Shards of Honor: Lois McMaster Bujold

★★★★

A Vorkosigan Saga Novel

It’s terribly brave to press a much-loved book on someone else, because then you feel somehow responsible for it. And what if the other person doesn’t like it?! I was surprised (and impressed) when James lent me this book from a series I’d never heard of, by an author I’d never read. All I knew about the Vorkosigan Saga was that it was evidently sci-fi. After reading the back, I thought I had it pegged. Plucky heroine on alien planet falls into the clutches of her enemy, the infamous Lord Vorkosigan. Obviously said heroine would be something like Ripley from Alien: tough, resourceful and determined. And Vorkosigan? Well, obviously, with a name like that he was going to be some kind of horribly overweight, slug-like sadist: a cross between Jabba the Hut and Baron Harkonnen from Dune. Hmm. I wasn’t that far off in my expectations for the redoubtable Cordelia Naismith, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about Vorkosigan. This wasn’t at all the space-cadet shoot-em-up I’d been half-expecting. On the contrary, it’s a nuanced exploration of duty, honour and human compassion. And love.

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The Humans: Matt Haig

★★★★

Professor Andrew Martin is, for one dazzlingly brief moment, the most brilliant man on the planet. The next, he has vanished off the face of the earth. Unfortunately for Andrew Martin, we’re not alone. You see, all those people who wondered if there was intelligent life elsewhere in the universe were absolutely right. They were just wrong when they assumed it’d want to get in touch with us. Or, more specifically, that said intelligent life would want us to get in touch with it. And so, when Andrew Martin solves the Riemann hypothesis and holds the secret of exponential human advancement in the palm of his hand, the watching extraterrestrial lifeforms decide that he must be stopped. To stop one man is easy enough: an abduction; an empty chair; an unexplained disappearance. But to stop an idea? That’s more challenging. And so our unnamed alien narrator grudgingly agrees to assume the appearance of Andrew Martin, in order to make sure that all traces of his remarkable discovery are destroyed. But to do that, he needs to understand humans. And that’s where the real fun is going to start.

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The Girl with All the Gifts: M.R. Carey

★★★★

Melanie can’t remember a time before she came to the school, but she doesn’t mind. She’s safe here, locked behind a thick metal door at the bottom of a flight of steps, with her few classmates and their teachers. They’re protected from the world outside, where humanity has withdrawn into the survivors’ outpost of Beacon on the south coast, and the countryside has been taken over by gangs of ‘hungries’ infected by the plague that spread during the Breakdown. There’s comfort in the children’s routine: the people who strap them into their chairs each day before taking them to class; the Saturdays locked in their cells; the Sundays with the foul chemical showers. This is all that Melanie has known. But things are about to change, and Melanie will find herself forced to revisit all her certainties as she – and a small group of adults – find themselves alone outside.

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Anna: Niccolò Ammaniti

★★★½

One thing’s for sure: Niccolò Ammaniti really doesn’t do upbeat. I remember seeing the film Non ho paura, based on his novel, when I was in Sixth Form and I found it unsettling, powerful and profoundly bleak. The same could be said of this atmospheric novel, set in 2020, which explores a world in which adults have been eradicated by a virus and children are left to fend for themselves. There is more than a hint of Lord of the Flies here, but Ammaniti is interested not so much in the innate savagery of children, as in the power of hope to push us onward, through unimaginable horrors.

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The Alteration: Kingsley Amis

★★★★

I really didn’t get on with Lucky Jim, the only Amis novel I’d read so far, but just couldn’t resist this piece of counterfactual fiction. What if Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur hadn’t died and Henry VIII had never inherited, never married Katharine of Aragon and never needed to divorce her? What if England had remained Catholic? What if Martin Luther, rather than hammering theses on doors at Wittenberg, had been listened to, respected, and allowed to exercise his desire for reform as Pope? And what if gifted boy singers were still invited to consider a discreet ‘alteration’ that would help them preserve their voices for the glory of God? Set in a 1976 that might have been, The Alteration is a tantalising, clever vision of what the world might have become.

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All Our Wrong Todays: Elan Mastai

★★★★

Elan Mastai’s debut novel is a sharp, mind-scrambling book which asks us to imagine how one person could change the course of history. On 11 July 1965 in San Francisco, the visionary scientist Lionel Gottreider switches on a generator that utilises the force of the earth’s rotation to produce a limitless supply of clean and cheap energy, and transforms the world forever. Fifty years later, in 2016, Tom Barren bumbles his way through the sleek utopia that has been made possible by Gottreider’s brilliance, never imagining that he will be responsible for destroying the world as he knows it.

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Westworld: Season 1

Westworld

★★★★½

Sometimes you just have to binge-watch a series and I’ve been completely captivated by Westworld, which I discovered on Amazon a couple of weeks ago. For those who haven’t yet come across this phenomenon, it’s a TV series developed from a 1973 film written by Michael Crichton, who seems to have a bit of a thing about immersive theme parks that go wrong (remember his modest little film about dinosaurs?). Westworld presents us with a vast, sprawling park in which visitors can play out their Wild West fantasies of murder, adventure and sexual domination, interacting with an astonishingly advanced group of ‘hosts’, or robots programmed with particular characters and storylines. It’s epic, ambitious and astonishingly well-made, with a fantastic cast. A real must-see.

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The Many Selves of Katherine North: Emma Geen

★★★★

The village where I grew up is tiny even by the usual standards of English country villages: thirty houses; a hundred residents; no shop; no pub. And yet it’s had its fair share of literary energy. Legend has it that Wilkie Collins started writing The Moonstone at the Manor House; Dick King-Smith used to live down the other lane; and now, to my surprise and delight, I see that one of my former neighbours has also published a novel. I wouldn’t say that I ever knew Emma Geen (it feels weird to refer to her solely by surname as I usually do with authors), but I still approached this book with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. And it was all rewarded. Without a shadow of partiality, I can say that this is an assured and accomplished debut: tight, edgy and thoroughly gripping; a sophisticated blend of thriller and troublingly plausible sci-fi.

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Short Stories from Tor.com

tor

One of the things I most enjoy about Tor.com, a website focusing on science-fiction and fantasy publishing, is their original fiction. Recently I’ve been pleased to see that some of their short stories have been published as ebooks, complete with gorgeous covers that are designed for each one. At around 30 pages per story, these make wonderful amuse-bouches between more lengthy reads and are usually less than £1 a piece on Amazon. And, if you’d rather read them for free, you can always seek them out on Tor.com itself. As the stories aren’t long enough to warrant individual posts, I thought I’d collect my thoughts together five at a time.

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The Midwich Cuckoos: John Wyndham

★★★½

This is one of the books, like The Stepford Wives or Rosemary’s Baby, that has become an icon of popular culture: even if you haven’t read it, or seen the related films, you know the basic premise. I spotted it in the library today and, because I have another of Wyndham’s books lined up waiting to be read (Triffids, no less), I thought this would make an interesting comparison. For some reason I’d always imagined that Midwich would be a horror story, but it’s something far more subtle and sophisticated: a creeping, chilling sci-fi thriller which places its characters in the ultimate moral dilemma.

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