Fantastic Mr. Fox

By Roald Dahl

Rating: 4 stars

After watching the film Isle of Dogs recently, a friend recommended that I watch Fantastic Mr Fox, also by Wes Anderson. I did so, having not read the book since I was a kid. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, so I went back to the source material.

The book is very slight (I read it in half an hour, over lunch) but as much fun as I remember. Mr Fox feeds his family by stealing from the villainous farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. They eventually have enough of this and try to dig him out and this is the story of how he and his family cleverly fight back. The farmers are delightfully awful, and Mr Fox is, indeed, fantastic. Not classic Dahl, but enjoyable fun nonetheless.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140326710
Publisher: Puffin
Year of publication: 1988

Alif the Unseen

By G. Willow Wilson

Rating: 3 stars

When the grey-hat hacker who calls himself Alif, living in an unnamed city in an unnamed Emirate, comes into possession of a book called The Thousand and One Days, his life suddenly becomes far more exciting than he would like. He, and his childhood friend, Dina, find themselves on the run and enter into a world of shadowy State security agencies, djinn, hidden cities and quantum computing.

It took me nearly half the book before I started warming up to it. This is because (and I appreciate that this is a failing on my part) I have trouble with books where I dislike the characters, especially the protagonist. And Alif starts here as very unlikeable. Shallow, entitled and whiny, it’s not until he’s pulled out of his comfortable world and gets properly stuck into his Hero’s Journey that he starts to become tolerable, as the plot also starts to speed up.

A lot of this starts because the woman that Alif (thinks he) loves rejects him so rather than spending some time crying and then getting on with his life, he decides to build a surveillance system that will wipe him from her electronic life, so that she never has to encounter him again. Uh huh, that’s a normal way to process a breakup, sure.

As someone who writes software for a living, I always wince a bit when any sort of computing (especially hacking) happens in popular culture, as they inevitably get it hilariously wrong. But thinking of this as cyberpunk sort of eased the pain of that, since that’s supposed to all be metaphorical and I just sort of glazed over that.

One thing I did really like about this book was how it portrayed the messiness of revolutions. The way that idealism and mob rule are all tangled up and can’t be easily separated. And what do you do once you’ve started a revolution? Especially one where you can’t even steer it, never mind control it. That sense of powerlessness and things spinning out of control was nicely handled.

So an interesting book, and one that evokes the deep history and conflicted present of the Middle East. I struggled with this, and still don’t really understand what happened at the climax or what Farakhuaz was or how the magic computer was even supposed to metaphorically work. So this didn’t really work for me, but gets pulled up for its setting and the delicious writing.

Book details

ISBN: 9780857895691
Publisher: Corvus
Year of publication: 2013

The Gun, the Ship and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World

By Linda Colley

Rating: 3 stars

In this book, Colley proposes the thesis that the rise of the modern written constitution wasn’t just related to democracy or “enlightenment”, but was closely linked to the total warfare that emerged in the eighteenth century, from the combination of war on land and at sea; what Colley calls “hybrid” warfare. It’s an interesting thesis, with a lot to support it, and the author does provide that evidence here, jumping across the globe from Haiti, to France, to the US, to tiny Pitcairn Island, to Japan, amongst others. I must confess that the inclusion of Pitcairn surprised me, being such a small island. I wouldn’t have thought it noteworthy, but Colley talks about how its lack led to increasing aggression from American fishermen and how increased interest in the subject meant that visiting British naval officer Russell Elliott was able to dash off a constitution for them based on his own knowledge and sympathies.

It’s clear that many constitutions emerged as the product of warfare – either imposed by a conqueror, as Napoleon was wont to do, or as the result of a revolutionary struggle against a foreign occupying power, but it’s equally clear that many (most?) written constitutions have a very limited shelf life and are revoked or replaced in a short space of time. This makes their continuing popularity, both in the period of this book, and right up into the modern era, frankly bemusing. But it’s clear that if you have revolution or a coup, one of the first things you do is add a new constitution.

It’s interesting to consider just how central the UK, and particularly London, was to the fad for constitutions in this period, especially given our lack of a written constitution of our own. But London was the centre of one of the great world empires at this time, had huge amounts of shipping, many, many printing presses and so people flowed through it, exchanging ideas and generally being a melting pot, that led to the new constitutions that were already being installed being pored over and armchair experts writing their own, with people coming from all over the world to compare ideas.

There’s a lot of interest here, but I’m struggling to to pin the book down. It’s easy enough to read, being written mostly for a general audience (although it still took me over two months to finish – but that’s a me problem, not the book’s fault), but I just have a vague sensation that I’ve come away without necessarily getting it. I learned many individually interesting things (such as that Catherine the Great penned her own proto-constitution for Russia) but I think it felt disjointed, overall. I’m still not sure if that’s an issue with the book, or just my difficulty in reading non-fiction though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781846684982
Publisher: Profile Books
Year of publication: 2022

Legends & Lattes

By Travis Baldree

Rating: 5 stars

I’ve heard a lot of good things, all of them, it turns out, well deserved about this cosiest of cosy fantasy stories. Viv, an Orc fighter, has had enough of the adventuring life, and decides to settle down and open a coffee shop. In a city where nobody has ever heard of coffee.

This is not a high-stakes, world-shattering story. The worst threat here is an annoying ex-colleague, and the local crime lord, who’s after protection money. It was an absolute delight to read: I loved Viv, her assistant Tandri, carpenter Cal, little ratkin baker Thimble and the rest of the found family that Viv gathers around herself. It’s a warm, comforting and, yes, cosy read.

It’s very different to the last book I read, The Kaiju Preservation Society, but I think reading them back to back was entirely appropriate. Both are immensely fun, with strong friendships at the core of them, and a very warm heart. I thoroughly enjoyed KPS, but I had to stop myself from going back and starting this one right from the start as soon as I’d finished it.

My volume also came with a bonus short story at the end, which tells the story of how Viv became obsessed with coffee in the first place, which was pretty nice, and fleshed out her previous adventuring party a bit, especially Gallina.

Personally, I’m a tea drinker and don’t get the fuss about coffee, although sometimes I sort of wish I did. Then I see the prices and feel happy about sticking with my tea (Earl Grey, hot). I’d hang around Viv’s place at the drop of a hat though, even if it’s just for Thimble’s delectable baked goods.

Book details

ISBN: 9781035007301
Publisher: Tor
Year of publication: 2022

The Kaiju Preservation Society

By John Scalzi

Rating: 5 stars

For a Covid book, this was an immense amount of fun! Written in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, when attempts to write a serious novel failed, Scalzi turned his mind to giant, radioactive creatures instead, and an organisation that goes out of its way to preserve from the real monsters (spoiler: it’s us. It’s always us).

Jamie Gray gets fired from his job at a tech startup just as the pandemic hits. Delivering take-out, he runs into an acquaintance from the past who offers him a job with the mysterious “KPS” that involves long tours away from home. Jamie jumps at it and is eventually inducted into the Kaiju Preservation Society (that’s not a spoiler, it’s literally the name of the book!).

As Scalzi says in the afterword, this is a pop song, it’s light and catchy and you can tell just how much fun the author had in writing this book, because I had exactly the same reaction in reading it. In the first handful of chapters alone, I was laughing out loud with delight (in public, I might add). I love the nerds he ends up hanging out with (even if making the Irish one the angriest is a bit stereotypical. I mean, it’s not necessarily wrong…).

The one thing that nagged me all the way through was the kaijus’ “parasites”. The way that they were described, the relationship between them and the giant beasties themselves is more symbiotic than parasitic, since both parties benefit, and you could say that they co-evolved together. But that’s a minor nerd issue.

This is a riot of a book that’s a pure joy to read. Recommended to anyone who loves quippy, clever people, sciencing around giant monsters (that’s all of us, right?).

Book details

ISBN: 9781509835317

The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Ghost Stories

By Rudyard Kipling

Rating: 3 stars

I was listening to the rather good Empire podcast when one of the hosts, the historian William Dalrymple, mentioned in passing the short ghost story The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes as one of the best short stories he’d ever read. This piqued my interest and I googled it, to find it in this collection, which was also available for free on Gutenberg. Now, ghost stories aren’t my favourite genre by a long way, and that, combined with Kipling’s attitude towards India and the Indians, meant that this book received a lukewarm reception at best.

There’s only five stories in the collection, of which, four are set in India, with the last being set in London, which an Indian connection. The first two stories didn’t do an awful lot for me at all. The title story has an unpleasant man who has an affair with a married woman and when he breaks it off, she dies of a broken heart, but comes back to haunt him. The second, My Own True Ghost Story sees the narrator starting off by complaining that he’s never had a ghostly experience of his own, before promptly having one.

The third story is the one that brought the book to my attention – The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes. I found this one pretty unengaging to be honest. The Indians are carictures and the narrator is unsympathetic. Maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind when I read it, but I’m amazed by Dalrymple’s praise.

It’s the last two stories that redeemed this collection for me. I’m not sure what The Man Who Would be King is doing in a collection of ghost stories, but it’s a great story of hubris and downfall, while “The Finest Story in the World” has a writer being given a glimpse of history, which he has to try to cultivate to let him write the eponymous story. This one, I enjoyed quite a lot, as the narrator’s young friend is revealed to be unconsciously in touch with his previous lives, which the narrator tries to use to write his story, all without letting him know what’s going on, and being subjected to his bad poetry. It’s tongue in cheek and shows some levity that is otherwise absent from this collection.

I’ve read some Kipling that I’ve enjoyed, but my agnosticism towards ghost stories in general, and Kipling’s attitude towards Indians means that the stories here mostly didn’t work for me. The last two really helped pull up the average though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781406923988
Publisher: Hard Press
Year of publication: 2006

Powered by WordPress