiny and Crime – Smiler’s Fair by Rebecca Levene

review-projectThis review is written as part of the Hodderscape Review Project.

Smiler’s Fair is an unassuming looking book.  It’s a fantasy, which at first I found difficult to believe as there’s no heavily cloaked man on the cover.  The blurb promises goatherds, orphans, lonely warriors and inescapable destiny. Hardly the stuff of original fiction, yet the book is garnering some stellar reviews. So what’s the deal?

This is a secondary world fantasy with a varied host of characters, whose stories gradually entwine. I love this device, so I was predisposed to enjoy the book, but all the same I am confident in proclaiming that Rebecca Levene has created something very special . Special and highly original. Original yet comfortingly familiar. The individual stories here are not particularly remarkable, nor is there a huge amount of excitement attached to each one. It’s the way in which they are bound together that makes the book so refreshing.SmilersFair_VISUAL1

Levene has taken lots of tired tropes and created something innovative and interesting. There are six characters all with unique (and often peculiar) outlooks on life. From each of their stories the reader experiences a little more of Levene’s world. A world that is painstakingly created. Not so much geographically and historically but more socio- and psychologically. Levene does not map rivers and mountain ranges, instead she charts morals and beliefs. She’s a Tolkien of ethics and human frailty.

The Smiler’s Fair at the centre of the book is a travelling fair, continually moving, bringing delights and vice wherever it travels. All the players intersect with the Fair at some point in the novel and its continual motion gives the novel an additional dynamic dimension. The unfaltering progression of the fair propels the novel towards its portentous and momentous conclusion. I don’t want too say much more than that. The books is textured, nuanced and best explored with few preconceptions.

Reading the book I was put in mind of reading the Belgariad for the first time, almost thirty years ago. The characters and writing style are similar, but Levene has infused Smiler’s Fair with modern and realistic dilemma. Characterisation is excellent. Characters react in ways you would never expect, and interact with each other in ways which took me completely by surprise. The ethical questions that stand at the centre of the book, the nature of good and evil and the power of myth and belief, are fascinating. I’ve never seen moral ambiguities addressed so well in fantasy fiction and I found myself greatly envious of Levene’s talent.  A sense of dread permeates the book, and after it wells up to the top of the story, the outcome is totally unexpected. The ending is awesome; as painful a cliffhanger as I’ve read in many a year. I haven’t awaited a sequel this much for a very long time.

Are you going to Smiler’s Fair? It’s unique and utterly brilliant, so you should probably catch up with it fast. Once more the goatherd is king (maybe…)

Many thanks to Anne and the Hodderscape review project for sending me a copy of this book. (Let me know when you’ve got book two, please!!!) 

Asleep by the interval – The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

repulicIf Republic of Thieves were a heist, it would be the one where the mark falls asleep halfway through the con and wakes to discover hours of he’s lost £8.99 of his hard earned cash.

When the Lies of Locke Lamora burst onto the fantasy scene, I was blown away. Scott Lynch’s début reinvigorated my view of fantasy fiction. Book two was a pale imitation, and it was with some trepidation that I took up book 3.  All the more so considering its troubled route to publication, taking some five years. Lynch suffered from depression in the intervening period and so it is great credit to him and his mental fortitude that the book ever saw the light of day. As such, I feel almost obliged to like it more, but whilst I enjoyed elements of the book, overall I found it disappointing.

The problem for me is the length of the book. Considering the difficulties of bringing the book to fruition, it seems incredible that the final product was so long. A much tighter edit was needed. There are two strands to the book, one set in the past, before the events of the first book (giving Lynch the opportunity to bring back the interesting characters he killed in ‘Lies’). The other strand follows on directly where ‘Skies’ left off, with Locke poisoned and close to death.

There’s nothing wrong with this method of storytelling. Events in the prequel tale do impinge on the character’s behaviour in the other narrative, but the problem is that neither tale is very interesting. Not after each story is diluted down across three hundred and fifty pages.  Weighing in at over 700 pages, the Republic of Thieves is at least 300 too long. One strand is about the staging of a play and the other manipulating a political election. These are not the most exciting topics on which to base a fantasy novel. It can be done, but this is neither ‘Noises Off’ nor ‘The West Wing.’

Apart from the fact we learn that Locke loves his political opponent from the main story, the flashback narrative and its play-acting are entirely superfluous. If I was unkind, I would be tempted to suggest that Lynch had a burning desire to write terrible mock Shakespearean dialogue and this was the best way he could conceive for  it to see the light of day. It may have been justified if the production turned out to be a small part of a larger swindle, the true of extent of which was visible only as the last piece of the puzzle dropped into position. Instead, events control Locke and his troupe, not the other way around and whilst there is some half-hearted trickery, it’s nothing compared with that in the first book.

The main narrative is underpowered. I imagine it’s bloody hard to think of exciting and realistic tit-for-tat escapades of a fake election. Lynch doesn’t manage it. It’s diverting at best, and the final pay off as Locke tips his hand to his opponent is about as exciting as a spoiled ballot paper. To make matters worse, it transpires that the entire book is really a holding mechanism for a wider story arc, based around Locke Lamora’s true identity and his villainous enemy ‘The Falconer’.  This deeper story is potentially more interesting, but it leaves the reader feeling cheated. It’s as though the entire book existed just to give the final chapter some background, but the two barely relate to one another so it’s hard to see why one needed to follow the other.

It’s not all bad. Lynch hasn’t lost his ear for snappy dialogue, and once again he delivers up the finest and ripest insults available in the genre. Characterisation is still strong. Locke and Jean are fine creations, as are the rest of the Gentlemen Bastards. The complicated relationship between Locke and his love interest is well written, if long-winded.  Lynch’s descriptive prowess is second to none. We moved from one evocative scene to another, but travelling along them was like a procession.  I very much enjoyed the first third of the book, but after that it didn’t really have any other gears. Just more of the same with  little build up of excitement or tension.

After three hundred pages I was expecting greatness, by 600 I just wanted the damn thing to end. With the intriguing questions posed in the final chapters, I would probably read another Lynch tome, but the Gentlemen Bastards are down to the very last of the currency accrued from their audacious exploits in the Lies of Locke Lamora. Let’s hope they spend it wisely.

Connecting at Waterloo – Gordon Corrigan’s New History

waterlooThis post is not so much a book review as a thank you to Alison at Atlantic books.  When the last Atlantic books catalogue came out there was, as ever, several titles that interested me. I’m gradually learning not to gorge myself on the titles offered in these glossy brochures of temptation, because I just end up feeling guilty about the pile of unread books stacked on the shelves. One book that did catch eye, though I knew I’d never read it, was Gordon Corrigan’s Waterloo: A New History of the Battle and its Armies. I wouldn’t read it; my dad however would love it.

Those of you who read regularly will know that my Dad suffers from Parkinson’s. This is a great source of sadness in my life, and the posts about it aren’t particularly cheery. All through my life Dad has spent his spare time, either in the garden or surrounded by toppling piles of history books about Wellington, Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo. He is an amateur historian, but he loves it. I figured he’d love this book, but there was a problem. Dad’s Parkinson’s makes it very difficult for him to read. When he’s off, and forced to sit in a chair, he can’t hold a book or turn the pages (or even operate a touch screen).  When he’s able to move, the last thing he wants to do is sit in chair.

My passion for books (and maps) comes from my Dad. His reading of the Hobbit to me as child engendered a love of fantasy. He helped me cross the traverse between solo gamebooks and roleplaying games, by patiently reading Jackson and Livingstone’s ‘Fighting Fantasy‘ to me. I used to spend hours with him as child pouring over the almost fantastical maps of ‘Muir’s Historical Atlas‘, a book I love looking at even now.

Once I’d grown up, for Christmas and birthdays, it became a challenge to find a book that would interest my dad; usually military history, hopefully on some aspect of the Napoleonic Wars he wasn’t fully conversant with. Then, about seven or eight years ago, I noticed he didn’t read them any more. Even now I find myself thinking, ‘Dad would like that’ but there’s almost no point in buying it for him. It will sit unread.

This cut out a great shared experience. For as long as I remember we’ve talked about books, bonded over them. Whether it be an Ian Rankin, a historical novel, or military history tome, we’ve talked about books. Even when it was just him indulging me by listening to my teenage-self bang on about the latest plans for my Warhammer Army. Parkinson’s, that bastard of an illness, steals the person away gradually; so slowly you almost don’t notice it. The theft of conversation is its most insidious trick of all.

Nevertheless, I asked Alison whether she would mind sending me a copy. I explained to her that I’d probably never review it, that it was for my dad and he’d quite possibly never read it. Despite this she was kind enough to send me a copy. It arrived around father’s day, and I sent it to him with a card and he thanked me for it, and then, I guess I sort of forgot about it…

At the end of July dad moved down here for the summer. Some temporary respite for my mum, he took up residence in care home around the corner from us, which is great because we can see him regularly and he can enjoy his three grandchildren without them driving him crackers and exhausting him.

I noticed he’d brought his Waterloo book with him.

‘Are you reading this?’ I asked.

‘Yes.’ he said, ‘It’s good. So good, I actually want to finish it.’

It’s hard to sum up what high praise this is. Gradually, over the summer, dad worked his way through the book. To maintain his interest despite the difficulty of reading, makes it a rare book indeed. Better still it rekindled conversation. It’s not only that talking is physically difficult for dad. His frame of reference has shrunk so much in the recent years, it’s hard to sustain conversation when you see him everyday. There’s only so much we can talk about football. The book reignited his passion for all things Napoleonic and he talked animatedly about it.

I’m not an expert in this area at all but this is what he thought of the book.

Dad liked the narrative style. It overlooks the battle as whole, and not just from one side or point of view. It’s authoritative; whilst it takes an omniscient view of the battle, the available evidence is interpreted in one way only. Other interpretations are available but they are not offered here.  This clearly might not be to everyone’s liking but it met with dad’s approval.

There is lots of background information and it’s covered well. The battle itself doesn’t start until after halfway through the book. This is unusual, and contained some information that dad hadn’t heard before. There are details about Napoleon becoming emperor placed in context of the French revolution. There is lots of stuff about the preliminaries before the conflict; more of the book isn’t about Waterloo than is. Of the stuff that is about Waterloo, dad didn’t find anything he thought was wrong, greatly adding the book’s authority. The subject of  the latter part of the book, the battle itself, has been extensively written about elsewhere, so there are less revelations. In short the first half of the book is excellent and enlightening, the latter half is solid and well explained, if unremarkable.

Gordon Corrigan’s interpretation of Waterloo, met with dad’s approval and has spurred several father and son conversations, which has greatly improved my understanding of the period. It’s enabled dad and I to talk about something that goes beyond ‘how are you feeling today?’ and for that I am eternally grateful to Gordon for writing his book and Alison for sending me a copy. Last night dad I were discussing the aftermath of Waterloo, whilst I used my phone to check facts on Wikipedia (well hopefully they were facts). 21st century bonding stemming from a 15th century innovation, discussing 19th century history. Parkinson’s may be shit, but the world can be an amazing place.

Many thanks to Alison at Atlantic for sending me this book. May the sun shine upon her always! 

From tiny acorns – Codex Born by Jim C Hines

Codex-Reborn-UK-editionOne of my surprise best reads of the year is Libriomancer by Jim C Hines. A book with such a beguiling premise that it demanded to be read. The idea that there is a coven of magicians who can pull all manner of stuff out from between the covers of a book propelled Libriomancer to the top of my to-be-read pile. Beneath the pulpy cover, vampires and lusty dryads was an intricately conceived and well executed urban fantasy that had considerable depth. It is pretty much a must read for anybody who loves the genre. Libriomancer didn’t just lazily reference its influences, it embedded them in the story and enhanced their myths.

So how do you follow that? Well it’s pretty tricky. Libriomancer is stuffed full of innovation, but the mechanics of libriomancy are now pretty much established, and surely all the best fictional references were in the first novel? What would a second book have to offer? The answer is, ‘Pretty much the same as the first’. This story doesn’t offer much on top of Libriomancer in terms of fresh concepts, so it doesn’t have the wow-factor of book 1. Indeed some of the embellishments don’t quite work. It’s a common problem in this type of storytelling. In order to make an original premise more convincing, there are often constraints put in place. When an author finds that it’s not just his characters bound by the constraints, but subsequent stories too, they bend the rules to allow more interesting things to happen. Invariably they don’t quite work.  Having said that, whilst a couple of Isaac Vanio’s new skills jarred, they certainly didn’t spoil the party

Codex Born has story and character a plenty. There is an irreverent vein of humour running through it, and there is still a reverence retained for books and storytelling. Here vampires are replaced by werewolves (which makes you wonder if zombies are next). I’ve never been a huge fan of lycanthrope stories, so some of the references were lost on me. The central plot once again revolves around dryad Lena Greenwood and her being a living thing that was once fictional.

As in the first book there are thrills, spills and literary shenanigans. Whilst Codex Born doesn’t elevate the series, it certainly does it no detriment. It’s another entertaining novel written in the same vein as the first; magical high jinx for library lovers. I look forward to volume three.

Many Thanks to the team at Del Rey for sending me a copy of this book.

Now or Never? – My Real Children by Jo Walton

my real childrenIf you’ve read much of my blog, you’ll know that I have a soft spot for Jo Walton. Among Others is a book I love. I’ve recommended it countless time and bought copies as presents for just about anybody I could half-way justify. What Makes this Book so Great also left an impression. So much so I’ve started the world’s most infrequent (and least membered) book club.

When those lovely people at Corsair sent me Walton’s latest, I squeeeeed with excitement (on the inside at least). But publication was a while away and I’m forever playing catch up on my reading pile, so I left it to one side. It was a special treat awaiting my delectation. Yet somehow, whilst it sat there, the shelf started to bow under the weight of my expectation. I became convinced it was going to disappoint. I almost persuaded myself I didn’t want to read it. The obvious comparison with Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life started to put me off. How could it possibly be in the same league?

As an acolyte of Walton (a Waltonite?) I should have kept the faith. My Real Children is a masterpiece of understated brilliance.

The novel opens with the rambling thoughts of an elderly lady in a care home. Her sense of reality is confused. Stairs misplace themselves, lift doors appear where before there was only wall and did she have three children or four? Is she suffering from dementia, or is this something else? Is she remembering lives that never were, or did both happen?

The book is predicated on a simple ‘Sliding Doors‘ premise. Patty’s (rather peculiar) boyfriend asks her to marry him (in extremely unromantic circumstances). What happens if she says ‘Now’? What if she says ‘Never’?

The two stories then run concurrently, a chapter at a time. Each is mundane in its own way, but both are compelling and fascinating. It’s a beautiful examination of how decisions might come to define our lives, but it’s a whole lot more than that. Walton examines the role of women in the home and in academia, sexuality in the 1970s and the threat of nuclear oblivion.  It describes the importance of family and humanity’s need to form a collective unit. In essence the book is a peon to love: platonic, familial and romantic. It also provides a crushing reminder that as well as being capable of great love, humans can also be violently destructive.

So where’s the SciFi?

Walton’s brand of science fiction fantasy is delicate and subtle. Among Others contains references to fairies, but the real sorcery is in the power of books and the magic of libraries. Clearly, in My Real Children, we have two alternate realities. Walton cleverly dovetails these into wider conterfactual realities. So real are the stories Walton is telling, time and again I found myself puzzling over a wider historical inaccuracy, before kicking myself; this is a world of fiction. Some of the book is rooted in reality, whilst other branches shift under the moving sands of history. It’s a great device, pulled off expertly. They could have easily overwhelmed the delicate plot, but the speculative fiction elements never jar the reader away from the central story. If Among Others was fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy, this is science fiction for people who hate, abhor and would never ever read science fiction.

I absolutely, completely and without reserve loved My Real Children. It’s a wonderfully clever book. Moving in the extreme. Nothing much happens, yet the stories told are utterly compelling. This is fiction of the highest quality and deserves to be read as widely as possible. Be warned. If you know me, this is what you’re getting for Christmas.

Many Thanks to Grace and the team at Corsair for sending me a copy of this wonderful book.     

Scaffwolves of London – Our Lady of the Streets by Tom Pollock

untitledThe Skyscraper Throne trilogy is a fascinating series created by a one of the genre’s finest new talents. Tom Pollock’s inventiveness is astounding. His grimy London is filled with magical creatures, ghost trains and tower cranes; even the streets themselves rise up. When one of the major players in a novel continually and convincingly recreates itself from the rubbish and detritus of the city, you know you’re reading something pretty special.

My opinion was divided on the opening two novels. Whilst impressed by Pollock’s creativity in book 1,  The City’s Son, I felt he’d thrown too many ingredients into the pot, making for an uneven and often baffling read. Book 2,  The Glass Republic, I loved unequivocally. He’d taken one of his excellent ideas and explored it in greater detail. The layers of meaning and depth of characterisation made it a remarkable book.

So, I opened book 3 with some trepidation. We are now back this side of the mirror, but London is well and truly cracked; sickened by fever. Beth, Pen and their rag-tag army of non-humans are all that stand between the megalomania of Mater Viae and the death of the city they love.

Our Lady of the Streets is a mixture of the brilliance of book 2 and the ideas overload of book 1. I loved elements of the book but others didn’t really make sense to me. Or at least why they were happening didn’t. I think part of the problem is the reemergence of Reach, a character whose premise is brilliant but whose full execution doesn’t wholly chime with me. I struggled generally with the problem of motive. Lots of terrible stuff was happening very quickly, but I wasn’t convinced as to why.

As before there are some stunning set pieces. Pollock’s descriptive writing is excellent. The villains ooze menace and reading about the grubby streets leaves you wanting to wash your hands.

Two chapters in particular set this book apart from the standard urban fantasy offerings. Grown-ups often get fairly short shrift in YA novels, and The Skyscraper throne trilogy is unusual in making Beth’s dad a positive influence on the story. Pollock highlights the parent-child bond; its strength and the love behind it. He does this without ever dropping into schmaltz. As a parent I thought he’d captured it beautifully and was greatly moved.

Later in the book Pen finds an elderly resident, holed up, waiting for the end of days.  Again, taking a break from the magic and mayhem, Pollock writes a touching and reflective piece on growing old and making peace with one’s lot.

In all three books Pollock shows he has imagination to burn; that he will be the urban fantasy go-to guy for countless readers. These two chapters show he is more than just about the weird and wonderful. Heartfelt and real, they demonstrate Pollock can handle and reflect on subtle and delicate emotions.

The end of the novel fits well with what has gone before. Pollock walks the thin line between frustratingly bleak and everything tied off with a bow, with barely a misstep. It’s hard to get the balance right across a trilogy, but here the reader gets mostly want they want, with a few tantalising and painful omissions. The Skyscraper Throne trilogy heralds the arrival of a coruscating talent. It hasn’t always convinced me, but it’s never failed to impress. I very much look forward to reading what Tom Pollock writes next.

Many Thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book

Word up! – The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

the_word_exchange_1024x1024Here at Robin’s Books, titles that revolve around social media seem to be coming more and more prevalent. In the last few months I’ve read the writer’s view, the scary vision of the future for grown ups and the scary vision of the future for young adults. All of these titles ask what exactly are we surrendering by putting so much stock in social networking; are we in danger of becoming homogenised sheep all shuffling after the next trend? If they had a coverall catchphrase it might be ‘Think before you Tweet’.

The Word Exchange is definitely the most cerebral of these social media critiques and it’s probably the hardest to read. Dense and thoughtful, the book suggests it’s not just our personalities and our freedoms that are at stake. If they weren’t enough, the very future of language might be at risk.

This isn’t some Daily Mail, Gove loving, piece about teenagers using ‘m8′ signifying the death of the written word (does anybody use m8 any more? I’m too old to know). It’s a serious meditation on how instantaneous information is changing the way our brains function. Recall of telephone numbers, facts and appointments is obviated by modern technology. I barely know my own number let alone anybody else’s. But what if language went the same way? What if your device, here called a ‘Meme’ could supply that difficult word for you? Then, if large corporations were involved in supplying those worlds, how long before they tried to control the chain? It’s quite a simple idea, but Graedon gives it a profound treatment.

The Word Exchange, as one might expect for a novel with at least three lexicographical experts (lexicographers even!), is rich and dense in language. Not only there are oodles of complicated words (that are nothing like ‘oodles’) there is also much discussion as language as a living entity. The metaphysical musings occasionally threaten to overwhelm, but there is lots of interesting stuff in here about how we communicate and how fragile the communication pathways that we take for granted are.

Kim Curran gave us Glaze and destroyed the world. James Smythe gave us ClearVista and did the same (one man’s anyway). Graedon’s Memes are sort of a combination of the two, with prediction and control front and centre. On the face of it they all perfect iterations of social media, but behind each lie sinister forces. For sheer readability The Word Exchange is not in the league of the other two books, but all three can be read and enjoyed for entirely different reasons. It took me a long time to plough my way through Graedon’s book, mostly because of the complex language and themes. I’m not honestly sure her central conceit ‘Word Flu’ properly hangs together but I must confess to not fully understanding everything that I read.

Nevertheless, Graedon makes some very important observations about the subtle ways being permanently hooked up to devices could change our society. It is a peon to the written word and a reminder that sometimes longhand is best. This is not a quick read; not one for the beach, but it is a clever and thought-provoking book that will appeal to anybody who loves language and reading.

Many Thanks to Jess (formely of Orion) for sending me a copy of this book to review. 

A Tale of Two Kitabs by Nikesh Shukla

Meatspace-web-readyAbout halfway through Meatspace I was struggling a little bit. There were some great observations about the absurdities of modern life and the dangers of an addiction to social media, but where was the story? Or more, was I missing the story because this wasn’t the book for me?

I like to flatter myself that I know about technology but the older I get the harder it is to remain convinced ( watching my 15 year neighbour reconfigure my 8 year old’s Minecraft today revealed rather too much of my own ignorance). I like to think I know about social media, but frankly I use Facebook only to keep half an eye on what old friends are doing and, after a brain frazzling three weeks where I tried to read everything that everyone I followed on Twitter was saying, I now just check in occasionally, realise I’ve missed something interesting and then worry about what it was.

Kitab Balasubramanyam, the central character of Meatspace, is not like this. He comes out in a cold sweat if he is more than six inches from his phone; he tweets everything he eats. He lives in cyberspace rather than the meatspace that gives the novel its title. Social media and his online persona has taken him over. It’s why his girlfriend left him on his own. It’s why he never writes any words for his difficult second novel. Yes Kitab is a writer. He’s also, as you may be able to tell from his name, of Indian descent.

The novel is heavily centred around three strands of life I don’t know much about: Social media, the life of an aspiring author and being Indian in modern Britain (I’m as white Anglo Saxon as they come; my cultural references are terrible food, sunburn and forming an orderly line).  The insecure author continually trying to compose witty tweets is rather lost on me. Apart from the fact I never write anything, I’d quite like to be a writer. Meatspace does not sell the experience.  The obsession with staying connected also passed me by. There just wasn’t a thread I could hold onto and say, ‘Yes, I get this.’  Yet at no time did I consider giving up. There was enough quality to keep me reading, even if I wasn’t fully engaged. I’m glad I did. Meatspace is one of those novels that appears to be superficially about one thing before twisting and becoming deeper than I could ever have imagined.

The story essentially has two strands. The main one is the life of Kitab and his status obsession (a phrase that had a different meaning a decade ago). When he gets a friend request from the only person on Facebook with the same name as him, he thinks nothing of ignoring it. When Kitab2 turns up on his doorstep he proves a little harder to avoid. The second strand is in the form of blog posts from Kitab’s larger than life, alpha male older brother. Aziz has travelled to New York, to meet his doppelgänger. So as one brother leaves on a quest for adventure, another arrives with almost the same intentions.

The novel is filled with great observations about the absurdities of social media, and the pitfalls of letting it rule your life. Greater than that though are its questions about identity. More and more novels are coming through  about the duality of cyberspace persona and meatspace reality. As social media becomes more entrenched and people spend more time hooked up, which personality is true? There are lots of subtle touches here, such as comments on Aziz’s blog that poke and probe author reliability and anonymity online. When the relationship between Kitab and Kitab2 goes sour, further questions are posed about the nature of personality and its potential for subversion on the internet.

None of this quite coalesces until the novel’s final chapters. Before that it’s merely diverting.  Only with the final reveal do we see Shukla’s full intentions, and realise just how good Meatspace is. In addition to the social media stuff, there’s lots interesting comment on the importance of family in a fast-moving world. The fragility of self-esteem when nobody really knows you, and just how fucking difficult it is to write a half decent novel. Meatspace will not suit all tastes but if your interested in the effect of social media on the societies it’s supposed to connect, then you would do well to pick up a copy. Funny, intelligent and more than a little bit sad, Meatspace is well worth a look.

Many Thanks to Madeline Toy for sending me a copy of this book