A review of Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One”

Set in a dystopian near future where humanities desire for bigger and better entertainments and lifestyles has exhausted the planet, and a massive multiplayer virtual reality video game playground ‘the Oasis’ gives escape to the masses, this is perhaps best known for its extremely liberal geek referencing.

Owen Watts lives in a high-rise trailer park with a bitter, dysfunctional Aunt. Like many his escape is the Oasis, a massive immersive video game that takes our current Virtual Reality Technology and stretches it to the bounds of what could be achieved- the ability to travel to entire theme park worlds, build up a virtual fortune, and even attend school in a VR environment.

Then the Oasis’s creator, James Halliday, or ‘The Anorak,’ dies and leaves a amazing bequest; whoever solves a series of progressing quests will win the ultimate ‘Easter egg,’ ownership of the Oasis, and a fortune, enough to change the world.

Wade has a flash of inspiration and solves the first quest using his Avatar ‘Parcival,’ meeting a fellow questor, Artemis, along the way. Along with his best friend H and a rag tag band of questors, Wade must solve further quests and riddles and beat a murderous Corporate Behemoth IOI, with arch-baddie Sorento at the helm, for control of the Oasis.

The books main kicker is that Halliday was an 80’s pop culture obsessive, and he has themed his VR creation accordingly. So, to find the ‘Egg,’ questors must be word perfect in all aspects of 80’s pop culture lore, from movies, through to tv shows, video games and music.
And this is what gives the book it stylistic flourish that has alienated some but that others have embraced; it is a deep bath of pop culture referencing, and, if like me you grew up in the 80’s, it is massive fun having your favourites referenced, and being reminded of other chestnuts you long forgot.

It is a pacy story, energetically told, and for me the 80’s lore helped to give the book much of it fun and charm and was a crucial competent in its world building.

Less successful are the chunks of adolescent philosophizing in the book, and a real creaky tin ear for human relationships. It’s had to put your finger on it, but the real-world segments are grating, the characters become irritating when they take off their VR headsets and haptic gloves.  A shame, because the whole thrust of the book is that we ignore our real lives to live in our virtual or digital ones at our peril.

Overall, though, this is massive fun, and Will Wheaton is a great choice of narrator for the audio book, capturing the spirit of an 18-year-old geeky guy out on an adventure.


A review of “The Poems of T.S. Eliot” read by Jeremy Irons

The poems of T.S. Eliot are puzzle-boxes; intricately woven riddles, conceits, ideas, imagination and social criticism. But you don’t solve them as you would the Times Crossword. You keep turning them over, and over, finding the main themes, solving the smaller riddles, recognising the purposefulness ambiguity of some of it.
Eliot wrote of the disillusionment, cynicism, and corruption that followed the First World War. It applies to his times and all times, and is powerfully resonant in our current age. His work is full of his own frustration and anxiety about the role of the poet in a time of tribulation and suffering when so many are giving their lives.

“…..My words echo
Thus, in your mind,.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose leaves
I do not know.” (Burnt Norton)

The brutishness of modern man is typified by the recurrent character of Sweeney, as in Sweeney among the Nightingales:

“Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh…”

Eliot often references the classical world of literature, myth and mythology, and then subverts them with the jarring imposition of characters like Sweeney.

Eliot’s own unhappy marriage bleeds into the poems, strikingly at times. He and his wife Vivienne both had mental breakdowns, Eliot eventually leaving his wife alone and unvisited in an asylum.

“‘My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.'” (The Wasteland)

And his Christianity, a profound Anglo-Catholicism that stared death in the face, offering a very hard won redemption. Eliot did not offer any easy Grace.

“A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)” (Little Gidding)

These themes all blend, crytallise and dissolve in his well known, epic poems, The Wastelands and The Four Quartets. And the sense that there is hidden meanings always to be unlocked, stacked within each other like Russian Dolls, always delights me when I come to Eliot.

And then there are playful, delightful Practical Cats, where the words fizz and dance off the page, brilliant for smaller readers, and wonderful to read aloud. These are poems that grow with you.

This reading by Jeremy Irons is wonderful. That actors gravitas, humanity, and emotional range are perfectly suited to these works. This is one I will revisit time and again.

A review of Michael Marshall’s “We are here.”

I first read Michael Marshall Smith, as he was then, over 10 years ago. He wrote powerful, original, imaginative science fiction; funny, tragic, and brilliantly written. Such work includes Spares, Only forward and One of Us. Then he started writing more in the thriller genre, dropping the ‘Smith’ part of his identity, and I read the ‘The Straw Men’ trilogy. These were horror-thrillers, the kicked that Thomas Harris kicked into orbit with ‘Man-hunter’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ The horror, rather than the humanism and the humour of the earlier works, is what I remember.

And since then he appears to have stayed predominantly in the thriller genre. ‘We are Here’ has elements of that, and something new, urban fantasy of a Neil Gaiman flavour, with the occasional horror reference. This is territory that Stephen King and others have explored. Believe hard enough in someone, and they just might appear….

The story has a strong opening. A serial killer on the run reviews his career before burning burning to death in a motel room, apparently aided by the voice in his head that urged him to kill, now literally in the room with him.

Jump to an author on a trip to New York to meet his publisher. A chance bumping into a stranger in the street, not once but twice, unsettles him, especially when said stranger says ‘remember…’.
Are these incidents related. This made me eager to find out more. Then we move to an ex intelligence operative John Henderson, and his girlfriend Christine, who decide to investigate a complaint from one of Christine’s friends that she is being stalked. Again, we wonder about the connection.

And we are kept wondering for a very large section of the book. There is a very slow reveal. And unfortunately, a bit like me at 49, it gets very baggy in the middle. There appears to an urban sub culture, planning something, and there is a flavour of the supernatural about their affairs and how they are organised, with ‘corner-men’ and ‘journey-men’ and so on. This is what reminded me of Neil Gaiman. What are they? Ghosts? The recently departed? Some kind of other supernatural beings?

When the reveal comes you’ll either snort with derision and slam the book shut or keep going. I think most of you will keep going.

In the last quarter things hot up and there are some gripping set pieces where you genuinely don’t know what will happen. And horrible things do happen to good people. The chief baddie, Reinhardt, is a type of demonic gangster with apocalyptic plans. And I didn’t honestly know if they would be brought to fruition.

As it happens I still don’t. The novel ends in a tangle of unanswered questions. At one point there is a reference to a lot of deaths told in a few short sentences. Characters disappear, literally, in clouds of smoke. I honestly don’t think Michael Marhsall knew himself how to close. A shame, as this has has some cracking scenes and ideas, but they don’t really gel into a coherent whole. The characters are also incoherent and hard to realise imaginatively. I definitely did not have this problem with his earlier work.

The audio book is narrated in the dead pan, sardonic tones of the PI genre by Jeff Harding. His narration of the female characters grated a little, others have done this tricky feat a lot better.

Go with this if you are patient and appreciate novelists who take risks. There are definitely moments that will reward you, as there are ones that exasperate.

A review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (audio-book version read by Rob Inglis).

The story of Bilbo Baggins, his unexpected party, then journey, with Gandalf the wizard and thirteen dwarves, to slay a dragon and seize it’s plunder, can give us new gifts whenever we come back to it.

If you’ve only ever seen the movies (that despite some voices are not all bad) you owe it to yourselves in this magical, compact piece of story telling enchantment.

It is a fantasy quest where not one word, not one action, is superfluous or wasted (this is why many took so vehemently against the films and their stretching the tale to three epic movies).

It’s funny, charming, thrilling and profound.   There are worlds of enchantment, and always we sense behind events the massive, coherent universe, with it’s own myths, languages and histories, that Tolkien built, exploring further in his Legendarium (including the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings).

It’s not as whimsical as you may suspect or remember.  There is real tragedy here, real horror and character development and complexities (as in Thorin’ journey and his corruption by dragon gold) and the final siege speaks to us of how our own affairs between nations can become so intangibly fixated on our own interests, sometimes noble and right (Bard) and sometimes corrupted by greed and paranoias about entitlement and ancient grudges (elves and dwarves).

For these reasons and more it is the archetypal book written for children and beloved by adults.

The audio-book version read by Rob Inglis is perfect.  He breathes his love for the tale (I suspect) into his reading.  He has rich style that balances gravitas with a lightness of touch that keeps us listening keenly. His renderings of the different characters is superb, communicating perfectly the home-bird reticence of Bilbo and his growing courage, Gandalf’s wisdom and authority, the dwarves distinct characteristics including blustering pomposity as well as courage and quick temper, and the ultimate menace of Smaug.  The songs are wonderfully performed, and I could quite happily listen to them all repeatedly.  There’s also a main instrumental theme that is entirely appropriate, that opens and closes the tale.  Other than that, any effect other than the narrator’s voice does not intrude.

A review of ‘Doctor Who: Survival;’ the novelisation by Rona Munro and audio-book read by Lisa Bowerman

Where as I’ve never seen Survival, the audio book made a great holiday listen, and if you are a fan of Doctor Who, especially the Classic series, and thrice especially the Target novelisations, this is something of a poignant treat. Poignant because Survival is both the final serial of the 26th season and also the final story of the entire original 26-year run of the Doctor Who. The story was first broadcast in three parts, weekly, from 22 November to 6 December 1989. The story contained a number of finals, the final regular television appearance of Anthony Ainley as the Master, of Sophie Aldred as Ace and the last regular television appearance of Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.

The audio book is narrated by Lisa Bowerman, who played Karra, a ‘Cheetah-person’ in the tv Survival story, and has also voiced the New Adventures / Big Finish audio drama favourite Bernice Summerfield.

The book’s settings are, variously, Perivale in West London and a dying Alien world. We begin in West London, where the Doctor brings his companion Ace back to her home, Perivale, to catch up with family and friends. Other than Ace being in a real mood about the whole thing, something is very wrong (as it would be). People are disappearing. And a particularly feral black cat watches from teh sidelines, as does the Doctor’s most implacable foe…
It transpire that people are being chased by horse mounted ‘Cheetah-people’ into another dimension, where they run and hide or are killed by for sport by the same cat creatures. Worse, the planet itself is directing everything with a malign force that seeks to compel an accelerated Darwinian struggle and spread it to new worlds. Turns out the Master is stuck on the planet, and needs the Doctor’s help to escape…

The story has a number of characteristics typical of the show of this time. First, it is an original and pacy story. The show had not strayed into interminable story arc territory at this stage. It combines very domestic and familiar settings (London estates, suburbs, youth clubs, and so on) with alien worlds. It is full of the Seventh Doctor’s particular characteristics, the rolling, r’s, a kind but determined and persistent approach, and the familiarity of a trusted Uncle with vert eccentric habits. And the inter-play with Ace, extreme banter and a real bond.
It also has the casual and violent ends of quite a few minor characters (still a trope) that keeps dramatic tension high. You really don’t know who is going to make it (apart from the Doctor and hos companions. Companion death was still relatively rare.

The Master is a strong component in this story. He is thoroughly evil, some of his actions are wholly irredeemable, and yet darkly witty and engaging. We get some intriguing backstory of the Master and the Doctor’s shared story in this novelisation as well
Lisa Bowerman’s narration is really well done. She is clearly enjoying herself, conjuring the 7th Doctor, Ace and others before our eyes, and that is infectious.

A review of Stephen Baxter’s “The Massacre of Mankind: Authorised sequel to The War of the Worlds.”

This begins promisingly, with a fascinating exercise in counter-factual history. This defines the first quarter of the book, and it threads through the rest of the work. So, the book asks, how might history have turned out in the aftermath of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds? The answer is, a harder, cynical world in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century. The values that defined us then have been replaced by an anxious militarism that always has an eye to the Martians returning. And Britain is isolationist, so does not intervene with Germany’s Imperialist ambitions. Suffragettes are terrorists. Technology has benefited from Martian technology. The Titanic did not sink as its hull was plated with Martian steel. And so on.

Walter Jenkins (the narrator of the War of the Worlds) reaches out to his ex-sister in law Julie Elphinstone. She is young, progressive, and our narrator for this new work. Walter warns Julie that he fears the Martians are coming back. And slowly, and surely, they certainly do draw their plans against us. Again.
Only this time they have studied the last war and have some new tricks up their sleeve. A terrifying wave of missiles bombard landing sites to eviscerate the military. And when the Martians land, their mobilisation is much, much faster. No slow unscrewing of the cylinder here.
And so, landmarks are obliterated, people are rounded up as cattle and drained of their blood, and Julie, Walter, and the UK military must find a way to put the Martians once again back in their box.
The trouble is, fascinating ‘What-If’ history aside, and the odd impressive set piece, for example massive city like trench works surrounding a Martian landing site, huge giant tank like ‘Land-ships’ doing battle with the Martians, and a really grotesque scene inside Martian feeding and human vivisection pits, it is surprisingly, given the subject matter as described, thuddingly dull.
Part of the reason is the weird detachment of writer and narrator. Stephen Baxter writes science fiction with a capital S. He is very serious about the science. Fair play. But it makes for a tedious narration when we keep having exposition on the science behind this, and that. He also forgets to write human souls. One character is applauded for his ‘clear thinking’ in working for the Martians and leading them to human survivors to be drained of their blood. Because that is a clear thinking, scientific approach to symbiosis, you see. I just wanted to shoot the bastard.
Nothing seems to have any real urgency. And the story keeps stopping and starting again. And the last act is tragic. Not tragic as in catharsis and drama. But tragic as in weak. In War of the Worlds the Martians stop because they catch a cold. That is an epic confrontation next to what happens here. No spoilers, but it hinges on landscaping.
The audio-book is voiced by Nathalie Buscombe, who sounds as bored as I felt, like she is describing minor irritations at a day in the office rather than inter-planetary war-fare.
It is dull, cynical, cold. A bore of the worlds. Hated it.

The Devil’s Bargain: A review of the book and audiobook of Luke Harding’s ‘Collusion’

Luke Harding’s journalism has given us a depressing but gripping take on one of the most blatant, brazen and frightening political twists of modern times: that Russia, based on it’s existing cod war, KGB and espionage infrastructure has launched cyber war on the West, and, Manchurian Candidate style, installed its own puppet in the Whitehouse. One that fit a template they had for such a candidate: vain, paranoid, ultra-wealthy, and with powerful connections, and the media presence and warped charisma to gull a large percentage of the American presence.
The book alternates between recent events of Trump’s candidacy and presidency, and the larger backstory of Russian politics and espionage. The characters range from the naïve and utterly stupid to the ruthless Machiavel. Guess which one is which. It’s not Trump with his hand rammed up the puppet’s hole and squeezing.
For the audiobook the Russian story can be at times confusing, those long Russian names crossing and criss-crossing can tax the short-term memory. But it is very much worth the effort.
Luke Harding writes with a ruthless objectivity, but he cannot hide his dismay and contempt for Trump his Presidency, those who have profited and helped bring it about, and the amoral ruthlessness of Putin. The narrator, Jonathan Amis, does a good job of switching between a clear, dry delivery and absolute incredulous disgust. The switch from one to the other is sometimes almost comical.
It’s the more intellectual sibling of Fire and Fury.
Read, and pray for the light to dawn.