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

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Review: Apu Ollantay A Drama of the Time of the Incas

Apu Ollantay is a unique artefact. It is the only drama / play script which was written in Quechua and which claims to be of Inca origin. That claim is disputed. Reading it in English makes for a curious and not always comfortable experience. You can download a version for free through Project Gutenberg - and that is the version I read and link to.

There are three aspects that my mind focused on when reading Apu Ollantay:

1) The framing (written by its translator, an academic)

2) The historicity (what was the context of its writing, is it authentic, is it Inca?)

3) The text itself

The Framing: On Translators and 19th Century Scholars

Since the framing takes the form of a lengthy foreword followed by lots of footnotes, it's fair to look at that first. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is "of its time". The translator/author gives context of the claimed history of the play itself, which is useful, and the provenance of the written text which he used for his translations. Translations, plural, because the version preserved for history on Project Gutenberg was not his first attempt. In fact, the author reveals that there has been some controversy: he first translated the text, line by line, in 1871 "with many mistakes, since corrected". In strolls a person whom the author obviously isn't terribly fond of:
"In 1878 Gavino Pacheco Zegarra published his version of Ollantay, with a free translation in French. His text is a manuscript of the drama which he found in his uncle's library. Zegarra, as a native of Peru whose language was Quichua, had great advantages. He was a very severe, and often unfair, critic of his predecessors.
The work of Zegarra is, however, exceedingly valuable. He was not only a Quichua scholar, but also accomplished and well read. His notes on special words and on the construction of sentences are often very interesting. But his conclusions respecting several passages which are in the Justiniani text, but not in the others, are certainly erroneous. (...)
The great drawback to the study of Zegarra's work is that he invented a number of letters to express the various modifications of sound as they appealed to his ear. No one else can use them, while they render the reading of his own works difficult and intolerably tiresome 
There is truth in what Zegarra says, that the attempts to translate line for line, by von Tschudi and myself, 'fail to convey a proper idea of the original drama to European readers, the result being alike contrary to the genius of the modern languages of Europe and to that of the Quichua language.' Zegarra accordingly gives a very free translation in French.
In the present translation I believe that I have always preserved the sense of the original, without necessarily binding myself to the words."

(Emphasis mine)
It's a little strange to read. There is begrudging admission that Zegarra's work was invaluable. At the same time, the author is bitter and much annoyed about the (admittedly accurate!) criticisms that Zegarra made about his own work (and that of other Western academics). So, in response to these criticisms, the text now preserved on Project Gutenberg was produced - a looser translation, which sticks closer to the scansion and poetic forms of the original, but is less loyal to line-by-line meaning. (He also sticks to his own conclusions about what scenes were supposed to convey, e.g. by including "humorous" dialogues that Zegarra didn't)

Still, reading the snide asides about the "difficult and intolerably tiresome" text produced by the only native scholar (& Quechua speaker) and the whining about how "severe and often unfair" his criticism of the efforts of non-native scholars were, while acknowledging that his criticisms were broadly correct... it's hard not to see this as pretty staggering entitlement and arrogance on behalf of Sir Clements Markham (the scholar who wrote this translation). It's also a bit rich that he almost complains about Zegarra having a "great advantage" due to being a native Peruvian & Quechua speaker. The end result is that I wish Zegarra had written an English translation, or that my own French was serviceable enough to seek out his work and read that instead of this one.

Another example of being "of its time" is in the footnote where Sir Markham writes that "The Inca Pachacuti does not appear to advantage in the drama. But he was the greatest man of his dynasty, indeed the greatest that the red race has produced." (again, emphasis mine)

So: the framing makes me distrust this version of the text a bit. Being a loose translation is fair, so long as there is loyalty not just to form, but also to substance. A loose translation written with some colonial arrogance thrown in? It undermines my trust in the authenticity of the text.

Historicity: An Inca Play?

Spanish conquistadors reached the Inca in the 1530s. The first written text of Apu Ollantay was put on paper in 1770. The Markham text was written in 1910. So 240 years passed between the conquest and the time when the play was written down for the first time, and another 140 before this translation was produced.

A lot happened to the Inca and their descendants in those 240 years.

Markham outlines the historicity right at the start:
"The drama was cultivated by the Incas, and dramatic performances were enacted before them.(...) Some of these dramas, and portions of others, were preserved in the memories of members of Inca and Amauta families. The Spanish priests, especially the Jesuits of Juli, soon discovered the dramatic aptitude of the people. Plays were composed and acted, under priestly auspices, which contained songs and other fragments of the ancient Inca drama. These plays were called 'Autos Sacramentales.'
But complete Inca dramas were also preserved in the memories of members of the Amauta caste and, until the rebellion of 1781, they were acted. (...) Taking the name of his maternal ancestor, the Inca Tupac Amaru, the ill-fated Condorcanqui rose in rebellion, was defeated, taken, and put to death under torture, in the great square of Cuzco. In the monstrous sentence 'the representation of dramas as well as all other festivals which the Indians celebrate in memory of their Incas' was prohibited.[2] This is a clear proof that before 1781 these Quichua dramas were acted."
Despite his claims, I am aware that there is an oft-quoted stance taken by academics studying the Selk'nam people of Patagonia that those were the only native peoples with a pre-conquest history of drama, in the shape of their Hain rites of passage. Assuming that academics studying the Selk'nam were not completely ignorant of the work academics studying the Inca had produced, this suggests that the historicity of Incan drama can't have been universally accepted by scholars.

Did the Inca perform plays? And was Apu Ollantay an Inca play? Did people pass on Inca dramas in oral history within one caste / family for hundreds of years, ready to be recorded at last by Western & priestly scholars with a sudden interest in recording such things? And is the resulting record authentic to pre-conquest Inca dramatic lore?

After reading the play, I think that, whatever the kernels of its original seed, it must have undergone a lot of adaptation in the hundreds of years under Spanish rule. From things as simple as having a scythe as a symbol of death (even though the Inca had a scythe, I doubt it had the same symbolism), to casting the founder of the Inca empire and venerated Inca hero as the villain of the piece, the text feels like most of it was meant to appeal to post-conquest society. I have no doubt that there were performative arts in Inca times - storytellers, songs, festivals, rituals - and I can imagine staged plays being part of that, too. But reading an English text written in 1910 by a British scholar based on texts recorded in 1770... that text did not feel like it was part of a pre-conquest canon of plays, not to my eyes.

Apu Ollantay: A Romance

The story of Apu Ollantay is very simple. If I had to summarise it, I'd describe it as Romeo and Juliet crossed with Coriolanus, minus any complexity. Full plot (SPOILERS) ahead:

Big general Ollantay is in love with princess & daughter of his king. The king's law decrees that royals may only marry each other. General & princess have married in secret. The general asks the king for his blessing, is refused, and plans a rebellion & conquest, but by the time he is ready to do this, the king has taken his court elsewhere. Ten years later, and the civil war caused by the general's uprising is still in progress. The princess had a daughter, who lives in a temple of sacred virgins and is sad about being alone and locked up. Also, she hears mournful cries at night. King dies. Little girl discovers that the mournful crying comes from her mother, who is locked up in a dungeon below the temple. New king sends out his general to conquer the rebels once and for all, which he does by acting as a trojan horse. When the rebel general is brought to the new king to face justice, he is suddenly offered mercy and permanent rule over a province of his own. Then, the little girl storms the palace and pleads for her mother's life, so the king (and all present) go to investigate, discover the locked-away princess in the dungeon, and everyone lives happily ever after.

I felt that the plot was very thin. I do wonder whether my impression would be different if I saw the play performed on stage: reading scripts can sometimes feel a lot flatter than seeing them performed.

The tone of the Markham text feels a bit faux-Shakespearian (hence my comparison to Romeo & Juliet and Coriolanus). The author makes choices about which Quechua names and words to use, and which to translate, but these choices are to the detriment of the text when characters make a lot of puns that are now broken. (One character has a name that includes the Quechua word for "rock" or "stone", so there is a lot of talk about stones and rocks whenever he is around. Only the footnotes make clear that these are puns. Another character is called "joyous star" in Quechua, so when others ask her where the joy has gone, or refer to her as "the star", then the text again relies on footnotes to clarify the meanings).

There are references to locations, plants, animals, and some customs which are Inca. At the same time, the court, the generals, the temple of virgins... those things don't seem very different from tropes in Western drama. Incan religion is laid on very, very thin, if at all. If the play was not originally conceived in post-conquest times, then it seems very likely that it was toned down to avoid persecution by the zealot Catholics in charge for hundreds of years. The end result is a play that, in its English translation, could just as well be a play about any other old civilisation. Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Macedonians, Ottomans. Is it the act of translation itself which causes this feeling - of a story dipped in Inca decorations for flavour, rather than an Inca story? Or is it the fact that, whatever kernel of Ollantay's story had been the root of this play, it probably took on influences by the conquerors and their cultural traditions (or rather,  was it heavily edited and amended over time because of prevalent persecution)? I don't know.

All in all, I would buy a ticket and see this play performed on stage, to see if it feels differently that way. I would love to see it in Quechua, with English subtitles or surtitles. However, on paper / screen, the text is an interesting curiosity, but not quite the immersive dive into Incan culture I had hoped for.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Review: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone is a book with one of those striking, stunning covers which makes it hard to look away (let alone ignore). Even so, the text on the back cover made me think twice before buying it:

"(...) Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope. Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. (...)"

This did not sound like a lighthearted magical romp...
...and it isn't.
(Yup, that's my best Top Gear impression up there).

We get to witness the brutal genocide that happened ten years before the story starts. We witness torture, war crimes, slaughter for entertainment, the violent killings of children, persecution of a minority, and brutality of all kinds.

The plot is fairly simple: mysterious artefact can bring back magic. Through luck, it falls into the hands of Zélie and ignites her own magic, so she has to flee her persecutors, round up some other artefacts, and bring them to a certain place by a certain time to do a big ritual summoning of magical powers for her entire kingdom. Basically, it's a quest and a chase and there is a little relay shuffle of alliances and artefacts. That is actually a setup that lends itself well to swashbuckling adventures... except, Children of Blood and Bone is so very, very serious. Too serious to buckle any swashes.

Aside from the basic plot, the story is one defined by trauma and violence. The four viewpoint characters, all youngsters, are:

Zélie - a girl who is a trained fighter and also a diviner - a descendant of the maji who had magical powers before their powers were mysteriously eradicated (which led to all the maji being killed in a genocide). She is traumatised by her past which featured horrendous brutality.

Tzain - her brother, who is a trained fighter, playing some kind of combat sport. He  is traumatised by his past which featured horrendous brutality.

Inan - crown prince and trained fighter / warrior.  He is mildly traumatised by his past which featured horrendous brutality.

Amari - princess, younger sister of Inan, who is not yet much of a fighter at the start of the story, but whose journey is to become... a trained fighter / warrior. She is traumatised by her past which featured horrendous brutality.


Did you notice how often "trained fighter" or "traumatised" and "horrendous brutality" were mentioned above? Yup. Therein lies one of the problems. All our characters are traumatised, victims of violence, fighters, perpetrators of violence. Don't think that means there is a lot of moral relativism going on - there isn't. There is outright evil, and there are those who fight it and who are more or less good, even if they use torture now and again or kill lots of innocent people who happen to be in their way, because the evil they are fighting is just the worst. My issue as a reader isn't one of pacifism (well, not just: the book is so bereft of idealism that I grew quite fatigued with its moral emptiness), it's that there is surprisingly little variety between the characters. Amari stands out for being meek to begin with, but the rest? Their personalities are pretty interchangeable. Amari's story arc is to become just like the others, which is not exactly an improvement, if I'm honest.

I'm going to mention Game of Thrones at this point, because it is the landmark grimdark series that almost everybody is familiar with. GoT does have some variety. Brienne of Tarl, John Snow, Daenerys, Arya Stark, Sansa Stark... all GoT characters may have suffered traumatic events and that trauma has influenced them, but there are still some pretty big personality variations between them. In Children of Blood and Bone, it felt like I was reading one character, four times over, with different attributes in the columns "sex", "magical powers", "wealth and privilege", "prior trauma" and "preferred weapon". They make different choices, based on those attributes and personal experience (only Inan has not suffered a personal loss, only  Zélie has always been visibly a persecuted minority), but their personalities are pretty much the same: "tough fighter with trauma".

So we have a novel of four ass-kicking kids struggling in a mini-war between the downtrodden and their persecutors, with the fate of a kingdom in the balance. The story's tone is pseudo-African, grimdark, possibly just about YA (lots of violence, some sexy stuff but with the story moving on before anything too graphic can occur, etc.), and remarkably joyless. It's that last aspect which I found most difficult. 

There are grimdark books which manage to lighten themselves up, by having a smidgen of humour, or some characters which are witty or funny. Children of Blood and Bone is not one of those books. It couldn't raise a smile if it added a gaggle of clowns and a pie fight. (The clowns would accidentally burn themselves  to death and the pies would be full of drugs and poisons and the entire pie fight would be a trap, in this book)

Perhaps the author was aware of this, so in the only attempt to soften the tone I could notice,  there is some teen romance going on. I pretty much hated it, but can't say that this counts much against the book: I am not exactly a fan of vapid, predictable and forced teen romance plotlines in any novel. Other readers might not find the romance in this book predictable, vapid and forced, and for them, it might very well do wonders to make the story more enjoyable.

As you can tell from the review so far, I really did not enjoy the book. The final nail in the coffin is that the story is not terribly internally consistent.  Zélie and Tzain are the poor, downtrodden children of a sick father, living in dire poverty, etc. etc., who happen to have a massive horned beast they can ride on, which can jump over the walls of a city. Wait, what? So, maybe they would hold on to their animal, maybe they would treat it as part of the family even after losing everything, maybe its presence can sort of make sense. But in a world where lots of people ride on giant horned lions and panthers - what sort of city builds walls that any one of those animals can just jump over? How is "my beast of burden arrived" a valid rescue from being surrounded by guards sitting on similar beasts, inside the protective walls? (By the way, I don't recall anyone ever feeding any of these creatures, so how on earth  Zélie's family sourced the meat for a rhino-sized predator while being so poor they could only afford a slice of bread once or twice a week is pretty mysterious). If you accept all the big critters, and the bad city architects, then you are still left with battle scenes that are bereft of simple writery logistics. In one scene,  Zélie has to get from point A to point B, and hurries as if her very life depended on it, seeing en route all kinds of atrocities, even ignoring a small child crying for help  in a burning building (the child burns to death), all so she can get to point B where she really really needs to be. So far so gruesome. But, within one moment of her arrival, she turns around and is found by characters who were with her at point A, who made their way by a different route, and who happened to stumble upon the character she was hoping to find in point B, and who then, with said character, made their way to point B to get  Zélie . Said character is not exactly very mobile, either.  Did  Zélie pick a particularly scenic, roundabout route? WTF? There were one or two other occasions where climactic conflicts occurred, but in ways which made no logistical sense at all, with characters seemingly teleporting from one place they were needed for dramatic reasons to another. 

All in all, Children of Blood and Bone was not the right book for me at this time. I could not derive sufficient pleasure from the afro-punk aesthetic, or the romance sub plots, to lift the story above the joyless brutality, the plot holes, the strange predictability, the blandness of the characters. It was a slog to get through - more so than, for example, the later Hunger Games novels. I've read that someone has bought the movie rights, and I can imagine that the aesthetic will be very striking on screen, and that a fast, trimmed down version of this story can work well, but as a novel, I found it bereft of things I could enjoy.

Rating: 2/5

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 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