“Fox” by Anthony Gardner (2016)

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“As dawn broke over London, the sound of a horse’s hoofs echoed along Oxford Street.”

As the world continued to fall apart last week in a somewhat concerning landslide election victory here in the UK, I vowed that I’d give up on reading dystopian fiction until things had righted themselves again. I thought Fox might be a welcome distraction, realising only too late that it was just another dystopia. Nevertheless, I was committed and thus began one of the silliest adventures of modern times.

Foxes across Europe are spreading disease. The rabies-like epidemic is incurable and fast-spreading, and there is some concern that it’ll find a way to cross the sea and reach Britain where a paranoid Prime Minister has reintroduced fox hunting to cull the huge population of urban foxes that have caused so much damage in the cities that whole streets in London have caved in. While on a visit to China, the Prime Minister learns of a surveillance system called Mulberry Tree which allows the Chinese government to spy on anyone in the country. Under the guise of protecting the population from fox flu, the Prime Minister sees a way to get this technology into Britain, too.

Elsewhere, a Christian faction called the Brothers of Light are suspected of foul play, two animal rights activists are facing the consequences of trying to free a bear from London Zoo, Frank Smith is relishing his role as London’s Master of Foxhounds and believes that the flu has finally reached Britain, and a university professor has found out the truth regarding Mulberry Tree and is trying to smuggle evidence from China to a medical friend in Northumbria. That’s all still before we get to a lovestruck bureaucrat, two Chinese assassins, the beautiful missionary trying to escape China, and the innovative Pu Dong Pudding Company. As everyone races to their intended happy endings, their stories begin to tangle and merge and life will never be the same again for anyone.

There are so many threads in this novel that, at first, all seem to be so wildly disparate that you can’t begin to fathom what they’ve all got to do with one another. When they begin to come together, then, it gives one goosebumps. While some of the overlaps are down to sheer coincidence, most of them are not, and even though everyone has a very different goal in mind, it’s fun to watch them compromise and help one another in increasingly amusing ways. Gardner is also certainly a man who doesn’t let a plot thread hang. At first you think he has, but as the book winds down, three of them resolve themselves satisfactorily – one of them being something that I’d entirely forgotten about.

The ending, however, leaves a little to be desired. We see vaguely what has happened to the main characters in the interim, but the overarching story line regarding fox flu and the Mulberry Tree project remains a cliffhanger. Was a cure found? Are there other infected foxes in Britain? Is fox hunting banned again if the disease is wiped out? Does China stop using Mulberry Tree technology? We will never know for sure.

Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. We can guess where it’s going, and we can hope that it’s in a positive direction. The story is still good and it’s tightly-plotted, with throwaway lines and characters suddenly becoming important later on. The writing itself is somewhat reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse, and the whole thing is very British with a solid sense of humour and a good degree of farce. Some of the notions are amusing too, such as fox hunters having moved from the countryside into the inner cities, swapping horses for bikes as they seek out foxes around Marble Arch and Hyde Park. None of it makes fox hunting a more palatable activity, but it’s an amusing concept executed well.

While not what I was expecting – the dealings with fox hunters are just one small story of several overlapping ones – it’s still a fun read, proving that Orwell’s thoughts of a government that wants to watch everything its people are doing have never really gone away.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“How We Got To Now” by Steven Johnson (2014)

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“Roughly 26 million years ago, something happened over the sands of the Libyan Desert, the bleak impossibly dry landscape that marks the eastern edge of the Sahara.”

The march of progress rarely proceeds in a straight line. We take the technology of today – smartphones, the Internet, cars, even flushing toilets and electric light – for granted, never much giving any consideration for the things that our ancestors would have found remarkable. Sometimes it takes millennia for ideas to produce tangible results – rarely do changes happen overnight – and it often takes a lot of people to make something happen. Take your watch, for example. That’s not just the product of a watch scientist, or something like that. The fact that you have a reliable timepiece on your watch is thanks to people working in the fields of computing, electromechanics, chemistry, dynamics and astrology. Steven Johnson takes a look at some of the greatest innovations in human history in this astounding book, How We Got to Now.

Johnson explores the six inventions and discoveries that revolutionised humanity: glass, artificial refrigeration, sound recording, germ theory, clocks and the light bulb. Each of these innovations helped the human race progress in truly extraordinary ways, changing the world over and over again. Many of history’s best and brightest also show up here including Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Charles Babbage, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Galileo Galilei, as well as several others that time has unfairly forgotten such as Frederic Tudor who was the first person to transport ice to the Caribbean, or Charles Piazzi Smyth who all but invented flashbulb photography. While some of the stuff seems simple, there are some things brought up that I’d never really given much thought to but seem obvious in retrospect. For example, fire was pretty much the first human “invention”, or at least the process of creating fire. And yet, despite fire being a key source of heat and light, we didn’t manage to take control over cold temperatures until well into the Industrial Revolution, and there was little more advanced than a candle to help us see at night for millennia.

The book’s real beauty comes from the fact that Johnson reveals how certain technologies had ripple effects into other areas of humanity’s development. The discovery of germ theory would eventually lead to both Coronation Street and the bikini; it could be said that air conditioning led to the election of Donald Trump; the invention of the mirror allowed the Renaissance to happen and changed people’s ideas of their place in society; a swinging altar lamp in an Italian cathedral would begin a path that led to Sputnik; and radio would chart a course to both the civil rights movement and Hitler’s fascist regime. The book notes that many ideas come into existence at a certain time because it’s just time for them to exist. Often the same invention or discovery will be announced by several different people at the same time. Edison didn’t invent the first light bulb, but he helped perfect them, and Darwin was one of several scientists who had worked out evolution and natural selection within the same decade or two. New ideas spring from old ones. For example, a person living in 1650 can’t conceive a refrigerator because the associated technologies aren’t available, but once they are, it seems almost inevitable that it would happen.

Johnson appears to be a natural weaver of true stories, and the writing, while occasionally heavy on the science, never feels too out of reach for the layman. The tales are engaging, fascinating and the sort of thing that make you want to instantly go up to other people and say, “Did you know…?” Even things that you might at first think could be dull topics, such as the chlorination of swimming pools, or how fibre optics are made are incredibly interesting, given what they then led to. It’s a very interesting guide to the most important ideas in science, and I for one am incredibly enchanted.

And while only a little thing, one of my favourite discoveries was that Captain Birdseye was a real person – his first name was Clarence.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a 80% of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Flame Alphabet” by Ben Marcus (2012)

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“We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us.”

A week is far too long to spend reading a 300-page novel, no matter how small the text. My friends ask me often how I know whether I’ll like all the books I buy and I have no answer – I’m just lucky. Most of the time, that is. Oh yes, it’s one of those rare negative reviews.

Somewhere in New York state, an epidemic has sprung up that has turned children’s speech toxic to adults. All around the neighbourhood, parents fall ill as their children realise the power they have and begin to terrorise the community. Sam and his wife Claire are left with a horrible decision – do they stay with their teenage daughter, or abandon her to get to the quarantine where they can start to recover?

Sam soon finds himself lumbered with the unwanted company of Murphy, a large man who seems to know too much about what’s going on, though is almost certainly not to be trusted. He knows things that only Sam, Claire and the other Jewish members of the neighbourhood know, thanks to their secret forest synagogues. As the plague worsens, soon it isn’t just children that can cause damage. Before long, all communication becomes nigh-on impossible, and there’s a race on to find a cure, or at least a method of communication that won’t kill everyone.

On the Venn diagram of literature, this book sits somewhere between Nod, Lexicon and Lord of the Flies, all of which are better written and more engaging – and I say that having really disliked Lord of the Flies, too. The premise, that of a toxic language, is really great and I was hoping for a novel that would run with the idea, and while this one does, it feels like it’s going the wrong way. The language is dense and quite pretentious. There seems to be a big issue made of the main characters being Jewish, with an early theory being that it was only Jewish children who were causing the sickness, but there’s never a definite answer as to whether this is how it started or not. None of the characters are remotely pleasant people, especially Sam and Claire’s teenage daughter Esther, who is presumably painted in a negative light so that we don’t feel bad when they plot to leave her behind.

The reviews on the cover suggest that the book is funny, too, but that’s passed me by. It’s not that I didn’t “get” the jokes, it’s just that I couldn’t find any to get. There’s nothing remotely funny here, and if anything I would describe the book with a single altogether different word: harrowing. Ben Marcus has painted a rather shocking world, and the images are very visceral, made more so by the fact there isn’t, by the nature of the plot, much dialogue.

Are there redeeming features? Sure. The scenes where Sam is part of the team of scientists trying to invent a new alphabet or method of communication are quite fascinating, with a lot of imagination used to come up with any number of alternate patterns of speech, such as staining wood with water or constructing letters out of yarn that only form words when the right breeze is applied to them to give them shape. The rest of the time though, I can’t say I’m particularly bothered by what’s happening. I felt uncomfortable, and the endless references to the Jewishness of the main characters contrasted with images of emaciated victims is a horrifically stark reminder of the Holocaust. This seems too much, especially for a book billed as “funny”, and which seems, at it’s heart, to be a huge metaphor for the fact that parents don’t understand their children.

I found several mentions online emphasising that Marcus is experimenting with the art of novel-writing here. If that’s the case, then I conclude his experiment has failed. Time to go back to the lab.