Book reviews: Jim Al-Khalili's science-to-fiction, Robert Macfarlane goes underground

Underland, the new book by Robert Macfarlane

The Heavens by Sandra Newman is published in hardback by Granta Books, priced £12.99 (ebook £8.54)

THE Heavens blurs the lines between time travel, the butterfly effect and impending apocalypse, with Newman throwing in historical figures (you'll not see Shakespeare in the same light again) and political disruption like a breadcrumb trail where history folds in on itself. It's also a love story, between Kate and Ben, who meet at a party in New York in 2000 and sleep on the roof. But when Kate sleeps, she finds herself in London in 1593 as a nobleman's mistress – and what she does in that world, affects the one she fell asleep in. It could be convoluted, saccharine and messy, but instead, Newman crafts two fantastical worlds and grounds them somehow, even as you feel both of Kate's entwined timelines spiralling towards calamity. Astute, mesmeric and quite alarming, The Heavens is absolutely captivating (even if it's difficult to see why Kate would ever fall for Ben).


Ella Walker

Sun Fall by Jim Al-Khalili is published in hardback by Bantam Press, priced £16.99 (ebook £9.99)

NOVEL writing is an art rather than science but for a man used to unravelling the mysteries of the universe, how hard can it be to make the leap? Theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili is no stranger to the printed word; he's written a string of non-fiction titles explaining some serious science. He's a gifted broadcaster and has already answered some of the big questions, but in this tech thriller, he asks what would happen if we lost the Earth's magnetic field, which shelters us from deadly radiation. It's 2041 and as the threat grows from solar storms and radiation from the sun, the discovery by a gifted teenage hacker of a cover-up over the loss of the Earth's protective magnetic shield sparks a race against time to save the planet. Al-Khalili uses his scientific knowledge to produce a fast-moving, believable tale that doesn't disappear down a black hole by bombarding the reader with too much information. There are some cluncky moments but overall, it's a rattling good read.


Derek Watson

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is published in hardback by Picador, priced £12.99 (ebook £11.99)

THE Doll Factory is two novels for the price of one. One half of the narrative follows Iris, a Victorian shopgirl who longs to paint and seizes the chance when she is asked to model for a Pre-Raphaelite artist. Running alongside her story is that of the deluded and dangerous Silas. This loner taxidermist spots Iris and becomes obsessed with her, while she remains blissfully unaware until their worlds collide in a terrifying conclusion that will get your heart racing. Elizabeth Macneal's knowledge of the period shines through as she paints a vivid picture of everywhere from The Great Exhibition to the grimy backstreets of London. All this rubs shoulders with themes of freedom, art, love, beauty and friendship. This is a satisfying read for fans of Patrick Suskind's Perfume and Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist.


Alys Key


Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane is published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton, priced £20 (ebook £9.99)

AFTER following the ancient tracks, holloways and drove-roads that crisscross Britain in The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane now goes underground. As with the masterfully compelling earlier book, Underland is a beautifully written travel book that explores what lies beneath, from Norwegian sea-caves to the ice blue depths of the Greenland icecap, from Bronze Age funeral chambers to the claustrophobic confines of the catacombs beneath Paris, encountering spaces so tight he can ease through only by tilting his head to one side. His luminescent essay in deep geology ends in Finland, where a hiding place has been built to store/hide nuclear waste for 100,000 years. As always, Macfarlane is part poet adventurer ("Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows") part awestruck explorer, and part prophet of ecological doom. Expansive, far-sighted and yet deeply personal, this is an important read.


Julian Cole)

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