At Bertram’s Hotel

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

Bertram’s Hotel is an old-fashioned place, full of old fashioned people. Miss Marple takes a holiday down there and is disconcerted to find that even in this most respectable of institutions evil lurks.

Like with The Clocks, I was somewhat disconcerted in this book by the limited presence of the detective whose name is on the spine, in this case Miss Marple. The real hero of the book, who has most of the insights and does the footwork is chief inspector Davy, commonly known as Father. He has the flashes of inspiration, puts in the legwork that goes with them and pieces everything together, with Miss Marple just there to provide some serendipitous clues when required.

The inhabitants of Bertram’s are all intriguing people, from Lady Sedgewick, an adventuress with an estranged daughter who also happens to be staying there, to Cannon Pennyfeather, an absent-minded cleric who forgets what day the conference he’s supposed to be attending is on. These are fun characters even if they are somewhat stereotyped.

The central mystery was strong enough to engage my attention the whole way through, although that may have at least partially been my perpetual inability to spot whodunnit before the Big Reveal.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007716913
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of publication: 1965

The Variable Man and Other Stories

By Philip K. Dick

Rating: 4 stars

Billed as a complete novel along with a selection of shorts, The Variable Man itself is more of a novella these days. A man is pulled accidentally from his own time into the 22nd century where his very existence is a variable factor that the computers planning the war against Centarus can’t plan for.

This story is very much of its age, with the idea of all-seeing computers, where you just feed in the data to complex sociological questions and the answer pops right out. Thomas Cole, the variable man himself, is a sort of genius with his fingers, able to repair almost anything. Dick couldn’t have predicted the integrated circuit revolution that was only a decade away and which would change so much, with pathways being embedded directly into silicon, removing the need for micro-wiring and effectively rendering the whole premise obsolete. Beyond that, Dick does raise the spectre of the human versus the machine that is such a mainstay of the genre, with the slavish obedience to the output of the machine being played against human creativity which works well.

I enjoyed the other stories in the collection as well, apart from Autofac about a network of automated factories that were no longer needed and the attempts of the human population to shut them down. I don’t know why this didn’t engage me, but it felt flat all the way through.

Minority Report is a pretty different beast from the Hollywood film of the same name, but is an enjoyable action romp, with a bit of Dick-ian twisty logic thrown in there; Second Variety is about the evolution of robots designed for war and A World of Talent shows the ultimate psi talent emerging, but unrecognised, on a breakaway colony world.

A good collection of fairly early PKD and solid SF of the era.

Book details

ISBN: 9780722129623
Publisher: Sphere Books Limited
Year of publication: 1957

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (Dirk Gently, #1)

By Douglas Adams

Rating: 3 stars

Richard MacDuff is a programmer for Gordon Way’s software company, who made a spreadsheet that could turn company accounts into music. He’s currently preoccupied with trying to figure out how to move the sofa stuck on his stairs which his models say is quite impossible. Gordon Way himself is dead, thanks to a misunderstanding with an Electric Monk and what all this has to do with anything and especially professor Reg Chronotis is something that’s up to the eponymous holistic detective to figure out.

This is an enjoyable if somewhat odd book. The titular character doesn’t actually appear until almost half way through, and all the way through the book, Adams’ love of all things technological, and especially Apple, shines. The humour is more subtle than, say, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; more of the wry smile variety than the laugh out loud variety. The book takes major plot points from the Doctor Who stories City of Death and the (untransmitted) Shada. Although I have read it before, I had no real memories of it from then, and I’ve now seen both the above Who stories (the latter in the form of a BBC animated webcast) and the similarities were obvious, meaning I could more or less work out the plot from fairly early on.

This is mostly a four-star book, but it loses a star for, what I found to be, a needlessly obscure resolution to the final act. I thought I had more or less figured out what happened, but had to look up the Wikipedia article to confirm it. I appreciate that an author doesn’t necessarily want to deconstruct everything, but a few more clues would have been nice.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330301626
Publisher: Pan Books
Year of publication: 1987

The Second Jungle Book

By Rudyard Kipling

Rating: 4 stars

The Second Jungle Book contains several stories of the jungle and beyond, as well as finishing the story of the Man Cub, Mowgli over several hops. The end of the first Jungle Book saw Mowgli return to the jungle after a bad experience in a local village, and this describes some of his further adventures, now as master of the jungle. The final story here, The Spring Running which the book itself describes as “the last of the Mowgli stories” had me blubbing at the end. It describes the change that comes in spring and Mowgli’s unrecognised urge to return to mankind.

There are other non-Mowgli stores as well, of course. The creation myth of the elephants, the story of an ancient crocodile lurking in a river by the banks of the village and the story a holy man are all marvellous additions to the Jungle Book canon. I was less entranced by the Eskimo story Quiquern and I’m not sure why. It just didn’t work for me.

But apart from that, the stories are all excellent. Kipling once again betrays a love of India and its people, even if he does allow the image of the supreme White Man to surface occasionally.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140367836
Publisher: Puffin Books
Year of publication: 1895

So Close to Home

By James Blish

Rating: 3 stars

The stories in this collection by James Blish were mostly written in the early ’50s, not long after the Second World War, and the memory of the atomic bomb was clearly still recent, as it permeates this collection. One of the stories directly concerns a potential nuclear bomb dropped into Manhattan bay, one is set following a nuclear war and others also reference atomic warfare in more subtle ways.

The stories are mostly interesting, although the last one, Testament of Andros failed to engage with me at all. It seemed to go somewhere to start with, then seemed to change direction and finish somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

My favourite story was probably either The Abattoir Effect where a PR person for a private blood registry discovers that everybody with a very rare blood group is being killed off, to cover the murder of one specific person, or The Oath about relatively high-tech survivors of a nuclear war searching for additional medical personnel to complement their number, and the problems persuading one particular poet-cum-doctor to join them.

This is a fairly solid collection from a good author, even if it has dated somewhat, as the references to bomb and cold war demonstrate.

Book details

Publisher: Ballantine Books
Year of publication: 1961

Picnic on Paradise

By Joanna Russ

Rating: 3 stars

Alyx is a woman removed from her time and she is currently assigned to help a group of eight tourists get to safety as war breaks on a beautiful tourist planet.

This is a short novel and an odd one. Alyx is a fascinating character, struggling to get to grips with the time she’s thrown into and the social mores of the strange group she is assigned to protect and who she slowly grows to care for. I shot through the whole thing in an afternoon, but I suspect it would benefit from a slower re-read to better appreciate both the writing and the concepts. Maybe, if I ever get through my to-read pile (fat chance), I’ll go back to it.

Book details

Publisher: Ace Books (NYC)
Year of publication: 1968

Postern of Fate (Tommy and Tuppence, #5)

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 2 stars

Having moved into a new house in a country village to enjoy their retirement, Tuppence is sorting through some bric-a-brac they inherited with the house. In a book she finds underlined letters that spell out a sentence to the effect that Mary Jordan was murdered. Intrigued and unable to let it go, she ropes her husband into one final adventure.

Although I’ve enjoyed the other ‘Tommy and Tuppence’ novels I’ve read, I really didn’t like this one at all. It felt turgid, plodding and I still really don’t particularly know what it was about. Something about Evil Forces that recur from generation to generation and a warning about fascism I think. Maybe this was Christie trying to get to grips with the times (the book was written in the early 1970s) but it was an odd mix of the modern(ish) and old-fashioned that failed to come off for me.

Maybe Tommy and Tuppence should have been left to enjoy their retirement without being called back to active service for one final (poor) job.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007111480
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of publication: 1973

The Space Merchants

By Frederik Pohl

Rating: 3 stars

Venus is being opened up for colonisation, and Fowler Schocken Associates wants to be the first, and only, advertising agency there. In this grimly plausible future that Pohl and Kornbluth have established, advertising is the be all and end all of life with the majority working in labyrinthine contracts they have no hope of breaking out of in effective slavery for life. Democracy is a parody of itself, with senators representing companies, not people and those companies are in hock to the advertising agencies. The few people still concerned about protecting the planet are dismissed as subversive “consies” (conservationists) and hunted down.

I picked this up purely because I knew the name and respect both Pohl and Kornbluth (if you’re not familiar with it, Pohl’s blog is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in SF fandom and history). I don’t like dystopias in general, although I can appreciate a well thought out one. From my limited experience, this is a good one, although I still probably wouldn’t have picked it up had I known its genre before starting it.

For a book written in 1952, it’s extremely prescient. We’re not there yet, but the future of The Space Merchants doesn’t look as implausible as it should.

Book details

Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1952

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