Micro-reviews (December 2018)

December 24, 2018
The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks against the United States, Standard Deviation and Perfidious Albion

The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks against the United States by Jeffrey Lewis

Christmas 2018 is almost upon us – and what better way to get into the festive mood than by pondering the chances of North Korea actually using its nuclear weapons?  Jeffrey Lewis is an expert on North Korea’s nuclear programme and this novel starts off in the form of a report, similar to the one produced on the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  That might make it sound a bit dry and academic, but as the narrative progresses, it comes closer to a thriller in its approach to story-telling – so don’t be put off by this aspect of it.  If you are big fan of Donald Trump though, you may find it rather uncomfortable reading.  I sometimes wondered if the author stuck the knife in a bit deep.  But the fictional scenario described in the book provides a compelling argument as to why Trump is temperamentally totally unsuited to being Commander in Chief in a major crisis of this type.

It isn’t just a take-down of The Donald though;  the author makes excellent use of historical precedent to demonstrate how his scenario is all too plausible and one that could face any US President.  It is also a sobering reminder of the horrors of nuclear weapons, making compelling use of survivors’ testimony from the nuclear attacks on Japan at the end of the Second World War (see this site and this one if you need any convincing on that point).  Since the end of the Cold War, this seems to be something we seem to prefer not to think about.  But we probably need to be reminded that once these weapons get into the hands of regimes like North Korea, the likelihood of them actually being used goes up, not down (and as Lewis demonstrates, no country, including the US, has effective defences against nuclear-tipped ICBMs).  If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that it doesn’t devote much discussion to China’s reaction to the crisis – and in particular the action taken by the US in response to the North Korean attacks (I find it hard to believe China would’ve been relaxed about what happens).  But that’s a minor criticism – and one that merely illustrates how difficult it would be to handle a crisis of this type.  Let’s hope we never get there – especially with Trump in the White House.

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

If in need of some light relief after tackling the North Korean nuclear threat (see above), this could be a good choice.  Graham is on his second marriage, to Audra – who is about as different from his first wife, Elspeth, as is humanly possible.  Where Elspeth was uptight and super-organised in her approach to life, Audra is spontaneous and pretty much says the first thing that comes into her head – although she is so good natured that this is not the recipe for disastrous interpersonal relations that it might sound (quite the opposite in fact).  It is, however, where much of the humour in the book comes from – and it is very, very funny at times.  It’s told largely from Graham’s point of view, as he undergoes a kind of mild mid-life crisis.  I say “mild” because Graham still loves Audra – and he also loves their son, Matthew. But life with both of them can also be exhausting – in Audra’s case because she never stops talking and in Matthew’s case because he has Aspergers.  So somewhat to his surprise, Graham finds himself starting to develop a better appreciation of Elspeth’s qualities, despite their acrimonious divorce.  Some reviewers have criticised it for lack of plot development, but I think that rather misses the point.  What kept me reading was the quality of its observation, where it manages to be both funny and moving.

Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers

This is a very zeitgeisty novel – and I wanted to like it more than I actually did.  It’s set in the near future in a post-Brexit England, Scotland having apparently voted for independence  (who can blame them?).  The government appears to be looking to tech multi-nationals to deliver the better future that we were promised once we left the EU – and one such outfit, called Green, is being allowed to conduct something of a social experiment on a run-down housing estate.  We also have a Nigel Farage-type character drumming up trouble.  But that makes it sound more like a “state of the nation” novel, when in fact the focus of the book is on a group of people who make their living by commenting on stuff online (and the post-Brexit stuff is very much in the background – it’s not particularly well developed).  The book is very good on how the anonymity of online interaction and the desire for attention/followers leads people to be much more confrontational than they would be face-to-face – and how that in turn often leads to a spiral of accusation and counter-accusation. And there is some quite amusing satire of corporate management. But ultimately, rather like Dave Eggers’ “The Circle”, I felt that it started promisingly but then didn’t seem to know quite where to go with its material.  Most of the characters are depressingly self-absorbed and it is hard to have much sympathy anyone.  On the other hand, I feel that this last sentence is also a reasonable assessment of the “state of the nation” right now – so perhaps it’s unfair of me to criticise that aspect of the novel.  Anyway, it’s worth a read if you’re interested in its take on the online stuff - but I’d give it 3 stars rather than 5.

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Micro-reviews (August 2018)

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The Speed of Sound, The Bees and The Three Body Problem

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Theory of Bastards, Munich and The People's House

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About Me

Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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