“I lost my heart to a starship trooper…”

11 11 2017

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

In Robert A. Heinlein’s controversial bestseller, a recruit of the future goes through the toughest boot camp in the Universe—and into battle against mankind’s most alarming enemy.

JOIN THE ARMY AND SEE THE UNIVERSE

The historians can’t seem to settle whether to call this one “The Third Space War” (or the fourth), or whether “The First Interstellar War” fits it better. The soldiers just call it “The Bug War.” Everything up to then and still later were “incidents,” “patrols,” or “police actions.”

In the Mobile Infantry, everybody fights. But you’re just as dead if you buy the farm in an “incident” as you are if you buy it in a declared war…

I first read this as a teenager and loved it as pure scifi brilliance. Returning to it more recently I wondered if that magic would still be there and what other dimensions there would be. Well, I still enjoyed it as a classic space opera but must admit to finding the political context a bit more unsettling. First the idea that citizenship could only be achieved through military service or equivalent and secondly the brutality of the whole interstellar combat experience. Overall though it remains a compelling and rather dark tale, one which focuses on the strange individual life of the ordinary soldier and raises some interesting questions about a highly militaristic society which are rather different from those around when it was written. The Verhoeven movie really doesn’t do it any justice (crudely entertaining though it is) and as for that Sarah Brightman song…

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The old devil

4 11 2017

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin

A CASE THAT WON’T DIE

John Rebus can’t close the door on the death of glamorous socialite Maria Turquand. Brutally murdered in her hotel room forty years ago, her killer has never been found.

Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s dark heart is up for grabs. Young pretender Darryl Christie may have staked his claim on the city’s underworld – but has criminal mastermind and Rebus’ long-time adversary, Big Ger Cafferty, really settled down to a quiet retirement? Or is he hiding in the shadows until Edinburgh is once more ripe for the picking?

Old Enemies. New Crimes. Rebus may be off the force, but he certainly isn’t off the case.

Rebus just never actually retires. And he never seems to forget about any of his old cases either. But who would not want him on their side when Big Ger is around. It’s the usual cracking read from Rankin and let’s hope there are still more to come from everyone’s favourite old devil.

 

four stars





Falling and Brexiting

28 10 2017

 

Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. That’s what it felt like for Keats in 1819.

How about Autumn 2016?

Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The United Kingdom is in pieces, divided by a historic once-in-a-generation summer.

Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand in hand with hopelessness. The seasons roll round, as ever.

Ali Smith’s new novel is a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means. This first in a seasonal quartet casts an eye over our own time. Who are we? What are we made of? Shakespearian jeu d’esprit, Keatsian melancholy, the sheer bright energy of 1960s Pop art: the centuries cast their eyes over our own history-making.

Here’s where we’re living. Here’s time at its most contemporaneous and its most cyclic.

From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves.

Here comes Autumn.

It’s a terrific read and extremely well written (as you would expect from the marvellous Ali Smith). Sharp and clever it covers a lot of contemporary Brexity ground as well as some fantastic Pop Art commentary on Pauline Boty. There aren’t many novels with Art History lecturers as central characters and Autumn demonstrates they have a lot to offer. I’d never heard of Boty before and therefore was really pleased to come across this picture – The Only Blonde in the World – by her at Tate St Ives right after finishing the book. It may not have won the Booker prize but it was a very worthy runner up.

 


four stars





Decimation

7 10 2017

The Tenth Man by Graham Greene

 

In a prison in Occupied France one in every ten men is to be shot. The prisoners draw lots among themselves – and for rich lawyer Louis Chavel it seems that his whole life has been leading up to an agonising and crucial failure of nerve. Hysterical with panic, fear, and a sense of injustice, he offers to barter everything he owns for someone to take his place.

Graham Greene wrote The Tenth Man in 1944, when he was under a two-year contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the manuscript lay forgotten in MGM’s archives until 1983. It was published two years later with an introduction by the author.

It’s an extraordinary premise and the consequences of the offer made by Chavel have a profound impact on the lives of those who remain. Having persuaded another to take his place and ultimately released from prison Chavel ends up returning to his former home where the family of the victim are now living and, changing his name, he starts work as their handyman. Things take a darker turn though when another arrives at the house claiming to be Chavel.

A short and punchy entertainment it is well worth a read.

 

 





Constancy

30 09 2017

The Constant Gardener

Tessa Quayle has been horribly murdered on the shores of Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya, the birthplace of mankind. Her putative African lover, a doctor with one of the aid agencies, has disappeared.

Her husband, Justin, a career diplomat and amateur gardener at the British High Commission in Nairobi, sets out on a personal odyssey in pursuit of the killers and their motive. His quest takes him to the Foreign Office in London, across Europe and Canada and back to Africa, to the depths of South Sudan, and finally to the very spot where Tessa died.

On his way Justin meets terror, violence, laughter, conspiracy and knowledge. But his greatest discovery is the woman he barely had time to love.

An intelligent and astute thriller which is also subtle, nuanced and insightful. Balancing the very human stories of the protagonists with critique of the colonial legacy and big pharma it is a thoroughly good read. Impressive work by Le Carre.

 

four stars

 





Straight-faced

23 09 2017

Straight Man by Richard Russo

 

Hank Devereaux is the reluctant chairman of the English department of a badly underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt. Devereaux’s reluctance is partly rooted in his character – he is a born anarchist – and partly in the fact that his department is savagely divided.

In the course of a single week, Devereaux will have his nose mangled by an angry colleague, imagine his wife is having an affair with his dean, wonder if a curvaceous adjunct is trying to seduce him with peach pits and threaten to execute a goose on local television. All this while coming to terms with his philandering father, the dereliction of his youthful promise and the ominous failure of certain vital body functions. In short, Straight Man is classic Russo – side-splitting, poignant, compassionate and unforgettable.

 

This was recommended to me by someone whose literary taste I have never had reason to question. Until now. I am always a sucker for a campus novel as there really are so few around. However, good ones are even harder to find and I was therefore delighted to be pointed at this one and could not have been more excited by the reviews. I found it hard not to keep thinking what a nightmare Hank would be to work and live with so zero sympathy there. And it is genuinely hard to recall a book which has less deserved the description “side-splitting”. Suspect it is therefore heading for an adaptation in the Radio 4 6.30pm comedy slot as I write. Only reason for two stars rather than one is the moderately diverting escapade involving the goose.

 





President gas

16 09 2017

To Kill the President by Sam Bourne

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The unthinkable has happened…

The United States has elected a volatile demagogue as president, backed by his ruthless chief strategist, Crawford ‘Mac’ McNamara.

When a war of words with the North Korean regime spirals out of control and the President comes perilously close to launching a nuclear attack, it’s clear someone has to act, or the world will be reduced to ashes.

Soon Maggie Costello, a seasoned Washington operator and stubbornly principled, discovers an inside plot to kill the President – and faces the ultimate moral dilemma. Should she save the President and leave the free world at the mercy of an increasingly crazed would-be tyrant – or commit treason against her Commander in Chief and risk plunging the country into a civil war?

Not remotely unthinkable, unfortunately. There are so many parallels with current events it’s frightening but this is a genuinely gripping and fast-moving thriller. Intelligently written and with plenty of twists and turns it is just all too believable. Well worth a read.

four stars

 








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