BooksOfTheMoon

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind

By Jackson Ford

Rating: 4 stars

Unlike a lot of reviewers here, I didn’t pick up this book because of the (admittedly rather eye-catching) title. I’d seen a positive review of it in a magazine and was browsing a bookshop looking for something to cheer me up after a visit to the dentist. This caught my eye and I picked it up, and I’m rather glad that I did. It’s a lot of fun. Our protagonist, Teagan Frost, is the eponymous girl, and she’s working for a shady government agency as the only alternative to being vivisected by said government. She’s got a team around her, but as the story goes on, it becomes apparent that everybody in that team has their own secret. She has to navigate that whilst also being framed for a murder that could only be done by someone with her powers. And she’s the only one who can do that… isn’t she?

This book rarely lets up the pace, with almost every one of the (very short) chapters ending on a cliffhanger, urging you on to see what ridiculous situation Teagan has found herself in now. Teagan’s chapters are narrated in the first person, but there is another viewpoint as well, that of Jake – the other psychokinetic[1]. You start off being sympathetic to Jake, who’s had a rough life and doesn’t know where he came from. But you very quickly see him doing horrible things, all to find out more about his history. He displays a complete lack of any empathy and has no self-awareness. I’m very glad that his chapters are in the third person. I don’t think I could bear to spend time closer to him than that.

The team around Teagan get more characterisation than I was expecting in a novel of this nature, although her love-interest doesn’t fare quite as well. Teagan herself has a fun narrative voice and is enjoyable to spend time with. I look forward to reading more of her adventures.

[1] the book always calls it psychokinesis, not telekinesis, even correcting someone who uses the latter term, but never explains the difference; and the Wikipedia article suggests what Teagan does is closer to the latter than the former

Book details

ISBN: 9780356510446
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2019

The Jennifer Morgue (Laundry Files, #2)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

Software billionaire Ellis Billington is trying to acquire a Soviet Cold War relic and use it to raise a Cthuloid horror from the deeps and Laundry syadmin and sometime agent Bob Howard is all that’s standing in his way. This time Bob is paired with an beautiful agent from the Black Chamber – the American equivalent of his agency – and finds himself playing baccarat in the Caribbean with a pistol under his tuxedo jacket instead of his trusty smartphone and the oddest desire for a martini.

I really enjoyed the second in Charles Stross’s ‘Laundry’ novels. Bob Howard is an engaging protagonist and you feel for him all the way through as everyone around him seems to know more than he does and he stumbles from one apparent disaster to the next trying to figure out what he’s supposed to be doing and then doing it. And it’s certainly nice to see a systems admin type geek getting the front and centre role!

This seems to be Stross’s love-letter to the spy genre, with lots of Bond references and high-tech gadgets thrown in, all with a Lovecraftian undercurrent and some neat twists. Not to mention with the addition of a suite of hacking tools in a USB stick hidden in his bow-tie and a keyboard in his cummerbund. Although Stross left the software world behind as the dot-com bubble burst, his knowledge of the subject is up-to-date enough and fond enough to pass muster.

The bonus short story at the end takes us away from the high-flying spy world and back to the back-biting inter-departmental rivalries within the Laundry (sometimes literally) for a humorous story of an all too real experience with an MMORPG. The afterword in which Stross analyses and pays tribute to Bond and the spy genre is the icing on the cake.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841495705
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2006

The Moonstone

By Wilkie Collins

Rating: 4 stars

The Moonstone of the title is a magnificent, sacred Indian diamond, stolen by a soldier in the British Raj and later given to his niece as a birthday present, whereupon it immediately goes missing. Just under half the book tells the story leading up to the disappearance, and the rest tackles the consequences and efforts to recover it.

Stylistically, it’s similar to Collins’ other famous work, The Woman in White with a number of different first person narratives telling the story through time. My favourite narrator was the first, the inestimable Gabriel Betteredge, old servant of the family and devotee of Robinson Crusoe. He’s got a charming narrative voice and his frequent ramblings and asides are great fun to read.

Gabriel’s polar opposite is Miss Clack, a creation, in my opinion, to rival The Woman in White’s Count Fosco, and yet also hilarious (in short doses). She’s a mockery of the kind of holier-than-thou “Christian” who Collins probably did encounter more frequently than he would like liked. She starts of as a harmless old biddie but as her narrative goes on, I found her creepier and creepier, possibly because I found her complete lack of empathy and deep selfishness, disguised as piety, all too believable.

Lots of fun, very easy to read and (for readers of my edition, at least), not as intimidating as it looks: the paper’s just very thick!

Book details

ISBN: 9781847490094
Publisher: Oneworld Classics
Year of publication: 1868

The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins

Rating: 5 stars

Hartright is a drawing master who gets engaged to tutor two young ladies in an out of the way part of the country. Before long he is wrapped up in the mystery of the titular woman in white and must find out the secret of Sir Percival Glyde, the financeĆ© of one of his charges, before it’s too late.

I loved this book. It’s a fast-paced thriller (despite being over 600 pages long, it never feels like it dawdles) with some lovely characterisation. I’ve been told by someone in the know that Wilkie Collins was parodying some of the more overwrought gothic romances of his time. I didn’t pick up on that, but even without having the additional layers of knowledge, there’s a lot to enjoy about this book.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Glyde, and his friend Count Fosco, are the villains of the piece. But while Glyde is merely an upper class English thug that you can can’t throw a stone in Victorian literature without hitting, Fosco is something else entirely. He’s a marvellous creation who exudes charm and quirkiness, with a dedication to his pets, whilst having a very intelligent, ruthless core. He’s also believably flawed, and his interactions with Marian Halcombe are both delightful and flesh-crawling. That’s the mark of a good writer right there!

I think that the aforementioned Miss Halcombe is probably my second-favourite character, after Count Fosco. She’s intelligent, witty and not the kind of woman to go around swooning at a moment’s notice (not something you can say about her half-sister, Laura, who is to be married to Sir Percival).

So a rocking thriller with some great characters and a mystery that extends throughout the book. The structure, with multiple narrators also feels very modern and I have no hesitation in recommending this to anyone who has a modicum of an attention span.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099511243
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Year of publication: 1859

The Atrocity Archives (Laundry Files, #1)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

Imagine a world where Lovecraftian nasties are real and the only thing standing between us and having our brains eaten is a top-secret government department ridden with bureaucratic in-fighting and politics. Reassured? Me neither. Welcome to the world of the Laundry, a secret British agency assigned to clean up incursions from other realities, in which Bob Howard is a lowly techy, who got some field duty and more than he bargained for.

Stross mingles up to the minute modern technology with the supernatural effortlessly in this fun novel (well, it’s more two novellas featuring the same protagonist). He manages to showcase the horror all around us, and the thin thread that our sanity hangs by, along with the mundanity of the bureaucracy that Bob has to fight (the Laundry is ISO 9001 certified and he takes a grim pleasure in describing the various forms that have to be filled out in triplicate). Even Milton Keynes takes on a sinister tone in the second story!

Casual discussions of basilisks, medusas and incantations sit side by side with the Internet, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and flatshares (you think you have odd flatmates, Bob comes home one day to find one of his flatmates trying to scramble an egg without breaking the shell). It’s an odd combination, all told in the first person, but it works remarkably well.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841495699
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2004

Cobweb

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed this political thriller, set just before the onset of the first Gulf War. It draws two very different threads, eventually weaving them into a single whole, although I’m not entirely sure how successfully. The first thread involves deputy sheriff Clyde Banks, his campaign to be elected sheriff and the discovery of a dead foreign student at the bottom of a local lake. The second involves Betsy Vandeventer, a lowish ranking CIA agent, who writes a report that ruffles some feathers and makes enemies in all the wrong places.

Of the two strands, I much preferred Clyde’s story. His small town charm and solid mind, behind a dumb faƧade make him a pleasure to read. And the fact that he spends so much time carrying his infant daughter around in his car (whether on- or off-duty) just adds to the charm.

The CIA politicking in Washington left me a bit cold. I still don’t know if I entirely understand it, especially the set-up with Betsy’s social circle. I appreciate that it could have been deliberately worked to make the small town sheriff come out better than the conniving federal agents (whether they be FBI, CIA or any other TLA) and, if so, it worked on me.

I don’t usually read present-day fiction, so it was somewhat odd seeing real people popping up in the book; both Tariq Aziz (the Iraqi foreign minister) and President George (H. W.) Bush turn up, in extended cameos. The closest thing that the book has to a villain is James Millikan. A top diplomat, who just wants things to stay under his control so that he can get on with having lunch in expensive restaurants with his friends (such as the aforementioned Mr Aziz). When Betsy’s report suggests that the Iraqis may be up to something funny, Millikan immediately stomps on it, and ‘cobwebs’ the whole thing, which basically seems to involve wrapping everybody remotely involved in so many layers of bureaucracy that nothing could possibly get done.

And that’s depressingly plausible. Despite the copious humour running through the book, the idea that very clever people are doing their best to stop others doing what’s in the best interest of the country strikes me as wholly believable and wholly depressing.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099478850
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 1996

Spin State (Spin Trilogy, #1)

By Chris Moriarty

Rating: 3 stars

Catherine Li is a UN peacekeeper who jumps between worlds, doing whatever is asked of her, and forgetting a little more of herself each time, as the quantum teleportation strips a little more of her memories while she struggles to hide her own dark past. Following an information retrieval exercise that went wrong, Li finds herself back on her homeworld, being tasked with investigating the death of the most famous physicist in human space, a woman who is Li’s genetically identical clone, and whose death is looking more and more like murder.

This is a solidly interesting space opera. It throws in quantum physics, artificial intelligence, post-human relationships and more into the pot, stirs in a murder mystery, and just enough background world-building to keep you interested.

I did find it oddly unsatisfying though. I don’t know if it was the oddly mundane resolution to the murder, the grim politics that kept Li down and the AIs that live alongside humanity on a leash or something else. The potentially awesome revelation at the end didn’t have the edge that I felt it should as well. It just felt quite muted for something that should have been world-shattering.

So lots of good ideas, but it didn’t quite gel for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553586244
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Year of publication: 2003

The Apocalypse Codex (Laundry Files, #4)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

There’s an American preacher reaching up to Number 10 and getting much deeper than he should. The Laundry are worried, so they send (the long-suffering) Bob Howard to investigate. Well, they send some other people and send Bob to keep an eye on them. I guess he’s finding out who watches the watchers.

We find out more about the Laundry in the fourth book in Stross’s series, and there are revelations about Bob including fallout from the last book (The Fuller Memorandum) and a bit of a jaw-dropping ending (not to mention the worrying sight of an Auditor smiling).

This book wasn’t nearly as dark as its predecessor. It had some disturbing images (maternity/spinal injury unit, I’m looking at you!), but nothing along the lines of what happens in the previous volume. I’m very glad of that, although I still think that as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN approaches, I may find the books harder to read (post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t really something I like).

This book did continue a trend started in the Fuller Memorandum of it not all being told in the first person. Stross (and Bob) acknowledge that it’s sometimes useful to be able to tell things from other points of view, and this is acknowledged at the outset of this volume of ‘Bob’s memoires’. Following the end of this book, I think this is something we’ll probably see more of this to come, as Bob leaves the everyman sphere that made him such a great narrator as part of his rise up the management tree.

Cameos from Pinky and Brains are present and correct, and this book’s gadget is a bit of a doozy (even if I don’t think it gets nearly enough use).

So still spy-fi-ish, but as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN looms and the loonies and cultists (sorry, tautology) come out to play, the books are getting steadily darker in tone. Still very enjoyable, if not as much fun as they have been.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356500980
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2012

The Fuller Memorandum (Laundry Files, #3)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

Bob Howard’s not having a good time of it. A routine exorcism goes wrong; cultists are running around London, attacking him and his wife; his boss has disappeared; and he’s been seconded on to yet another committee. But at least he’s got a decent manager at the moment (following the demise of his last one).

The third Laundry novel is much darker than its predecessors, with CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN starting to come to the fore, and much nastier scenes, including cannibalism and child sacrifice. It’s all relevant and you never get the impression that Stross is throwing stuff in purely to shock, but still, it does come as a bit of a shock to the system after the somewhat lighter hijinx of the previous novels.

The plot seemed a bit looser as well; I was able to guess the two big plot twists before they happened (which is unusual for me, I never see them coming), but this didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book. Bob is still a great wise-cracking, Emacs-loving geek protagonist, and the supporting cast are all present and correct. Mo gets slightly scarier in each book, we get revelations about Angleton and a cameo from Pinky and Brains.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and sit in a corner and try not thinking too hard to do my bit to help prevent CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841497709
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2010

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

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