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.

Friday 11 July 2014

Iain Banks: Stonemouth (2012)

Edition: Little, Brown, 2013
Review number: 1486

Stewart Gilmour returns to his home town of Stonemouth after years away, following an event which earned him the enmity of the closest that a small town north of Aberdeen has to a gangster family. He has been granted permission to return for a funeral, but do all the family members know (or care) about this? What about the other relationships which were affected by what he did - how will other people react when he returns?

Like many Banks novels, Stonemouth is told with multiple timelines presented simultaneously, though it is one of the simplest versions of this, as Stewart's current visit has his past life in the town interleaved as a series of flashbacks. This is why I've been careful not to say precisely what the event was which led to him being exiled, even though most readers are likely to have guessed well before it is revealed. The biggest problem with this sort of thing is usually that the secret to be revealed near the end of the novel is well known to all the characters throughout, and in the hands of lesser writers leads to some awkward dialogue, as people steer clear from what they would naturally say so that the author doesn't reveal his secret to the readers.

The bridge over the Stoun is an important part of Stonemouth, and bridges have played major roles in Banks' novels before now - obviously in The Bridge, but also in Canal Dreams, where the Panama Canal is like an inverse bridge joining two oceans together across the intervening land. The function of a bridge (or canal) is to connect two things otherwise unconnected, but in the earlier novels the action takes place on the structure itself, which places the characters in a kind of limbo. Here, though, the purpose of the bridge is to act as a transition from one world to another, whether through death (much is made of the bridge as a jumping off place for suicides) or by overcoming the separation between the two sides of Stewart's life. In the outside world, he is successful, and works at a job which brings light to the world, in a literal sense. In Stonemouth, he is a former insider who is now separated from the townspeople by his actions many years ago. So the bridge links to his past, to another world he has been forced to abjure, away from the light. That the gangsters in the town appear to be powerless outside it (they tried to track him down in London) is part of this. Is the novel itself some kind of metaphor for growing up? For leaving the past behind? Or is it even a suggestion that Stewart didn't survive to live his own life, but, like the suicides, crossed the bridge to death?

As well as avoiding the obvious pitfalls, Banks does a good job of winding up the tension until the denouement. Stonemouth is a literary novel structured like a thriller - Banks has always written novels which at the very least flirt with genre fiction, and this is no exception.

The characters are well drawn, the plot is believable, and the background is convincing. So why did I end up feeling that this was not Banks at his absolute best? It's partly that this has been done before by Banks; the prodigal son returning to his roots is the basis of several of his novels, with differences mainly deriving from the nature of the welcome expected. Stonemouth has a particularly stony reception for the returnee, which is perhaps one reason for the name of the town and the title of the novel. The Scottish setting, too, is common to most of Banks' non-genre fiction - superbly well done, but not breaking any new ground. The other problem I had here is that, to me, the characters fail to take off, apart from Stewart, and he himself is pretty similar to other narrators - notably Prentice McHoan in The Crow Road. So it's a good book, but not top class - my rating, 8/10.

Friday 9 May 2014

Connie Willis: To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997)

Edition: Gollancz, 2013
Review number: 1485

To Say Nothing of the Dog is a time travel novel, a farce around the idea of a professional time traveller sent to a time which is not his specialist historical period - Victorian England instead of the Second World War. A powerful and rich woman is trying to recreate the original Coventry cathedral destroyed in the Blitz after the sixties replacement is turned into a shopping centre. She is able to monopolise the services of the Oxford time travellers, retrieving items believed destroyed by the bombing at the last moment (so their removal doesn't create a paradox). But there is one ornament which is supposed to be there on the night of the bombing, but which can't be found - so operative Ned Henry is sent further back than 1940 to find out what happened to it.

In the 1880s, Henry gets involved with eccentric Oxford dons, a trip down the Thames, an upper class houseparty, and a manic attempt to introduce the right pair of lovers to each other so that the future is saved, even though Henry only knows the identity of one of them and the initial letter of the name of the other.

On top of this manic plot, Willis piles on a huge variety of references to other literature: a wide selection of the more popular English language writers from Jane Austen to PG Wodehouse and Robert Heinlein via Dorothy Sayers are either directly referenced or are clear influences. The book as a whole is a homage to Three Men in a Boat - the title To Say Nothing of the Dog is the subtitle to Jerome's comic classic. (I want to point out that the ending of The Moonstone is given away - so anyone planning to read Wilkie Collins' novel who doesn't want to know what happens beforehand should read that first.) Few of the references need to be familiar in order to follow To Say Nothing of the Dog; the most important after Three Men in a Boat is probably Gaudy Night. However, the more of them which the reader picks up, the more they will enjoy the game. This is a type of meta-novel which appeals to me greatly, and I would put several of them into my all time favourites list, of which To Say Nothing of the Dog is now also one.

Very funny, fantastically clever: To Say Nothing of the Dog leaps straight into my list of favourite science fiction novels. I'm a little surprised I hadn't read it before, as it's a Hugo winner and I have been avidly reading the genre since well before it was published, but now I am very glad I have done - 10/10.

Saturday 29 March 2014

Ken MacLeod: Intrusion (2012)

Edition: Orbit, 2012
Review number:1484

Ken MacLeod is an author whose work I sometimes really like (the Star Faction books) but who at other times doesn't really connect with me (the Engines of Light trilogy). Intrusion falls into the second category.

It is one of several recent novels by MacLeod which are stand-alone near future dystopias, rather like the series of similar works produced by John Brunner in the 1970s. There are two main elements to Intrusion: an encroaching "nanny state", particularly concerned to make people live more and more healthy lifestyles; and the moral and social consequences of advances in genetic engineering.

These are given a human aspect through the central character, a pregnant woman who refuses to take "the fix", a pill which sorts out an embryo's genetic abnormalities. Although this refusal is not a crime, Hope is unwilling even to discuss the reasons behind her decision, and this makes her a person of interest to the police - rather in the way that attending a mosque seems to do in the West today. The issues soon become muddled, as the plot development is based on the possibility that Hope's husband might have the second sight, and this begins to take prominence over the elements which were important at the beginning.

My problem with this is that the second sight, by its nature more fantastical than the otherwise realistic seeming near future setting of the novel, just doesn't fit in to Intrusion. It feels like a device used to push the plot forward, without being integrated into the action in a meaningful way. It is given a pseudo-scientific explanation, but one with some pretty obvious holes in it to my mind.

In other areas, too, it feels that there is a certain laziness to the construction of Intrusion, as evidenced by the name of the protagonist. This may be intended to be an ironic gesture, but is neither so outrageously obvious to be fun (as Hiro Protagonist is in Snow Crash), nor sufficiently understated to be interesting.

The subject touches on issues at the very basis of how humans live in social groups. To do so necessitates giving up some individual freedom for the good of the group; the question is, where does the line between individual and state lie? Since the answer to this question differs radically from person to person, culture to culture, and subject to subject, it is not one which can be discussed in depth in a single book - indeed, I think it could be argued that the whole of political theory, and much of sociology and anthropology, deals with ways in which this question can be answered. So it is not surprising that even the relatively limited scope of the discussion in Intrusion merely scratches the surface of what might be said about health care and the government, but I did feel that more could be said - Intrusion seems to be more a statement of a fixed position (essentially, that Hope should have the right to refuse if she so wishes), than an analysis or a treatment in which the plot involves a developing portrayal of the issues. Brunner's dystopias were mainly about attempts to change society (or, more specifically, attempts to reform society to ameliorate problems caused by undirected sociological development), and this makes them much more satisfying if more depressing than this novel.

All in all, an unsatisfying novel which never really gripped my attention - 4/10.