Tuesday 25 September 2018

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

The Lost City of the Monkey God is the story of the recent discovery of ancient ruins in Honduras. It's a book about archaeology and adventure, but also a book about the past and the future.

The story starts when Douglas Preston attaches himself to a wealthy hobbyist who hopes to find a mythical lost city - Ciudad Blanca, also sometimes known as The City of the Monkey God. That city was mentioned in the chronicles of early conquistadors, and its myth had grown over time.

Early in the 20th century, another hobbyist funded several attempts to discover it, including one which claimed to have resulted in success, but which kept the coordinates secret. Reportage about those attempts would inspire other wannabe adventurers for nearly a hundred years.

The attempts and efforts which resulted in this book were different from previous ones: they used lidar technology to scan four sections of the jungle where the city was suspected of being, based on research of the records left behind by other people who claimed to have found it. When lidar revealed patterns that suggested human construction, in the deepest jungle, expeditions went out to find the ruins on the ground.

There are some aspects of the story of the discovery that might be a little troubling. The "dancing with the devil" that the organisers decided to do (hiring a criminal with good connections to support their efforts in Honduras in the early stages) makes for uncomfortable reading. Then, once the expeditions become more serious and involve reputable scientists, the criticisms flung against their work by a charlatan who uses the language of social justice campaigners as a weapon are utterly depressing. Especially since said charlatan is a disreputable self-promoter, guilty of everything he accuses the expedition of: it's a sad example of the way social justice theories have become weaponised, used not to bring about improvements, but as a tool to attack individuals, heavily used by con artists and trolls to fire up angry insta-mobs.

I was a little worried that the book would be either boring, or over-sensationalised. Fortunately, it was neither. Douglas Preston managed to breathe excitement into a non-fiction account where the reader would know the outcome before picking up the book. He brought the landscapes and the people vividly to life, while taking care to write factually and objectively about everything that was found, and everything that happened before and after the discovery. More importantly, when later chapter deal with diseases, he quickly and efficiently summarises things in ways that were eye-opening to the point of feeling like new information to me. It's a highly readable, interesting book - and even educational!

Rating: 4.5/5

Sunday 23 September 2018

Review: American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations

This Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World is a fascinating reference work. Listing inventions, innovations, ideas and policies, the book offers a glimpse into the past that most of us will be completely ignorant of.

As a reference work, the book is very well organised, and most importantly, completely credible. Each invention is listed in alphabetical order, along with a short list of which tribes / Indian cultures made use of it, followed by a description offering background, and finally, references to source materials. For readers who are not just browsing, there are sections in the back listing the innovations by tribe / Indian culture, and by subject area. So, whether you want to know "what sort of things did the Inca invent / use" or "what was medical knowledge like in pre-conquest America", the book will help you navigate the listings. This is enormously useful

The writing is neutral, objective, accessible. The information is credible. But what makes the book outstanding is, ultimately, the wealth of information and the subject matter. For a layperson, almost everything in its pages will come as a surprise. After all, we're mostly used to Indians being shown as half naked hunter gatherers in pop culture, or as noble savage shamans in touch with nature. Perhaps we read about Aztec gods and human sacrifices, but who knew that the Aztecs were centuries ahead of their time in their dentistry practices, that they invented toothbrushes and practiced preventative care to avoid cavities? Everyone knows about tomahawks and totem poles, but, outside America, who realises that the US constitution and the system of federal government instituted by the founding fathers in the Constitution was heavily inspired by the Iroqois confederacy? (Probably, even in America, it might not be a universally known fact). Sterile surgery, freeze-dried food, fertilisers, almanacs, ... the list of inventions is surprising and delightful. 

Of course, the book cannot be a complete work. The destruction of Indian cultures was so complete that many things were never really documented. Entire tribes, languages and ways of life were wiped out. Prior to that, civilisations rose and collapsed without necessarily passing on knowledge. I've heard it said by better educated people than myself that the Roman Empire was not all that far off from reaching an industrial revolution: various inventions existed sprinkled throughout the empire that, had they caught on and had information sharing been better, could have changed history in ways we can barely imagine. Yet, until the Enlightenment and the printing press, information travelled slowly - too slowly for the Romans to industrialise. And, clearly, throughout the Americas it travelled too slowly for any one culture to pull together all the various ideas, innovations and inventions. 

So we are left with a glimpse that only reveals a tiny fraction of the innovations that Indians had come up with. Many of my questions about everyday life were, inevitably, not answered by the book, perhaps because many of the details are simply not known, or perhaps because two authors can only collate so much information, can only fit a certain amount into one (sizeable!) volume.

Regardless of the limitations, this encyclopedia is a stunning achievement, and anyone interested in pre-conquest American cultures should have a copy on their shelf.

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday 19 September 2018

Review: The Otherlife by Julia Gray

The Otherlife is a novel about two boys, Ben and Hobie, at two points in time: 2011 and 2008. And, of course, it is a novel about the thing Ben christens "the Otherlife" - an intrusion of elements of Nordic mythology in his vision and life.

Tip: Don't read the back cover, as that gives away plot details that take the book about 80% of its length to reveal.

We see 2011 through the eyes of Ben, teenager and metalhead, cramming for his GCSEs while struggling with migraines, a habit of taking pills he steals from his mother, and a re-incursion of the Otherlife into his everyday life. It had been absent for two or three years. What kicks the story off is that he receives news that "He is dead", only he does not know whom. For 2011 Ben, it's a story of finding out who dies, and how, and why. But with the return of the Otherlife comes the return of memories, of that fateful time in 2008 which set his fate on its current path.

We see 2008 through the diary of Hobie, then-12-year-old rich kid and class bully, who encounters Ben at his elite school and becomes fascinated with the quiet, broken boy who talks of Ragnarok and Viking gods, and eventually, with wanting to see the Otherlife himself.

The Otherlife is described as a YA novel, but I have to admit, I did not think it was YA at all, in the same way that I don't think Lord of the Flies is a YA or children's novel.  It is a novel about kids, but not, I think, for kids. The Otherlife is serious, hyper-authentic, literary, with an sprinkling of the fantastic that is a lot subtler than the stunningly beautiful cover might make you think. It is also complex, complicated, deep, subtle, and patient.

As very authentic literary novel, it is a slow-moving beast. We are immersed in Ben's and Hobie's world, which is one of enormous privilege and substantial academic pressure. Ben, whose parents are divorced, can only stay in his school if he exceeds academically to the point of gaining a full scholarship. Hobie, whose parents are multi-millionaire, high society types, is spoiled rotten with material things, brought up to be terrifically arrogant and selfish, but not very academically minded or gifted. He, too, is under pressure to be a scholarship student, but for reasons of (family) pride rather than need.

The elite school Hobie and Ben go to is an educational pressure cooker. The kids are stuffed with useless knowledge and exam preparation, most of their conversations are serious and about studying, and they seem utterly dehumanised by the system. At the same time, it is difficult to feel too sorry for them: Hobie reads like a young Boris Johnson, his classmates are the David Camerons and Jacob Rees Moggses of the future, and their lives of mansions and nannies and tutors are made of entitlement and privilege. They are loveless and emotionally cold childhoods. Hobie, especially, is not just a harmless joking toff: he is a vicious bully, who leaves lifelong scars on the souls of some people. His fascination with Ben allows a friendship to bloom, but we're never blind to the horrific psychological abuse he heaps on his sister, or the anger broiling just beneath his skin most of the time.

The world the author describes is completely believable. The kids hang around South Kensington, Notting Hill and Camden, complete with visits to shops that actually exist. The people around them are authentic. The school atmosphere felt very familiar. I imagine the author must come from a background quite similar to that of these kids, or she must have spent a lot of time surrounded by kids and people like them.

But what about The Otherlife? I admit, I was not expecting to read about the lives and times of some privately educated rich kids quite as much as I did. I thought there would be more fantasy stuff. Ben has certain visions ever since an accidental whack to the head with a cricket bat, which partially blinded him for months, and which resulted in his vision returning with added shiny stuff. It is his tutor who first mentions Viking mythology to him, and Ben starts to fit the colours and visions he sees into a framework he reads about obsessively from that point onwards. It's not quite as simple as "it's all in his head", but for much of the story, the Otherlife is a very passive thing: Ben sees things, but he almost never interacts with them. That said, the Otherlife is very important to the story, and its frame foreshadows and rounds up and completes aspects of the story.

The Otherlife isn't the escapist romp I expected. It's slower, more complex, and unflinchingly true to life (even if that includes an intrusion of Viking mythology into our reality). It's an intelligent, well-written novel. It is very satisfyingly rounded off. I doubt I would have enjoyed it as a kid, but patient readers will find a novel that is both a subtle art work and a dramatic masterpiece in its pages. (It reminded me a bit of Luca, Son of Morning, so fans of one might enjoy the other.)

Rating: 4.5/5

I can't find a book trailer for The Otherlife, but the author is a singer as well as a writer, and though it's not the heavy metal music that features in the novel, this video somehow seemed to be appropriate:

Tuesday 11 September 2018

Review: And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness and Rovina Cai

And the Ocean Was Our Sky is a beautiful looking book, by a wonderfully talented author, written as a fantastical counterpoint to Moby Dick. Unfortunately, it did not live up to its promise, for me.

"Call me Bathsheba", the story begins. As a story about a group of whales who hunt humans, led by a captain whose head still bears the harpoon that has been launched into it, you would be forgiven to think that these whales live in our world, that their ultimate quarry will be Captain Ahab. Before long, however, that suspicion is shattered: the world of the story is fantastical. Gravity points towards the surface of the sea, up and down are reversed underwater, and these whales travel with ships (which they build from wreckage), build cities, perform surgeries, and war with humans.

The whale ships, especially, took me quite a while to get used to.

One of the key themes of the story is destiny: the whales have a belief system that centres on 'prophecy', so they see prophecy wherever they look. Our narrator, Bathsheba, is different. She does not quite believe in it. Yet she becomes a hunter because of her grandmother's prophetic declaration that she would, and she joins fierce Captain Alexandra  and her crew in order to hunt man.

Despite being more or less a fan of Patrick Ness, this book baffled me greatly. The writing is good, but the premise is very weird. Rovina Cai's illustrations are wonderful throughout the book, and they make a huge contribution. They create atmosphere and drama and awe where, if I'm honest, the text fails to. I think what really scuppers this tale for me is that the whales do not read like whales. Stories about animals always risk falling into the trap of losing the reader when the animals feel too human, or not human enough. The whales in this story are far too human for this reader.

Finally, the grand finale of the story was a huge disappointment for me. I won't go into detail as to why, but this particular reader felt badly let down.

And the Ocean Was Our Sky is a strange novella. It is beautifully illustrated and the book is a stunning object, with heavy paper, a subtle, elegant font, and seemingly a labour of love. It is not the story you're led to expect by the cover blurbs, and some readers will struggle with the fantastical world and the plot that are presented here. It's a lot weirder than you might think.

Rating: 3/5 (which is lifted quite a bit by the artwork)

Sunday 9 September 2018

Review: The Fairy's Tale by F.D. Lee

The Fairy's Tale is a humorous novel about Bea, a fairy who works to ensure that fairy tales go according to plan. Bea herself, meanwhile, dreams of being promoted from a watcher to a manager (i.e. a fairy godmother), allowed to interact with the characters (humans) rather than just being an unseen force that applies minor nudges.

In her home world, she faces daily discrimination against cabbage fairies and the Kafkaesque reality of a fairy nation managed by a dystopian bureaucracy obsessed with narrative structures (and complete with tyranny, nebulous enforcers, public ºredactions" that are the executions of fairy souls, leaving behind empty husked zombie fairy slaves). And, when she finally gets her big shot, she has to battle with a cinderella who fancies a farm boy, an ugly stepsister who is a vegetarian, a political activist, and who leads a rebellious protest in the woods, a toff king who means well but is utterly gormless, and a grand vizier / royal adviser / mysterious stranger who appears to have his own designs on the direction of Bea's plot...

Fairy tales lend themselves to a certain postmodern smirk, of course. Even Disney rarely dares to tell one straight any more - we get re-imaginings that star the (previous) villains, we get tales that punch holes into fairy tale logic, we get Shrek, Enchanted, Hoodwinked, and live-action reshoots of animated movies where half the pleasure isn't the story, but the cosplay reenactment of a visual text everybody knows. So, The Fairy's Tale does not  exactly tread new ground with its approach of punching holes into well known tales. On the other hand, we readers still love the aesthetic of fairy tales, so it's still fertile ground even if it is not new.

Bea's adventures, however, struggled to maintain my attention. The text's humour was pleasant if mellow, and I rather liked Ana, the ugly stepsister. But somehow, the book felt unpolished. OK, so it could have used a proofreader (the spelling was fine, but there were quite a few places where words were missing, or superfluous words were still in-text, or two half sentences joined together with an overlap). But that alone does not explain why the book felt lost. Perhaps there was something slightly neurotic about the writing, or the dialogue. Perhaps the exposition and world building was paced wrong. Perhaps some plot developments and some characters felt a little too improvised. Perhaps it was too long. All I can say is that the book felt like an early draft, not like a finished product, and somehow this jarred and detracted from the reading experience.

The Fairy's Tale is not a terrible novel, nor was it ever going to be a great, memorable read. Somewhere inside it, there is a pleasantly fun diversion, but for now, the story is still too half-baked to recommend it.

Rating: 2.5/5

Wednesday 5 September 2018

Aviation thrillers reviewed: 16 Souls by John J. Nance and Polar Three by Carolyn Pasqualino

The other day I was in the mood for something fast, easy to digest, and filled with aeroplanes. So I bought a couple of aviation thrillers. For those unfamiliar with this sub-sub-sub-genre, there are technological thrillers written for an audience of aviation enthusiasts (such as myself). Not entirely surprisingly, the number of novels in this field is a bit limited.

So, first, 16 Souls by John J. Nance, who is pretty much the big name author in this genre. Sure, Michael Crighton had a crack at this sort of book with Airframe, but John J. Nance has endeared himself to planespotters far and wide by being a former pilot and by writing pretty much exclusively about planes and pilots in peril.

As such, 16 Souls is a pretty slick, accomplished thriller. I read virtually all of it in one night, because I wanted to get to the next bit. It's the story of a pilot, Captain Marty Mitchell (alliterative names for the win!) who is about to go on trial for murder in the second degree as result of a deadly accident he was involved in. The novel alternates between scenes set in the trial's timeline, and flashbacks to the incident as it unfolded.

In all honesty, it's the incident itself which is exciting and interesting to read about. Fortunately, Nance has returned to premises that are closer to realism and further away from OTT scifi.
(Side note: The book that propelled Nance to bestseller status was Pandora's Clock, an excellent scifi aviation thriller about a deadly virus on board a 747. The drama and action is amped up to 11 in that one with a missile-armed business jet, explosions, and Outbreak-style mayhem. Then, in Medusa's Child, a book about a nuclear bomb aboard a 737 during a hurricane, it gets amped up to 12, and some of his other novels bounce up and down on the suspension of disbelief until it snaps. I kinda gave up on him after reading Blackout, which toyed around with every aviation enthusiast's wet dream - incapacitated pilots mean a kid with flight-sim experience is called upon to try to fly and land a jumbo jet - and then ruins it with a completely unbelievable crash scenario that is physically impossible.)

Where was I? Ah yes, the premise. 16 Souls imagines a mid-air collision wherein a small aircraft isn't completely shattered, but gets somehow embedded in the bigger airliner that plowed into it. It may be incredibly unlikely, but it's not outside the realm of the imaginable. And from that scenario, Nance derives a plot of suspense as he keeps the reader guessing about what the pilot will do, and how this will result in disaster.

Much as the story of the accident is exciting, the story of the pilot's legal woes is not. First, we see him attempting suicide, largely as act of revenge against the system for daring to prosecute him. Then, we follow his (female, rookie) lawyer's attempts to keep him straight and prep for the case. It's a bit like the movie Sully, which withheld the full details of the accident from the audience until a key scene during Sully's NTSB hearings, but in this book, the legal thriller just gets in the way of the interesting stuff. And Marty Mitchell is a really annoying character once he's outside the cockpit. Sure, he's meant to be traumatised, but he comes across as whiny and entitled, because he rails an awful lot against lawyers for daring to suspect and accuse him of a crime. He seems to think that a pilot in command of a plane is above earthly law.

The other thing which was mildly annoying is that John J Nance appears to have turned into a slightly sexist dinosaur. Maybe his thrillers were always such - it's been many years since I read most of them - but I remember that he seemed ahead of the curve at one time. For example, in Pandora's Clock, a male rookie works with a more seasoned female agent (they reversed the sexes for the TV adaptation, which was quite telling). In 16 Souls, on the other hand, a heavily traumatised crash victim later describes the pilot to an investigator: "Just to look at him inspired confidence. Like he came out of some Hollywood casting company, you know? Square shoulders, tall and trim, chiseled facial features. Salt and pepper hair, very neatly cropped. That deep, rumbling, authoritative pilot voice. I figured he was in his mid-fifties and probably former military. He just looked like Air Force or Navy. Maybe it's a female thing, ... but if a guy like that is willing to fly, I'll be his passenger any day."

OK, so Nance is no longer writing planespotter-porn, now he's writing pilot-porn. Fine, let the women characters swoon in the middle of their trauma. Then you get some male characters having a chat where they get paranoid, whine and bemoan these PC times:
"tell me what form of payment should be rendered for past intelligence proviced. Cash, check, liquor, ... women?"
"Women? Shit, Scott, your sense of humour is gonna get us in deep trouble one of these days when the call gets monitored by the NSA or something and someone posts it on Facebook."

...while the woman lawyer ponders how to keep her client in line: "I need to keep him focused and ready for court, and I'm worried about letting him out of my sight. Maybe I should just sleep with him!"
(Yeah, it's an internal joke she's making in her own head, but somehow all the lady-swooning over pilots seems tacky to me.)

16 Souls is, in the end, a decent aviation thriller. It holds the attention. It may not feature deep characters, decent humour, or complicated insights into human nature, but it's easy to digest, readable, and the scenario it presents is tense and exciting. It is bloated by a legal thriller that doesn't, and at times it feels like reading tacky old-pilot fantasies / wishful thinking, but it's worth your while if you like planes.

Rating: 3/5

My thirst for Jet A fuel not being entirely slaked by this point, I then read Polar Three by Carolyn Pasqualino. She, too, is a pilot, though not a retired one.

Polar Three is the story of a cargo 747 flying from Chicago to Hong Kong across the Polar Three air route. (There are only a handful of air routes across the pole). Unfortunately for its crew, the temperatures outside are colder than predicted, cold enough to threaten freezing their fuel inside its tanks. Add a solar storm and a communication cut-off, and the plane is in trouble...

Polar Three is a quite different novel from John J Nance's offerings. For one thing, the crisis scenario is much less far-fetched, and not overdramatised at all. Essentially, the troubles the crew is faced with are realistic troubles that real pilots encounter, and their responses are authentic.

Things are a bit less realistic once the flight is over, as many solutions are served on a platter to the characters.

Polar Three differs in other ways from Nance's novels: the characters in this book are professionals, interacting professionally, and staying at professional distance, throughout the story. This means the reader doesn't get a huge amount of gooey emotional stuff or personality to connect with. Instead, we're reading about collegiate colleagues  working on problems as a well functioning, but somewhat bland team. It can feel a little sterile. Pasqualino must have noticed that problem, so she added two dogs to the story, who basically inject some woofy warmth to proceedings. But I'll be honest, the book lacks human interest. (There is a joker among the characters, but his jokes are the sort of safe and predictable office jests that everyone smiles at out of politeness. Small talk with a smiley at the end.)

Polar Three is a fairly dry novel, in that the book gets very technical and accurate. It feels like watching a Just Planes! video from time to time, as radio contact is covered in full and accurately. At another point, a lengthy part of the novel features detailed aircraft maintenance. As aviation enthusiast, I enjoyed much of this, or at least, I did not find it tiresome. I suspect for readers with less fondness for aircraft and flying, the novel is unlikely to be anywhere near as enjoyable.

Dry, technical, authentic: Polar Three is an acquired taste, appealing to a niche audience. That said, I liked reading an aviation thriller that put authenticity first. I did not dislike any of the human drama (because there was very little), and I never rolled my eyes in annoyance. I had hoped for a somewhat grittier story of survival against the odds in Arctic ice, but there was something pleasantly mellow about the book, while it still held my attention.

Fellow aviation enthusiasts may well find this book worthwhile, and it earns a lot of kudos by being consistently credible. Not bestseller material, but a book that wannabe pilots can savour.

Rating: 3/5