In summary: It's an intelligent, well-written and tense scifi crime novel, but it puts you through the wringer. Ultimately, its view of humanity and society is much more bleak than that of even the grimmest film noir. Worth a read, but be prepared for a tough time....more
In summary: if you like steampunk, Victoriana, history, geek culture, comic books, postmodern storytelling and/or a cute aesthetic, then The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is well worth your time....more
The Arrival of Missives is a novella set in a small rural village in post-WW1 England, where Shirley is a girl on the cusp of adulthood. Even though the main characters are youngsters, this is not a children's or YA story. I'm sure young people can read and enjoy it, but it's written for a mature audience, with some mature themes.
Shirley is madly in love with the local teacher, a man whose wounds in battle are rumoured to have unmanned him. However, her parents and most of the village have a different future in mind for her. Mr Tiller, the teacher, does not feature at all in those plans. Things take a surprise turn when Shirley decides to visit Mr Tiller's home, where she inadvertently spies on him as he undresses. Beneath his shirt, he is stranger than she could ever have imagined. After that fateful encounter, Mr Tiller, too, tries to direct Shirley's fate...
There's currently a vogue for stories about young women chafing against the restrictions of their societies while embroiled in some magical adventure. (Or perhaps it just seems that way to me, after reading The Wolf in the Attic, The Lie Tree and Every Heart a Doorway in fairly quick succession). However, The Arrival of Missives stands out from the crowd of such stories: it is shorter and yet it has more impact than most.
Every person in this story is completely authentic and human. No one is just a cipher, and there's a sense that everyone has their own life to live, beyond the appearances they make in Shirley's tale. Post-WW1 rural Britain is realised perfectly. It's a very different place from the settings readers are used to. Shirley doesn't live in a servant-filled mansion, nor in a town. Instead, she lives on a farm just outside a village, and her experience of "the city" is a trip to Taunton. Her geographical world might be quite small, but Shirley is a daydreamer with a huge imagination and significant ambition.
Growing up as a girl in the 1920s was not so different from growing up in Victorian times. The values were quite conservative, villages were "communities" (i.e. everyone has their nose in everyone else's business), and, though WW1 has shown women to be capable of work, they were still expected to be mothers and wives, not independent creatures. On the other hand, the legacy of the war has shaped Shirley's expectations: she is adamant that she will go to college and become a teacher, so that she can change the world by shaping the minds of generations of children. This, too, does not fit with anyone else's plans for her.
Because it is so short, every word and every scene in The Arrival of Missives counts. An impressive richness of inter-human relationships is infused into this novella. To give an example, Shirley, like most people, has a mother. In a book about girls growing into women, you'd expect the most immediate female role model to be relevant. Yet, comparing the novels I've been reading, the result is striking: the girl in The Wolf in the Attic has lost her mother. The girl in The Lie Tree has a deeply unpleasant mother who verges on caricature for most of the book. The many girls in Every Heart a Doorway are, in every way that matters, orphans. Meanwhile, Shirley in The Arrival of Missives might share only three or four scenes with her mother, but somehow those few scenes paint a richer, more authentic relationship, and Shirley learns to understand more about her mother without everything being spelled out in dialogue than any of the other adolescent girls in the other books.
For a story involving supernatural elements, The Arrival of Missives is very subtle and restrained. Quite often in such tales, the supernatural element is there to give the heroine permission to do outrageous things. The Lie Tree gives a license to spin tall tales and deceive entire communities. The Wolf in the Attic lures the girl into the wilderness. Shirley, on the other hand, experiences more mundane little rebellions. The supernatural might nudge her into taking risks, but they are the sort of risks that real girls in the real world take every day. Few novels balance the extraordinary with the subtle in such a masterful way.
Despite being accomplished and literary, the plot moves briskly, the storylines are engaging, and the tale is not just intelligent, but entertaining. In short, The Arrival of Missives is a great achievement, and a novella I'd heartily recommend.
(I'd recommend Aliya Whiteley's previous novel, The Beauty, even more: it is perhaps the best book I've read last year, a genuine masterpiece)...more
In summary: The Beauty is a rich and atmospheric tale which handles the uncanny and horror with huge confidence. I'm not sure it could ever be made into a movie, but if so, Guillermo del Toro (who made Pan's Labyrinth) would have to direct. It is a stunning achievement. ...more
In summary: It's hard SF, based sufficiently on science for it to seem possible. I found it an interesting and compelling thought experiment. The characters seemed believable too, if not perhaps overly unique or memorable: it's definitely a novel about ideas more than a novel about people....more
Dream Paris is the story of Anna, a teenage girl living in the slowly redeveloping ruins of London, which has only just re-established its reality after a takeover attempt by the Dream World.
Her parents are absent, having marched into the parks at the end of Dream London (the first novel in this series), while Anna only narrowly escaped from the march. She's coming to terms with life on her own, looking after lost and vulnerable neighbours from time to time, and vaguely looking forward to passing her A-levels and moving on to university.
Dream London has not passed without leaving some aftereffects behind. People take an undue interest in the social lives and virtue of women. Social mores have reverted by a generation or two (in Dream London, women were either housewives, whores, or, much more rarely, femme fatales), so Anna is not entirely surprised when a social worker shows up at her door, tasked with taking her into care.
The meeting with the social worker does not go as expected: another person shows up, a representative of the government with a clear history with the Dreamworld, and he has plans for Anna. She is given a fortune, a relic from Dream London. Fortunes are absolutely deterministic: what is foretold must happen. Unfortunately, the fortunes are in short snippets and impressions: an argument with her mother, a night of passion, a death...
Anna's fortune foretells that she will meet her mother in Dream Paris. The British government has an interest in revisiting the Dream World, as the incursion into London has left Britain reeling. They send Anna on her quest, accompanied by a soldier / bodyguard.
Dream London, if you haven't read it, is a mesmerising, evocative novel. Surrealism and dream logic intermingle effortlessly with an adventure story. It's a novel that reminds the reader of Dark City, of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. It's very archetypal, with patriarchical gender roles and a strong sense of location / London.
Dream Paris, by comparison, is different. This time, too, there is surreal dream logic at work. The plot successfully balances the unpredictable nature of crazy dreams with the predictable shape of a regular story. Having a good structure with plenty of thrills makes it satisfying to read.
Once again, there is also a strong sense of location. Paris is a different city, with different archetypes. Dream Paris is caught up in perpetual revolution. Eiffel Towers spring up everywhere and need to be repressed, while La Terreur and Madame Guillotine lurk just around the corner.
Dream Paris stands up to reading on its own. It is a slightly superior novel to its precursor: Dream London made the reader feel like being sucked further and further into a dream. It was a sinkhole of surrealism, a huge credit to writerly craftsmanship, but, towards the end, it was so surreal that the reading experience stopped being pleasurable and started feeling more than a little nightmarish. Dream Paris, on the other hand, is set in an established Dream City. It is not trying to take over real Paris. There is less of a sense of spiralling, exponentially growing surrealism, as this city is more or less set in its ways. People are still shaped by the Dreamworld, but citizens here have lived their entire lives in Dreamworld: they are not brutalised by a shifting reality. Dream London turned women into whores, ethnic minorities into primitives. It did this, fairly rappidly, to people who were modern Londoners to begin with. Dream Paris may be full of iconic characters, but they have grown into their roles over their lifetimes. They have more agency, are less the victims of a traumatic invasion of their psyches.
Dream Paris is full of interesting, quirky ideas. Scary clowns, porcelain dolls, sinister banks, edible duels, integer bombs, non-continuous mathematics, sexism and morality... it's a novel that positively fizzes with originality.
If you enjoyed Dream London, I think you'll love Dream Paris. If you found Dream London interesting, but not quite to your liking, you will probably enjoy Dream Paris more, And if you haven't read Dream London, I would recommend it, and recommend Dream Paris more.
In summary: Feed grabs you right from the start and keeps you engaged all the way through. The characters are interesting, their adventures get progressively more exciting and by the end it's a tense page-turner that might rob you off sleep and give you bad dreams. All the while, there's some banter and humour and a real buzz. These are young people, excited to make their mark on the world, and the excitement catches. It's fun and thrilling and at times even scary - everything a zombie story should be....more
In summary: The high-concept story mulls big questions around (artificial) intelligence, humanity, and identity / souls, while depicting a society that's sliding towards collapse. It does so while retaining a sense of surreal whimsy and some humour, which makes it a very accessible read. If you've never read any Adam Roberts novels, I think Bête might be the best one to start with, because it lightens the load of its thoughts with a wry sense of bemusement. ...more
In summary: it's a rare treat, to see Star Trek do a comedy of errors / farcical opera, and the sense of whimsy is delightful. Unfortunately, it lacks glue holding the different adventures together. It could make a wonderful play / film, but as a book, it's a little too disjointed. Still, well worth reading if you like whimsy and farce and light-hearted humour and Star Trek....more