Books Read in 2015 45. Consider Phlebus – Iain M. Banks


Genre: Science fiction, Adventure

Narrative Style: Third person

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1987

Format: Paperback8935689

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – Genre: Science fiction set in space.

Synopsis: Horza is charged by the Idirans with finding one of the Culture’s minds which, while escaping from its ship, has taken refuge on Schar’s World, a planet that Horza knows well. Nominally on the side of the Idirans, Horza starts the mission optimistically but even his journey to the planet is not straightforward and once he arrives, he realises that finding the mind is the least of his problems. 

There is no doubt that Iain M. Banks has quite an imagination. The space within which this story takes place is exciting and interesting and Banks is clearly fascinated with where technology might take us as a race and how that will effect our humanity. This is most apparent in his descriptions of the Culture, the most advanced race in the book, and in Horza’s objections to them.

The story is action packed and races along like an out of control racing car, leaving the reader little time for breath or even thought. And while I did want to see if they were going to succeed in their mission, it left little space for character development or emotion of any kind.

That was my problem with it. There was little in the way of depth. Horza, a changer, could have been a fascinating character but you never really find out that much about him or his inner life. Even as his relationship with one of his fellow mercenaries develops and she announces that she is pregnant, there is little in the way of emotion developed between them.

There are some grisly moments in this book and that is where some of the best writing is. As in Iain M. Banks other fiction, his warped imagination takes the reader into some very dark places. It was a bit disappointing that in the end, this became merely a gun battle with all the usual cliches.

In the end, I felt about this the way I feel about a lot of big budget science fiction. It looks amazing but it is all surface. It left me feeling a little cold and  empty.

Books Read in 2015 – 44. A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick

Genre: Dystopia

Narrative Style: Third person from various points of viewUnknown

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1977

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Bob Arctor is an undercover agent trying to find the source of a batch of Substance D, an extremely addictive narcotic. He has to report back on his friends and housemates who are also being watched by the powers that be. As a part of being undercover, he too has to take the drug. As it takes hold of him, he becomes more and more divorced from himself and more and more dependant on the drug. 

It is hard to know how to put this novel into words. At its centre is Arctor’s swirl downwards into addiction. His paranoia and inability to recognise himself increase with his addiction and it is hard for the reader to tell what is real and what is not.

At the start, we are informed that Arctor has a scramble suit that he wears so his superiors cannot recognise him and with that is the name ‘Fred’ which he uses when he reports back on the household that he lives in. It is during one of these reports, he learns that Bob Arctor is under suspicion and another layer of surveillance is added when his superiors start to watch the house as well.

It all starts to get a bit messy inside of Arctor’s head. Watching the videos, he has to report on himself and his housemates. He watches in a safe house, in his scramble suit, with other scrambled individuals, watching other houses. It could easily be one of his housemates in the suit and he would never know. As he watches and continues to take the drug, he starts to not recognise himself on the TV and begins to refer to Arctor in the third person. He gets more and more paranoid and his superiors think that he may be losing it. He is put through a series of absurd tests by men in lab coats that talk in riddles. Eventually, they decide he needs to go into rehab because the drugs have finally broken him.

The novel is a difficult read. Dick says that the instances of drug taking, psychosis and withdrawal were all true and it certainly is unflinching in its description of the horrors of drugs. Dick also says that he does not consider it to be novel with a moral and if he means in terms of his attitude towards the addicts in the novel, that is probably true. There is no judgement. These people just are who they are, having come to a point in their lives where they can do no other than take drugs.

However, I do think that there a sense of morality with regard to the way that addicts are treated and the way the powers that be try to solve the ‘problem’ of addiction. This is shown in a couple of ways. First of all, once Arctor is no longer useful as an informant (and they admit that they used him to get to Barris, one of his housemates) they quickly remove him, not forgetting to charge him for becoming an addict while undercover. He is removed to a facility to withdraw but it is clear he will never be the same again.

Dick suggests that the facility – which is in need of addicts to get funding – may actually be the source of Substance D that Arctor was supposed to investigate. They create the addicts by growing and selling the drug which then secures their future as a clinic. This is suggested by two colleagues who have tried to control Arctor’s descent into addiction so that when he withdrew, he might be able to investigate. Unfortunately, he is too destroyed to do so.

At the end, I was relieved to have finished reading because the narrative was making my head hurt a little. There is a small ray of hope at the end, when Bruce (who it may be assumed is Arctor) sees the Substance D plant growing and picks one for his friends. But whether this will lead to anything other than more addiction, it is difficult to say.

The Irritation of Lost Files

It hasn’t been a hugely productive summer. That isn’t exactly true. I have written quite a bit but it hasn’t felt like going forward. There’s a good reason for this.

Somehow I managed to lose the most recent version of Choose Yr Future. I’m not sure how as I never delete anything – there must be at least twenty versions of Shattered Reflections still sitting on my hard drive – but gone it is. There are quite a lot of versions of Choose Yr Future too, some claiming to be the final version although none of them were.

It is frustrating – not least because I know it is my fault. I suspect that it was some sort of iCloud mixup because sometimes I do remove things from there but that is usually safe in the knowledge that there is a copy sitting on my hard drive as well. I can’t quite believe I’ve been so careless.

The worst thing about this isn’t the re-writing although that has been annoying. It is the suspicion that what I wrote before was inevitably better than the new version which covers the same ground but with second hand footsteps. Of course, it may be better but as there is no way to check so my pessimistic mind insists that the new version is inferior.

Still it is re-done now and although I now need to read through the whole thing again to ensure that it still makes sense, it is satisfying to have the finished product in front of me. It certainly feels better than the despair of the missing file at the start of the summer.

Books Read in 2015 43. A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini


Genre: War, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Third Person from the point of view of two women

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2007

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Mariam is fifteen years old when she is married off by her father to the much older, Rasheed. Laila is born to a different generation but also finds herself  married to Rasheed, The women form a bond that helps them to survive not only the horrors of their marriage but the war and oppression all around them. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: About five years. I suspected that this might be a bit of a bleak read and so put off reading it. 

This is a compelling book. The story of Afghanistan from the seventies until the present day told through the eyes of two women trapped by war and marriage. The history was something I was sort of familiar with – it became more familiar as it came closer to the present day – but nothing prepared me for reading about the horror of life for actual citizens.

Hosseini creates a vivid picture of the various stages of war and the various enemies. He shows how men like Rasheed used the rise of the Taliban and the oppression of women to commit their own personal atrocities. Rasheed was already determined to control the women he was married to – it must have seemed like a gift from heaven that women were not even allowed out without a male escort. He was a brutal man and the regime legitimised his brutality and meant that Mariam and Laila had no escape.

Both women as portrayed convincingly as they battle against the many hardships the war throws at them. I’m not sure I was 100% convinced by Mariam’s eventual self sacrifice but maybe it was only because I wanted it to be otherwise. I wanted her to be able to share in the future with Laila and Tariq.

This is a bleak story and it was such a relief at the end that things did start to pick up for Laila and her family.  I’m not sure I could have coped with much more heartache. As with the best of fiction, this gave me insight into a situation that I didn’t know much about and has encouraged me to read more about this subject.




Books Read in 2015 42. July’s People – Nadine Gordimer


Genre: Political fiction, African Literature

Narrative Style: Third person from various points of view

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1981

Format: PaperbackUnknown-1

Synopsis: Violence has broken out in South Africa and this time the rebels have planes and bombs at their disposal. Bam and Maureen Smales and their children are rescued by their servant, July, who takes them to his village. This changes their relationship in ways that they could not have envisaged and inevitably leads to tension between the servant and his former masters. 

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – genre: Set in a country beginning with S – South Africa

I must admit that I do not know a lot about the history of South Africa. At the point when this novel is set, I was nine years old. I was aware of the situation in the same way that I was aware of the Irish problems of those years. There was often violence on the TV  but I didn’t really understand the reasons behind it or who I should have sympathy for.

In this novel, it is easy to have sympathy for both sides. The Smales are liberal whites who have tried their hardest to be fair to their servant and treat him with respect. So much so that he decides to rescue them. However, they are still on the side of privilege and they really understand little of July’s life outside of serving them.

This is brought into clear relief when they are brought to his village. They are no longer in charge of him or their lives. They are placed in the position of the blacks in South Africa. They are displaced and have no control and they do not like it.

It is equally difficult for July and his family to cope with the Smales’ presence. July’s wife and mother do not trust them and they reject Maureen’s attempts to try to help and laugh at her because she does not have their skills at picking the right plants or cooking them properly. July is caught in the awkward position of having more power than the people he has been serving, something they all find difficult to deal with.

This was a clever look at power and relationships within a racist society and it shows that it is anything but simple to resolve. The only complaint I would have is that I sometimes found it difficult to follow Gordimer’s prose. It was sometimes hard to know who’s point of view was being given or who was speaking. Other than that, this was an excellent dissection of a harmful power structure.

Books Read in 2015 41. The Ocean at the end of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Genre: Fantasy, bildungsroman 

Narrative Style: First person, flashback framed at both ends by the present day.

Rating: 4/5Unknown

Published: 2013

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: A middle aged man returns to his childhood home after a funeral.  He ventures to the house down the lane and remembers long forgotten and sinister events from his childhood. 

The nameless narrator of this novel returns to the place where his childhood home used to be. Seemingly compelled to investigate, he starts down the lane to see if the farm and the “ocean” that used to be there still exist. Once there, he sits down by the pond and begins to remember Lettie Hempstock, the little girl who used to say that the pond was an ocean.

With memories of Lettie, come memories of a chilling nature. Events start with the suicide of a man who has stolen money from his friends. This awakens a supernatural force which tries to give money to people. One of the most creepy parts of this book is when the nameless narrator wakes from a dream in which he is choking to discover he really has got a coin stuck in his throat. This really touched on one of my deeper fears.

Events quickly take a fantastical turn, with monsters in human form and creatures from a realm beyond our understanding. The governess Ursula Monkton enthrals all except the narrator who sees her as the personification of evil especially as she seems to have a strong hold over his father. The narrator’s perception of her as a monster is like a child’s explanation of adult events that are beyond his understanding and the forgetting of these events as the child ages.

The darkness in this story – personified by Ursula Monkton and the Hunger Birds – is pretty unsettling especially when the Hunger Birds start to eat away at the universe. But the images of friendship and sacrifice – personified by the Hempstock family – are equally powerful. I liked the idea that the universe is being protected from the worse of evil by three generations of strong women.

Perhaps because this was the story of a young boy who didn’t entirely understand events all of the time anyway, there is never any room for disbelief. The story was utterly convincing. It transpires that the man has visited the farm a few times in his adult life although he cannot remember doing so. By the time he leaves the farmhouse, the reader realises that he will not remember this visit either. This made me think of the way that difficult childhood memories can have such a powerful hold even if you cannot remember them fully.

Reading this was a little like reading a modern fairy tale. You could take it at face value, a scary story about death, friendship and sacrifice or you could look at it as an allegory about good and evil, childhood and growing up. Like the pond, that was really an ocean, this is a novel with unexpected depth.

Books Read in 2015 40. Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald


Genre: Romance, Classics

Narrative Style: Third Person, Mostly chronological

Rating: 4/5 

Published: 1933

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Set in the 1920s, Tender is the Night, is a doomed romance. When Rosemary Hoyt first meets Dick Diver, he is married to Nicole and their world seems perfect. However, Dick is not merely husband to Nicole but doctor too and the strain of such a relationship starts to take its toll on both of them. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: So long that I have lost track of where it came from. 

When I started to read this, I didn’t realise that it was considered semi-autobiographical. In fact, I knew nothing about Fitzgerald at all. The fact that this novel mirrors his own descent into alcoholism and his actual wife’s struggles with schizophrenia make the events in it even more poignant.

The sense of tragedy invades the pages of the novel from the very beginning when the reader does not know the reasons for it. For all Rosemary’s impression of the perfection of Dick and Nicole’s love, it seems there is something missing from the picture even though I couldn’t quite put me finger on what it was. Of course, Dick’s growing obsession with Rosemary shows that there must be something wrong with the relationship and there are hints at the strangeness of Nicole’s behaviour but nothing concrete.

All is revealed in the next part of the book when it is discovered that not only is Dick Nicole’s husband but her doctor also. Her madness and the reasons for it are revealed and also Dick’s part in bringing her back to health. When he meets her again, it seems inevitable they will fall in love and also inevitable that it will end badly. How could such a relationship possibly survive?

As the novel continues, the roles of Dick and Nicole slowly reverse themselves. As Dick begins to drink, he becomes the one who behaves erratically, the one who offends other people and by the end of the novel, he is unable to hold down a job or stay in one place. Nicole, when released from the need of being a patient, at last seems happy in her new marriage.

The novel is beautifully written and there is no doubt that Fitzgerald was one of the writers of his generation. He describes the French Riviera as one fascinated by something both monstrous and beautiful. The characters are products of this time and Fitzgerald is merciless in describing their flaws as well as their good points. Both Dick and Nicole are easy to empathise with as their decisions impact their lives and their marriage starts to crumble.

This was one of those novels where i wanted to go back to the beginning where things seemed happier and to have no knowledge of the tragedy that followed. I wanted to remember Dick as the successful young doctor, full of potential, rather than the drunken wreck he became. Dick is symbolic of wasted talent and has become so removed from his starting point that he is not even anchored to any one place anymore.