Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Linked reviews: ‘The Bone Clocks’ and ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ (part 2)

March 22, 2016


Part 2 of a linked review looking at these two hybrid genre novels, this time focusing on The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber. As before, some of what follows could be considered spoiler-y.

In short: it’s rather special.



Linked reviews: ‘The Bone Clocks’ and ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ (part 1)

March 15, 2016

I’ve not read much ‘proper’ fiction in recent months (or years, come to think of it) but recently, in the space of a few weeks, I finished a couple of excellent novels published in 2014: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. They have some interesting similarities — and some interesting differences. In the UK at least, both can be found in the main ‘literary’ fiction section of your local bookshop, but both defy easy genre classification and stray into science fictional territory (and in the case of The Bone Clocks, fantasy as well). Caution: what follows may be spoiler-y.


“Payback Time” cancer campaign mis-step

September 12, 2014

Here’s the video and some background.

It’s a two minute animation currently showing on British TV, in support of an upcoming Channel 4 cancer research fundraising evening, which will be held on 17th October 2014.

The cause is impeccable and I’d urge people to support it. Furthermore, the animation is well made and quite striking. If it gets circulated widely and discussed and some of this buzz translates into increased donations to cancer research, I’m sure the makers will fairly say “job done”.


[spoiler follows]


Iain Banks: In Memoriam (and review of The Bridge)

September 1, 2013

My favourite author died  nearly three months ago, on the 9th June 2013, at the devastatingly under-ripe old age of 59.

I’ll get the provisos out of the way first. I don’t claim he was the best writer in the world ever, but his mix of humour, creative wordplay, blisteringly imaginative settings, likeable and less likeable characters, mainstream literary fiction and science fiction— and several gradations between— and his sometimes bleak and rather twisted view of human relationships, combined with a strong moral sense, clicked with me in a way no other author’s work has done. I have all his paperback books, and will buy The Quarry and The Hydrogen Sonata when they come out in softcover form. I’ve read several of his works more than once. I can’t say that about any other author.

I don’t unreservedly like everything he wrote. Read a few of his books and you’ll quickly notice recurring themes— fascinations, even. And some of the weirder/more  unconventional ones don’t really work for me.

Maybe much of it was just a clever joke— see the Wasp Factory— but that didn’t make it any easier or pleasanter to read.

Call me a prude.


He is best known for his Culture Universe, but generally I prefer his non-Culture books, both mainstream and SF. Somehow everything was just too perfect in the Culture, and setting his stories in non-Culture parts of the Galaxy always felt like  a cop out. Even if it’s all going to hell in a handbasket on one particular planet, we still know that Utopia is out there somewhere, and that in the long run, thanks to those implacable benign machine intelligences, Everything Will Be Boringly All Right.

Enough negativity. Onwards, to the positive.

Everything I love about his writing is in his third (I think) published novel, The Bridge, which I read again recently. For the fourth time, I believe.

It has everything in the list above, in spades. It’s dazzlingly clever and well written, but has a heart of the yellow metallic stuff. It’s an unconventional love story set in 1980s Scotland, with a kind of a steampunk/ fantasy-SF overlay, or underlay, with multiple storylines and crosscutting allusions and puzzles which the reader can choose to explore, or allow to just wash over them, as they see fit. It can be as hard or as fun or as moving as you want or allow it to be. That’s probably why I’ve read it so many times, and will read it again many times more.

The fantastical elements both fade— while also becoming more extreme (I know, I know, you just have to read it)— as the story progresses. The focus shifts to the “real” life of the protagonist, Alex, a Scottish engineer, and the love of his life, Andrea. For a book so outwardly unconventional, The Bridge is strikingly life-affirming and well, human. At one point Alex is overwhelmed by feelings of love and happiness: “If my life was a film he thought, I’d roll the credits now”.

I’ve been fortunate to have had moments like this— the joy that comes with the realisation of being alive and contented— and it is always followed by this same thought. Thank you Iain. What a pleasure to have one of your turns of phrase return at all the most pleasant intervals in my life, like an old and welcome friend.

There are several other nuggets in there, and of course there’s the trademark Iain Banks weirdness too— but in The Bridge he’s adjusted the twisted setting to ‘just right’ (for me, at least). Just enough to cause an occasional thrill of discomfort, without being a big turn off.

In summary: I still really, really, really like this book. The fact that the author always thought it was his best makes me even more sad that he has gone, and that there’s no chance we’ll get another like it. In much of his work, and with The Bridge more than anywhere else, Iain Banks seems to write with a narrative voice that seems eerily close to my own internal voice. (Given that he wrote some pretty weird stuff, I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing, but there you go).

RIP Iain (M) Banks. I never met you, but you are missed.

The Resilience of Diaspar: Thoughts on “The City and the Stars” by Arthur C Clarke

December 20, 2012

Over the last year or so I’ve started reading more science fiction again, as I’ve discovered old genre classics in handy ebook format at reasonable prices.

I thought I’d read most of Arthur C Clarke’s novels as a teenager, but “The City and the Stars”— an early effort, from 1956— slipped the net. Spoilers follow.


More linked reviews: Horizon ‘The Truth about Fat’ and ‘The Energy Glut’ by Ian Roberts

March 23, 2012

The Horizon programme, screened a couple of nights ago, promised to reveal the ‘surprising truth’ about what causes obesity, and ‘how to fight the fat epidemic’. Recently I read a book by  an epidemiology professor called Ian Roberts, “The Energy Glut”, which tackles similar questions, so I was interested to see whether the answers would match.

The short answer is: they don’t.


The Rational Optimist: a review

July 14, 2011

Just finished this book by Matt Ridley. If nothing else, it is a thought-provoking work. Some of the thoughts it has provoked in this reader are summarised below— mostly in short note, off-the-top-of-my-head form.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (BBC documentary): a review

May 31, 2011

Saw the second part of this last night, having stumbled on the first part last week. It’s a documentary series by Adam Curtis, a film maker I hadn’t come across before— but on the evidence of these two programmes, someone with a distinctive and interesting slant on some Big Ideas. Last week it was about Ayn Rand, computers, the 2008/ongoing financial crisis, and Monica Lewinsky. The connections between some of these topics were more than a touch forced, but as a critical exploration of “out of individuals’ search for self-realisation, comes emergent social order, and you can use computers to help it along”-flavoured ideas, it was compelling. Dreamy visual images and melancholic music made it much more engaging than might be expected, given the heavyweight subject matter.

This week was just as intriguing, and perhaps a little more focused— only a little, mind— and opinionated, with more to disagree with as a consequence. All in a distinct and thought-provoking way; hence this post.

Reflections on the Human Lake

April 17, 2011

Belated response to, and placefinder for, Carl Zimmer’s great article The Human Lake.

As the first commenter wrote: “excellent on so many axes”. Does what all science writing should do, regardless of the audience or context— communicates difficult concepts fluently, in this case making convincing connections between very different branches of biology.

And it managed something extra for me, when it took an entirely unexpected turn half way through. The piece first looks at some early history from the science of ecology, when a limnologist working in the 1930s named G Evelyn Hutchinson used a small glacial lake in Connecticut to further develop the pre-existing concept of the ‘ecological niche’.

So far so good.

Guns, germs and collapse- part 2

February 21, 2011

As promised, part 2 of the Diamond-linked book reviews.