Sunday 22 October 2017

Book Review: Farthing by Jo Walton

Farthing is a novel set in 1949 in an alternative history version of England. The war with Germany is over. After the British humiliation at Dunkirk, Rudolf Hess' flight to the UK ended not in his lifelong imprisonment, but in a negotiated "Peace with Honour" along the lines that Hess proposed: the two nations no longer fought each other, leaving Germany free to concentrate on Hitler's campaign in Russia and Britain free to keep an iron grip on its Empire. Germany is still at war, but Britain is at peace, and the war never really turned into a World War...

Lucy, our protagonist, is the daughter of two of the aristocrats involved in arranging this outcome. Known as "the Farthing set", these aristocrats and conservative politicians have faded from the political mainstream after successfully outmanoeuvring Churchill and making peace with Hitler.

When Lucy married a Jewish banker working on microloans to help disadvantaged people, her mother was horrified. A Jew in her family - such an outrage! So it is a surprise when Lucy and her husband are invited to a weekend party in her parents' countryside manor.

An even bigger surprise is revealed in the morning, when one of the key Farthing Set politicians is found dead, with a yellow felt star stabbed into his chest. So begins a murder mystery unlike any other I've read. A smart inspector, supported by his earnest constable, is investigating the case. Immense pressure rides on its outcome - and keeping a bunch of very rich and powerful people restricted to a manor house quickly turns out to  be half the challenge.

Meanwhile, Lucy's husband quickly finds himself the prime suspect. Over the next few days, secrets, intrigue, and a growing number of bodies turn the investigation into an ever-more-complex mystery.

Farthing is not just outstanding because the mystery at the heart of the plot is a well-executed homage to Agatha Christie style crime fiction. Nor is it the alternative history that makes the novel remarkable. Instead, it is the cast of worryingly authentic characters. Lucy, a former socialite whose motive for loving her husband is at least in part a rebellion against her unpleasant mother, is a flighty, shallow heroine to begin with. A homosexual inspector who, like most of British society, is antisemitic, but who does not let his prejudices colour his investigation. Antisemitism and prejudice (and people's responses to both) are handled very authentically in the novel. The plot progresses very smoothly from pure crime mystery to something much more thoughtful.

To be honest, I didn't expect to like Farthing. While I generally very much enjoy Jo Walton's work, I also happen to have a dislike of fiction set in WW2 / Nazi times, and a dislike of period fiction about aristocrats flouncing about in period dress. Farthing was thus a novel that I bought (due to being a fan of Jo Walton) and then ignored on my Kindle for years (due to its subject matter & cover). I'm glad that I eventually gave it a try. It's a smart, tense, compelling novel, worthy of praise for its originality, its pace, and especially for its authenticity.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday 21 October 2017

Review: Digger by Ursula Vernon

Digger is a graphic novel that started life as a webcomic. Unlike many webcomics, this was not merely a short strip of cartoon humour. Instead, Digger is a long form fantasy epic, told through the medium of a serialised comic strip, almost right from the start. And so Digger - the complete Omnibus Edition is absolutely the best way to read the story.

Digger is a wombat, from a world where wombatkind live in warrens and where wombats are a no-nonsense, practical and deeply unspiritual species, concerned primarily with feats of civil engineering. Or so we are told by Digger herself, whom we meet elsewhere.

When we first meet Digger, she's in the process of accidentally tunnelling into a different world, through sinister, magic-infested caves that induce hallucinations (and which may contain monsters who want to skin her), and out through the floor of a temple dedicated to an elephant God of compassion and peace and stuff. This is a world where no one has ever seen a wombat themselves (though the species is not unheard of, merely semi-mythical and rumoured to be extinct).

Being an atheist in the temple of a God can be a bit awkward. It's even more awkward if the statue of the elephant god in question starts having conversations with you, probing why exactly you breached the temple, through a troublesomely semi-metaphysical hole which doesn't quite seem to be part of the world, and what exactly your intentions are...

What follows is a story that finds its feet by improvising, introducing this strange world and its inhabitants to Digger, before deciding that it was meant to be a tale of epic fantasy all along, and developing a plot to suit. Except, this is an epic fantasy starring a hero who really doesn't like gods, or prophecies, or magic, and who deeply distrusts anyone who foolishly messes around with such unpredictable things.

Digger is a refreshingly different hero. She's tough, a builder (with the mannerisms and working class attitude that entails), and primarily concerned with a desire to return home. She doesn't have an ounce of nambypamby romance in her heart. There's no romantic interest, no desire to start a family or have children, and we even find out that wombat marriages are arranged through medium term contracts, a few years in length. Digger herself is often rude (especially to oracular snails) and generally selfish (quests to save the world from unspeakable evil are only of any interest if they further her goal of returning home)

The humour in Digger ranges between wry wit, subverted expectations and slapstick. However, despite plenty of chuckles, Digger is not a work of comic fiction in my mind. Humour serves and enhances the story from time to time - but the story does not serve the humour.

In her adventures, Digger encounters joy, triumph, heroism, tragedy, innocence, atrocity, wisdom and stupidity. She may have no stomach for spiritualism or romantic notions of heroism and valour, but she always has time for people (no matter what shape, species or gender those people may have). Digger is one of those works which have a certain kindness at their heart. Often in the course of the story, Digger starts out at cross purposes with a character, but eventually grows to know them. Some become friends and allies. Others don't, but are generally understood by Digger (and the reader) to be decent enough people in their own way (or at least, to be following their own moral logic), even if they happen to be trying to do evil things to Digger and her friends.

What really makes Digger work is that it's filled with show-stealing characters. Digger herself is a great centre of gravity for all the others to circle around, but those others are largely outstanding in their own right. There's tragic Ed, a male hyena expelled from his matriarchic tribe, there's the innocent but frighteningly powerful Shadowchild, and there's the very very young Hag, and perhaps most showstealing of them all, there's Sorka the Bridge Troll...

Digger is a wonderful book.

If you took Labyrinth and The Princess Bride and substracted the romance / teen notions of love, but left in everything else magical and wonderful and added a prosaic, impatient wombat civil engineer to the mix, you might - just might - end up with something a little bit like Digger. But you'd have to be a bit of a genius - and Ursula Vernon, it seems, is definitely that.

Rating: 5/5.
Super highly recommended.

PS: I am selling my copy (with a heavy heart) as I will be moving house soon. Interested in buying it? Get in touch!

Sunday 8 October 2017

Book Review: The Chicken Soup Murder by Maria Donovan

The Chicken Soup Murder is a novel told from the perspective of Michael, a primary school boy (about to move on to "Big School"). Michael lives with his nan in a cul-de-sac in a small town near the coast; his neighbours are a community, the closest neighbours virtually family.

However, all is not well in Michael's seemingly idyllic little world. Before the novel even starts, his friend Janey lost her father to cancer - which tumbled her mother into a deep and troubling depression. Then, the dog of his other neighbour, Irma, died. But it's after Irma starts dating a policeman, Shawn Bull, whose son George bullies Michael, that the final tragedy strikes: Irma herself dies, and with her death, the story begins.

Told through Michael's eyes, we experience his world in compelling detail. It's 2012: the year of the London Olympics and (later) the scandal around Jimmy Saville. The story moves through time, reminding the reader of events half-forgotten. What a washout that summer was, except for the few weeks of the Games! And, if you follow cricket, you're in for a pleasing series of reminders bringing 2012 back to life. It's not something I've come across before in a novel, yet it works brilliantly.

At its heart, The Chicken Soup Murder is a novel about bereavement. Don't get me wrong: it's not a novel of misery. Irma's death was mysterious and sudden and foul play may have been involved, so at least part of the novel is mystery and suspense. A much more important aspect of the novel is its sense of humour, which is a gentle, wry sort of humour. We never laugh at the characters, but we occasionally get chances to smile knowingly or affectionately. However, despite its gentle tone, death, grief and bereavement suffuse the story's fabric in every scene.

Janey and her mum have not gotten over the trauma of her father's tragic death. In fact, Janey almost has to mourn both her parents; her mother is that debilitated by her grief. Michael is obsessed with (the circumstances around) Irma's death to a point where his mental health suffers. George Bull, bully to begin with, is crumbling and vulnerable under the stress of his loss. All the relationships between characters become unsettled and fluid as a result of the deaths and the grief that has struck them. What used to be certain is not, and they all deal with this sudden instability in different but entirely believable ways.

If anyone told me I'd enjoy a novel about bereavement, I would have concluded that they know nothing about my reading taste at all. And yet I did enjoy the book. It wasn't a formulaic crime novel; it wasn't a whining misery novel; it wasn't a "aren't children quirky" sickly concoction of corny cheese. Somehow, The Chicken Soup Murder navigates between these pitfalls to be a warm, addictive, gently amusing novel about the unavoidable, everyday tragedy that is death. It's a literary novel with complexity and authentically human characters. It's not a navel gazing novel; lots of things happen. It's an intelligent novel which does not show off how smart it is, but makes you want to read on to find out what happens next.

Rating: 4.5/5

[Full disclosure: I happen to know the author because she taught me a university module, 14 years ago]

Sunday 1 October 2017

Review: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

I happened to spot a copy of Girls of Riyadh in Hoffi Coffi, on a booksharing shelf. The title intrigued me, so I downloaded a Kindle copy (the paperback is still on the shelf in Hoffi Coffi if you want it!)

Girls of Riyadh is a novel showing a side of Saudi Arabian life that people like me, a man who has never been there, will be completely unfamiliar with. It has been described as "Sex and the City in Saudi Arabia" which, along with the title and cover, should give you a hint about its topic matter. Saudi chick-lit, written by a Saudi woman writer - who'd have thought?

The book is told in a series of posts. In any other place, they might be blog posts, but here, they are delivered as email messages to a newsgroup. Communication in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s appears to be about 15 years behind communication in Europe - who still remembers the age of newsgroups? The author of the mailouts is an anonymous young woman, who prefaces each post with a little message to her readers, initially announcing her grand plan to shake things up a bit and later responding to reactions to her messages. Inside this frame (which sounds more complicated than it is), she tells the stories of four young women trying to navigate the tricky arena of dating, sex and marriage in the most sexually repressed country on Earth.

It should be said that the narrator and her friends all belong to the same class - well-off, part of the "in crowd", and with all the privileges of being upper class in a fairly rigid society. Not royalty, but wealthy and urbane. As they are not allowed to drive (the book was written a decade before this week's long-overdue royal decree allowing women to drive cars), they all have chauffeurs at their behests. The chauffeurs are virtually nameless in the book - they are obviously so far beneath our heroines that they need not be acknowledged or considered at all.

Class is important because it's pretty clear that these young women are more privileged than most. The ultra-strict laws might apply, but they never have any real terror of being caught when breaking them, because they know that they'll not get into huge trouble if they do. So, in one of the first scenes, they all decide that they want to have the most unique, trendsetting hen do for the first of them to get married that ever has been arranged in Riyadh. That means hiring a DJ and having a girls' disco and dressing up at home (apparently the standard approach) is out of the question. Instead, they decide to go the shopping mall & about town without being chaperoned by their families. One of them dresses as a boy (so she can pretend to be their younger brother), and with the help of their silent chauffeur, they go out on their adventure.

Of course, the escapades that are possible in Saudi Arabia, even for pampered wealthy girls, are comparatively tame. Exchanging mobile numbers (through car door windows) and texting with boys (or chatting online, or, if really interested, phoning) is about as far as it goes, before engagements & marriage. (The process of getting married in Saudi, meanwhile, is also something I learned a lot about through this book) But, having grown up on teen movies like Clueless, it's equally clear that these girls dream of leading less restricted - though not liberal - lives. They want to be cool, fashionable, flirtatious, desirable, and able to have fun. They yearn for drama (which means they gossip about the smallest details and spend a lot of time being overdramatic), but most of all, they yearn for something their society perpetually withholds: respect and a kind of full adulthood.

Above all else, Girls of Riyadh is a critique of Saudi culture - and Saudi men in particular. No wonder it caused a bit of a stir over there when it was published. The four women go through ups and downs, but again and again they find that the environment they live in is out to judge them, and that men are looking not for women to love, but for women to control. In the book, Saudi men all have very clear expectations of women, but won't communicate those, and then judge women very harshly if they in any way behave differently (not worse, merely differently) compared to those expectations. In short, Saudi Arabia has created a culture where relationships and love have become perverted and corrupted, making it near-impossible for people to find happiness and love, if GoR is an accurate portrayal.

The book has a serious undertone, but is written as chick lit, so it is accessible, tongue in cheek, playful, and generally light entertainment. It doesn't just criticise - it also highlights the humanity and the many ways in which young people navigate around the social minefield they find themselves trapped in.

I'd highly recommend Girls of Riyadh for getting a flavour of an experience that will be quite alien to most readers in the West / Global North. It's also a pleasant book to read.

Rating: 4/5

PS: My only other exposure to Saudi Arabia-set novels is Zoe Ferraris' excellent trilogy of detective novels. Girls of Riyadh complements those novels quite well (or vice versa), as the trilogy is set in Jeddah (apparently a more relaxed city than Riyadh, if GoR is to be believed) but in a lower class (its heroes have proper day jobs, not as luxuries, but because they need to work). In some ways, that means Zoe Ferraris' characters are more restricted (they fear genuine and harsh consequences from the judicial system if caught transgressing in any way), while in others, they are freer (they have smaller networks of family & peers ready to judge and shun them). Zoe Ferraris' novels give a fuller picture of everyday life and its problems, while Girls of Riyadh shows a more privileged perspective by putting a spotlight on Saudi Fairly-High Society. The characters in Girls of Riyadh are more likely to end up as murder victims or perpetrators to be investigated by Zoe Ferraris' characters, while Zoe Ferraris characters would be pretty much invisible to the high flying, occasionally globetrotting Girls of Riyadh...

Saturday 2 September 2017

A Conversation about Healthy Eating by Nicholas Lesica

A Conversation about Healthy Eating is a non-fiction book written by a neuroscientist. It does exactly what it says on the tin - it discusses healthy eating, and the confirmed scientific consensus about eating, digestive processes and modern diets. I don't exactly recall how I stumbled across it, but I am very glad I did.

When Nicholas Lesica doesn't write scientific papers about "Impaired auditory temporal selectivity in the inferior colliculus of aged Mongolian gerbils" and smilar, he likes to do other things, one of which is eating. However, liking food worried him, because of all the stories in the media about how one kind of food or another causes (or cures) cancer / obesity / heart disease. Unlike most people, he decided that just looking at the headlines and news stories was not enough: he wanted to understand the science of eating, get a complete overview, and then apply this knowledge to himself. (And, in the meantime, write a book, which you can download free on the internet, to share what he has learned)

The result is A Conversation about Healthy Eating: an overview of how the human body processes food, how various systems interact, and how various foods cause different responses. Lesica is not a dietician, so he was learning about the current state of knowledge in scientific fields that are only tangentially related to his own. He did all the work of reading up on in-depth science, but he decided to write the book not for other scientists. Instead, he wrote it for the general public. And by "public", I  mean anyone above the age of 10 or so, in terms of the accessibility of the information and the language used in the book.

When I read the description, I was intrigued. As anyone who knows me IRL can attest, I have my own problems with food, and I am trying to figure out how to address these. So a book that would give me a broad understanding of what goes on in my stomach, brain, liver and intestines is a perfect place to start.

I will admit that it took me a few pages to get accustomed to Lesica's approach. He makes clear in the introduction that he uses a trick to prevent the reader from skipping or skim-reading (namely, exposing all the information in the form of dialogue - it is literally a conversation), and in the conversation itself, he sometimes aims at an audience perhaps a bit too ignorant (having the questioner ask "what is DNA" and "what are hormones", for example). That said, 99% of the time it works. The information is explained, convincingly and in just enough detail to understand, but never so much detail that it becomes overwhelmingly complicated. He makes very clear how certain or uncertain the scientific consensus is about any statement he makes. He adds references for every claim, so the reader can decide to read the original science. And he writes the book in a way that is not just conversational, but non-judgemental and empathetic. (I have never before read a book that understands what it's like to be me, when it comes to food, and this book does).

Best of all, after going through all the detail about how the body works, he makes a few suggestions about how people (i.e. the reader) can improve their habits and eat more healthily. One of the biggest suggestions is to use the knowledge and some self-observation to come up with a bespoke, personal solution for oneself, which is what I am trying to do.

I wish I'd read this book when I was young. I wish my parents had read it. And I wish it was on the national curriculum, so that every child about the age of 12 or so would read it. Because it is not just accessible, it is comprehensive, clear, and seems about as accurate as the current scientific consensus. In short, it is a perfect tool for us to understand this aspect of our own bodies.

Rating: 5/5. Highly recommended to everyone (not just people with dietary problems)

FREE Download (perfectly legal)

Sunday 27 August 2017

Book review: The Salarian Desert Game by J. A. McLachlan

After enjoying The Occasional Diamond Thief tremendously, I bought its sequel, The Salarian Desert Game, right away. It's a sequel that probably works on its own, as Kia Ugiagbe, our heroine, goes on another adventure on another planet. The events of the first book are occasionally referenced, but not crucial to understanding this book.

Kia is an unusually gifted student translator. She doesn't know quite as many languages as her fellow students, but those she does learn, she learns to the point of speaking them like a native. She comes from a family of space traders / cargo ship operators, but since both her parents are now dead, it's her older brother and sister running the business. Business is not going well at all...

As we meet Kia at the start of the novel, she's determined to rescue her sister from the faraway planet of Salaria. To save the floundering company, her sister has entered a gambling establishment and lost her freedom - she's now on Salaria slaving away in the mines and likely to perish there before her indentured servitude is up.

Kia knows her quest is dangerous and completely unachievable. Salarians never release someone from a (gambling) debt, ever. She has no plan, no money, and intends to embark her journey to Salaria with no real preparation, when she is summonsed by her sponsors. Her university fees are paid by a religious organisation, and she can't refuse the summons. It turns out, her sponsors need her to travel to Salaria in her capacity as a translator....

The Salarian Desert Game is just as wonderful to read as the first novel. Pacey, tongue  in cheek, fun, and filled with adventure and peril. It is more hard-hitting than the first book, and it tackles some more challenging moral dilemmas. Don't get me wrong: this is not a preachy novel. It's a fun adventure novel which is designed to make readers think (from time to time). Kia is a great protagonist because she has a sense of humour, a sarcastic / rebellious streak, and because she isn't a goody-two-shoes hero. She does the right thing more often than not, but not without grumbling. When there is no right and wrong, she is just as beset by difficulties with making decisions as the reader would be. Easy to identify with and plucky - a great character to spend literary time with.

The novel is not flawlesss: I find the way J.A. McLachlan handles exposition annoying. Namely, there often is none. Instead, one of the most dramatic events of the story (Kia's sister's gambling and everything that happens before and after, at t he gambling den), is entirely off-screen. Tiny snippets of relevant information are simply just introduced when they become relevant, often in dialogue, so at times it feels almost as if the author is just making these things up on the spot. We may see the story through Kia's eyes, but Kia feels no need to share everything she knows with us readers... The way information is revealed was a source of frustration for this particular reader. Similarly, scene changes and skips in time are often a bit too sudden. That said, these "flaws" (in quotemarks because they are a matter of taste, really) are at worst stylistic and cosmetic issues. The plot, the characters, Kia's narrative voice - they are all of stellar quality.

I'd happily recommend The Salarian Desert Game to any reader who has no prejudice against science fiction or YA novels - it's a great read. However, even though it stands well on its own feet, I would also recommend starting with the first novel, which is as good (perhaps even better).

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Review: The Occasional Diamond Thief by J.A. McLachlan

The \ Occasional / Diamond Thief is a YA adventure scifi novel.

Our heroine, Kia Ugiagbe, is the 15-year-old daughter of a fairly unsuccessful trader. Her father has been sickly as long as she can remember, suffering episodes of fever and weakness ever since he'd travelled to a faraway frontier planet, Malemese. He never talked about what happened there, but it has left its mark on him.

On his deathbed, Kia is the only one he can talk to any more, because she's the only one to have learnt the Malemese language. Malemese is the language he falls into when suffering fever hallucinations. In his final moments, he reveals a secret he has kept all those years: hidden at the back of a drawer, there is a little bag containing a huge diamond which could only have come from Malemese. Her father, she realises, must have stolen it.

Soon after his death, Kia gains independence from her abusive mother (and her aloof siblings) by means of stealing jewellery and using the proceeds to fund a place at a school for translators. However, her brief career in thieving is just the start of her adventures...

Fast paced, fun, and tense, The Occasional Diamond Thief is a brilliantly absorbing novel. Kia is easy to root for: she's hard-working, not brilliant at everything she does (especially her people skills are a subject she struggles with), but dedicated to her work. At times, she reminded me of Pat Rothfuss's Kvothe: all her skills are hard-earned, but unlike Kvothe, she isn't magically gifted at everything. She has a sense of humour and just the right amount of cheek: enough to put a twinkle in the reader's eye, not so much that she becomes annoying. She stumbles into her adventures, and though some are forced upon her, the story never loses the main thread of Kia's desire to understand more about her father, and the man he was before the sickness that would ultimately destroy him.

It's not a flawless novel - the mother is a bit too simplistically drawn as a character, and some of the scene changes are disorienting - but it's one of the best YA novels I've read. Better by far than Hunger Games, and on a par with Ian McDonald's Planesrunner series.

Highly recommended!

Rating: 5/5

Saturday 29 July 2017

Book Review: The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo

I'm attending Wolrdcon in Helsinki this year. After Loncon, which I loved, I determined to visit every Worldcon I can (or rather, every Worldcon that does not take place in the US, because I'm not interested in going through US immigration / airports / TSA stuff).

As excited as I am about Worldcon, I discovered that I've never actually read any books by the Guests of Honour. So, with just a few weeks to go, it seemed a good idea to do some catch-up reading. First, I chose The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo. (Reading something written by a Fininsh native seems only polite when attending a convention in Finland).

Enough preamble. The Blood of Angels tells the story of Orvo, a Finnish hobbyist beekeeper, in a near future. In this future, Colony Collapse Disorder (where entire bee colonies disappear from hives without a trace) has become Colony Collapse Catastrophe in America and several other regions of the world, but not yet Finland. The world's agriculture industry is in growing disarray: without its most effective pollinators, entire types of crop are failing, and this has knock-on effects. One day, Orvo finds one of his hives empty. As he recovers a dead queen bee, there are flashing blue lights outside, and then things become... interrupted.

The Blood of Angels is a novel at the literary end of science fiction. Don't expect pulpy heroes, grand adventures, dystopia. Instead, Orvo narrates his story, day-to-day, as memories (flashbacks) interrupt him and take his mind to places it usually does not want to be. We learn about his world gradually, one memory and one event at a time.

Pretty early on, it's clear that something dramatic and ominous has happened in his life, but Orvo shies away from thinking about it because his mind can't process and cope. Meanwhile, he reads through the blog posts of his activist, vegan son, and discovers that the attic in his barn has a door to another universe... but even that portal is understated; the other universe not all that 'other'.

This is a thoughtful sensitive novel. It's written with great authenticity and skill. The story walks the tightrope between very grounded, realistic personal drama on one side, and science fiction, mythology and portal fantasy on the other, in a way that is engrossing and rewarding for the reader. The story never becomes boring, and though it takes itself seriously, it never commits that gravest of sins of being too up its own a**e.

It's not a beach read, but The Blood of Angels is definitely worth your time. Well-written, intelligent, authentic and rewarding. I can see why Sinisalo is a GoH at Worldcon, and I intend to read more of her books in future.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday 22 July 2017

Review: An Oath Of Dogs

An Oath Of Dogs is a novel of colonisation on an alien planet. Kate Standish, freshly defrosted from her cryosleep journey, arrives in the Canaan Lake settlement to be a Communications Officer. No, not a spindoctor: a techie in charge of setting up and maintaining telecomms networks. Except, before she even arrived, she's been promoted due to the disappearance / murder of her desginated manager, Duncan, while she was en route.

Kate is not a social butterfly. Still struggling to overcome an anxiety disorder, (with assistance of her therapeutic companion doggie, Hattie), she's abrasive, cynical, not really interested in making friends. However, everyone eyes her dog with distrust, and Canaan Lake is right on the edge of the frontier. Religious zealots, minimal police oversight, private security and rough loggers live side by side, with tensions broiling just beneath the surface. There are sinister secrets lurking in the forest...

The other main character is Peter, Duncan's ex, heartbroken biologist and suspected environmentalist. Being an environmentalist on a forest planet newly colonised is a social and political death sentence: the primary industry is logging; the colonisation there to exploit the planet's resources. Not to mention that there are eco-terrorists around, attacking logging facilities. Peter's real interest is research, rather than environmental protection for its own sake - but people eye him with distrust.

Kate and Peter are the protagonists, but the show stealers are Hattie (clearly, the author loves dogs) and Olive, a young farmer's daughter traipsing around the area like a forest sprite. It's when these characters come under threat that the tension builds up in the novel. And there are so many things that threaten them, from the local wildlife (sharp-clawed, blind leatherbirds) via a mysterious pack of rabid dogs haunting the town at night, to the sinister corporation that runs the planet (and its angry staff).

At times, Oath of Dogs reminded me of The Word For World Is Forest. However, it's not quite as overtly environmental. The combination of a forested planet and logging (of all things) as its main export industry is present in both books. Economically, it doesn't make sense in either (wood, no matter  how good or rare, seems an unlikely product to be worth transporting through space). But An Oath Of Dogs is subtler when it comes to its politics. The villains are not entirely villainous (in fact, quite heroic in some ways). Nature isn't purely benevolent - but genuinely alien. And at its heart, it's a murder mystery with canine monsters.

It's an interesting, entertaining novel worth reading. Especially if you like dogs. Or alien frontiers...

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday 4 June 2017

Review: The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

The Girl with the Red Balloon is a YA urban fantasy time travelling novel set in Berlin. Well, I don't know about you, but I'm sold based on that concept alone.

Ellie Baum, an American Jewish teenager, visits 21st century Berlin on a school trip, excited but slightly apprehensive as she recalls her grandfather's Holocaust-formed apprehensions about the German people. She spots a floating red balloon, and, recalling grandpa's description of beautiful days as "balloon days", asks her friend to take a photo of her as she grabs it... and, touching it, is pulled into night-time 1980s East Berlin. There, she meets a gypsy boy, a lesbian counterculture girl, and a conspiracy to smuggle persecuted people out of East Germany by means of magical balloons. Time-travel, it turns out, had not been a part of the plan.

The book is rich in atmosphere and detail - clearly, Katherine Locke has visited Berlin, and read up about history. It's also obvious that she knows a little German (but isn't at native-speaker-level), as she sprinkles German words and phrases into the book. The latter works up to a point: for any non-German-speakers, it undoubtedly adds to the richness of the details. To native speakers, her choice of words jars a bit, especially the repeated use of "Schöpfers", meaning "makers". Unfortunately, "Schöpfer" is used almost exclusively to refer to God as the creator. Similarly, her attempt at a compound noun is a bit befuddled.

When it comes to describing East Germany (and, in flashbacks to history, Jewish ghettos and concentration camps), the story feels grim and very claustrophobic. There's no way around the grimness for the scenes set in the Holocaust, but my impression is that the grimness of the DDR may well be overplayed in the novel. Germany is an odd case - because it reunited the communist, dictatorship East with the liberal democratic West, the transition was different from other countries. Because of the WW2 history, (West) Germany has a very self-conscious approach to looking at its history - so there are museums and memorials and movies about the horrors of the DDR. Other 'East European' countries also transitioned from Communist dictatorships to democracies, but didn't necessarily put the same amount of money, effort and cultural navel-gazing into looking at their past regimes. The result is perhaps a distortion of perception: Life in East Germany was no walk in the park, but it wasn't more terrible than life in any other country behind the Iron Curtain.

In terms of freedoms, living in the DDR probably wasn't worse than life today in Egypt or Cuba. In some areas of life, I suspect the likes of Egypt and Cuba today are less accommodating than the DDR had been. For example, I was a bit surprised that Mitzi, the lesbian, feared persecution, or that a pregnant woman out of wedlock would have been in terrible trouble: the DDR had a reputation for being ahead of West Germany in women's equality & sexual promiscuity / sex-positiveness. For example, the DDR 'legalised' homosexuality in 1957, 12 years before West Germany did. (In West Germany, the supreme court re-iterated in 1957 that homosexuality was obscene, and 50,000 men were arrested before it was legalised in 1975). As for racism, while it's never gone, the prejudice against Jews and gypsies that appear in the book strike me as unlikely in 1980s Germany (West or East). At times, Katherine Locke's DDR feels like it hasn't changed much from Nazi Germany, and that is, in my opinion, an exaggeration,

That said, Ellie being an English-speaker behind the Iron Curtain, she has to spend much of her time in hiding, forcing a claustrophobic tension into the story that feels warranted and authentic. Perhaps East Germany feels extra grim partially because of the culture shock and contrast she experiences.

While much of this review details the aspects of the novel that made me bristle a little, I would nonetheless recommend it. It's a good, exciting story, with shedloads of atmosphere and enough authenticity for most readers. If you were alive during the Cold War, or if you're a German native, you might find some things to quibble over, but if neither of those statements applies I suspect you'll enjoy the setting, atmosphere, detail and tension of the book.

Rating: 4/5

Monday 29 May 2017

Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

River of Teeth is a novella that is completely irresistible. Here's the back cover blurb:

"In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.
Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.
This was a terrible plan.
Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge."

An alternative Western, full of hippos and cowboys riding on hippos, herding hippos, ranching hippos? As alternative histories go, that has surely got to be one of the most unashamedly fun premises ever conceived, made all the more delicious by the fact that it is based on a real historic plan which never quite got carried out..

And as far as the hippos go, the novella doesn't disappoint one bit. Ruby, Abigail, Rosa and Betsy (the hippos) are show stealers: the human cast of the story are, to be honest, not half as interesting as their mounts.

Aside from the novelty factor, River of Teeth is a fast moving story of revenge and a great caper totally-above-board operation, featuring an evil robber baron as villain, as well as a motley crew of Western archetypes: an ex-rancher, a gun-for-hire, an assassin, a technical (explosives & poisons) expert, a pickpocket con woman...

This being 2017, post Hugo-gamergate-alt-right-social-justice-warrior kerfuffle, the cast is ethnically and sexually hyper-diverse to the point of very ham-fisted pandering to (certain) audiences' demands. It's mildly distracting, until one of the plot points is the fact that the only white male of the group has become unavailable for a task that only a white male with a moustache could accomplish, putting the quest at risk. That particular obstacle, and its resolution, are more full of plotholes than an Emmental cheese.

As a matter of fact, the story as a whole is quite full of holes and discontinuities: it could have used some editorial browbeating into something that has convincing internal logic. For a novella, the cast of characters is quite big, so the story spends 40% of its length on putting the gang together. Some characters turn out to not have very many tasks to accomplish within the gang, fulfilling narrative purposes rather than fitting the mission. Internal logic, it turns out, only mattered to the author when it comes to the hippos (the appendix contains a detailed history of this alternative America and its hippos). For the main plot, not so much.

Despite the OTT diversity pandering and the very loose attitude towards internal logic, River of Teeth is rollicking fun. Ultimately, this is a Western filled with hippos, and it moves fast enough and has hippos enough to make its narrative sins more than forgivable.

Great fun!

Rating: 4/5

Saturday 1 April 2017

Review: Rococo by Sue Hollister Barr

Rococo is a short science fiction novel. Set in a future where people can choose to limit their physical interactions with others and rely on food printers & virtual communications, it's not very far fetched at all.

Our heroine lives in Alaska, isolated enough so she can't even see any other people or infrastructure from her comfortable home. However, her new boss has insisted on a "phys" meeting, so the start of the novel finds her in an office in a big city, trying to cope with her germ-phobia and emotional turmoil (anger and rage). It's not entirely clear whether she is more germ-phobic than average: clearly there are many people who live their lives similar to us today, while her own habit of avoiding the risk of contamination is common enough not to raise any eyebrows. (I guess if we no longer even notice that many Asian people wear medical face masks whenever they are outdoors, the sort of germ-avoidance  described in Rococo can't be far off)

The business meeting is surreal and strange, not least because of the Rococo fashion affecting people's speech and dress code, but it's when she points out that the starship drive she's been designing is only capable of a one-way trip that we realise why her manager insisted on meeting up in person: he needs to shut her up before she says or writes something in a way that is monitored. The story moves, smoothly, from slightly surreal, unsettling, into thriller territory.

As it develops, the sense of "something wrong with the world" steadily builds. From the fads and fashions, to the sense that all electronic communication is monitored, to the way people mess with minds, to the aliens - things are complicated and messy and a bit corrupted, just like the mind of our narrator. Rococo is a novel that could have been written by Philip K Dick, if Dick was still alive today.

It's a compelling novel because much of it is based in a very near future. The shifting employment patterns already have a name - they are currently being called "the gig economy" - while the 3D-printers and food synthesizers are just around the corner. The reliance on electronic communication and social networking (and its permanent record of every human interaction) is already here. The sort of self-driven, fast, flying personal transport envisioned is staple of SF, though unlikely to ever become quite as smooth and fast as it is in these stories.Really, it's only the aliens and the mind-messing that seem a little unlikely.

Don't expect a long novel: there are only really three main characters, and a few extras. Initially, I thought it was a novella: Somehow, I've gotten so used to modern SF novels being quite walloping in size, I forgot that the form used to average 50,000 words, not 100,000, in the not-too-distant past. That said, the shorter length suits the story very well, and ensures that the pace never slacks.

If you want a quick, Philip K Dick style thriller, written for a 21st Century audience, then Rococo should be right up your street.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday 28 February 2017

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is one of those books I'd always meant to read one day, but it never quite bubbled to the top of my list until I saw that the Cardiff Book Collective was reading it. Running my own book club, I've always been a bit curious about what the other local book clubs might be like, so I figured this would be a useful excuse to check out the competition.

It was good fun, and if your booky tastes are a little more literary / less genre-bound than mine, it's a book club I'd recommend for people in Cardiff. Top tip: if you want to make a good impression on bibliophiles, I can now heartily recommend not declaring that an antagonistic fire chief who burns people's books, libraries and occasional bibiophiles is the true hero of a dystopian novel. Sharply indrawn breaths all around the table... ;-)

Fahrenheit 451 is a classic, superfamous dystopian novel. It's not quite up there with 1984 and Brave New World, but leading the charge of the second tier of the genre, alongside The Handmaid's Tale. Everyone knows that the title is derived from the temperature at which paper burns, and most people probably know that the book is a bout a firefighter in a world where firefighters don't extinguish fires, but burn books instead.

Our hero, Guy Montag, is a firefighter dancing on the edge of mania. From his rictus grin at the start of the novel (as he throws flames with his kerosene hose) to the paranoid feeling that someone has been watching him on his way home from work, he is clearly just a little off balance. It's when he meets a stranger - 17-year-old Clarissa, that his life really begins to change.

Clarissa opens his eyes to the world. She does this by asking questions (to which he has no answers) and teaching him to pay attention to... well, things, people and the world. And then she and her entire family disappear.

Montag begins to crumble. He's been stealing and hiding books in his house. His marriage is hollow and empty. The girl who fascinated him is gone. And then an old lady decides to die a firey death with her books rather than allowing herself to be taken away and thrown in a mental facility. Meanwhile, the cyborg hound (eight-legged, dog-brained, mechanical) in the fire station responds to Montag as if he were a threat, and his colleagues and chief notice his increasingly odd behaviour...

As a dystopia, Fahrenheit mixes the uncannily prescient (re: the media, the anti-intellectualism, the dumbing down of people) with the future-blind (gender equality / women's lib was seemingly unimaginable to the author, while nuclear wars seemed inevitable). It's absolutely worth reading, for the ideas behind it more than anything else.

Rating: 4/5

For me, the entire novel exists in order to justify one character's monologue. SPOILERS AHEAD!

Sunday 26 February 2017

Review: The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams

The Ninth Rain is the first novel in a new fantasy series by Jen Williams. It's also the first novel by Jen Williams I have read, so I didn't quite know what to expect. The description and blurbs by other authors sounded a lot more promising than the cover looks (I pretty much hate the cover).

Ebora is a fading civilization. Ever since their tree god Ysagril died, these long-lived elven people have been in decline, their main source of longevity being its sap. Soon after Ysagril's demise, they discovered that drinking the blood of humans could reinvigorate them. After some decades and centuries of gory vampiric excess, they find that drinking the blood of humans is, ultimately, poisonous and fatal. Oops.

In the prologue, Tormalin turns his back on his people and their dying nation: he wants to see the world before the inevitable creeping death catches up with him. His sister names him The Oathless and stays behind. He takes his famous sword, The Ninth Rain, and sets out to have adventures...

Fell Noon, as drawn by Jen Williams
Fell Noon, meanwhile, is kept imprisoned in the Winnowry with all the other fell witches. Hated, feared, oppressed and exploited by priests and nuns, the fell witches live miserable lives. Their magical winnowfire is unlike any other, and the Winnowry uses it to produce drugs and products that no one else can manufacture (it's handy, having a monopoly on a manufacturing process). At the same time, the fell witches are seen as the root of all evil. It's slavery and misogyny and exploitation at its ugliest, but Fell Noon does not resist, because she has her guilty past... and because punishments for resistance are severe.

It's Vintage, a woman from a rich landowning wine-producing family, whose projects will ultimately lead to their paths crossing. Vintage's passion is (scientific) research. Almost as a side effect, this involves exploration: her research is focused on remnants and artefacts from the previous Eight Rains, which are spread all over the world.

The Rains are terrible periods: every few hundred years, this world is invaded by powerful aliens. So far, only the Eborans have been able to prevent defeat, but the Eborans are almost all gone...

It took me a while to get into The Ninth Rain. This may be because I was reading it alongside other books (which I was under some time pressure to finish), but I also suspect that starting with Tormalin and a fairly extensive set of pre-plot scenes may have had a slowing effect on some readers. However, I did get properly hooked (by the time the story reached the mushroom forest), and by the end I struggled to put down the (whopper of a) book at all. It's gripping stuff once you get into it.

The world of The Ninth Rain is not too different from other fantastical worlds (although I must admit, vampire elves are new to me, and such a logical thing I am surprised that no one else has thought of this until now). What makes a big difference is the Rains. They give a much more credible context to the returning evil, which contrasts with the out-of-nowhere corruption that spreads in classics like Lord of the Rings. The Rains come from somewhere - it just happens to be off-world. Just like The Rains, other aspects which seem like staples of the genre are cleverly explained within the novel, which reinvigorates them and lifts the book above using cliches.

The heart and soul of a novel of great length is its characters and the chemistry between them. Sure, the skirmishes and fights are exciting, the chasing pursuit tense, the world intriguing and the sense of building tension builds up pleasantly like a slowly accelerating river on its way to the falls, but The Ninth Rain is above all a novel about three interesting people. Vintage is the glue that holds everything together, immensely likeable, yet quite tough when she needs to be, and not flawless either - she has her hypocritical sides. Noon, the poor thing, seems in urgent need of a hug. Tor, meanwhile, is a bit too pompous for his own good.

Unsurprisingly, for a novel written in the 20teens, the characters are of different skin colours and sexual orientations, but the diversity is utopian in its equality: people on this world have their prejudices based on physiological differences (bloodsucking, fire-starting, life-draining) rather than cosmetic ones (skin colour and sexual preferences). It's a bit like Star Trek in that regard.

Tor, as drawn by Jen Williams
It's better than Star Trek at putting women in the driver's seat: Vintage is the captain, so to speak, and Noon is the most intriguing character. Even Tor's manipulative sister Hestilion (whom I found quite sinister) is filled with drive and agency. In comparison, the only male (and presumably white) main character, Tor, is a vampiric elven sex toy / whore, who drifts through a changed world, uncertain of his place or purpose now that his kind are no longer physically protecting anything nor exerting any real power. Hmmm, what would a 'meninist' say? (I'm being facetious in case this isn't obvious)

The Ninth Rain is a novel where pretty much everyone tries to get along, or has really really strong motivation for adversarial actions. It is part of the softening trend in genre fiction. After hyper-gritty and ever more grimdark excesses, there's an entire spate of novels that are written (often by women writers) with a kinder core. Think Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, or the Natural History of Dragons series, or The Best of All Possible Worlds, or even The Collapsing Empire. All of these novels, to my mind, have something Whedonesque about their core groups of characters (Firefly's spirit lives on): the protagonists tend to form groups that are a bit family-like, only less dysfunctional. Expect bickering, a bit of banter, and plenty of fuzzy feelings. The Ninth Rain evoked similar reactions in me.

Also, the novel is filled with adorably loyal giant bats.

The Ninth Rain is a wonderful novel for fantasy readers. It's big, filled with ideas and fun. One of the early highlights of 2017: not to be missed.

Rating: 4.5/5

PS: On the topic of that cover: there is so much I dislike about it. The picture of a griffin? There is no important griffin in the book. The cover looks a bit like something I'd expect to see on a self-published novel or a small press novel. But most damningly of all: our heroes are a black woman, an olive-skinned woman and a vampire elf. I find myself wondering whether putting some fantastical creature (which makes no significant appearance in the story) is a symptom of a marketing department's fear of putting people who aren't white on the cover of a fantasy novel.

Saturday 18 February 2017

Review: 21st Century Science Fiction by David G. Hartwell, Patrick Nielsen Hayden

21st Century Science Fiction is a collection of short stories curated by Patrick Nielsen Hayden and David G Hartwell. They set out to create an anthology of stories by authors who rose to prominence since the year 2000 (regardless of whether the authors had published anything before that). For each of these authors, one story is included, preceded by an introduction by the editors.

The list of authors is impressive: every one of the writers included in the anthology is respected, influential within the scifi genre, and critically acclaimed / award winning. Many are also bestselling writers.

Readers of my blog may know that I rarely review short story collections. The reason is simple: I rarely finish reading them, even if they are full of brilliant stories. They are just too easy to put down between stories and then not pick up again. However, 21st Century Science Fiction is our February read in my Scifi & Fantasy Book Club in Cardiff, which helped nudge me into reading the whole lot. Even with additional motivation, it's an unusual achievement: the last few times we read short story anthologies in the group, I failed to read all tales.

The reason I was able to complete 21st Century Science Fiction, despite its hefty size, is that the stories were of a really high standard. Even the two or three that I didn't enjoy were well crafted and well written, so I could at least appreciate the craftsmanship that went into them, even if they didn't make me want to read anything more by their authors.

As such, 21st Century Science Fiction is exactly what we were looking for in our book club: a taster introducing us to contemporary writers. A collection of trailers that will hopefully help us pick some future reads. A broad spectrum overview of the best of the genre. Oh, and in many cases, it was good fun / thrilling / exciting / thought provoking, too.

I look forward to our discussion tomorrow - I'm sure everyone found some stories they loved and some they didn't, and it'll be interesting to see what everyone thinks of the stories.

Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5
(The intros before the stories did, in my view, give away too much about the stories themselves in many cases)

Sunday 12 February 2017

Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson / AND: Cardiff Booktalk

I run a book club: the Cardiff Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club. So, when I heard of a Cardiff BookTalk on a genre novel, I was very curious about it - both the book and the BookTalk - and decided to attend. This is a review in two parts: first the book, then the BookTalk.

The Haunting of Hill House is an influential classic of the horror/suspense genre. Ignorant as I was, I thought it must have been written in the 19th century. As a matter of fact, it was written and published in the 1950s - and quickly established itself as the ultimate haunted mansion story. It was rapidly turned into a movie (itself a classic of the horror genre, remade in 1999 when a movie studio wanted to revive the horror genre & re-established a classic horror brand).

So, if the basic premise sounds a little familiar, that's because it is. Whether you've seen House on Haunted Hill, or Haunted Mansion, or The Shining, or Monster House, or any of the other haunted house movies (or computer games!), chances are, it will owe some of its story-DNA to The Haunting of Hill House.

Doctor Montague is an eccentric academic with an interest in the supernatural. Once he hears about Hill House and its hauntings, he becomes obsessive about investigating it for his book. He makes arrangements with the owners to stay in the house for a summer with a few selected guests. He picks the guests by looking for people who have been involved in supernatural phenomena before. Before Google, this involves searching of newspaper archives and detective work, but eventually he has a list of people to invite, and two of his invitees do take him up on the offer.

Eleanor is a woman in her thirties whose life is undergoing changes: her mother has just died, and until her death, Eleanor had been looking after her controlling mother, secluded and isolated from the world. Theodora is a younger, extroverted independent woman who has had an argument with her flatmate and decides spontaneously to take up Dr Montague's offer primarily to take some time out and give herself and her friend some breathing space. The final guest is Luke, a nephew of the owners of the house (the Sandersons), who is imposed upon Dr Montague because the Sanderson family are worried that Luke is turning into a bit of a lazy layabout and cad, so they want him away from mischief and in a role of supposed responsibility for the summer.

The book follows Eleanor most closely (allowing itself occasional sojourns to very briefly follow another character). Eleanor is a shy, repressed woman, meek and quite needy. She's been living with her sister's family since her mother's death, and she's a bit bullied by her sister (and her husband), just as she'd been bullied by her mother before. Even taking the car - which she has half paid for - to Hill House is an act of rebellion she can only carry out in secret as her sister decides she "cannot allow" Eleanor to use the car.

En route, Eleanor submerges into her imagination a bit - daydreaming about a future, a home, but also having premonitions that this might be her "last chance" to turn around. When she arrives at Hill House, the sense of wrongness is all-pervading, not helped by the sinister groundsman and his equally sinister wife. Before long, Eleanor is frightened almost out of her mind, only brought back to a semblance of equilibrium when Theo shows up. (No other guests or hosts had arrived before them).

From then on, the story takes the form of a series of nights and days in the house, with increasingly creepy incidents each night terrorising the residents, while each morning the elation of having survived turns the night into distant memories that seem far removed from reality. Meanwhile, Eleanor fixates on Theo and Luke, seeing them as instant best friends / family / potential lovers, and flipping to and fro between subservient affection and fierce jealousy. Her social awkwardness isn't helped by the playful pattern of conversations in the group, which is half-imaginary-play, half self-mockery: Eleanor tries to take part, but is out of her depth, fretting over everything.

The house, described as insane in the book (it is very much a character in the story, with agency and a mind), soon zooms in on Eleanor and makes her the focus of its warnings and hauntings. As a meek person, Eleanor resents this. Oddly, the more the house focuses on her, the less the others think of her, as if they barely remember she exists when she doesn't do something to demand their instant attention.

The Haunting of Hill House is a novel of rare effectiveness at unsettling the reader. It's a bit old-fashioned in terms of the supernatural events, but it's psychologically all the more powerful because of the characters, their interactions, their dialogue, and the sense that people minds and memories are being subtly corrupted by the house. The story builds and builds tension, not through the hauntings, but through what happens to Eleanor's thoughts...

As perfect as a haunted house horror novel can be.

Rating: 4/5

Cardiff BookTalk

Cardiff BookTalk, which is run by Cardiff University, describes itself as "The book group with a difference". That difference being its use of expert academics to give talks at the group.

The format is described as follows:

BookTalkers listen to diverse interdisciplinary research topics which expand on themes in the very best classic and contemporary literature. Each speaker addresses the books from their own specialism, and this can lead to fascinating insights about the literary, social and cultural implications of the novels we read. The talks, given by University academics who are specialists in their field, as well as other expert speakers, will be followed by an open discussion session with the audience, and we want as many people to share their perspectives as possible. If you’re interested in discussing the big ideas behind great books, and want to discover new ways of looking at novels, then join us for our next session!

So, what is it like? Well, there were three academic giving 15-20 minute talks. The first talk was very much about The Haunting of Hill House (and the female gothic). The second talk was about how Haunting of Hill House compares with a novella that no one else had read (and which there is no reason to believe that Shirley Jackson had read). And the third talk was about the psychosocial aspects of the book and Eleanor's character in particular. (The academic didn't like Eleanor, or any of the characters, or the book as a whole, as she made clear at the start of her talk, apparently agreeing to give the talk only to find it an annoying chore to prepare for when the time came)

The talks did illuminate some things. The names of characters are riffs on other famous gothic stories. The book is not just an influential horror novel, it is also a bit of a parody of haunted house novels. (I was completely oblivious to the book being anything but earnest when I read it). The name Theodora is intentionally chosen to be ambiguous about gender, and she is called Theo throughout the book (which I had not noticed). The extent to which Eleanor is an odd-one-out in her society was another thing I had not really thought about when reading the text. I had not realised how needy Eleanor really was (and how much of a daydreamer) until the talks - largely because I probably have some character flaws in common with Eleanor! And the relevance of an early incident, in which Eleanor bumps into an old lady, flummoxed everyone - an incident I had largely forgotten. (I'd read it as an example of Eleanor basically being very meek and a bit gullible, easy to take advantage of. I did not realise that another reference later on to an old woman praying for her was the same old woman she'd bumped into). So yes, lots of things to think about, which gives real value to the talks.

However, on the whole, the event was also very frustrating. Turning up a few minutes early, the building was locked and security were unaware that there was going to be a talk. Eventually, someone unlocked the doors, only to leave everyone to wait for half an hour beyond the start time in an atrium. Hot drinks were provided, but it was bizarre - the audience just had to wait and loiter. The talks themselves were preceded by an advert for another University event, and an academic giving intros. Some of the talks were in academese, rather than plain English - but needlessly so. And I could not help but be alienated at being given a talk about a text no one had read (what does it add learn that there is another story, which neither the author of the book nor the attendees at the Booktalk had read, which also features some gothic stuff and a wallpaper? Fair enough as an essay topic, but as a talk?),  or a talk which was built on dislike for the book and a sense of having to do a chore?

Finally, while the website describes the post-talk time as a discussion, it was actually firmly presented as a Q&A. Don't you hate it when people at a Q&A are only interested in making their own points and not actually asking questions? Well, if the website tells you it'll be a discussion (so you think your points are welcome) and the host asks the audience for questions (rather than points), what are you supposed to do? People did make points and ask questions, but it definitely wasn't what I expected - and it did not feel like a group discussion at all, to have a sizeable audience in a tiered lecture theatre and three academics at the front.

In principle I very much like the idea of having expert academics at reading groups. Listening to a well-informed, relatively brief talk is great. And I love the idea of the discussion of the book being chaired or guided by an expert / academic. However, the actual event itself fell far short of my expectations. An embarrassing delay at the start, three lectures, and a brief Q&A rather than a discussion - it did not do what it said on the tin, and I had the distinct sense that it was organised by people who would struggle to organise a proverbial piss-up in a brewery.

Rating: 2/5
(Some good points in the academics' talks, let down by very poor organisation)

Saturday 11 February 2017

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire is the first novel in a new space opera series by John Scalzi. I don't read a lot of space opera: I've always found disbelief hard to suspend for interstellar settings, especially for serious books. However, John Scalzi is a writer whose books are fun first of all, and then about ideas. They may have serious thoughts, but they do not take themselves seriously. That makes all the difference.

The Collapsing Empire deals with the interstellar elephant in the room in its own way: humanity hasn't discovered technology that makes faster than light travel possible. Rather, it has stumbled upon  'The Flow' - a network of naturally occurring worm holes (by another name) which happens to connect various places in space.

The novel starts with an prologue that very much sets the scene: a mutiny is under way on a space transport ship. The narrative voice is witty, the characters snappy and a bit laid back in the way they speak and face adversity (and death), and suddenly, the mutiny is interrupted when their ship finds itself evicted from the Flow in the middle of empty space, a completely unheard-of calamity...

Meanwhile, in the central Hub of mankind's empire (a giant man-made space habitat which sits at a place where many strands of The Flow happen to meet), the Emperox is about to die, and his only surviving daughter (born out of wedlock) is about to succeed to the Throne, reluctantly. Just before he dies, her father hints that trouble is on the horizon...

The Empire has a Senate and an Emperox and a Church, balancing each other for institutional power, but really, it's a family game, with inherited monopolies on products and industries for each dynasty of robber barons. It's hard not to see some of this setup as a Game-of-Thrones-in-space, but John Scalzi doesn't write his novels to be pompous, serious, or gritty, so the story never feels like a Song-of-Ice-and-Fire ripoff. In terms of tone, think Joss Whedon or Mira Grant, not GRRM.

The story orbits around an ensemble of characters, most of whom are young(ish) people, belonging to that mid-twenties - early-thirties generation, out of uni but not quite fully independent, ready to leave a mark on the world but only very slowly emerging out of the shadows of mom & dad. If the nineteenth century invented kids and the twentieth century invented the teenager, then the twenty-first invented the forever-young-adults, and this book is about people of this generation. People who don't part from their favourite teddy bear, but also have promiscuous sex. People who don't know what they want to be when they grow up, who aren't terribly interested in starting their own families. People who want to live, not just survive, and to do something exciting with their lives, even if they don't yet know what that might be.

It's an immensely readable novel. Fun, tongue in cheek, never boring. At times, it feels a bit like a giant metaphor for politicians' response to climate change, but it's not a deep novel. Space adventures with a group of fun snarky people - who wouldn't enjoy that?

Rating: 4/5

Saturday 4 February 2017

Review: Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

Luna: Wolf Moon is the second book of Ian McDonald's Luna series.I thought the first book was originally described as the start of a duology, but Wolf Moon does leave enough plot threads open to suggest that this is now intended as a long, epic series.

To recap: the moon has been colonised. It's a Wild West of sorts, a dog-eat-dog, cut-throat outpost, run by the Lunar Development Corporation and four/five family business dynasties, each of whom has effective monopolies on specific lunar industries. Transport is run by the Vorontsovs, rare earth mining is run by the Mackenzies, Food production is in the hands of the Asamoahs, energy production is in the hands of the Suns, and Helium3 harvesting was run by the Corta family. Except, the Corta family have fallen. Their empire has been destroyed and scavenged by the Mackenzies. Remaining Cortas are rare and isolated from each other. Some shelter under the protection of factions with some power, some are effectively hostages, and one is plotting his revenge...

The Luna series combines Ian McDonald's strengths with a new direction. As usual, he creates a convincing, credible future, populated with people from non-Western cultures. Luna, however, is a world much more similar to Game of Thrones than to other recent Ian McDonald novels. Dynastic families jostling for power, happy to spill blood and without any fear of repercussions? Outright battles and small wars? Betrayals, conspiracies, greed? It's hard to read Luna novels without thinking of GRRM's magnum opus. Ian McDonald differs from many GRRM derivative writers in that he is himself a stellar talent, producing an epic that is easily on a par with Song of Ice and Fire. Also, the family rivalries in Luna aren't focused on getting an iron throne / power over everything. Rather, they compete and battle for wealth, territory, income, and the occasional longstanding feud. Still, there are enough similarities for his books to have been picked up by TV companies, soon to be a major TV show...

I first heard of Luna at a convention, where Ian McDonald talked about the books, and the fundamental premise: that the moon has no law but contract law. The basis of the society he predicts is therefore not "feudal dark ages", but "hyper-capitalist, libertarian utopia". There is no government on the moon, only a corporation with a local figurehead who doesn't actually wield all that much executive power. There is a court, but it's a court of arbitration above all, since there isn't a criminal law system. Rich family dynasties have their private security forces, but there is no standing army or police force. What Luna illustrates, if you read it with all that in mind, is that there is actually no systemic difference between libertarian utopia and The Dark Ages. The only difference is the absence of the Black Death / disease and the presence of higher levels of technology. Everything else is pretty much the same: borderline slavery, warlords, feudal society etc. However, this aspect of the premise is quite subtly interwoven into the plot. It's not staring you in the face, and I think it's almost too hidden in the background of the Lunar world. Had I not heard the talk, I would probably have missed it entirely.

With a huge cast of characters, Luna: Wolf Moon was a bit bewildering at times, because I had forgotten much of the detail of Luna: New Moon. The things and characters I did remember (Adriana Corta, Marina) were much less central in Wolf Moon than the characters I had forgotten. Marina, for example, is absent for the first quarter of the book, and her story had been my favourite in the first novel because she wasn't born rich with a silver spoon in her mouth, unlike every other character. This is perhaps Luna's biggest flaw, that almost everyone is rich and powerful. Sure, there are falls from power and rises, but it's a stark contrast to Ian McDonald's other novels, where most characters are hustling a little corner for themselves from positions near the bottom of the power structures. Luna, instead, focuses on the very top. The hoi polloi are pawns and footsoldiers.

Unsurprisingly, Wolf Moon is well written, with good prose, compelling settings, authentic and believable science. However, it doesn't quite rise over the shadows cast by Song of Ice and Fire's influence. And, filled with characters too highborn to be easy to empathise with, the novel lacks some of the heart and soul and drive that Ian McDonald is capable of. It's a good book, well worth reading if you've read Luna: New Moon, but it's not the first book or series I would recommend to a reader new to Ian McDonald.

Rating: 4/5

PS: here's my review of the first book, Luna: New Moon.

Sunday 29 January 2017

Book Review: The Unheimlich Manoeuvre by Tracy Fahey

The Unheimlich Manoeuvre. What a glorious title. The sort of title that made me pick it up and a stall at one of the conventions I attended last year (probably Fantasycon-by-the-Sea) and ignore the cover design (which I didn't really like) and the price (£15 for a fairly small book). The description on the back sold me on the book. Then I went along to a reading and, even though I only absorbed about half of it (I'm not very good at taking in stories read out verbally - I need to see the text), I realised I had made a good purchase.

One surprising thing about The Unheimlich Manoeuvre is that this single-author short story collection does not actually feature a story by that name. That said, the stories contained in the collection do live up to the title. They aren't all horror stories or spooky stories. Some are very much based in a non-paranormal real world setting. They do, however, all have a richness about them. Some are deeply melancholy (alongside being uncanny). Others are frantic and frenetic (and uncanny). There are some which are claustrophobic (and uncanny). There are even stories which are not uncanny, but still somehow feel right for this collection.

Tracey Fahey has an enviable talent for creating real-seeming characters with authentic problems and dilemmas. Her stories tend to hook the reader and not let go. Even the final story in the collection, which is really more of a series of vignettes with limited plot, is relentlessly readable. (Incidentally, it was this autobiographical story which she read aloud at the reading).

The introduction describes them as traditional 'twist in the tail' stories, but I don't think that description is entirely accurate. They are traditional in that the endings are satisfying (the narrative doesn't just stop without any sense of resolution or plot movement), and one or two do have a 'twist' ending, but mostly the stories end with a climax, rather than a revelation that turns the entire story around. Most impressively, the quality of the stories ranges between "good", "great" and "exceptional". Even the weakest story (about a couple holidaying in Vienna) is good; but at her best (in a story about a young mother), Tracey Fahey's writing is world class.

My copy of the book says there was a limited print run of only 150 - so if you can get your hands on this book somehow, do. It is superb.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Review: Chasing Embers by James Bennett

Chasing Embers has a lot going for it. A beautiful cover, promising blurbs, comparisons with Ben Aaronovitch (admittedly, that particular comparison comes from the publisher's marketing team, not the blurb), and friggin dragons. (Dragons, for me, are a selling point, not a hinderance to enjoyment).

Reading the novel about Ben, a dragon spending his life hiding in human form as part of a contract between all magical creatures and mankind, the story had even more things that were massive assets. My favourite pharaoh, Hatchepsut, is important to the plot. The story takes place in New York, London, Berlin and Cairo (of which New York is the only city I haven't visited or lived in). There's (genuine) myths and lore appearing. Basically, this novel sits square in the centre of a Venn Diagram of things I love in books. Urban fantasy? Check. Myths? Check. Places I know? Check. Ancient Egypt? Check. Friggin' dragons? Check and double check.

And yet, it took me ages to finish the novel. I slugged through it, fighting an uphill battle all the way. The reason? The prose. Sorry, James Bennett, but your particular style is not pleasing to my ears / eyes / whichever organ I read with. It's not dense and complex in the way of China Mieville. It's just so, so, so full of unnecessary descriptions, metaphors, and writery stuff. Not music-to-my-ears bedtime story prose like Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Not musical rhythmic prose like Pat Rothfuss's. Not take-your-brain-on-a-psychedelic-ride prose like Ian McDonald. It's prose that draws attention to itself without having whatever pizzazz makes prose shine and sparkle and somehow transcend purpleness into greatness. At least, as far as my personal taste is concerned. And I have to honestly admit: there is subjectivity and taste involved. All I can say is that, despite subject matter, plot, and backgrounds, I kept contemplating giving up, all the way until the final battle.

I was also a bit frustrated with our hero, Ben. He gets injured a lot. Think Harry Dresden, then add self-healing capabilities, and amp up the going-through-the-wringer factor to 11. At one point, he has been eviscerated (literally) and crushed like a fly (literally) and still he reassembled himself. He spends a lot of time unconscious (conveniently having flashbacky dreams). And in the final battle, I found myself flabbergasted that Ben didn't seem to make much of a difference. Almost the entire climax plays out while Ben is a mere spectator. By the end of the book, I didn't want to read any more about Ben: I wanted a novel about his ex-girlfriend Rose instead.

I really wanted to like Chasing Embers, but it had the reek of rookie errors / a beginner writer about it. It's a novel that I can imagine being fantastic, if a ruthless editor had massaged (and occasionally bludgeoned) it into shape. In that, it reminds me of Mike Shevdon novels, which are also one ruthless editor away from greatness. In the end, I doubt I'll read any more of the novels in this series - despite the obvious research and love of subject matter that has gone into it. If your taste in prose is different, you will find much to enjoy.

Rating: 2.5/5

PS: Minor criticism: Hatchepsut's mummy has never been verifiably identified. AFAIK it does not lie in the museum in Cairo.

Brexit (again): A Letter to my Labour MP

After today's Supreme Court Ruling, I decided to write to my MP again. Below, you can find the general elements of the letter (I also included specifics about a conversation I've had with her recently, and my case).

If you have a Labour MP, please feel free to use this text to write to yours, if you agree with it....

Dear (name)

I am writing to you today because of the Supreme Court ruling on triggering Article 50. I would like to ask you to urge Jeremy Corbyn to adjust his (and Labour’s) position in light of the ruling. I would also like to ask you to vote against triggering Article 50 unless major changes to the government's Brexit plan are achieved. Here’s why:
1)      The referendum was a vote to leave the EU, but not a vote to give Theresa May a blank cheque to carry out a disastrous Brexit that will ruin British workers.
2)      The current government talks of realigning the UK economy as if this were an easy thing. Decades of poverty in the Welsh valleys prove beyond doubt that restructuring an economy is deeply traumatic and comes at the expense of generations of people’s lives and futures. Labour mustn’t let May do to all of Britain what Thatcher has done to the mining communities.
3)      Several of the Leave campaigners promised that the UK would stay in the Single Market. The Norwegian model was openly advocated before the referendum. It is therefore absolutely right that the opposition should hold the government to that promise – and withhold consent from triggering Article 50 unless the same act of Parliament instructs the government to adopt keeping the UK inside the EEA as main priority in their negotiating positions.
4)      While the (extremely narrow) majority of voters voted 'Leave', a significant majority of Labour voters voted Remain. The Labour party is not just there to represent all people – it is also there to represent the will of its own members and voters. Labour has a strong remit to oppose triggering Article 50 and cannot absolve itself of its role in a parliamentary democracy with talk of the “will of the people”. 52% is not the same as 100%. Those of us who oppose Brexit, and who oppose a ruinous one, deserve representation, too!
5)      Whatever your (or Jeremy Corbyn's) views on EU membership, the Conservatives will not put the interest of workers first when negotiating with the EU or the rest of the world. They will negotiate on behalf of bankers and bosses. A Brexit negotiated by Labour would be very different from a Brexit negotiated by the Conservatives - so why should Labour act as enabler for the Conservatives? If Jeremy Corbyn believes that the referendum gives a clear mandate for Brexit, then he should still oppose a Brexit negotiated by the Conservatives with all his might, and promise to carry out a Labour Brexit once Labour is back in power instead.
All it takes is for non-Conservative parties to band together, and a few Tory rebels, to put the brakes on Theresa May’s incompetent plans for a ruinous Brexit. Theresa May is not the High Priestess of Brexit; she does not speak for all voters, not even all voters who voted ‘Leave’. To preserve the British economy, British jobs, and the British way of life, the UK must stay inside the Single Market. It is the role of the opposition, and our representatives, to do everything possible to ensure that.
I look forward to hearing from you – and thank you, again, for the work you do.
Yours sincerely


Monday 23 January 2017

Review: Cairo by G. Willow Wilson

Cairo, a graphic novel by G Willow Wilson, is in love with Egypt and the Middle East. Written a few years before Alif the Unseen, the story predates the Arab Spring, but has similar flavours to Alif's tale. Cairo, too, is a story of jinn and myth, fluidly intermingling with modern life in an Arab city.

The plot of Cairo revolves around an ensemble of (mostly young) characters. A young Californian woman who wants to work for an NGO in Cairo to escape ennui. A drug runner who shuttles between Cairo and Israel & Palestine. His sister, a belly dancer, and his best friend and her fiancee, a column writing journalist. A young Lebanese American on his way to try and do something he thinks would be meaningful. An Israeli special forces soldier who finds herself on the wrong side of the Egyptian border. All their fates become linked through a jinn and the vessel he has been bound to. The jinn, meanwhile, is on a quest of his own, pursued by an evil warlock...

At times, Cairo feels like 'Avengers Assemble' - it's a story of how these very different characters with different objectives find themselves on a road to a shared heroic adventure. There's some sense of humour, but it's quite wry compared to other comic books. What sets Cairo apart from other comics is the setting and the richness of its character detail. This is a graphic novel for grown-ups. That doesn't imply it has sex in it - it doesn't - but it does not talk down to kids and the heroes are distinctly complex people. In many ways, Cairo reminds me of Neil Gaiman's Sandman: it has a similar richness of myth, complexity and people.

If there is a flaw, it's that Cairo is perhaps a little too much in love with the Middle East and with Islam. It offers up a slightly rose-tinted view of the region. The same applied to Alif the Unseen: as a convert to Islam, G Willow Wilson does occasionally allow herself a devout moment. In Cairo, there is one scene that stands out for feeling forced, when a character is given a Qu'ran and his eyes light up with some sort of understanding... That is not the only moment that made me think a writerly cheat / shortcut had been taken, but it was the one that jarred the most.

As a graphic novel, Cairo has a distinct visual style. It's very cinematic, especially in its transitions between scenes, which mimic movie editing. The artwork is lovely (again, reminding me of some Sandman issues), though not as sumptious as the gorgeous (but sadly misogynist & racist) Habibi - which is the highest visual benchmark I have come across for Middle Eastern themed fantasy graphic novels.

I would highly recommend Cairo to readers who enjoy (urban) fantasy and graphic novels.

Rating: 4.5/5