Category Archives: Recommended

The Last Astronaut

The Last Astronaut

by David Wellington

by David Wellington

I love Science Fiction and have done for more years than I care to remember. I am particularly fond of “first contact” stories when mankind meets an alien species for the first time. One of my favourites, a book I have read several times over the years, is Arthur C Clarke’s classic “Rendezvous With Rama”. The reason I mention this is that “The Last Astronaut” has a little more than a passing resemblance to Clarke’s brilliant novel.

Let me get one thing clear, that is not intended as negative criticism, just an observation.

The Last Astronaut of the title is Commander Sally Jansen, former mission commander for NASA’s aborted Mars mission, brought out of retirement to lead a hastily assembled crew. Their mission: to intercept and assess an unknown object that has recently entered the solar system. 

But NASA are not the only people interested in whatever this alien object has to offer. In an era where private enterprise has become the driving force in space exploration (and exploitation), Commander Jansen finds herself leading her team in a race to make first contact.

Like all good science fiction, David Wellington’s book is not just a gripping adventure story, it looks beyond the superficial and asks questions about ourselves and our place in the universe. First contact stories in particular as much about digging deep into the human psyche as it is about scientific and technological concepts. In The Last Astronaut, Wellington faces the question of whether or not we would recognise alien life for what it is. In a universe of infinite possibilities, how we can be sure we would even recognise our alien visitors as alive, let alone communicate with them. 

It is this question, and the novel’s attempt to answer it, that makes this such a good and compelling story. It is also a damned good adventure story with plenty of jeopardy, tension and a rollercoaster ride as the characters face one challenge after another in as alien an environment as you could hope for. There is even a little romance. 

The Last Astronaut is one of the best new SciFi I have read in recent years.

The Edge of Dark

The Edge of Dark

by Pamela Hartshorne

by Pamela Hartshorne

Jane and Roz live very different lives.

Jane, tricked into a loveless marriage, struggles to live up to the expectations of her husband and mother-in-law. Her life is full of secrets and promises she is determined to keep, not least the one made to her dying sister.

Roz has no family of her own, or so she believes. Her past has hidden secrets that she is only just beginning to come to terms with. She has no memory of the tragedy that killed the rest of her family, but her new job at the newly restored Holmwood House in York triggers disturbing memories.

The one thing that they do have in common is the secrets that lie beneath the surface.  Their lives in inexplicably linked to Holmwood House and its tragic history, but separate by 400 years.

For Roz, taking the job in York is an opportunity to strike out on her own and developed the career she has been dreaming of. It is also an opportunity to reconnect with the city where she was born. She is not looking for answers to her past, but entering Holswood Housen triggers some very disturbing memories. The only thing is, they are not her own. 

Jane’s life in Elizabethan England is far removed from the freedoms and privileges enjoyed by Roz. But they are not the only players in this malicious game. Jane is not the only one reaching across the centuries.

The Edge of Dark is a tale full of hidden secrets, broken promises and faded dreams. Pamela Hartshorne’s knowledge and understanding of Elizabethan England, and particularly York, gives the narrative and characters real authenticity. But it is the intensity of the plot and the sense of menace that really make this book stand out. 

As the story switches between Jane and Roz’s stories, there is a real sense of foreboding. From the Prologue to the last page, the story never lets up. There is mystery, deceit, secrets and dark supernatural forces at play, all in very capable hands.

A very enjoyable read.


Death’s End (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #3)

Death's End

by Cixin Liu

by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

Death’s End brings the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy to a climactic and unexpected conclusion. The vision of this series is staggering. Cixin takes his readers on a journey to the ends of the universe via some rather dramatic shifts in scenery and time.

Taking up where The Dark Forest left off, Earth is in a standoff with the Trisolaran’s Keeping the upper hand is not going to be easy and complacency threatens. Enter Chang Xin, an imaginative aerospace engineer recently awoken from hibernation. She is one of many who bring knowledge and insight from the twenty-first century in the hope of securing mankind’s future.

What follows is an insightful view of human frailties and strengths. Through several periods of hibernation, young Cheng finds herself at the centre of the human race’s unfolding story. Reluctantly she becomes a catalyst for change and a powerful figure in the race for answers to the ultimate challenge of survival in a universe where we are surrounded by enemies.

Death’s End is not an easy read. The science is challenging and the twist and turns of the plot are a little unnerving at times, but the narrative and characters drive the story forward at a relentless pace. 

As a conclusion to the series, it is all I had expected and more. It is clever, insightful, enjoyable and thought-provoking. Is it the ending I was expecting? No, not at all. And right up to the very end I had no idea where the story was going.

There is a lot of story packed into its 700+ pages, so be sure UI is ready for the long haul.

As for the series as a whole, it is quite spectacular in its scope and delivery. It is a long time since I have read anything with the same breadth and intensity. Remembrance of Earth’s Past is a visionary epic that deserves a place on the list of sci-fi classics. Cixin Liu is a visionary who I am sure we are going to see more from in the future. 



Once Upon a River

Once Upon A River

Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield

by Diane Setterfield

Life on the Thames could be hard, but the people who lived by and along it learned to respect its mercurial nature.

Set in the early 1869s, a time of enlightenment and scientific progress, the old ways of the river folk compete with the new.

For the regulars of the Swan Inn, retelling old stories of the river is a way of life. These stories are often embellished in the retelling but the sense of awe and mystery always remains the same. Little did they suspect that on the wet solstice night they themselves would become part of one of the river’s strangest tales.

As they tell their tales a stranger bursts in, carrying the drowned corpse of a young girl. Hours later the child is very much alive, turning a simple tragedy into something much more intriguing and mysterious. Over the course of the following year, the true identity of the girl (who does not speak) remains in question. Everyone who meets her wants to protect her. Well, almost everyone. She seems to reach into the hearts of those with compassion, but in a small few, she becomes a commodity – a means to a villainous end.

At the heart of this compelling story are two families, each laying claim to the child. s she the baby kidnapped from her bed two years earlier or is she the little girl thought drowned by her distraught mother that very day?

For everyone involved, the child’s presence opens up doors and half-forgotten past events unearth secrets that will ultimately lead to new revelations. 

Almost as mysterious as the girl herself and the links that bind the characters. It is as if some unseen hand has brought them all to this place and time. Through the child they find not only their own salvation but also a reason to live and new hope for the future. 

Dark, Mysterious and beautifully told, Once Upon A River is a brooding mystery that kept me enthralled from the first line to the last. It has as many twists and turns as the river itself, and a comforting continuity that links all the different elements together.

A great book by a natural storyteller. Her stories may be dark, but there is a lightness to the telling and a sense of hope that make them easy to read and to believe.
She is a writer whose books I can thoroughly recommend.


White Teeth

White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

by Zadie Smith

White Teeth is Zadie Smith’s acclaimed debut novel, and what a great debut it was. It was published to much critical acclaim and is as relevant today as it was back in 2000. It is not the first of her books I have read but is undoubtedly the best so far.

It tells the story of two unlikely friends and their dysfunctional families across three generations. Concentrating on three points during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, we are introduced to the most mixed-up set of characters outside of a TV soap. 

It is a chance meeting during the later stages of the Second World War that first bring Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal together. Thirty years later, and both with young wives, the pair are reunited. Their shared experience creates a bond that will last a lifetime, but it a friendship not without its problems. Struggling with the challenges of parenthood, the old friends follow very different paths.

Taking up the reigns of the story, the next generation of Jones’ and Iqbal’s face very different challenges.  

What I really liked about this book was the way that cultural clashes between the characters highlight the struggles within multicultural Britain through the decades but in a very amusing way. There is comedy in even the most serious of situations and in White Teeth, Zadie Smith captures it perfectly. There are plenty of laughs but also some touching insights into how the various prejudices and assumptions on every side impact our relations.

White Teeth is a compelling yet surprisingly easy read. The subjects tackled by Zadie are as serious and relevant today as they ever were, but the way she deals with them is more entertaining than preaching. 

As an introduction to Zadie Smith’s writing, this is as good as it gets. It is a book I would happily recommend to anyone. 

The Thursday Murder Club (The Thursday Murder Club #1)

The Thursday Murder Club

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

by Richard Osman

Richard Osman is a well-known face on British TV, involved with several popular game shows. The Thursday Murder Club is his first novel and became an instant hit on its release. The question is though, would it have been so popular if its author wasn’t already a popular figure?

My first instinct is to say no. I don’t think it would have been such an instant hit. No doubt without his name on the top it would have got there, but much more slowly. As it is, Richard’s name has propelled it into the charts, but it is the quality of the story at the writing that has kept it there. 

The copy I have just read was read first by my wife (who loved it) and then my daughter before making its way to me. As I write this it is making its way to a family friend who is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to get stuck in.

I love a good mystery. I also love a good comedy. A book that combines the two is definitely going to arouse my interest and in The Thursday MurderClub, we get both in spades. Set in a peaceful retirement village, The Thursday Murder Club is a group of four friends who get together each week to investigate unsolved murders. They are a very unlikely bunch, lead by the enigmatic Elizabeth whose past is as mysterious as the events begin to unfold when they find themselves in the middle of a live murder case. 

The official investigation is being run by DCI Chris Hudson and PC Donna De Freitas. DCI Hudson is sceptical of the Club’s involvement at first but soon has to admit that Elizabeth’s unorthodox methods get results. For PC De Freitas, Elizabeth becomes something of a fairy godmother. 

As one crime leads to another, the intrepid sleuths, both official and unofficial, uncover more than one mystery. There are several strands to the story that the teams must try to unravel. Part of the narrative comes from Joyce’s diary entries which offer the best insights into the characters involved. 

The Thursday Murder Club is an excellent murder mystery neatly wrapped up with humour and compassion. In parts, it is extremely funny, with observational comedy reminiscent of the late great Tom Sharpe. From beginning to end, it is entertaining and compelling. It is one of the very few books that have made me laugh out loud recently. 

It was recommended to me and I can highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good laugh and a bit of a mystery.


Rendezvous With Rama (Rama #1)

Rendezvous With Ramaby Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C Clarks is one of the most prolific and well respected Science Fiction writers of his generation. One of the great things about Clarke is that his works stand up even now. First published in 1974, Rendezvous With Rama has become a classic and with good reason. 

I first read this book when I was in school in the mid-1970s. It was the first full-length Science Fiction novel I had read and I was awed by the grandeur of the story and the science it portrayed. I have reread the book several times since and still find the story, characters and the strange alien world of Rama as captivating as the first time.

Rama is the name given to the enigmatic object scientists discover passing through the solar system. Its trajectory takes it past Venus and Mercury towards the Sun. There is only one ship capable of rendezvousing with the craft, Endeavour. Commander Norton and his crew find themselves the centre of political and media attention as they begin their adventure aboard the alien craft.

What they discover raises more questions than answers, as you might expect. How could we possibly understand the technology of a race capable of building a craft capable of spanning the vastness of interstellar space?

The narrative switches between the science of the expedition on Rama and the political intrigue and plotting back on Earth. 

As you would expect from Arthur C Clarke, the science is real and believable, combined with great storytelling. Re-reading the book has reminded me just how good a writer Clarke is. 

Originally a stand-alone story Clarke later went on to write a further 3 Rama novels. He had not intended to, but pressure from fans and his publishers soon won out.

Rendezvous With Rama is a SciFi classic for good reason. It remains one of my favourite books and one I am sure I will read again. 



The Island

The Islandby Victoria Hislop

When this book was passed on to me I was told simply that I would love it. Reading the synopsis, I wasn’t so sure, but then you can’t always judge a book but it’s cover.

The story begins when Alexis Fielding, holidaying on Crete with her boyfriend, takes time out to visit the village of Plaska to see an old friend of her mother’s. Alexis’ mother, Sophie, was born on the island but has kept her past a closely guarded secret, even from her daughter. Alexis soon begins to learn the truth behind her connections to not only Crete but also the former leper colony of Spinalonga.

In the spring of 1939, the Petrakis family are about to be torn apart when much-loved schoolteacher and beloved mother of Maria and Anna, Elenia, is forced to leave her home and take the one-way journey to Spinalonga.

The inhabitants of Spinalonga live an isolated and peaceful existence, but nothing can hide the toll that mankind’s oldest disease can take on those who unfortunately contract it. Whilst the family are spared the worst of Elenia’s suffering, they soon face new troubles when your Maria is diagnosed with leprosy.

Anna is now married into a wealthy family but there are problems brewing and their father, Giorgis doesn’t know how to health either of his daughters.

The outbreak of war brings research into a cure for leprosy to a halt, prolonging the suffering of those living on Spinalonga.

The Island is a story of love, heartbreak, prejudice and determination. It challenged my preconceptions about leprosy and introduced me to the history and people of Crete. It is entertaining as well as thought-provoking. I loved the characters and their intricately woven lives.


Great Small Things

Small Great Thingsby Jodi Picoult

Reading Small Great Things made me angry!

Now I know that may not be the way you would expect a positive book review to start, so I suppose I really need to explain myself.

You see, if there is one thing that is guaranteed to get my hackles up, it’s blatant injustice. I am by and large a tolerant, liberal-minded person. I always look for the good in people and am willing to see the best. When I see innocent people suffer at the hands of institutions, governments or individuals for no good reason I find myself wanting to do nasty things to those behind it all. To read or hear of people persecuted or denied their basic rights simply because of the circumstances of their birth I find totally unacceptable and it makes me very angry.

Small Great Things made me angry. Not because I didn’t like the book, but because I did. The story was very frighteningly real. The plot, the narrative and the issues it raised forced me to question my own preconceived ideas about race and equality in a way I never have before.

The story centres around the death of a newborn baby, Davis Bauer following a routine procedure. When the fingers start pointing there is an inevitability about where the grief-stricken father’s finger is pointing – the nurse who he had banned from looking after him. But why had she been told not to treat young Davis? Did the family question her qualifications? Had she done something terrible? No, to the child’s parent’s Ruth Jefferson’s only crime was not being white.

The story is told through the eyes of the book’s three main protagonists: Ruth Jefferson the nurse accused of murdering the baby, her lawyer Kennedy McQuarrie and Turk Bauer, the father. As they each tell the story as they see it, it becomes very clear that although each is doing what they think is right, their perceptions are very different.

Using three voices to tell the story highlights the very different life experiences and turns this from a gripping drama into something very special. We all see the world from our perspective; what this book does is give the reader an insight into someone else’s point of view.

From the initial events, through the investigation and trial to the gripping conclusion, Great Small Things is an exceptional work of fiction that reads like a true story. A great book that I can thoroughly recommend.

The Dark Forest (Rememberance of Earth’s Past #2)

The Dark Forest

by Cixin Liu

In the second of CixiinLiu’s Remembrance Of Earth’s Past trilogy, we find ourselves facing humanity’s end. The Trisolarian fleet is heading our way and it seems that the outcome of the ensuing conflict is in little doubt. With their extra-dimensional agents watching our every move and effectively putting a halt to scientific progress, humanity looks set to pay the ultimate price for being foolish enough to make its existence known. In a universe full of predators the best way to ensure survival to remain hidden. By contacting the Trisolarians humanity had made a seemingly fatal mistake.

Like the opening book of the series (The Three-Body Problem), although Dark Forest is global in scope, the book’s focus is, not surprisingly, from the Chinese point of view. 

The story spans 200 years with the main characters popping in and out of hibernation. But rather than being used as a convenient vehicle to help cover issues with the plot, it is an important part of the narrative. 

Dark Forest is a clever, intense and very well-told story. There is a lot of speculative science and interesting philosophical debate throughout the book as well as some very interiguing characters and one of the most imaginative plots I have read in years. The book never drifts too far from what might realistically be possible in the near future it portrays. 

Cixin Liu has proven himself to be one of the best science fiction visionaries of his generation. His depiction of the first contact between Earth and Trisolarian technologies is quite gripping and totally unexpected. His characters are well defined and engaging. 

The Dark Forest continues with the same intensity and imagination as The Three-Body Problem and I am looking forward to reading the final instalment in this gripping trilogy.