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review 2017-09-15 23:36
"Holding" by Graham Norton
Holding - Graham Norton

Normally,  my impression of an author is created by how they write and what they write about. With "Holding", the process was reversed. I've known Graham Norton firstly as a quirky, slightly risqué comedian, then as an often outrageous but always superficially charming chat show host and most recently, as the Irishman selected to step into the late Terry Wogan's shoes to make witty comments during the Eurovision Song Contest.

 

When I heard he'd written a novel and was narrating it himself, I expected something quirky, slightly risqué but superficially charming. "Holding" is none of those things.

 

"Holding" is a slightly mournful account of the uncovering of bad things that have happened in a remote Irish village.  The policeman at the centre of the action is a slightly slow, slightly overweight, slightly demotivated man, living a lonely life surrounded by people who see him as a joke in uniform.

 

The characters in the village are well drawn and the dialogue is nuanced and credible but I never really got beneath the skin of anyone but the policeman.The plot is well thought through but has all the tension of a crossword puzzle.

 

The claustrophobic atmosphere of a small village where people have known one another too well for too long is well rendered. There IS a lot of humour in it but it's mostly the kind that helps you survive what would otherwise have been an unbearable day and that is a brave alternative to tears.

 

This is an above average debut novel but one that didn't quite have enough emotional weight to be fully satisfying.

 

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review 2017-09-13 22:46
“A Legacy Of Spies” by John Le Carré – beautifully written, distinctly British story that challenges our current xenophobia
A Legacy of Spies: A Novel - John le Carré

A Legacy Of Spies" is John Le Carré's most recent novel and the first of his that I've read. Up to now, I'd been put off by the rather dreary and mournful versions of  George Smiley that I'd seen on TV. I picked up the latest book after listening to a Fresh Air interview with Le Carré that covered contemporary themes around ideology and patriotism that intrigued me.  You can listen to the podcast here

 

What surprised me most about the book was how beautiful the language is. Le Carré writes with clarity and precision, capturing nuances of speech, thought and culture with deft touches that are evocative without being obtrusive. He moves skillfully from past to present, from lie to truth, from regret to rage, in a way that fully engaged my mind and my emotions.

 

The premise of the book is a present day investigation into British security operations during the Cold War. It is told through contemporary interrogations by a rather loathsome lawyer, extracts from official, secret but not necessarily truthful records and intensely intimate memories of the retired spy from whose point of view the story is told.

 

This is a strong spy story, full of intrigue and deception and betrayal but those are really just the vehicle for the true heart of the novel, which seems to me to be an exploration of the nature of patriotism and the inability and unwillingness of the current generation to understand the context of the actions of the previous generation.

 

Peter, the retired spy under investigation, is no longer the zealous young man who faced danger, put others at risk and sometimes acted against his conscience in the service of his country. He is a man who controls his emotions, edits not just his speech but his thoughts and has a deeply embedded habit of secrecy and distrust. Yet he is and was an honourable man. Far more honourable than the men currently interrogating him who are acting not to protect their country from foreign aggression but to protect the Service from embarrassing litigation.

 

As I shared Peter's memories and experiences, his secrets and his regrets, I was reminded of a time when Russia was our overt enemy, holding half of Europe in its totalitarian fist and threatening the other half with conquest or extinction. Patriotism then was a matter of survival not nostalgic flag waving.

 

Of course, Russia is still our enemy and still seeks to weaken or destroy us but Europe is now strong and united and free from direct oppression. The message of the book seems to be that we have lost sight of our enemy's true nature,  have forgotten the struggle that brought us hard-won freedom, have become smug and complacent and have allowed our own selfish nationalism to be used by Russia as a weapon against the rest of Europe. Le Carré is never quite so direct as this but beneath the calm, apparently dispassionate text, I can feel his rage. It is a rage that I share.

 

"A Legacy Of Spies" is not a polemic disguised as a novel, It is fundamentally a very human story of love and sacrifice and deception and regret and most of all, of endurance.

 

Tom Hollander does a wonderful job of capturing every shade of meaning in the text. You can hear an extract of his performance by ciicking on the SoundCloud linke below.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/341291279" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

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review 2017-09-12 22:48
"Drysine Legacy - Spiral Wars #2" by Joel Shepherd
Drysine Legacy - Joel Shepherd

"The Drysine Legacy" carries straight of from "Renegade" but manages to crank up the complexity and broaden the scope of the story to include even more aliens and to get deeper into the AI threat.

 

Like its predecessor, it's a long book but the pages fly by and the story never drags. I always wanted to know what would happen next.

 

I felt that this book was less character driven than the last one. The intricacies of the plot dominate the book and drive most of the action. Yet the characters DO continue to develop and their relationships shift in realistic ways.

 

The action scenes (and there are many of them) are outstanding: easy to visualise, massive in scale and very fast moving.

 

I particularly enjoyed getting to see various aliens in the story develop so that I understood more about their point of view and their motivation. In some ways, I found it easier to empathise with the aliens than I did to get inside the heads of the Marines.

 

The AI in the story is well imagined and avoids the clichés and simplifications that picture AIs as just big computers who are scarily smarter than us. This AI has a strong personality that is hard ignore and impossible to second guess. In some ways that's much scarier than Skynet. I found myself liking "her" and then realised that I had no way of knowing if I was just being conned. Which is exactly the dillema for the human crew.

 

This is well written space opera on a massibe scale that continues to deliver excitement and action as well as big ideas and intriguing characters.

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review 2017-09-08 23:29
"Cold Granite - Logan McRae #1" by Stuart MacBride
Cold Granite - Stuart MacBride

I came across Stuart MacBride when he won "Celebrity Mastermind" a week or so ago.  The host asked Macbride what he did when his first novel, "Cold Granite",was so well received that his publishers asked him for the next novel in the series, even though he had no plan for one. MacBride replied, "Well, it was write another novel or carry on working in IT. So... here's another novel."

 

That was enough for me to get hold of an audio book copy of *Cold Granite"

 

Set in the perpetually rain-drenched granite streets of Aberdeen, "Cold Granite" tells the story of DS Logan "Lazarus" McRae's return to work after a long sick leave recovering from a knife attack. On his first day back he ends up investigating the death of a young child.

 

What follows is a very Scottish police procedural, crammed with local colour, larger than life characters, raucous humour and unflinching descriptions of death, decay and violence.

 

The pace is perfect. The relationships inside the police force and between the police officers and the press felt very real. There are plenty of credible suspects, a twisted trail of crimes and criminals and, at the heart of it all, a young DS still learning his trade. McRae works hard, is not yet comfortable with his rank, occasionally screws up but mostly spends his energy doggedly pulling together the pieces of the puzzle that can lead him to the murderer.

 

It is straightforward crime fiction that delivers good entertainment and memorable characters.

 

Like MacBride's publishers, I'm demanding more. Fortunately, I'm twelve years late to this party so there are another nine books already in print.

 

"Cold Granite" is narrated with great skill by Steve Worsley. Click on the SoundCloud link below for a sample

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/323232771" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

 

 

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text 2017-09-03 18:26
"After The Apocalypse" by Maureen McHugh
After the Apocalypse - Maureen F. McHugh

After The Apocalypse" is a collection of nine short stories that look at events in different near-futures after a disaster of some kind.

 

As you'd expect with Maureen McHugh, the stories tell us as much about the world we live in as the possible future being described.

 

She has a flair for looking at the world through the eyes of the disadvantaged, the marginalized and the at risk and an impressive ability to build future worlds and believable characters using very few words. Almost every story describes a near-future that stimulates, surprises and convinces and populates it with characters that I recognize and care about.

 

If you're not familiar with Maureen McHugh's work, this is a good introduction. If you're already a fan then these stories are a treat not to be missed.

 

I've given short comments on each story below to give you a flavour of the collection. Some of them are available on line if you want to sample them but to get them all, you'll need to buy the book.

 

The Naturalist

This is dark, surprising and not at all your average zombie story. In this tale of a Zombie Preserve being used as a prison compound cum death-by-zombie execution sentence, the walking dead are not the thing you should be afraid of.  I enjoyed the way this story makes the Rational Observer, so beloved of many science fiction stories, into something quite chilling.

 

Special Economics

This near future story is set in a post-plague China, faced with a scarcity of workers for the first time. It describes a brand of Corporate Slavery that was once common in the US and is now rumoured to be used when the US outsources work to less regulated nations.  It appealed to me because it showed how ordinary people will find a way to overcome the economic obstacles in their way.

 

Useless Things

This is one of the simplest and most powerful stories in the book. It is permeated with a sense of threat, of the real possibility of imminent loss. It captures the quiet desperation of living a life on the edge of an unstoppable slide into poverty and homelessness; of wanting to help others but being afraid that they will do you harm; of having little control and less hope; of having enough to lose to cause worry but not enough wealth to buy security. It's the perfect tale for Trump's America.

 

The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large

This one didn't engage me. It felt like an essay on disassociative states and what they imply about identity. It was interesting but it didn't hook my emotions.

 

The Kingdom of the Blind

This is the most plausible story about the possible emergence of an AI "awareness" that I've read. It's mercifully free of anthropomorphization. There are also so nice points made about women in the coding world that made me think of the recent Google embarrassment.

 

Going to France

This is the shortest story and the most bizarre. I felt its pull but it was just a little too far out for me.

 

Honeymoon

I loved the first line of this:

 

"I was an aggravated bride."

 

It got me straight inside the head of the woman telling the story. She's a forceful working class woman, who's been working in McDonald's plus two other jobs that paid for her wedding. At first, it seems that she's leading a relatively unexplored life but as the story progresses and she faces some abnormal events, it becomes clear that she is making informed, even philosophical choices because that's the kind of person she is.

 

The Effect of Centrifugal Forces

This is told from multiple points of view. Unfortunately, the narrator didn't demonstrate this very well and I got confused from time to time. It's focused on people under pressure who can't hold themselves or their lives together.

 

After the Apocalypse

This is the strongest story in the collection. It showcases Maureen McHugh's ability to help us see the people in the situation and then help us to see the situation differently.

We've been saturated with post-apocalyptic worlds where we revert to something less than we used to be in order to survive. We've been fed tropes about tough survivalists and ruthless raiders and the crumbling remnants of an order that doesn't know it's already extinct. It's like we're practising for something that we expect to happen soon so that we'll know what to expect and what choices to make.

 

We've been saturated with post-apocalyptic worlds where we revert to something less than we used to be in order to survive. We've been fed tropes about tough survivalists and ruthless raiders and the crumbling remnants of an order that doesn't know it's already extinct. It's like we're practising for something that we expect to happen soon so that we'll know what to expect and what choices to make.

 

The achievement of this short story is that it humanises the tropes we've been taught. It shows us that, in other parts of the world, the apocalypse has already arrived and that the flood of refugees we are so used to seeing on the media could one day be us.

 

The story is told from the point of view of a woman on the road with her daughter, heading through an America without electricity or fuel or clean water or food or any of the things that Americans take for granted.

 

As they travel, the woman slowly comes to realise that everything she knew is gone. That even though she's an American, she's now just another refugee. Then she decides what to do about it.

 

Her situation, her reactions and her final choice seemed very real to me. After the apocalypse, we're still there, only the future we assumed we were entitled to is missing. Dealing with that realisation would tell each of us a great deal about who we have always been.

 

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