Monday, 12 November 2018

Review: The Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quechua People by José María Arguedas & Ruth Stephan

The Singing Mountaineers is a book about the songs and folk tales told by Quechua speakers in South America. Quechua being the language that the Inca empire required all its subjects to learn, this means people living in the Andean region, from Ecuador to Bolivia, but primarily in Peru.

Published in 1957, the book is sadly of its time. Sentences like "Since the Andean people have always been a singing, a poetically disposed, race, the songs have their own proud past." or "Their race is noted for its ancient skill in catching and taming animals instead of killing them, and birds and animals exist as possible friends, as integral living relations in the Indian world." caused me to cringe. There is useful information in the introduction, in between all the patronising, vaguely racist, noble-savage bullshit, but you may find your teeth grating as you read it: mine certainly did.

Fortunately, once the lengthy introduction is over, the songs and tales themselves are more interesting. Unfortunately, about half the length of the book is the introduction, which is a wasted opportunity. The most interesting thing of all, the folk tales, is frustratingly short. Of the 60 or so tales that had been recorded by the author in Spanish, only 17 (if I remember correctly) were included in the English book, much to my chagrin.

The tales were collected in the 20th century. Therefore, they are heavily influenced by Catholicism and the legacy of the conquistadors. Nonetheless, there are glimpses of a different culture, and a few tales seem like they could have been told, with relatively few changes, back in Inca times...

As a resource, The Singing Mountaineers is useful: English translations of Quechua folk tales and songs are not that easy to find. As a book, it's lopsided, with an overly long introduction that is filled with outdated thinking and attitudes, and not enough collected tales and songs. Nonetheless, it's worth reading, for any glimpse of authentic Quechua culture in English is too rare to ignore.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Review: America's First Cuisines by Sophie D. Coe

America's First Cuisines is a unique book: it is an accessible account of what the peoples living in the Americas used to eat, before the conquest of the continent by Europeans.

Food history is not a topic I knew much (ahem, anything) about before I read this book. I had started to get an inkling that huge swathes of the foods I'm used to are not actually traditional European fare, after reading books about South American archaeology. Among other things, they mentioned various plants that had been domesticated in the Americas - and which were unknown in Europe and Asia until the 'discovery' of America by Columbus.

Everyone knows about the potato, right? As a German, it's one of those things that surprise you when you are a small child, that this most German of vegetables didn't exist in Germany until comparatively recently. Maybe Portuguese people feel the same way about maize. Maybe Italians feel the same way about tomatoes. Maybe Balkan people feel the same way about aubergines. Maybe Asian people feel the same way about chile peppers. The variety of fruit, vegetable, roots, tubers, and plant-based domesticated crops that were introduced to Eurasia and Africa after the conquest is mindboggling. There may well be no single world cuisine that was not enhanced significantly as a direct result of the conquest. (Of course, some things travelled the other way: bananas, onions, garlic, milk, cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, etc.)

So America's First Cuisines was bound to be interesting. The book lays its ground work by discussing what had been domesticated and where, mentioning almost in passing that there may have been many more domesticated crops that are lost now, after the disasters that followed America's discovery (the waves of disease that killed up to 90% of all the continent's inhabitants), and because the Europeans were primarily interested in crops that they could easily map onto European equivalents. So maize was an instant hit ("the American grain!"), but potatoes took much longer to gain traction in Europe, and quinoa was of little interest until recently, when it became a fad. 

Much of the early part of the book deals with basic foodstuffs / ingredients, because that is what archaeological and genetic evidence can prove. Once the basics are established, the book fastforwards to the conquest, because it is then that written records start being generated by conquistadors, describing the meals and dishes they are served by the different cultures. So, first the ingredients, cultivated and made available over millennia, and then the snapshot of the early 1500s, and a glimpse of what was being made out of those ingredients.

It's not just an interesting and educational book. For me, it was also full of surprises. There are one or two instances when America's First Cuisines debunks other theories that are still quoted by historians today - generally theories that were originally based on pure conjecture, but which became entrenched simply because no one bothered to investigate or look for evidence. (Much like the theory that Komodo dragons have such a vile mouth flora that it is the bacteria killing their prey once bitten. This was common knowledge until just a few years ago, when someone checked and found that actually, Komodo dragons are venomous, and inject venom into the prey through their teeth, like snakes. Similarly, many historians quote a "three sisters" theory about crops in Central America, which claims that a convenient combination of three plants growing together in a field would provide all the nourishment a people need, and that the "three sisters" were almost worshipped for it. Turns out they were not worshipped, and while they can grow together neatly, there is little evidence that any people relied on that combination to the extent historians now claim, and in fact, the diet produced by such a reliance would be insufficient in protein for pregnant women and possibly for men). Basically, Sophie D Coe has done her homework properly even when others haven't and her book shows it.

America's First Cuisines is a great book. It illuminates an aspect of history and knowledge that most people are probably quite ignorant of. It does so accessibly and reliably. The one thing I would have liked to see included is some recipes, but I understand why there are none: it would have been conjecture, and the book is strictly factual. Still, even without any recipes, this is a book worth reading.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: The Elephant and Macaw Banner by Christopher Kastensmidt

The Elephant and Macaw Banner is a historical fantasy adventure novel, set in 16th century Brasil. There, Dutch adventurer Gerard van Oost and Oludara, a former Yoruban warrior and former slave, have a series of adventures fighting monsters and entangling with local folkloric characters and gods. They join a native tribe of cannibals, they work for colonial governments, and take part in the odd skirmish or two.

It's fairly obvious that the book did not start out as one novel, but is a collection of a series of novelettes and novellas (with, apparently, some additional material). Each chapter is a self-contained adventure / quest, usually bookended by vignettes featuring a wild animal that encounters the heroes of the story. There is some development over time, but very little in terms of overarching plotlines. Perhaps Gerard's problems with his nemesis Antonio (a competing bannerman) or Oludara's desire to return to Africa to continue his family line offer some through-lines, but they're very secondary to whichever quest the adventurers are currently caught up in. The final chapter ties up the narrative, but is also the least enjoyable part of the book. There are other chapters of dubious enjoyment (I got quite cross at one which was rich in prophecy and "Gerard is chosen" to be the chosen one who must choose who shall rule the future empire of Brasil, yada yada yada), but for the most part, the adventures are entertaining, swashbuckling romps.

The novel is quite similar in tone and structure to Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, which is also a book about two heroes adventuring together. What sets this novel apart is the setting (colonial era Brasil) and the atmosphere (jungles, monsters, cannibals, sorcerers, and forest spirits), which are a refreshing change from vaguely-Nordic & pseudo-European settings. The book doesn't take itself too seriously, so I was never sure whether any particular creature / element was based on actual mythology and history, or made up by the author.

Our heroes are pleasant enough, if not quite as iconic or charismatic as Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Oludara is clearly the brains and the muscles of this outfit, while Gerard is a slightly pompous ass a lot of the time, constantly harping on about his Protestantism and Christianity. In fact, Gerard's main contribution is to free Oludara at the start and make him an equal partner: Gerard supplies their company's autonomy, ability to have agency, and respect in a colonial and racist era, while Oludara supplies everything else. Alas, this is never milked for humorous purposes: the setup might slightly resemble Jeeves and Wooster, but the tone does not. The narration really believes the two are equal partners. 

The Elephant and Macaw Banner is a pleasant adventure romp. Not too taxing, with an intriguingly different setting. The episodes are somewhat too self-contained, but they're engaging enough that I was never too tempted to give up on the book entirely. There are a few sequences that let down the book, but on the whole, it's worth a read.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday, 9 November 2018

Review: The Dreaming Stars by Tim Pratt

The Dreaming Stars is the sequel to The Wrong Stars, picking up more or less where the previous novel finished. The crew of the White Raven, along with the people they have rescued from the machines left behind by evil alien gods, are loitering around inside an old mining asteroid they've taken from space pirates by ruthlessly murdering the lot. Everyone's feeling a bit bored, but snarky and bantering away and being cute at each other. They're waiting to find out whether they can resume adventuring as themselves, or whether they have to make up new identities and start new lives somewhere.

For a long time, very little happens but people talking with each other about their relationships, and flirting, and bantering and then talking about their relationships some more.

Eventually, they go out to find the captain's ex, and to get a job, so they can then talk about their relationships en route, followed by some more talks about relationships. (Not that there is anything particularly interesting going on in the relationships. It's just people flailing "I <3 U! Let's have sex! We had sex! I <3 U!  U R HOT! I AM CUTE!" at each other ad infinitum.)

As you might guess from the plot summary so far, The Dreaming Stars is very different from its predecessor. Sure, everyone is still chattering away like a somewhat more murdery Joss Whedon ensemble cast, but there is very little plot movement in the first half of the book. And in the second half? The plot gets very very silly, in an unintentional and unfunny sort of way.

As hammy as the first novel was, it kept moving. This one is hammy, clunky and filled with mindbogglingly annoying rehashes of the first book. Exposition done poorly is one thing, but when the book starts to rehash "remember how we once had a metaphor-rich conversation about ants?", it's not just important plot points that are being given the clunky exposition treatment, it's half the previous novel.

It's still readable because it's very simple, much like Twilight or the newspaper The Sun, but The Dreaming Stars has run out of steam before it began. With a plot that barely moves and, once kicked into gear, turns daft, the poor writing becomes the coup de grace that sinks the ship. The first book might have been fun, but it seems the series is not worth persevering with.

Rating: 2.5/5

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Review: The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt

The Wrong Stars is a lightweight, fun space opera novel in the tradition of Firefly and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Our heroes this time around are freelance security operatives / salvagers operating a small ship around Neptune. They stumble upon an ancient "Goldilocks ship" - a ship sent out with a frozen crew five hundred years ago during mankind's desparate attempts to find a future on planets other than the one they'd mismanaged into ruin. One crew member is still inside, and, waking up, yells a warning about aliens and first contact, before fainting again. As mankind has been in contact with aliens for about 300 years by that point, the crew are not unduly alarmed - until they notice strange data in the ship's computer, and a history that cannot be true... or can it?

The Wrong Stars starts out briskly and keeps up a good pace. Unlike Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, there is actually a plot moving the story forward, and not just a sightseeing expedition around the galaxy by a bunch of cheerful space truckers. This makes it a more brisk read. However, just like Long Way, the novel is seemingly written with a wish list of 'representation' topics in mind. So we get gay characters, bi characters, trans characters, asexual characters, people who have pronoun preferences, people into drug filled religious sex orgies, people into casual sex... the only thing that does not exist in the novel is heterosexual characters or people in a monogamous relationship. Amusingly, the novel goes so far out of its way trying to be non-traditional that it tries to define people who are sexually attracted to those they fall in love with as "demisexual". The key idea appears to be that there is no "normal" when it comes to sex and gender, and that there is a spectrum and infinite variety, and that therefore there should be an infinite variety of labels none of which can be allowed to imply that they are just "normal", etc. etc. etc.

The Wrong Stars is not the work of a subtle writer. It wears its thematic heart on its sleeve, as you might guess from the last paragraph. The text also handles romance with all the subtlety of E.L. James or Stephanie Meyer.

As for the cast, the characters are wisecracking smartasses who have some external differences, but are all more or less the same underneath: slightly witty, friendly smartasses. In fact, the group dynamic is so consistent that on one or two occasions, other characters who are met for the first time instantly join in the bantering, with zero transition period or getting-to-know-each-other. However, it's a bit baffling that a novel so fluffy in those matters is also quite happy to treat deadly force and violence as something that has no real consequences. At times, there are deadly conflicts that had all the depth of kids yelling "pow pow" at each other while playing cowboys & injuns.

But a novel needn't be all subtle, abstract, character-analytical, philosophical book-club-discussion-material to be fun. It's shallow, but The Wrong Stars succeeds at being fun. Hammy romance, identikit character and uber-keen representation messaging aside, it's a story of grand space adventures, filled with mystery, evil aliens, likeable aliens, dangerous missions, world-saving drama, and a complete and total lack of boredom. The Stainless Steel Rat for 21st century readers. Worth a look if you like that sort of thing.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Review: Nondula by Ana Salote

Nondula is a children's fantasy novel and the sequel to the amazing Oy Yew. So, before you read this review, check out my review of Oy Yew - it's such an awesome children's book.

Now, Nondula. After their narrow escape at the end of Oy Yew, a handful of waifs are blown into a different land by a tornado. Specifically, Oy, Alas, Gertie, Gritty and Linnet. The land they arrive in is Nondula, and it is something akin to a utopia, only its neighbour is a dystopia, so there's trouble brewing ahead.

Nondula is a land of vegetarian peaceful academics, who live peacefully, discover their inner jenie (spirit) and are driven mainly by self-realisation. Their neighbours, Fellund, are carnivorous thugs, short-sighted, short-tempered, abusive, violent and greedy. They abduct Nondulans (and people from other lands), enslave people, and are entirely villainous. Soon, Oy and his fellow waifs are caught up in the conflict.

Nondula is a very different book to Oy Yew. There is still a gentleness around the way the waifs are written, but other than that, everything has changed. Even the characters have changed: Alas is now standoffish and paranoid, in a way that felt like it was exaggerated compared to his characterisation in Oy Yew. That change in particular made me wonder whether the book was written after a long break rather than immediately after its predecessor.

There are also changes in the pacing, plot, and atmosphere. Oy Yew was a masterpiece, even if it was sometimes bewildering and disorienting. It built an atmosphere of peril and threat, but did so by using dread more than anything else. Nondula tries to be less bewildering. We spend the first third of the book in a utopia where everyone has a bit of a rest after the grand adventures of the first book. The slow and gradual start is then followed by adventures in Fellund, but those adventures feature more violence and physical abuse than the first book, and less ominous dread. Torture, executions, animal abuse, children being hunted with dogs (and, it is implied, being torn apart by them)... if Oy Yew was a novel comparable to Krabat, Momo, The Owl Service, then Nondula is more like Gulliver's Travels or the Wizard of Oz, a travelogue through weird lands, but distinctly more violent.

There is still a richness and a gentleness around the way the book sees the waifs. Poor Linnet's illness is heartbreaking throughout the story. But the kid gloves have come off  - Oy gets thrown around, injured, tortured. Slaves and dogs and animals are whipped, tortured, abused, killed en masse. The first book was about something fragile and kind trying to survive in an ominous and cruel world. This book is about fragile and kind things being abused and kicked around and damn near pulverised. For me, dread and threat are more effective in a story than brute force, so Nondula didn't bewitch me the way that Oy Yew did.

Much as I loved Oy Yew, I must admit that I struggled through Nondula. With unsteady pacing and a totally different atmosphere, it didn't feel like a continuation. I still wholeheartedly recommend the book Oy Yew: it works fine as a standalone and needn't be a trilogy. Nondula... well, I don't know if my expectations were too high after the first book, or whether having a case of man-flu was affecting my enjoyment, but I wasn't engaged by it in the same way. That said, other reviewers rate Nondula as highly as Oy Yew, so I may well be the odd one out on this one.

Rating: 3/5

Friday, 26 October 2018

Review: Snowflake by Heide Goody & Iain Grant

Snowflake is a comic fantasy novel about Lori, a young millennial woman who finds, upon returning from a holiday, that her parents have sold the house, moved out, and kicked her out in absentia. And then magic shit starts to happen...

As comic fantasy novel, Snowflake gently bumbles along as Lori flounders from one disaster to another, raising chuckles and smiles. Lori is an amiably inept protagonist, likeable because she is naive and silly. The story, meanwhile, is a bit bewildering. For a long time, the plot can't decide whether it's about Lori's troubles with adulting, or about the magic stuff that adds a different dimension of chaos. It tries to do both, but with the result that it feels like neither strand is driving the story forward.

"Snowflake" is a term used a lot these days, often in online flamewars. My understanding was different from the authors' - I thought it's a derogatory term about overly sensitive, overly PC people who go on about trigger warnings and safe spaces a lot. The authors seem to have interpreted it as a term about young millennials who don't grow up, don't move their life into the phases of job-marriage-housebuying-children that traditional adulthood expects, but who loiter somewhere in a post-uni limbo of living in houseshares or with their parents, halfheartedly chasing dreams but ignoring careers, having relationships but nothing too serious or long-term. Lori certainly never seems to have any strong opinion or any obsession with safe spaces, which was a bit of a relief.

Comic fantasy is a genre that lives in the shadow of Terry Pratchett. I remember trying to write like him back when I was a teenager, and the huge plethora of books that were touted as "the next Terry Pratchett" at the time. Snowflake is one of those books that reads like Pratchett-light. It's amusing, but not a substitute for the master.

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Review: Oy Yew by Ana Salote

Oy Yew is a children's novel set in another world. It's not a world of magic or dragons or aliens, but a world much like ours around the time of Charles Dickens' stories.

Oy is a tiny boy who grows up sustaining himself on crumbs and the smells of food. He's mostly unnoticed until one day someone does spot him. Then, he is quickly caught and forced into servitude, first in a factory, then in a country mansion. His comrades in slavery are other waifs, children from Poria who arrived on the shores of Affland as boat people on tiny rafts, sent across the sea by desperate parents during a famine.

Oy is the smallest waif, the quietest waif, the one who listens and offers nothing but kindness and intuition to those around him. His presence gradually improves the lives of the other waifs, but it also brings with it an intuition that something is wrong. How come there have been more accidents than usual lately, always befalling the waifs about to be freed? What secrets lurk in the sinister Bone Room? And why is Master Jep, a bone collector, suddenly so interested in Oy's thumbs?

Oy Yew is a fantastically atmospheric novel. It reminded me of Otfried Preussler's Krabat, and of Michael Ende's Momo. (Oy is quite similar to Momo in many ways). Or, in more British terms, of Alan Garner's scary children's novels - except that the atmosphere in Oy Yew is richer, the story more lovingly told. There is a tenderness in Oy Yew where Alan Garner goes for grand drama, and that tenderness makes it a more beautiful story. Basically, it's a superior novel to The Owl Service and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

It's not flawless: at times, the text moves too fast, in a disorienting way. Some of that disorientation happens early on, which could discourage some readers. I don't know whether the author was trying to create an atmosphere of hectic movement, or whether she saw the story in her mind and left out some words that might have helped me as a reader to follow it. All I know is that there were quite a few times when I was a little bewildered over who was there, who was who, and what was going on. I imagine child readers are likely to get confused, too. Those moments of bewilderment are literally the only flaw, and it's very much worth persevering if the text befuddles you momentarily.

The prose is beautiful, the story is filled with atmosphere, creepiness, tension, kindness and joy. The waifs are lovely and the characters around them include quite a few memorable personalities. Even as an adult reader, I was on the edge of my seat at many points, and I felt the peril in the story was real.

To my mind, this is one of the finest children's novels ever written. It's so good that I consider myself an instant fan of the author and immediately ordered the sequel.

Rating: 5/5

Monday, 22 October 2018

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a high concept crime novel. Its one-sentence pitch is "Groundhog Day crossed with Agatha Christie".

Our hero wakes up without memories, with a single word on his lips: "Anna". He's in a forest and witnesses a young woman being chased by a villain. He hears screams and a gunshot. And then someone pursues him, gives him a compass, whispers a word in his ear, and allows him to flee to the nearby country mansion Blackheath.

In Blackheath, he finds people who know him, but his memories stay out of reach. All he recalls is the violence he witnessed that morning. The day progresses with an unsettling feeling that there are dark secrets lurking in the house and the people who are gathered here. However, he manages to make one single friend, Evelyn Hardcastle, who sees possibility and potential in his blank state. A promise of renewal, a new start, a chance to become a better man (for there are unpleasant rumours about his profession...)

The next morning, our hero awakes again, but in a different body, reliving the same day, looking at it through different eyes. It is the day of Evelyn Hardcastle's murder, and our hero's task is to solve it.

Seven Deaths is a novel that manages to build up intrigue and tension relatively gradually. If it weren't for the title, a reader might find the first chapters a bit slow, confusing and frustrating. (We don't even find out that Evelyn Hardcastle dies until he has gone through the day several times!) Fortunately, the title tells us the grand drama that the narrator does not know, and therefore adds tension even in moments when the narrator is bumbling along gormlessly.

Each body he inhabits is different, and each body comes with different emotional patterns, instincts, and physical limitations. After the first day, our narrator is in a constant battle between his own mind and the habits of the person he occupies. Short-tempered people, calculating people, flighty people, sometimes his hands do things before his conscious mind notices them. It's a very interesting idea, and I think in the hands of a virtuoso, it could have been gobsmackingly brilliant to read. Stuart Turton is a good writer, but not a prodigy, so he tackles this deftly but not very immersively  or subtly by having our narrator tell us about his struggles. The same goes for the rest of the book: it is written well, but the genius is in the concept, not so much in the execution. Characters may have secrets, but they don't tend to have much complexity. The basic crime story has peril, but is thin on authenticity. The end result is a book that is immensely readable and good fun, but which feels like you can glimpse a hint of a magnificent could-have-been through the text that is. A good novel that feels like it might have been great.

Definitely worth a read.

Rating: 4/5


Sunday, 21 October 2018

Review: Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan

Apocalypse Cow is a book that has two massive things going for it:

1) It was the winner of a contest run by Terry Pratchett when he was alive. (Its theme was "anywhere but here, anytime but now")
2) It knows how terrifying cows are.

I mean, 500kg horned beasts with four stomachs and a tendency to stampede... forget wolves! Cows are what you should be worrying about!

As I rarely see evidence that anyone else shares my moophobia, it was perhaps inevitable that I would buy the book. I hoped for an udderly terrifying reading experience, as a horror novel about cows is pretty much guaranteed to scare any sensible person half to death.

Unfortunately, it turned out not to be a book I enjoyed.

Our heroes (if one can call them that) are Geldof, a horny teenage boy with a constant rash, Terry, a slaughterhouse worker who cannot wash off the smell of dead meat, and Lesley, a journalist with big daydreams but little talent. When a bio-weapon starts turning mammals into man-raping, man-eating rage-beasts (i.e. horny zombie critters), they all struggle to survive (and maybe find out what happened).

Our main characters may be not particularly interesting, but they are surrounded by characters so annoying that the readers is clearly meant to want them to die. Geldof's mother is a leftwing vegan extremist and terrorist sympathiser who walks around naked all the time, harangues neighbours and bystanders about their lifestyles, forces her son to wear materials he is allergic against, and spends most of her time having lengthy noisy sex. Her husband is a stoner whose main function is to be a penis for her to shag, without a shred of a brain cell or the ability to string a sentence together. Their neighbours are a meat-obsessed abusive right wing xenophobe nutter, his twin bully sons and his wife / their mother, a maths teacher whom Geldof is in lust with.

Pretty much every character is written with disdain, which is quite offputting as it's clear the author simply cannot imagine a pleasant human being and has nothing nice to say about anyone.

So, a cast of annoying caricatures who aren't funny. Not a good place to start with.

Then, as the animals run amok, the plot meanders along without having anything smart or unique to say. It does not feel tense because every character is odious, so it's impossible to care about any of them. There are chases, narrow escapes, gory violence, etc. etc. etc., but the story does not pack a punch. Instead, it feels like a comic strip written by a 13-year-old misanthropic boy, with roughly the same sense of humour (immature and witless) and the same level of empathy (none).

Finally, for a novel named after cows, featuring a cow on the cover, and mentioning cows a lot on the back cover, there are actually precious few cows in the book. All animals become a threat, and aside from cows we see murderous cats, rats, sheep, pigs, squirrells, etc. - cows draw first blood, but after that they only make a few cameo appearances. So the book isn't even scary - who would be afraid of a fast-moving mountain of rabid man-eating rats when there could be a cow instead?

I have no idea how this novel won a contest. I'm vaguely surprised it was published. Don't waste money on it: it's a load of cowpats.

Rating: 2/5

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Review: Soulbinder by Sebastien de Castell

Soulbinder is the fourth novel in the Spellslinger  YA fantasy series about Kellen, a young mage trying to get by as an outlaw.

I've been reading this series since it began, but for reasons I can't quite fathom, I have never reviewed any of the books yet. Shame on me.

The Spellslinger series is fun. It's made of fun. Our hero may be a self-deprecating young man, but his companion is a fierce and murderous squirrell-cat, his mentor is a gypsy frontierswoman hustler, and his adventures are fast, swashbuckling and exciting. At the same time, the books do have high drama, pathos, tension and enough peril to ensure that boredom is never an option.

Soulbinder starts off the way they all do: Kellen is in mortal peril and great trouble. This time, we meet him after he has defeated and killed an enemy, but he and Reichis (the squirrell-cat) are gravely wounded, in a desert, unable to move, and far from any chance of rescue.

Their plight moves from cliffhanger to cliffhanger until Kellen finds himself in a new place, where other people afflicted by the Shadowblack have come together to find sanctuary, and to fight when necessary.

If you haven't been following the series, then go and read it from the beginning. Spellslinger is a fantastic novel, and the books that follow it are highly readable. The previous (third) novel was perhaps a little confused about its direction, but Soulbinder has laser-sharp focus. The characters it introduces are interesting, Kellen's attitude is surprisingly adversarial and filled with bravado, and the plot is tight, fast and dramatic. What makes it so dramatic is that we see Kellen on his own for the first time since the series began, and it's clear that he is more competent than he thinks he is - but also reckless, foolish and panicky, so the reader is never quite sure whether he's ready for this.

The Spellslinger series is great, but books two and four are, essentially, perfect. If you like your fantasy fun, filled with heart and wit and affectionate bickering, if you like fierce and mean cute animals, if you like swashbuckling adventures, great derring-do and larger-than-life characters, if you enjoy a little bit of terrible heartbreak and cliffhangers, then the Spellslinger series is a must, and I'm glad to report that Soulbinder is another of highlight of the series.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, 5 October 2018

Review: The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

The Girl in the Road is a literary science fiction novel about a young girl and a young woman, journeying towards Ethiopia. The young girl, Mariam, crosses the African continent as a stowaway on a lorry, while the young woman, Meena, crosses the ocean from India, on foot, walking on top of a wave energy generator that connects Djibouti to India. Both are running from personal crises, and neither has any idea what to expect in Ethiopia.

I like reading science fiction set not too far in the future. If it's set outside the standard American / Western Europe setting, that makes it all the more enticing. So I had high hopes for The Girl in the Road, even though it is a book with one of those awful "The Girl..." titles.

Unfortunately, the book turned out not to be enjoyable at all. It starts in a breathless panic, as Meena wakes up with five snake bites in her chest and goes on the run. Fairly quickly, the reader begins to suspect that all is not as it seems, that Meena is hallucinating or mad or both, but for a while, there is a lot of rushing around. Once she's on the trail (the wave power generator), the sense of movement slows as she walks for thousands of miles.

Similarly, Mariam returns from the beach, where she has been given a chunk of sea snake meat, to find a "blue snake" in her mother's shack, so she runs away knowing she can never return. Shocked by the sight of the blue snake, she mis-swallows the chunk of snake meat she was chewing, which settles in her chest and bothers her forever after, becoming an internal demon she calls "the kreen".

This is the sort of book written for literature students to analyse. Even I, who didn't enjoy English Lit in school, can spot the snake motif, the way the phrase "snake bite" is used by Meena and by Mariam (one refers to a wound on her chest, the other to a bite of snake meat stuck in her chest), the many snakes in the story (the blue snake, the sea snake, the wave generator, the road, etc. etc. etc.), and the ouroboros-inspired structure of the story and think "that's clever!"

But clever literary gimmicks don't necessarily make for a joyful reading experience. And "clever" is a smug kind of thing, anyway, it's not the same as "intelligent" or "wise"...

The book reminded me of other ones I've read. It is as seedy as a Glen Duncan novel, but without wit or humour. It has a setting & future that could be from an Ian McDonald novel, but without the breathless energy. It's as literary / clever / pretentious as a Salman Rushdie novel, but without the musical prose. I've seen Haruki Murakami mentioned as a comparative writer: this could well be true as I never got more than a few pages into the one Murakami novel I tried, because it was too seedy too quickly. The Girl in the Road takes a bit of time before it gets really sordid.

What baffles me is that many of the authors and other works this novel reminded me of are ones I enjoyed - some years ago. Perhaps my taste has changed. Perhaps this book is a brilliant achievement and I am just no longer receptive to the sort of thing it is trying to do. Or maybe, just maybe, the book is not just clever, but also a little bit stupid. There were many weird things in the book, but aside from a very disturbing sexual encounter involving a prepubescent child and a slightly disturbing scene where a horny woman contemplates raping a gay man, here's a quote of one that seemed a bit silly to me:

"I start thinking of the first woman I ever slept with, Ajantha. She was eighteen. I was fourteen. She was my peer counselor at D.K. Soman International. It was a scene from a lesbian pulp comic. One night at school we were sitting across from each other cross-legged and she leaned over as if to whisper something in my ear but instead she sucked on my earlobe. I remember my vagina made an actual noise, an un-glocking, because my labia got so swollen they unsealed. Ajantha heard it too and pressed her palm over my pants and things went from there."

OK, so the author is in possession  of a vagina and I am not, so I guess I should not doubt her description of noises vaginas make... but really? Are vaginal un-glocking noises a thing? WTF did I just read? It does feel at times like a novel that is so convinced of its own genius that it oversteps into the realm of nonsense.

Lots of ideas went into this book, but the whole lacks joy, pleasure, and vim. Most plot twists are obvious long before they happen. None of the characters are likeable. Both first person narrators are mad. Sexuality is casual (nothing wrong with that) and icky and messed up in ways that match the worst predictions of previous generations' shame-obsessed "socially conservative" religious zealots. The book predicts a future where gender equality doesn't make people safer, but rather, a future where women commit all the same horrors that male abusers do: child molestation, rape, jealousy murder...

The Girl in the Road left me feeling hollow, as if my soul had been soiled a little by the reading of it, the way binging on too much Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones will do. Ultimately, I found the novel joyless and icky. I would not recommend it to anyone who doesn't have a strong stomach for explicit sex and child molestation.

Rating: 2/5

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

The Lost City of the Monkey God is the story of the recent discovery of ancient ruins in Honduras. It's a book about archaeology and adventure, but also a book about the past and the future.

The story starts when Douglas Preston attaches himself to a wealthy hobbyist who hopes to find a mythical lost city - Ciudad Blanca, also sometimes known as The City of the Monkey God. That city was mentioned in the chronicles of early conquistadors, and its myth had grown over time.

Early in the 20th century, another hobbyist funded several attempts to discover it, including one which claimed to have resulted in success, but which kept the coordinates secret. Reportage about those attempts would inspire other wannabe adventurers for nearly a hundred years.

The attempts and efforts which resulted in this book were different from previous ones: they used lidar technology to scan four sections of the jungle where the city was suspected of being, based on research of the records left behind by other people who claimed to have found it. When lidar revealed patterns that suggested human construction, in the deepest jungle, expeditions went out to find the ruins on the ground.

There are some aspects of the story of the discovery that might be a little troubling. The "dancing with the devil" that the organisers decided to do (hiring a criminal with good connections to support their efforts in Honduras in the early stages) makes for uncomfortable reading. Then, once the expeditions become more serious and involve reputable scientists, the criticisms flung against their work by a charlatan who uses the language of social justice campaigners as a weapon are utterly depressing. Especially since said charlatan is a disreputable self-promoter, guilty of everything he accuses the expedition of: it's a sad example of the way social justice theories have become weaponised, used not to bring about improvements, but as a tool to attack individuals, heavily used by con artists and trolls to fire up angry insta-mobs.


I was a little worried that the book would be either boring, or over-sensationalised. Fortunately, it was neither. Douglas Preston managed to breathe excitement into a non-fiction account where the reader would know the outcome before picking up the book. He brought the landscapes and the people vividly to life, while taking care to write factually and objectively about everything that was found, and everything that happened before and after the discovery. More importantly, when later chapter deal with diseases, he quickly and efficiently summarises things in ways that were eye-opening to the point of feeling like new information to me. It's a highly readable, interesting book - and even educational!

Rating: 4.5/5

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Review: American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations

This Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World is a fascinating reference work. Listing inventions, innovations, ideas and policies, the book offers a glimpse into the past that most of us will be completely ignorant of.

As a reference work, the book is very well organised, and most importantly, completely credible. Each invention is listed in alphabetical order, along with a short list of which tribes / Indian cultures made use of it, followed by a description offering background, and finally, references to source materials. For readers who are not just browsing, there are sections in the back listing the innovations by tribe / Indian culture, and by subject area. So, whether you want to know "what sort of things did the Inca invent / use" or "what was medical knowledge like in pre-conquest America", the book will help you navigate the listings. This is enormously useful

The writing is neutral, objective, accessible. The information is credible. But what makes the book outstanding is, ultimately, the wealth of information and the subject matter. For a layperson, almost everything in its pages will come as a surprise. After all, we're mostly used to Indians being shown as half naked hunter gatherers in pop culture, or as noble savage shamans in touch with nature. Perhaps we read about Aztec gods and human sacrifices, but who knew that the Aztecs were centuries ahead of their time in their dentistry practices, that they invented toothbrushes and practiced preventative care to avoid cavities? Everyone knows about tomahawks and totem poles, but, outside America, who realises that the US constitution and the system of federal government instituted by the founding fathers in the Constitution was heavily inspired by the Iroqois confederacy? (Probably, even in America, it might not be a universally known fact). Sterile surgery, freeze-dried food, fertilisers, almanacs, ... the list of inventions is surprising and delightful. 

Of course, the book cannot be a complete work. The destruction of Indian cultures was so complete that many things were never really documented. Entire tribes, languages and ways of life were wiped out. Prior to that, civilisations rose and collapsed without necessarily passing on knowledge. I've heard it said by better educated people than myself that the Roman Empire was not all that far off from reaching an industrial revolution: various inventions existed sprinkled throughout the empire that, had they caught on and had information sharing been better, could have changed history in ways we can barely imagine. Yet, until the Enlightenment and the printing press, information travelled slowly - too slowly for the Romans to industrialise. And, clearly, throughout the Americas it travelled too slowly for any one culture to pull together all the various ideas, innovations and inventions. 

So we are left with a glimpse that only reveals a tiny fraction of the innovations that Indians had come up with. Many of my questions about everyday life were, inevitably, not answered by the book, perhaps because many of the details are simply not known, or perhaps because two authors can only collate so much information, can only fit a certain amount into one (sizeable!) volume.

Regardless of the limitations, this encyclopedia is a stunning achievement, and anyone interested in pre-conquest American cultures should have a copy on their shelf.

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Review: The Otherlife by Julia Gray

The Otherlife is a novel about two boys, Ben and Hobie, at two points in time: 2011 and 2008. And, of course, it is a novel about the thing Ben christens "the Otherlife" - an intrusion of elements of Nordic mythology in his vision and life.

Tip: Don't read the back cover, as that gives away plot details that take the book about 80% of its length to reveal.

We see 2011 through the eyes of Ben, teenager and metalhead, cramming for his GCSEs while struggling with migraines, a habit of taking pills he steals from his mother, and a re-incursion of the Otherlife into his everyday life. It had been absent for two or three years. What kicks the story off is that he receives news that "He is dead", only he does not know whom. For 2011 Ben, it's a story of finding out who dies, and how, and why. But with the return of the Otherlife comes the return of memories, of that fateful time in 2008 which set his fate on its current path.

We see 2008 through the diary of Hobie, then-12-year-old rich kid and class bully, who encounters Ben at his elite school and becomes fascinated with the quiet, broken boy who talks of Ragnarok and Viking gods, and eventually, with wanting to see the Otherlife himself.


The Otherlife is described as a YA novel, but I have to admit, I did not think it was YA at all, in the same way that I don't think Lord of the Flies is a YA or children's novel.  It is a novel about kids, but not, I think, for kids. The Otherlife is serious, hyper-authentic, literary, with an sprinkling of the fantastic that is a lot subtler than the stunningly beautiful cover might make you think. It is also complex, complicated, deep, subtle, and patient.

As very authentic literary novel, it is a slow-moving beast. We are immersed in Ben's and Hobie's world, which is one of enormous privilege and substantial academic pressure. Ben, whose parents are divorced, can only stay in his school if he exceeds academically to the point of gaining a full scholarship. Hobie, whose parents are multi-millionaire, high society types, is spoiled rotten with material things, brought up to be terrifically arrogant and selfish, but not very academically minded or gifted. He, too, is under pressure to be a scholarship student, but for reasons of (family) pride rather than need.

The elite school Hobie and Ben go to is an educational pressure cooker. The kids are stuffed with useless knowledge and exam preparation, most of their conversations are serious and about studying, and they seem utterly dehumanised by the system. At the same time, it is difficult to feel too sorry for them: Hobie reads like a young Boris Johnson, his classmates are the David Camerons and Jacob Rees Moggses of the future, and their lives of mansions and nannies and tutors are made of entitlement and privilege. They are loveless and emotionally cold childhoods. Hobie, especially, is not just a harmless joking toff: he is a vicious bully, who leaves lifelong scars on the souls of some people. His fascination with Ben allows a friendship to bloom, but we're never blind to the horrific psychological abuse he heaps on his sister, or the anger broiling just beneath his skin most of the time.

The world the author describes is completely believable. The kids hang around South Kensington, Notting Hill and Camden, complete with visits to shops that actually exist. The people around them are authentic. The school atmosphere felt very familiar. I imagine the author must come from a background quite similar to that of these kids, or she must have spent a lot of time surrounded by kids and people like them.

But what about The Otherlife? I admit, I was not expecting to read about the lives and times of some privately educated rich kids quite as much as I did. I thought there would be more fantasy stuff. Ben has certain visions ever since an accidental whack to the head with a cricket bat, which partially blinded him for months, and which resulted in his vision returning with added shiny stuff. It is his tutor who first mentions Viking mythology to him, and Ben starts to fit the colours and visions he sees into a framework he reads about obsessively from that point onwards. It's not quite as simple as "it's all in his head", but for much of the story, the Otherlife is a very passive thing: Ben sees things, but he almost never interacts with them. That said, the Otherlife is very important to the story, and its frame foreshadows and rounds up and completes aspects of the story.

The Otherlife isn't the escapist romp I expected. It's slower, more complex, and unflinchingly true to life (even if that includes an intrusion of Viking mythology into our reality). It's an intelligent, well-written novel. It is very satisfyingly rounded off. I doubt I would have enjoyed it as a kid, but patient readers will find a novel that is both a subtle art work and a dramatic masterpiece in its pages. (It reminded me a bit of Luca, Son of Morning, so fans of one might enjoy the other.)

Rating: 4.5/5

I can't find a book trailer for The Otherlife, but the author is a singer as well as a writer, and though it's not the heavy metal music that features in the novel, this video somehow seemed to be appropriate:



Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Review: And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness and Rovina Cai

And the Ocean Was Our Sky is a beautiful looking book, by a wonderfully talented author, written as a fantastical counterpoint to Moby Dick. Unfortunately, it did not live up to its promise, for me.

"Call me Bathsheba", the story begins. As a story about a group of whales who hunt humans, led by a captain whose head still bears the harpoon that has been launched into it, you would be forgiven to think that these whales live in our world, that their ultimate quarry will be Captain Ahab. Before long, however, that suspicion is shattered: the world of the story is fantastical. Gravity points towards the surface of the sea, up and down are reversed underwater, and these whales travel with ships (which they build from wreckage), build cities, perform surgeries, and war with humans.

The whale ships, especially, took me quite a while to get used to.

One of the key themes of the story is destiny: the whales have a belief system that centres on 'prophecy', so they see prophecy wherever they look. Our narrator, Bathsheba, is different. She does not quite believe in it. Yet she becomes a hunter because of her grandmother's prophetic declaration that she would, and she joins fierce Captain Alexandra  and her crew in order to hunt man.

Despite being more or less a fan of Patrick Ness, this book baffled me greatly. The writing is good, but the premise is very weird. Rovina Cai's illustrations are wonderful throughout the book, and they make a huge contribution. They create atmosphere and drama and awe where, if I'm honest, the text fails to. I think what really scuppers this tale for me is that the whales do not read like whales. Stories about animals always risk falling into the trap of losing the reader when the animals feel too human, or not human enough. The whales in this story are far too human for this reader.

Finally, the grand finale of the story was a huge disappointment for me. I won't go into detail as to why, but this particular reader felt badly let down.

And the Ocean Was Our Sky is a strange novella. It is beautifully illustrated and the book is a stunning object, with heavy paper, a subtle, elegant font, and seemingly a labour of love. It is not the story you're led to expect by the cover blurbs, and some readers will struggle with the fantastical world and the plot that are presented here. It's a lot weirder than you might think.

Rating: 3/5 (which is lifted quite a bit by the artwork)


Sunday, 9 September 2018

Review: The Fairy's Tale by F.D. Lee

The Fairy's Tale is a humorous novel about Bea, a fairy who works to ensure that fairy tales go according to plan. Bea herself, meanwhile, dreams of being promoted from a watcher to a manager (i.e. a fairy godmother), allowed to interact with the characters (humans) rather than just being an unseen force that applies minor nudges.

In her home world, she faces daily discrimination against cabbage fairies and the Kafkaesque reality of a fairy nation managed by a dystopian bureaucracy obsessed with narrative structures (and complete with tyranny, nebulous enforcers, public ºredactions" that are the executions of fairy souls, leaving behind empty husked zombie fairy slaves). And, when she finally gets her big shot, she has to battle with a cinderella who fancies a farm boy, an ugly stepsister who is a vegetarian, a political activist, and who leads a rebellious protest in the woods, a toff king who means well but is utterly gormless, and a grand vizier / royal adviser / mysterious stranger who appears to have his own designs on the direction of Bea's plot...

Fairy tales lend themselves to a certain postmodern smirk, of course. Even Disney rarely dares to tell one straight any more - we get re-imaginings that star the (previous) villains, we get tales that punch holes into fairy tale logic, we get Shrek, Enchanted, Hoodwinked, and live-action reshoots of animated movies where half the pleasure isn't the story, but the cosplay reenactment of a visual text everybody knows. So, The Fairy's Tale does not  exactly tread new ground with its approach of punching holes into well known tales. On the other hand, we readers still love the aesthetic of fairy tales, so it's still fertile ground even if it is not new.

Bea's adventures, however, struggled to maintain my attention. The text's humour was pleasant if mellow, and I rather liked Ana, the ugly stepsister. But somehow, the book felt unpolished. OK, so it could have used a proofreader (the spelling was fine, but there were quite a few places where words were missing, or superfluous words were still in-text, or two half sentences joined together with an overlap). But that alone does not explain why the book felt lost. Perhaps there was something slightly neurotic about the writing, or the dialogue. Perhaps the exposition and world building was paced wrong. Perhaps some plot developments and some characters felt a little too improvised. Perhaps it was too long. All I can say is that the book felt like an early draft, not like a finished product, and somehow this jarred and detracted from the reading experience.

The Fairy's Tale is not a terrible novel, nor was it ever going to be a great, memorable read. Somewhere inside it, there is a pleasantly fun diversion, but for now, the story is still too half-baked to recommend it.

Rating: 2.5/5

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Aviation thrillers reviewed: 16 Souls by John J. Nance and Polar Three by Carolyn Pasqualino

The other day I was in the mood for something fast, easy to digest, and filled with aeroplanes. So I bought a couple of aviation thrillers. For those unfamiliar with this sub-sub-sub-genre, there are technological thrillers written for an audience of aviation enthusiasts (such as myself). Not entirely surprisingly, the number of novels in this field is a bit limited.

So, first, 16 Souls by John J. Nance, who is pretty much the big name author in this genre. Sure, Michael Crighton had a crack at this sort of book with Airframe, but John J. Nance has endeared himself to planespotters far and wide by being a former pilot and by writing pretty much exclusively about planes and pilots in peril.

As such, 16 Souls is a pretty slick, accomplished thriller. I read virtually all of it in one night, because I wanted to get to the next bit. It's the story of a pilot, Captain Marty Mitchell (alliterative names for the win!) who is about to go on trial for murder in the second degree as result of a deadly accident he was involved in. The novel alternates between scenes set in the trial's timeline, and flashbacks to the incident as it unfolded.

In all honesty, it's the incident itself which is exciting and interesting to read about. Fortunately, Nance has returned to premises that are closer to realism and further away from OTT scifi.
(Side note: The book that propelled Nance to bestseller status was Pandora's Clock, an excellent scifi aviation thriller about a deadly virus on board a 747. The drama and action is amped up to 11 in that one with a missile-armed business jet, explosions, and Outbreak-style mayhem. Then, in Medusa's Child, a book about a nuclear bomb aboard a 737 during a hurricane, it gets amped up to 12, and some of his other novels bounce up and down on the suspension of disbelief until it snaps. I kinda gave up on him after reading Blackout, which toyed around with every aviation enthusiast's wet dream - incapacitated pilots mean a kid with flight-sim experience is called upon to try to fly and land a jumbo jet - and then ruins it with a completely unbelievable crash scenario that is physically impossible.)

Where was I? Ah yes, the premise. 16 Souls imagines a mid-air collision wherein a small aircraft isn't completely shattered, but gets somehow embedded in the bigger airliner that plowed into it. It may be incredibly unlikely, but it's not outside the realm of the imaginable. And from that scenario, Nance derives a plot of suspense as he keeps the reader guessing about what the pilot will do, and how this will result in disaster.

Much as the story of the accident is exciting, the story of the pilot's legal woes is not. First, we see him attempting suicide, largely as act of revenge against the system for daring to prosecute him. Then, we follow his (female, rookie) lawyer's attempts to keep him straight and prep for the case. It's a bit like the movie Sully, which withheld the full details of the accident from the audience until a key scene during Sully's NTSB hearings, but in this book, the legal thriller just gets in the way of the interesting stuff. And Marty Mitchell is a really annoying character once he's outside the cockpit. Sure, he's meant to be traumatised, but he comes across as whiny and entitled, because he rails an awful lot against lawyers for daring to suspect and accuse him of a crime. He seems to think that a pilot in command of a plane is above earthly law.

The other thing which was mildly annoying is that John J Nance appears to have turned into a slightly sexist dinosaur. Maybe his thrillers were always such - it's been many years since I read most of them - but I remember that he seemed ahead of the curve at one time. For example, in Pandora's Clock, a male rookie works with a more seasoned female agent (they reversed the sexes for the TV adaptation, which was quite telling). In 16 Souls, on the other hand, a heavily traumatised crash victim later describes the pilot to an investigator: "Just to look at him inspired confidence. Like he came out of some Hollywood casting company, you know? Square shoulders, tall and trim, chiseled facial features. Salt and pepper hair, very neatly cropped. That deep, rumbling, authoritative pilot voice. I figured he was in his mid-fifties and probably former military. He just looked like Air Force or Navy. Maybe it's a female thing, ... but if a guy like that is willing to fly, I'll be his passenger any day."

OK, so Nance is no longer writing planespotter-porn, now he's writing pilot-porn. Fine, let the women characters swoon in the middle of their trauma. Then you get some male characters having a chat where they get paranoid, whine and bemoan these PC times:
"tell me what form of payment should be rendered for past intelligence proviced. Cash, check, liquor, ... women?"
"Women? Shit, Scott, your sense of humour is gonna get us in deep trouble one of these days when the call gets monitored by the NSA or something and someone posts it on Facebook."

...while the woman lawyer ponders how to keep her client in line: "I need to keep him focused and ready for court, and I'm worried about letting him out of my sight. Maybe I should just sleep with him!"
(Yeah, it's an internal joke she's making in her own head, but somehow all the lady-swooning over pilots seems tacky to me.)

16 Souls is, in the end, a decent aviation thriller. It holds the attention. It may not feature deep characters, decent humour, or complicated insights into human nature, but it's easy to digest, readable, and the scenario it presents is tense and exciting. It is bloated by a legal thriller that doesn't, and at times it feels like reading tacky old-pilot fantasies / wishful thinking, but it's worth your while if you like planes.

Rating: 3/5

My thirst for Jet A fuel not being entirely slaked by this point, I then read Polar Three by Carolyn Pasqualino. She, too, is a pilot, though not a retired one.

Polar Three is the story of a cargo 747 flying from Chicago to Hong Kong across the Polar Three air route. (There are only a handful of air routes across the pole). Unfortunately for its crew, the temperatures outside are colder than predicted, cold enough to threaten freezing their fuel inside its tanks. Add a solar storm and a communication cut-off, and the plane is in trouble...

Polar Three is a quite different novel from John J Nance's offerings. For one thing, the crisis scenario is much less far-fetched, and not overdramatised at all. Essentially, the troubles the crew is faced with are realistic troubles that real pilots encounter, and their responses are authentic.

Things are a bit less realistic once the flight is over, as many solutions are served on a platter to the characters.

Polar Three differs in other ways from Nance's novels: the characters in this book are professionals, interacting professionally, and staying at professional distance, throughout the story. This means the reader doesn't get a huge amount of gooey emotional stuff or personality to connect with. Instead, we're reading about collegiate colleagues  working on problems as a well functioning, but somewhat bland team. It can feel a little sterile. Pasqualino must have noticed that problem, so she added two dogs to the story, who basically inject some woofy warmth to proceedings. But I'll be honest, the book lacks human interest. (There is a joker among the characters, but his jokes are the sort of safe and predictable office jests that everyone smiles at out of politeness. Small talk with a smiley at the end.)

Polar Three is a fairly dry novel, in that the book gets very technical and accurate. It feels like watching a Just Planes! video from time to time, as radio contact is covered in full and accurately. At another point, a lengthy part of the novel features detailed aircraft maintenance. As aviation enthusiast, I enjoyed much of this, or at least, I did not find it tiresome. I suspect for readers with less fondness for aircraft and flying, the novel is unlikely to be anywhere near as enjoyable.

Dry, technical, authentic: Polar Three is an acquired taste, appealing to a niche audience. That said, I liked reading an aviation thriller that put authenticity first. I did not dislike any of the human drama (because there was very little), and I never rolled my eyes in annoyance. I had hoped for a somewhat grittier story of survival against the odds in Arctic ice, but there was something pleasantly mellow about the book, while it still held my attention.

Fellow aviation enthusiasts may well find this book worthwhile, and it earns a lot of kudos by being consistently credible. Not bestseller material, but a book that wannabe pilots can savour.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Review: The Tenth Island: Finding Joy, Beauty, and Unexpected Love in the Azores by Diana Marcum

The Tenth Island is a book written by a young(ish) journalist who falls in love with the Azores and decides to stay there for a sabbatical from her unfulfilled, stressed out life.

As a young(ish) writer who has fallen in love with the Azores and who has decided to stay there for a sabbatical from his unfulfilled, stressed out life, I found myself intrigued by the premise, though perhaps somewhat envious of the fact that it resulted in a book about the experience in her case.

After reading it, I can say with confidence that I was not the target audience, regardless of any theoretical similarities in my situation. In fact, I could not help smiling while reading Hannah Green at the same time as this book, because it had a throwaway line about real stories as opposed to those about "needy middle-agers overturning their lives in a fit of First World pique and finding true love running a funky little book shop in Barcelona". Apparently, there is an entire genre for this sort of thing, which I had hitherto been ignorant of. (Side note: I would be delighted to run a bookshop on any Azorean island. Having watched Black Books, I am confident that I am the perfect guy for such a project! Contact me with lots of cash to make this happen!)

So, ignorant of the entire genre, I cannot comment about whether The Tenth Island is as good as Eat Pray Love, the book mentioned a lot in publicity about this one. What I can say is that it is filled with affection for the Azores. It's a bit of a shame that the writer spends her entire time on Terceira, the party island, which is the least scenic of the bigger islands. (Then again, she's mostly interested in the people, not scenery, so it's not the wrong island for her)

The author is a very different person compared to myself. An extrovert, perky, pretty, interested in people, fast at making hundreds of friendly acquaintances, a real social butterfly: she is essentially my polar opposite. Thus the text is a bewildering list of all the people she meets, filled with impressions of their lives and snippets of their life stories. As a journalist, the author talks to people, and asks them questions. What a bizarre thing to do. I barely remember people's names in real life, so I found that, aside from one or two of the people in her book, I had no idea who anyone was most of the time.

The author also had a very different way of looking at the humans: she looks at everyone she meets with affection, but also a strong tendency to cutesify everyone's culture, habits and history (except for Americans, who are the default and whose culture therefore isn't interesting enough to smile about). Her book isn't full of people, it's full of quaint, cute caricatures. Whether Azorean or Armenian or Iranian, she gives everyone just enough colour to draw a cartoon person, an Instagram polaroid snapshot with technicolor filters, but not enough to make anyone come across as a real person with a real life. As such, the character I enjoyed most turned out to be Murphy, her labrador, because at least with a dog it's not so shallow or patronising to feel bemused affection  to the exclusion of any other sentiment.

As for life lessons, the book does occasionally include an aside to the reader with some theory / snippet of wisdom. None of those theories resonated or stuck with me, unfortunately, which left me feeling as if this book was a bit vapid. This was a surprise, as the author is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, someone who has done outstanding, world class work. Perhaps she has a better eye for other people's stories than she does for her own. Or perhaps a feel-good book about happy laid back quaint Azorean cartoon people living on their quirky, pretty islands and in their homesick diaspora is simply too light a subject matter to burden with deep insights into greater truths.

In the end, The Tenth Island felt a bit empty. The title promises the finding of things (joy, beauty and unexpected love), but only two out of three are found in the text. In a pleasant surprise, there is no love, or rather, she never actually gets together with the man whom she seems to feel the greatest affection for. Instead, she has a relationship or two with men whom she has no discernible feelings for, although this might also be a factor in the empty feeling the book left behind. Her (multiple) visits to the Azores are basically extended holidays. They do not seem to change her, nor her life. The main gist of the book could be summed up as "woman enjoys taking a break now and again", something which could surely only come as a surprise to Americans with their pitiful holiday allowances. At least she describes the Azores, well, and with affection, and that is good.

So yeah, I was really not the target audience. On the other hand, if the book makes a few more people curious about the Azores, that's a lovely achievement, and it might make for a pleasant, light read for any travellers heading to these islands.

Rating: 3/5


Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Rezension: Die rätselhaften Vorfahren der Inka


Die rätselhaften Vorfahren der Inka ist ein leicht lesbares Buch über die Geschichte der Völker die in Peru (und im Andenraum generell) lebten, bevor die Inka ihr Reich zusammeneroberten, und natürlich bevor die Conquistadors auftauchten und Südamerikas Zivilisationen zerschlugen.

Es gibt erstaunlich wenige Bücher über lateinamerikanische Vorgeschichte (wobei "Vorgeschichte" eben als "Vorkolonialgeschichte" gelesen werden muss). Der Hauptgrund dafür ist, dass die Völker Lateinamerikas keine Schriftsysteme entwickelt hatten, bevor sie erobert wurden - zumindest keine, die bis heute entschlüsselt sind. (Die Khipus der Andenvölker und der Inka werden heutzutage als Schriftsystem vermutet, aber die Entschlüsselung ist noch nicht erreicht). Insofern ist dieses Buch wichtig: es macht es dem Laien zugänglich, einen Zweig der Menschheitsgeschichte zu betrachten, der nur sehr selten ausserhalb von Fachkreisen dargestellt wird.

Es gibt viel lobenswertes: das Buch zeigt früh eine Serie von Landkarten, die die Völkerkulturphasen und Standorte ubersichtlich darstellt. Dieser Überblick ist Gold wert - anderen Büchern fehlt er. Das Buch ist mit reichlich Bildern illustriert, und die machen es einfacher, dem Text zu folgen. Vor allem aber ist die Geschichtsdarstellung so objektiv wie möglich und auf relativ neuem Stand des Wissens. Hut ab.

Andererseits kann der Stil des Buches manchmal ein wenig nerven. Es ist immer leicht lesbar, neigt aber hin und wieder zum Grandiosen und Dramatischen. Anderenorts klingt der Autor etwas arrogant, als stehe er über der einen oder anderen Meinung, oder gar des einen oder anderen Völkerglaubens. Das funktioniert, sofern man mit dem Autor mitgrinst. Wenn man das nicht tut, oder wenn man etwas mehr wissen will über das was da in einem halben abwertigen Satz belächelt wird, dann steht man allein im Wald. Und der letzte Punkt, der mich ein wenig verstutzte, ist dass der Grossteil der Quellen aus deutschen Archäologen besteht. Zwar stimmt es, das deutsche Archäologen viel in Südamerika geleistet haben, aber ich konnte den Verdacht nicht loswerden, dass das Buch an Informationsreichtum eingebüsst hat, weil es deutsche Archäologen allen anderen als Quelle vorzieht.

Das Buch ist trotzdem sehr empfehlenswert für Laien und Leute die, wie ich, gerne eine Grundlage des Vorhandenen Wissens über Lateinamerikanische Zivilisationen und Protozivilisationen erlernen wollen.

Bewertung: 4/5

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Review: Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

Hannah Green and her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence is a novel about a girl whose parents are separating. It's also a novel about the Devil having a problem, and Hannah's mysterious but kooky grandfather, about adventures with demons and angels and about saving the world.

More importantly, it is a novel by Michael Marshall Smith. MMS is a writer whose career has been a bit non-linear. I first encountered his novels at the age of 17 when I went to University, and I immediately became a fan. Back then, in long-ago 1999, MMS was a writer of uber-cool, edgy, cyberpunk-inspired witty science fiction. His novels One Of Us and Spares have stuck with me for a long time. His short stories, collected in What You Make It, had sharp teeth. Then, in a surprise twist, MMS turned to writing serial killer thrillers as Michael Marshall. These, too, had teeth, and a unique sensibility, combining elements of horror (beyond Silence of the Lambs style violence) and creepy conspiracies into a brew that took serial killer thrillers into surreal and chilling arenas that they had not reached before. More recently, he has returned to writing short novels as MMS, some of which were adapted for TV. Now, Hannah Green - a novel that is, to my genuine surprise, sweet. MMS has never done sweet before, as far as I know.

Hannah Green, with its quirky title and its child hero, seems to take aim at the people who buy books like The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or, perhaps, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of A Window and Disappeared. I have read two of these, so I guess I'm one of those people. As writer of considerable talent, MMS adjusts his tone to suit this different genre. Our narration is a bit quirky, a bit sweet, gently bumbling and bemused. There is warmth and wit infused in the telling of the tale. Some readers compare the style to Neil Gaiman's (in Stardust or The Graveyard Book), which is a fair comparison. There are times when it gets a little too sweet, in the way that, for example, the TV show Pushing Daisies tends to overshoot the optimal level of sweetness. On the whole, however, the style is mostly just right.

There are moments, quite a few, when the narration ponders some real stuff. The way the story addresses Hannah's parents' separation, and their feelings, is written with deep insight, rich metaphors, and real heartache. There's a sense of dearly-bought wisdom in those sections, and a depth which took me by surprise. (MMS is a whip-smart writer, a virtuoso with words, but I remember the edgy-angry MMS of 1999. This older but wiser, perhaps kinder version was new to me)

However, it's not all sweetness and wisdom. MMS's version of hell is every bit as disturbing and surreal as one might expect. His devil is dangerous, even if Hannah Green is protected from seeing that side of him. There may not be any explicit sex in the text, but there's real threat and a fair amount of violence. It's certainly not a children's book, even if the main character is a child. Neither is it one of those books where the child in question is a "precocious" "prodigy" type character (which usually means a shrunken adult with some child-superpowers and weird naivetee that adults wish children had). Hannah may be described by a narration that is adult, affectionate, and a bit twee, but she's pretty normal for all that. Any sweetness is in the narration, not in her actions.

Hannah Green is an enjoyable novel. It is sweet and wise and kind, but there are teeth in there, too, and they are sharp and pointy... A real gem and a bit of a surprise.

Rating: 4.5/5


Thursday, 23 August 2018

Review: The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter by Rod Duncan

The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter is a fast-paced adventure novel set in an alternative, steampunky Britain, where the industrial revolution has slowed to a crawl and a civil war has split the country into a puritan Republic in the North and a flamboyant Kingdom in the South.

Elizabeth Barnabus, our heroine, is a refugee from the Kingdom, living in the Republic. She has fled because she was about to be enslaved due to family debts, and being the (sex) slave of an evil old Lord did not appeal to her. In the Republic, she leads a double life, running a detective agency dressed as a man (her supposed brother), while managing the home (a boat) and neighbours as herself. Here, too, she has financial problems, and unless she can earn a huge sum within a few months, she'll lose her home.

Enter a mysterious Lady from across the border, with an assignment that promises to be richly rewarded: find her missing brother (who has left the Kingdom with a circus now touring the Republic), and all Elizabeth's troubles will be solved.

Of course, things never quite go to plan.

There's a lot to like about The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter. The pace is fast. The tropes are fun. (Femme fatale! Circus! Detectives and spies! Mysterious strangers! Women dressing as men to outsmart the Patriarchy!) ... It's never boring and Elizabeth is kept busy chasing her quarry and being chased by nefarious villains.

There's also a lot that could be a bit better. (One of the defining features of Angry Robot books is that they have a portfolio of interesting, promising books, many of which could have used a bit more editorial massaging to polish into shape). For example, the world building is a bit wonky. The history is drip fed into the story, but feels like it only exists in the very broadest strokes. The plot paints a sinisterly powerful Patent Office, but after reading it I still have no idea why the patent office has powers, what its motives are in the present, nor what it was set up to do in the first place. Our hero is supposed to be very good at leading her double life, undiscovered for five years, but in the space of the novel a surprising number of people find out her secret. And ultimately, the resolutions of the plot around the missing brother and the McGuffin felt rushed and a bit... inconsistent. (Pretty much everything about the McGuffin was a bit odd).

So: a pleasant steampunky caper, good fun, but a little rough around the edges.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review: Circe by Madeline Miller


Circe is a witch goddess from Greek mythology. Having read and enjoyed Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles some years ago, I was curious about this new book of hers.

Life is tough for Circe: born a daughter of the titan and sun god Helios, she is not quite as beautiful or striking as many other nymphs. Her ambitious mother is disappointed with her prophesied fate, so immediately starts having more children in the hope of making a "better one". Her siblings are mostly mean to her, and even the one she raises herself turns out to be incapable of love or loyalty. Circe is a bit of an ugly duckling in her family.

It's an encounter with Prometheus that starts her fascination with mortals. She idealises them to begin with, assuming a goodness in humans simply because they are not the selfish and cruel Gods she has grown up amongst. Her naive attempts to help a human don't bear the fruit she had hoped for (love), and her angry attempts at a small revenge turn deadly when she inadvertently creates a monster. Her attempts involve the discovery of witchcraft (magic from a different source than the gods').

Most of the novel takes place on the island Aiaia, where Circe is banished in punishment for her discovery of witchcraft. There, she lives with lions, wolves and wild boars, and, at times, a following of naughty nymphs who have displeased their families and are sent to serve her as punishment for their misdeeds. Sometimes, people and gods visit her...

Circe is a tougher subject matter than heroic Achilles or his lover Patroclus. Her powers and agency are limited: she has witchcraft, but is imprisoned. She is immortal, but female, in a time when women could only really wield power through men. Her role in myths is generally as a side quest, or an obstacle, in some other hero's tale: she is a cameo character. This makes her story more episodic, her relationships with other characters very short-term. She lives on a different timescale from mortals, so all the people she is interested in are mere phases in her life.

The book is faithful to the myths, and that faithfulness limits what it can do to breathe life into Circe's story. Perhaps the most frustrating element is that no gaps are filled in. For example, Circe is disgusted with gods and immortals, including her fellow nymphs. So when she finds her island populated with nymphs who are meant to serve her, she avoids them and isolates herself from them. Yet she is also vaguely protective of "her" nymphs when hostile forces arrive - though she does not seem to know any of them by name or speak with any of them, ever. Her fetish for mortals is understandable, and even her inherent distrust of immortals. A curmudgeonly attitude towards other nymphs who arrive on her island is no big surprise initially, but somehow, it would make a lot more sense for her to develop some kind of relationship with her fellow nymphs. After all, these are the ones who don't fit in, the ones banished for some reason, like herself. There is common ground here, and yet, that common ground is never explored. Circe is filled simultaneously with disdain, disinterest, and protectiveness for them, without ever making a friend or trying to do so.

I did enjoy reading about myths I knew very little about. However, I also found Circe a novel lacking something. It's episodic, but the episodes don't really create a coherent, continuous feeling. Circe's story is serious and a bit joyless. Somehow, a story about the first witch, who lived with and befriended lions and wolves on an island full of naughty nymphs and who turned men who annoyed her into pigs, should have had more of a spark and a twinkle in the eyes.

Rating: 3/5


Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Review: Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

Where the World Ends is a novel about a group of youngsters (and a few men) whose working excursion to a stack out in the sea turns into a nightmare when no one comes to collect them after their working time is up. Just a few miles away from their home town, they become marooned on an inhospitable, dangerous, steep rock jutting out from the ocean.

St Kilda was once one of the remotest outposts of British influence in the North Atlantic. A set of islands populated by a few dozen people eking out a harsh living based on sheep farming and foraging (harvesting wild sea birds for food, oil, feathers and fuel). The Warrior Stack, where the story takes place, was a prime location for fowling at the end of the summer, so youngsters were taken there to camp for a fortnight and harvest all the birds they could.

Our protagonist, Quill, is one of the older boys. He has one good friend, Munroe, and a head full of fond thoughts about a girl who visited their island. He has some charisma, looks out for the younger boys, and knows how to get along with people even if they're unpleasant.

The grown ups - a teacher, a gravedigger / assistant to the church, and only one practical man, aren't very effective as a leadership group. The gravedigger is self-important and soon establishes himself as minister / spiritual leader, but he is resented by the other men and, though obeyed, despised by most of the boys. The teacher sinks into depression, so he disengages from everyone and seeks out solitude a lot. And the practical man is content to do his own thing. There is no functional leadership, really.

Which means that the only contestant for a leader whom the youngsters follow out of choice is Quill. With some semblance of diplomatic skills, a sensible head on his shoulders, courage, strength, etc., he becomes a de facto rival to the self-appointed minister.

At times, Where the World Ends reads like a Scottish Lord of the Flies. Man vs nature very rapidly turns into Man vs other men. However, conflicts don't become as entrenched: as islanders from a tiny community, these men and boys are used to living in tiny groups, with frictions and resentments, but ultimately, the capacity to get along just enough to survive.

As an adventure story, Where the World Ends is a bit bleak. The harsh surroundings are one thing, but the boys (and men) are mostly not very likeable. Quill is a decent guy, but the other boys include a hateful, toxic bully, a pompous uber-religious preachy kid, sullen loners, and kids ready to turn into an angry mob with the slightest encouragement. Essentially, this is a story about boys and men barely getting along (and rarely working together) to survive - there are almost no friendships, there is little camaraderie, and the only relief comes in the form of stories they tell each other to remind themselves of home and humanity.

I was surprised by the bleak and harsh mood of the novel. I bought it under the impression that it is a children's book, or YA. (The author is an award winning children's writer, and some reviewers suggested it's a book for mini-Bear-Gryllises). Instead, I found myself reading a novel that would have been squarely aimed at adults, had it been written 40 years ago. It's shorter than contemporary fiction for adults, but in tone, subject matter, character complexity and story, there is nothing particularly child-like about it. The brevity and pace won't test the patience of younger readers, but the story won't feel patronising or childish to even the most prolific adult reader.

Rating: 4/5