Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Hide and Seek

Posted: May 21, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Ian Rankin.

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When a drug addict dies in a rundown Edinburgh squat it looks like just another junkie overdosing, but Detective Inspector John Rebus isn’t so sure. The body has been laid out in the shape of a cross between two burned down candles, and there’s a pentagram painted on the wall. Then there’s the fact that the victim, a young man named Ronnie, was covered in bruises, and the last time he saw one of his fellow squatters he told her that they had to, “Hide! Hide!”

The fact that Ronnie’s system is full of tainted heroin, whilst he has a packet of pure heroin in his hand is the icing on the cake. Rebus begins to investigate, but as he navigates the grim backstreets of Edinburgh he still has no real idea why Ronnie was targeted. Is it a case of a rough trade rent boy who messed with the wrong people or is it a satanic conspiracy? And when Ronnie shouted Hide, was this an instruction or a name, as in Hyde?

 

After reading the second Rebus book it’s interesting to consider quite what the hook was that kept the series going in the early days, because as with Knots and Crosses there isn’t really anything here that makes Rebus stand out from a whole host of other fictional detectives. He’s a former soldier and a hard-drinking loner with a taste for good music and fancy literature, which is hardly the most original characterisation for a copper. Similarly, the central mystery is fairly thin as well. As Rankin himself admits in the introduction, he was still finding his feet as a writer, and the allusions to Jekyll and Hyde (and Deacon Brodie) aren’t very subtle. Many of the potential suspects in the book merge into a bland, amorphous whole, so when the villains of the piece are revealed I had to think hard to remember who they were and what they did for a living.

I suppose the two things the series had going for it in the early days were Rankin and Edinburgh. Rankin’s hard boiled prose makes for an engaging read, and in Edinburgh he has plenty of mean, gothic streets (and grubby housing estates) for Rebus to prowl, and in many ways Edinburgh is a more interesting character than Rebus is. I like as well that Rebus is the kind of detective who solves a crime via shoe leather rather than deductive reasoning or his own genius. Much like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder it’s a case that Rebus wanders around talking to person after person until the truth shakes free.

I don’t like Rebus anywhere near as much as I like Scudder, but I do like Rankin’s prose, and his evocation of a dark and moody Edinburgh, so I’m definitely going to keep reading the series. I just hope Rebus becomes more than the sum of his parts, and/or the mysteries become a little more intriguing.

 

Trigger Warning

Posted: May 5, 2017 in Book reviews
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25863045(Short fictions and disturbances)

By Neil Gaiman

 

As Gaiman himself says in his introduction anthologies can be a hard sell for publishers, and especially single author anthologies, and it’s nice that Gaiman seems fully aware of how fortunate he is, though in fairness there’s a reason his books sell and a lot of that is down to his vivid imagination and unique voice.

Trigger Warning is an eclectic collection (something he again acknowledges early on) with no distinct theme running through it, which isn’t to say all the stories are unconnected, there’s very clear links between some of them, and even when they aren’t connected you can tell the collection has been assembled with care.

Gaiman has a wonderful talent for dark fairy tales, his stories are primarily fantasy but horror enters the fray quite often, and he isn’t averse to a smidgen of sci-fi—as you can see from the story Nothing O’clock, a Dr Who tale starring the eleventh Doctor which is Who at its best, an everyday setting menaced by a rather scary antagonist.

I’m not intending to go through every story in the collection, but I’ll highlight those I really liked, and maybe some of those I was less fond of.

Firstly it has to be said that the collection features some poetry, which really made little impression on me, but that’s more to do with me than the nature of Gaiman’s metre.

The anthology starts with an introduction, but I quickly skipped this, returning once I’d finished the book because Gaiman does go into a little detail about each story here. It’s interesting stuff, and I’m not sure there are too many spoilers, but I’m glad I didn’t read this first.

The first highlight of the book for me was The Thing About Cassandra, a wonderful tale about a man who discovers his imaginary childhood girlfriend might not be so imaginary after all. It’s a great tale of the falsehoods we tell as kids in order to fit in, and has a neat twist worthy of Tales of the Unexpected or the Twilight Zone.

It’s followed by Down to a Sunless Sea, a short but ghoulish tale worthy of a dark and stormy night.

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” is a nice enough story set several hundred years ago on the Isle of Skye. It builds to a satisfying resolution but I did feel it took way too long getting there.

A Calendar of Tales is like a mini-anthology all of its own, featuring as it does 12 flash fictions. Some are very good, some a bit forgettable, and the whole thing feels a little thrown together, though once I read the introduction this made sense.

The Case of Death and Honey is a moderately intriguing Sherlock Holmes story but the payoff was a bit lacking for me, though I couldn’t rightly tell you why.

The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury deserves kudos for the title alone and is a nice meditation on memory that manages to be a wonderful homage to the works of Bradbury, who’s clearly a big influence on Gaiman.

Click-Clack the Rattlebag is a fairly generic horror tale.

“And weep, like Alexander” is amusing, and Gaiman proffers an explanation for why we don’t have flying cars and jetpacks that feels like it may have some truth to it.

The Return of the Thin White Duke felt like a nice idea, it starts well but in the end the shift in location and tone is just too jarring.

There are a trio of stories/poems that, though probably not directly connected, feel thematically interlinked, and the collection finishes off with Black Dog a ghoulish story set in the Peak District featuring Shadow Moon, the hero of American Gods. I liked this a lot, and it actually did surprise me with its denouement.

As with any anthology this is a mixed bag, but Gaiman has such a wonderful imagination, and has such crisp, evocative prose that I found it nigh on impossible not to love the book overall.

By Harry Harrison

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Arch criminal turned ace secret agent, ‘Slippery Jim’ diGriz is taking some well-earned R&R. Of course for the Stainless Steel Rat this involves robbing a series of banks. He’s soon reeled in by Inskipp, the head of the Special Corps, who Jim now reluctantly works for. The Corps has something big to contend with. In the future invasion of another world should be impossible, but somehow the inhabitants of the planet Cliaand have managed to invade multiple planets with ease, and Inskipp wants to know how.

Recently (and somewhat reluctantly) married, Jim leaves his heavily pregnant wife, Angelica (one of the few people are smart and deadly as him) behind and heads for Cliaand, but with no gadgets and only his wits to rely on, and with an entire planet full of soldiers to thwart, has the Stainless Steel Rat finally bitten off more than he can chew?

And so my (very slow) re-read of the Stainless Steel Rat books reaches the second novel. There’s actually quite a gap between them, given than Harrison published this around 1970 and the first book (which I reviewed here) came out almost a decade before.

Very little has changed in the intervening time, and much like the first book this is a slender volume very much in the pulp space opera mould. Again it’s a product of its time, although in fairness Harrison does give his female characters a degree of agency (if anything Angelica is smarter and much more ruthless than Jim, he is the more cunning however) and although painted with very broad brushstrokes, he does provide a matriarchal society of Amazonian women to help Jim out.

As before this is a lightweight, non-too serious adventure.  diGriz is smarter than any opponent, so even when he’s captured you know he won’t stay incarcerated for long. That said the Grey Men he finds himself up again are somewhat creepy, and this book does feature a truly shocking event that, when it happened, made me sit up and take notice because I didn’t remotely see it coming. Suffice to say it was a trifle Game of Thrones!

As science fiction goes this is about as hard as brie, and the era it was written in makes for some anachronistic aspects of a so called future society at times. But it’s amusing, well-paced, and if the use of smoke bombs becomes a trifle repetitive, don’t worry there’s usually a surprise or two waiting around the corner.

Something of an admission however, is it wrong that I find Jim’s criminal escapades just a trifle more exciting than his life as an intergalactic James Bond?

At the current rate set your alarms for a review of book three coming sometime in 2019…

In Cold Blood

Posted: March 30, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Truman Capote

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In November 1959, a brutal crime shocks the small farming community of Holcomb in Kansas. In the early hours of a Sunday morning Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer, his wife Bonnie and his teenage children Nancy and Kenyon are roused from their slumber by the arrival of two armed men. After restraining the Clutters the invaders proceed to kill them one by one.

The killers are ex-convicts, each with a long criminal history behind them. Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickock is ostensibly the man in charge, and his partner is Perry Edward Smith. In demeanour and upbringing the men are very different, yet after meeting in prison they further bond over the murders of the Clutters.

The local authorities in Kansas are perplexed by the brutal, and seemingly motiveless murders. Whilst they investigate Hickock and Smith head south to Mexico, but events will see them soon return to the United States, were they will find their crimes finally catching up to them.

 

I decided to read this in an ongoing attempt to broaden my choice of reading material, and I’ve never read any Capote. Also, I got the book for free as they were handing out copies gratis at the university I work for so it seemed like fate!

After hearing about the events of that November morn, Capote travelled to Kansas, along with his friend, and fellow writer, Harper Lee. Over the course of several years Capote pulled together a detailed examination of the crime, the victims, the law enforcement personal, and of course the killers themselves.

The book was a huge hit when it was released in 1966, and whilst it can be argued that it was far from the first ‘true crime’ novel, it was the novel that saw the genre skyrocket.

I found it an interesting read. In other hands the story could have been recounted in far less words, but part of what makes this so engaging is the texture of Capote’s writing, and the meticulous research he and Lee obviously undertook. Again it is easy to imagine that the minutiae of the Clutter’s lives, and the details of Hickock and Smith’s petty histories, could have been boring, but Capote finds something interesting in the most trivial of things. Mrs Clutter’s fascination with miniature objects, Perry Smith’s addiction to chewing aspirin, even the gossip of the local postmistress. Every person in the book feels like a real person, because of course they were, but another writer could have produced mere caricatures.

Capote begins with multiple narrative strands, on the one hand detailing the final hours of the Clutter family, whilst on the other introducing us to Hickock and Smith as they arrive in town, with homicide on their minds. The Clutters are detailed so vividly that by the time the murders occur I was ready to beg for their lives. They are portrayed as good people, especially Nancy, although Capote does not shy away from some of the less salubrious elements of family life, and some things are implied, quite subtly, to suggest all was not well. From Bonnie Clutter’s obvious depression (despite the hopeful diagnosis that she was just suffering from a trapped nerve) to Nancy’s cat being poised weeks before, and the notion that she keeps smelling cigarettes, even though no one in the house. Then there is Kenyon, the young son and something of a loner (and who, looking at this with 21st Century eyes, might even have been on the Autistic spectrum).

In many ways these tiny mysteries are red herrings, because we the reader know who done it, even if the police are stymied. Capote takes the decision not to show us, at least early on, the events of that morning. As I say, I felt so close to the Clutters that I was glad of this.

After the bodies are discovered Capote changes tack, showing the impact on the townsfolk, who become fearful and paranoid about their neighbours, and the local police and Kansas Bureau of Investigations agents who are frustrated by a lack of motive, evidence, or suspects. Meanwhile we follow Hickock and Smith south of the border, where the reality of life in Mexico doesn’t quite live up to their fantasies.

If the book has a fault (beyond the widely-held view that Capote may have been somewhat economical with some aspects of the story) it is that for the most part it is the killers, not the victims or the hunters, who are centre stage, though this is unavoidable really. Capote’s evocation of the deadly duo is incredibly vivid, to the point where I began to at least empathise with them, Smith in particular, though Capote never lets you forget what each man is capable of and it’s hard to feel too sorry about where they end up.

As a snapshot of rural America before such crimes became commonplace, and of poverty and criminality in the late 1950s, this is an exceptional piece of work, a detailed examination of what was a petty and pointless crime that cost six lives for little gain. Capote is the kind of author whose literary credentials would usually have put me off, but this was a great example of gaining pleasure reading outside one’s comfort zone, and I think I might have to get hold of Breakfast at Tiffany’s now.

 

Proxima

Posted: February 24, 2017 in Book reviews, science fiction
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By Stephen Baxter

proxima

In the late 22nd Century mankind has begun to colonise the solar system, but also has its sights set on the nearby dwarf star of Proxima, or more specifically a planet orbiting the star, Prox-C. On Mercury two ships are launched, one is an artificially intelligent solar sail, bound for Prox-C, the other is a more prosaic craft, powered by ‘kernels’, mysterious sources of energy discovered beneath the surface of Mercury.

A few years later and Yuri Eden, a relic of the 21st Century’s ‘Heroic Generation’ defrosted on Mars where he’s treated as a criminal, is gathered up along with a number of other undesirables and placed in a kernel powered UN transport ship heading towards Proxima. Once there the passengers are shuttled down to the planet’s surface. Split into groups they’re advised that they are the colonists who will claim the planet before the Chinese can. Left to fend for themselves Yuri and his group face all manner of challenges, not least their own petty squabbles.

Meanwhile the solar system is divided by a new Cold War, between the Chinese and the UN. Each side is distrustful of the other, and the UN’s refusal to allow the Chinese access to kernel research is just another added point of contention.

When a mysterious artefact is discovered on Mercury alongside the kernels, there is the promise of a new form of travel that will make the UN’s hulk ships obsolete, but as tensions begin to increase can diplomacy prevent the Cold War between the Chinese and the UN from turning hot, and just how is Mercury connected with Prox-C?

 

Baxter is a science fiction writer of long standing, and sits more towards the hard end of the sci-fi spectrum, although he has a knack for explaining big concepts in an understandable way. Proxima is a curious book in many ways. There’s a neat idea at the heart of it, in fact there are probably three neat ideas at play here, the trouble is that whilst they all intersect at times, they still don’t seem that interconnected and all could do with fleshing out. Of course what I didn’t realise until after I finished the book was that this was the first in a series. This isn’t made clear in the blurb on the back of the book. I’m not saying it’d have put me off, but it might have made me more forgiving when my interest dipped.

Maybe.

Of the three elements, the bits dealing with Yuri and his fellow colonists is perhaps the most interesting. Baxter has clearly put a lot of effort into his world building, and Prox-C feels like a genuine place. The logic of dropping undesirables on the planet to fend for themselves obviously has some resonance with Earth history (think Australia) but also feels a little bit of a logical stretch.

Still, the battle to survive on a planet where the sun never sets is intriguing, especially once Yuri’s group encounter the native life forms, and other groups of colonists. The trouble is that even here Baxter’s focus seems to waver, and the pacing of the book is erratic to say the least. He’ll spend several chapters dealing with a single event, then skip over years and multiple milestones in the space of a paragraph. It’s a trifle jarring. It’s as if he couldn’t decide whether to write an intimate account of brave pioneers, or a sweeping epic spanning decades, so in the end decided to do both.

The other storylines are less engaging. The kernels are intriguing initially, as is the artefact on Mercury, but various threads of the story just don’t tie together, in fact in the latter stages of the book the narrative just seems to meander. Maybe Baxter was setting things up for the next book, but I couldn’t help feeling that he just wasn’t sure where to take his story.

It doesn’t help that many of the characters are a trifle bland (often a criticism of Baxter’s writing). Yuri has potential, and is probably the most interesting human character, but his backstory is too sketchy. The Heroic Generation is namechecked, and it’s implied they did terrible things, but we never get more than a brief idea of what these things were. We’re told early on that Yuri Eden isn’t his real name, but this plot point is left dangling for far too long (and when it is addressed it’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, and in fact I’ve read a few reviews where readers did just that.) There are several other elements of the story jettisoned early on which don’t reappear till near the end when you’ve almost forgotten about them.

Mardina Jones verges on three dimensions, but she sadly fades out of the story late on. Kernel expert Stephanie Kalinski is never quite feels real, and Australian businessman Michael King is only there to drive the plot on occasion, similarly the smug AI Earthshine.

It’s slightly worrying when the most interesting character in the book is ColU, a sentient robot dumped on Prox-C with Yuri, but it really is, and of all the characters it’s the one you’ll probably most warm too.

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. Baxter is a talented writer, and I was rarely bored, just annoyed when the story meandered off on yet another tangent, and the ending provides a WTF moment you won’t see coming, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing; for some reason Baxter seems to be leading the book towards the territory of the Long Earth series he wrote with Terry Pratchett.

An interesting book rather than a great one, I’d say it’s worth a read, if only for the Prox-C segments, just don’t be surprised if you feel a slight lack of satisfaction at the end.

 

Rogues

Posted: January 19, 2017 in Book reviews
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Edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

51u06-9fvdl-_sx331_bo1204203200_It’s been a while since my last book review, mainly because I’ve been ploughing my way through this monster! That makes it sound like a chore which it wasn’t—well maybe occasionally—in fact this was an enjoyable read, but then anthologies often are, if only because even if you get a dud story you know it’s not far to go until the next one.

And there are some duds in this collection, but they’re outweighed by the gems thankfully.

Although Martin’s name is prominent, and the fact that this includes a Game of Thrones story is also highlighted, this isn’t solely a book about fantasy rogues, there are stories set in the present day or the recent past, and a smidgen of sci-fi too.

There are 20+ stories here, and I don’t intend to go through them all, but I’ll try and give you a flavour, and highlight the best ones (and the worst).

The book opens with Tough Times All Over by Joe Abercrombie, and this story probably has the highest number of rogues in a single story as it follows a mysterious package that passes from person to person in a fantasy city. It’s an interesting tale but the shifting perspectives do let it down slightly.

Next up is What Do You Do? By Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. Set in the present day this is an intriguing thriller and I liked it a lot, it’s only let down by one too many twists at the end.

Bent Twig by Joe R Lansdale is a pulp detective story and probably the first tale in the book I didn’t like, I didn’t warm to the characters and couldn’t engage with the prose.

Provenance by David W Ball is a tale of stolen artwork and Nazis. It’s not especially original or surprising, but it’s well written enough that you don’t really mind.

Roaring Twenties by Carrie Vaughn is a tale of magic and gangsters set in a speakeasy. It sounds like a great idea but I felt it never really went anywhere so it’s another one in the thumbs down column.

A Year and a Day in Old Theradane by Scott Lynch on the other hand is a wonderful tale about a bunch of predominantly female thieves co-opted by a powerful warlock to perform an impossible heist; to steal a street! It’s wonderfully quirky, funny engaging and just downright entertaining and is probably my favourite tale in the book.

Bad Brass by Bradley Denton is a tale of a less than honest high school teacher and some stolen musical instruments. It never quite turns into the story you expect it to, but it’s interesting and original all the same.

Paul Cornell’s A Better Way to Die is a story I feel I should have liked more than I did, and I think I was slightly hampered by an unfamiliarity with the universe it’s set in, one where 19th Century Britain has taken a very different turn. It’s an odd one as initially I didn’t think I’d liked it, but it’s stayed with me more than most.

A Cargo of Ivories by Garth Nix, featuring a knight and his companion, an enchanted puppet (I kid you not) was something of a trudge to get through, but luckily it’s immediately followed up by Diamonds from Tequilla by Walter Jon Williams, which features a very engaging lead, a Hollywood actor embroiled with murder and drug cartels south of the border.

The Caravan to Nowhere by Phyllis Eisenstein was an interesting read, detailing a troubadour with teleportation powers who joins a camel train crossing a wide desert where phantom cities are seen.

The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives by Lisa Tuttle wasn’t a particularly original Sherlock Holmes style tale, but was well written at least.

If unfamiliarity with some of the characters might have dented my enjoyment in some tales, familiarity with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere only served to enhance my enjoyment of How the Marquis got his Coat Back, a tale which follows the ludicrously cool Marquis de Carabas as he attempts to, er, retrieve his coat!

Now Showing by Connie Willis has a neat central premise but is too long and way too knowing. The Lightning Tree by Patrick Rothfuss is probably too long as well, but it’s a sparkling sort of fairy-tale about a young man who trades favours/secrets with children.

It’s shame to report that the story that rounds off the collection, a Game of Thrones tale from Martin himself, is one of the weakest in the book. It’s not that Westeros isn’t an incredibly interesting locale, nor that Martin is a poor writer, but this felt less like a story than a history lesson or a passage from a history book, so even when it was interesting it never really gripped me the same way a lot of the stories in this collection did and I can’t help feeling he’d just lifted a chapter from his world building bible and slapped it down at the end of the book.

It’s a shame but it in no way dented my overall enjoyment of a book that’s kept me out of Roguish mischief for quite a few weeks!

 

 

Nod

Posted: November 2, 2016 in Book reviews, Post-Apocalyptic
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By Adrian Barnes

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One night, out of the blue, the majority of the population lose the ability to sleep. As the days without sleep pass people begin to undergo mental and physical breakdown that will see most dead within a few weeks, but long before then any semblance of civilisation will have been eroded as insanity becomes mankind’s default setting.

In Vancouver Paul is one of the few people left who can sleep. As his girlfriend Tanya becomes increasingly unhinged by permanent insomnia Paul sleeps soundly and dreams golden dreams. As the days pass Paul, a somewhat misanthropic etymologist, struggles to survive and documents the end of the world.

 

This book lured me in on two levels. Firstly as anyone who knows me will attest, I love a good post-apocalyptic story, but secondly as someone who at times has trouble sleeping, the notion of apocalypse by insomnia was especially intriguing.

And the first thing to do is to give Barnes props for originality. Sleep is something we all take for granted, but as anyone who’s ever experienced just a couple of night’s interrupted sleep in a row will tell you, the lack of sleep is not pleasant. In a world full of apocalyptic fiction it’s always nice to see something other than zombies/nuclear war/pandemics/alien invasion as the reason behind the fall of humanity.

The trouble is that Barnes’ apocalypse quickly comes to resemble all those others. The cause might be different but the symptoms are all the same. So we get roving bands of crazed psychos, people fighting over food, charismatic individuals creating their own cults, unscrupulous soldiers and scientists and…well you get the picture.  What sets Nod apart from other similar books is something that might be a breath of fresh air, or which you might find infuriating, because it’s a more literary take on the end of the world. It’s told in the first person from Paul’s perspective, and as he is an intelligent man prone to philosophising (plus an etymologist who knows all manner of old words) it might come across as pretentious and rambling, and I have to say I lean more towards this camp.

It might have helped if Paul was more sympathetic, but as already stated he’s something of a misanthrope. The notion of someone who doesn’t like people yearning for company at the end of the world could have been intriguing, but instead Paul just seems so dispassionate about the whole thing. Other characters don’t fare much better. We don’t get to know much about Tanya before she falls apart, so whilst her mental disintegration is quite horrific, it doesn’t quite hit home as much as it might have done if we knew the person she was better, as it is what we’re left with is something of a clichéd female character which is a shame. The only other major character is Charles, who isn’t remotely sympathetic, but is at least interesting, initially at least. As a vagrant already living outside of society, he adapts better than most to the new, sleepless world, even if pretty soon he’s just A.N. Other cult/gang leader.

Plot wise the book starts strong but gets weaker and weaker as it goes a long until it limps to a conclusion. Perhaps this was intentional to provide a mirror to the collapse of society, but if this was the case it doesn’t make for a great read. I don’t think a story has to be explained, but Nod takes vagueness to a whole new level, to the point where people don’t even seem to hypothesise about why the majority stopped sleeping, let alone why there are still Sleepers, why they have golden dreams, and who so many children continue to sleep but have become mute. Paul encounters a group he refers to as Cat Sleepers, people who feign sleep, pretending they’re ok. There’s vague allusions to them experimenting on the child sleepers, but this plot point is quickly jettisoned, and there’s a meander against time to prevent nuclear meltdown that makes most damp squibs seem exciting.

I wouldn’t say I hated it, and in fact it would feel kind of mean to say that given the novel is bookended by an essay from the author detailing his likely terminal brain cancer, but I can’t in good conscience say I loved it. It has the feel of a book written by someone eager to let you know how clever he is, which is of course quite annoying.  If you find the premise intriguing then by all means take a punt, just be prepared for the latter half of the novel not to live up to that premise, which is a shame as it really is a knockout premise, it’s just saddled with a mundane execution. It won’t exactly send you to sleep, but it won’t keep you awake at night with excitement either.