Book Review – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador -2014)

Extraordinary book alert.  This book has attracted significant critical acclaim and it is easy to see why as it is entrancing from the first scene, which sees a famous Canadian actor (3 times divorced) suffer a heart attack during a staging of King Lear.  

The actor is Arthur Leander, a thoroughly likeable character, despite his multiple relationships, and the person who acts as a touchstone for many other characters in the book.  

Whilst Leander struggles on stage, a former paparazzo and aspiring paramedic called Javeen does his best to resuscitate the actor.  This traumatic event is soon overshadowed by news Javeen receives from a doctor friend who that the recently discovered Georgia Flu is spreading at an exponential rate and killing significantly more people than previous flu strains.  This sets the stage for an apocalyptic event in which the population is decimated and civilisation, as we understand it, comes to an end.  

We are introduced to the Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors, who travel between the remnants of towns and villages performing Shakesperian plays for the sparse, but usually appreciating populations.  

The action is taking place around 20 years after the ‘collapse’.  We are introduced to Kirsten, who was a child actor at Arthur Leander’s final stage performance.  Leander handed Kirsten a couple of sci-fi comics about Station Eleven, hence the name of this novel.  

The Travelling Symphony has to hunt for food, fight for scarce resources and set up nightly watches to protect themselves, they are not just a bunch of  artistes.  There is friction within the group but also fierce camaraderie, interdependence and love.  

“But what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy when it didn’t matter who’d used the last of the rosin on their bow or who anyone had slept with.”

“someone … had written “Sartre: He’ll is other people” in pen inside on of the caravans, and someone else had scratched out “other people” and substituted “flutes”.

The lead caravan is labelled The Travelling Symphony – Because survival is insufficient.  Attempting to get to the bottom of what is important in life, what makes it worth living and what seems critical but is in effect inessential, is one of the main themes of this book and it will certainly make readers reflect on their own lives.  

In between the Travelling Symphony narrative, chapters focus on extracts from books and letters, mostly relating to Arthur Leander.  These reveal that, like many of us, characters had been sleepwalking through life, climbing a career ladder that has been leant against the wrong wall.  Prior to the collapse, the characters lacked meaning and joy.  After the collapse, people miss the comforts and convenience of civilisation, life is brutal, but the Symphony help to bring happiness and beauty into the harsh realities of daily life.

Whilst we would all miss running water, lighting, shops, the internet, how many of a us would actually miss the daily alienating grind of modern working life and the corporate bull that accompanies it?  

The Symphony stumble across a settlement controlled by a serene but brutally insane prophet and their fate becomes snarled up in his ‘higher calling.’  Kirsten and several of her friends become separated from the Symphony and must attempt to reconnect at the Museum of Civilisation’, their previously agreed destination, which is where the Prophet is known to have come from and still contains links to the long deceased Arthur Leander.  

This is a phenomenal book.  The story deals with a post apocalyptic world tenderly and realistically.  The characters feel real and we can empathise with what they have lost and their search for the real spark of joy in living.  The bigger themes may lead to some soul-searching within the readers which can only be for the good.  

Highly recommended 

Book Review:  The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman (Tor -2015)

This is Genevieve Cogman’s debut novel.  The Invisible Library is a fascinating creation that appears to have be of indeterminate size and exists in inter-dimensional space.  It is inhabited by a hierarchical network of librarians.

The Library inhabits the space between an almost infinite number of alternate worlds to which the Librarians can travel to act as local agents or to find unique books for their masters, whose days of adventure are behind them and are spending their time carrying out research.  When I say unique, I mean it in the strictest sense of the word.  A unique work is one that exists in only one of the alternate realities.  

Junior Librarian Irene is given a mission by her immediate superior and mentor.  This is not of out of the ordinary but she grows suspicious when she is assigned a trainee, named Kai,  who appears to be a little out of the ordinary.  From an early stage it becomes clear that Irene’s mission is not one you would want to take a trainee on.  

Before Irene has stepped through to the alternate reality in which she and Kai are to carry out their mission, her former mentor, Bradamant, attempts to take Kai and the mission from her.  It is clear that there is no love lost between them. Irene manages to retain her mission and Kai but soon realises she has more to worry about.  She is sent to find a unique story by the Brothers Grimm in an alternate London where werewolves, vampires and other magical beings live.  

The London in question is a Victorian Steampunk nirvana, full of smog, strange clattering mechanical devices and, that most beloved form of steampunk transport, zeppelins.  

Unfortunately for Irene, a number of other characters take a keen and deadly interest in the Grimm book (there is a pun about a Grimmoire that I could make but won’t) including Bradamant, a magical Fae lord and a particularly malevolent ex-Librarian called Alberich.  ‘Ex-Librarian’ sounds too timid a term for Alberich who is more akin to Lucifer, cast out of Heaven, than a mild-mannered book lover put out to pasture due to local authority budget cuts.  

There follows a compelling and twisting storyline in which seemingly unlikely alliances are forged and many characters are not all they appear to be at first.  I found myself trying to second guess the story, expecting  shock reveals or double crosses at any moment (I was unsuccessful in my guesses!)

The pace is very lively and the social interactions are very genteel and subtly nuanced as befits a novel set in Victorian London.  Cogman gives a lot of weight to the meaning of a slight nod, pursing of the lips, or arched eyebrow.  

The characters and the Library universe are yet up beautifully for further adventures.  Given the massive range of options that she has, it would be a missed opportunity if the characters were to continue to dwell in a Steampunk version of a Sherlock Holmes novel. 

The literary interest of the main characters and the ability to travel through space and time did bring to mind the works of Jasper Fforde and I think this book would appeal to anyone who has enjoyed Fforde’s books.  

This is an inventive and page-turning first novel and I look forward to reading Genevieve Cogman’s next book.  

Book Review: The Space Between Things by Charlie Hill (Indigo Dreams Publishing – 2010)

This was Charlie Hill’s first novel. The usual advice for aspiring novelists is to write about what you know. Charlie Hill obviously knows the Birmingham suburb of Moseley very well as his novel is largely situated in its parks pubs and Victorian houses, partitioned and let as flats. The suburb is described accurately in the book. “Moseley may once have been the best looking district of south Birmingham, now it was fraying round the edges, an unremarkable looking place.” 

The book is set between 1990 and 1993ish and the domestic and international politics of that time form the backdrop. At a party to celebrate the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, Arch, a dope-dealing, dole-drawing, feckless individual with no prospects and no goals apart from finding the next party, meets a girl called Verity (or Vee). Arch is smitten from the outset. Vee works as a photographer for a human rights agency that wants evidence of atrocities being carried out in the former Yugoslavia where the conflict between Bosnians, Serbs and others is in full-tilt.  

Arch too finds politics and a purpose in life after attending the notorious Castlemorton common rave and falls in with a crew of anti-road protestors, full of righteous rage over the plans for Twyford Down. In sharp contrast to Vee’s experience of a humanitarian and political crisis, Arch’s political motivation seems to be an extension of his love of a free party together with an ill-defined demand for freedom. You might ask ‘freedom from what?’ and ‘freedom to do what?’ and the answers would seem to be ‘freedom from The Man’ and ‘freedom to party wherever and whenever I want to.’ 

Arch feels that he is part of a movement with a worthwhile goal. He has the opportunity to join the anti-road protests, to become infamous like Swampy (remember him?) but never quite takes that step. He remains on the fringes, dancing to techno and dropping ecstasy. However, this is a kind of progression as ‘getting by’ was his previous modus operandi. 

The book is peppered with colloquialisms such as Oh’ ar (signalling affirmation), Yampy (a stupid person), Mardy (stroppy or moody) and Geez (short for geezer, meaning mate). Some of these are used particularly in Birmingham but some are universal. Those who try to avoid the much unloved Brummie dialect should not be put off as these colloquialisms are not used to the point of distraction.

The dole-scrounging laziness of Arch and his friends would raise the hackles of most of us who work for a living but the characters are human and there are many funny passages. Arch and his mates dedicate themselves to ‘creative indolence’. 

Arch and Vee hook up but for the most part it is a long distance relationship. Vee sends postcards from the Balkans, her memories of Arch and his easy going attitude and simplistic approach clearly buoying her mood after witnessing brutal and bloody scenes. For his part, Arch misses Vee but shows little interest in what she is doing or the conflict. At one point Arch asks a friend, who pays more interest to the news, what the Balkan conflict is about, the response is: 

“It’s Serbians and Croatians and Bosnians and anyone else who can lay their hands on a gun as far as I can see. Muslims as well, for what that’s worth. They’re all turbo nutters, Arch, don’t you worry about that. You’ll never work out what’s going on though, so you might as well not bother. Come to think of it, you never used to bother. Why start now?” 

It’s a great passage and one that sums up the complicated nature of the conflict and Arch’s previous antipathy for global politics.  

Whilst Vee is away, Arch and his pals revel in the press coverage and the notoriety that they and fellow ‘free-ravers’ receive. In their eyes, being vilified by The Daily Mail validates their actions.

When Vee returns, Arch is keen to demonstrate that he is now an activist and is working to change things in England. He does not talk to Vee about her time in the former Yugoslavia through a mixture of disinterest and not wanting to force the issue. For her part Vee recognises that there are serious issues in the UK about the erosion of civil liberties but is not convinced that Arch’s approach recognises the point.

This is a great first novel full of humour, love, frustration and politics. It will strike a chord with all who remember the free-rave scene, the Criminal Justice Act, the tragic events in the former Yugoslavia and anyone who has passed through Moseley. Recommended


Book Review: Agent ZigZag by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury 2010)

Subtitled ‘Lover, Traitor, Hero, Spy’, this is the true story of Eddie Chapman, a professional criminal who ends up spying for both the UK and Germany during World War 2.

Ben Macintyre’s research into the history of Chapman and his ability to weave this into a beguiling narrative is impeccable.  However, I disliked Chapman from the outset, and whilst the story is very interesting and highly readable, it’s difficult to separate this from antipathy towards the main character.

Chapman is a flawed character but as Macintyre says “War is too messy to produce easy heroes and villains, there are always brave people on the wrong side, and evil men among the victors, “.

After being discharged dishonourably by the army, Chapman fell into a life of crime, drinking and womanising.  He was a vain character and kept a scrapbook with cuttings about robberies he was involved in.

Chapman was arrested in Jersey shortly before the outbreak of the war and was therefore subject to German rule after they invaded the Channel Islands.   At this point, Chapman became a traitor and volunterred to spy for the Germans.  Chapmans motives were unclear but it is certain that he had no love for the English establishment after his incarceration.  He may simply have wanted to get out of jail too.

After much interrogation, Chapman was accepted by the German secret service, the Abwehr.  His ‘handler’ was an individual named Dr Graumann, also known as Von Groning, a German Aristrocrat with a taste for champagne.

Charged with a sabotage mission, Chapman lands in the UK and immediately gives himself up to MI5, offering to act as a double agent.  The story then moves to the various acts of sabotage and intelligence gathering the Chapman was involved in.  Macintyre rightly gives credit to a whole host of others in British intelligence who assiste Chapman along the way.  Whilst Chapman’s actions  help to spread disinformation and confusion amongst German intelligence, it is clear that the true heroes were the men and women of Bletchley Park who cracked the German Enigman codes meaning that the UK could read all messages from Germany.  

As a double agent, Chapman is often moody and petulant, wanting to be given respect, indulged and enterained. There is no doubt that he took risks but it is hard to view him as a British hero.  

Near the end of the war, Chapman falls in with his old criminal colleagues and his indiscretion and admission that his German handler, Von Groning, was embezzling cash from the Abwehr led to MI5 ending their relationship with Agent ZigZag.  

This is a very well written and gripping book, but your enjoyment of it could be tempered by your feelings for Eddie Chapman. 

Book Review: Timescape by Gregory Benford (Millennium 2000)

As well as being an award winning writer of SF, Gregory Benford is a Professor of Physics at the University of California.  It is no surprise then, that his own experience and research feed into his work and this book is described as ‘Hard Science Fiction’.

Hard Science Fiction is a rather unappealing name for a sub-genre.  It is somewhat off-putting and suggests that the book will be something that has to be wrestled with to be understood.  The impact of asking someone if they would like to read some Hard SF might be akin to asking them if they’d like to have a go at some hard algebra.  Perhaps people who would like to try hard algebra are also those that like hard SF.  

‘Hard’ can sometimes be shorthand for ‘realistic’, or ‘speculative but based on sound scientific principles’.  

There are two main theatres of action in the book, both are on Earth but are set 30 years apart.  Scientists from the 1990s, where Earth is experiencing a deadly environmental crisis, attempt to send a message to scientists in thee 1960s by means of Tachyons, allied to good old-fashioned Morse code.   The environmental crisis has manifested in the form of enormous ‘blooms’ in the oceans that cause devastation to all other life in the vicinity. 

In the 1990s, a rather uptight British scientist named John Renfrew is struggling to get the World Council to understand his methods and to provide funding.  Renfrew is resentful of privilege and class snobbery and feels his ordinary upbringing is something of a weakness.

In the 1960s, Gordon Bernstein is an assistant professor at the University of California.  We first meet him driving his ’58 Chevy with the Beach Boys playing on the radio.  Could you get a more stereotypical introduction to California, maybe if he was giving a lift to John Kennedy or a soldier on his way to Vietnam.  Bernstein is being tormented by a mysterious source of interference on an experiement his is running involving indium antimonide and nuclear resonance.  Having only a limited education in Physics I did start to ponder whether the Hard SF genre could actually be, well, hard to understand.  I had to simply let the scientific descriptions wash over me and take them as read, it did not affect the understanding or enjoyment of the story.    Does it actually matter if you do not understand the science?  In many SF stories there are underlying scientific MacGuffins, which you are expected to simply accept.  Most will have no basis in science at all.  Therefore, if you can understand the actual science in this book, good for you, if not just carry on reading.

Time travel in a particular form is the aim of the experiment and, as you would expect, there is much discussion of paradoxes.  Handily, the scientists in the book attempt to explain the science to their relatives and friends who, like me, do not have the benefit of a Degree in Physics.

Throughout the book there are themes and side stories of love, infidelity and jealousy.  This injects some human element to the story but it didn’t move the it forward much.  Whilst the attempt was to make the scientists seem more like average guys,  descirptions of their almost blind dedication to solving a problem at the expense of career and relationships somewhat undermines the effect. 

Despite living in the 1990s, the British characters do seem stereotypically 1960s middle-class.  As with many Disney stories, the villain of the piece, to the extent that there is an  antagonist, is British.  Ian Peterson is an upper-class member of the World Council and invetarate womaniser.  He is intelligent and working for the greater good but is an utter cad.  The women in the story see through him quicker than the men but that doesn’t stop them from sleeping with him.  

The text is peppered with scientific theories and I ticked off microuniverses, Seyfert galaxies, Fermat’s last theorem,  Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and quantum mechanical supersymmetry.  One day perhaps I will understand them.  Benford tries to get across the aesthetic beauty of science and the satisfaction of solving a problem.  

Progress of transferring information from the 1990s to the 1960s is slow, caused by not having the advantage of the next 30 years of scientific knowledge and a general unwillingness to believe in messages from seeming extra-terrestrial sources.  There is some breakthrough success, which manifests itself in fairly minor ways initially but the tensions and absolute necessity of success is ramped up when the ‘blooms’ of the 1990s start to spread exponentially and find new ways of spreading into the atomospher and other living organisms.  

After laboriously detailing the scientific process over many chapters, the ending comes quickly and seems a bit rushed and hackneyed, full of gushing prose and philosophical meandering.

I started off enjoying this book but the longer it went on the more tedious the descriptions of the science involved became.  There’s nothing wrong with eliciting wonder and curiosity in the reader but this felt like a bludgeon wielded by an author whose knowledge of science will rarely be surpassed by his readers.  

Book Review:  Patient by Ben Watt (Penguin -1997)

Many of you will know Ben Watt as a musician, DJ and one half of the band Everything But The Girl.  However, this  is not a typical pop/rock star autobiography.  Sub-titled ‘the true story of a rare illness’, it is Ben Watt’s story of suffering a debilitating, life-threatening illness, which initially seemed to defy an accurate diagnosis and his subsequent road to recovery.  

Despite being about a very distressing period in his life, Ben Watt’s prose is lyrical, engaging and often funny.  You are drawn into his experience and can empathise with what he is going through.  He captures, very vividly, the sensations of experiencing crippling pain and the fear and bewilderment it brings.  

Most of us will not have experienced a long stay in hospital but Ben Watt captures the highs and lows brilliantly.  You feel the dislocation and alienation of being in an environment where you are no longer in control of your life and where your everyday experiences can largely be determined by whoever is providing care at that particular time.  Ben’s family visit and stay with him regularly, providing him with some much needed comfort and familiarity in the drifting seas of NHS care but you feel their helplessness and need for answers too.

At one stage in his stay, Ben’s can only signal what he wants by signalling whilst his family point to letters on a board.  Trying to anticipate his meaning in this necessarily long-winded process, his partner Tracey Thorn misinterprets in quite humorous ways.  Ben’s father struggles to get to grips with the situation and obviously feels very uncomfortable in being in the hospital.   It is difficult to criticize his father, instead we feel some sympathy that his inability to fix the situation and his discomfort at being inside a hospital is making him feel helpless.

This book is so well-written and engrossing that I would recommend it strongly to anyone.  

As an aside, Tracey Thorn’s own book ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’, about her life in the music industry is also an excellent read.  I am not a particular fan of Everything But The Girl but they write good books.