Saturday 12 July 2014

Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason

Three Graves Full is a novel that really wants to be a comedy movie. Jason, our protagonist, is a meek man who, in a rare fit of rage, has murdered someone and buried him in his back yard. A year later, someone discovers a skeleton - in his front yard.

The book continues the tale of hapless Jason, and adds various other characters (the ex-girlfriend of one of the victims, two police officers, a dog...), and creates a web of unlikely events that have the general feel of a Guy Ritchie movie (or perhaps an indie movie) - except it's all set in America.

It's a pleasantly diverting, vaguely entertaining yarn, marred by being somewhat overwritten. The writer seems to be a beginner - the prose itself is frequently clunky and over-reaching, but there's also a tendency to give detailed back stories of each character and event, often filling in details that weren't really needed. It's also a book that yearned to be laugh-out-loud funny, but wasn't.

A promising premise, not quite lived up to.

Rating: 3/5

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Eight Men and a Duck by Nick Thorpe

In the non-fiction book Eight Men and a Duck, a journalist has a chance encounter with a confident, gung-ho adventurous American, and decides to join the American's quest to cross from Chile to Easter Island in a reed boat, inspired by Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki adventure (which never actually landed on Easter Island).

The book reads like someone telling a yarn to his mates. It's chummy, everyone's improvising, a bit inept, and hugely reliant on luck. The quest is about as wise, responsible and well-prepared as the adventures in the Hangover movie series, but there's less humour.

It's not really a scientific thing: it's people having an adventure for adventure's sake.

Once the only vaguely skilled person left the team (frustrated with his companions' habit of winging it and lack of preparation / forethought, and the resulting delays), the narrative lost a lot of interest for me. Basically, I didn't really like any of these guys all that much, as I could not respect them.

It's not a bad book, but it doesn't really have anything much to say: A bunch of bumbling young men seek adventure and succeed mostly through luck. The end.

Rating: 3/5

Saturday 5 July 2014

Seed to Harvest by Octavia E. Butler

Seed to Harvest is a series of four novels, collected together in one volume. The third book is essentially a standalone novel, while the fourth ties it and the first two books together.

The novels start with the meeting of two virtually immortal people, a long time ago (18th century, I think) in Africa. One is Doro, a man whose soul travels into other bodies (and whose previous host bodies die / are discarded). The other is Anyanwu, a woman who has near-infinite abilities to heal her own body, and read her own DNA, understand what each cell is doing, and how to heal / regenerate / rejuvenate herself. Doro is much older - thousands of years older - and has been breeding people with supernatural powers into little (quite incestuous) communities in order to cultivate their supernatural traits. He decides to conquer and control Anyanwu, and the first novel is essentially about the relationship between them.

The second novel, set in the 1970s or so, is about a young woman who is the most powerful result of Doro's breeding programme, and who becomes a power to contend with.

The third novel is about an invasion by an alien parasitical micro-organism which changes the physical properties of the humans it infects, and permanently alters their offspring.

The fourth novel is about people from the breeding programme, and their power struggles, while in a world-wide war with the people who are infected with the alien organism. Humans without superpowers have become nothing more than slaves.

Reading these novels, it becomes very clear what themes interest Octavia E. Butler: power, control over others, the mechanisms of slavery. Every single one of the books is about people imposing their own will and control on others, with motives that range from mean-spirited and petty to survival instinct, from lust for power to a desire to protect humanity or protect family. In essence, these are all novels about enslavers and the enslaved.

Unfortunately, the novels aren't nearly as gripping and powerful as Kindred (by the same author), which doesn't bother to metaphorise slavery into supernatural fantasy, but simply transposes a modern couple into the past through time travel. Kindred is a masterpiece. Seed to Harvest is comparatively weaker, because none of the characters are entirely human. Super-powered people using super-powers to enslave are less scary than men using mundane brutality. The fantasy elements create a distance between subject matter and impact on (this) reader's empathy.

I must also admit that I did not really find Anyanwu's character convincingly developed after the first book - I think her story in the second book was wasteful and disappointing.

I'd still recommend the author highly - but I'm really glad I read Kindred first: it's a much, much better novel than this series.

Rating: 3/5

Friday 4 July 2014

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

I don't usually read any books set in the world of US slavery - Uncle Tom's Cabin was just about the extent of my reading thus far. But then, Kindred isn't a typical slavey novel.

Dana is a 26-year-old woman living in 1976. She's recently married to a white man. And one day, she gets dizzy and finds herself elsewhere, watching a little boy almost-drown. She saves his life, realises she is visiting the slavery-era past and gets beamed back to 1976. Soon, the rules of her travels become transparent: whenever the boy is about to die, she is transported across space and time to save his bacon. Whenever she fears for her life in that world, she is returned to 1976.

The plot follows the logic of the story consistently, intelligently and entertainingly. The characters all seem believable. It's not challenging to read, but intelligently written with a lot of thought about what slavery is, how it works, how it changes people - both the slaves and the slave owners. It feels completely authentic and believable all the way through. It's a novel about power relationships and how power corrupts. The story is tense and gripping and smart.

In short, I'd highly recommend this book.

Rating: 5/5