Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

isbn9781473222687.jpgBy Philip K. Dick

In the future (ok it’s 1992 but it was the future when this was written, ok) and World War Terminus has devastated much of the Earth. With the atmosphere polluted by radiation mass emigration to off-world colonies has begun, with the human emigres incentivised by the presence of humanoid robots (or Andys as they’re known) to provide slave labour and satisfy humanity’s every whim. Those left behind on Earth struggle to survive, taking solace in the ability to dial moods, and to connect with the Christlike figure of Wilber Mercer via the use of empathy boxes. In this world bereft of so much flora and fauna the greatest status symbol you can possess is an animal, preferably a real one but if not an android animal will do.

In San Francisco Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter employed to hunt down and retire (a polite term for kill) andys that have gone rogue. When six highly advanced Nexus-6 andys arrive on Earth, having violently escaped Mars, Deckard is given the task of tracking them down. But few bounty hunters have ever retired six replicants in a single day, and never the Nexus-6 models, andys built by the Rosen Association that are so advanced that even Deckard’s Voight-Kampff empathy test might not pick them up…


As a fan of Blade Runner, it’s hard not to be interested in the source material. I had read this before, but that was many, many years ago. To be honest I didn’t much enjoy it first time around but, having picked up a copy free with the Blu-ray of Blade Runner 2049, I thought I might give it another go.

Whilst I still wouldn’t call it a great novel, I have to admit that I enjoyed it more second time around, and it made a lot more sense to me. There are many parts of the book that ended up in the film, Deckard’s Voight-Kampff test on Rachel is word for word in places, but in many other respects this is a very different beast.

For starters the term Blade Runner is never used, Deckard is merely a bounty hunter, and Replicant isn’t used either. It’s hard to imagine how the term Blade Runner first sounded, because now its iconic, but it’s hard to say that using the term replicant isn’t a huge improvement on andy!

Whilst animals—real and fake—play their part in the film, their importance isn’t highlighted as much as here, and their existence in both organic and artificial form feeds into Dick’s wider story about empathy. Deckard feels empathy towards animals, and even his robot sheep, yet he, along with everyone else, sees no contradiction in fawning over animals yet having no empathy for humanoid robots, and one of the major strands of the book is Deckard’s growing empathy towards the Nexus-6s he’s hunting.

Another change is that here Deckard is married, to a woman named Iran with whom he has a fractious relationship, although Rachel is still involved in the mix, only here she’s Rachel Rosen; there’s no Tyrell Corporation, only the Rosen Association (interesting side note, in 1975 an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker featured a killer robot built by the Tyrell Institute!)

In many ways Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a product of its time; whilst there are some female characters of note, in Deckard’s world they’re mainly secretaries rather than cops or bounty hunters, and even the female andys have feminine roles. Dick’s world building is at times really good, and at others quite laughable (men have to wear lead lined codpieces because of all of the radiation.).

The prose is variable. At times it’s quite wonderful, and at others its dreadfully clunky. There’s a palpable lack of tension at times too. Many of the Nexus-6s become quite passive when they’re about to be retired, resigned to their fate—no beating at the hands of Leon or being hunted by a deranged Rutger Hauer here—and it does tend to suck the drama out of things, but then I guess Dick was more interested in meditating on empathy than producing a thrilling detective novel.

For a story about empathy the book still feels a trifle lifeless to me, and too often it wanders off down dead ends to do with Mercerism when what you really want is for Deckard to go andy hunting, but it’s surprising how much of this does translate to the film, even down to the notion that Deckard might be an andy himself (though this strand is resolved rather than being left open as it is in the film) and a trip to a mysterious alternative police precinct existing side by side with Deckard’s is a wonderful mind-bender of a plot twist.

It’s a tad old fashioned and clunky, but this is a more interesting book than I once thought, even if its main significance is as the basis for a film I love way more than I could ever love the book.


House of Suns

Posted: February 19, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction

41YN0MhPJWL.jpgBy Alastair Reynolds.

It’s more than six million years in the future and humanity has spread throughout the Milky Way galaxy. There are myriad human and post-human civilisations, although no major civilisation seems to last for long, as the lack of faster than light travel makes it hard to maintain any empire spanning multiple star systems.

One of the few permanent features within the galaxy are the “Lines”. Each line was born from a single individual, six-million years before, who cloned themselves a thousand times, copying their personality into their clones, both male and female, before sending these facets, known as Shatterlings, out into the universe. Genetically enhanced to have incredibly long lifespans, and making use of stasis and abeyance technology, the Shatterlings routinely travel alone, congregating every 200,000 years to exchange stories.

One such line is the Gentian Line, also known as the House of Flowers, composed of the clones of a woman named Abigail Gentian, and two of the shatterlings are Purslane, a female, and Campion, a male. In violation of Line rules, Purslane and Campion have become lovers. Already fifty years late for the latest reunion, their arrival at the festivities is delayed further when they encounter a malevolent space bourn entity, rescuing a being named Hesperus in the process. Hesperus is one of the Machine People, an advanced race of sentient robots.

With Hesperus as their guest, Purslane and Campion resign themselves to a late arrival at the reunion, and probable censure by the rest of the line for their relationship, but a major turn of events will leave the House of Flowers torn apart. As they struggle to determine who has targeted their Line, Purslane and Campion will discover secrets they had forgotten, and potentially embark upon a journey of such epic proportions that it will make their 200,000 year circuits of the galaxy seem like a walk to the local shops.


One thing you can say about Reynolds. He thinks big, concocting huge, sprawling epics that embrace not just a few days, or weeks, or months, but millions upon millions of years. This particular tale of Deep Time is a densely packed universe that feels utterly real, despite being utterly divorced from today. The world building at work in House of Suns is just phenomenal, from the notion of the Shatterlings and their endless routine of circuits and reunions, to the enigmatic machine people and the other societies who inhabit the Milky Way. And then there’s the technology, covering everything from space travel to the differing forms of suspended animation, time dilation, stardams, and an exceptionally grisly form of interrogation.

This is a grand sweeping space opera at its grandest and most sweeping, and though the story is long and packed full of detail, Reynolds’ prose and sheer planning make it a hugely enjoyable ride. The story takes several twists and turns, and whilst the ending does feel a little like we’ve seen it before, there’s huge enjoyment to be found in getting there.

Purslane and Campion are perhaps not fleshed out as much as they should be. Campion is the more reckless of the two, but at times this is the only thing that seems to differentiate the two of them, and particularly when they share scenes it can be tricky to decipher which one is speaking because they don’t seem distinct enough, but once separated, and with them taking alternate first-person chapters, this becomes easier.

Similarly, the flashbacks to Abigail’s childhood, and eventual decision to shatter herself, is a little jarring at times, although there is a deeper thread at work.

Any flaws are minor however, overall this was an excellent read, at times exciting, at times thoughtful, at times headache inducing (in a good way!) it just seems a shame that Reynolds hasn’t yet felt the need to return to this universe, after creating it in such great detail, it almost seems a shame to limit it to one novel, however good.

Highly recommended, just don’t expect a quick read!

Postcards from the Edge

Posted: January 1, 2018 in Book reviews

postcards-from-the-edge-9781439194003_hrBy Carrie Fisher

Movie actress Suzanne Vale is trying to put her life back together after a drug overdose, but this proves harder than she thinks, a stint in rehab helps, but the vacuous nature of Hollywood and her romantic and career interactions keep her off kilter enough to ever wonder if she can be happy again.

There’s something very poignant about reading this book a year after Carrie’s untimely death, though not an autobiography this novel is clearly autobiographical, with Suzanne Vale, with her drug problems and famous mother, a fictionalised stand-in for Carrie herself.

The first thing to note is that this is nothing like the film. I haven’t seen it, but I know that at its core is the relationship between Suzanne and her mother and so it took me by surprise to realise that Suzanne’s mother barely appears in the book—seems there were a lot of changes when Hollywood decided to film it (though Carrie also wrote the screenplay).

The structure of the novel took a little getting used to as well. Split into five sections (plus prologue and epilogue) the book shifts between first person and third person narrative and even the point of view changes. After the prologue, which is in the epistolary style in the form of postcards, the first section is told first person, and from the perspectives of Suzanne and Alex, a screenwriter with a major drug problem. In this section Suzanne is in rehab where, after a major bender that almost costs him his life, Alex joins her. In many ways I think this was my favourite section of the book, if only because it’s the rawest. By the time we enter Suzanne’s life she is off drugs, and so Carrie uses the character of Alex to give a glimpse at how Suzanne likely ended up in rehab.

The Suzanne sections are humorous and hopeful, but interchanged with these the Alex sections are incredibly, almost frighteningly manic (and given the nature of Carrie’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder one can’t help but see the parallels between the calm Suzanne and the manic Alex).

Alex’s descent towards overdosing is terrifying, as is his refusal, initially at least, to accept he has a problem, and even after he does he sees rehab as research, grist for his writing mill. Not for the first time you get the feeling that in this book life imitates art which in turn imitates life, and so on. As a window into Carrie’s mind I think this book is a doozy.

The next section is told in alternating monologues between Suzanne and Jack, a film producer with whom she’s having a relationship. Suzanne is talking to her therapist, Jack his lawyer, and though their relationship is consensual it’s easy to see a low-level Weinstein like vibe in Jack’s attitude toward women.

The book shifts into third person for the rest of its sections (bar the epilogue). The first section deals with Suzanne’s first post rehab job on a B-movie, this section is quite amusing but also depressing, and again the position of women in Hollywood is at the forefront.

The final two sections detail Suzanne’s day to day life, her relationship with her friend Lucy, and an incredibly shallow Hollywood party. I found these parts my least favourite to read, although Carrie does a good job of showing how shallow most of the people in Hollywood are, she almost does too good a job. Plus, without a clear idea of who characters might really be representing none of them come alive enough for this satire to work to the fullest.

The epilogue at least is a neat and amusing return to the start of the book.

I can’t say for sure that I enjoyed the book, and if I did this enjoyment waned somewhat towards the end. It’s perhaps at it’s most engaging while Suzanne is struggling, and limps a little towards the end. What is clear is that Carrie was a talented writer, in particular the scenes of Alex’s drug fuelled bender are incredibly harrowing, and this certainly hasn’t put me off reading some of her other books.

As a thinly veiled description of a specific time in Carrie Fisher’s life, and a snapshot of Hollywood, this is incredibly insightful, and as an example of her literary skill it’s enlightening, but as a narrative it all ends up feeling a little hollow and unfinished, but then that’s probably the point, because it’s clear in so many ways that Carrie was probably a little too switched on for Tinsel Town, a place that doesn’t always value introspection and prefers the shallow, something she so clearly wasn’t.


Edited by Mark Morris.

I was hunting for something new to read in Waterstones and this caught my eye. I like a good horror anthology, plus I’d read some of the authors before.

There are nineteen stories in the book, and I’ll try and say a bit about each one, in particular shining a spotlight on the ones I really liked, and the ones I really didn’t!

As with most anthologies, the stories within this books pages are a mixed bag. This is both the strength of an anthology—if you didn’t like a story chances are you might like the next one—but also a weakness—it can be hard to keep your momentum going, especially if you get several rum tales in a row.

An added problem with any story, no matter its length, is that often some stories are great set-ups with weak endings, and sadly there was a lot of that in this book. This doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy those stories, it’s just a shame the endings didn’t live up to the central idea.

The collection opens with The Boggle Hole by Alison Littlwood, which is a fairly mild horror, a nice way to ease yourself in, though not one of the highlights of the book.

Next up is Shepherd’s Business by Stephen Gallagher, a well written story centred on a young doctor taking up a position on a remote Scottish island. I liked this, and the story ended up going somewhere I didn’t expect.

No Good Deed by Angela Slatter is an excellent tale of magic, poisoned brides and revenge from beyond the grave. Definitely one of the highlights, although I’d say it leaned more towards fantasy than horror.

The Family Car by Brady Golden has an interesting premise, a young woman whose family vanished in the family car years before suddenly finds herself stalked by the titular vehicle, but the ending let it down.

I adored the writing at work in Four Abstracts by Nina Allen. It gripped me from the off and I got really involved and engaged with the characters. The ending is a damp squib but there’s much to enjoy before you get there thankfully.

Sheltered in Place by Brian Keene is a sharp little tail with a wonderful twist in the tale.

The Fold in the Heart by Chaz Benchley is a romantic tale set around the Cornish coast. It’s ok but didn’t really grip me.

Departures by A.K. Benedict is an inventive tale where the newly dead wind up in limbo, which is an airport bar.

The Salter Collection by Brian Lillie is a delightfully creepy tale of demons and hidden messages on old wax cylinders. It ends a bit abruptly but has a nice atmosphere.

Speaking Still by Ramsey Campbell is a pretty stock tale of messages from the beyond the grave.

The Eyes are White and Quiet by Carole Johnstone is an interesting post-apocalyptic story, though it doesn’t get much time to breathe unfortunately.

The Embarrassment of Dead Grandmothers by Sarah Lotz is a darkly humorous story about a young man who takes his gran to the theatre, only to have her die in her seat, suffice to say that the young man doesn’t do what any normal person would do in this situation. It’s ok, but a bit throwaway.

Eumenides (The Benevolent Ladies) by Adam Nevill is a turgid tale of a man who goes on a date with a woman from work to a local deserted zoo. It goes exactly where you expect it to go and takes ages getting there.

Roundabout by Muriel Gray has an interesting central conceit—a monster living on a roundabout—but like the previous story it’s a bit of a slog to read.

After struggling with the previous two stories, The House of the Head by Josh Malerman was a welcome improvement. Yet again the ending is a bit of a let-down, but the story of a haunted dolls house is wonderfully creepy anyway.

Succulents by Conrad Williams is sadly another tale that didn’t connect with me. A father and his young son take a bike ride whilst on holiday in Spain and the tour guide makes the father partake of a strange fruit with strange results.

Dollies by Kathryn Ptacek is one of the highlights of the book, as a young girl grows up she names each of her dolls Elizabeth and in turn each of them “dies” of smallpox. Not an easy read but it’s well written and heads in an unsettling and unexpected direction.

When it comes to stories with weak endings, The Abduction Door by Christopher Golden is the reverse, I thought it was fairly average until the final few pages where it really comes alive and has a hell of a twist. Another highlight.

Rounding out the anthology is The Swan Dive by Stephen Laws, a grim and gory tale of a man who tries to commit suicide and finds himself led on a murderous tour of Newcastle by a demonic creature. It’s not the best the book has to offer, but is far from the worst and is a good way to finish the book.

All in all your typical anthology, a mixed bag and if you like horror you’re bound to find something to like here.

How Not To Be a Boy

Posted: November 11, 2017 in Book reviews

By Robert Webb


Before he was a husband and father, before he danced for comic relief, before he found fame as one half of a somewhat successful double act with David Mitchell, before he went to Cambridge and became vice president of Footlights…before all of this Robert Webb was just a boy like any other boy.

Well maybe not like any other boy, because he didn’t always seem to think and act like all the other boys, but growing up in the 70s and 80s he was very clearly given certain rules to follow; don’t cry, love sport, play rough, drink beer, don’t talk about your feelings.

Now Robert wonders if these rules are any use, and explores what it means to be male in the 21st Century.


As a big fan of Mitchell and Webb, and having read David Mitchell’s autobiography, Back Story, there was no way I wasn’t going to read Robert Webb’s book, although calling it a straightforward autobiography does it something of a disservice. Oh, sure it’s autobiographical, but Robert has a point to make beyond just regaling us with his life story, and for me it resonated quite a bit.

I share a lot of common ground with Robert. Not so much now, what with him being star of stage and screen and me, well me not being a star of stage and screen. I never went to Cambridge and my parents didn’t divorce when I was a child and I certainly didn’t have to experience the trauma of losing my mum when I was a teenager.

But setting aside all of that there’s a lot of the book that felt very familiar. I’m two years older than Robert Webb and, like him, was a working-class boy, so when he talks about a childhood spent in the 1970s and 1980s this is the kind of childhood with which I was acquainted. He talks about the Television shows he watched and it was the same telly I watched; The A-Team, Buck Rogers, Doctor Who etc. But beyond this is how he was described as a sensitive child. A quiet child. God did I ever hear myself described in that fashion time and again, and though unlike Robert I do actually like football (watching it at least) I too recall standing on a football pitch trying to stay as far away from the action as possible and dreading the ball coming anywhere near me.

Anyone expecting a book chock full of celebrity tittle tattle may be somewhat disappointed. Robert does touch on this aspect of his life, and there’s a wonderful story featuring Carrie Fisher, but for the most part this isn’t really about Peep Show or That Mitchell and Webb Look, it’s about growing up, about how difficult it is to be a boy, and a man, and how expectations and the unwritten rules affect all of us, especially when it comes to sharing our feelings. It’s no surprise that men are more likely to kill themselves than women after all, but this also helps explain (but not excuse) what’s now referred to as toxic masculinity, because growing up if you didn’t drink lots of pints and shag lots of birds, well what was wrong with you? You weren’t a poofter, were you?

Robert’s prose is a little workmanlike at times, but on the whole its eminently readable. It’s also honest, brutally honest. This is a warts and all life story; he doesn’t hide from any of the things he’s done, many of which he clearly regrets and none of which he seems inclined to excuse himself for, even if at times you kinda think he had a bloody big excuse for being a dick.

This is a book to be enjoyed on several levels, both as a straightforward autobiography, but also as a meditation on masculinity. If, like me, you’re a bloke who grew up around the same era, then I think this will resonate for you too, but I think this is a book that anyone, irrespective of age or gender, can appreciate.

An enjoyable, often very funny, and sometimes very sad, tale of a man who, before he was famous, was just a boy, and a fairly rubbish boy at that, or at least a boy who felt rubbish because of society’s expectations about what a boy should be. Suffice to say I know the feeling, and it’s nice to know I wasn’t alone.

Pulp Fiction

Posted: October 17, 2017 in Book reviews


By Quentin Tarantino

Jules and Vincent are hired killers, Butch is a punch-drunk boxer with one last pay day ahead of him. Marcellus Wallace is a crime boss who only likes to be fucked by Mrs Wallace, and Mrs Wallace, well she wants to dance, she wants to win, and maybe she wants a hit of what she thinks is cocaine.

Over the space of a few days their lives will intersect, and not everyone will get out of this story alive.

Reading a script is a lot different to reading a novel. For starters they tend to be a much quicker read—realistically you should be able to read a script in the time it takes you to watch the completed film. A script is a story boiled down to its constituent elements, with every ounce of fat trimmed from a story’s bones.

There’s a rush to reading a script, especially a good script, and whatever his faults—and I think he has a few—reading the script to Pulp Fiction is a salient reminder that Mr Quentin Tarantino has (had?) a huge amount of talent.

I’ve watched Pulp Fiction dozens of times, and I’ve always thought it is a fantastic film (and it remains to this day my favourite QT film) but even so reading the script has made me love it more.

Weaving multiple narratives, back and forth in time, Tarantino produced an elegant, finely tuned story that even on the page makes perfect sense, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and gives you no choice but to come along for the ride.

And what a ride it is.

Tarantino’s dialogue crackles with electricity, each individual conversation sparks more vividly than entire screenplays by other writers. Sure, there’s an argument that all of his characters sound kinda the same, but when the dialogue is this good, and when it’s back before he began believing his own hype, who damn well cares?

This was bought me as a birthday present by friends because I’d told them I was contemplating trying my hand at screenplays, and if you’re going to learn why not learn from the best. There’s a reason this script won an Oscar after all.

It’s interesting as well to catch sight of bits that didn’t make the final film, either because they were excised completely, or because they were reworked during filming (and I have to say this was always for the better).

Pulp Fiction’s a great film, and the script was a great (not to mention educational) read.

Although mention of Harvey Weinstein in the credits is more than a little sobering mind you…


Posted: October 10, 2017 in Book reviews

By Alastair Reynolds


It’s Tens of thousands of years in the future, yet humanity prevail, living within the Congregation, what was once the solar system, only now planets have been long shattered, and the Congregation consists of millions of tiny outposts. Moons and planetoids and space stations. It’s roughly the eighteenth century of the 13th occupation and, in order to try and save their family from bankruptcy, teenage sisters Adrana and Fura Ness have signed on aboard a sun-jammer captained by a man named Rakamore. Rakamore’s ship is one of hundreds that make a living by cracking ‘baubles’, planetoids surrounded by impenetrable force fields that, every so often when the conditions are right, become accessible, allowing those brave, or foolhardy, enough to approach time to scavenge for ancient technology.

It’s a perilous enough way to earn a living, but there are even worse dangers out there in the void between worlds, notably the legendary, and extremely vicious, pirate, Bosa Sennen, and when Rackamore crosses paths with Sennen’s night-jammer all hell will break lose, and Fura Ness will have to grow up fast if she’s to save herself, her sister, and her crewmates.

So, apparently this is a young adult book, which I only discovered once I’d finished reading it. I have to say that nothing in the novel screamed YA at me, aside from the young age of its protagonist, Fura Ness, but a teenage hero does not necessarily a young adult book mean, and as far as I was concerned it was an adult novel (but maybe that’s how the best YA should work). Anyway, there’s no foul language or explicit sexual content, however the book is quite bloodthirsty in places.

Whether it’s YA or not is irrelevant. All I know is that I really enjoyed it!

Sure, it took me a few chapters to acclimatise to the universe Reynolds has created here, but once I did I was well and truly hooked. A few silly missteps aside (the police have flashing blue epaulets!) the Congregation and those that populate it are fascinating. By hurling humanity so far into the future Reynolds has carte blanche to create a world at once very different from our own, yet also very similar.

At its core this is a tale of pirates and buried treasure, complete with piratical dialogue that manages to sit just the right side of yo-ho-ho parody, but Reynolds also finds time to drop in a subplot about nefarious banking practices and a wider story about aliens that I’m guessing will be picked up in any sequel, and I really hope there is a sequel because I definitely want to follow more adventures of Fura Ness.

The first-person narrative does limit the story sometimes, and lots of things happen off camera, but by letting Fura tell the story we see how she grows from a naïve young girl into a hardened spacefarer, and this also provides Reynolds with an excuse to explain the minutiae of the universe he’s created, since Fura and her sister had a sheltered upbringing.

If the book has one fault it’s that some of the secondary characters seem a bit interchangeable. Fura serves on several ships and at times I wanted to have a better handle on her crewmates, and sometimes I had to flick back to remember who a certain character was.

That’s a minor quibble though, because on the whole this was a hugely enjoyable story with a great central character and, like I say, I’d like to see future voyages of the Revenger!