Book Review: ‘Another Now’ by Yanis Varoufakis

Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present by Yanis Varoufakis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 2025 idealistic tech whizz-kid Costa, in the course of developing the ultimate Virtual Reality machine, stumbles upon a portal into an alternative present-day in which the financial crash of 2008 gave rise, not to the enrichment of the banking sector as it did in our timeline, but to its total demise and the transformation of the world economy into something approaching a dynamic but egalitarian utopia.

Land and utilities are collectivised, companies are assessed (and annually vetted on pain of dissolution) for their contribution to the public good, and everyone receives a savings pot at birth and a basic income throughout life.

Delighted at his find, but terrified that his VR creation may fall into commercial hands and be used to render everyone an impoverished addict (instead of the noble purpose for which he intends it), Costa invites two trusted friends, former financier Eva and Anarchist firebrand Iris, to share in what he has found.

In scenes reminiscent of Dialogues from Plato, the three friends correspond with their counterparts in the ‘Other Now’ through the data-limited portal. Their questions on how the other economy is run, together with how it came about, are answered with a realistic sequence of events depicting its foundations and early days, and a full explanation of all its workings. The history struck a chord because the same mechanism has come into play just recently – a year after this book was written!

The ‘Other Now’ is a fully-fleshed-out, detailed scenario written by a professional: Yanis Varoufakis is a Professor of Economics and was the Syriza government’s Minister of Finance in Greece in 2015.

It’s worth noting that the book’s jacket identifies it as ‘Economics’ – not ‘Science Fiction’.

The reading is heavy going at times if you’re not an Economics or Politics enthusiast. It’s also difficult to be able to tell – again if you’re not well-up on economic or political history – whether events could unfold like this in real life without either being overpowered by our present Establishment, or else veering off in some other path. But as an economics not-quite-ignoramus, and someone who has taken a small but active part in politics, I can at least say that it is self-consistent, and not beyond the bounds of the possible.

At this point the reader may pause and think, well that’s that then – here’s our (Plato-style) Ideal economy in which everybody gets to realise something of their true selves without the threat of immiseration with which we, in ‘Our Now’, constantly have to deal.

But there’s a flaw, spotted by Iris. Perhaps some of society’s problems are insoluble – at least by Economics alone…

I loved this book. I love the way it draws upon everything from Greek philosophy and myth (disclaimer: no prior knowledge of these is assumed – everything is beautifully explained) through present-day political economy to my own Alma Mater the University of Sussex – and literally in the years that I was there!

I particularly love the twist in the closing chapters. I kick myself now, that I didn’t see it coming. But drawing on the tale of Gyges’ Ring and the question of what you would do if you had ultimate power (and what the result would in turn do to you), it asks, ‘Would you step into a world in which you had absolute power – all bar the power to leave?’




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Book Review: ‘2084 – The End of Days’ by Derek Beaugarde

2084 The End of Days by Derek Beaugarde

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


An All-American farm-boy is steering a spaceship home to Earth from Mars while daydreaming about his wife – specifically, sex with his wife. As openings to sci-fi novels go, that’s about as clichéd as you can get, guys – but after this, it begins to get interesting.

We meet two hung-over Scotsmen (complete with cans of Irn-Bru) sitting on the computer-hack of the century, their Israeli victim; hot-shot journalist Jill and her errant ‘boyfriend’ Khan; East-coast high-flying geneticist Marcie (and her terrible mistake); Lex the NASA control operative with an alcohol problem, his boss, and a Yorkshireman who wishes he wasn’t in Scotland.

All this before the pivot-point where we get to find out what the comet will do…

The comet – named after the unfortunate operative whose computer was hacked – is due to strike in 2084, three years from the opening scenes. The dreadful truth is revealed – to the reader and a small group of the main characters (“What are we going to need the money for now, anyway?”), right at the mid-point of the action.

Scenes are expertly interwoven as the tension rises: who will break to the unsuspecting billions of planet Earth the secret of what will happen? Can it be avoided? And how will everyone react once the cat’s out of the bag?

I particularly love the well-drawn characters with their complicated lives and motivations – the women’s more so than the men’s, just like in our times! – and the way each scene reveals a new twist even though, as in a classic Greek tragedy, you know what’s going to happen in the end.

The psychological effect upon the few people ‘in the know’ is realistically portrayed. There are touching scenes reminiscent of Neville Chute’s ‘On the Beach’.

There are some clever name-choices, too: An American President with middle name Spengler, and in a Biblical twist two police officers called Adams and Evans.

Strange to say, I found this an optimistic read, but to reveal why would spoil it for you. I highly recommend it to those who like the classic sci-fi/space canon (Azimov, etc) but with a wider, and deeper, variety of characters caught up in the action – and a clever take on our current times.

And our All-American farm-boy? He’s still steering his spaceship home, dreaming the same dream – but this time, it matters.





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Book Review: ‘Darker Than Blue – This Mortal Coil’ by Lawrence G. Taylor

Darker than Blue – This Mortal Coil by Lawrence G. Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I’ve given this story 4 stars out of 5 but fully appreciate that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. For a start, anyone who subscribes to the idea that ‘show, don’t tell’ makes for a better read needs to run screaming for the exits right now.

The story tells, in almost the same way that the Bible does. Reading it is like reading a parable or a myth, but one recounted by a fascinating unreliable witness – a reflection of the injured mental state of the main character, Boy Blue.

The parallels to our troubled times as looked at from Black people’s point of view are so obvious it’s almost painful. Some people may find this aspect a little laboured, but for others it may be just what’s needed.

The deliberately-imperfect English proves a poignant reflection of the fractured nature of Boy Blue’s thought processes as he struggles to come to terms with the injustice of it all. Like some of the writing of James Joyce it’s not supposed to make sense, at least not in the conventional meaning of the phrase. The author, after all, describes it as an experimental work.

In the turn of events, I’m reminded of elements from ‘The Shock Doctrine’, then ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and to a certain extent ‘A Handmaid’s Tale.’

The aspect that appealed to me the most? We are left to ponder the eventual fate of the island. It’s a Mystery – almost like the entire tale.




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Book review: ‘The Rescue – A Ghost Assassin Affair’ by John J. Higgins

The Rescue A Ghost Assassin Affair by John J. Higgins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


‘The Rescue’ has a great opener: for one scene at least, we are rooting for Chet even though he’s an assassin/hired gun. We also get an intriguing glimpse of his origins, and the history of the organisation he works for.

But we get ALL THE CLICHES – ‘instant’ romantic interest for the hero, ‘sacrificed’ past love as his motivation, and Russian villains (one of whom even uses the title ‘Comrade’). As if that’s not enough, all the women are stunning-looking – and described in great detail, unlike the men (we’re only at page 16 when we get the first ‘her breasts’). The main character’s love interest (well, bed interest) is a Romance author: anyone who writes – or reads – Romance knows that (wink) we women look, too. Give us something to look at! And he’s blond, not blonde: the latter is a descriptor for a female.

Staying on that subject, the ‘homeless guy’s musings about Sophie in the closing scenes, considering what we learn about him in the end, make no logical sense.

The book’s best feature is the interweaving of scenes, alternating the action which creates and maintains tension, with the main character’s ingenious use of weapons, and resourcefulness in tight corners making us want to root for him because he’s on his own in this, and the underdog.

What ruins it is everything that happens in between: the dialogue is flat, with all the characters – even though they range in background from an engineering professor through a ‘homeless bum’ to a bunch of hired guns, all speaking with pretty-much the same ‘voice’. This includes characters who, the situation tells us, are speaking in languages other than English. At the very least couldn’t some phrases or idioms from Russian or Polish have been dropped in, to add realism and character? The last Russian hired gun saying ‘I am it’ is particularly stiff: this isn’t a phrase in Russian.

In addition, we get very little in the way of proper reactions by any of the characters to their sudden changes in fortune (I’ll not say more because Spoilers) – just terse phrases like ‘she was relieved’ or ‘Vadim was pleased’. Often their ‘inner dialogue’ over-compensates for this: ‘he did not like the sound of Vadim ‘taking care’ of them. He isn’t kidnapping them. He intends to kill them,’ when that’s already evident from the situation.

This makes the main characters a bit flat; but the villains are positively one-dimensional. The FSB wanting at one point to kill everybody involved; the constant references to ‘the Mob’ or ‘Mob connections’ – nobody with genuine organised crime connections would refer to it that way: if they mentioned it at all it would be ‘associates’ or ‘business,’ and if talking about rivals they’d be ‘hooligans’ or similar.

Vadim is obviously pure evil, but this would work far better if any of the other villains/Russians were brought out as characters – even if this were only one scene of them drinking together, for example.

Their dialogue is riddled with ‘as you know, Bob…’-type exposition. Similarly, the French representative describing the deficiencies of his own country’s project is blatantly unrealistic.

Chet doesn’t seem to understand their language, referring to it as ‘Russian dialect’: an agent who speaks Russian would either name the accent or dialect, e.g. “heavily-accented Russian – Chechen” (or wherever), or just think ‘Russian’.

And considering what he’s supposed to have been taught, and who he’s operating for, his attitude (‘Never sure how drugs affect the Russians: sometimes they become more agreeable … other times they become more belligerent and attack, feeling even less pain.’) towards them as almost sub-human jars somewhat. We’re supposed to like the guy – or at least identify with his aims.

Coupled with this, his mentor’s assessment of the way the world situation would evolve is woefully inadequate – considering the USSR as the only source of villains. Didn’t they consider China? Or the Middle East, the Heroin trade, or indeed their own country’s excesses?

If you like a well-woven plot, with plenty of action, ingenuity and international intrigue, with villains who are just plain evil and resourceful good guys who have the world’s best interest at heart, then this is for you. If, though, you also want believable characters who speak and react like real people, and a tale not riddled with clichés and prejudices, then a 1960s James Bond film probably has more to offer on that score.




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Book Review: ‘Downtime Shift’ by Robert Holding

Downtime Shift by Robert Holding


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘Downtime Shift’ has a great premise: agents of the 29th century are sent back in time – a whole number of turns from ‘Point Time’ round a ‘loop’ of some 800 years to ‘Down Time’ (our own time) – to steer their past events in order to tweak their present-day, perfect civilisation, a civilisation completely overseen by the EYE, a vast and complex AI.

We meet Evelyn in the prologue which alludes to her intense training preparing her to take her place as one of these agents: a ‘Shifty’. It is implied that she was somehow ‘surplus to requirements’ in her pre-training life, but this is never fully explained.

Tension builds slowly as one is led to wonder what the motives of Psychologist Dr Janeen Hellander are: does she not want Evelyn to complete the task assigned her? And if she doesn’t – if she’s a saboteur – will General Tarran McAndre find out?

We get a lot of Evelyn’s inner world – the account of her meditation at the close of chapter 1 is particularly evocative, as are many of the landscape descriptions throughout. The landscape, it turns out, in a way has its own secrets…

What made the story drag a little for me was the lack of much conflict or suspense after that. Everything just seemed to go off too well, with hardly any obstacles or surprises for the two main characters.

There was plenty of psychological to-ing and fro-ing, with different characters ‘squaring up’ to each other for lack of trust, feeling-out for each other’s weaknesses. In many of these encounters the reader is made to hop between the characters’ points of view, which not only makes the narrative hard to follow but also destroys the tension – if you know what both are thinking, you know what the outcome will be – and worse, you are not properly ‘in’ the mind of either.

The dearth of dialogue ‘tags’ or small beats during the long exchanges of conversation made the logic hard to follow at times, and a programme (‘Echo’) is mentioned only once throughout – we never get to find out what it is.

The story, at its heart, is a lively and futuristic exploration of two questions in ethics: the classic ‘trolley problem’ – should you deliberately kill in order to save a greater number of lives? – and the more contemporary question of to what extent we should allow Artificial Intelligence to take over our lives, even if it is for the common good.

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Book Review: Babel

Babel by Gill James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is the second book in a Young Adult trilogy with an exciting ‘premise’: in a fractious interplanetary empire the Peace Child is half-negotiator, half-hostage. With an interesting twist on the classic ‘prophecy/chosen one’ narrative, we meet Kaleem and wonder, what will he be called upon to do, and will he be able to deliver?

The story opens with a ritual euthanasia (‘Switch-off’) whose Master of Ceremonies, although evidently quite experienced with his role in a practice which appears to have been customary for some time, is nevertheless haunted with guilt.

Only in the story’s closing chapters do we find out why.

The cultural background has some reflections of our own world, including culture shock – we meet young women who are dealing with the differences between progressive planet Zandra and more ‘traditionalist’ planet earth (‘Terrestra’). One point that puzzled me and which was never fully explained was the agonising over why they ‘had to teach’ somebody from Terrestra ‘about there not being a God’, when this didn’t seem particularly necessary.

We get to meet the two main characters very much ‘from the inside’, with plenty of inner monologue of their thoughts and plans and, in a nice ‘nothing-ever-changes’-type touch, Rozia’s diary. Her notes seem a little soppy at first, but we soon see her true character. The portrayal of awkward teenage love is particularly realistic.

Although many of the earlier chapters end with wrap-ups, there are still some good points of tension:

What was Kaleem’s mother’s involvement with the immiserated and resentful ‘Z Zone’?

Will Kaleem’s antagonist succeed in raising the population there against him?

And will Kaleem succeed in reconciling the freedom-embracing, impoverished but life-loving people of the Z Zone with the more ‘civilised’, complacent, and even a little selfish (through having had life too easy), people of the Normal Zone?

An interestingly prescient aspect of the plot is the source of the movement against ‘Switch-Off’ in the Normal Zone. No spoilers, but they wouldn’t have been ‘the usual suspects’ for radical thinking when the book was written, back in 2011.

The story confronts the reader with a moral dilemma – ‘Switch-Off’ vs. letting people fall ill and die naturally. The premise is that the fight against illness will sharpen people’s minds and empathy, and indeed the medics’ expertise in dealing with imperfection, for example when people get injured, or have to deal with new diseases such as the ‘Starlight Fever’ mentioned as an incident in the past in the opening chapter.

My one criticism would be that the prose is uninspiring – there’s too much “he was anxious” “she was relieved”, “there was something bad going on and he had no idea what it was,” and the like, when better and more immersive expressions could easily be found. And we never get convinced of why ‘Switch-Off’ is so dreadful that it must be stopped – other than its being the only way of reconciling Z-Zone with the rest of Terrestra.

‘Babel’ is a very Moral tale – bordering on too moral (depending upon your point of view). The choice of name for the population management programme particularly jarred, at least with me.

However, in the end the ‘Chosen One’ trope gets a nice twist, and we are left wanting to know what happens in the next book of the trilogy.



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Book Review: ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ by Suzanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


In the dark, cold winters of the dawn of the nineteenth century, a mysterious visitor arrives at the venerable ‘Society of Magicians’, expressing a desire to ‘restore magic to England’.

The Society of Magicians – argumentative but mostly harmless elderly gentlemen who would no more practice any magic than they would ‘expect astronomers to re-arrange the Cosmos’ – are of course for the most part outraged at the very notion.

And so we meet Mr Norrell, his formidable book-hoarding habit, and his exploitation as a sort of travelling show by the dreadful Drawlight, who’s only in it for the money.

We do not meet the first titular character until ‘Volume 2’, with a portrayal of events in his family background reminiscent of Gormenghast. This episode appealed to me the most in the entire book, because it was among the few in which any character evoked any sympathy, or displayed anything but superficial motivation.

We constantly hear of the desire to ‘restore Magic to England’ – usually as a simple, bald statement – but nothing in any of the characters involved ever seems to bring out any deep reason for wanting to do so. Some of their actions, including one central to the plot in which Norrell suddenly decides, after all his disparaging comments about him and about the futility of the exercise, to take Strange on as a pupil, appear arbitrary and contrived.

I have to admit that with the exception of Lady Pole and slave/King Stephen, I found it difficult to care enough about any of the characters to read on through a thousand pages and find out what became of them. I couldn’t even get excited about ‘restoring magic to England’ in the end because nobody seemed to have any deep reason for wanting to do so, nor much of a personal stake in the outcome.

Indeed, too many of the characters seemed purely to be playing tricks on each other for no deeper reason than ‘because they could.’ Partly for that reason, the plot read more like a series of episodes than a rounded ‘story’. Even the end was inconclusive.

If you love the idea of getting lost in a book with prose as evocative as Dickens’, with landscape and buildings almost more real than the characters who move through them, and you don’t mind that the tale meanders along where it might ‘chuse’ to do, than Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is for you. If on the other hand you want characters who are more than just quirky, and you’re the sort who likes to follow people whose fate you care about, then there are better books to spend your time on.






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Book Review: ‘Follow Him’ by Craig Stewart

Follow Him by Craig Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A haunting hallucination, a disturbing power relationship, and the sense of impending doom pull the reader into the very first page of Follow Him.

Much of Part 1 is too ‘male gaze’ for my tastes, including the sex scene and the supposition that the woman involved – but not the man – ends up ‘sacrificed’. Too obvious, guys – in fact the trope is nicely twisted as she returns later as a vital part of the narrative, and he ends up paying a price too.

The characters begin to show their true depths as the plot progresses. Their backstories, their emotional ‘pressure points’ so ably abused by the cult, and how they came to join it, ring realistic to a worrying degree.

The second part reads like a taut, psychological thriller. Nina’s inner dialogue initially comes across as a little too sentimental and verbose, and her Catholicism could be a little more three-dimensional, but she toughens-up, and becomes more self-consistent, as her journey to rescue her man plunges her deeper into the darkness that is the Shared Heart.

Will he love her again? Will she get over-run by the part of her that wants to punish him? Will he stop blaming her for the blood-stained incident in their past that wasn’t her fault (in fact, if they are being held up as an embodiment of Love, should he have been blaming her – before he joined the cult – at all? This rather jarred – again, male viewpoint.) Will the nosy neighbour accidentally betray her as she hides the man she loves in the only place that offers space enough for her to begin the process of reconstructing his mind? Will the cult find them and reclaim him? And if they do, what might they do to her?

And finally: where do the collective nightmares of this Crowley-like cult come from? Will they, in fact, be revealed not to be nightmares at all..?

Like a Horror version of Ken Follet’s ‘The Hammer of Eden’, but one in which the cult is darker and the Demons are real, this tale is literally not for the faint-hearted!




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Book Review – ‘The Haunting of Thores-Cross’

The Haunting of Thores-Cross: A Yorkshire Ghost StoryThe Haunting of Thores-Cross: A Yorkshire Ghost Story by Karen Perkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 2012 Emma and Dave, a comfortably-off couple, move to a remote former farm up on the North York Moors, near a reservoir under which lies a drowned village. Emma – a writer – believes she will gain inspiration from living near her childhood home. The pair seem a little trite at first, until Emma gets more than she bargained for and finds herself compelled, by a combination of visions and fugue states, to write the story of Jennet, a previous inhabitant of a neighbouring farm – a farm which was once part of the destroyed village.

The narrative alternates between eighteenth century Jennet and 21st century Emma, with tension mounting as both women find themselves pulled ever deeper into events beyond their control.

Other reviewers have commented upon the characters’ apparent lack of freewill or ‘growth’ for not extricating themselves from their troubles; but in a way that is the whole point. Like Hardy’s Tess, whose plight this story brought to mind, we are not always masters of the situation in which we find ourselves, whether it be our family history, our need for justice/revenge, social mores or in this case a spell woven into the very landscape which, like the landscape in Wuthering Heights, becomes a character in the tale with its own motives and backstory.

The historical parts of the novel are well-researched and have an authentic ring, and the way the narrative alternates between the two strands of action makes for page-turning suspense.

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