Tipping Point by Michelle Cook

Eighteen-year-old Essie Glass lives in not so distant future, only fifteen years from now, but it is a world transformed by ecological, political and societal breakdown. A couple of years ago her family were killed in a terrorist attack. Essie’s fresh-faced image and her grief were hijacked by right-wing propagandists blaming immigrants and liberals for the atrocity. Two years later, Essie regains control over her beliefs and her direction in life. She joins anti-establishment rebels going by the name Change Here. An environmentally-friendly energy-generating invention falls into their lap. It is an invention that could stall or even reverse the progress of climate change, but forces more powerful and influential than Change Here stand in the way of saving the planet. Short term commercial and political considerations seem to matter more that the survival of humanity. But Essie and her co-conspirators are not easily deterred. Cook has created an assembly of wonderful characters. I loved the way she mapped out Essie’s emotional growth in response to rapid plot developments. I enjoyed Essie’s feistiness and determination, and I rooted for her all the way.

The setting for the story is convincing and disturbingly plausible. Climate change creeps into everyday life and into the landscape. The rise of the authoritarian police state with its corruption, false propaganda and open disregard for basic human rights is shown without exaggeration or hysteria – it is what it is because we have made it possible. But there is also hope and redemption in this story. It is more of a warning than final reckoning.

Tipping Point (Project Renova Book 1) by Terry Tyler

Tipping Point (Project Renova Book 1) by [Terry Tyler]

I had to double-check the date this book was first published. It was in 2017. Already then, the author had the insight of what it may be like when a pandemic strikes: the origins of the virus, the so-called “Bat Fever”, the vaccinations, the quarantine, the panic, the unrest, the control measures, the lies, the whole world falling apart. Tyler’s projections in “Tipping Point” are spot-on! And they will send a cold chill down your spine.

I was swept in the currents of the unfolding catastrophe, following Vicky and Lottie’s escape from the quarantined town of Shipden, their precarious journey to the safe house and Vicky’s desperate search for her partner, Dex. He and other activists belonging to a group called Unicorn have uncovered a sinister plot underpinning the outbreak, thus putting themselves directly in harm’s way.

There are many interlinked threads and subplots in this story with both very personal and intimate themes as well as broader social and political observations. Those are deeply unsettling, firstly because of how probable and imminent they appear to be; and secondly, because of Tyler’s nuanced and realistic characterisation. Every character is astutely observed and so real that I found instant affinity with them. I could easily picture myself in their shoes, experience their fears and think their thoughts.

“Tipping Point” is a crushingly prophetic tale of societal degradation on the one hand and the power of human spirit on the other.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

This book is about the First Contact, but not as we know it. I was fascinated by how this concept evolved in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. It starts with Kira, a xenobiologist exploring an uncolonized planet, discovering mysterious dust which soon envelops her in a form of an invasive exoskeleton. It is undeniably intelligent but it is also a parasite that uses Kira’s body to come into being and to transport itself. It is able to defend itself against any attempts to examine or destroy it. It can be lethal. In an apparent act of self-defence it kills Kira’s fiancé and her several friends. To start with, this organism appears violent and hostile, and Kira is trapped within it. It can even penetrate her mind and she, in turn, experiences its memories and emotions. Soon the relationship between them begins to transform into something more symbiotic. It isn’t just that Kira has to get used to the creature controlling her. It is also that the creature protects and guides her. This theme of a transforming and transformative relationship between a human and an alien is wonderfully conveyed through characterisation and plot developments.

Another great asset in this book is the prose: it can be fast and action-packed, pacey and dramatic, but it is also lyrical and introspective. A whole universe has been created outside and inside Kira’s fusion with Soft Blade (the alien’s name). This story is a space odyssey both on a macro- and micro scale. The science behind it seems wonderfully real and even though I didn’t follow all of it, it felt credible.

However, there are some disappointments. The story is way too long and too windy. Half of it would be equally effective. I must confess to skipping many sections in the middle as I found them tedious and superfluous. Although the book is classified as sci-fi for adults, I could not shake the impression that it was written with a young reader in mind. The description of Kira’s romantic relationship at the start of the book was too safe, too sugar-coated and too infantile for my liking. The Jellies (hostile aliens) were also a bit cartoonish and stereotypical in their appearance and disposition. Having said that, this is a sci-fi book and it fits well within its genre.

You will need a lot of time to truly be able to indulge in this book and immerse yourself in it, but it will be time well spent.

The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde

You open this book and you find yourself in a world that is bizarrely familiar yet utterly outlandish. It feels like the second coming of Animal Farm. Animals (particularly rabbits) are on a collision course with humans, and if you have a shred of humanity in you, you are on the side of the rabbit.

Fforde’s portrayal of our twenty-first century society is spot on. You recognise the characters, the events and the trends: UKARP, a right-wing party led by a PM going by the name of Nigel Smethwick, a TwoLegsGood movement of middle-class reactionaries, the entrenched perceptions of an “unbridled” rabbit infestation/invasion on the green shores of Britain. We are talking rabbits, the little furry animals native to these isles. They were here before us. They fully anthropomorphised in 1965 and continued to multiply in their usual rampant way. The more they started resembling humans the less acceptable and more inconvenient they became. They had to be separated from humans and ghettoised in a new MegaWarren in the depths of Wales.

This story is hilarious. The world Fforde has created (and based on our very reality) is astounding in its every detail, and it is funny because it is so relatable. There is pure observational comedy there that will leave you with a laugh-out-loud bellyache. But this story also hits a nerve. It is a satire about the decline of our society, the loss of what once was a clear moral compass but has now become a murky moral muddle, about the unrestrained rampage of bigotry and intolerance.  And about good people caught in the middle of it, scared, suppressed, but hopefully still trying to do what’s right.

I loved this book.

The Last Free City by Tim Stretton – an escape into a world of intrigue and adventure

The Last Free City (Annals of Mondia) by [Tim Stretton]

The Last Free City is a feast of political intrigue, cunning diplomacy, swordfights and assassinations, love, lust and betrayal – and that’s just for starters!

The story is set in one of the last independent city-republics on a peninsula torn between two expansive kingdoms, that of Emmen and Gammerling. This may be fantasy genre, but the settings have a strong historical flavour of Italy before unification. It’s evident in the names, the architecture and the social hierarchy of the city of Tarantanallos. So despite this being a fantasy novel, you will feel like you’ve travelled back in time. It somehow seems authentic and historically accurate. But there are also touches of sheer imaginary ingenuity by the author who has created a self-contained world in its own right, with its own currency, its law enforcement agency called the Consigli, its ruling elite of Specchio, modes of transport astride gallumphers, and time measured in pursuits and activities. Thus you have the Hour of Evening Repast, the Hour of Secret Deeds, the Hour of Noble Pleasures… And so time flies while you’re having fun doing all sorts good and bad things.

Lord Oricien arrives in Tarantanallos in order to secure the city’s submission to Emmen. Factions of influential elites are formed. Nobody can trust anybody. Fortunes are to be made and lost. Dravadan, one of the most powerful and brutal leaders of the city, works on the alliance and the furtherance of his own interests. His younger brother, Malvazan, nurses his resentments while at the same time polishing his fencing skills so that he can climb the greasy pole of influence despite being the second son. Todarko, a poet and skirt-chaser, tries to ignore politics and follow his heart even though it may lead him into the eye of the political storm. The characters are vibrant, complex and full of surprises. That includes the female characters. They are rich and diverse – from impetuous, through treacherous and manipulative to the most noble ones.

The story is written in elegant prose, full of witticism and laced with brisk, intelligent exchanges. The author attributes the inspiration for Todarko’s sonnets to Shakespeare. There is something distinctly Shakespearean in this story, and it isn’t just in the sonnets. It’s in the language, the vivacity, the settings and the elaborate plot. If you want to lose yourself in a world away from home (especially during lockdown), read this book.

The Things We Learn When We’re Dead by Charlie Laidlaw

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Lorna, a self-confessed agnostic, steps in front of a car and dies. Whether it was an accident or suicide is subject to debate. Lorna wakes up in heaven, but it isn’t heaven in the conventional sense of the word: it is a malfunctioning spacecraft operated by aliens, God being one of them. I found Laidlaw’s concept of heaven fascinating and totally different from my own version of it in Paula Goes to Heaven. Laidlaw’s heaven is scientifically justifiable and would make good sense to many a rational disbeliever.

God, too, isn’t what we have come to expect him to be. He’s a tracksuit-wearing geyser, struggling with his command of the ship and of his crew, especially the irreverent, chain-smoking Irene. He is painted with many humorous touches of the paintbrush, as is his heavenly abode. But the tracksuit doesn’t detract from the fact that he is God: he saved man from self-obliteration by lending his own DNA to us and he keeps a watchful eye over how we progress on earth. He also works in mysterious ways as his reasons for choosing Lorna remain obscure.

Lorna’s life memories are regenerated in heaven: her working class family, her best friend, the flamboyant Suzie, her lovers and the challenging world at large she cared passionately about. She is learning about who she was in life. Laidlaw leads her to a full disclosure with a steady and assured hand.

The Things We Learn When We’re Dead isn’t your average sci-fi book. It is much more than that. It is poignant and philosophical. It will make you think.