The Nightmare Stacks (Laundry Files, #7)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

The Laundry Files rumble on and volume 7 is narrated by Alex the vampire PHANG, who first made an appearance in The Rhesus Chart. Here, Alex is sent to Leeds, along with his friend and mentor Pete the Vicar, to scout for a future northern headquarters for the Laundry. What he doesn’t know, is that the city has already been infiltrated by the vanguard of an invasion from another reality and that CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN isn’t the only threat in that spectrum.

Well blimey! I swear that every Laundry book will be the last one that I read (I’m really rather squeamish and horror isn’t my preferred genre. The Laundry got its tentacles into me when it was still masquerading as humorous urban fantasy), and yet every one has enough in it to make me want to read the next. And blimey, what a punch this one made. The last third or so of the book is a full scale running battle, told from multiple viewpoints, as the invading force tries to attack the Laundry headquarters at Quarry House in Leeds, Alex off on his own, probably suicidal, side track and a disastrous decision to trigger MAGINOT BLUE STARS in an urban area.

It really felt like the invaders had the upper hand a lot of the time, so every time the human defenders got a score in (by accident or not), it was a punch in the air moment. Stross is really good at these battles (partly because he’s a military hardware buff in real life, so he knows his Starstreak from his ASRAAM. But also partly because he splits up the viewpoints, giving us multiple viewpoints on to the action, juggling the threads very well.

Back at a human scale, it was nice to see Pinky and Brains back, and getting more screen time this time – Pinky even going out into the field. And the romance between Alex and Cassie is very sweet and awkwardly believable (the scene with meeting the parents in particular was made of cringe). It was a way to keep the focus human even as Leeds is crumbling around them.

So yeah, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and Alex is a great new character, although I do miss Bob and his very informal narrative tone (he’s back next year’s The Delirium Brief, though). Oh, and it’s slightly hilarious to see just how much awe that he and Mo now inspire in the likes of Alex. He regards Bob (sorry, Mr Howard), the way that Bob regarded Angleton. So I, for one, am looking forward to seeing how the Eater of Souls 2.0 copes, after tentacled horrors from beyond spacetime, with being grilled by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356505343
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2016

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 5: Super Famous

By G. Willow Wilson

Rating: 3 stars

Right. Wait, what?! The last time we saw Ms Marvel, aka Kamala Khan, she was standing with her best friend, on the roof of her school, waiting for the end of the world. Here, we’re dumped right into the middle of the action, the world hasn’t ended and Ms Marvel is now an Avenger?! There’s no explanation of this, we just get a throwaway comment that it’s eight months later and just carry on regardless. This is frustrating, especially given where we left of last time.

Still, it seems that Kamala hasn’t been paying much attention since that time too, as she’s stunned to find out that Bruno is now seeing someone else, but before they can talk about that, there’s a redevelopment in Jersey City that goes a bit Stepford to deal with; her super-religious brother has fallen in love and needs her to be a chaperone; Avenging is trickier than she realised (not to mention the downsides of fame); and then there’s a whole stack of Kamala clones that need taken care of… It’s all a bit overwhelming, for the reader as well as for Kamala, as she tries to discover just what her priorities are.

As fond as I am of Kamala and her world, this book didn’t do it for me as much as the earlier ones. It was still fun, but it all felt a bit hectic, and the whole non-end-of-the-world thing was underwhelming. I understand it was part of some larger Marvel metaplot, but if you’re going to do that, it still has to work for people who don’t religiously read all the titles. Just a few panels of exposition would have been fine. And now, I see that the next volume is called Civil War II, presumably tying in with another Marvel crossover, and I’m really not sure I can be bothered with that. It’s Kamala I want to see, and her family and her friends and Jersey City. I’m happy to leave Spider-Man, SHIELD, the Avengers and all the others out of it. If the focus is going to move away from the characters of this title, to be more involved in crossovers, then I really can’t be bothered any more.

Book details

ISBN: 9780785196112
Publisher: Marvel
Year of publication: 2016

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: Last Days

By G. Willow Wilson

Rating: 4 stars

Volume 4 of Ms Marvel (Kamala Khan edition) sees Kamala meet one of her all time heroes (and namesake) and have to save her brother from her evil ex while at the same time dealing with the end of the world.

This may possibly be my favourite Ms Marvel book to date. I loved the goofy mix of action and emotion, which has always been there, but Wilson has smoothed the edges to perfection in this one. I suspect that I missed a lot of the background with the big planet over Manhattan as I think it was part of some sort of crossover but you don’t really feel like you’re missing out on anything important.

The scenes between Kamala and Carol Danvers are very sweet and the ones with her and her family are awfully moving. However, it’s the last scene of the main story, with Kamala and Bruno that left a lump in my throat.

It was a bit jarring that at the end of that, we get a crossover issue with Spider-Man. It’s a complete change of tone, but fun in its own way, even if I get the impression that there’s a whole bunch of Spider-Man emo stuff going on (‘cos Spider-Man always does, doesn’t he?) that I didn’t really care an awful lot about. I was there for the embiggening and punching (and Kamala doing her fangirl squeeing thing, which is quite adorable).

Book details

ISBN: 9780785197362
Publisher: Marvel
Year of publication: 2015

Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana

By Anil Menon

Rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed this collection of SF stories inspired by the Ramayan. I’m familiar with the rough outline of the story from my childhood, but I don’t have the deep immersion that I would have had if I’d grown up in India (in the way that I’ve absorbed the Christian stories just by living my life in Britain, without ever being Christian). This meant that the book was read with Wikipedia always at the ready, to look up names, places and events that Indians would just know. Still, like I say, I’m familiar with the basic story and it was fascinating to see the various different interpretations put on it in this collection.

Most of the stories were fairly sympathetic to the villain of the traditional story, Raavan and they also tended to pick up on the tail end of the story – the bit that many people tend to forget, where after Raam has won Sita back, he doubts her chastity and rejects her. The book contains stories from across the SF spectrum, from hard SF, through traditional fantasy to the fence-sitting of magical realism. My favourite story was one of the more sci-fi interpretations, Sita’s Descent by Indrapramit Das, about an giant intelligent nanite cloud named Sita, who takes the stories that she’s based on a little too literally. Other standouts for me include The Ramayana as an American Reality Television Show (with social media fallout after an episode of the show); the somewhat disturbing, dark piece Weak Heart; and the modern day story Kalyug Amended, with its absolute killer final line.

This is a great collection to dip in and out of and makes me think in different ways about the stories of my childhood. I’d be happy to read many of these stories again (I say that about a lot of books, but there’s always the next shiny thing to read, so I never get time. Still, this book will stay on my shelves in the hope that one day I do have the time).

Book details

ISBN: 9789381017043
Publisher: Zubaan Books
Year of publication: 2012

Tarzan of the Apes (Tarzan, #1)

By Edgar Rice Burroughs

Rating: 2 stars

Objectively, this wasn’t a very good book. It’s incredibly pulp, there’s very purple prose and the attitudes towards anyone who isn’t white and male are quite painful for a modern audience. But despite all that, it’s still fun. I did find myself laughing out loud at times at the sheer absurdity of the whole idea, but Burroughs is so intense about it that you find yourself being caught up and thinking that maybe a child raised by apes could survive, become king of the apes and teach himself to read.

The story is moderately familiar to us all. Lord and Lady Greystoke are marooned on an island and die, leaving their baby son to be raised by a tribe of apes. He survives to become Tarzan, later meets Jane and falls in love.

Entertaining but despite the cliffhanger ending, I won’t be seeking out the next volume (although if it’s out of copyright, I might track down an electronic copy just for the next chapter or two to resolve the cliffhanger).

Book details

Publisher: Flamingo Books
Year of publication: 1912

The Periodic Table

By Primo Levi

Rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed this collection of mostly autobiographical stories, sketching the life of the author, a Jewish-Italian chemist who grew up in the 1930s and who later spent time in a concentration camp. The stories each take a chemical element as their starting point, before wandering off in sometimes unexpected directions. For example, Hydrogen is about Levi as a child, with a friend, experimenting with electrolysis while Chromium is a cautionary tale about how processes that once had a point can become fossilised and sometimes even harmful. There are also a few pieces of outright fiction in the book, which he wrote during his first job after graduation, trying to extract nickel from waste rock that was being mined for asbestos and which are interesting in their own right.

The writing is clear and straightforward. It doesn’t necessarily have “literary flourishes” but is enjoyable to read, and the chemistry is enlightening. I must confess that I’ve given little thought to industrial chemistry and the processes that enable the analysis and transformation of matter, so it’s really interesting to see Levi shed some light on it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780349121987
Publisher: Abacus
Year of publication: 1975

I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That

By Ben Goldacre

Rating: 4 stars

This collection of short writing by Ben Goldacre is mostly drawn from his Guardian Column, Bad Science, where he took apart stories in the media that were built on bad science, often repeatedly. I’m really impressed with Goldacre’s work and the amount of time and effort he sometimes had to spend to get past obstructive companies (and sometimes journalists), to get to the original research (or contacting the researchers, if it wasn’t available) and lay out not only his conclusions in a very readable manner, but also the process of science and why that’s so important, as well as very patiently explaining the basics of epidemiology.

This explanation of how science works, with examples of bad science, forms the largest section of the book, but the range is huge, as you’d expect from having eight years of weekly columns to choose from, ranging from Susan Greenfield’s continuing refusal to publish any research to back up her claims that computer games are bad for children to devices that supposedly detect bombs in Iraq.

The book is very readable, each article is fairly short and it’s a good book for picking up in bits, or (as Goldacre calls it in the introduction), a statistics toilet book. I appreciate that he’s moved on to other things now, but I do miss the Bad Science column. Especially after reading this book, I tend to treat any scientific or statistical claim made in the media with some suspicion. I’ve started to follow the NHS NHS Behind the Headlines blog which does some of the same things (but only for medicine). Of course this doesn’t have the profile of a national newspaper but it’s something.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007505142
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Year of publication: 2014

The Complete Father Brown Stories

By G.K. Chesterton

Rating: 3 stars

It’s possible that I read this book too quickly, but I must confess that it started to wear thin after a while. That’s somewhat understandable as this volume collects together five books of Father Brown stories, totalling fifty-two stories. I thoroughly enjoyed the early stuff, in The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown, but it started to wear as it went on. There’s no denying that Chesterton is a fine writer; there is some delightful use of language here (again, more noticeable to me in the early volumes) but I did start to resent some of the straw men that Chesterton would set up in opposition to his detective. Every atheist was a shady, arrogant or nasty fellow; every scientist arrogantly dismissive of religion. Doing that cheapened the work for me. (aside: I wonder what Father Brown would make of today’s England of openly atheist public figures and inter-faith dialogue?)

According to the introduction, Chesterton, like Conan Doyle before him, grew tired of his detective after the first couple of volumes and put him to one side, only bringing him out after that when finance demanded it. I assume this is why the latter stories sparkle less than the earlier.

I have issues with the style of detection as well, in which the author rarely provides misdirected clues to the reader to allow them to “play along”. Brown seems to have “flashes of intuition” and a knowledge of psychology which allows him to realise who the perpetrator is without that whole tedious requirement for evidence. Perhaps that’s a little harsh, but it did often feel that the answer to the puzzle came out of nowhere at the end of the story.

So read these stories for the beautiful use of language, space them out and maybe skip the last couple of volumes.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853260032
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd
Year of publication: 1929

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