Monday 29 June 2015

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the Dog is the second book in a series. It's sort of a sequel, but each book is a standalone novel. There are also huge differences in the general mood of the books. Some characters from Doomsday Book reappear. Most don't.

The start of To Say Nothing of the Dog is actually quite similar to that of Doomsday Book. We're back in the world of academics and time travellers, and the book starts once again with a heavily disoriented person semi-hallucinating their way through a tricky environment. This time, the disorientation is the result of time lag (like jet lag, I guess), rather than fever / infection.

Characters once again have a habit of talking past each other. Few people listen, everyone talks through their own concerns, completely self-absorbed, barely paying attention to the other half of each dialogue.This, too, is a hallmark readers of Doomsday Book will be well familiar with.

However, things quickly stabilise and take a completely different direction. This is not a book about disease, peril, and tragedy. Instead, it is a light comedy, heavily inspired by Three Men in a Boat, Jeeves and Wooster, Agatha Christie Mysteries and Shakespearean comedies of errors. Soon, people actually listen to each other and work together in ways that hardly anyone in Doomsday Book ever does.

The plot is as convoluted as a comedy of errors tends to be. A time traveller has thoughtlessly smuggled a cat through time, after rescuing her from being drowned. As this introduced an 'incongruity', the historians desperately want to solve any paradoxes, and send a second (seriously disoriented) time traveller back to help mop up the problems. All this while everyone is terribly busy on behalf of a generous sponsor who is rebuilding a cathedral that was destroyed in WW2 - and who insists on every little detail being found and recreated faithfully, especially the missing 'Bishop's Bird Stump' - some kind of hideous vase. Entanglements are complicated as the time travellers prevent people from meeting each other, cause others to meet each other, and try to impede or cause romantic alliances in order to shift the course of history back where it belongs, and get the right people married to each other...

If I'm perfectly honest, To Say Nothing of the Dog was a little boring. I could see the wry wit and the genteel bemusement that infused the entire book, but it was not the sort of humour that makes me guffaw. The plot, meanwhile, never built up a sense of genuine peril. Doomsday Book was a novel of gut-wrenching tragedies and terrible horrors. To Say Nothing of the Dog is a novel of light entertainment. It doesn't have the biting wit of Oscar Wilde, but a more mellow sense of lighthearted affectionate cheer. It also felt like a novel which might require people to be familiar with a lot of works to fully appreciate it. I could see, obliquely, what was being referenced, but felt quite ignorant as I suspect a lot of details passed me by entirely.

So, if you are familiar with, and a big fan of, Three Men in a Boat, Jeeves and Wooster, and that entire genre of work, then you might adore this book. It pays homage and doffs its cap and generally adores those works, too. It's fuller of references than a Pixar movie, while being tonally quite similar to those works (I assume).

If you're looking for slightly darker humour (personally, I prefer the Ladykillers / Arsenic and Old Lace / Kind Hearts and Coronets type of chuckles), then you may be a bit disappointed. And if you expect anything like Doomsday Book, you'll be in for a surprise.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday 28 June 2015

Kristo by Sam Roads & Alex Sheikman

Kristo is a beautifully illustrated, dark graphic novel, retelling the tale of the Count of Monte Cristo and setting it in Soviet Russia.

With a fairly simple premise - what if the father of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a real historical figure, had not died in a hunting accident. What if, instead, he had been locked away all that time, like the Count of Monte Cristo? And what if, at one point, he got out...

With its evocative cover, good use of rhetoric / memorable voice, and its powerful artwork, this is a graphic novel firmly aimed at a grown up market. It does not shy away from violence, but doesn't glorify gore, either.

The story felt surprisingly short. Perhaps that is in the nature of the medium - you can breeze through in half an hour or less. One thing I would have liked a little more of is a reason for our protagonist's sister's actions - I could understand the motives of the other characters better than hers.

It surprised me that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had only a very limited appearance in the story. In many ways, the story would have worked just as well without him: the book assumes that the reader either knows about him already, or looks him up separately.

The best compliment I can give this graphic novel is that I really, really wished there was more of it. I could easily have enjoyed it at two, three or four times its length.

Rating: 4/5

Everything's Grey by Rianne Rowlands and The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

Everything's Grey

There are many, many books about depression. Self-help books, melancholy literature, etc.

There are not many books about depression which are beautiful. Yesterday, I bought a copy of a tiny, tiny, very limited comic called "everything's grey" at the Cardiff Independent Comic Expo. Apparently, it was number 20 of only 100 copies.

It's a very short comic. In fact, by now this blog post has several times more words in it than the comic does. It's only a handful of pages long. Nonetheless, I thought it was beautiful - a work of art. Beautiful illustrations, and a great capture of certain emotions.

Rating: 4.5/5

Everything's grey reminded me of a picture book I've read, so I decided to post a dual review.

The Red Tree

The Red Tree is a picture book, quite probably for children. It, too, is about depression and associated emotions. Its protagonist is a little girl with red hair.

It's a longer, more complex work than everything's grey. The Red Tree illustrates various emotions and thoughts that belong to that mood, and does so with a much more complex style. Its art is fantastical, but perfect.

The story, such as it is, is essentially the same, but the approach is slightly different. A child protagonist rather than a young adult, and a fantastical, colourful interpretation rather than a realistic, black and white one, give the book a slightly different feel.

It is, quite simply, a masterpiece. In my opinion, it's the most stunning artistic evocation of depression that I have ever come across.

I have no idea whether young children would like it. I can only judge it as an adult, and as such, I find it  a stunning, beautiful work of art, dealing with a difficult topic in a way that, I think, children would understand. Even adults can understand it, after all...

Rating: 5/5

At their hearts, both these works are hopeful. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend either.

Re-read: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I've recently re-posted the featurette / review I wrote about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell when the book was first published.

Now that the TV series is being broadcast, I have re-read the book, and found myself re-reviewing it in my mind. The review may contain some spoilers. It certainly goes into plot details that take hundreds of pages to occur.

I'm quite enjoying the TV series - but, in a rare and unique example, I find myself preferring it to the book.

Let's recap the story: English magic is gone. A mysterious Raven King has ruled over the North of England for several hundred years in the dark ages, but he has left, presumably to one of his other two kingdoms (one in Faerie and one in Hell). Since he left, magic has declined, and ultimately, disappeared. By the start of the novel, it is the subject of English heritage societies and eccentrics, who debate theoretical magic (the practical kind no longer works).

Enter Mr Norrell. Having accumulated an enviable library of books of magic, he is visited by two members of such a society, and stuns them by telling them he can perform practical magic. When asked for proof by the society, he insists that, if he succeeds, they must disband the society and no longer call themselves magicians of any kind. All but one agree to his wager, and are thus disbanded when he makes statues in York cathedral come to life and talk.

On advice from his servant Childermass, Mr Norrell moves to London to effect the revival of English magic and to make it respectable again. There, he associates with gossips and parasites (Drawlight and Lascelles) and struggles to find a way to be taken seriously by the government, which is involved in a bitter campaign against Napoleon on the Iberian peninsula. A breakthrough occurs when he brings back to life the young betrothed of a minister after her death from an illness - probably tuberculosis. To do so, he employs the Gentleman With Thistle Down Hair - a fairy lord - and bargains away half her life in return for the half she gets to live in England..

As you can tell from the summary so far, Jonathan Strange makes a fairly late entry. In fact, his entry into the book is brought about only after Norrell feuds with scam artist 'magician' Vinculus and has him driven out of London - except Vinculus keeps going on about a prophecy, and delivering parts of the prophecy to people.

Jonathan Strange, meanwhile, is a bit of a fop, stumbling into magic and marriage more or less by luck (and thanks to the timely death of his hated father). It's Vinculus who sets him on the path to becoming a magician - but despite that, Strange has paid no attention to the details of the prophecy, only the bit telling him he would become a magician. Once pursuing magic, he apprentices to Mr Norrell (much to the horror of his entourage) and develops his own style.

Norrell is an academic, studied magician, learning from books and pursuing an agenda of decrying old magic. He's a miser, hoarding books and keeping them hidden, and a spiteful man. Strange is an intuitive, showy magician and a bit of a socialite. They contrast.

It takes more than a quarter of the book before Mr Strange arrives, and much, much longer for a through-line to establish itself in the plot. Strange goes to war. Norrell stays at home. Grand magic happens, and quiet magic. Footnote upon footnote establishes a kind of academic tone. Without the doings of the Gentleman with Thistle Down Hair, there would be no singular plotline at all - and for most of the book, he is being ignored by the magicians.

Unfortunately, the book is actually fairly boring despite a dry wit in its narrative style. I remember the first time I read it, in a rush to finish it before interviewing the author: I was exasperated but I put this down to the hurry I was in. Turns out it wasn't that - the book is genuinely lacking drive. Once it establishes plot momentum (and an antagonist), it still takes huge amounts of time and circuitous events and diversions for the plot to move on. In many ways, these people are blundering along, only resolving certain matters through luck, coincidence and prophecy. (And I have opinions about prophecies in literature).

The real heroes of the book are neither Norrell nor Strange. Annabelle Strange, John Segundus, Stephen Black and Childermass are all much more likeable characters. Strange is not too bad - except he pays so little attention to the important things, and can be such a shallow flake, that he is quite maddening. For much of his time in Italy, I wanted to strangle him. Norrell is a petty, mean little man, utterly heartless and without a soul.

Towards the end of the book, Strange's wife refers to a feud between Strange and Norrell as being just their way. She seems to see them as closer to each other than to anyone else, and the book implies as much. However, whenever we see them together, there is no warmth between them. We are told, from time to time, how they miss being able to discuss things with each other, but we never witness any rewarding interactions between them. Strange and Norrell have no chemistry, their bromance is so off-the-page that I don't see it being possible at all. It's not like Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in Lankhmar, or any master-student relationship I've come across. There is such distance between them that their missing each other is inconceivable, that their feuding never feels like any minor tiff or any functional relationship at all.

There is little warmth in this novel. Strange and his wife have occasional moments, but other than that, this is a novel where few characters seem capable of feeling love. It is a cold, distant, passion-less story. Perhaps this is a result of its temporal setting - but I'm pretty sure Jane Austen novels, which this occasionally gets compared to, are not bereft of characters capable of feeling affection.

Perhaps that is why the TV show feels somehow more rewarding. There is more emotion on screen. Some of the more random plotlines are tidied up in ways that fit perfectly. (Just as the Watchmen movie tidied up the Watchmen comic book in a much more rewarding way). The Gentleman with Thistle Down Hair is more consistent in the show than he is in the book, and the sound effects of straining wood are perfectly atmospheric for the magic. Segundus and Honeyfoot get more agency than they do in the novel. I don't know what I would think of it if I had not read the book, but watching it after reading the novel is very rewarding - it brings it to life and tidies it up in a way that is perfectly complementary.

On the whole, I'd recommend the TV series more than the novel.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday 21 June 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

I've heard a lot about Station Eleven. It's attracted rave reviews, been nominated for awards, gotten famous writers excited and it was recommended to me by the young woman working in the cafe in my local Waterstones. So I decided to give it a try, even though I'm not usually keen on postapocalyptic settings.

I can see why the book got lots of praise: it's a little different from most postapocalyptic stories. For one thing, it's a novel taking place before, during and after the apocalypse. Not too many books go down that route. For another, the writing voice is stylistically talented and sweet / pretty.

That said, I struggled to keep reading Station Eleven. I was simply not interested in the fates of any of its characters. No one here is interesting or unique or even particularly likeable. No one is memorable. Their tales may be told with a deft hand and an eye for style, but there's nothing satisfying or interesting about those tales.

The novel is quite non-linear, skipping from the eve of the outbreak that ends civilisation, into the future, into the past, to and fro, told in omniscient narration. That alone is perhaps a little unusual: omniscient narration is a lot rarer in contemporary fiction. Having scenes include half sentences telling the reader when and how characters are going to die, interspersed with their present scenes, is a quirky dramatic device that falls woefully flat because I don't care in the least about any of the characters. The glimpses into their lives we get are largely boring and bland. As for their various story arcs, they are all meaningless and unsatisfying.

Station Eleven is a triumph of style over substance. It reminded me of Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife - it had that easy-to-read, stylistically pretty, but hollow and empty feel. Easily digestible literature light. Nothing interesting to say, no real meat on the characters, sweet but hollow, perfect for TV book clubs.

Rating: 2.5/5

Sunday 14 June 2015

Interlude: BDS and PSC

I've been handed the keys to the city Twitter account this week. One of the things I decided early on that I should do is use this power for good - in particular, for supporting the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions campaign (BDS) which aims to apply pressure on Israel to treat Palestinians fairly, and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Both of these are very important to me (and, I believe, to general principles of justice)

This blog post is going to be a bit of an essay, and it might just be slightly controversial.

Why the World Needs to do Something about Israel

Israel's government is essentially an extremist right wing one, imposing an Apartheid regime that is based on religion and ethnicity. The Gaza Strip has been turned into a concentration camp. If that is not enough, every two years or so, Israel carries out military operations that can only be described as mass murder.

Unless something is done, every indication is that Israel is gearing up to commit genocide. 


The word genocide is thrown around a lot these days. It's become a rhetoric device, a dramatic turn of phrase used to describe anything from injustice and cultural repression to the Holocaust.

So let me be clear what I mean when I use the phrase: the intentional eradication of a people - in this case, Palestinians. 

So far, this has not happened yet. There have been wars and war crimes, there is continual oppression and there have certainly been crimes against humanity, but there has not (yet) been a genocide. After all, there are still Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza.

The evidence, however, is that a genocide is being brewed. Just look at what the politicians who currently make up the Israeli cabinet say and believe:

  • The current Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, in 2014 (before being part of government) quoted an essay in full and highlighted her support of its ideas: "The entire Palestinian people is the enemy. (...) in wars the enemy is usually an entire people, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure."
  • The Speaker of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin, in 2014 (he was Speaker of the Knesset at the time, too): "There are no two states, and there are no two peoples. There is only one state for one people. (...) The tasks: Conquest of the entire Gaza Strip, and annihilation of all fighting forces and their supporters. (...) the strategic goal: To turn Gaza into Jaffa, a flourishing Israeli city (...)  Israel must do the following: a) The IDF [Israeli army] shall designate certain open areas on the Sinai border, adjacent to the sea, in which the civilian population will be concentrated, far from the built-up areas that are used for launches and tunneling. In these areas, tent encampments will be established, until relevant emigration destinations are determined. The supply of electricity and water to the formerly populated areas will be disconnected. (...) d) Israel will start searching for emigration destinations and quotas for the refugees from Gaza. e) Those who insist on staying, if they can be proven to have no affiliation with Hamas, will be required to publicly sign a declaration of loyalty to Israel, and receive a blue ID card similar to that of the Arabs of East Jerusalem"
  • Deputy Defence Minister Ben Dahan, in 2013 (prior to current role): "To me, they (Palestinians) are like animals, they aren’t human."
  • Culture Minister Miri Regev has compared African refugees to cancer. After criticisms, she apologised to cancer victims for comparing their disease to Africans. 
  • Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel openly states that there will never be a Palestinian State. Only Palestinians who learn Hebrew and swear loyalty to Israel would be recognised as citizens under his suggestions. In 2008, he was even more blunt: “We must encourage Arabs to willingly leave, both from the cities and from the state.”

How the Genocide Will Happen

For Gaza, it's easy to see. The Blockade / Siege of Gaza started out by calculating how many calories Gazans would need, and then letting in less than that (about 2/3 of the required amount) in order to inflict non-lethal suffering and weaken people. This policy is no longer current - but it shows the mindset that still very much is.

Now, it's utilities and essentials - electricity, sewage treatement and drinking water - which are largely unavailable. Electricity is available for only a few hours a day. Sewage is largely pumped untreated into the Mediterranean, and drinking water supplies are in crisis. The UN predicts that, five years from now, the Gaza strip will be uninhabitable as a result. Hospitals lack supplies and struggle with the electricity problem: healthcare is in crisis, too.

So, Gaza's genocide will not take the form of gas chambers and mass executions. Gaza will die of cholera, typhoid and disease, of water contamination. It will die of an artificially created, intentional humanitarian catastrophe, inflicted on Gaza by Israeli policies.

As for the West Bank - chances are, Palestinian areas there will eventually experience the same fate as Gaza.
These are not just rebellious backbenchers, or thugs celebrating the killing of children in Gaza - they are now members of the government. (In some cases, their quotes predate their cabinet membership). Some talk of giving Palestinians Israeli statehood on conditions that they know won't be met - thereby rendering them stateless. Others openly talk of Arabs and Palestinians as the enemy, who should be destroyed, women, children and elderly people alike. 

The language has become utterly dehumanising. Palestinians are described as 'snakes' by some (Avelet Shaked), and Gaza is universally referred to as 'Hamastan' - a Bantustan for Hamas (even by Netanyaho himself). Some propose to move any undesirable Palestinian forcibly to Gaza, showing that the Gaza strip is seen as a camp for concentrating the enemies of Israel. 

These conditions are almost identical to Germany in the 1930s. Apartheid segregation, forced ghettoisation, and contempt for a group of people based on their birth / faith. Dehumanisation and violence. Talk of evicting the group of people they don't want - and encouraging emigration - is rampant. (And, just like in the 1930s, it's not as if any other country has open doors...).  

What has it got to do with us (UK/Europe)?

Let's ignore historic responsibility for the moment (I'll go into that later). Let's just focus on the here and now:

Why should we care about what happens in Israel/Palestine?

The answer is simple: our governments are complicit.

  • Israel has preferential trade treaties with the EU, and gets better access to the Common Market than other non-member countries. 
  • Our governments trade arms with Israel, buying Israeli technology (e.g. drones which are 'battle tested' - i.e. which have been used in assaults on Palestinians), and selling Israel weapons. (The US does more selling of big items than we do, but Europe sells plenty of components and buys plenty of weapons from Israel)
  • While the EU agrees with the entire world that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal, products from there are allowed into Europe - and the strongest proposal so far is that they may have to be 'labelled' in future. What other illegally created products can be bought in our local shops? And how does labelling that they were produced illegally make it OK to sell them?
  • Our governments have largely abstained from any vote critical of Israel at the UN. 
In short, unless we as citizens put pressure on our lawmakers and leaders to change their policies, some of the blood being shed is on our hands.

What Can We Do?

Campaigning against Israeli policies is not antisemitism

"Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is not antisemitism. Do business with Jews, organize with them, love them. But don’t support – militarily, economically or politically – the machinery of an apartheid-state. We can’t do business as normal because conditions in the Holy Land are totally abnormal.

Please tell your government that mere words of concern are insufficient. They don’t change anything. The appropriate response when confronting injustice is to take real steps to confront and eradicate it.
The late Richard von Weizsäcker, former President of Germany and President of the Kirchentag, demanded just this in a letter to the EU signed by many European elder statesmen in 2010.

Beware of anti-semitism, and all other forms of racism, but beware also of being cowed into silence by those who seek to stifle criticism of the oppressive politics of Israel by labeling you anti-Semitic."
 - Desmond Tutu
  • There are, of course, petitions. (Aren't there always?)
  • Lobby your MP, or write them a letter
  • Boycott
    • You can boycott products from illegal settlements. We know that the Israeli government is scared of the boycott - so it works.
    • You can boycott companies that are complicit with human rights violations, such as Hewlett Packard. If you work for a company, you can make sure to only buy devices from other suppliers, and/or you could ask for ethical purchasing policies to be implemented and HP products to be boycotted by your employer.
    • You can boycott Israeli products entirely
    • As Israel spends a lot of money on culture and sport as propaganda tools, to present Israel in a positive light abroad and generate positive news stories (so called 'whitewashing'), you can take part in a cultural boycott and protest against Israeli touring companies and sports teams.
    • When you see PSC campaigners at upcoming Wales matches, say hello, pick up a leaflet, sign petitions, and have a friendly chat with them. 
    • Join the march against Israel's continued UEFA membership in Cardiff in September
  • Share! On Twitter, on Facebook, on any and all networks - don't be afraid to share news stories, retweet links to petitions and campaigns. Don't be silent while Apartheid is in place, and while the risk of a genocide in the future is great.
  • Donate to provide relief to Palestinians:
    • Medical Aid for Palestinians is a highly reputable UK charity which does exactly what it says on the tin. In the aftermath of the 2014 war, even the UK government donated to MAP.
    • Interpal is a UK charity which helps Palestinians. It has faced accusations of supporting terrorism and been cleared of the allegations. It has even won a libel case against another organisation - sadly, slander and libel are very common propaganda tools. If you don't want to donate online, there is an Interpal charity shop on Woodville Road in Cathays 
  • Join the Cardiff Palestinie Solidarity Campaign (or the national PSC if you're not based in Cardiff)
  • Keep up-to-date with news from Palestinian territories. The problems don't go away when the bombs stop falling, and the media in the UK often report about Israel with incredible bias. (Even the BBC). Electronic Intifada is a reputable citizen journalism website based in Palestine and London - but it is intentionally on the Palestinian side. The Middle East Monitor is another reputable source, striving to be unbiased. The journalism of Gideon Levy for Haaretz (an Israeli newspaper) is award winning, reputable and worth reading. It does not take a lot of effort: just follow them on Twitter and only read the articles that catch your attention.
  • Don't look away. The greatest shames of the German people are to have perpetrated the Holocaust, and that the vast majority of Germans intentionally looked the other way and let it happen. Those who claim ignorance were willfully ignorant. We must not repeat those mistakes - it's our moral duty to pay attention to what our governments do, whom our governments support, and hold them to account when they are complicit with atrocities. 
  • Remember: there has not yet been a genocide. It's not too late to prevent one. To make a genocide impossible, the Apartheid regime needs to end. The blockade of Gaza needs to end. And Palestinians must be treated with human rights, must be able to live under decent conditions, with autonomy over their own planning and building, and ability to trade.

Why should we care about what happens to Hamas? What about ISIS / Iran / Saudi Arabia?

Almost inevitably when anyone campaigns for fair treatment / human rights of Palestinians, someone voices these objections. So, here's my answer:

  • Hamas is a political movement with armed brigades. I won't defend them - they have done despicable things. Some solidarity campaigners say that Palestinians have a right to resistance - but Hamas cross the line between resistance to oppression and outright terrorism (against Israel). They are also guilty of oppression (against people in the territories they control)
  • Anyone who interchanges the words 'Palestinians' with 'Hamas' is intentionally dehumanising people in order to justify atrocities. You'll hear Israeli politicians and spokespeople do this a lot. They rarely talk of Palestinians - they talk of Hamas. Whatever their sympathies, most Palestinians are not Hamas members. (Frankly, anyone living under the oppressive conditions, perpetual state bullying and /or siege has every right to be angry. Saying Palestinians deserve no rights because many voted for Hamas is like saying UK citizens don't deserve human rights because UKIP won the European election there.)
  • The difference between Israel and ISIS & Iran is that our governments are not allies of ISIS and Iran. By being allied with Israel, our governments tacitly support what goes on there. Without that support, Israel would not be able to function the way it does - and it is that support we must erode. Israel should be every bit as isolated from the international community as Iran and ISIS: it too is a pariah state.
  • Also, I absolutely believe our governments need to take a different stance on Saudi Arabia. All the oil in the world isn't worth turning a blind eye to the oppression of all women, and the dire and medieval attitude to human life imposed by the regime over there. 

Enough of this what-about-ery. 

History: How did we get into this Mess?

In terms of the post-1945 history, this is probably the most unbiased and clear explanation that can be achieved in about five minutes:

If you look back further in history, Britain has a lot to answer for. 
  • In 1915, Britain promised self-rule to people in the region if they fought / rose up against the Ottomoan empire. The McMahon Agreement basically promised Palestinians self-rule. 
  • In 1917, Britain promised the holy land to Zionists, in return for funding. It promised land that it a) did not yet control and b) had already promised to the local residents - Britain sold the same land twice, once for fighters and once for money,
  • After WW1, Britain controlled Palestine as a Protectorate, until the end of WW2
  • After WW2, the UN (with Britain's consent) created the state of Israel.
  • Zionists moved in. Palestinians fled. This is the Nakba - the catastrophe of the Palestinian people. Some claim they fled because they knew that Arab armies would attack. Some say they fled in fear. Some say they were forcibly driven out. All of these versions are true - the Deir Yassin Massacre (where Zionist brigades under control of a later Israeli Prime Minister massacred Palestinians) was a high profile atrocity which resulted in most Palestinians fleeing. Those who fled were not allowed to return, and their property was taken into Israeli ownership by the new state. 

Comments Policy:

This is my blog, so I will moderate comments as I see fit. 

Saturday 13 June 2015

The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton

The Quality of Silence starts with bad news. Yasmin and Ruby have just landed in Alaska, after an exhausting transatlantic flight. At the airport, they are funnelled away from the other passengers by security staff and brought to a police officer, who tells Yasmin that her husband (and Ruby’s father), Matt, has died in a catastrophic fire.

It’s a nightmare for any traveller. For Yasmin, it’s even harder news to take than it would be for anyone else. Her young daughter Ruby is completely deaf. They’d travelled to Alaska a few weeks earlier than planned because of a marital crisis. The last exchanges between Yasmin and Matt had been… difficult, to say the least.

The circumstances of Matt’s death are odd enough that Yasmin convinces herself that he can’t be dead: an entire Inuit village has burnt down, with every single resident dead. Bodies are burnt beyond all recognition. The police identified Matt by the fact that there was one more body than they expected to find, and, after a little research, they heard that a nature photographer had been staying at the village and assumed it’s Matt. That’s not enough to convince Yasmin: she becomes convinced that Matt may now be in danger, caught out in the Alaskan winter, thousands of miles from civilisation, with no one looking for him.

The rest of the novel tells of Yasmin’s and Ruby’s quest to find Matt. It’s an enchanting and gripping read, not so much for its thrills and cliffhangers, but because Yasmin and Ruby are wonderful characters easy to identify with and feel for. The mother-daughter relationship is completely convincing. Reading about a deaf little girl has lots of potential to pull at heart strings, but this is not a novel that ‘plays the deaf angle’ for tearjerking / inspirational tosh. Instead, it’s a novel about a very convincing, intelligent, young, deaf girl, and her mother, who struggles with wanting the best for her child even if that isn’t always the easiest path at the moment.

The Alaskan setting provides a grand canvas for their quest and conflicts, with plenty of natural peril. It enriches the story and serves to isolate Ruby and Yasmin in a way that few places on Earth could match. It’s impossible not to get heavily invested in their story as they try to make their way from Anchorage to Anaktakue (the destroyed Inuit hamlet).

Some things in the book are utterly authentic: Alaska, the ice highway, the relationships between Yasmin and Ruby and Matt – it all feels almost as if the story were biographical. But, at the end of the day, it’s a thriller. Certain plot developments are… cinematic. They don’t feel entirely authentic.

That said, the book is a pleasure to read. It’s gripping, engrossing, and heartwarming at times. I’d recommended it for pretty  much every one who likes to read, and anyone who likes their books to put them in different shoes, in faraway places.

Rating: 5/5

Monday 8 June 2015

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife is a novel set in a not too distant future USA struggling to deal with environmental changes. In particular, it's set in Arizona, where the city of Phoenix has become a zone of refugee camps, Red Cross water pumps, middle class people counting the gallons in their water cistern every day, but also self-contained biodomes (arcologies) and ultra-rich people live in luxury.

Angel is a contractor / mercenary working on behalf of a water company - the so-called Water Knife of the title. Lucy is an investigative reporter. Maria is a young refugee trying to get by in a mob-run brutal and ruthless area of town.

The domino that starts the chain reaction that will intertwine their stories is the vicious torture and murder of two men over a document that may or may not exist - a document of legally binding water rights.

At the start of the novel, the world building feels a little preachy. Several times, characters discuss the wilful blindness of their ancestors in driving their environment over a cliff and building cities in unsustainable places. This blunt and explicit approach is not quite as subtle as Paolo Bacigalupi's novels usually are. Basically, we're being told off and our noses are being rubbed in it. It's a little offputting. It won't convince anyone who's in denial.

It also did not entirely convince me. Not the environmental calamities: those seem all too imaginable. In fact, there are regions of the world where water rights are the source of fierce and bitter conflicts right now. Arguably, Israel is comparable to the Las Vegas and California of The Waterknife's world, while the West Bank is comparable to Phoenix (with the caveat that Israel cares nothing for laws and legal process, while in the novel everyone is involved in lengthy legal proceedings before deploying their water knives to enforce rulings). The problem is that I don't quite believe Americans will split by state lines. Israel and Palestine both contain Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Bedouins, but over time, the conflict has become essentially one of Jews and Muslims. Christians, Druze and other people are sidelined in both regions. So, in an ever-more divided America, I don't see the State lines as being credible dividers. I could imagine it being religion, or race, or even politics: I can more easily imagine a Democrat vs Republican conflict turning into mass migrations and then regional divisions. I just can't see it happening based purely on whether someone is Texan or Nevadan or Arizonan.

Once the story gets moving, it's a good thriller, with various parties chasing after macguffins, information or fortune, and being chased by murderers, conspiracies and the occasional deadly riot. There's tension and cliffhangers aplenty. Violence, too: some of the characters suffer pretty permanent consequences.

The Water Knife is unusual in that it is neither a post-apocalyptic novel nor a pre-apocalyptic one. This is a novel of collapse in progress. #Phoenixdownthetubes. It reminded me a little of the (more literary, subtle and hugely accomplished) Random Acts of Senseless Violence, only this time the driving force of collapse is environmental rather than economical. There are not many novels telling stories set during a gradual fall of our civilisation.

As things race towards the end, the book becomes utterly gripping. Every plot development feels authentic, even when things twist to and fro: every twist comes from within characters rather than feeling imposed by the needs of story pacing. It really grows on you (as do all the characters).

If you can get past the slightly clumsy beginning and bear with it, you'll be richly rewarded: the finale is masterfully done, and the pacing is good throughout.

Rating: 4/5

Cardiff: A Guide for Visitors and Newcomers by ME

Cardiff Guide - cover
This isn't a review, but a blog post about a little pet project.


A few years ago, there was a Groupon Deal for creating apps for mobile devices. I'd been wanting to learn about app-making, so I bought the deal. I decided to use this to create a tourist guide app for Cardiff. 

My aim when producing it was to create something better and more detailed than a pocket paperback guide I had bought years before. I believe I succeeded.

On Apple, it did not fare very well. I was never able to test it, not having any Apple devices at home. On Android, it became the most popular tourist app about Cardiff.

The deal was for the app to exist for one year, so it disappeared after that.

There is another technology I've been meaning to learn about - Amazon Kindle self-publishing. So I decided to revisit the materials I'd prepared in 2011/12, update and refresh them, add a lot more, and try it as a Kindle Book.

Who is it for?

I stuck with the unwieldy title of "Cardiff: A Guide for Visitors and Newcomers" because that is exactly what I aimed to write. A guide which is useful to tourists and travellers, but also to people who are fairly new to the city. 

There are other books which are aimed at local residents. The Little Book of Cardiff, Cardiff: The Biography, Real Cardiff, The Story of Cardiff and many others are in-depth looks at the city which are primarily aimed at people who live here. 

There aren't a whole lot of books walking the tightrope between the two. So I set out to create one, combining, hopefully, the best of both worlds. The end result lists Sights and Attractions, and Activities, but goes way beyond what a traveller on a city trip would typically try. I even include a chapter about Cardiff Myths and Lore, which covers the little anecdotes that bring a city to life. 

As a single-author guide written by a local resident, it's also a little more subjective. I do believe that the best travel guides are those written with a little personality, rather than those which are a little too robotic. My benchmark for travel guides are those published by Bradt.

As a general rule, I decided to keep the bits for visitors and tourists quite neutral, but get more opinionated for those who delve deeper into the book, into the sections that are only of interest to people staying in the city for quite a while.

How detailed is it, really?

The total word count is about 33,000 - a short novel is 50,000 words, a standard one around 100,000, so purely in terms of text, it's very much a pocket guide. Amazon estimates it at 300 pages, which is largely in thanks to dozens of photographs and maps I included.

As a Kindle book, it does rely on links quite heavily, including web links. What I aimed to do is give readers an overview, with enough ideas for stuff to do, but leave the detailed planning to the reader. After all, details change.

How much is it?

£1.99 or $2.99 or the equivalent in local currencies. Basically, it's the minimum prize that I could specify on Amazon. (It's a pretty big file)


What next?

If you buy my ebook, please do get in touch! Comment on this post, or find the Facebook page, or email me (address is in the introduction in the guide). I would love to hear what you think, get tips about anything I missed out, and suggestions for how to make it better in future. I've already learnt a lot, and plan to do some things a little differently in future editions.

At the moment, I am thinking about updating it regularly and publishing new editions every one or two years.

Sunday 7 June 2015

Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Roadside Picnic is a novel written in Soviet Russia, but set in the West. When I read it, I got the impression it was set in Britain, though I am not entirely sure. It's been turned into a movie by Tarkovsky (who also made Solaris), and it has inspired a series of videogames. As far as I know, both stray from the book.

First things first: do not read the introduction until after you've read the book. It assumes you're familiar with the text and analyses it, offering spoilers.

The novel takes place at three different times, each several years after the other. It's set in the aftermath of an alien visit, which has left large geographical areas uninhabitable, filled with uncanny, incomprehensible and deadly features. These areas are the Zones.

Humans have gotten over their terror about the alien visit, and are largely trying to ignore it. However, they are also intrigued and bothered by the alien artefacts and effects. Scientists try to understand and analyse. There's a black market. There are smugglers, despite the dangers both from the Zone and from the police forces and snipers.

Redrick Schuhart is one such explorer / smuggler. Their profession is known as Stalkers. He's slick, dishonest, tough and quite uncaring. He slugs a lot of Vodka and deals with a lot of shady characters. Each of the three episodes of the novel deals with a significant period in his life / major turning points in his career as a stalker, but, as he is a very Russian guy, his reaction to everything is understated and sardonic. He reminded me of Europe in Autumn's protagonist, Rudy: I imagine the two would get along and be, insofar as they are capable of it, close friends.

There aren't really any characters who are easy to empathise with. It's a novel about worn-out people muddling by in the shadows of an uncanny disaster they cannot comprehend, but which they seek to exploit, in a suitably half-hearted and downtrodden manner.

What makes the novel stand out are the ideas that the introduction gives away, the notions that give the book its title. About 2/3 of the way through, they are the subject of a scientist's drunken rant. It's a clever and rare perspective. I have no doubt that it was influential and original when it was written.

For today's readers, the lack of emotional investment in characters and the lack of discernible direction for much of the plot are likely to try the patience. I found the book quite readable, for a Russian one. Much more so than Solaris. Still, I wouldn't call it a page turner.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

The Philosopher Kings does not start straight after the climactic events of The Just City, Instead, the book is set about twenty years later.

(Warning: This review contains spoilers for The Just City)

Apollo, still living as a human, has been married to Simmea, and they have raised several children together. The book starts, cruelly, with Simmea's death in a minor skirmish. This is hard to take, as Simmea was the heart and soul of the first novel. Apollo, for the first time in his immortal life, experiences genuine grief and bereavement. It nearly destroys him.

Matters are not helped by the silly reasons for her death. She died, defending an artwork against raiders. After the events in The Just City, some of its citizens wanted to create their own Platonic utopias, diverging from the one created for them. Some wanted to pursue Plato's ideas more fervently and strictly, while others wanted to create a more Socratic republic of philosophers. The result of the splits are five different cities (including the original one), with different rules. While they share some things - the robots and the knowledge - other things were not distributed, including art. After some capture-the-flag style hijinx, campaigns of art theft turned violent. As all the youths had been trained in combat, skirmishes could be lethal, and Simmea dies in one such art raid.

As Simmea was the heart of the first novel, so their daughter Arete is the heart of the second novel. On the cusp of adulthood, this teenager has more common sense than her older brothers, more heart and brains and drive than almost anyone. While her father spends an awful lot of the novel moping, she navigates the stormy waters of grief, bereavement, first love, debate, demi-Godhood and more with that indomitable kernel of kindness and wisdom that is found in many of Jo Walton's characters.

Much of the novel is taken up with a journey to seek out Kebes, the former rebel who hated The Just City for enslaving him. As an exploratory journey, we meet other contemporaries of these ancient times, and see beyond doomed Atlantis for the first time. We also encounter yet another civilisation...

The Philosopher Kings is, like The Just City, an intelligent novel that thrives on discourse and thought experiments. What deflates it a little is that it is missing the zest that Socrates had provided. It is a much less playful novel. The first book was imbued with a certain sense of bemusement - watching academics and philosophers trying to set up a utopia and follow a rule book, watching fallible Gods having their own blind spots, watching Socrates reach out to robots and interrogate ideas... The Just City thrived on humour and playfulness, even if it featured rape and infanticide and other serious matters. The Philosopher Kings is less lighthearted. It starts with death and carries on through grief and vengeance. It touches on oppression and fear. It features horrendous torture. It's a story of folly and cruelty and tragedy, with lighter moments, whereas the first was a light story about folly with tragic and cruel moments.

The Just City is a novel about consent. The Philosopher Kings is a novel about consequences. I would recommend The Philosopher Kings to anyone who read The Just City, and I would recommend The Just City to just about everyone. That said, I do worry that the road ahead may be more rocky for our protagonists than I'd ever expected...

Rating: 4/5