SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Original Book Reviews, Recommendations and Discussions


Flummoxed by a “J” – J – A Novel, by Howard Jacobson

J by Howard Jacobson (Originally published: August 14, 2014, 326 pp., publisher: Jonathan Cape)

Sometimes a novel just flummoxes me. I have tried my best to get to grips with “J” by Howard Jacobson, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but the novel made me feel vaguely worried and confused while I was reading it. That was probably the author’s intention, since those sort of feelings drove him to write it. It is set in a Britain of the near future, at a time after a calamitous global event. This event is called “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED” or “Twitternacht” (with reference to “Kristallnacht” and Twitter.) As a result of this event, many people got killed, or were forced to move to other countries or back where they came from; everybody got given random, different names (oddly spelled), social media was banned and art was reduced to inoffensive, pleasing aesthetics so as not to arouse any extreme emotions ever again. The protagonists are “Kevern”, a carver of  Welsh love spoons, and his lover, “Ailinn”.  Continue reading


Hard-hitting Alt-history novel – Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters, published by Mulholland Books, Little, Brown and Company, New York, U.S., July 2016 (1st ed.), 327 pp., hard cover.

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters, published by Mulholland Books, Little, Brown and Company, New York, U.S., July 2016 (1st ed.), 327 pp., hard cover. (Classified as alternative history, thriller, detective fiction, and suspense fiction.)

Ben H. Winters wrote the acclaimed, award-winning Science Fiction series, The Last Policeman. I called the hero of the series, “Detective Hank Palace”, “the Thinking Woman’s Crumpet” –  and the detective in his latest novel Underground Airlines is another yummy crumpet. Like No. 3 in The Last Policeman trilogy, World of Trouble, Underground Airlines was also shortlisted for the Goodreads Choice Awards in the Science Fiction category, amongst other kudos. So one can safely say he knows how to write a hit and create really appealing, admirable protagonists. I was expecting something good, and was not disappointed; a polished, refined, sharp piece of alternative history writing which, due to its premise, is also a bugle call for the defence of democracy, freedom and the U.S. Constitution. Continue reading


A perfect world you’d kill to escape from – The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., A Penguin Random House Company, September 24, 2015. Emblem paperback edition (depicted), Aug 09, 2016, 400 pp.

Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., A Penguin Random House Company, September 24, 2015. Emblem paperback edition (depicted), Aug. 09, 2016, 400 pp.

The Heart Goes Last held no surprises for me. Dystopia set somewhere in the future? Check. All doomed to implode due to typical human weaknesses? Check. Clever advertising references and initially interesting, futuristic products? Check. Ordinary people up against the machines, that brings out the worst in them? Ditto. People stuck in a type of bubble or petri dish situation, every move recorded by Big Brother? Ditto again. Atwood’s latest vision of the future has been overtaken somewhat by developments in technology and many individual aspects have already been depicted in earlier novels and films. However, all the combined features of the dystopian world she has created make for an entertaining creation. I can definitely see this book being filmed, scene by scene. Atwood introduces the gated community, “Consilience”, and the associated prison, “Positron”, which are combined into a massive social experiment and into which a down-and-out couple wins access. This man-made, ostensibly pastoral “enclosed world” brings to mind WestWorld (the 1973 film and 2016 HBO series), and The Truman Show (1998). It’s definitely been done, and with more panache, but there are a few clever ideas in the novel too, like those creepy, blue, knitted teddy-bears. Other familiar sci-fi “tropes” in the novel include:

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Imprecision with purpose – This Census-Taker, by China Miéville

Published in US by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, division of Penguin Random House, New York, USA, 2016, e-book cover

Published in US by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, division of Penguin Random House, New York, USA, 2016, e-book cover

Like it says on the title page, this novella is mystery fiction. I could not figure out, even though I have read it three or four times already, where it is set or when. On first reading it is short and simple, but somehow seems obscure, and trying to clarify it simply creates more questions. However,  I thought it was strangely charming and very, very good. Not his best, since it is on a smaller scale than his previous books, but still, pretty darn amazing. To think that such a short book can bring up so many questions. Miéville is a Poet of Sci-Fi. But unlike all the other novels in which he has created secondary worlds that are completely coherent and minutely detailed, from the through-the-looking-glass London in Un Lun Dun, to New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station, to Besźel and Ul Qoma in The City & The City, this is an indeterminate, nameless setting. Continue reading


J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s love letter to the written word: “S.” or “Ship of Theseus”

S., a.k.a. Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka, by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams (Published by Mulholland Books, Little Brown; Slipcase and package design by Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2013)

S., a.k.a. Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka, by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams (Published by Mulholland Books, Little Brown; Slipcase and package design by Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2013)

This year I’ve read highly forgettable, beautifully written, distressing, hilarious and puzzling books. For me, S., by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams, takes the Prize for Weirdest Novel and the one I found most physically difficult to read. J.J. Abrams is in the news right now as the director and co-author of the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), but fans might not know of this book, published two years ago. There are many books with extremely short, abbreviated, or one-letter books titles, a practice which is unpopular these days due to the prevalence of Internet marketing in which a title has to be differentiated in order to be found by search engines. Authors now tend to go for long, descriptive names, rather than ones with one letter or an abbreviation. But the short title of this one is misleading. It is a long book which is a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle, a novel within a novel within a novel, and the short title is only on the slipcover. There is another title inside. Continue reading


Leaving a sense of wonder – The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (Doubleday, UK, 2012)

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (Doubleday, UK, 2012)

Terry Pratchett (Sir Terence David John Pratchett, OBE) died on 12 March 2015. Last week Thursday. He was only 66 years old, much too young to die, and much too early a death for his fans the world over, who were left gasping for just one more Discworld novel. He had written 40 Discworld novels, the first, The Colour of Magic, published in 1983, and the last, the 40th, Raising Steam, was published in 2013. The 41st, The Shepherd’s Crown, is due to be published posthumously in late 2015, by his daughter, Rhianna. His 2011 Discworld novel, Snuff, was, at the time of its release, the third-fastest-selling hardback adult-audience novel since records began in the UK, selling 55,000 copies in the first three days. Terry Pratchett gave the world the gift of his imagining, Discworld and his many other creations, and he exited this world graciously, trying to the last to do good. More so the pity then, that I did not enjoy his collaboration with Stephen Baxter in The Long Earth half as much as any of his solo novels.

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And it all ends with a…hug?! – Dissecting death in “The Last Policeman”

He never does see the meteor streak in the sky like that…(Quirk Books, Philadelphia, released 15 July 2014)

He never does see the meteor streak in the sky like that…(Quirk Books, Philadelphia, released 15 July 2014)

In books I and II of The Last Policeman series, by Ben H. Winters, we met the last policeman in question, Hank Palace, “The Thinking Woman’s Crumpet”. In my previous review I said that Winters is an accomplished writer, producing a polished narrative, original imagery and an unconventional approach to end-of-days scenarios. Through his main character he watches and notes the desperate last-minute activities of the panicked human race, rather like a mortician would, and definitely like a good detective should.  Palace is an endearing, upright character with a romantic, empathetic streak. Through neat turns of phrase and unusually prescient observations, Winters paints a restrained picture of the coming end of the world. Rather than blood and guts – though murder is still on the agenda – his view of the apocalypse is pretty realistic and frighteningly normal. Which begs the question: what happens to a first-person narrator when he not only dies but everything else ceases to exist too?

How to end a book with the death of the narrator

In this book, Winters picks apart the notions of death, inevitability, fatefulness, doom. I’ll spoil the fun by telling you how it ends, but here’s the conundrum – you know how it’s going to end from the first page of the first book. It takes great writing skill to keep the reader engaged in Book III – World of Trouble – when you know that by p. 316, it has to end, in all possible ways. And Winters achieved that. Like seeing a movie about WWII – we all know how it ends; and The Sleeping Beauty, and, for that matter, all stories that are based on Received Knowledge. But the skill lies in how to get to the ending.

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