Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Iain M. Banks: The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)

Edition: Orbit, 2013
Review number: 1493

The Hydrogen Sonata is the final Culture novel. It is tempting to see some synergy in the themes explored in the story with this fact, for it is about beginnings and endings. However, this is not the case: the rise and fall of civilisations is a theme common across the Culture series, and in the brief author interview included at the end of The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain Banks states that he had another novel's worth of Culture ideas (and that this was usual at the end of writing one).

The Gzilt race is of interest to the Culture (more than usual - the Culture is perhaps characterisable by its rampant nosiness) because they were involved in the discussions which led to the Culture's foundation, but decided not to join. They are now planning to Sublime, to move out of what is considered the real universe into a fairly vaguely defined afterlife for scientifically advanced alien races - something of a cross between a humanist afterlife/Nirvana complete with a rapture event and an inaccessible retirement home (the details are unknown even to the most powerful Culture Minds). However, there are rumours of a secret from the very earliest days of the Gzilt race, one which might cause sufficient unease that its members might not be able to sublime, and this is something the Minds can look into.

 I felt that parts of the plot didn't quite hang together; much of it is concerned with the search for someone who was around in the early days of the Culture and is still alive, who can be asked about the secret (which was known to those involved in the discussions out of which the Culture was born. It really felt to me like there was a lot of fuss being made about quite a minor issue. The details of the story are interesting and entertaining enough that this doesn't seem to matter too much, but the central motivation of the plot is lacking. Like several other of Iain Banks' later novels, The Hydrogen Sonata lacks something of the ambition of his early work.

As I said, the interest is maintained in the small scale details in the plot, and this is one of Banks' most overtly humorous novels. I particularly liked the insect-like aliens, the Ronte, whose fleets of starships engage in ceremonial dances - an idea which somehow manages to combine the alien with the familiar in a way which is really one of the distinguishing features of good space fiction. It also makes The Hydrogen Sonata an entertaining read, among Banks' lightest novels. I enjoyed reading it a lot (more than some of the other Culture novels) - my personal rating is 8/10.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Dodie Smith: The New Moon with the Old (1963)

Edition: Corsair, 2012
Review number: 1492

The New Moon and the Old must have seemed old-fashioned in the early sixties when it first appeared. It is the story of four upper class siblings, forced to leave their home and find work for the first time in their lives when their father flees the country after being accused of fraud. The adventures of each of the brothers and sisters are described in each of the parts of the novel. It is apparently a fairly gentle tale, but it does have some barbs under the surface. Their adventures are summed up towards the end of the novel: "England's overflowing with eccentric people, places, happenings. Indeed, you might say eccentricity's normal in England." Eccentric, maybe, but the principals are likeable and charming - the latter, as I have said in the past, a hard quality to depict in a literary character.

Indeed, each of the sibling's stories is gently satirical: all of them start seeming to be typical romantic tales, but then take an unexpected turn - dislike does not have to turn into love, as in Pride and Prejudice; the powerful older man for whom you work as a dependent does not have to become the tormented romantic hero of your dreams, as it does for Jane Eyre. As well as this, Smith is poking fun at the comfortable certainties of upper class life, just as the life where live-in servants were affordable became out of reach except for the super-rich.

The title surely references this: "the old moon in the new moon's arms" is a real astronomical phenomenon, also known as Earthshine, but here must be a symbol for the changing lives of the old and new generation, the new having different aims, morality, and expectations from the old. The phenomenon was also considered a portent of bad weather to come (as in the traditional ballad Sir Patrick Spens) - suggesting that the younger generation will not have an easy time.

Funny, readable, with a clever side - what is there not to like about The New Moon with the Old? Well, the one really jarring note in this edition is the cover. It's clearly meant to evoke a naive style, but succeeds only in appearing amateurish - uneven calligraphy, strange colour choices, and very little to do with the novel either literally (there are no moonlit garden scenes, and the reality of Earthshine is not depicted in the moon in the picture), or in tone (it's a smooth, professional piece of writing). So a thumbs down for the cover, but this is an excellent novel - my rating, 9/10.


Sunday, 14 December 2014

Philippe Claudel: The Investigation (2010)

Translation: Daniel Hahn (2013)
Edition: MacLehose (2013)
Review number:1491

Even the very shortest summary of The Investigation makes the main feature of the novel immediately apparent. The Investigator is sent to look into a series of suicides at the Firm, and has a series of strange experiences in the Town. This immediately shows that virtually nothing in the book is named directly, everything being given a role in a way which makes the novel seem to be full of symbols (these substitutes where names are normally used are always capitalised). The symbolic side of the novel is so apparent that it is noticed by the characters (in a none-too-original ironic touch); the Investigator and the Policeman discuss whether they might be in a novel about three quarters of the way through.

The important exception to the lack of proper names is the hotel in which the Investigator stays, Hope Hotel, and this actually makes the symbolic nature of the book seem even clearer: it is a bizarre place, and every time the Investigator's hopes rise that he might actually have a decent room and breakfast, they are doomed to strange disappointments: bathrooms where all the taps dispense boiling water, breakfasts where everyone else is served lavishly while he is given just two rusks. If The Investigation has any message it is this: that life is confusing, surreal, and doomed to disappointment.

What the reader thinks of the novel will almost certainly be determined by what they think of this defining foible. For me, it was interesting to begin with, but quickly became irritating. Although a short novel by modern standards, The Investigation felt over long and extended; perhaps the natural length for literature which is so dependent on a quirky structural idea is the short story.

Most reviews I have seen of The Investigation  emphasise how much it is like Kafka. This is true, in its portrayal of an innocent individual caught up in amysterious, bureaucratic nightmare. Claudel also brings in absurd and humorous elements, and the overall tone is much lighter. It's a black comedy, not a nightmare at all. Much of the humour is about the mishaps of the Investigator, and that has a cruel side to it which I personally don't find amusing.

My rating: 4/10.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Seth van Hooland and Ruben Verborgh: Linked Data for Libraries, Archives and Museums (2014)

Edition: Facet (2014)
Review number:1490

Linked Data has been a buzz word for a couple of years now, and is something which is consistently forming the topic of questions I receive at work. This is usually due to someone reading an advocacy post somewhere, which leads them to ask "Could we fix all our resource discovery problems by releasing our metadata in linked data form?" So this is a timely publication, even though much of it is just backing up the reasons I have for being cautious about advocating such an approach myself.

The authors clearly aim Linked Data for... at a non-technical librarian - and I am an IT professional who has worked in a library for most of my working life, so not their prime audience. Hooland and Verborgh are clearly working hard to deliver their material in the way which is most suited to their target group. So, for instance, while there is some description of how different approaches to metadata work (tabular, relational, structured, linked), this is really only enough to support a discussion of the pros and cons of the different methods. It is clear that this is not a book which advocates Linked Data for the sake of it, but wants to make it possible for readers to evaluate for themselves whether it is a good approach for a particular metadata collection. This is a refreshingly mature approach, as unthinking blanket promotion of the current buzz word technologies (from "Internet", "XML", to, more recently, "social" and "cloud") is one of the main reasons why people grow disillusioned, as the race to move to the new paradigm is run whether or not it is appropriate in an individual case.

The fast moving nature of the linked data community means, unfortunately, that parts of the book are already obsolete. Some of the case studies and useful websites discussed already lead to blank pages or errors, or to material which differs from the description of the text. This is inevitable in a book on this topic, but does reduce the usefulness and impact of the book.

Much of the book resonated strongly with my experience while working on projects considering using/producing linked data or actually creating it. It is clear that understanding and improving the metadata involved is absolutely key to a successful release of a linked data version of an existing data set, and so the main chapters are successively concerned with cleaning, reconciling, enriching, and publishing metadata. While the linked data is the motivating factor of the discussion, much of it is likely to be of interest to any data set manager who is looking to improve the metadata they hold. Each chapter is accompanied by a real world case study, which is useful as a pointer to how the more theoretical ideas can be implemented in a specific scenario. I did feel that some of the discussion which revolves around the use of specific software (for such tasks as enriching metadata) maybe was too tied to something which is unlikely to remain a constant, but in general the case studies are an excellent part of the book. In a few years, the software discussed may no longer be available, may have changed name, or (most likely) may have been changed and updated so that the discussion of it is not applicable any more. Any book which extensively references work under development or online has this problem, of course, so this is not a criticism specific to this book.

Having an IT rather than librarianship background, I did find that some things which I was already familiar with were treated in more detail than I needed, especially the slightly heavy-handed advocacy of REST as an API architecture in the final section on the publication of data. I suspect I would have felt this even if I wasn't already familiar with REST, so this was a rare instance of the authors of the book not getting the level of their discussion correct. This is such an overwhelming part of the publishing section that other issues which may be important (such as infrastructure requirements and the use of analytics) are basically ignored, which seemed to me to make this section less valuable. (The importance which the authors give publishing is perhaps indicated by the by the 44 pages they give it, as opposed to the more than 180 which is used to discuss the metadata aspects of linked data.)

Did the book help me to answer the questions that people throw at me? Probably not. But it does confirm that the caveats I have, which include data quality, the paucity of existing links inside the data, and the need to enrich data before publishing. The key question is why it is worth exposing a particular dataset, and the answer to this question must be to do with the value of use cases for the data and not because it's something everyone is doing. A good introduction for librarians, if falling a bit short in the final stages. I rate the book at 7/10.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Iain Banks: The Quarry (2013)

Edition: Abacus, 2014
Review number: 1489

It felt like a significant, sad, occasion when I started to read The Quarry. This is the last time I will be able to read a book by one of my favourite authors for the first time, and it is a book which is infused with the news of his final illness and death in 2013, even though the similarities between the terminal cancer of the major character of Guy and the sudden final illness of his creator are apparently accidental, the book being written before Banks' own diagnosis. The awareness of this makes it tempting to either write about how it feels when a cultural figure of importance in your life dies, or to give the book a good review whether or not it deserves it, more a tribute to the person than an honest look at the quality of this particular work (as happened with Double Fantasy, the album which was released almost coinciding with John Lennon's murder, leading to the retraction of at least one prominent poor notice). I might give in to the first temptation a little (you may notice that in fact I already have), but I will definitely try to avoid the second: I hope that this will be an honest account of what I thought of The Quarry.

The first thing which strikes a reader of The Quarry is the narrative voice. The story is told by Kit, who is Guy's son. That there is something unusual about Kit is immediately obvious - he is autistic, basically, and thus his world view is pervaded by the way his mind works (for instance, the importance of the number of steps taken on the journeys he regularly makes on foot). It immediately reminded me, for obvious reasons, of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which is narrated in a similar fashion. Another, perhaps more apposite, comparison would be with William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, because the use of a narrator with an unusual way of looking at the world becomes of importance. How the reader feels about Kit's narration will effectively colour their response to the book as a whole.

The plot revolves about the resolution of three questions of importance to Kit and the group of Guy's friends who make up most of the rest of the characters. First, who was Kit's mother? Second, what will happen to him when Guy dies? And third, what has happened to the missing video - one of a series of parodies made by Guy's friends while reading film studies, this particular one has content which is potentially very embarrassing to some of the participants, and they are reluctant to explain why. The story is about these questions to the extent that the answers will pretty much determine the level of satisfaction that a reader feels at the end.

While making the reader wait to find out the answer to these questions (unless they skip to the end), Guy and his friends reminisce, take drugs, argue and rant about the state of the world. I found the rants in particular a little wearing on the patience - Guy's in particular being more similar to those of Ken Nott in Dead Air than perhaps is good for the individuality of the character. Some readers may find the pretty constant bad language hard to take, though Banks is probably not a writer you will read for very long if you are offended by swearing.

The static nature of the setting - almost all of The Quarry is set in a couple of rooms in a single house in a small town - and the nature of the plot - lots of lengthy discussions which go nowhere - makes for a less than engaging read in comparison to some of the more accessible Banks novels which precede it  (for instance, Espedair Street, The Crow Road or The Business). Neither does the use of Kit as a narrator match up to the more extreme experimentation of Banks' early career (Walking on Glass, The Bridge, etc). It's still enjoyable, just not great by Banks' standards. My rating: 7/10.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Philip Ball: Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (2012)

Edition:The Bodley Head, 2012
Review number: 1488

Histories of what is known as the scientific revolution, especially those who are writing for a popular audience, tend to portray the development of modern science as something new, a break from past thought about the world rather than a continuation of it. It is as though (despite Newton's oft-quoted remark about the shoulders of giants) the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton and others in other fields came out of nowhere. Inconvenient facts which show the continuing influence of earlier ideas (such as Newton's interest in alchemy) are left out or mentioned in passing in an embarrassed manner.

The purpose of Ball's book is to show something of the continuous nature of the development of the philosophical ideas which led to the seventeenth century appearance of modern science in embryonic form. Ostensibly, he does this by looking at the concept of "curiosity" - how it has changed its meaning, and how attitudes towards it changed from the common medieval opinion that it was to be discouraged as likely to lead to heretical thought if unchecked.

I say ostensibly, because even though the discussion of curiosity is important, it did not feel to me that it was the sole focus of the book. Apart from anything else, Ball is happy to go off on interesting tangents, such as the long chapter on seventeenth century ideas about the possibility of life on the moon sparked by Galileo's observations of features similar (if a certain amount of wishful thinking was used) to earthly terrain as opposed to being a featureless, perfect sphere, and by the ensuing publication of Kepler's novel Somnium. At least, it seems like that is what is happening when the reader starts the chapter; in fact, it is the first of a series of what are basically case studies, examination of some of the more popular scientific crazes of the seventeenth century - a theme which would make a fascinating book in itself.

There are occasional places where I suspect Ball assumes more knowledge in his readership than might be sensible; for example, he uses the term "Whiggish" of historical accounts without explaining its meaning. It's reasonably clear from the context, but could easily confuse anyone who hasn't an interest in the theory of historical writing - such as someone interested from the science side of things rather than the history side. (It is, by the way, a somewhat derogatory term for old fashioned narrative history, which treats the past as a novel from a one-sided point of view, especially one which paints the individuals as heroes and villains.) In general, though, the explanations of what people were doing, what they intended, how this fitted into the history of science and (especially) the development of the philosophy of science, are admirably clear.

Curiosity is well worth reading, especially if your exposure to history of early modern science is so far limited to the traditional version, with heroes and villains painted in black and white terms. The narrative might become more complicated than you had previously thought, but then the real world is like that. My rating: 8/10.


Friday, 29 August 2014

Roy A. Teel, Jr: Rise of the Iron Eagle (2014)

Edition: Narroway Press, 2014
Review number: 1487

Rise of the Iron Eagle is a thriller, first in a series, about vigilantism and serial killers. I was warned before I started it that was not for the faint-hearted, and it certainly is that. There are frequent scenes not for the squeamish, and, though I don't really mind that usually, there are lengthy descriptions of torture which I did find disturbing - sometimes gratuitously over the top. More on that later...

The first chapter introduces a character who initially appears to be going to be the the novel's principal viewpoint character, a retired alcoholic private detective, whose granddaughter is the latest victim of the Iron Eagle killer - only for him to be kidnapped and killed himself. This is an interesting opening, to say the least. But after this promising start, the story settles down into a more straightforward tale of the FBI hunt for the vigilante who targets serial killers.

Vigilantism is a popular theme in fiction, presumably because it plays into people's fantasies of besting those who have done them a perceived injustice. Few actually have the abilities needed to be a successful vigilante, of the solitary Iron Eagle type, anyway - able to find criminals as yet unknown to law enforcement, able to overpower and murder successful killers, and able to do this while taunting the FBI and remaining uncaught - like a rather dark comic book superhero. This is rather different from the types of vigilantism which seem to happen in the real world, which would include harassment of suspected paedophiles by groups of concerned citizens. The tragedy of vigilantism is of course the possibility of targeting someone innocent, either through mistaken identity or an incorrect assumption that the person attacked is indeed guilty of the offence. Of course, the police are not immune from this issue, as the Guildford Four would attest, but by carrying out their investigations in a system where there should be checks and balances, and where judicial punishment is separate from the search for the culprit, this is less likely to happen and more easily correctable. (I am not sure that the Guildford Four would agree with this sentence, but if they had been murdered by the police when they had become convinced of their guilt, they could not have been exonerated even 15 or more years later.) So there are two reasons not to go outside the system - you might be wrong, and you might not be good enough at it to survive attacking a murderer and getting away with it.

Rise of the Iron Eagle plays lip service to this, but I couldn't help but have the sneaking suspicion that the Iron Eagle was the real hero of the book, at least most of the way through. This included the feeling that I was meant to approve of the unpleasant torture the vigilante visited on his victims, in the name of retribution and obtaining a full confession, Confessions made under torture and undue pressure are, it should be noted, notoriously unreliable (see the Guildford Four again). This particular issue was not addressed at all; all the characters, law enforcement included, seemed to take the validity of the confessions as unquestionable. (The reader knows that they were accurate, because of other things mentioned which are not known to the police.) More moral ambiguity would have improved the literary quality of this thriller, as well as providing darkness which is not just derived from the extreme violence: this is why The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen were so much greater than the comic books around them when they appeared in the eighties. I was, to be honest, expecting this novel to be dark in a similar way to those comic books - morally ambiguous, gothic tales which have a serious point to make.

I have never watched the TV series Dexter, nor have I read any of the books. But the theme here of a serial killer who preys on serial killers is familiar from it even so, and I suspect there would be more similarities which I would notice if I was familiar with the series. There are points of some interest, and many readers of this type of fiction might enjoy it. But overall, I felt that Rise of the Iron Eagle was not to my taste, especially the way that the idea of vigilantism is treated. The tone of the violent scenes put me off, though they are clearly well written (there are a large number of different ways in which "x did something unpleasant to y and caused y a lot of pain" is expressed). Because of my personal dislike of the treatment, I feel I can only rate the novel at 5/10.