Saturday 30 April 2016

Alien Rain by Ruth Morgan

Alien Rain is a Young Adult science fiction novel set in a future where mankind has emigrated to Mars, leaving behind an abandoned Earth and looking to a future of solar and stellar exploration.

It's also set in Cardiff. Two Cardiffs, to be precise: the scaled down replica Cardiff in a dome on Mars and the remnants of our Cardiff on Earth.

Bree, our hero, grows up on Mars. She attends an elite school through a scholarship. To her complete surprise, she is selected to be one of the four teenagers who will accompany a space mission to Earth: the ultimate dream of any kid on Mars. Different domes on Mars have research programmes, which send missions to Earth on a regular basis. Each year a handful of the most promising students from the elite academies accompany those missions. However, Bree has been struggling academically: her grades have been close to flunking out. From the start, she worries about her selection, and what the reasons might be.

Before the mission, there is of course training. It's not just Bree who has doubts about her inclusion: the most academically gifted and competitive member of their little team appears to resent that decision more than anyone. However, as any outburst of arguing would discredit and ostracise them all, so emotions are repressed, hostility stays passive-agressive, and tensions simmer, at least until the they actually get to Earth.

Earth, in the centuries since Mars became mankind's home, has turned feral. A remnant of the last great war, bio-engineered, dragonfly-shaped killing machines, have become omnipresent threats, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem and human visitors. The purpose of Earth missions is partially to find out about the past through archaeological research, but also to find a solution to the problem of the man-made monsters that make Earth uninhabitable.

Alien Rain is a cheerful, brisk-paced romp. There's affection for Cardiff infused in the pages, and special adoration for Cardiff Museum. Bree is a likeable enough heroine, struggling with imposter syndrome and a sense of not fitting in - the latter, perhaps, a universal quality of teen-age. What takes the story beyond your run-of-the-mill YA novel is that it toys with several story directions. It starts out as utopian science fiction, moves through space travel, arrives at postapocalyptic scifi, and then plays with the creepy horror of ghost stories and creature feature tension. Most YA novels are quite singular in their focus. Alien Rain, on the other hand, competently dances around different genres and themes.

Never boring, Alien Rain is fun to read. For any YA fans from Cardiff, it's a must-read. It certainly put Firefly Press on my booky radar!

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

If you follow Jo Walton (multi-award-winning writer and good human being), it's likely that you've noticed her excitement about the forthcoming novel Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, an academic Jo has huge respect for. Her excitement was enough to make me curious. The description of the book convinced me to give it a try.

There are not many people writing utopias these days. We live in a cynical age: it's easier to imagine dystopia after dystopia, and, at any rate, it's easier to write a story about struggling characters if your setting is one of their obstacles. Too Like the Lightning is thus an unusual book: Ada Palmer imagines a future where there haven't been wars for two hundred years, where people, by and large, live content and fulfilling lives. It's not a perfect future: there is crime, there is punishment, there are conflicts and secrets and hierarchies, but it is a credible, largely positive future.

Our narrator is Mycroft Canner, a criminal living out their punishment by serving the most powerful people on the planet. In this future, those criminals who pose no more risk to society are released into servitude: they are not allowed any possessions and they have to dedicate themselves fully to repaying society whatever harm they have done. They are paid in food for their labours. Early on, Mycroft wonders whether their slavery is an example of humane or inhumane punishment.

Mycroft's narration starts as their favourite haunt faces a double crisis. Downstairs, a new sensayer (a non-denominational faith and philosophy adviser) bursts into the biggest secret: Mycroft's ward, twelve year old Bridger, has supernatural powers to bring anything to life. Meanwhile, upstairs, a detective comes in to investigate a mysterious crime which involves this particular household.

Even though a crime mystery and a young-god-among-men story hold the plot together, this is really a book about philosophy and possible future societies. The gradual revelation of how this world functions, how people fit in the mix, how a post-war, post-religion, post-nations, global future for humankind might look, is arguably the most interesting aspect of the book. I'm excited to see Ada Palmer's ideas, as some of my own mullings fit the notions that are being explored in this novel. Bunching people together by temperament and interests rather than familial relationships, banning religions but encouraging (obliging?) individualised moral and analytical thought, discarding geographical nations and using philosophical ones instead: all of those ideas describe a way to deal with a world where technological changes and scientific advances have made current systems (geographically-based nation states and prehistory-based major religions) outdated and dangerous. I could imagine having hours of excited conversations with people about the ideas in this novel

Aside from the speculation about systems and societies, the book also looks at gender and sex with completely different eyes. This is a (prudish?) society where people use neutral pronouns ("they") about everyone, as they feel that alluding to a person's sex infers sexual thought. Mycroft Canner, however, chooses to give their characters gendered pronouns. To make matters more complicated, Mycroft uses pronouns that match the characters' temperaments, rather than their biologies. So we meet women who are called "she" and men who are called "he" as often as we meet men who are called "she" and women who are called "he". This makes for a strange reading experience, even more confusing than reading Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice. It also suggests that some character traits are inextricably gendered: sensitive, subtle, healing creatures are sexed as female, while brash, blunt and combative ones are sexed as male. Perhaps more surprisingly, it is not just Mycroft who does this, but the characters themselves choose to take on gendered appearances that match those personality traits in certain circumstances. (Most people, in everyday situations, seem to dress in a gender-neutral way.)

As you might guess by my review so far, this is a books full of interesting ideas. It's also a book full of philosophers, who are quoted and whose main ideas are often summarised by Mycroft. With all those ideas jostling for attention, the book doesn't often feel like a mystery.

There are dozens of characters, and to make things even more complicated, many of them have several different names, at least one for each culture. Mycroft, a multi-linguist, speaks almost every language fluently. (When dialogue changes into a different language, this is indicated by the speech marks, which match the conventions used in the other languages - a very clever device). Through Mycroft, we witness some of the scheming and plotting, some of the investigating and detecting, and much of the web of power that runs the world behind the scenes. Even so, there's something vaguely non-human about many of the power players. As the story progresses, their interactions become more and more surreal. By the time we get a dose of de Sade-ist philosophising in a boudoir setting, the book has the ambience of a surreal, feverish, sinister sex dream.

It's a very strange book. Packed with ideas, set in the far future but told in a narrative style that emulates the writings of past centuries (our narrator has entire dialogues with his imagined reader), filled with characters none of whom seem entirely human... the book asks a lot of its readers. It demands intellectual engagement and thought. I imagine it would be three or four times more rewarding if I had better general knowledge, but Ada Palmer gives the reader enough info-dump summaries to be able to engage with the story even if they have never read about philosophy before.

Yet, despite all this, I found it difficult to truly enjoy the book. The feverish ambience towards the end felt clammy in my mind, not something I generally enjoy. However, what really hurt the book more than anything else is that it ends completely unresolved. It is the first of a series - I believe it's the first half of a duology - but even for a book that expects a sequel, I would expect a natural stopping point to arise at its end. Too Like the Lightning does not have a natural stopping point. It ends neither on a cliffhanger nor with a plot resolution of any kind. (Well, arguably the plot was moved to crises points in several of the plotlines, but they did not feel like cliffhangers, because the end of the book leaves the characters not very far from the start of the book, plot-wise.)

As rewarding as the philosophical discourse and the intelligent thoughts and the utopian mullings are, the ending of the book is just as frustrating.

Rating: 3/5

PS: The book reminds me of Ann Leckie's and John M Ford's writing, If you enjoy both (and especially, the latter), then Too Like the Lightning is likely to be a special treat for you. 

Monday 18 April 2016

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer is a beautifully produced book. It's hard to describe it: not quite graphic novel, but more than a collection of sketches and comics. Not quite biography, but neither is it just a cartoon fantasy.

I first heard of the comic through watching Calculating Ada on BBC iPlayer: Sydney Padua is one of the people briefly interviewed for the programme, and some of her art is shown. Those brief glimpses of cartoon Ada resonated with me immediately, so when I saw the book in Waterstones, I didn't think twice before buying it, even though I had no idea what the comic itself is actually like.

As such, the introduction was almost a surprise: Sydney Padua was originally asked for a comic showing the real history of Lovelace and Babbage's work. When she didn't like the downbeat ending of real events, she added a final uplifting panel about a pocket (alternative) universe filled with adventures and crime fighting - and people really wanted her to continue that story. The outcome is this book, a hypothetical imagination of what the story would be like if it were to continue as a comic adventure. (Also, the 2D Goggles website)

Like many comics that started on the internet, it doesn't have a continuous story arc, but is a collection of fairly standalone flights of fancy. Where it differs from regular web comics is in its basis, which is always at least inspired by historic quotes and facts, and in its habit of quoting primary sources. Clearly, a lot of research and love has gone into the book. Affection for the characters veritably oozes off the page, while the multiple footnotes per page explain every reference, allusion or detail. Each episode is followed by additional endnotes, which add to the detail from the footnotes, and the book has a further set of appendices on top of that.

The reading experience is quite unusual: almost every line of dialogue and every joke is explained in footnotes. As a German-born man, I principally approve of the explaining of jokes, of course, but it does interrupt the flow of the comic a little. It feels more like getting lost and absorbed in Wikipedia, following one intriguing link after another, with a sense of continuous fascination, than it feels like reading a story.

I guess the book is written for a very specific audience: geeks. Ada Lovelace is, after all, one of the iconic heroes worshipped by 21st century geeks, along Nikola Tesla and other under-appreciated geniuses. This book is not (just) aiming for comedy and entertainment, it wants to get people excited about scientific research and historical figures and events. It wants to educate, and it wants to share the author's fascination and celebrate mankind's capacity for enthusiasm (geekery) itself.

I adored the art / style and loved the enthusiasm. I enjoyed the episodes and the quirky ideas. I appreciated the footnotes and endnotes (unlike other books which have more general knowledge about a topic and sprinkle hidden references that only the cognoscenti can appreciate, Lovelace and Babbage is entirely inclusive of the ignorant, and provides the knowledge to understand each reference), and I think that this book honours Lovelace, Babbage and their contemporaries with clear affection and respect. I loved the whimsiest episodes and ideas the most and couldn't get enough of those.

At times, the book was a little too clever for my taste - I would have loved for Lovelace and Babbage to have a few quirky, whimsical adventures that would have been less bothered with edutainment and more purely narrative-focused. The plot always took last place in the author's priority list, with history, facts, quotes, jokes and whimsy all being more important. Much as I enjoyed the book, I would have liked a little more plot (both inside episodes and between episodes).

Still, if you like steampunk, Victoriana, history, geek culture, comic books, postmodern storytelling and/or a cute aesthetic, then The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is well worth your time.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday 16 April 2016

Brilliant Books You've Never Heard Of

GQ Magazine published an intriguing listicle the other day: 21 Brilliant Books You've Never Heard Of, produced through recommendations by famous authors. This inspired me to produce my own list.

Credit where credit is due: several of the books mentioned below first came to my attention thanks to Jo Walton's column on (and her resulting book of recommendations What Makes This Book So Great)

The Beauty (official web page) starts years after all the women have died. Men and boys have survived, seemingly unaffected by the bizarre fungus plague that wiped out womankind. It's a very short novel. It's postapocalyptic, it's horror, it's science fiction and it's unlike anything I've read: it's full of ideas, atmosphere and the uncanny, and it sticks with you long after you'd finished reading.

Read my full review of The Beauty to find out more.
Sequela (official web page) is the debut novel of a Scottish poet. It tells the story of a scientist whose job is to create sexually transmitted viruses (STVs). In this future, STVs have become fashionable: they indicate whom one has slept with. Each symptom pattern is linked to different powerbrokers, and every 'player' is trying to have the most rarefied rash pattern.

It's high concept, but really, this is a character-based thriller. The tension comes from social interactions, from office politics, from personal relationships and how they develop...  It's a unique and frighteningly convincing novel.

Read my full review of Sequela to find out more.
Deep Water (official web page) is another debut novel, this time for young adults. Our hero, Danni, lives with her mother in England. One day, her mother does not return from work, and Danni slowly begins to suspect something may be wrong. Soon, she finds herself temporarily in the care of her scatterbrained hippie father in Cornwall, where the locals are superstitiously hostile of her.

Deep Water is an atmospheric novel, slowly building up tension and a sense of dread, but also a sense of mystery. It's a mythical thriller for youngsters, in the tradition of Alan Garner (and on a par with his best work).

Read my full review of Deep Water to find out more.
Jasmine Nights is a coming-of-age novel set in 1963 Thailand. It’s the story of Little Frog / Justin, a 12-year-old boy from a very rich family. Justin is a somewhat eccentric, aloof boy. Then, he is gradually nudged out of his shell by his grandmother, and by the kids who live next door...

Jasmine Nights is a story touching on race and prejudice, finding out about sex, Thailand, the periphery of the Vietnam War, different social classes, but above all else, it is the story of a lonely boy becoming slightly less lonely and growing up a little. It is also a very funny novel: it reminded me very strongly of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Read my full review of Jasmine Nights to find out more.

In Great Waters (official web page) is set in an alternative history where merpeople (known as deepsmen) are real. They are not like humans: fiercer, more direct, more single-minded. They can interbreed with humans, which results in physical and mental differences. Thus we meet Henry / Whistle, a crossbreed who is born in the sea but grows into adulthood among humans.

In Great Waters is outstanding because of its immersive, gradual worldbuilding. The deepsmen have more reality than most aliens you might read about in SF. Tension builds up slowly: by the time your fascination is satisfied, the story has sneakily turned into a thriller that can't be put down.

Read my full review of In Great Waters to find out more.
Konstantin (official web page) is a book inspired by a real historical character: Konstantin Tsiolkovski. However, this biographical novel is the tale of a boy, growing up in Russia, and becoming an oddball young man. The narrative ends before his real work starts.

Konstantin is a boy with a huge imagination. After losing most of his hearing, he spends the rest of his life a bit removed from his peers. However, this is not at all a misery book. Konstantin is full of infectious enthusiasm, permanently fascinated, and brave, even foolhardy.

Beautiful prose and the energetic protagonist make this a joyful book. Read my full review of Konstantin to find out more.

As for GQ's list? I've only read one of the books on that list - Random Acts of Senseless Violence. It's a dark masterpiece, and never more relevant than today: written in the early 80s, it accurately and terrifyingly describes the present (except for the internet). 

Monday 11 April 2016

Die Lebenden und die Toten von Nele Neuhaus

Ich lebe schon mein halbes Leben in Großbritannien. Daher rostet mir langsam die deutsche Sprache aus Unnutzung ein - also muss ich im voraus um Entschuldigung bitten, falls ich den einen oder anderen Fehler begehen sollte.

Die Lebenden und die Toten ist ein Kriminalroman, der in der Umgebung Frankfurts spielt. Es ist der siebte Roman der Bodenstein & Kirchhoff Krimiserie, allerdings der erste, den ich aus jener Serie gelesen habe.

Wie jeder gute Krimi, beginnt auch Die Lebenden und die Toten mit einem Mord. Eine alte Frau wird beim Hundegassigehen durch einen Kopfschuss von einem entfernten Scharfschützen umgebracht. Pia Kirchhoff, eine Komissarin bei der Kriminalpolizei, bekommt den Anruf obwohl sie eigentlich Urlaub gebucht hatte, weil sonst niemand zu erreichen ist. Ihr Pflichtgefühl zwingt sie, zum Tatort zu fahren. Ihr frischverheirateter Ehemann (besagter Urlaub war zwecks Flitterwochen gebucht gewesen) hat kein Problem damit, aber Pia ist natürlich nicht sehr begeistert...

Anfang des Falles scheint es, daß es kein Motiv für den Mord geben kann. Das Opfer hatte keine Feinde, keine Bedeutung, und niemand hat von ihrem Tod etwas zu gewinnen. Wenn eine zweite alte Frau ebenso durch Kopfschuss von einem Sniper ermordet wird, beginnt die Polizei eine Mordserie zu befürchten. Schlimmer noch, eine Serie von Zufallsmorden, begangen aus großer Entfernung, von einem Täter der keine Spuren hinterläßt - ein Albtraum für Polizisten. Das halbe Team hat Grippe, es ist Weihnachtszeit, und ein Irrer macht die Gegend unsicher: Pia beginnt, daran zu zweifeln, ob sie es verantworten kann, wie geplant nach Ecuador zu fliegen...

Man merkt dem Roman schon an, daß er Teil einer langen Serie ist. Zum einen gibt es reichlich Kollegen im Polizeirevier, die eine Rolle spielen. Zum anderen gibt es hin und wieder Stellen, wo der Text Hintergründe und frühere Fälle zusammenfasst. Nicht nur Fälle - frühere Verlobungen und Exfrauen und Exgatten sind auch reichlich vorhanden. Andererseits funktioniert der Roman problemlos, auch wenn man nicht jede Kleinigkeit der Vorgeschichte der Polizisten kennt. Es wird eher zuviel in Infodumps abgeliefert als zu wenig. Es hat allerdings den Anschein, daß, nach sechs anderen Romanen mit Happy Ends, innerhalb der Teams weniger Funken fliegen als vielleicht zu Anfang der Serie. Pia denkt an ihre ersten Fälle mit Bodenstein zurück, und daran, wie unterschiedlich sie damals waren, und wie sehr sie sich inzwischen aneinander angepasst haben. Dieses Team ist eine gut geölte Maschine.

Kein Wunder, daß neue Berater hineingeworfen werden. Einer, dessen Zweck es ist, zu nerven, und eine, die anscheinend nach diesem Roman Mitglied des Stammtischs werden soll.

Ein Krimi soll spannend sein. Nach und nach stellt sich ein Motiv fest, und dann gewinnt der Roman auch an Spannung, denn wenn die Polizisten ein Motiv kennen, dann gibt es bald auch Verdächtige zu ermitteln...

Die Lebenden und die Toten is ein durchaus unterhaltsamer, spannender Roman. Teilweise habe ich ihn mit Genuß verschlungen. Leider gibt es auch ein paar Plotlöcher und Fehler. Das Motiv einer der Morde macht keinen Sinn, und ganz am Ende wird glatt ein Augenzeuge vollkommen vergessen (bzw ein Opfer, daß wohl doch wissen musste, wer ihm etwas angetan hatte). Manche Charaktere scheinen eher künstlich in das Buch gezwungen und sind dann leider zu eindimensional. (Die Nervensäge ist zu nervend). Ich hatte den Eindruck, daß inzwischen alle Polizisten so kollegial, professionell und gut mit einander auskommen, daß die Autorin sich neue Problemchen ausdenken musste, um ein bisschen Zoff zu schaffen - und diese Problemchen wirkten nicht immer überzeugend. Hauptsache ist natürlich die Spannung, und die liefert dieser Krimi.

Alles in allem, ein recht guter Krimi.

Bewertung: 3,5/5

PS: Als ausgewanderter Deutscher fiel mir auf, daß die deutsche Sprache dabei ist, sich zu anglisieren. An einigen Stellen schien es mir, daß englische Begriffe sich seit meiner Zeit in Deutschland eingedeutscht haben. Zum Beispiel wird an einer Stelle "darauf insistiert" statt "darauf bestanden". Ich weiß nicht, ob das Internet daran Schuld ist, oder Fernsehsendungen (CSI?), aber es hat mich doch etwas überrascht, wie sehr die Sprache sich in den paar Jahren schon verändert hat.

PPS: Es freut mich, daß deutsche Buchcovers inzwischen teilweise um einiger schöner sind, als noch vor ein paar Jahren. Britische Covers sind weltklasse - da war es eher enttäuschend, wenn man in einen deutschen Buchladen ging, und die vergleichsweise anspruchslosen Covers dort sah... endlich mal etwas Farbe und Style!

Monday 4 April 2016

The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley

The Arrival of Missives is a novella set in a small rural village in post-WW1 England, where Shirley is a girl on the cusp of adulthood. Even though the main characters are youngsters, this is not a children's or YA story. I'm sure young people can read and enjoy it, but it's written for a mature audience, with some mature themes.

Shirley is madly in love with the local teacher, a man whose wounds in battle are rumoured to have unmanned him. However, her parents and most of the village have a different future in mind for her. Mr Tiller, the teacher, does not feature at all in those plans. Things take a surprise turn when Shirley decides to visit Mr Tiller's home, where she inadvertently spies on him as he undresses. Beneath his shirt, he is stranger than she could ever have imagined. After that fateful encounter, Mr Tiller, too, tries to direct Shirley's fate...

There's currently a vogue for stories about young women chafing against the restrictions of their societies while embroiled in some magical adventure. (Or perhaps it just seems that way to me, after reading The Wolf in the Attic, The Lie Tree and Every Heart a Doorway in fairly quick succession). However, The Arrival of Missives stands out from the crowd of such stories: it is shorter and yet it has more impact than most.

Every person in this story is completely authentic and human. No one is just a cipher, and there's a sense that everyone has their own life to live, beyond the appearances they make in Shirley's tale. Post-WW1 rural Britain is realised perfectly. It's a very different place from the settings readers are used to. Shirley doesn't live in a servant-filled mansion, nor in a town. Instead, she lives on a farm just outside a village, and her experience of "the city" is a trip to Taunton. Her geographical world might be quite small, but Shirley is a daydreamer with a huge imagination and significant ambition.

Growing up as a girl in the 1920s was not so different from growing up in Victorian times. The values were quite conservative, villages were "communities" (i.e. everyone has their nose in everyone else's business), and, though WW1 has shown women to be capable of work, they were still expected to be mothers and wives, rather than independent people. On the other hand, the legacy of the war has shaped Shirley's expectations: she is adamant that she will go to college and become a teacher, so that she can change the world by shaping the minds of generations of children. This, too, does not fit with anyone else's plans for her.

Because it is so short, every word and every scene in The Arrival of Missives counts. An impressive richness of inter-human relationships is infused into this novella. To give an example, Shirley, like most people, has a mother. In a book about girls growing into women, you'd expect the most immediate female role model to be relevant. Yet, comparing the novels I've been reading, the result is striking: the girl in The Wolf in the Attic has lost her mother. The girl in The Lie Tree has a deeply unpleasant mother who verges on caricature for most of the book. The many girls in Every Heart a Doorway are, in every way that matters, orphans. Meanwhile, Shirley in The Arrival of Missives might share only three or four scenes with her mother, but somehow those few scenes paint a richer, more authentic relationship, and Shirley learns to understand more about her mother without everything being spelled out in dialogue than any of the girls in the other books.

For a story involving supernatural elements, The Arrival of Missives is very subtle and restrained. Quite often in such tales, the supernatural element is there to give the heroine permission to do outrageous things. The Lie Tree gives a license to spin tall tales and deceive entire communities. The Wolf in the Attic lures the girl into the wilderness. Shirley, on the other hand, experiences more mundane little rebellions: a few snippy comments and a little experimentation. The supernatural might nudge her into taking risks, but they are the sort of risks that real girls in the real world take every day. Few novels balance the extraordinary with the subtle in such a masterful way.

Despite being accomplished and literary, the plot moves briskly, the storylines are engaging, and the tale is not just intelligent, but entertaining. In short, The Arrival of Missives is a great achievement, and a novella I'd heartily recommend.

(I'd recommend Aliya Whiteley's previous novel, The Beauty, even more: it is perhaps the best book I've read last year, a genuine masterpiece)

Rating: 5/5

Final Approach by John J Nance

It's been years since I last read a thriller by John J Nance. Specialising on aviation thrillers, this former pilot has written quite a few cockpit-based novels that could serve as wish fulfilment literature for plane spotters and aviation enthusiasts. So, of course, as teenager I devoured them. His biggest success is Pandora's Clock, which even got turned into a TV movie. (The main difference between adaptation and book was that they gender swapped the FBI agents: in the book, the naive rookie was male and the experienced, highly competent agent female)

Final Approach, however, takes us into a slightly different world. This time, it's not about a pilot hijacking his plane or brave pilots with a deadly load in their airliner, nor about landing a passenger jet on an aircraft carrier in a hurricane, nor about a teenaged flight sim fan taking control of a jet when the pilots get incapacitated (told you they are wish fulfilment books for aero-geeks). This time, we're following the investigation into a crash, and our heroes are the Go-Team of the NTSB. Not since Michael Crighton's Airframe have I a read a novel set in this most exciting and unique of professions.

Fortunately, John J Nance doesn't disappoint on this occasion. After taking the action antics and machismo way too far in some of his novels (cough, Blackout, cough), it's a relief to find this one on credible and authentic form. Final Approach was one of his first novels, and as such, turns out to be much more well-grounded than his later efforts. The techy side of things is entirely realistic. OK, so the story throws quite a few red herrings our way, but actually, that isn't unrealistic: every crash is such a rare and unlikely event these days that there is almost always a huge mystery about its cause.

Now, this is a thriller written primarily for boys. As such, the writing is a little by-the-numbers, and every single character gets described in physical detail as soon as they appear on stage. Every heroic male is athletic. Every female is sensual and attractive and lusted over. Characters don't grow or change or any of that mamby-pamby stuff: they walk on, they establish their role in the plot, and they stick to it. Don't expect the human elements of the story to surprise or enchant you: this is a technological thriller for people who are interested in aviation. Human characters exist mainly to be "human factors", not to be people.

That said, if you like techy thrillers and aeroplanes, this book is ace.

Rating: 4/5

Sunday 3 April 2016

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

I’ve been meaning to read The Lie Tree since it won the Costa Book of the Year Prize - it's unusual for a YA novel to win a big literary award. The premise sounded a little silly, to be honest, in the same way that a lot of Dystopian YA premises are quite daft.

Faith is the daughter of a Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a renowned archaeologist / palaeontologist in Victorian Britain. The novel starts when her entire family temporarily relocates to the island of Vane, so her father can join a dig there and provide expert insights.

From the first moment we meet them, they are not the easiest people to be around. Her mother is unceasingly manipulative, trading on her good looks and flirtatious demeanour to get any and every advantage she can obtain. Whether it’s bullying her luggage into the driest spots on the ferry or elbowing her way into the top of any pecking order in any social situation, she’s unbearable and horrible. Her father, meanwhile, is cold, stubborn and judgemental, idolised by Faith not so much for what he does (which is mostly growl, thunder and keep secrets), but who he is – her father and very nearly the voice of God. Only her little brother is okay, because he’s a small child and acts like one.

Even on the ferry, she gathers that there is more to their joint relocation than meets the eye: her family is running away from something nebulous and scandalous. Deeply curious and with a weakness for sneaking and spying on people, Faith makes it her guilty mission to find out what is going on, and to be of use to her father.

The titular Lie Tree does not make its appearance until about halfway through the novel. Up to that point, the story is one of intrigues, secrets and guilt, of scandals and shunnings. It takes a murder and the appearance of aforementioned magical tree for the plot to change gears. It’s still about intrigues and secrets, but finally, it is also suspenseful and pacey.

The second half of the novel is a lot better than the first. It’s still a fairly grim and serious novel about messed up and unpleasant people, with a heroine who chafes against the constraints of society as much as she self-loathes for her failure to be a “good” girl, but at least it entertains despite its bitter flavours.

Rating: 3.5/5


The Lie Tree is a novel which may be intended to be read in schools. It's clear the author has opinions and wants to communicate them through the novel, so I imagine many a youngster will have to write essays and do critical analysis of the story - at times it feels like it's written for that very purpose.

Compared with other novels starring adolescent girls in more constrained times, The Lie Tree is very overtly interested in the oppressive and self-repressive effects of patriarchical societies. There are some standout "teaching moments" in the text.

At one point, Faith looks at herself in the mirror, and concludes that this wild, messy creature she sees is not meant to be a good girl. It is a turning point, and from then on she relishes breaking rules and conventions, getting more and more out of control. As much as the reader might cheer her on initially, some of her actions soon have dire consequences. When a (supposed) baddie calls her a "little viper", I found myself cheering and rooting for the baddies.

At the end of the book, a handful of conversations and thoughts about women and their roles in society occur, some internally (Faith contemplates the way women researchers are treated and remembered by society), others in dialogue (Faith and her mother have a frank conversation). The author might as well have put a giant sign here saying "and the moral of the story is..."

I can't disagree with the author's views, and I don't even mind the somewhat blunt discussion of the book's themes at the end. What does bother me is that, even now, I'm not sure that we haven't been following the "bad guys" all along. Had the novel been written from the perspective of its antagonist(s), it might well have had a more likeable set of heroes. The Sunderly family is full of abhorrent people, and even Faith is, when all her deeds are totalled up, not just failing to be a "good girl", but ultimately, her actions make her not a "good person", either.