Category Archives: Ebury Press

The Martian – Andy Weir

This post should really be called, why I hated The Martian so much I couldn’t finish it. In fact this shouldn’t really be called a review post as it is probably going to be a big old rant and as I said, I didn’t finish it. Anyway, are you ready? Here goes…

Ebury Publishing, paperback, 2014, fiction, 384 pages, bought by myself to troll myself with apparently

Imagine you are caught in a freak storm and you become lost from everyone you are on an expedition with, note – they have searched for you and think you are dead. Now imagine that this happens to be on Mars and your expedition have gone back to the nearest spaceship, which is headed back to earth and you can’t communicate with them anyway as your suit and communication kit was damaged in the storm. That is the position in which astronaut Mark Watney finds himself at the start of The Martian and this is what he thinks about it…

I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Fucked.

Now I have to say that at the start of this book I was pretty keen on it and hooked. I had loved watching Gravity and I thought that James Smythe’s The Explorer was a bloody marvel and I am not known for my love of books set in space. So I had high hopes. As Mark starts to look at ways to survive, both using the kit he has and also his bodies natural matter and chemicals, I was initially fascinated and even laughed a lot (there was a lot of poo being used as manure to grow plants science, thats my kind of science) as it went on. Then I started to get really, really, really bored.

Firstly there was the science stuff. I was not very good at science at school, my step father who was initially my science teacher (work that one out) would say this is because I didn’t apply myself, I would say I am just not very interested in science. I’m still not, unless Mary Roach is writing about it. So whilst I tried to keep up with all that ‘survival on Mars science’, which I couldn’t tell you if was realistic or not let’s be honest, I just couldn’t. It became repetitive, dull and frankly (and indeed literally in one respect) up its own bottom. I just couldn’t penetrate the monotony of it, here is an early example…

I even beefed up the MAV fuel plant compressor. It was very technical (I increased the voltage to the pump.) So I’m making water even faster now.
After my initial burst of 50 liters, I decided to settle down and just make it at the rate I get O2. I’m not willing to go below a 25-liter reserve. So when I dip low, I stop dicking with hydrazine until I get the O2 back up to well above 25 liters.
Important note: When I say I make 50 liters of water, that’s an assumption. I didn’t reclaim 50 liters of water. The additional soil I’d filled the Hab with was extremely dry and greedily sucked up a lot of humidity. That’s where I want the water to go anyway, so I’m not worried, and I wasn’t surprised when the reclaimer didn’t get anywhere near 50 liters.
I get 10 liters of CO2 every fifteen hours now that I souped up the pump. I’ve done this process four times. My math tells me that, including the initial 50-liter bust, I should have added 130 liters of water to the system.
Well my maths was a damn liar!

I mean seriously, it’s really dull, really repetitive and really boring. You could say ‘Simon that is the point’ but if you did I might have to come and poke you in the eye. Even if it is boring or complex science, and even if Mark must do it over and over again there is no excuse to be boring, the aforementioned Mary Roach is never dull not once, she gets me to understand science by making it funny, a bit rude, interesting and exciting. However  Andy Weir is not Mary Roach, actually that’s not fair, Andy Weir’s narrator Mark is not Mary Roach. After a few chapters I realised Mark is actually a cocky, arrogant, self inflated twerp. I hated him and the science. Then it went downhill further for me when we joined the spaceship heading back to earth.

You see instead of having one utter self absorbed pain in the arse character, we soon have several. Mostly men, but I will go onto that shortly. These characters couldn’t run an ice cream van let alone a space ship, so the unbelievable fiction I could get lost in went beyond farce. Only to say that implies it is funny, like Mark himself thinks he’s funny with his hilariously lame asides, it isn’t funny. And when it tries to be it is painful and, yes that word again, dull. Let’s see an example of the kind of banter happening in space…

“Seventeen times,” Chuck said.
“Fourteen times,” Morris asserted.
“No, it’s seventeen. You forgot the amperage minimum for the haters to keep the—”
“Guys,” Venkat interrupted, “I get the idea.”
“Sorry.”
“Sorry.”
“Sorry if I’m grumpy,” Venkat said. “I got like two hours sleep last night.”
“No problem,” Morris said.
“Totally understandable,” Chuck said.
“Okay,”Venkat said. “Explain to me how a single windstorm removed our ability to talk to Ares 3.”
“Failure of imagination,” Chuck said.
“Totally didn’t see it coming,” Morris agreed.
“How many back up communications systems does an Ares mission have?” Venkat asked.
“Four,” Chuck said.
“Three,” Morris said.
“No, it’s four,” Chuck corrected.
“He said backup systems,” Morris insisted. “That means not including the primary system.”
“Oh right. Three.”
“So four systems in total, then,” Venkat said. “Explain how we lost all four.”

Now if you haven’t fallen asleep again and found that tedious to read, imagine how it was to have to type it all. I mean me, not the author. Please bear in mind that this was almost a page of the book where absolutely nothing happens, no real movement goes in the story and things are (ironically) once again repeated over and over and over. If only it was ironic enough to be funny, it’s just infuriating. There are endless pages like that, well how as endless as fifty pages can actually feel and I was getting more and more and more angry.

So why had I not stopped reading? Self trolling maybe, seeing how much I could take (I did the same with Fifty Shades of Grey) before my eye bled and I hurled the book across the room. Whatever it was I was utterly broken when they started to introduce women into the book and a whole level of misogyny was introduced as the female characters were. Girls are either clever and bland looking and not really paid much attention in the book, or they are astronauts wet dreams. I think at one point I read something along the lines of but you’re too pretty to be an astronaut. That was it, I was done and frankly utterly furious. I threw the book across the room and gave up.

So as you might guess I didn’t like The Martian very much, I thought it was utter bobbins if I am honest. I had such high hopes for it, especially after hearing all the right people loving it. Interestingly Gavin, Kate and Rob and I all read this for Hear Read This and we all hated it, yes even Gavin, you can hear us giving it a good bashing here. That said, I am also aware we are in a small minority, after all there is a multimillion pound movie being made with Matt Damon in it, so it must be good. I won’t be queuing to see it though. I will be reading the sequel to James Smythe’s The Explorer, called The Echo, instead. If you want a corking spaceship book please, please read that instead. There I’ve said it.

If you have read The Martian I would love to hear your thoughts be they the same as me or be they that you think I am a complete buffoon. Do let me know. I was the same with Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan which almost everyone else in the world loved too.

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Filed under Andy Weir, Ebury Press, Review

The Burning – Jane Casey

You can enjoy a crime novel at any time of the year, however in the autumn and winter with the long drawn nights it seems an even more ideal time to pick one up – I am currently mulling over just which one to read next. Whilst I decide I thought I would tell you about the first in a new-to-me series, The Burning, by a new-to-me author, Jane Casey. As many long term readers of the blog will know I do like a good crime series though I am always rather trepidatious about starting a new one; partly because the ones I read are so good and partly because when you sign up to a series you know you are signing up to something long haul and even if you don’t like it you will probably want to read the next one despite yourself to see what happens next.

Ebury Press, 2010, paperback, crime fiction, 486 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

London is in terror of a serial killer that the media have named The Burning Man after he has beaten and burnt four women to death in secluded parks throughout the city. A fifth victim, Rebecca Haworth, has been discovered and yet there seems to be something different in the minutiae of her killing. Either The Burning Man has changed the way he is dealing with his victims ever so slightly, or there is a copy cat killer who could possibly be about to start a spate of murders or just wanted to kill and have someone else take the blame. Whatever the outcome it is up to Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan to find out more yet the more she learns about this supposed fifth victim the more and more confused she is, as Rebecca Haworth was a bit of an enigma, seemingly perfect but do still waters run deep?

He nodded, then strutted away, trying and failing to look like a taller man than he was. Anton Ventnor, prize git. I would have dreaded going in to an office he ran; I would have been delighted to get away from him if I’d been in Rebecca’s shoes. But I wasn’t Rebecca; I didn’t even really know what she was like. The highly organised business-woman. The good-time girl you’d never marry. The loyal, scatty friend. The desperate employee. I had no doubt I would get a different account of Rebecca’s character from her parents, when I spoke to them. She had been whatever people wanted her to be, right up to the moment when what they wanted her to be was dead.

I have to say I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Burning before I read it, lots of people had told me that it would be my kind of crime novel and I think that might be because Casey does a very good job of mixing the police procedural with a psychological thriller – these are not the same things as I have discovered over my reading of the genre. DC Kerrigan is a woman in a very masculine world, in fact she is one of only a few females on her team as we have the hunt for The Burning Man there is much crime scene investigation, clues and dead ends to be lead down.

At the same time we know there is more to the book than meets the eye as from early on we switch narratives from Maeve as she gets on with the procedural side of catching a killer and also Louise, Rebecca Howarth’s best friend. The story divides slightly into two strands and even takes another twist as we learn of a death in Rebecca’s Oxford past and so in a way we soon find we are following three different cases all in one book. With the two different narratives we think we are learning more than DC Kerrigan, but are we really? This is a clever trick if you can pull it off but a very hard web to weave.

Overall Casey does this really well. I have to admit that when the book started to head off to Oxford and Rebecca and Louise’s student days I did inwardly groan as firstly, I don’t really like campus novels, and secondly I was rather grimly fascinated by The Burning Man and it does seem that for a hundred or so pages so does DC Kerrigan almost informing us of the fact there are multiple murderers out there instead of leaving us guessing until the last possible moment. A small quibble though really as when The Burning Man case reaches its denouement it really paces along and grips, yet you know there is more to come, double the detecting. I also think Casey could have quite easily cut a hundred pages. I didn’t need the switch of narrative to one of Casey’s colleagues, Rob, for example as we could have gained the information in a paragraph or two in a different way and sometimes the dual narratives meant repetitions though of course the whole point is what is missing or what is concealed by one party or not which I liked hunting for.

DC Kerrigan herself is a great lead. I liked her struggle to be one of the boys whilst having to compete so strongly to be seen and heard which I bet is the case within the police system. I also enjoyed her hunt for the killer or killers and can safely say that Casey is very good at creating serial killers who have very different motives from the one you might think, particularly in the case of The Burning Man who once unmasked I found incredibly chilling indeed.

I would also like to think, and if this is true I hope Jane Casey sees this and let me know, that this might be a kind of homage of sorts to Du Maurier’s Rebecca. They don’t have the same story line by any means but throughout the novel there is a woman, with the name Rebecca obviously, who is quite clearly alive for many of the characters despite her death, yet she is also a complete enigma. If so I am of course thrilled, if not I am clearly far too obsessed with that book.

After reading The Burning will I be returning to follow DC Kerrigan on another case? Yes. Jane Casey clearly wants to wrong foot her readers, in a nice way not in a smug clever clogs way, and if this novel is anything to go by she not only has a huge scope which she wishes to encapsulate in her tales, with various tangents and strands of investigation. She also likes to lead you into a false sense of security when you know who the killer is. I guessed who the murderer might be from quite early on, yet I was often thrown into doubt until the moment Casey wanted all to be revealed, yet even then she cleverly throws a twist or two in for good measure keeping you going after the big reveal.

Who else has read any of Jane Casey’s crime series, or indeed The Missing, the standalone novel? What did you make of them and do I have many more thrills and spills ahead of me? Which are your favourite crime novels that I should consider as I debate my next murderous fictional fix?

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Filed under Ebury Press, Jane Casey, Review

Briefs Encountered – Julian Clary

In another book review recently I discussed how assumptions with certain authors or book covers can be a dangerous thing. Well one author I thought I would like but wouldn’t take seriously was Julian Clary. That isn’t meant to be offensive, just honest. I think Julian Clary is great, I love his high camp and entendre filled comedy, he always comes across as a really nice chap in interviews but I imagined his fiction might be a little throwaway. Yet when I heard his new novel was about an old house, Noel Coward and ghosts, I knew that I had to read it, and I am so glad that I did because Clary creates a wonderfully funny and at times rather emotional novel.

Ebury Press, hardback, 2012, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

From the title of Julian Clary’s ‘Briefs Encountered’ you would possibly be inclined to think that here we have a tale of farcical innuendo, not the case. This novel is in fact one of dual narratives, here we have two stories which intertwine with a common link – a house, and a haunted one at that. Sometime around the present day we meet the celebrated English actor Richard Stent who has just bought a house, Goldenhurst, from “annoying camp comic and renowned homosexual” Julian Clary. He plans on making it the perfect retreat for himself and his lover Fran yet the house seems to have other ideas.

The more we learn about the houses history the more we understand why it might have a ‘personality’ of its own and this is where the second strand of the story comes in. Back in the late 1920’s Noel Coward buys Goldenhurst (and it is true that Julian Clary actually bought the house Noel Coward once owned) as the perfect idyllic hideaway for himself and his lover Jack Wilson to escape from the gaze of the world, especially as during this period in history homosexuality was illegal in the UK. However something awful happens one summer and from then on the house becomes a much darker place and this then links back into Richard’s story and what might or might not be going bump in the night.

I liked the double narrative and piecing together what was happening in the 1920’s/30’s and how it was then affecting everything in the present day, I have to say though I would have liked less of the present and more of the past. That sounds like a criticism, and it’s actually not, I was enjoying the story with Noel so much that when we would alternate back to Richard I would race through them to the Noel sections again. I was enjoying the modern tale though it did become a little O.T.T three or four times and I found myself thinking ‘really?’ before quickly reminding myself that ‘this is fiction and sometimes it doesn’t need to be realistic, there are ghosts here for goodness sake Simon just enjoy it’ and so I did.

I think the other reasons that I warmed to Noel’s story so much more was the fact that he and Jack lived and breathed on the page. They seemed more real than Richard and Fran and their friends, and not just because Noel and Jack were real people obviously, it seemed Clary had a real passion and enthusiasm for their story and while he did with Richard and Fran too it was almost eclipsed by Noel presence in his half of the book and the wonderful characters, like his mother Violet and Aunt Vida, who surrounded him. I wanted more of them. I wasn’t quite as interested in Richard and his mad PA and agents (maybe because I work with people like that in my day job) or the celebrities, including Julian Clary himself (I couldn’t decide if it was a genius stroke or not that Clary put himself in the book, I am leaning towards genius), who seemed less real even though I recognized them all.

‘Am I to be relegated to an outside barn like a donkey?’ asked Violet, with a quiver in her voice, clutching a handkerchief to her bosom.
 ‘No, Darlingest,’ soothed Noel. ‘It’s the granary for one thing, and it won’t be anything like a barn once we’ve finished with it. It will be a terribly modern, roomy abode with hot and cold running water, stunning views across the marsh and a servants’ hall so close they will simply have to reach in and scratch your nose should you get a tiresome itch.’
‘Barns aren’t so bad. Christ was born in a manger,’ said Jack helpfully.
‘And we all know what happened to him’, put in Aunt Vida. She puffed out her ample chest and her weak chin wrinkled as she tightened her lips.

I also wanted more of a story line between Noel and a local policeman, who arrives for a reason I won’t digress, who is suspicious of Noel and Jack’s relationship and clearly wants to cause trouble if he can. The illegality of homosexuality in the UK is a part, or subject, in history we don’t read much about and I thought Clary could have intensified that even more. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned too much about the ‘ghost’ element of the book, which is occasionally rather eerie indeed, and that is because if I do then I might accidentally throw in a spoiler. I will say that it adds a delightful mystery element to the novel on top of all the drama, wonderful characters and the humour (both waspish and innuendo filled) throughout the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Briefs Encountered’. Yes, it got a little melodramatic here and there but sometimes you just want to escape into a book. I liked both narratives, though I would have liked less modern celebrities (I do wonder if anyone outside the UK would get who all these names are and therefore some of the jokes) and much more of the world that Noel Coward inhabited because when Clary wrote those bits, through his prose and passion, I was thoroughly lost in the 1920’s and 1930’s and didn’t want to leave.

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Filed under Ebury Press, Julian Clary, Review

Things I Couldn’t Tell My Mother – Sue Johnston

To say that I was looking forward to reading Sue Johnston’s memoir ‘Things I Couldn’t Tell My Mother’ when I heard it was coming out would be something of an understatement. I can still remember her on the telly in the early days of my childhood as Sheila Grant in Brookside, before being in The Royale Family, Jam and Jerusalem and my very favourite TV show Waking the Dead. This was always going to be a must read book for me (and this was before I knew I was going to be in conversation with her at Waterstones next Tuesday, yikes).

Ebury Press, hardback, 2011, non fiction, 341 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

What I think I was really expecting from Sue Johnston’s autobiography were that it would be funny in parts, have some insights into the TV worlds of Brookie, The Royales, being Grace in Waking the Dead and from the title ‘Things I Couldn’t Tell My Mother’ I hazarded a guess that either Sue had some skeletons in her cupboard or her relationship with her mother might be a fraught one. That would easily have been enough, indeed it is the later that makes up a lot of this book, and really if I was to say Sue’s book is about anything then it would really be about the difficult relationship they shared. This was much more interesting than any gossip of any TV set could have in store.

There are of course the tales of the television work that Sue has done, and I will admit I wanted a little more than the snippets we got, but there is a huge amount of other stuff in store for anyone picking up this book, and I don’t just mean the stories of her mother. Sue struggled to find what she wanted to do after her childhood, which sounds wonderful, and after a stint at the Tax Office found herself hanging out at The Cavern in Liverpool with The Beatles and working for Brian Epstein’s company where she discovered ‘The Hippy Hippy Shake’. We look at her two marriages, being a single working mother, and the struggles that could bring, as well as her political involvement with the Labour Party and how she protested and rallied for the miners and gay rights. Sue Johnston is a woman with a lot more going on than just being a wonderful actress who has become a national treasure.

The heart of Sue’s thoughts and memories are really those of her mother. A woman who whilst making her only child have a good, happy, secure childhood could never show her affection or full approval and it’s this which really comes to life in the pages and almost haunts the book with its echoes throughout. What Sue Johnston doesn’t do is make all this maudlin, yes there is some regret and anger on occasion, on the whole where possible you do feel Sue is looking at life with a glass half full attitude, there is a certain wryness here amongst the serious stuff.

“It doesn’t matter, though, as one of my most magical moments in childhood was to do with my grandfather and his steam train – Flying Scotsman or no Flying Scotsman. My mother and I were standing on the platform at Eccleston Park station waiting to catch the train to Liverpool. A steam train soon approached and the train driver was hanging from his cab, whistling to my mother. ‘Margaret!’, he shouted. My mother gave him a disdainful look. Who was this uncouth man hollering at her at the train station?
  ‘Take no notice, Susan,’ she said, taking my shoulders and positioning me away from the train. As the engine came to a stop we both realised it was my grandfather. My mother quickly changed her tune.
  ‘Hello!’ she said, suddenly all smiles to her dad. ‘I was wondering who was shouting at us. Come along, Susan.’”

I was a fan of Sue Johnston before I read ‘Things I Couldn’t Tell My Mother’, I am even more of a fan now that I have finished the book. I loved the books honesty and clarity I think the only thing is that I would have liked more of it. I felt like there was so much that Sue had to say, and so many other interesting stories in the background, it almost didn’t all fit in the book and could have gone on much longer, I could easily have read another few hundred pages.

I am certainly left looking forward to being ‘in conversation’ with her in a few days (September the 6th, 7pm, Manchester Deansgate) as I think there is so much to possibly talk about, and I have a feeling that Sue is a woman after my own heart especially after reading this rather bookish paragraph.

“I love books, and not just reading them, I love owning them, some might say hoarding them – I can never throw a book away and always feel it has to go to a good home or stay on my shelf. In fact my mother once commented to my friend Margot, ‘Our Susan would rather read a book than clean her house,’ as if this was the ultimate besmirchment of my character.”

Maybe Sue is just the person I need to talk to about bringing something like ‘The First Tuesday Book Club’ to British shores. We will see. Read ‘Things I Couldn’t Tell My Mother’ it’s a great memoir from one of Britain’s best loved, and most down to earth, actors (I nearly said actresses there, that wouldn’t do) and don’t be surprised if you find yourself shedding a few tears along the way, there’s much laughter too.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Ebury Press, Non Fiction, Review, Sue Johnston