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Not long after Dan Brown skyrocketed to success with The Da Vinci Code, there arose a plethora of “Da Vinci Code clones”. You can always tell them because the reviewers comments on the front or back cover usually say something like “a rival to Dan Brown” which suggests that the book is going to involved some kind of ancient religious tradition and a page turning thriller. The Righteous Men was one of these. I am not dismissing it outright, because it wasn’t that bad, but the thriller aspect didn’t quite take my breath away, and the end of the world cataclysm didn’t have me wondering whether it could really be true. It was more a pleasant romp than a breathless race.

The main character is Will, a Brit and a journalist for the New York Times who stumbles on to a series of murders which seem at first to be completely unrelated. When his wife is kidnapped, he finds himself on a two day roller coaster ride through the depths of orthodox Judaism and Christian cults, accompanied by his trusty ex-girlfriend, TC, and a penchant for ignoring advice and getting into trouble. You can start to see the formula already. Of course, the thrilling climax supposedly surprises everyone (I unfortunately had figured it out quite a while before then) and, in true Dan Brown fashion they all live happily ever after.

Yes, it was interesting to find out some of the ancient Jewish traditions around which the whole story is based, but I still wasn’t that excited by it. Oh, how spoilt I have all become! Although I understand why publishers like formulas, and I do love my crime fiction (which is about as formulaic as they come), I do think this theme has run its course. Brown was a phenomenon. Most of those books coming after his feel like they have just jumped on his bandwagon – which sadly has already left.

Rating: 5/10
ISBN: 0007203306
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year: 2006
Date finished: 18 June 2008
Pages: 576
Challenges: B in the A-Z Challenge

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I was sent a proof copy of this book to review several weeks back, prior to its general release. When I was contacted I received a couple of paragraphs to whet my appetite. Without knowing what to expect, or what kind of book it was going to be, I allowed myself to be sold by the paragraphs – there was something within the intelligent turns of phrase that made me want to read more. The book arrived and I read…and I am still reeling from the experience. The Gone Away World is an incredible work of imaginative fiction which, once I had read the last page, I was sorely tempted to turn back to the front and start all over again.

The Story

The story is set on earth, but it is an earth which has been all but destroyed by a war which has essentially destroyed everything short of a narrow band of the ‘livable zone’, maintained thanks to the looming presence of the Jorgmund Pipe. I was confused by the first chapter, as the book launches at a time when the war has been over for a while, our narrator and his friends are almost renegade heros, and they have been called to save the world (again) as it seems the life giving, or more accurately, the normality giving Pipe is on fire. Chapter 2 jumps back to the childhood of our narrator and his best friend, Gonzo Lubitsch, in a fashion I found slightly jarring. I had so many unanswered questions from the first chapter, that the embarkation on the growing up and coming of age story confused me. However, as the book progresses, and the boys grow up, go to university and eventually join the army, it becomes to come clear. The war that was mentioned in the first chapter becomes a reality, and the whole reason for the earth’s destruction becomes clear.

Because of Harkaway’s chosen genre, the book blends familiar reality with unfamiliar absurdity. As time goes on, the absurdity becomes the norm but in a way which almost seems real. We never know the name of our narrator because he appears not to have a name. I only began to wonder about that when the story finally caught up with the first chapter, by which time I was so hooked I couldn’t put it down. Before long, a revelation occurs which turns the life of our narrator and Gonzo upside down, if indeed that were possible after all they had been through. But Harkaway is incredibly adept at drawing the threads of the story together, of confusing the reader only to have them exclaim “of course!!” when it becomes clear, and of painting it all with a vivid brush of imagery both banal and amazing.

You come across ninjas, mimes, circus performers, executives, martial arts masters and your darkest nightmares, but you take such absurdity in your stride. Because ultimately the world has irreversibly changed in the war, making the unbelievable completely expected. It is a strange but wonderful world he has created – one I didn’t want to leave.

Style

In my opinion, the book falls within the realms of speculative fiction. Science fiction is too old fashioned and inaccurate a term for it. Perhaps I am still old school and think of Isaac Asimov whenever I hear of science fiction, but The Gone Away World was a completely new experience. This is Nick Harkaway’s first novel, and it demonstrates his ability with words and imagery. He writes with a wry humour that only lightly masks the depth of his themes. He clearly loves language and metaphor. He weaves single word exclamations in with multi paragraph descriptions of Tupperware containers to provide a pace that generally avoids getting bogged down. If I were to make a criticism, it would be that perhaps he was a little too wordy. Particularly at the beginning, where I was suffering from confusion as well, I found some of the lengthy descriptions a bit tedious. Yet, I felt it improved as the book progressed. It is a long book and perhaps reducing some of this wordiness could make the book a little more accessible, however I would not wish to be the editor and sacrifice some of Harkaway’s wonderful turns of phrase.

Themes

The theme that struck me most was that of the nature of war. Harkaway’s war is not like other wars. Rather than destruction, the bombs that are dropped in this war obliterate everything. They are Go Away bombs – bombs which remove all of the information from matter and energy leaving absolutely nothing. If you are in the path of a bomb you literally disappear, along with everything else in the bomb’s radius. This kind of weaponry makes the atom bomb look archaic. But the annihilation is total – and once the world has Gone Away, then by virtue of nature, something must take its place. And it is this something which the executives and corporate machine which is left over after the war tries to control and curb. But it is this something which is as much a result of human action as the war itself, and it cannot be controlled.

I loved the comment on the violence and destructive tendencies of human nature, and the fear and distrust of change, even if that change is perpetrated by humans in the first place. Yet amongst that, there are still heroes. People still fall in love, they still form lasting friendships, and they still stand up for the underdogs or the misunderstood. Thus, this is a heroic fairy tale – it has all of the ingredients. But it is a fairy tale which is so relevant to modern society with our ever more powerful weapons and our ever more futile and childish political squabbles. It is a fairy tale which delivers a message of caution, alongside a message of hope as voiced by the narrator, whose life seems to fall right in the centre of it all.

Conclusion

I absolutely loved this book and it has driven me to broaden my horizons when it comes to genre. I would comfortably read more speculative fiction and I will be looking forward to more by this author. Although The Gone Away World may not have the read-on-the-train appeal of some of the trashy fiction which you can get today, for any intelligent reader who has an imagination and a sense of humour, you simply can not go wrong.

Rating: 10/10
ISBN: 9780434018420
Publisher: William Heinemann (Proof Copy)
Date: 2008
Date Finished: 4 June 2008
Pages: 532
Challenges:

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It is said that In Cold Blood is the first and finest of the genre of true crime novels, and if it was first, I don’t know, but it was certainly fine. It told the story of the horrific murder of the Clutter family in 1959 by two ex-cons, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. One night, the two entered the Clutter house and shot Herb, his wife Bonnie and his two children, Nancy and Kenyon, with a view to robbing them. The perpetrators left the bloody scene with just under $50.00, a radio and a pair of binoculars.

Unlike most fictional crime novels, there wasn’t an enormous amount of suspense leading up to the event, and at no time did you not know who it was who had committed the crime. Even the motive was established by half-way through the book. Because of this, it should have been a difficult read, and Capote did take great pains to include long descriptions, testimony and psychological assessments, which made for some dense writing at times. And yet, the book was incredibly compelling. The author had spent years meticulously researching and interviewing in order to achieve the thoroughness of In Cold Blood and that most definitely shows. His writing style drives you forward, if for nothing else but to try and understand.

I found that Capote was extremely impartial in his writing. His presence was never once felt. He didn’t pass judgement, nor did he deliberately arouse sympathy or hatred, which made it very unusual to read. Despite the horror of the crime, Capote’s research had exposed both killers to be flawed and yet altogether human individuals. You couldn’t hate them. Indeed, as several of the characters who came across the pair when they were incarcerated said, the worst you could feel was pity. Of course, being a true crime novel, it was very satisfying hunting around on the internet for photographs of the key players. Yet the photos did not change the impression that the author had given.

This is a masterful work, exploring the combined incomprehensibility and familiarity of the human mind.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 978-0-14-1418257-5
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 2000
Date Finished: 27 May 2008
Pages: 336
Challenges: 1/8 of category 2: American Authors for the 888 Challenge

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Have you ever wondered whether a black cat crossing your path really brings you bad luck? How about what the funniest joke in the world is? Are you really connected to Sir Richard Branson by just six degrees? And how can you tell whether someone is actually lying? Richard Wiseman seems to spend his life cogitating over these kinds of questions, but unlike all the rest of us, he then decides he is going to find out what the answer is for once and for all.

Quirkology is a fabulous collection of Richard’s experiments, many of which produce some true surprises. His book successfully brings the fun into science and makes you think about those odd little aspects of life which we take for granted or believe without question. I just love his audacity in his search to find the truth. I have seen Richard speak and watched him perform his magic tricks (he is a magician as well as a scientist) and his book reads exactly like he speaks in person. It is entertaining, engaging and informative all at the same time. It’s a tough book to put down, and if you are ever looking for fascinating after dinner conversation or trivia, this is definitely the book to turn to.

If offered a jumper which had been rubbed in dog poo but not thoroughly laundered, or one which had been worn by a serial killer and thoroughly laundered, which would you prefer to put on? What do you think the majority of people said?

The one point I laughed out loud? Soon after he had been talking about Freud, the following line appeared

“Although Freud claimed to be a scientist, many of his ideas are completely untesticle”

Freudian slip perhaps? Or a deliberate ploy to see if you were paying attention. In either case, I absolutely loved this book and am looking forward to a sequel.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 978-0-230-70215-8
Publisher: Macmillan
Year: 2007
Date Finished: 3 May 2005
Pages: 298
Challenges: 4/8 of category 6: Science and Scepticism; W from the A-Z Challenge

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Child 44 is Tom Rob Smith’s first novel, and it is an incredible way to launch one’s career as a suspense writer. Set in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and connected with real events, the book is intensely disturbing and totally gripping at the same time. What struck me most was how terrible the life was for every citizen of the Soviet Union under Stalin. It was like a different world and it was a wonder that people survived through it.

The story follows the fall of Leo Demidov, who holds a high ranking position in the MGB but becomes the object of hatred of one of his subordinates. His fall from grace finds him investigating a murder in a country where officially murder did not exist. Crime was an aberration which was generally ignored or brushed aside without even the semblance of justice, for fear that its presence would question the perfection of the Communist ideal, where because everyone was equal, crime was unnecessary and therefore was naturally eliminated. But idealistic Communism is an impossible proposition when faced with the worst aspects of human nature, and the crimes Leo finds himself faced with are callous, horrific and terrifyingly regular.

This book oozes paranoia and suspicion, which is why it is so disturbing. It seems that within Soviet Russia, there was no such thing as trust, friendship or love because a simple word to the authorities spelt doom for anyone, irrespective of innocence or guilt. The state apparatus apportioned guilt to anyone who did anything even slightly suspicious. If you looked the wrong way at the wrong person, it could mean death. If you treated a pet belonging to a foreigner, you were a spy. If you even thought negative thoughts about the regime, or were indiscreet enough to mutter them, your future generally comprised of hard labour in a gulag, or execution.

Irrespective of the bravery of Leo and his wife beneath such a hostile regime, the message that stood out so strongly for me in this book is that without trust, without care of another and for another, without confidence, then human life is simply a shadow. It is almost not worth existing, when your entire life is spent wondering whether a misplaced word would result in your arrest. This story is the tale of the absolute worst of human nature. It is brutishness, selfishness, paranoia, hatred, fear and vindictiveness laid bare. I am only pleased that as the story progressed, some of the better sides of human nature began to show out otherwise it would have made for grim reading indeed.

I had to suspend my disbelief a little for the ending. After the man hunt mounted to catch Leo and Raisa, I felt it ended a little suddenly and a little more tamely than I would have thought. I can see that the author has left a couple of hanging threads for the next novel in the series which is fine, but after the pace and excitement of the whole novel, without giving a spoiler, the final pages fell a little bit flat for me. Also, I found myself a little irritated by the style of the dialogue. Rather than

“putting conversation in inverted commas, as is normal”

the conversation was written

– In italics and not marked in inverted commas

Just like uppercase letters are generally read as shouting, in my mind the dialogue throughout felt like it was being whispered or spoken a long distance away. Although perhaps that was the intention.

This is not to detract from an incredibly exciting book and a fantastic first novel. I’ll be on the lookout for this author in the future.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 978-1-84737-127-0
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
Year: 2008
Date Finished: 23 April 2008 (at 3.00am!)
Pages: 469
Challenges: 4/8 Category 1 of the 888 Challenge: Crime Fiction; S from the A-Z Challenge; 2/8 from The Pub Challenge

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Victorian humour? Is it possible? I certainly wasn’t expecting it, but Jerome K. Jerome proved in Three Men in a Boat that it was indeed possible. Despite my normal aversion to ‘funny books’ (in particular modern funny books) there were moments I actually laughed out loud whilst reading this book. It was ‘Murphy’s Law’ in prose, with delightful observations on the world which haven’t lost their relevance despite more than a century passing since the book was first published.

Jerome set out to write a river guide which soon turned into a charming story about the boating antics of the working and lower middle classes in London. The three men are himself and two of his friends as well as a fox terrier, Montmorency, to whom Jerome gives a wry humour and a personality which perfectly suits the group. After spending an evening contemplating their respective illnesses (none of which they had of course), the three friends decided to take two weeks in a boat along the Thames, with idyllic ideas of pleasure, freedom and nature. Thus decided, the journey begins…

This book isn’t fantastic because of its plot – in fact the plot is thin at the best of times. It is fantastic because of the observations made by J and his friends whilst they travel. Whether it was the fun of the three trying (and failing) to open a tin of pineapple chunks, or the observations that because Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn courted in several places, it must have been intenseley frustrating for everyone at the time because every single place they went they would have run into the two wayward lovers, or the delicious description of how they loved to hold up the steam launches by pretending they couldn’t hear them, until they were being towed by a steam launch and then they felt justified in cursing all of the selfish boaters who held up the steam launches by pretending they couldn’t bhear them, this book was constant amusement. Of course, the trip wasn’t as idyllic as they wanted, but that never seemed to dampen the spirits of the main characters. In that respect, they were truly delightful.

Three Men in a Boat paints a lovely picture of the way leisure time was spent during the 1880s. Despite the fact that leisure time was earnt through long hours and hard work, it was used as a way to transcend class and, just for a few short hours, pretend that they were men of leisure with all the time on their hands and the beauty and history of the river in their grasp. In contrast to classics such as Dickens, which paint a miserable picture of the poorer classes of London, Jerome chooses to show them up as happy, carefree and full of humour. It was a lovely contrast.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 978-0-14-144121-4
Publisher: Penguin (Classics)
Year: 1889
Date Finished: 16 April 2008
Pages: 178

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Quite often, the books I read will make me wish I could live more than one lifetime in order to pursue all of the different careers which spark my interest. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson was one of those book. The difference with this book is that rather than an alternative career path, this one found me wishing I could pursue 10 or 15 other career paths because they all sounded so interesting and all left me wanting to know more.

Bryson sets himself no small task with this book. His idea is to describe in as much depth as possible, the origins of the earth, life and science, traversing over astronomy, geology, astrophysics, physics, chemistry, genetics, evolution, biology, zoology, anthropology and a huge armload of other scientific fields which make this planet so utterly fascinating and amazing to be a part of. He writes in a very accessible style, so even as he is trying to describe Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or the still contentious string theory, the reader never feels alientated. Within less than 500 pages, you can begin to grasp the very basics of quantum theory, the theory of the Big Bang and evolutionary selection, all things which every living person on earth should know to give them a better understanding of the world around them.

I am always impressed by Bryson’s exhaustive research. Even though he hasn’t set out to write an academic text, he appears to have made every effort to verify his facts as well as give personality to the characters who have helped the human race build their scientific knowledge to now. Granted, I am sure there are many glaring gaps and many individuals who may have been missed in his narrative. Granted, there is undoubtedly poetic licence in Bryson’s anecdotal personalities. But the poetic licence is necessary to turn this book into an enjoyable read, whether you have a scientific background or not.

I took immense pleasure in being reminded of my high school chemistry in the chapters about the elements. But I think what surprised me and pleased me most of all about A Short History of Nearly Everything is the realisation of how little we know. Not just how little I know as an individual, but how little we know as a race. I think common perception is that we have mentally conquered much of the earth and universe. In fact, we have barely breathed on the surface. And that is what makes it all the more exciting. As a new, tiny piece of knowledge is achieved, one more mystery is resolved, and two more mysteries arise. What an amazing field to be involved in.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 0-385-40818-8
Publisher: Doubleday
Year: 2003
Date Finished: 11 April 2008
Pages: 423pp (not including bibliography and notes)
Challenges: 3/8 of Science and Skepticism category.

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