Category Archives: Review

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (24 July) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky ChambersThe Exodus Fleet left Earth centuries ago. Its goal is to find the perfect planet on which to settle, to continue life as it was lived on Earth but with new found hope for the future. But this mission is now almost a meaningless myth. Many people have left the fleet to start new lives and colonies on other planets. For them the journey had reached its end. But still the Exodus Fleet sails on, now become the stuff of legend. Colonists feel nostalgia for it. It has a Utopian quality – life aboard the Fleet is by no means ideal but everyone is fed, housed and nurtured, all a far cry from the quality of life on some of these frontier worlds.

Tessa’s brother Ashby left the Fleet years before, becoming captain of that most famous of vessels, the Wayfarer, but Tessa has stayed behind on the Fleet to raise her children, one of whom lives in absolute dread of what might happen if the very small shell that protects life inside from the cold vastness of space outside should crack. Isabel is an Archivist, whose role is to induct new spaceborns into the ways of life aboard the Fleet. She also confers with the Hermagian, fascinated alien observers of humanity who can intermediate between humans and the other species of the Galaxy so that one can be at ease with the other. And then there are the youngsters: Sawyer whose ancestors left the Fleet generations ago and who now wishes to return, to be cared for and accepted; and Kip who has lived aboard the Fleet all of his life and needs to try something new. Eyas’ life aboard the Fleet is an extraordinary one – she lovingly turns the corpses of her fellow travellers into compost so that life will be renewed and the Fleet will never need to stop.

We spend time with each and more of these wonderful people, whether people or alien, in Record of a Spaceborn Few, the third novel in Becky Chambers’ extraordinary and gorgeous and immensely loveable Wayfarer space opera series. The stories are loosely connected in time and with the occasional crossover character (Tessa’s brother in this case) but each novel stands alone while throwing yet more light on this stunning universe.

If you’ve read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and/or its follow up A Closed and Common Orbit, then you don’t need me to tell you how fantastic Becky Chambers’ writing is, equalled only by her imagination and storytelling genius. Record of a Spaceborn Few continues the trend and is at least as fabulous as Small Angry Planet.

Once more we’re in a spaceship environment but it’s grown here to become a world of its own, allowing Becky Chambers to explore grand themes about the nature of space exploration itself, of the future of mankind, of the relationship between the generations, the role of humanity in a larger community of space travelling species, and, most poignantly, whatever it is that ties people to their homeworld Earth. And when is it time to stop and feel solid ground beneath one’s feet once more, or perhaps for the very first time?

There is such warmth and compassion here. We’re presented with the stories of so many memorable people, the chapters moving between them, and we care deeply. There are moments of great sadness, of action, of danger, and love. I cried and I smiled. This novel, just like the two that preceded it, is a book to savour, to relish every page and every person who gives it life. I can only hope that there is more to come from the Wayfarer universe. It’s a place where I want to spend much more of my time.

We are the Exodus Fleet. We are those that wandered, that wander still.

Other reviews
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
A Closed and Common Orbit

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Zero by Marc Elsberg

Doubleday | 2018 (23 July) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Zero by Marc ElsbergThe world watches as drones, armed with cameras and streaming live, lay siege to the President of the United States as he plays golf. As he runs to his car, his team floundering around him, the most powerful man in the world is profoundly humiliated. This is the work of Zero, an anonymous organisation that aims to expose the extent to which companies know everything about us, how we’re constantly spied upon as we go about our private business, how we’re in thrall to social media apps, and how our data is priceless to those who watch us.

Cynthia is a journalist who is picked to investigate Zero but, before she starts, her daughter is a witness to the murder of a good friend. He was wearing an immersive eye set, lent to him by Cynthia, that encouraged him to pursue a criminal that it had recognised with its face recognition software. It’s then that Cynthia learns about Freemee, a competitor to Facebook, that seeks to manipulate the lives of its users by altering every aspect of their behaviour so that they can fulfil their potential. And then another of Cynthia’s daughter’s friends, an IT genius, is killed, but not before he told Cynthia that there was something he had to tell her…

Zero is one of those social media thrillers that rings all too true. Although Freemee is a fictional company, its close resemblance to Facebook shows how plausible its power could be, while the activity of Zero is sufficiently reminiscent to Anonymous to feel that the events of the novel could be just around the corner.

The thriller takes us on a breathless pursuit of Freemee across the globe with Cynthia taken deeper and deeper out of her depth and into great personal danger. But it isn’t a simple game of cat and mouse, not least because there is more than one mouse to chase, while the President of the United States has an axe to grind and is set on vengeance.

Zero‘s plot is complicated at times and I must admit that its technospeak did leave me baffled now and then, while I also found its characters a little cold and difficult to engage with. This isn’t helped by the translation from German into English which I did fine rather clunky at times. Nevertheless, Zero is a solid thriller with an intriguing and topical premise (and a brilliant opening chapter), and a good follow up to Marc Elsberg’s earlier stand alone technothriller Blackout.

Other review
Blackout

The Meg by Steve Alten

Head of Zeus | 1997, this edn 2018 (12 July) | 382p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Meg by Steve AltenSeven years ago, when exploring the deepest part of the Pacific’s deepest trench, Jonas Tyler came eyeball to eyeball with the largest and deadliest predator ever to swim the Earth’s seas – the Megalodon, the 60 foot long albino monster and ancestor of the Great White Shark. Believed extinct with the dinosaurs, it has lived on in the ocean’s unexplored depths. Jonas was the only man from the mission to survive but nobody believed him and his naval career ended in disgrace. But now, after years of study and research, he has the chance to overcome his fears and return to the depths.

Billionaire Masao Tanaka wants to build an enormous lagoon through which the ocean’s largest animals can come and go at will. Rumours about the Megalodon are continuing to resurface. Masao offers Jonas the chance to prove everyone wrong and dive in a state-of-the-art submarine deeper than he’s ever been before, right into the Mariana Trench. Unfortunately, Jonas will not re-emerge to the surface alone…

First published in 1997, Steve Alten’s The Meg has been reissued in this ‘new and improved’ edition to celebrate the new Meg movie which is released this summer. It’s clear reading this fun novel that it’s made for the big screen, especially now that time has gone by since Jaws. This is not really a Jaws-like story, though. The Meg takes us straight out into the terrifying waters of monsters, of prehistoric dinosaurs. The Meg might be a big fish but she is no ordinary shark. Imagine a beast that can fit a bus in its mouth. Ouch.

Gigantic fish as big as a plane, death-defying acts of stupidity (why do people always hand over the camera first before they try and get out of the water?!) and heroism, tempestuous relationships, fascinated tourists putting themselves in peril just to get a good look – this is hard to resist! I’m a huge fan of horrible creature books and movies and so
The Meg had my name on it.

It is very true that you have to leave your sense of disbelief at the front cover. You must resist asking all those questions about how an animal of this size could survive for millions of years in the Mariana Trench. You must get behind Jonas and his Megalodon-induced PTSD and sympathise with him for his complicated lovelife, while enjoying his charm and rugged good looks. I managed all that and more and so The Meg proved to be perfect holiday reading for me last week – when I was by the sea and most definitely not in it.

The afterword declares that this edition is not the same as the one first published in 1997 but it is true that the style and language of the book is very much of its time. The main women characters of the book are occasionally lumped together with the Meg as if there is some monstrous female conspiracy against men going on, but it’s all fun and it did make me laugh.

The final 80 pages of this edition actually reads like another book, even though it’s called part two. This is The Meg: Origins, which goes back to the first encounter between Jonas and the Meg seven years before. This is a good bonus, although it does mean that the book proper is shorter than I expected (at about 300 pages), and I didn’t think it was necessary reading.

I now can’t wait to see The Meg movie, which I hope will be just as much fun as the book!

The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (14 June) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The King's Witch by Tracy BormanWhen Lady Frances Gorges, the young daughter of one of the most noble women in the Tudor court, is brought to the bedside of Elizabeth I in March 1603 to help nurse and comfort the Queen during her dying days, she enters a nest of vipers. Robert Cecil was Elizabeth’s chief adviser and he has every intention of fulfilling the same role for the new king James and that means distancing himself from all of the old Queen’s favourites, including Frances and her family. Frances, in turn, is delighted to be sent away from James’s increasingly decadent and superstitious court to the warmth of her country home where she can learn her healing skills in peace, with no risk of interference.

But then Frances is suddenly called back to court, to serve as maid to James’s daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, and Frances finds herself caught up in a web of plots and secrets. The court is an unhappy place. James’s paranoia and hatred of Catholics, all potential conspirators in his eyes, has reached new heights, and is only matched by his fear and loathing of wise women that he’s all too determined to persecute as witches. Frances is not immune to the lure of the rich court – she even hopes for love – but this is a dangerous place, where few are what they seem, and watching them all is Cecil.

The court of James I during the early years of this unhappy king’s reign is such a fascinating time and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed its recreation more than I did in this wonderful novel. Tracy Borman is a renowned historian of the period and her learning and depth of knowledge stand her in good stead. The King’s Witch is full of all of the details and colour that you want from the best historical fiction. But it’s not overloaded with research. Tracy Borman also proves herself a fine storyteller and it’s the story that rules here but it’s undoubtedly superbly supported by a wealth of historical insight into the early 1600s.

I was a little surprised yet delighted by the direction the novel took! I think it’s the title that slightly misleads because there is far, far more to The King’s Witch than a story about ‘witches’, as these poor women were labelled, or their persecution. There is much more to Frances’ character than the expected – she is a thoroughly intriguing young woman who wants as little to do with the court as possible but is nevertheless drawn to it, not least because of her attachment to her young charge, the adorable, precocious and slightly intimidating Princess Elizabeth. Frances has cause to use her healing skills on more than one occasion but this is a novel about a young woman who is in danger of being caught out of her depth by the plots and schemes of her fellow courtiers.

Some of the most famous plotters of the day are brought to life in The King’s Witch and their stories are engrossing. Our sympathies are torn in every which way and it’s easy to sense the danger and urgency of the times. I was immersed in The King’s Witch from start to finish. Lady Frances Gorges is a fascinating, little-known figure and I love how Tracy Borman interprets her story, mixing fact with the possible, making her both likeable and complex. This is easily one of my favourite novels of the year so far.

The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

Zaffre | 2018 (12 July) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Anomaly by Michael RutgerNolan Moore, an amateur archaeologist and adventurer, is the presenter of a YouTube series called The Anomaly. Known for his billowing white shirt, Nolan is ready to make it big as a modern-day, real life Indiana Jones. He’s been waiting for the right adventure to come along and now, thanks to a generous funder, his day may have come. Nolan and his team – producer Ken, general fixer Molly, cameraman Pierre and assistant Feather – are heading into the Grand Canyon to search for the Kincaid Cavern, a mysterious cave rumoured to contain ancient carvings and wonders. Its existence could alter our understanding of the human settlement of the Americas. And with them is Gemma, a reporter on the trail of a story. Surely, after this Nolan will be given a primetime TV slot? All he has to do first is find the cavern and look good doing it. They’ll be back in civilisation to time for dinner.

As soon as I heard about The Anomaly, I was desperate to read it. I love archaeological thrillers and this one has a fantastic mystery at its heart but there’s also something of the science technothriller about it – Indiana Jones with a touch of Michael Crichton as it’s been described. I wouldn’t argue with any of that and it’s an irresistible mix.

I’m not going to reveal anything about what happens after our team find the cavern except to say that all of our thriller and horror expectations are fulfilled. By the bucketload. And also that its ending is fantastic, which is important as you wouldn’t want to become as caught up in events as you will with this book and then feel let down by an implausible ending.

I loved everything about The Anomaly but if I had to pick a few things that particularly appealed – except for the brilliant plot – it would be these. The atmosphere is so frightening, claustrophobic and intense. Thriller and horror co-exist here and I found myself longing for fresh air, light and space. Caverns are scary things at the best of times. And this is not the best of times for Nolan and his gang. The cavern is so well described. There’s a lot of detail. A lot of darkness.

The characterisation is fabulous. You might expect Nolan to be one type of character from the way in which the novel begins but he isn’t like that at all. He constantly surprises and it’s impossible not to warm to him. And the same for Ken. The relationship between Nolan and Ken is one of my very favourite things about this novel. One of the reasons why it succeeds so well is because of Michael Rutger’s clever, fantastic writing, especially the sharp and witty dialogue. With a couple of exceptions, the characters all feel very real and because of that so too does the horror that they will face.

The Anomaly delivers on every level from start to finish and is extremely well-written, brilliantly imagined and such fun to read. I love this kind of book so much and it’s one of the best I’ve read.

Wrecker by Noel O’Reilly

HQ | 2018 (12 July) | 305p | Review copy | Buy the book

Wrecker by Noel O'ReillyPorthmorvoren is a small village tucked away into the coast of western Cornwall. It’s so remote that the villagers don’t use its name. Instead they call it ‘Hereabouts’ and most of them will never leave it. In these early years of the 1800s life is hard in this poor village. Even God has abandoned it. The chapel lies ruined, its minister ran off long ago. People make money how they can and the biggest bounty comes from the sea in the form of countless ships wrecked on the rocks. The villagers are Wreckers, raiding the broken vessels, stripping the wretched remains of the ships’ lost souls. Mary Blight is no different and one night she lives to regret how she robbed a dead lady of her fine boots.

Events are set in motion, continuing with Mary’s brave rescue of a half-drowned man tied to barrels and adrift in the rough sea. His name is Gideon Stone and he is a Methodist minister from Newlyn. Mary’s methods of healing are horrifying to Gideon – and to the delicate reader – and so the minister decides he must save the people of Porthmorvoren and he will begin with Mary Blight. And then the rumours, the whispers and the plots begin to brew…

Wrecker is a beautifully written and hugely atmospheric tale of life in this impoverished village, which seems cut off from the world around it. The only way out is on foot or by boat and few take to the sea lightly. Wreckers know better than anyone how perilous the sea often is. People fear it; women are barred from it. The superstitions of the villagers run deep and they are viewed by outsiders as Godless creatures. This is such wonderfully moody storytelling. You can almost smell the salt of the sea, feel its spray. There are hints of a dialect in their speech (but not enough to make the story difficult to read). Village life is fed by jealousy, rumour, drink and deprivation.

The relationship between men and women is particularly well observed. The men live hard lives but most of the women suffer even more and usually at the hands of their men. Religion, too, is scrutinised and it’s found wanting. Mary Blight must learn that she can depend on nobody but herself and it’s a difficult lesson. She sees glimpses of other lives and possibilities of a different kind of future but this is no fairy tale. Mary is such a strong character, in direct contrast to Gideon Stone.

One thing about the novel that did surprise me is that it has very little wrecking in it and this was a bit of a disappointment, particularly considering how the book begins. But, once I accepted this, I found myself hooked by what is a pleasingly slow-moving, atmospheric tale of a beautiful place at a time when that beauty was overshadowed by the dark danger of its coast and the brutality of life on its shores. Talking of beauty, though, what a stunning hardback this is!

Watching You by Lisa Jewell

Century | 2018 (12 July) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Watching You by Lisa JewellJoey Mullin has returned home from working in Ibiza with a husband (Alfie) in tow. For the time being they must make do with lodging with Joey’s brother Jack and his pregnant wife in a large house in a smart part of Bristol. Jenna is not finding it easy to settle and it doesn’t help that she finds herself becoming fixated on her handsome neighbour, Tom, the headmaster of the local school. She just can’t stop herself watching him. But Joey isn’t alone. There are eyes on her as well and there are others in this small community who keep watch to catch out the secrets of their neighbours, some of whom are almost driven to madness.

Watching You is a fantastic novel which, I’m so pleased to say, equals Lisa Jewell’s previous novel, the superb Then She Was Gone. Lisa Jewell is the perfect observer of human nature, understanding so well fears, desires and the danger of obsession. She writes about these things so well and in Watching You, her characters are beautifully drawn, whether they’re children, men or women. We want to get to know them. We want to understand why they are behaving as they do and, when the time comes, we feel deeply for them, even fearing for them.

This is a novel with several themes and one of them is bullying and the relationship of teenagers to one another and to the adults who should be doing a better job of watching out for them. Tom’s son Freddie, Frances’s daughter Jenna are just two of the youngsters who really make Watching You stand out. They both have so much to deal with, each in their different ways. There is no black or white, just young people trying to find themselves. And the adults in their lives are no help at all.

So we have multiple stories, all threading together and mostly circling Tom, the headmaster. Tom is, for me, the least likeable person in the book (although Joey gives him a close run for his money) and his relationship with Joey is fascinating to watch develop, not least because it’s one of the ugly things that blights the lives of others. But their relationship is offset by some other quite beautiful and fragile relationships, especially between the youngsters.

The novel is held together by a series of interviews conducted by the police as they try to solve a crime that we know will happen. It’s to the credit of Lisa Jewell’s immense storytelling gift, that I had very little clue about what was going to happen until almost the very end. In fact, this is one of those wonderful novels that kept me guessing throughout, that kept surprising me in the best of ways, and rewarded my attention. The best psychological thrillers are those that are character driven, and not driven by twists or shocks, and Watching You is one of the very best I’ve read in a long time. I felt heavily invested in these marvellous characters and I loved watching them watching each other. I can’t wait for more from this wonderful, wonderful writer!

Other review
Then She Was Gone