I Am What I Am by John Barrowman
We know John. You have made that abundantly clear.
Solo by William Boyd
At last! Some proper Bond, and a massive improvement on that guff. from Sebastian Faulks. Instead of a pastiche of cliches from the movies, this feels like a smart update of Fleming's books.
It's the late 60s and Bond is sent to a famine and civil war stricken African country to kill a general, and things get complicated. Like the orginal books, much of the fun here is in the travelling from place to place and soaking up the atmosphere. A lot of Boyd's other books are apparently set in Africa, and it's clearly a continent he knows well.
The other elements of a great Bond book are also in place - the action's well told and sometimes bone-crunchingly brutal, there are interesting, beautiful and maybe not totally trustworthy women, and there's a villain with a disfigurement - here, it's a Rhodesian mercenary with a wonky face.
As there should be, there's lots of eating and drinking too, but mostly drinking. Whisky, African beer, dry martinis and emergency African martinis (ice, lime juice, lots of gin) Boyd's martini recipe is even drier than Fleming's, which was six to one vodka to vermouth. The one here recalls Noel Coward's advice to wave the shaker in the general direction of France before pouring. There's also a salad dressing recipe with a hell of a lot of vinegar.
Bond himself comes across as fairly likeable. He's entering his silver fox phase, and it feels like he's mellowed with age. A ladies man, but not a misogynist, an agent of post-colonialism, but not a reactionary great white hope saving Africa from itself. His mind wanders back to his commando days during WWII. Even his relationship with M has a touch of bittersweet sentimentality.
The plot of the book mirrors this autumnal theme. We never quite get the whole story (unless I missed something - always very possible) but the suggestion is that the world of espionage is moving on from 007 to something a bit more sinister. This aspect isn't overplayed, but does give a nice extra tinge of melancholy to the ending, which for once explains why Bond doesn't stay with the woman he's been getting on so famously with.
Extra shout out to the audiobook version - Dominic West bringing his best Eton rather than Baltimore tones to proceedings.
Fan Dabi Dozi by The Krankies
Unmitigated filth. Jannette Kranie has been places I wouldn’t put a toilet brush.
Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks
I'm still trying to figure out of this is even better than Player of Games...
It's certainly very different - a lot more complicated structurally, and more of a character study than the straight up classic plot of the other novel. The main character's Zakalwe, a mercenary working for the Culture's Special Circumstances division. This means he gets his hands dirty changing the history of lesser civilisations while the Culture can stay squeaky clean. Two things become quickly apparent - Zakalwe's a military genius, and a sick, sick puppy. He's terrified of chairs, for one thing. And he has a recurrent vision of a boat, but he won't let himself think about that either. A great portrayal of a very damaged individual.
There are two strands to this book followed in alternate chapters. One details him being brought out of semi-retirement by his handler
Sma for a new mission; the other works backwards through Zakalwe's life until you learn what the hell's wrong with him. You get little snapshots of his life - falling in love, discovering the Culture for the first time, going on a drug-fuelled dream-quest, bleeding to death on a desolate island, being decapitated by natives etc. Very episodic, of course, but it works very well at telling you more about this guy's warped psychology as you follow him through the more straightforward "present day" plotline. But all the time you're being drawn back into Zakalwe's past, and the demons you know lurk there. Nice little red herrings along the way, and the denoument doesn't disappoint.
For much of this book, it has a pleasing John Le Carre/Graham Greene feel to it. Secret agents, exotic locales, moral ambiguity, and damaged heroes who know they're not always fighting for the right side. My one - small - criticism is that the "present day" plotline looses a little steam and direction towards the end, although it soon picks up again. The rest of the pretty small cast of characters are also fun - Diziet Sma: a woman very comfortable with her sexuality, if not with the violence sometimes necessary in her line of work. And the requisite drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw, who's typically sarky, badass and enjoyable.
This is the perfect Iain M Banks book to read after Player of Games I reckon - a sneak peek at the ugliness behind the utopian veil of the Culture.
Lulu’s Secrets to Looking Good by Lulu
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Lanark's got a bit of a reputation as a difficult read but although I started flagging a couple of times, something great always managed to pop up in time. It's really two novels welded together into one. It starts in a dystopian version of Glasgow called Unthank where the sun never rises and people vanish as they turn into dragons. It feels more like a bad dream than science fiction, and it's never completely convincing.
The book takes a turn for the better as the lead character (Lanark himself) is shown his previous life from a child to a tortured young painter. This is the most successful part of the book, and it's strongly autobiographical. It doesn't stop Gray painting the character Thaw as a weird, selfish, socially dysfunctional little prick. I think there's more than a touch of self-flagellation going on here from the author.
The last part of the book picks up Lanark's story again. I liked this better than the first fantasy section, as our hero travels back to Unthank with his beloved girlfriend (who clearly hates his guts) and accidently becomes a prominent political figure. There's a lot of really sharp satire here - stuff I haven't seen before. How Scotland changed from a manufacturing to a public sector economy; the transformation of Glasgow's skyline over the decades (not least the M8) and the way the elites in local government and business behave.
But the biggest target of the satire is the book itself. Alasdair Gray himself turns up towards the end, ripping right into his own masterwork. There's even an "index of plagiarisms" which show what ideas, scenes and dialogue he's stolen from where, even down to where he's stolen the idea for a boring fake index in a novel. What's really interesting is when you notice many of the entries are about chapters which go beyond the end of the book, and give you clues about what happens next, even while mocking the whole stupid plot. We've seen this kind of po-mo thing before with mixed results, but I loved it here.
Not a perfect novel by any means, but really enjoyable. I wonder though if I got more out of it from growing up in Glasgow. The Cathedral and the Necropolis especially loom large both in Thaw's city and Unthank. It does feel like he's writing his hometown a valentine and poison pen letter in one. All great cities deserve such a treatment.
The Player of Games by Iain M Banks
If you want to start getting Cultured, this is where you should start. Unlike many of the others in the series, this has one hero, one clearly defined goal and one fantastic ending.
Our hero is Gurgeh - the Culture's top game player, who's grown bored with life on his Orbital. There are no more games to conquer. Through a bad misjudgement, he's pressured into joining Special Circumstances (the Culture's Secret Service) to travel to the newly discovered Empire of Azad in the Small Magallenic Cloud. His mission is to play the most complicated game ever devised, in which the winner becomes Emperor.
I love this clear cut plot, and it's handled so well. Gurgeh's journey from disaffected genius to reluctant diplomat and beyond is always convincing, especially when he realises the true stakes at play in Azad - which is the name of the game, as well as the Empire. Even the game itself is explained in a great way - you get a feel for the different boards (which are the size of rooms) and the different strategies and tactics, but of course the game itself is always a mystery. It's almost like a kung-fu movie, with a varied series of opponents the hero has to defeat. And of course there are plenty of dirty tricks, distractions and genuinely shocking revelations along the way.
One of the great delights in many of the Culture books are the drones. They're small floating robots who have full AI and personalities, and are considered as much members of the Culture as the meatbags, if not more so. They're usually great fun, and two in particular shine in this book - the abrasive and sinister Mawhrin Skel, who's a friend of Gurgeh's on the Orbital, and the naive and prissy Flere-Imsaho, who accompanies Gurgeh to Azad, but seems more interested in birdwatching than the mission in hand.
This has been my favourite of the Culture books since I've been re-reading them - it's just a classic story told well without ten different plots going on at once. Use of Weapons I remember struggling with years back, but it is highly regarded. I'm off on holiday tomorrow with it packed on to my kindle, so I may be ready to give it another whirl.
You Are What You Eat: Michelle's Diary (how I lost 8 stone and transformed my life) by Michelle McManus
With hindsight, perhaps unwise. We all make mistakes.
Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumey
A strange but engaging novel. It's made up three very different sections. It starts with a boy called Robbie growing up in a small Scottish town in the 70s. He's fascinated by science, his dad talks about socialism all the time, and Robbie dreams about becoming a soviet cosmonaut. This is a funny and effective coming of age story, and I'd guess it's partly drawn from the author's experiences (he's Scottish and has a PhD in theoretical physics.)
It then jumps forward a few years and sideways a lot into a different universe. Robbie finds himself in a Stalinist version of Scotland, coming to what had been his home town in another life, but turned into the "Installation" - a closed off research facility which no-one ever appears to leave. And it looks like he could become Scotland's first cosmonaut.
This middle section is fantastic. It paints a bleak and sinister picture of the UK under communism; of people trying to lead normal lives while constantly afraid. The characters are very well drawn, including Robbie himself, as as he slowly decides to take a stand
The shift from the first part is really interesting - Robbie as a boy keeps on slipping into vivid daydreams, and at first this section just seems like an extended version of that. Everyone he meets is like a version of someone in his "real life", and The Wizard of Oz is referenced a few times. As well as the preoccupations with space and communism, there's a lot of stuff about sex, and the shift comes right after young Robbie has his first kiss. And although it feels very real, some bits seem like they're in a schoolboy's mind - the plot for instance concerns a black hole which has "entered the solar system" like it was a comet, and the scientists are planning to reach it. Very odd.
All this could've been difficult to pull off, but the author does a fantastic job and I thought it just added to an already convincing story.
The last shorter section jumps again, and this part is less successful. It's certainly not predictable, but it leaves rather too many unanswered questions for my taste. There's some great stuff here as well though, particularly about loss and growing old.
So, this gets a hearty recommendation from me. Crumey's got another book - Mobius Dick - which has a better title than this one at least, so I'll be keeping an eye out for that.
If I Was by Midge Ure
If I was a hairier, more charismatic and unhygienic gentleman, I’d also be knighted for my equal contribution to Live Aid ya big Irish twat.
Surface Detail by Iain M Banks
Banks has got his M hat on again, and he seems to be churning out the Culture novels again at a steady rate. Good news for all sci-fi fans.
The main theme here is punishment. Not that this is ever an issue in the Culture, where it's an almost impossible concept. But for some other civilisations in the galaxy it's a very big deal - so big that digital hells have been created. The trope of uploading your personality at the end of your biological life (or before) is very common in SF these days, but the idea of this being used as eternal punishment in the afterlife is new, disturbing and interesting. It's certainly a dig at religion, given Banks' strident secularity, but when faith is replaced by technology - is it still a religion? One character from the pro-Hell side does say it would be the ultimate sacrilege to take eternal damnation out of the hands of God. He's lying of course, but surely he's right? Lots to think about.
Punishment also comes to the fore in the main plot line in the book - a slave girl who's murdered by her owner, the richest man in a society a few steps down from the Culture (though still well advanced of us) and who somehow reappears in virtual form on a Culture ship many light years away. Her revenge is what drives much of the book, and it's possibly the most successful part. This is largely became the tycoon Veppers is such a colossal bastard you can't wait for his murder victim to get even, despite the Culture's best efforts. Banks does seem to love these kind of characters, and Veppers does stay just on the right side of panto villain.
The other stand-out character here is a machine - again not a surprise from Banks. This is the Special Circumstances ship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints which does exactly what it says on the tin, or whatever Culture ships are made of. Lots of fun and very badass.
I did find the book as a whole a bit sprawling and confusing though. Too many storylines going on for my taste, and I never did quite figure out what was going on towards the end. Still definitely worth a read, but not what I'd recommend for a first time Culture reader.
Power Play by Gavin Esler
THERE WILL BE SPOILERS
The good thing about listening to books on tape is that no matter how godawful the book is, you can generally push through to the end. Unless it's the Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, which unaccountably won the Booker Prize, and even more unaccountably is supposed to be a 'comic novel.'
I doubt Power Play's won any literary awards, and it is rubbish - but at least it's readable enough. Listenable, anyway. The hero is the British ambassador to the USA. There's a very powerful and hawkish Vice President who needs to be massaged by the British. They take him on a grouse shoot in Aberdeenshire, where he vanishes. Cue pandemonium.
A pretty nice set up then - lots of potential. Missing VP on British soil! What's happened to him? Kidnapped by jihadists? Gone nuts? Is it all a set up to justify another war?
Except the book fails utterly. Problem one is this Vice President is clearly just Dick Cheney, with maybe a touch of Rumsfeld thrown in. He even has a tendency to accidently shoot his friends on hunting trips! A few years on, and we've got nice cuddly Obama pouring over his kill list and no-one bats an eye. A carbon copy Cheney already seems cheap, trite and old hat. Here's a theory - Esler's a journalist, and journalists don't have any imagination. We report what we see, and maybe twist it a bit. Don't ask us to write a novel.
But that's not the big problem. Here's the story: the VP disappears. Then tapes of him getting Abu Graibed are released on the internet - exciting! Then he's found chained up naked on a beach on Norfolk, driven half mad. This is where the big SPOILER comes in. We never find out what happened to him...
Aha!!! Did you see what he did there? Not everything's got an answer - not everything comes with all the loose ends tied up in a bow - the world's complicated etc etc etc. Absolutely unforgiveable, and Esler's editor should probably be sent to Abu Graib for not sitting him down and saying - yes, very clever. Now stop mucking about and finish the novel.
Just a couple of final quibbles. Uncomfortable softcore BDSM. No. And I'd like to draw attention to one scene which only makes sense if the author was doing it as a bet. The ambassador makes a speech where we've been expressly told Mike Myers is in the audience. A fairly feeble joke is made (though I think it's supposed to be witty) and Myers says "groovy baby" to the room. In, and I quote "his best Austin Powers accent."
This makes no sense whatsoever in the context of scene, or in the book as a whole. Is this the kind of thing Mike Myers would do? Neither Myers nor Austin Powers had been referenced in the speech, I should point out. That would make some kind of sense.
This scene really, really bothers me and I've been trying to figure it out ever since. I've actually found it online here so if anyone can figure out what's going please let me know. Start on page 81. Thanks in advance.
The Distant Echo by Val McDermid
A cracking whodunnit set in Fife, which is a lot nicer than most Scots would have you believe.
The first half is set in St Andrews in the '70s when four students who've been friends since childhood stumble across a murdered girl on their way home from a party. With no other suspects, suspicion falls on them, leading to breakdowns, violence and more tragedy. The second half picks up twenty five years later as the case is re-opened and someone starts targetting the four friends.
I'm not going to go into too much detail, as the joy of a good thriller is having everything laid out for you at just the right time. And the pacing here is great. The question of who-actually-dunnit isn't addressed until surprisingly late in the game, but the plot grips throughout. The main focus is the relationship between the friends and how that changes when something horrible happens to them.
As well as friendship, the big themes are false assumptions and prejudice. It comes out in the characters as well as the plot - two or three of them just don't act how you'd expect them to in a book like this. Very refreshing. And although it might seem unlikely, I really liked the fact that people automatically think the four friends murdered this girl when there's nothing at all to suggest they're guilty.
We like to think the world is fair and reasonable, but anyone can find themselves behind bars if they're in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ask Amanda Knox or Luke Mitchell. And if the unthinkable does happen to you, try to avoid being a Marilyn Manson fan or doing cartwheels in the police station. When there's a dead girl knocking about, people tend to think the worst.