Another feature brought to you by the people of Urban75

30.6.05

FEERSUM ENDJINN by Ian M. Banks

While many people might be familiar with books written by Ian Banks such as the "The Wasp Factory" and "Espedair Street", you might not know about his best work, writing science fiction as Ian M. Banks. I would recommend this book to anyone who's looking for an adventure novel or to those who've only read Ian Banks and are not aware of how inventive Mr Banks can be.

Story

Earth, set in the far future an encroachment is approaching threatening the solar system, once the encroachment blocks the sun Earth will enter a new ice age, despite this threat an increasingly desperate war is being fought for supreme control by two rival factions. Thrown into this mix is a computer network called the crypt, it allows people to download their personalities into the crypt giving them access to a virtual world and the option of more than one life (anyone who's seen the Matrix will be familiar with this idea). The story follows four characters who are trying to save the world in their own way, Chief Scientist Gadfium, Commander in Chief Count Sessine, Asura and a 4 year old teller called Bascule. Main feature I need to warn you about is Bascule's dialogue, the dialogue is written phonetically, for example

"A rikiti ole chare lif"

translated

"A rickety old chair lift"

I struggled to read the book the first time due to this gimmick, but the story is worth the effort.

Summary

The basic elements of the story, a quest, an impending danger (which is impossible to defeat) and a possible savior, is nothing new in a fantasy adventure book but the end result is a fast paced and inventive story, brilliant.

Crash Guide to Sci Fi ideas

AI - Artificial Intelligence, a popular idea in Sci Fi, machines which can think like humans but without human limitations. If you could download your personality into one of these machines, you might be able to change the perception of time (and at the same time change the speed of your thought processes). For example, you might spend a year studying a subject with your personality running on the machine but only an hour has passed in the real world.

Space Elevator - Put a satellite into space so that it orbits the earth at the same speed as the earth rotates, to an observer on earth the satellite appears to hover over one point on the earth, this is called geosynchronous orbit. Build a tower up to this satellite, install an elevator and bingo, cheap way to get into space (ignoring the cost of the elevator). As you might guess, the technology to achieve this is not yet available.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator

29.6.05

Suitable Boy

by Vickram Seth

How can one begin to describe a novel as vast almost as India itself? At nearly 1500 pages it enormous sweep attempts to take in the whole Indian subcontinent experience and in my view succeeds. A fantastic vivid picture is painted in the pages of people, food, religion, culture, music, caste, war, politics; taking in arranged marriages, Law courts, local elections, university life and India's industrial shoe making industry from the highest to the lowest level!. Superbly gripping entertainment but wondrously interesting as well the shattering intricate detail from a lowly peasant ploughing to the Chief Minister of the state mean that no part of the picture is left un explained by Seth. Flowers, plants and animals in a garden are explained beautifully as are meals, clothes and huge magnificent street scenes. I don't think Seth left a literal Indian stone unturned when writing this massive book and that is the real beauty of this book - I read it on holiday and it took the full two weeks yet I was sad that it had to end. I did wonder at the lack of a literary prize for this book though it did pick up the obscure Commonwealth writers prize, this was really ideal Booker prize materiel ( Roddy Doyle won that year with Paddy Clarke Ha ha ha ). The huge size of the work may have seemed off putting to the judges but it really did deserve recognition.

The main theme running though the work like the Ganges running through India is the search for a "Suitable Boy" or a really a suitable Hindu boy for a young upper class Indian Hindu woman from a good background. The girls mother uses the huge extended family to try an make a suitable match but the girl herself meets and begins to fall for a Muslim boy of good character. But mixed marriages in post partition 1950 India are out of the question. The extended families of the Mehras, Khans, Kapoors and Chatterjis with their children and uncles and friends and servants build into a huge and complex though surprisingly easy to follow story of love, betrayal and everyday life in 50's India after the British have left. There is a family tree at the beginning of the book that helps in the first chapters but once one is used to the different characters it just flows easily and I didn't need to refer to it again. The minute detail that goes into even the most basic part of each chapter is a joy to read - how much to pay a Ganges Boatman for instance after haggling or what native birds come to the extensive gardens of the characters houses after monsoon rains. The Indian back street shoe industry is part of the story and the awful toil of the poor low caste peasants who make the shoes then have to try and sell them to dealers so they and their families can eat is covered in vast and emotive detail. The toil of landless peasants under Zamindari Landlords (Muslim landowners who, for generations have owned the land and the peasants that work it) in the broiling Indian sun, the backbreaking labours vivid in detail make uncomfortable reading (especially if one is reading it whilst sitting in a 100 degree sun oneself!). The twists and turns of local and national politics as the political characters in the story attempt to force through a bill to reclaim land from the landowners to supposedly re distribute it to the peasants is played out in parliaments and in the Indian High court - the high court scenes are particularly interesting and gripping. University life with its internal politics of whether to teach Joyce or not are covered as is how to make a pair of leather brogue shoes!. The religious festivals involving biblical numbers of people bathing in the holy river Ganges and Shia Muslim festivals are featured but are explained too, you get a real understanding of Hindu and Muslim rites.

This detail serves to keep the reader fully enthralled with the characters and their lives; I can only think the thing that would make this better is to read it in India itself. To be fair a little knowledge of India's history makes this book a feast, before writing this I tested the theory with a small internet search and found simple sites with a chronological breakdown of modern post - war Indian history. I already had a fair knowledge so had no problems, the foods, clothes, street life etc has been well written about by authors such as Paul Scott, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and of course Salman Rushdie. That said the very explanations give the novel accessibility and ease of reading I have not found before, the smooth dialogue flowing easily not getting bogged down with metaphor. The simplicity of the plot coupled with the vastness of the background detail make for such a reading pleasure that I cannot think of a better book for a holiday read - it size alone means you may not need to take several books on holiday!.

This book has given me two weeks of unexpected pleasure, I had heard mixed reviews but I have found the book to be outstanding in every way possible - I didn't want it to end. Its sheer size may put some off but they should not be, it is never slow and thrills the reader with something new in every one of its many short chapters. A Suitable Boy is going into my all time top ten books and I thoroughly recommend it to all readers young or old.

28.6.05

White Teeth

by Zadie Smith

This is a very ambitious, funny and thought-provoking novel that won Zadie Smith a much-deserved Whitbread First Novel prize in 2000. I had read some mixed reviews some time ago but approached this with an open mind and was really quite delighted with this humorous approach to race, religion, mixed marriage and the problems of first and second-generation immigrants to Britain. I would not have thought a writer could get such an eclectic mix of weird characters into a story and yet still manage to get through a few quite topical issues whilst remaining light and funny. Centring on Inner city London yet taking in Bangladesh and Jamaica too, the novel spans over a 100yrs and more yet keeps at its core the core characters that make up the main story.

There is so much in the narrative I’ve thought of it as a over stuffed suitcase – it’s all there, all over the place but there, nevertheless. It reminded me of Kate Atkinson mixed with Hanif Kurieshi and Salman Rushdie, the comic sweep of it and the farcical situations the characters are involved with keep the comedy flowing yet still covering those issues which in any other context would be deadly serious. Race and racial issues, not the funniest items are treated with a great gusto and it is genuinely hilarious at times. Religious fundamentalism, Christian as well as Islamic are covered too and very funny they are as well, the author getting right in there with the ironic humour. Just in case any bases went uncovered there is also genetic manipulation and animal rights!

Its very ambition as a novel is almost its undoing as there is just so much bursting from the pages that if the pace slows a little you can’t tell where its going next but it never drags, it twists and turns with humorous asides being thrown in right up to the end. Stereotypes abound but its so funny and the characters so well drawn and believable – up to a point! – that I found I was really engrossed as to what the various players were doing, it’s a good length too, over 500pages in paperback so you never feel short changed with the main characters. The ending is a little contrived but the whole contrived air about the various lives portrayed means that this isn’t a disappointment more of inevitability. Brilliantly descriptive passages about the different times – the 70’s for instance mean this is a delight to read and given that a few years have passed since it first appeared some of the hype has died down and we can appreciate this superb novel for what it is – a great first novel by an exciting new young author. I laughed a lot whilst enjoying this – try it yo White Teeth by Zadie Smith

This is a very ambitious, funny and thought-provoking novel that won Zadie Smith a much-deserved Whitbread First Novel prize in 2000. I had read some mixed reviews some time ago but approached this with an open mind and was really quite delighted with this humorous approach to race, religion, mixed marriage and the problems of first and second-generation immigrants to Britain. I would not have thought a writer could get such an eclectic mix of weird characters into a story and yet still manage to get through a few quite topical issues whilst remaining light and funny. Centring on Inner city London yet taking in Bangladesh and Jamaica too, the novel spans over a 100yrs and more yet keeps at its core the core characters that make up the main story.

There is so much in the narrative I’ve thought of it as a over stuffed suitcase – it’s all there, all over the place but there, nevertheless. It reminded me of Kate Atkinson mixed with Hanif Kurieshi and Salman Rushdie, the comic sweep of it and the farcical situations the characters are involved with keep the comedy flowing yet still covering those issues which in any other context would be deadly serious. Race and racial issues, not the funniest items are treated with a great gusto and it is genuinely hilarious at times. Religious fundamentalism, Christian as well as Islamic are covered too and very funny they are as well, the author getting right in there with the ironic humour. Just in case any bases went uncovered there is also genetic manipulation and animal rights!

Its very ambition as a novel is almost its undoing as there is just so much bursting from the pages that if the pace slows a little you can’t tell where its going next but it never drags, it twists and turns with humorous asides being thrown in right up to the end. Stereotypes abound but its so funny and the characters so well drawn and believable – up to a point! – that I found I was really engrossed as to what the various players were doing, it’s a good length too, over 500pages in paperback so you never feel short changed with the main characters. The ending is a little contrived but the whole contrived air about the various lives portrayed means that this isn’t a disappointment more of inevitability. Brilliantly descriptive passages about the different times – the 70’s for instance mean this is a delight to read and given that a few years have passed since it first appeared some of the hype has died down and we can appreciate this superb novel for what it is – a great first novel by an exciting new young author. I laughed a lot whilst enjoying this – try it you’ll like it too!

I'm at work - my amateur reviews

I been very kindly asked to post some book reviews here , I have no literary education and my naeive and sometimes simple reviews should be seen as personal reccomendations based on my reading plan . I have been trying to read all the Booker, Whitbread First/Best and Orange prize winning books - this gives me a set list of books to read - like a course work reading list. This was for me after 20 years of reading just military history, autobiography and politics a great opportunity to discover the modern novel. As I have read through the list I have discovered authors then read their other work so my library has expanded.

To add to the hobby I try to buy all the books from charity shops which here in the suberbs of Birmingham we are well supplied.

23.6.05

To begin...

I can't start my new life as a reviewer of books anywhere else other than with the majestic, sweeping vision of David Foster Wallace, and if I'm going to talk about Mr Wallace, I can't talk about anything other than the intriguing, infuriating, painful and spell binding 'Infinite Jest'

- I intend to review things as I read them, but for this book I have to make an exception -

Yes this may be a book that's been in fashion, yes it may at first glance appear to be nothing more than intelectual and linguistic masturbation, pointless and deliberately obtuse. Persevere and you find an intricate tapastry of naratives and an unparraleled observational genius. This is a book with the power to overwhelm you, and drown you in the sheer richness of it's warped vision.

Central to the story is the topic of addiction, much of the action is set in in the backwaters of the world, amongst recovering addicts of all forms and in the hiding places people go to indulge in their addictions. The notion of entertainment as addiction is key to the central thread of the book and binds the loose collection of character together. It's difficult to read it without considering the nature of your own habits and addictions.

This book exists to be read 3,4,5 times at least. Not only is there Wallace's style to contend with - why use one word, when twelve will do, "The rising astral venus, lit his face to the colour of pallid cheese..." It's also impossible to follow the plot in a conventional way. The text is full of footnotes, which take you to further storys and background, explanations of definitions and occaisional moments of wit where the authors voice appears to comment on the events.

The main joy of this work for me, is the precision with which Wallace carves his images and crafts the internal dialogue of his characters. Locations like the Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House become like a background for the readers life, nevermind the action of the book. It's impossible not to laugh at the wierdly dysfunctional and awkward characters, yet as with most of his work, that laughter is always with a wince.

With Wallace, more than any author, despite all the distance he creates through the way he constructs a convoluted and difficult work
deliberately I get the sense of the author grappling with himself and his own sense of being. Perhaps that is why I love him so deeply, because he is confusing and complex and difficult.

This is an awkward book, by an awkward man, a self critical and at times obviously self loathing individual. Yet the highest praise I can possibly give it is to say it is a living, organic, evolving work of fiction, one that challenges and rewards the reader in equal measure. A book that never patronises or relies on cheap cliche' and one that had profound impact on the way I think of language and fiction today.

Maybe it won't change your life but it changed the way I think of the novel, changed the way I viewed writing. Janet Street Porter described his last collection of short storys by saying
dreadful, self indulgent, what is the point? She writes lifestyle columns for broadsheets, I think that say's it all. The only phrase she's ever written that stuck in my head was along the lines 'Y'know when your in Knightsbridge....' I would call that pointless, dreadful and self indulgent. When she's written something I can read three times and still not feel like I've read, I will respect her opinion.

Just flicking through the work I'm reminded of locations and characters and feelings, journeys, colours, games, a freakish perspective that somehow holds truth. The book feels like electricity in my hands. If fiction this powerful is pointless then I'm all for self indulgence.
tangerinedream.