The Clocks

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 3 stars

This is as much a Hardcastle and Lamb mystery as a Poirot one, with the little Belgian not even showing up until half way through the book. It reminded me of 4.50 from Paddington in that regard, with police Detective Hardcastle and his friend (and spy) Colin Lamb doing the hard work and presenting their findings to M. Poirot for analysis, getting back only cryptic rhymes until the Big Reveal at the end.

For me, the book definitely suffered for the lack of Poirot’s charm and eccentricity, since although Hardcastle and Lamb had their charms, they were very much just the usual bumbling policemen who don’t have the flair of the private detective, as is traditional in these sorts of stories.

One nice touch about M. Poirot in this novel is that he’s currently fending off boredom by cataloguing the works of fictional detectives and their authors, lending the whole thing a somewhat post-modern feel.

The central mystery itself is intriguing enough, but I don’t feel that this is one of Ms Christie’s better efforts.

Book details

Publisher: Harper Collins
Year of publication: 1963


By Unknown

Rating: 4 stars

I don’t really know what to make of this book. I’m not usually very good with poetry but I definitely found Heaney’s translation very readable (moreso than the introduction at times). I didn’t read it in any special way, but just as if it were prose, if somewhat slower than I normally would. Maybe this means I didn’t get the most out of it, as the story was certainly pretty simplistic, with the titular hero carrying out three great feats of bravery and heroism before meeting his ultimate doom.

I did enjoy some of the language, and I can definitely see the influence that it had on Tolkien, but ultimately, I didn’t find it particularly extraordinary. Maybe it would be better read aloud or in audio book form.

Book details

ISBN: 9780571203765
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Year of publication: 975



Rating: 4 stars

The humans of Embassytown live in an enclave in a city on the sufferance some of the strangest aliens known. Not only are the Hosts unable to lie, but a quirk of evolution has meant that they can’t understand their double-mouthed Language spoken artificially, only through the mouths of specially grown clone-twin Ambassadors, can Language be spoken such that it can be understood by the Hosts. Until now, when an impossible Ambassador arrives from the ether and everything changes.

We see Embassytown and the rest of this world through the eyes of a native, Avice, who was one of the few to make it off-world as crew of a starship that travels the ‘immer’ and who returns with her off-world linguist husband, who is fascinated by the unique language of the Hosts.

Avice is a likeable first-person narrator, and seeing things through her eyes makes it all the more shocking when things start changing and going wrong, because for her, her entire world — whose horizons are limited to the confines of the enclave of Embassytown — is changing.

MiĆ©ville loves playing with language, and the book is a delight to read, even if it is difficult at times (the narrative, not the language). He takes a risk and makes the entire plot swivel around semiotics and language (a la Babel 17), something which pays off, even if I’m not entirely sure that I understood it. One of the ideas that he runs with is that because the Hosts are unable to conceive of lying, to conceive a simile, they must first have the thing that they are comparing, so our heroine, when she is young, carries out something vaguely unpleasant but never fully described, and becomes a living simile. Things are compared to “the girl who ate what was given to her in darkness”. This is an intriguing idea, although one that seems an inevitable consequence of the thesis and it’s nice to see these sorts of ideas being fully thought through. This is definitely a book that has ideas big enough that it deserves a re-read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780230754317
Publisher: Macmillan Publishers Ltd
Year of publication: 2011

Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (Jeeves, #15)

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 5 stars

Following doctor’s orders, Bertie Wooster decides to spend some time in the country, taking lots of country air and fewer martinis. Unfortunately, he doesn’t reckon on the machinations of his Aunt Dahlia nor the amount of trouble that a cat could cause for him. Throw in a pair of antagonistic racehorse owners, a slightly loopy colonial explorer and the usual star-crossed lovers and you’ve got the makings of a classic Jeeves and Wooster novel.

I’ve not found a bad word to say about any Jeeves and Wooster novel I’ve read to date, and this one certainly doesn’t break that track record. Perhaps it’s a little more predictable, being one of the later novels, or maybe it’s just that I’m not familiar with how a Jeeves novel works, but it’s no less delightful for that. Bertie is as dopey as ever and can’t seem to shake his bad habit of finding himself getting engaged to unsuitable girls, leaving it up to Jeeves to rescue him from the predicament.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140041927
Publisher: Penguin Books
Year of publication: 1974

Something Wicked This Way Comes

By Ray Bradbury

Rating: 5 stars

After hearing about Ray Bradbury’s death last week, I resolved that the next book that I would read would be one of his, and I had picked up this one at this year’s Eastercon as I’d never read it, so it was the obvious choice. The book was beautiful to read, as Bradbury’s work almost always is for me, and has a sense of horror permeating it, as two boys fight the horrific Mr Dark’s carnival when it rolls into town one October.

Like much of Bradbury’s work, this is set firmly in time and space, taking in that wide-open small-town midwest America that Bradbury loved, in a time that felt not too far removed from his own childhood, as he showed with his loving crafting of Will and Jim, his two protagonists, on the cusp of growing up, but still young enough that running together is the best thing you can do, and love is a word to be approached warily. The evocations of autumn also strongly place this book, with the word pictures blooming vividly in my head, something that Bradbury was the master of.

Mostly when I’m reading, I skim the actual text, so that I can get a sense of the story and what’s going on, but with Bradbury that misses half the point. His language is practically prose poetry and you need to read it slowly to appreciate that. In fact, I think Bradbury would be incredibly well-suited to audio books, as there is a rhythm and cadence that comes out when spoken aloud.

This is a book that I sort of wish I’d read in my youth, as its young protagonists would have certainly chimed even more closely with my teenage self than they do to me now. I’m just glad I got to know them at all.

Book details

Publisher: Bantam
Year of publication: 1962

Lady of Mazes

By Karl Schroeder

Rating: 4 stars

Livia Kodaly lives on a ringworld called Teven Coronal somewhere in the vicinity of Jupiter and, like everybody else on Teven, neither knows nor cares about the wider solar system. This all changes when outsiders come into her world in preparation for an invasion that could change the face of the entire solar system.

This book is a prequel to Ventus, although there is almost no overlap between them, this showing the birth of the rogue AI 3340 that was the focus of Ventus. The book aims, like its predecessor, to cover huge themes of science fiction, philosophy and sociology in its pages. The protagonist, Livia, lives in Westerhaven, which isn’t so much a country, but a philosophy (called a ‘manifold’), where people of a similar mindset can gather and live together. Westerhaven is metropolitan and engages with high technology, but right under their noses is Raven, which eschews all this technology in favour of a communion with nature and spirit animals and totems. Not metaphorical totems, but enabled by the same technology that enables the animas and ‘societies’ of Westerhaven. A combination of augmented/virtual reality, nanotech and neural implants ensure that residents of Westerhaven and Raven could walk past each other and never see each other. These differing worldviews are enforced by ‘tech locks’ that prevent technology that lives outside of the worldview from working within that manifold.

This is a fascinating idea, and Schroeder explores it to the full, before taking his protagonists outside the shifting worldviews of Teven to the wider solar system, where they encounter yet more differing philosophies on what it means to live and be human, as they search for allies to help them fight back against the invaders who want to collapse the manifolds and make the inhabitants of Teven see a single view of ‘reality’.

That is really what this book is about, for me anyway. The nature of reality, and how it shifts depending on the values of the viewer. The manifolds and AR/VR of “inscape” just take that to the nth degree. As Schroeder says in one of the essays about the book on his website, we already inhabit different manifolds when we visit from the city to the country, or even different regions of a city (my own manifold, for example, is probably very different from someone living in The Gorbals). The technology described in Lady of Mazes just takes this to one logical conclusion.

And it’s a view that I loved reading about. I loved the ideas that it covered and the way that so different worldviews lived together peacefully on Teven and the clash that occurred upon exposure to the wider solar system. The idea that civilisation was now so complex that humans just can’t cope with it any more, and the Government has become a distributed AI, with a ‘vote’ (basically a new node in the Government AI) compiled and brought into existence to represent not just serious political ideas, once they gain traction amongst the population, but also fashions, pet lovers, Shakespeare and almost everything else.

There’s an awful lot to digest from this book and once I get through my (ever-growing) to-read pile, I’d love to come back to both this and Ventus and re-read them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780765350787
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction
Year of publication: 2005

Hull Zero Three

By Greg Bear

Rating: 4 stars

I man awakes naked and confused on the deck of a spaceship that is trying to kill him, with no memory of where or who he is. He has to stay alive long enough to try and figure out what’s gone wrong with the ship and to find the answers that may be found in the mysterious Hull Zero Three.

This is a pretty tense SF-horror, although perhaps thriller would be a better description than horror, since although it was tense and kept me turning pages, I didn’t feel the sense of personal discomfort that horror often realises in me (one reason why I avoid the genre). The trope of the small group of survivors on a large spaceship, with things trying to kill them is an old one, but Bear pulls it off here, with the central mystery being strong enough to keep me reading.

A colony ship that can create creatures from the templates in its gene banks, a war on the ship, conscience and metaphysics all pull together to form a compelling narrative, even if the final chapters were slightly confusing.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575100961
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2010

Unseen Academicals (Discworld, #37)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 3 stars

This Discworld book sees the Wizards of Unseen University forced to play a football match in order to be able to continue to dine in the manner that they have become accustomed. Conveniently, this coincides with the point that the goddess of football starts to take an interest in the game, and hilarity, as they say, ensues.

Except that it doesn’t. While this is an entertaining, and even, at times, amusing, book, it’s not funny, and I still expect a Discworld book to be funny. I know that Pratchett swapped out laugh-out-loud funny for witty observations a long time ago, but I’ve never quite got over the idea I should be laughing, or at least giggling, my way through a Discworld book, rather than occasionally smiling to myself. The book is still easy to read because I’m comfortable in Ankh-Morpork and old favourites such as the Patrician, Sam Vimes and, of course, Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler make their various presences felt, to varying degrees of relevance to the plot, but they were a comforting presence all the same.

While this book is seemingly about the wizards, it gives much more prominence to the staff Under Stairs at the University (including the mysterious Mister Nutt), in particular putting the head of the Night Kitchen, Brenda, somewhere between the witch Agnes Nitt and one of the residents of Cockbill St that Sam Vimes remembered in Feet of Clay. The ‘spirit of football’, or goddess or whatever, is purely a plot device, and there’s no reason given for why these events are happening here and now, so that whole plot fell a bit flat for me.

So, a decent enough entry in the Discworld canon, but for me these later books don’t hold a candle to the glory days.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552153379
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 2009

Doom Patrol, Vol. 3: Down Paradise Way

By Grant Morrison

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve enjoyed Morrison’s run on the Doom Patrol so far, but this one stretched my patience a little. It’s probably the weirdest volume yet and it’s not so much the strangeness that I found wearing, but the lack of coherence. While Danny the Street is a charming conceit, I’d love to learn more about him (it?) and his relationship with the woman he comes back to at the start. I’d like to know why the leader of N.O.W.H.E.R.E. appears to have a laugh track running in the background of his home and why he values ‘normalcy’ so much that he wants to kill Danny (and, eventually, the Doom Patrol).

I probably enjoyed the second half of the book better, where we have Rhea Jones waking from her coma, except running around naked with no face and with an eye growing just above her chest (not a spoiler, it’s on the front cover), and being kidnapped to take part in an alien war. Incidentally, disturbing chest-eye aside, I can’t help feeling that Rhea’s lack of clothes served no real plot purpose other than to portray a curvy lady.

The antagonists of the war that the Doom Patrol get involved in are very interesting and I thought that plot was done well, but it did come at the expense of any sense of closure of the Danny the Street plot.

I’ll keep reading, but I’m more wary of the Morrison factor now. Oh, and I found the prologues at the start of each issue tantalising and irritating in equal measure, as they’re setting stuff up, but there’s no hint of where they’re going with them, never mind any resolution whatsoever in the whole book.

Book details

ISBN: 9781401207267
Publisher: Vertigo
Year of publication: 2005

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