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.