Book Review | ‘Black Holes: The BBC Reith Lectures’ by Stephen Hawking

IMG_9678Fellow space-nerds might be quite excited by reports over the last month of a brave group of scientists trying the capture an image of the supermassive black hole sitting in the centre of our twinkly Milky Way. It’s a thrilling proposition for many reasons, but my excitement was piqued further after reading Stephen Hawking’s Black Holes: The BBC Reith Lectures, with an introduction and commentary by David Shukman.

This slim, pocket-sized volume is easy to read in a lunchtime, but might take weeks or years to really comprehend. It illustrates once again that subtle boundary between physics and philosophy – and that black holes are no exception to the true weirdness of quantum physics.

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Book review | ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury

farenheitSpoiler alert: This review contains massive plot spoilers about Fahrenheit 451.

In a year when readers seem to be turning to dystopias for sanity, there seemed to be no better time to return to Bradbury’s sometimes overlooked book, Fahrenheit 451.

Named after the alleged temperature at which books burn, the story follows Guy Montag, who lives in a world where books are banned, as they are thought to be the source of discord and unhappiness. As a fireman, it is Montag’s job to burn any books that are found. Yet, unhappy in his marriage and unsatisfied with life, Montag finds the lure of books too much to resist – and once there are books in his house, there is nothing to stop the feared Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department from tracking him down.

Fifty years on from its initial publication, growing post-truth, anti-intellectual sentiments in Western society have given Fahrenheit 451 new relevance, indeed in parts with almost uncanny precognition on Bradbury’s part. Many elements come into play during this book: the frustrating loss that comes with conformism; the borderline madness that comes with rebellion; the senselessness that must, after a certain point of tyranny, accompany political hope. Yet, to me, it is the end which is most pertinent in the current climate.

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‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus

41-iNoXC+wL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A little literary fiction for you today, The Outsider by Albert Camus. It’s a classic, for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because it’s disarming, desolate and unforgiving.

Our protagonist, Meursault, is an unconformist. Existing in the realms of dysfunctional emotional disconnection, he experiences both the death of his mother and his engagement with a profound unfeeling. Then, a random act of violence on a sunny summer beach catapults his life into shadow. He’s in trouble with the law and experiencing the sharpest edge of the world’s ‘tender indifference’, but even then, his lack of expression and feeling may be enough to condemn him.

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‘The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August’ by Claire North

llwdacohmndlqsifnpvwI am a great fan of a good bromance and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is all about the ultimate bromance.  It’s a gorgeous, fantastic story of intelligence, friendship and betrayal told through hundreds of years, as one man lives his life over and over again throughout the 20th century.

Like so many novels, it benefits from a lack of spoilers, so I won’t say too much about the plot.  It focuses on one mister Harry August, a man who after his first life, finds that he is born again instead of passing on.  Instead of dying, he finds out that is he an Ouroboros, destined to live the same life over and over again, retaining awareness of every life and living on forever.  Inducted into the Cronus Club, he finds others like him, and fits into a network of communication spanning across the centuries.  But when he receives a message that the end of the world is fast approaching, he is drawn into a web of danger and cunning an attempt to prevent it.

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‘The Girl With All The Gifts’ by M. R. Carey

71z22o5quGL._SL1500_Zombie fiction has become almost unfashionably in vogue this year, but The Girl With All The Gifts changes that, breaking every cliche. It’s got the pseudo-scientific theory and political commentary of World War Z, and is as unputdownable as Sci-Fi blockbuster book of the year, The Martian.

Protagonist, little girl Melanie, is a very special child. Kept in a compound with a group of other children just like her, she waits with excitement for her favourite part of her strictly controlled life, her lessons with the lovely and kind Miss Justineau. But the compound, and her life, are not as safe or regular as they seem, and when tensions rise between her keepers, she is forced to ask questions about who and what she is.

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‘Descent’ by Ken MacLeod

DESCENT-ken-macleodDescent is the story of Ryan and his friends in a near-future world, where Scotland is independent, CCTV sees all and augmented reality is on the rise.  It’s sold as an alien abduction adventure, full of government coverups and conspiracy theories, but it’s actually much subtler than that.

As teenagers, Ryan and his friend Callum are caught up in a bizarre incident that they conclude must have been an alien abduction.  Yet, the story of the abduction, and whether or not it was real or imagined, is secondary for much of the book to Ryan’s experience as a young person in MacLeod’s near-future sandbox.  Ultimately, it’s a story of evolving science, genetic evolution, technology, the fashion of tomorrow, augmented reality – and the political impacts all these technological developments might have on us.

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‘Seeds of Earth’ by Michael Cobley

seeds-of-earth_200x333Until I was in my mid-teens, I lived in Fantasy and largely ignored Science Fiction. Seeds of Earth by Michael Cobley is a perfect example of the reasons why I began to pay attention.

Book one of the Humanity’s Fire trilogy, Seeds of the Earth is set some years after humanity was forced to flee from Earth by alien warfare. Three ships of humans were sent out from Earth, one of which landed on Darien after the AI on their ship rebelled against them. Isolated, without knowledge of the fate of Earth or the other two ships, they live alongside the native alien population of Darien, the Uvuvo, with their strange beliefs in the power of nature and the spirit of their planet. Over a century passes before they are contacted by the outside world. The message? Earth is out there still, and things have become political. As a devastating war threatens to erupt across the galaxy, the inhabitants of Darien find themselves in the centre of it, their people and their planet riddled with deadly secrets.

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‘Stormchaser’ by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 04.06.24It should be noted that this is not the first time I’ve read Stormchaser.  Over the years, I have probably read this book five or six times from cover to cover.  It’s the first of The Edge Chronicles that I read, though arguably it was not the best place to start:  the Chronicles are divided into an ever-growing series of trilogies, of which this is not the first of any.  In fact, it’s the second in the Twig Trilogy, the first of the trilogies to have been written.

It was bought for me by utter fluke by an aunt and uncle one Christmas, and I’m always grateful for that because it is such a great read.  Twig is a young Sky Pirate, who goes on a quest to find the elusive substance Stormphrax, which is only made in their heart of storms.  Taking the lead of a merry band of academics and sky pirates, he pilots his sky ship, Stormchaser, back to his childhood home, the Deepwoods, in this action-packed YA/children’s adventure.

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‘Anathem’ by Neal Stephenson

1843549174I have been told by many people that Neal Stephenson is an acquired taste.  To which my response is normally, “Then you should acquire it.”

To me, he’s the height of intellectual science fiction, without taking it into the realms of abstraction as achieved by someone like Gibson, or lending it the academic dryness you quite often find, for example, in the fantasy of Tolkien. I mean, who but Stephenson could possibly come up with a way to make quantum mathematics interesting by comparing it to pink farting dragons?

Having said that, Stephenson does take patience. As with nearly all his books, it took me between one hundred to two hundred pages to get gripped, but after that, the next four hundred just fly by!

Anathem follows Erasmas, a young academic living in a sanctuary of learning, closed off from the public except for one day every ten years. He has an idyllic, secluded life, free of concerns until one day his mentor is expelled from the sanctuary and Erasmas and his friends begin to notice strange lights in the sky. Imparting the intricacies quantum mathematics with his usual narrative dexterity, this is a classic science fiction adventure tour de force from Stephenson.

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‘The Age of Miracles’ by Karen Thompson Walker

6a010536b33b69970b0168eb922a64970cIt is a great grievance of mine that Science Fiction and Fantasy are often seen as lesser genres to literary fiction, or that if you write in a literary style you cannot appeal to audiences of these genres.  To me, these views are utterly false.  Thankfully, I think Karen Thompson Walker would probably agree, and neither of these quite popular views seem to have held her back when she created her extraordinary first book, The Age of Miracles.

Set in the near future, The Age of Miracles explores a world in which the planet Earth has begun to slow on it’s axis, and the experience of this by Julia, an American teenager. It’s a fantastically wrought piece, unfolding beautifully and eloquently across the pages. It’s almost oppressively anxious, without directly expressing much fear. The characters emotions are imparted obliquely and concisely, leading up to the final sentence with absolute poetic clarity. This is a book to read if you want to feel human.

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‘Mort’ by Terry Pratchett

MORTThe Discworld Novels are no-doubt familiar ground for sci-fi and fantasy fans everywhere. I am late to the party. Whilst I devoured the witches books as a teenager, seeking out any story that contained pointed hats in between Harry Potter releases, I don’t think I fully appreciated what Terry Pratchett was about until quite recently.

His dry, often sarcastic and ironic humour, is not my native ground and it’s taken me a while to develop a taste for his work, but now that I have, I love it. Bit by bit, I’m trying to make my way through all the Discworld books, but even as I expand my Pratchett-knowledge, I still love the character of Death best of all. So, of course, when I picked up Mort and read the blurb, I knew I was going to love it from the off.

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‘Mister B. Gone’ by Clive Barker


Spoiler alert: This review contains massive plot spoilers about Mister B. Gone.

For some years, I was under the false impression that Clive Barker wrote exclusively in the fantasy genre, and had no idea he wrote horror at all. However, when I was a teenager, I discovered his huge collection of horror works and, while horror is by no means my favourite genre, I loved his writing enough that I thought I’d give it a go. Turns out, horror is still not particularly my thing – but I did stumble across Mister B. Gone, which offers much to the faint of heart and horror fans alike.

Told directly to the reader by a demon who was removed from hell, Mister B. Gone focuses on a building war between heaven and hell. The magical reveal moment – and to my fourteen-year-old self it was masterfully done – is when you realised that the devils and angels are fighting over

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‘John Saturnall’s Feast’ by Lawrence Norfolk

John Saturnall's FeastIn an attempt to embrace the changing times, it’s not very often that I recommend specifically buying a book in print anymore, but John Saturnall’s Feast is really worth getting a physicla copy of. If you can, get it in hardback. The design team worked a charm on this book, with crinkle-edged pages and sumptuous illustrations, that all go toward making the reading experience. But beyond that, this is a genuinely fabulous read: well-paced, well-written, well-characterised, and with an enchanting hint of destiny.

There are two protagonists in this novel: the first is the orphan-boy John Saturnall and the second one is food. Left with nothing after the death of his mother, John Saturnall is taken into the 1620s kitchen of a grand manor house. Living through times of great political upheaval and cooking feasts for both peasant and king, John Saturnall is a fire-filled protagonist whose passions for food and love light up the pages of the book.

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‘Sarnia’ by Hilary Ford (AKA Sam Youd)

Sarnia cover, SYLE PressI will warn you before we begin, this is not a book for the faint hearted. It is, however, a brilliant, painfully emotive evocation of the powerlessness of women in patriarchal societies, and also in a more subtle way the miseries we inflict on those suffering mental illness by not approaching them with due humanity. As such, I strongly recommend it.

As it typical of Sam Youd (writing here as Hilary Ford), the plot is character-driven, fast-paced and gripping from the outset. Our protagonist is a young lady, apparently orphaned, working for a forward-thinking banker in the 1800s. Without great wealth, but with the love-interest of a solid young man named Michael and a steady income, Sarnia is pragmatic and positive. However, when her unknown relatives, the Jelains, turn up on her doorstep determined on reuniting her with her estranged father, she undertakes a trip to Guernsey which will change her life. Youd paints the darkness into this novel slowly, building an increasing sense of doom and captivity until you can hardly breathe.

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‘The Coral Thief’ by Rebecca Stott

The-Coral-ThiefAnother historical fiction novel for you this week, this time Rebecca Stott’s The Coral Thief. Set in Paris in 1815, just after the expulsion of Bonaparte but before the status quo had been restored, it follows the adventures of a highly ambitious medical student named Daniel Conner as he undertakes a placement in the Jardin des Plantes. Unfortunately for him, as he is about to enter Paris, he encounters the stunning and mysterious Lucienne Bernard, who steals the letters of note and rare fossils he is carrying to ensure his entrance into the Jardin goes well. Unable to take up his placement until he has recovered the stolen artefacts, he is quickly consumed by the underworld of Paris.

Above everything else this is the coming-of-age story of a late-blooming young man, whose world is turned upside down by the still-lingering philosophical developments of Revolutionary-era Paris. It is portrayed in a neat and charming style,

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‘Restoration’ by Rose Tremain

RestorationLike many of the best books, Restoration was an accidental find.  It appeared on my desk with a remark from my mother that I had better read something by Rose Tremain before we went to see her in interview as part of the Norwich Hostry Festival.  It was, I hasten to add, a very happy accident: she is a really fabulous writer, and I have since read two collections of her short stories and am partway through the sequel to Restoration, Merivel: A Man of his Times.

Restoration is a historical novel, set in England during the reign of King Charles II.  Focussing on the ambitious young medical student Robert Merivel, the novel covers his journey from the son of a glove-maker to the king’s favourite courtier.  The King, under duress from his wife, marries his mistress, Celia, to Merivel, making him swear that while he can do whatever he likes with other women, he must not touch Celia.  Of course, for poor Merivel, it is not long before he falls in love with her and his fortunes are destined to fall once more. 

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‘Mockingjay’ – Suzanne Collins

hg3coversmaller-1-568570Named after the hybrid birds which become a symbol of hope and rebellion throughout the trilogy, this last book in The Hunger Games series will not fall short of expectations.

Having destroyed the arena of the 75th Hunger Games, defied the Capitol and escaped, Katniss finds herself as part of the underground community of District 13.  Ruled by President Coin, District 13 is the mysterious last District which was supposedly destroyed by the Capitol when is tried to rebel, the defiant act which caused the instigation of The Hunger Games. Its citizens, however, have learned to live below ground, and now that the other 11 Districts outside the Capitol are rebelling, District 13 has become the backbone of the resistance. Distraught at the fact that Peeta was captured by President Snow at the end of the last games, Katniss is eventually convinced that she must become the ‘Mockingjay’, the symbol around which the rebellion will muster. Followed everywhere by cameras and interviewers and with a retinue including her best friend and possible love-interest Gale Hawthorne, Katniss must learn to fight and be strong despite her misgivings and personal crises.

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‘Catching Fire’ – Suzanne Collins

catching_fire_book_coverThere is always a danger, when you have enjoyed the first book an a series so much, that the sequel is going to be a disappointment.  This was not the case with Catching Fire.  In fact, I would go so far as to say I enjoyed it even more than The Hunger Games.

Having beat the system in the 74th annual Hunger Games of Panem, Katniss Everdeen has returned to District 12 with her fellow victor, Peeta Mellark.  Living in the Victor’s Village, they barely talk to each other, and Katniss has returned to hunting daily with her best friend Gale Hawthorne, outside the boundaries of District 12.  However, as Katniss and Peeta’s Victory Tour commences, President Snow, leader of the overruling Capitol, pays Katniss a threatening visit.  With the lives of her family and friends in danger, Katniss becomes the centre of a political storm brewing across Panem.  Seen as a symbol of rebellion, she is thrown back into The Hunger Games for their 75th year, along with her fellow competitors, all previous victors themselves.

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‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins

The-Hunger-Games-BookThe Hunger Games first came to me during a night of persistent insomnia which I hoped to dispel by reading some charming YA fiction with a predictable love-triangle and the safe knowledge that the good guys would win. Alas, I was awake until gone five in the morning because The Hunger Games is brilliant. I read the whole trilogy over about 48 hours flat, completely gripped by the story and the world.

The novel is set in the post-apocalyptic nation Panem, divided into twelve Districts, of which the first, The Capitol, is in control, and is told from the point of view of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. This first book in the trilogy tracks Katniss’ progress through The Hunger Games, an annual televised death-games involving children aged 12-18, one male and one female, selected at random from each of the twelve Districts. Ultimately, of course, we know Katniss is going to win, or the next two books in the trilogy would be somewhat void, but this doesn’t interfere with the drama of the plot. In order to pander the the Captiol audience’s whims, Katniss strikes up a pretend relationship with the male competitor from her District, Peeta Mellark. As the games continue, the force of their supposed relationship takes on a significance of its own in the outside world and by the end of the book, Katniss has undertaken actions which potentially make her a dangerous opponent to the power of the Capitol.

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‘Shadow and Bone’ by Leigh Bardugo

shadow-and-bone_hi-resThis book made me want to fall in love. Shadow and Bone, for all that it is a fairytale in the darkest sense, reaches out to something soft and hopefully romantic that Young Adult readers will be able to identify with – and which adult readers might enjoy rekindling too!

Part one of Leigh Bardugo’s The Grisha Trilogy, Shadow and Bone follows the story of Alina Starkov, an orphan in the fantasy country of Ravka. When the life of Alina’s childhood friend Mal is put in danger, she saves him by unleashing a unique gift she didn’t know she had. Because of this gift, she is taken into the fold of the beautiful and powerful Grisha. Caught between their leader, the terrifying but magnetically seductive Darkling, and her loyalty to Mal, Alina begins to realise she is surrounded by lies. As she becomes more and more compromised by her feelings, her powers draw her into a dangerous political game, the results of which could tear the world apart.

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