Quick Review: IMPERIAL TWILIGHT by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf/Atlantic Books)

PlattSR-ImperialTwilightUSA fascinating re-examination of the causes and consequences of the Opium War

As China reclaims its position as a world power, Imperial Twilight looks back to tell the story of the country’s last age of ascendance and how it came to an end in the nineteenth-century Opium War.

As one of the most potent turning points in the country’s modern history, the Opium War has since come to stand for everything that today’s China seeks to put behind it. In this dramatic, epic story, award-winning historian Stephen Platt sheds new light on the early attempts by Western traders and missionaries to “open” China even as China’s imperial rulers were struggling to manage their country’s decline and Confucian scholars grappled with how to use foreign trade to China’s advantage. The book paints an enduring portrait of an immensely profitable — and mostly peaceful — meeting of civilizations that was destined to be shattered by one of the most shockingly unjust wars in the annals of imperial history. Brimming with a fascinating cast of British, Chinese, and American characters, this riveting narrative of relations between China and the West has important implications for today’s uncertain and ever-changing political climate.

Stephen R. Platt’s Imperial Twilight is a substantial, highly readable history of the causes and consequences of the Opium War. This is an extremely fine history: exhaustive, fascinating, and engaging from beginning to end. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE PROFESSIONALS by Owen Laukkanen (Corvus/Berkley)

LaukkanenO-S&W1-ProfessionalsUKA fast-paced, engaging debut thriller

Four friends, caught in a terrible job market, joke about turning to kidnapping to survive. And then, suddenly, it’s no joke. For two years, the strategy they devise works like a charm – until they kidnap the wrong man.

Now two groups are after them – the law, in the form of veteran state investigator Kirk Stevens and hotshot young FBI agent Carla Windermere, and an organized crime outfit looking for payback. As they crisscross the country in a series of increasingly explosive confrontations, each of them is ultimately forced to recognize the truth: the real professionals, cop or criminal, are those who are willing to sacrifice everything.

This is the first of Laukkanen’s Stevens & Windermere thriller, and it marked the arrival of a great new voice for the genre. The novel is quickly-paced. The characters are interesting and mostly well-developed. It has a few debut niggles, but it’s pretty polished and gripping. I’ll be reading the rest of Laukkanen’s novels, and be keeping an eye open for more in the future. Continue reading

Upcoming: MOTHER OF EDEN by Chris Beckett (Corvus)

BeckettC-E2-MotherOfEdenUKNext year, Corvus Books will publish Chris Beckett‘s follow-up to his 2013 Arthur C. Clarke award-winning sci-fi novel Dark Eden. I was actually at the awards event (it was fun), and I picked up the novel that night — as, I’m sure, did many others. However, like so very many books I buy, I have yet to get around to it. With the sequel’s release approaching, however, I have extra impetus to get it read in time to enjoy the sequel. Here’s the synopsis:

“We speak of a mother’s love, but we forget her power. Power over life. Power to give and to withhold.”

Generations after the breakup of the human family of Eden, the Johnfolk emphasise knowledge and innovation, the Davidfolk tradition and cohesion. But both have built hierarchical societies sustained by violence and dominated by men — and both claim to be the favoured children of a long-dead woman from Earth that all Eden knows as Gela, the mother of them all.

When Starlight Brooking meets a handsome and powerful man from across Worldpool, she believes he will offer an outlet for her ambition and energy. But she has no idea that she will be a stand-in for Gela herself, and wear Gela’s ring on her own finger.

And she has no idea of the enemies she will make, no inkling that a time will come when she, like John Redlantern, will choose to kill…

Chris Beckett‘s Mother of Eden is due to be published on June 4th, 2015 in the UK by Corvus.

Upcoming: FISHBOWL by Matthew Glass (Corvus)

GlassM-FishbowlUKMatthew Glass is an author I’m very interested in reading. I have his first two novels, Ultimatum and End Game, but haven’t managed to get around to them yet. I spotted Fishbowl while browsing Atlantic Books’ latest catalogue, and I think it sounded very interesting. There are obvious connections with the story behind Facebook (see Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires or the superb film adaptation, The Social Network), while Glass’s other works have brought to mind Kim Stanley-Robinson’s Science in the Capitol trilogy. Here’s the synopsis for the upcoming novel:

When you’re the next big thing in Silicon Valley, the whole world is watching.

As a gifted Ivy League student, Andrei Koss hit upon an idea that would revolutionise social networking and move it on by a generation. Enlisting the help of his best friends, Ben and Kevin, he turned their dorm room into an operations base, where fl ashes of creative brilliance and all-night-coding sessions led to the creation of Fishbowl. He is now the 21-year-old CEO of a multi-billion-dollar empire. His creation reaches into every corner of the planet. But its immense power has many uses, and some will stop at nothing to get a piece of it.

Matthew Glass (a pseudonym) Fishbowl is due to be published on February 5th, 2015 by Corvus in the UK.

Mini-Review: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan (Atlantic Books)

SloanR-MrPenumbras24HourBookstoreAn endearing novel about bibliophilia and the advance of technology

Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a Web-design drone and serendipity coupled with sheer curiosity has landed him a new job working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. And it doesn’t take long for Clay to realize that the quiet, dusty book emporium is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few fanatically committed customers, but they never seem to actually buy anything, instead they simply borrow impossibly obscure volumes perched on dangerously high shelves, all according to some elaborate arrangement with the eccentric proprietor.

The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he has plugged in his laptop, roped in his friends (and a cute girl who works for Google) and embarked on a high-tech analysis of the customers’ behaviour. What they discover is an ancient secret that can only be solved by modern means, and a global-conspiracy guarded by Mr. Penumbra himself… who has mysteriously disappeared.

This is a very quick, endearing read. The synopsis really tells you all you need to know. This novel is, in many ways, a love-letter to both bookstores and books, and also modern technology and all it allows us to do. Clay’s background in the tech industry collides with his new job, after discovering the strange goings-on at Mr. Penumbra’s store. With the help of some friends, and eventually the strange, fanatical repeat-customers/borrowers, he uncovers a peculiar society with a peculiar belief.

Written with obvious love for both the new and old, Sloan weaves and engrossing, endearing and gripping story. The novel is filled with the author’s observations about the slowly disappearing (though still highly important) book and publishing industries, and the near-hyperactive growth of the tech and internet sectors. The protagonist’s geekiness is well-done, if ever-so-slightly cliché (a couple of things raised a disappointed eyebrow, but these are minor elements to the story, and easily dismissed).

If you enjoy gentle tales surrounding a love for books, reading, and technology, then Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a must-read. If you are after just a fun, quick read, then this is a must-read. Highly recommended.