Book Review – Saigon Calling by Marcelino Truong (Arsenal Pulp Press 2017)

This is the second memoir/history of the Vietnam war in graphic novel form by Marcelino Truong, which has been translated by David Homel.  It covers the period 1963 to 1975 when the Truong family lived in London following a move from Saigon.

Marcelino is the son a Khanh, a Vietnamese diplomat and Yvette.  His family includes his sisters, Mireille and Anh-Noelle and his brother Dominique.

The book tells the story of the Truong’s life and struggles in London against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.  The family are challenged by Yvette’s mental illness, which frequently led to angry outbursts against her husband Khanh, the constant concern about grandparents still living in Saigon and growing up in an alien (and alienating) London.

Whilst the music, fashions and recreational drug-habits of counter-culture ‘swinging’ London were alluring to the young Truong children, the dullness, constraints and casual racism they experienced in the suburbs were depressingly real.  Marcelino is very close to his older brother Dominique who is enthralled by the counter-culture and, ultimately, by Indian mysticism.

The story is told in chapter form where a particular event or anecdote from the family or Marcelino’s personal life is highlighted.  Interspersed are details of the intensifying Vietnam War and the ultimate victory of North Vietnam following the withdrawal of U.S. troops and support.

A lot of information concerning the war and the key political players in Vietnam and the U.S.  are provided.  Expository dumps are probably necessary to help the reader but it does appear like one of the old graphic ‘beginner’s guides’ in places and gives rise to some very stilted dialogue where characters have unlikely conversations explaining to each other political machinations or the progress of the war.  It can feel hard going at times which prevents the natural flow.

The artwork is nicely drawn and has lovely colour.  Explanatory pieces about the Vietnam war are coloured in more muted tones of sepia, grey and black.    Characters are quite angular and it would be hard to identify some of the more famous characters, such as Presidents Johnson and Ford, without text highlighting who they are.

Marcelino Truong repeatedly makes the important points that the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong carried out atrocities and were duplicitous as well as the fact that many people in South Vietnam were anti-communist.  These views were often overlooked or brushed aside by some liberals at the time who were enchanted by the promises of Communism.  Truong was obviously very irritated by the championing of the North Vietnamese regime by anti-imperialists and others but it does feel like fighting an old battle given the extensive examination of the Vietnam War in the years since it finished.

Ultimately this is an interesting, if not gripping, story.


The Square and the Tower – Niall Ferguson (Allan Lane – 2017)

Sweeping historical narrative, illuminating detail and compelling arguments make this a great read.

First, a gripe.  I was given a review copy of this book via NetGalley.  It was free so maybe I shouldn’t complain however it was almost as if the publishers didn’t want anyone to read the review copy, so bad was the formatting.  Words ran into one another, footnotes were shoe-horned without introduction in the middle of paragraphs and diagrams were cast adrift from their explanatory notes, which I would trip over several pages later.  If you want people to give reviews, at least give them the chance to read it.

Niall Ferguson considers the interaction between rigid ruling hierarchies and their interaction and competition with more loosely based networks over time.  He argues  that,

Often the biggest changes in history are the achievements of thinly documented, informally organised groups of people

Whilst this might be taken to suggest that shady networks, such as the oft-mentioned ‘Illuminati’ control world affairs, Ferguson dismisses any such arguments very early on.  He admits that as networks are usually quite informal, they rarely leave a lot in the way of documents or records and are not, therefore, a very attractive subject for historians, especially if the subject attracts conspiracy theorists.

We may tend to think of networks being more relevant now in our interconnected world of online networks but Ferguson shows that networks have been influencing our lives for centuries and have led to great advances (or great destruction).    Major religions, fascism and communism were all decentralised networks to begin with, although some transformed into highly rigid hierarchies over time and attempted to destroy other networks that may have challenged them.  Ferguson documents the example of Stalin’s Russia, where even the loosest connection with the ‘wrong’ person could be life-limiting.

Concentrating on our own times, Ferguson examines the internet, terror attacks, Brexit and Donald Trump.  In all he points to how a more nimble network manages, or has managed, to confound more rigid hierarchical structures.  Forget six degrees of separation, the average figure for Facebook users is 3.57 degrees of separation.  So you may be even closer to Kevin Bacon than you think.  Ferguson argues that the success of Brexit and Trump were attributable in large part to the way they used the internet to spread their chosen message, which made an impact regardless of its veracity or counter-arguments from the establishment.

Ferguson is a very compelling writer.  This was a fascinating, thought-provoking read and I would recommend it.


Ironclads – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Solaris 2017)

Think of Saving Private Ryan with space marines set during the 30 years’ war and you’ll have a reasonable impression of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest novella.

The Ironclads are Scions, the sons of the fabulously wealthy and powerful of the world who take part in political and corporate battles dressed in impregnable, heavily armoured suits.

Ironclads is set in a world in which large corporations wage war against each other, corporations fight social democratic countries and the ordinary man or woman lives in a state of feudal penury where a life in the armed services means acting as cannon fodder.

The story follows Sergeant Ted Regan (our narrator) and his small team as they carry out a mission to find the missing cousin of a corporate Scion. Their task involves dealing with political and corporate intrigue, battles with impossible machines and supernatural Finns.

There are some light-hearted moments and I enjoyed a reference to the 1st fighting corps of Ikea. I imagined a large metal suit put together by allen keys and with a nice Billy bookcase mounted on the chest plate.

It’s a slim book and quite an easy read but I left it without strong feelings for the characters or the plot. It just passed by without making much of an impression.


Book Review: Binary System – Eric Brown (Solaris – 2017)

This is an enjoyable sci-fi adventure.  A good tale, but unlikely to convert those not already committed to SF.

Cordelia ‘Delia’ Kemp is a survivor a catastrophic starship explosion which results in her being thrown further from the Earth than anyone has ever been before.

Delia’s only companion is ‘Imp’, an AI implant that acts as counsel, computer and friend.  It’s a great idea, I wished I had an ‘Imp’ to help me out too.

In the first of a series of ‘billions to one’ chances, Delia reaches an inhabited planet that is able to support human life.  It struck me that it is difficult to explain a new idea or form without comparing it to something that already exists.  The inhabitants of the planet are likened to monkeys, locusts and centipedes.

Eric Brown offers a number of expository ‘information dumps’ to quickly fill in the background and provide explanation for what is to come.  Sci-fi readers will be used to this but it can appear quite mechanical and the writing is functional and straightforward.  There are lots of recaps of where the action is and how we got there. Some of the dialogue is a little hackneyed, like it was written for a summer blockbuster action movie.

At one point, Delia has a discussion about emotions with Imp.  One would suspect anyone fitted with AI would have had that exchange with the device a long time previously and it is obvious that the dialogue is for the benefit of the reader’s understanding.

This is a fun adventure/quest story with lots of good ideas if you can get past the outlandish probabilities without thinking too hard about it.


Book Review: A Horse Walks Into a Bar – David Grossman (Translated by Jessica Cohen)

I’d wanted to read this book since hearing an interview with the translator, Jessica Cohen.  The book, written in Hebrew, won the International Man Booker Prize 2017.  The prize is split equally between the author and the translator, recognising the skill and contribution of both.

The story is set over one evening in a comedy club in the Israeli city of Netanya.  The comedian is Dovaleh G,  an ageing performer who seems to have retained his ‘edgy’ image.  His painfully thin appearance makes us suspect that he is suffering from an illness.

The narrator is a very old acquaintance of Dovaleh G, a former friend whom he has not seen for decades.  Dovaleh tracks him down and pleads with him to watch this particular performance.  The acquaintance, a retired Judge, agrees to go but regrets it almost immediately.  He tries to leave but Dovaleh embarrasses him into staying.  The Judge then shoves “handfuls of nuts into my mouth and grind them like they were his bones.”  A vivid line.

Dovaleh builds up some rapport with the audience.  He is endearing, insulting, frustrating, violent and unpredictable.  Jokes are followed by random monologues and self-harm.

Dovaleh picks on a small lady who does not appear to be enjoying the show.  It turns out that she knew him when he was young and says that he used to be a ‘good boy’.  This is the catalyst for the disintegration of Dovaleh and the show.   Outraged audience members leave, but some remain as they cannot resist “the temptation to look into another man’s hell.”

The comedy routine turns into a monologue on a painful incident in Dovaleh’s early life when he was faced with terrible circumstances, life-changing uncertainty, cowardice and indifference.

The writing in the translation is compelling.  When Dov is remembering a particular member he is described as having “Sleepwalking terror on his face: he’s there.  All of him is there.”  It’s a line that took me to the heard of the story, I could picture him and felt like an audience member, needing to watch but feeling guilty for doing so when a man is falling apart.

This is an unusual story of a childhood tragedy,  decades old guilt and confession told in a setting where you’d least expect it.


The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (MacLehose Press 2016)

An immersive story about the lives of a close Norwegian family as they cope with growing-up, ageing, work, tragedy and the vicissitudes of the weather on their sparse life.  Contemplative and humane.  You will put the book down feeling like a family member and have an odd longing to visit the island.
The story, translated from Norwegian, follows fisherman/farmer Hans Barroy and his family over a number of years.  Hans lives with his father (Martin), wife (Maria), daughter (Ingrid) and sister (Barbro) on the eponymous isle of Barroy.
I was unsure what to expect when starting this book and suspected that the bucolic existence could be marred by some form of violent tragedy.  This isn’t that type of book, however, but I soon fell into the peaks and troughs of their lives.
Jacobsen writing is thoughtful and peaceful, I very much enjoyed the state of calm that I felt when reading.  At first nothing much seems to happen but then I realised that plenty happens but it is simply the narrative that takes away some of the sharp edges of events, both good and bad.  You feel the happiness and suffering of the Barroys, but not in a shocking, melodramatic way.
The island and the sea are important parts of the book.   The island is under a kilometre from north to south and half a kilometre from east to west.  The seasons and the tides are massively important to the Barroys.  The sea brings treasure but also ‘fragments of distant lives, testament to opulence, laxity, loss and carelessness, and misfortune which has befallen people they have never heard of and will never meet.’
The joy of the environment is obvious, as are its dangers
Jacobsen will sometimes focus on small or odd experiences.  For example, when Ingrid is taught why the ‘carding’ (cleaning) of Eider-down is important, or when a cat is carried away by an eagle.
The language of the Barroys is translated into a colloquial English which, in part, reads like Yorkshire dialect.  The meaning is never lost though.
The characters are thoroughly believable, all with their own particular strengths and foibles.  Ingrid starts in the book as an infant and, in some respects, grows into the most important and strong character in the book.  She is a survivor, it is a lifestyle that makes no allowance for the feint-hearted.
This is a book that takes you on a journey of years and engenders moods and an odd form of nostalgia in the reader. A book I would thoroughly recommend.

The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year 11 – Edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris 2017)

You’d have to be very lucky to pick up a  compilation, such as this, and find you liked every story.  Conversely, you’d have to be incredibly unlucky to find that you disliked all of it.

This collection contains some excellent short stories.  It also contains some that, whilst not terrible, undermine the claim to be ‘The best’ of the year.

Some of the stand-out stories include:

  • The Future is Blue by Catheryne M Valente – This is a fantastic tale about a girl with the unlikely name of Tetley Abednego who lives on a floating continent of waste following an environmental disaster caused by the ‘Fuckwits’ i.e. us.  Tetley is widely despised, obscenities are flung her way regularly.  The descriptions of the floating world are vivid.
  • Even the Crumbs Were Delicious by Daryl Gregory – Babes in the Wood meets Philip K Dick in a funny, warm tale.
  • Things with Beards by Sam J Miller – Often dreamlike.  Space creatures deal with issues of equality and social justice.  A story to dwell on and read again.
  • Laws of Night and Silk by Seth Dickinson – A high fantasy story concerning war, magic and unimaginable sacrifice in the pursuit of victory.  Simply stunning, a standout in this collection.
  • Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman – Concerns contact with aliens who are sentient but not conscious as “Being aware would just degrade their skill”.  This is an interesting contemplation on how many strive to lose self-awareness.
  • Elves of Antarctica by Paul McAuley – Eco sci-fi, similar in theme to Catheryne M Valente’s story.  A massive remedial industry exists to prevent rising sea levels.
  • The Visitor from Taured by Ian R MacLeod – A love story in which the multiple universe theory plays a part.  Very well written and poignant.

There are many more stories, some good and some that are average.  The one criticism of this collection is that it feels too long and would have made a tighter, more impressive book with some of the weaker stories omitted.

Fans of sci-fi and fantasy are unlikely to feel short-changed if they buy this book.  There are enough great stories to make up for the ones that don’t quite hit the mark.