Friday, 15 June 2018

Book Review: Hekla's Children by James Brogden

Hekla's Children is a novel that taps into horror, mythology, fantasy, archeology, and the British countryside. The monster of the story is the afaugh, sort of a British Wendigo: a spirit of cannibalism and greed which possesses people and makes them do terrible things. At the start of the novel, an ancient tribe plagued by the afaugh decides to make a sacrifice to hold it at bay.

Fast forward to ten years ago, when a group of kids on a scouting exercise in a small woodland adjacent to a city suddenly disappear when their group leader leaves them on their own.

Fast forward to now, when a skeleton is found in those very same woods, and an archeologist is called in to determine if it's old or young enough to potentially be a victim of a crime that the police need to solve...

Hekla's Children is in an outstanding novel. It mixes science (archeology), myth, the uncanny, horror, and a timeless mythological realm with great skill and fluidity. The closest comparison I can think of is The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman, which has a similar atmosphere, perhaps a little more condensed and distilled and sharp, but similar enough for this novel to belong in the same space as that novella.

It's not just a novel of atmosphere: the story never gets boring, and there is real tension at pretty much every stage of the book. I don't know whether the book is a "horror" novel, but it's dark and pretty ruthless in the way it treats its characters, and there is some fundamental dread at times when they are being pursued by the monstrous...

I can't think of anything to fault the novel for. It's entertaining, atmospheric and beautifully grim. Highly recommended to those who like their fiction dark.

Rating: 4.5/5

Monday, 11 June 2018

Book Review: A Prehistory of South America: Ancient Cultural Diversity on the Least Known Continent by Jerry D. Moore

A Prehistory of South America is not a pop-science book. Instead, it was written as a book for undergraduate archaeologists and those who are quite interested in Latin American history and archaeology. As such, it is well outside my usual reading habits.

First things first: "prehistory", as used by the author, means pre-European-conquest. This is because once Europeans arrive, they write the history of their own actions, and even record some information about the locals they find (albeit much distorted by their own biases). Before Europeans, the societies and civilizations that lived in South America did not chronicle their own histories in a way that can still be read by today's historians. What forms of writing and recording there were (besides oral histories) are largely impenetrable now: some civilizations had hieroglyphic records, others used systems of strings and knots (the khipus in the Andean areas), others used stylized pictorial art to convey meaning and myth to the initiated, but each of those records is far removed from written language. Therefore, the knowledge we have of pre-conquest societies is fluid, subject to new discoveries, and incomplete.

Jerry Moore argues that archaeology has to take the lead in revealing information about these societies: the oral histories that reached conquistador chroniclers are insufficient, partially because most of the conquistadors weren't even trying to be unbiased, and partially because the oral history was incomplete and equally biased.

A Prehistory of South America is probably the closest thing to the book I was hoping to find. What I really wanted was a sort of encyclopedia, organised on a timeline, with plenty of maps, telling me which societies lived where, how they lived their lives, how they were organised, and how they developed, over time, from the first arrival of man until the arrival of Europeans. Unfortunately, it looks like that is not actually possible, as the knowledge simply does not fully exist yet.

Instead, the book is organised into chapters which look at different aspects. Say, the arrival of humans. Or the rise of agriculture and different methods of subsisting and exploiting natural resources. Each chapter uses a handful of case studies from across the continent, and none of the chapters are bound purely by chronology. So a society living 3000BC and a society living 800AD may be showcased in the same thematic chapter, despite the huge gulf in time (and location) between them.  At first, I worried this way of looking at things would be chaotic to my brain, but actually, it works very well.

Even at 500+ pages, the book can only offer a cursory look at each society and each civilization. Fortunately, the book is richly illustrated with photographs, maps, drawings, and academic references to give the reader a clearer idea what is being described, and where to go for more in-depth information. It is written in a style that is clear, generally accessible despite being somewhat academic, and the author always makes clear how certain a bit of knowledge is, or where alternative theories are still not settled.

In short, the book is fantastic starting point for finding out about the history of pre-colonial South America - which is a mindbogglingly fascinating topic. Unfortunately, it is not (and cannot be) The Ultimate Reference about that topic, because the research is still in its infancy.

It is a fascinating book. I highly recommend it.

Rating: 5/5

Addendum: I read the book, and am reading around the topic, to research for a fiction project I am hoping to write soon. My interest was piqued by a superb TV series - Lost Kingdoms of South America - which is jaw-droppingly exciting and intriguing. I would recommend watching the programme in combination with reading this book, for a more immersive experience. Sadly, one of the peoples I am trying to find out more about - the Chachapoya - is barely mentioned in this textbook. Oh well, more reading to be done!
Episodes of Lost Kingdoms of South America:

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Book Review: Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

Muslim Girl is one of those things that seems a little hard to define. It started out as a web community and blog (on Livejournal! Remember Livejournal?), but these days, it's a Facebook page, a Twitter profile, a website, a hashtag, a column in magazines, a slogan on apparel... essentially, Muslim Girl is now a brand rather than any singular entity. It is the brainchild of Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, and now it is also a book - her autobiography.

From its scattershot, breathless introduction, to the very last page, the book zips from one thought to the next, largely without a linear path. This was a surprise: I'd vaguely expected an autobiography, possibly with a little politics and a dollop of lifestyle stuff for young female Muslims (which is more or less what I perceive Muslimgirl.com to be), but generally following the linear route that autobiographies tend to take. Like pretty much every expectation I had about the book, this was not the case.

The introduction sums up the essence of the Muslim Girl project. The first sentence:
"I'm kind of playing the game right now," I told Contessa Gayles in the bathroom of Muslim Girl's overpriced studio in Brooklyn, New York.

Then, after the name dropping (who is Contessa Gayles? Never heard of the woman) a brisk tour of post-millennium history and some of the things that sent shockwaves around Muslim communities in the West  (9/11, France's headscarf ban, the Iraq War and American atrocities against Iraqis, Trump),  followed by the final paragraph which sums up the Muslim Girl media phenomenon:
I think we've become starved for people to actually listen to us. We've become so desperate to hear our own voices above all the white noise that we have willfully compromised and repackaged our narratives to make them palatable - to make them commercial and catchy, to make them headline-worthy, to sell a story that you will find deserving of your attention. We call it playing the game, because you consuming some semblance of our truth is better than you consuming whatever else is out there, conjured by someone else on our behalf. But that's not good enough any more.

 ("White noise" ... Hah! I certainly did not expect her to use a pun...)

Reading the book was easy and pleasant enough: it's accessibly written, jumping around thoughts and little scenes fast enough not to get boring, and while it may occasionally get quite ranty, the rants rarely get to that eye-rolling stage. That said, the book did not leave me with very strong impressions or a deeper understanding of anything. My most fundamental take-away from the book is a certain envy of Amani: ten years younger than myself, she has achieved so much more, and left her mark on the world in a way that I have not. I can only take my hat off at her achievements.

I guess the second take-away is the matter of identity. I was 19 when the two towers fell. The author was 9. I'm a white, atheist male. She is an Arab Muslim. For me, world politics since 9/11 has often felt like an enormous, slow-motion train wreck: something with near-infinite momentum, with atrocities, disasters, injustice, and erosion of the liberal, multicultural values that I hold dear, and something I have been completely impotent to stop or change, no matter how many petitions I signed, protests I attended, or charities I donated to to undo some of the damage. When all is said and done, I have always been a spectator, which is, I guess, the luxury afforded to me by my visible identity. For Amani, a young Muslim girl, the geopolitical events weren't something that she could watch from outside, but something that shone a spotlight on her identity, and seemingly defined her life. I have to admit to being quite tired of identity politics, and every time someone mentions "intersectionality" I groan inwardly. The book did remind me that this is a luxury that not everyone shares, and that there are some instances where ticking many boxes in the check list of "disadvantaged groups" really does mean an accumulation of troubles.

Where the book fell flat is in the "autobiography" bit. Perhaps it's because the author is still so young that she simply hasn't lived long enough to have many stories to tell. But my suspicion is that Amani shares a quality with many Muslims: that of being essentially a private person. It's perfectly understandable (and wise, in a world where racists are emboldened), but it means that even after reading the book, I have only the vaguest notion of what her family are like, and virtually no idea who else is in her life. I might know about some instances when she was bullied, but there is very little that's personal in the book.  If you were hoping that Muslim Girl would be like a Millennial Muslim version of Caitlin Moran's "How to be a Woman" (as I must sheepishly admit, I was), then that hope, too, will not be realised.

Finally, the book made me wonder about the future of Muslim Girl. When it launched, the idea of a pop culture, lifestyle-heavy, feminist, tolerant media outlet for Muslim Girls was overdue, revolutionary, and ripe. Now, after the girlpower phase is possibly approaching its zenith, with Amani appearing in music videos and casually name dropping celebrities she's met in her first autobiography, I cannot help but wonder: will Muslim Girl grow up? Will we see Muslim Woman, aimed at the Linda Sarsour generation, perhaps a little less consumerist and hip, perhaps daring not just to "play the game" but to meet the problems Muslim women face head-on: right-wing populism, discrimination and Islamophobia in the West, genuine oppression and persecution in Persia and much of the Arab world... 

In summary: the book might not be exactly what you expect from an autobiography. It chronicles a life that has only just begun, and it shines a spotlight on how Muslims in the West are victimised by a society where racism flourishes, rather than giving in-depth, personal insight into one life, but it's short, never boring, and worth a read.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Book Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

The City of Brass is a fantasy novel about a young woman from 18th century Cairo who is drawn into adventures among the Djinn. Specifically, Nahri is a con artist of sorts, with a mysterious knack for healing and a supernatural ability to understand every language she hears. One day, while performing an exorcist ceremony on a little girl, she inadvertently comes to the attention of a hostile Ifrit. From that moment on, her life will never be the same...

The novel has a promising start. Orphan girl (well, 20-year-old-woman) living in a slum, conning rich powerful people? Nice. Djinn and zombies / ghouls and a chase across continents with a powerful but haughty djinn knight called Dara? Great. That section of the novel is rather inspired by the romance genre, it has to be said. Finally, the City of Brass itself is an impressive setting.

However, the City of Brass is certainly no utopia. Through Ali, a prince trained to be a warrior and future Qaid (think Grand Vizier) and the other viewpoint character, we see that Daevabad is every bit as brutal as 18th century Cairo. Especially half breeds and their descendants, called Shafrit, are at the receiving end of oppression, exploitation, slavery and crime. Ali, a religious zealot, would like to improve the lot of the Shafrit, but this would be a betrayal of his father, the king's policies, and could end up costing his life.

Shafrit, however, are only one segment of society. Djinns are divided into tribes (races), and there is deep seated mistrust between them. So while we follow Nahri and Dara being chased around the world, we also see that their destination might not be the safe haven Nahri is hoping for...

There are many things to recommend City of Brass. The prose is good, Nahri is a likeable protagonist, the adventures are on a grand swashbuckling scale, and the setting that ranges from Egypt to India is pleasantly exotic to Western readers.

There are also things that I did not enjoy. As the story develops, more and more focus is on the rivalry, mistrust and hatred between two djinn tribes (the Daeva and the Qahtanis). We watch Ali forced into moral compromises, and gradually learn of Dara's past. Nahri, caught between different power factions in Daevabad, has to try and get by in a Game-of-Thrones-like city of intrigue, politicking and tribalness. None of which would be terrible, but once it became clear that the different djinn tribes, and virtually all characters, are deeply racist and bigoted about each other (and even more so about the Untermensch Shafrits), the story starts to develop an unpleasant aftertaste. By the time I finished reading, the only character who was still likeable was Nahri; everyone else is basically scum.

Top marks for the start, the setting, and the initial atmosphere. Alas, the fun is soon eroded as things get ever-more murky. The book starts out as joyously swashbuckling fantasy adventure and ends up a grimdark novel of hatred, rivalry and despair. That is not a destination I wished to get to, and I doubt I will want to read the rest of the trilogy.

Rating: 3.5/5

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Review: Djinn City by Saad Hossain

Djinn City is an urban fantasy novel set in Dhaka, Bankgladesh, inspired by the Eastern mythology around djinn. As backgrounds for urban fantasy novels go, Bangladesh is not one I've seen used before, and I have a weak spot for stories about djinns, so I was quite excited to read the book.

It is the story of various members of the Khan Rahman family. Indelbed is a young boy whose father Kaikobad is a drunkard and a black sheep of the family. He lives in a mansion in a poor area of the city, and Indelbed grows up neglected and hungry most of the time. One day, just as the rest of his family start to take an interest in his education (his father kept him out of school), his entire life is turned upside down. He finds his father in a coma and djinn have put a price on his head.

Rais is Indelbed's older cousin. His father is an ambassador (what he is an ambassador to is hardly clear) and his mother, Juny, is a hard nosed, clever and ambitious woman. After Indelbed disappears, Rais eventually makes it his mission to find answers and, perhaps, Indelbed.

Kaikobad, the alcoholic, meanwhile, is a discorporated soul in a strange realm, where he can only watch an ancient historical war unfold...

Djinn City starts out the way many fantasy novels start: young kid discovers that magic is real, that he is in danger from a villain, and is cut adrift from his family or orphaned to start his adventurous quest. He even soon finds a half-crazy mysterious but wise mentor.

However, the book soon diverts onto different tracks. Time passes. Indelbed's journey is not one of delight and swashbuckling fun. Meanwhile, Rais, the young adult cousin, gets to have a much more traditional adventure, half detective story and half fantasy quest. However, Rais only succeeds because his mother does half the work for him, which is not exactly the orphaned-hero way of most heroic quests.

Djinn City never got boring. There's adventure and intrigue and enough magical stuff to keep the reader entertained. Dhaka as a setting is refreshingly different, but it does not seem to be a very charismatic city: it could be any city in India or Bangladesh.

The real heart of such novels is of course the magical stuff. Saad Hossain's djinn are an entertaining bunch, livening up the pages with their chaotic ways and charisma. No complaints here. However, it does jar a bit when the author tries to explain them scientifically (it's a pretty major plot strand). This simply fails: no matter how much effort is invested in describing djinn DNA and how they manipulate reality - they simply can't both be a single naturally evolved species and have the diversity of form that they do. While most are humanoid, one, for example, is a school of fish! 

Much to my surprise, the book is pretty cavalier about the wellbeing of its characters. It might start out like a fun little YA novel, but some of the events later on get a little Game Of Thrones-y with regards to trauma inflicted, to be honest. The story never quite goes where you think it will, and don't expect everything to be nicely resolved and closed off by the end. Not, on the whole, the fun little happy read you  might expect from the premise.


Rating: 3/5

Monday, 21 May 2018

Review: Pet Sematary by Stephen King

Pet Sematary is the first Stephen King novel I'd heard of. Its German title, "Friedhof der Kuscheltiere", lacks the child-like spelling of "sematary" and instead translates as "Cemetery of the cuddly animals" (not "pets" but actually the word used for teddy bears and other stuffed toys). Perhaps for that reason, it was a book that you'd see in a lot of kids' hands back when I went to school...

I'm not sure what kids got out of the book, to be honest. The story of Louis Creed and his family, moving into a house next to an old native burial ground somewhere in Maine, works best when it covers the sentiments and secret thoughts of a husband and father.

Louis, a doctor taking a new job as head of the campus medical service at a small university, is not exactly a protagonist that I would have had much in common with as a child, either. His children, in turn, are a toddler (Gage) and a primary school aged girl (Ellie) - both well below the age of teenagers reading this stuff. So basically, the attraction of the book is its title, and the promise of cuddly pets as a source of scares...

The book starts on the day Louis and co move into their mansion (it's one of those American houses that is clearly bigger than any normal house in Europe). Nerves are frayed, and Louis fantasizes about running away to Disneyland (Disneyland being a recurring theme in the book) and leaving his family and cat by the side of the road. Barely up the driveway, his new neighbour Judd Crandall pops over, just as the toddler got stung by a bee and the girl twisted her ankle and general mayhem reached its peak.

It's Judd who warns Louis that the road between their houses has been many a pet's undoing, and is a danger to children. And it's Judd who, some days later, takes the family on an outing to the Pet Sematary, where local children bury their beloved pets in a pattern of spiralling plots. But there is a deadfall (trees felled by a storm) at its edge, and Judd warns the family never to try and climb it...

Pet Sematary has the usual Stephen King tone, that somewhat chummy, drawling, narrative voice which lulls the reader like the movement of a slow but comfortable train on ancient railway tracks. It frequently hints at things to come, sometimes a chapter or two in advance, sometimes more than that. It keeps you reading even when not much is happening to Louis or his family. Some of the glimpses of the future don't quite fit with the ending, in my mind, so there's a bit of a sense of discontinuity.

To my mind, the novel is at its most engaging when King writes about the relationships between people, and their inner lives. It's at its most horrifying in a scene of mundane disaster. All the supernatural stuff, all the "horror" of the novel, is actually not exactly scary. Perhaps this is a failure of my imagination: I can find movies scary, and I can find myself scared at night when unidentified noises haunt the house or when walking alone in darkness, but books? Somehow, I rarely find books scary. Pet Sematary is no exception. If golf is a perfectly good walk ruined by that business with the sticks and balls, then King's horror novels are perfectly good mundane literary novels ruined by the horror bits.

It's readable enough, in that chummy Stephen King way. It's not quite the transgressive novel King seems to think it is in his introduction, but perhaps grown ups with children and families will react more strongly to it than I did.

Rating: 3/5



Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Book Review: One Way by S.J. Morden

One Way by S J Morden tells the story of Frank, a convict whose prison sentence long exceeds his life span. One day, a mysterious visitor makes him an offer he can't refuse: instead of spending the rest of his natural life in the prison he's in, he could be trained to go to Mars, and live out his life there, building the first Mars base. It's a one way ticket, and legally the Mars Base would count as prison, but at least his life would be filled once again with achievement...

One Way is a novel that is possibly being slightly mis-sold: the blurb sells it as a murder mystery on Mars, with a small handful of suspects. If you buy it expecting a blue collar Agatha Christie novel on Mars, you may be slightly disappointed: the bulk of the story takes place before the whodunnit begins. However, that's not a bad thing: the book earns its way to Mars, carefully building up the characters and the preparation before delivering a cracking space adventure that doesn't have to hide in the shadow of The Martian.

One Way is a great science fiction read. In fact, its science is barely fictional and mostly current, rather than futuristic. It's also a great adventure novel, a great thriller, with an all-too-believable central premise. If there is a flaw, it's that the thing it's sold for - the whodunnit - isn't all that mysterious, once that part of the plot kicks in.

It's hard not to compare One Way with The Martian, as it features the same phraseology (talk about "the hab", hydrazine, air locks) and some of the basic premise (staged deliveries to the surface of the planet before the astronauts arrive, a botanist growing food inside the hab, Mars rovers, small nuclear reactors, and sand storms), and a comparable sense of peril as Mars is a more hostile environment than our characters are quite ready for. However, One Way doesn't go down the humorous route in the way The Martian did, focusing instead on a tense interplay between characters who don't have much reason to trust or like each other. The Martian is a fundamentally optimistic novel about people working together against all odds, and a hero never losing his sense of humour as he faces one challenge at a time. The Martian has no villain. One Way is a much more grim-faced look at how Mars might be explored by the likes of Jeff Bezos, written in a time where optimism is thin on the ground and moral bankruptcy and corruption are dominating global news. In One Way, everyone is a villain and there are no heroes. It's the Trump era's answer to The Martian of the Obama era...

A cracking thriller, compelling and convincing.

Rating: 4.5/5