Sunday, 27 November 2011

Review: 'The Drowned World' by J G Ballard

When I first got my Kindle a year ago, and before I got side-tracked by fantasy (thank you George R R Martin!), I set out to read the top 100 sci-fi books I found on an internet list somewhere. Fortunately for my bank balance, very few of them were then available for the Kindle, but this was one of the ones I downloaded, which has been waiting patiently in my 'to read' folder ever since.

This was first published in 1962, and has held up pretty well, on the whole. This is largely because it's far more on the fiction end of the spectrum than the science; in fact, it's really speculative fiction, I would say. The science is all a bit arm-wavy - the atmosphere is no longer protecting the earth from the full power of the sun, overwhelming the planet with heat and radiation, melting the ice caps and hurling the planet back into a steamy Triassic jungle populated with giant prehistoric-style plants and reptiles. And all this within a generation or two. But the reasons are beside the point. Ballard is much more interested in the psychological effects on humans of this sudden regression to an earlier age, and speculates that the mind will, if allowed, also regress, dredging up shared tribal memories.

This leads to some frankly weird behaviour on the part of virtually all the characters, as they fall into a passive dream-like state, or insanity (or perhaps both). There is a curious disconnect between the lassitude experienced by many of them (partly because of the overwhelming heat, and partly the need to feel the resonance of the distant past), and the bursts of frenetic activity. The protagonist, in particular, spends much of his time lying about, half-asleep and half-awake, too exhausted to move, and at one point is supposedly close to death, yet when the plot requires it he can climb fifteen stories, or clamber all over a boat, or run through deep silt. So a great deal of suspension of disbelief is required.

But realism is not the point. The book is an examination into ideas of consciousness and deep-rooted memories, and the plot, with its bizarre but still strangely wooden characters, is no more than a vehicle for that. And the long, beautifully drawn descriptions of the newly created (and still evolving) environment are exquisite. The suffocating heat, the exotic plant-life, the giant iguanas and snakes, the silted-up city streets with their abandoned buildings and cars, mostly deep under water (the drowned world of the title) - all of these come to life in an astonishingly effective manner. Three stars.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Review: 'The Stone Dragon' by Tom Kepler

Interesting book, most unusual. I could say that it features an orphaned young man, talking dragons, mages, bucolic country inns, stolen swords and a talking garden gnome, and it would all be true but it would give entirely the wrong impression. This seems like a cute coming of age story, and parts of it are exactly that, but it has far more backbone than that implies.

Firstly, the magic. The mages are not your average thunderbolt-hurling wizards. One of them  is someone who simply gathers magic around him, without any intervention on his part. And two are dream-mages, who are perfectly ordinary while awake, but have almost god-like powers while dreaming. Glimmer, the central character, is of this type, and how he learns to live with his abilities is the heart of the story.

More importantly, the author makes the point that magic is everywhere, in us, and around us, and at the core of everything. More specifically, he deals with the issue of how the human mind deals with magic (or fails to deal with it, sometimes). The dream sequences are (perhaps inevitably) the most interesting part of the book, and we feel Glimmer's own awe and fear at his dream-mage experiences. There are also other beings with magical abilities, and a general sense of all-pervading magic overlaying everything, whereever people are open-minded enough to allow for the possibility.

The real problem with this is that Glimmer is capable of almost anything, without any limitations. Even given that his abilities are unusually strong (another dream-mage is clearly less talented), magic without boundaries is really not particularly interesting. Time after time, people (or animals, or artifacts) simply appear where they are needed, or a way is miraculously found to achieve the seemingly impossible. There are events close to the end which come perilously close to deus ex machina.

The author has a suitably poetic writing style which works very well most of the time, although sometimes it gets a little overwrought, and (particularly latterly) tends to obscure what is actually happening. Sometimes (in the dreams, for instance) this is understandable, and there is always enough information given later to work things out, but still, there were several places where I had no idea what the hell was going on, and would have appreciated more clarity.

Plotwise - well, what plot? This is not really a coherent story, rather a series of tenuously linked episodes set against the backdrop of Glimmer growing up. This reduced the tension at several points, and made the book easy to put down, although each episode in itself was quite page-turningly dramatic. There are moments, too, when everything fell into place with perfect rightness - the unexpected appearance of DeVasier, for instance, made me laugh out loud at the sheer awesomeness of it.

Glimmer is a likeable character. In fact, almost all the characters are likeable in a realistic way and even the exceptions are understandably complex and believable. If I have a complaint, it is that almost everyone is simply too nice. Well - magic at work, I suppose. The dragons, of course, steal the show.

On the whole, I enjoyed this. There were times when it was just too twee and I thought - this is (essentially) a talking garden gnome riding a fox, here - and times when the magic just became too easy. I'm also quite confident that a lot of the themes of mind and consciousness were way over my head. But there were wonderfully lyrical passages too that were a joy to read. Four stars.

Review: 'Death in the Winter Garden' by Karen Lowe

This is the second murder mystery by this author featuring the gardening heroine (and amateur sleuth) Fern and her detective love interest Drummond. Both books have the same gentle charm, and this one is even more enjoyable to read than the first. It follows the well-established Agatha Christie formula where the first murder arrives in short order, a large array of suspects walks on and off stage, and our amateur detective leaps from clue to clue like a gazelle, leaving the local plod looking heavy-footed. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

The unique approach here is that the central character is a garden designer, so we also get a great deal of botanical information along the way. Whether you find this interesting is a matter of taste (I enjoyed it, although it is reminiscent of 'Rosemary and Thyme'). The background here is well drawn, and all the characters and their quirks are nicely believable. The on/off romance between Fern and Drummond is also quite credible. As a murder mystery, there were no great surprises in any of the revelations, but that's not really a problem. It's much better to spot the murderer right from the start than to be faced with a totally unexpected resolution.

Some criticisms: the botanical details, while interesting, tended to arrive in mini info-dumps. Also, the ending seemed a bit rushed, with various dangling loose ends being tied up with neat little bows (some of them I had completely forgotten about!). And for someone struggling to get a business off the ground, Fern certainly eats well (the cookery subtext is almost as large in this book as the horticulture). All that roast lamb and steak and cinnamon puddings - mmm, yummy. Although - a quick bowl of lentil soup? In my experience home made soup tends to take hours of chopping and simmering. Maybe she prepared a pot earlier.

But these are minor niggles. This is a quick, enjoyable read, something to while away a few hours on a dark, wet winter's day, curled up in front of the fire with hot soup (lentil, maybe?). I hope the author writes lots more books like this. Four stars.

Review: 'The Seekers of Fire' by Lynna Merrill

This is a debut work by a self-published author, the first part of a trilogy. The premise is not an original one - in a world infused with magic (or Magic, as the author has it, many such words being capitalised) which is for some unknown reason losing its power, a young woman must learn to control her own latent abilities. More interestingly, the magic (sorry, Magic) is being used to control fire in its various forms of both heat and light, and ultimately all forms of manufacture and agriculture, and thereby keep the entire population in subjection. There is also some kind of mind control in effect, and the whole setup tied into a religious cult based around a founding figure, called the Master.

The heroine, Linden, is probably intended as the conventional feisty, opinionated, independent type of female, and in the opening chapters that is exactly how she appears. In a difficult situation, with the population verging on rebellion because of the lack of fire, one of the fire-wielding Bers attempts to dominate the crowd by force, and Linden openly, although quite reasonably, defies him. Her reasons for doing this are not entirely convincing, but never mind, it's a rousing moment, which definitely has the reader rooting for her.

Unfortunately, Linden spends the rest of the book fainting and falling down and coming over all funny, and generally playing the weak and helpless female, needing rescue in the strong arms of the hero, who fortuitously appears in the nick of time. Now, later in the book it appears that there is actually a reason for all this, but somehow this is too late to save the character from the apparent role of useless wuss.

It has to be said that the hero, Rianor, is not averse to his own share of swooning and falling about, and the pair of them get themselves injured in more ways in a shorter space of time than I would have considered possible. So in between all the fainting and wooziness, there's a great deal of bandaging going on. They are both supposed to be interested in science (oops, Science), but frankly there wasn't much of this on display, and neither of them show the sort of observational skills one might expect from scientists.

One thing that drove me crazy with Linden is that no matter what anyone told her to do, she would invariably do the exact opposite. And there seemed to be no rational reason for it, either - she just 'had a feeling' or simply didn't want to be told. Sometimes I wanted to slap her. Having been rescued from her brave (if foolhardy) stance against the Bers by Rianor, a High Lord with undoubtedly more worldly experience than her, and agreed to become his apprentice, does she ever listen to him? Not a chance. I suppose this is designed to make her appear more feisty, but mostly it made her look silly, especially when her rebelliousness ended up getting them both into more trouble or injured (again).

One of the emerging themes of the book is that of insanity, and the possibility that those dealing with magic (sorry, Magic) are more prone to it. Much of the early part of the book (especially the escape through the secret passage (or rather Passage)) is written in a choppy, introspective style, so that there is a great deal about what Linden and Rianor are feeling and thinking and speculating, and numerous diversions into dream-like sequences or outbreaks of poetry. I found these very hard to follow. It was difficult to work out exactly what was happening, let alone why. At first I assumed this was just the author's style, but I suspect it was intended to show the effect of Magic on their minds. This might be very clever, but I would trade it any day for greater clarity of plot.

The best part of the book, for me, is the world-building. I couldn't read the map on my Kindle, so I don't know how much it helped, but most of the action is set in one city anyway. I loved the idea that the Magic-wielding Bers have manipulated society over the centuries to take control of almost every aspect of life, and that some parts of that process were only completed recently. The society is industrialised, to some extent, although it's not clear how advanced that is. Fire is supplied at fire-wells, or conveyed by pipes, like water (how, I wonder?). There are Factories and Mills and even elevators which are powered by Magic, but travel between cities is by horse-drawn carriage. I was taken aback, however, to read references to shopping bags and wire coat hangers, and even sports weights, which seem to suggest a very modern lifestyle, and the references to extreme diets seemed modern, too. I would have liked a little more description of the surroundings - streets, buildi ngs, clothes, furniture and so on, to help me visualise the setting.

The author is asking some truly interesting questions: where does science end and magic begin; and where does magic blend into religion? In my opinion, all fantasy authors should be addressing these questions, at least indirectly. The hints about the significance of insanity (and what is insanity anyway?), if the author chooses to follow this line of thought, would make the remaining two books in the series very interesting.

It is odd to reach the end and realise that only a couple of days have passed since the opening chapter. Despite all the falling down and bandaging and strange dreams, nothing much has actually happened. The escape through the Passage, in particular, seemed to go on forever, with very little achieved. Once Linden starts exploring Qynnsent, and especially once we meet some other members of Rianor's family, I found myself more absorbed and the pace seemed to pick up somewhat, although sadly I found the quite dull Jenne and Inni more interesting than our two heroes at this point. All that falling about wiped out any sympathy I might have had for them.

And just when it got interesting, there was a big info-dump of background, and the book stopped. Obviously, this is only part one of three, but still it would have been nice to have a bit more resolution than that. It may be that the complete trilogy will be a more satisfying read, and there is certainly a great deal of potential for some deeper themes to emerge. The world-building and the magic system are excellent and well thought out, and the decline of magic, while not an original idea, is still intriguingly implemented. Nevertheless, I am not particularly invested in any of the characters at the moment, and the uneven pacing and plot-obscuring writing style drag this down to three stars.

Review: 'Out Of Africa' by Isak Dinesen

'I had a farm in Africa...' It's a very famous opening line, and most people of a certain age will undoubtedly have seen the film and will therefore mentally hear it in Meryl Streep's distinctive accent. This is a little piece of history, like looking at the past through the wrong end of the telescope. Everything is clear and precise, but very far away, and as a way of life, it has gone for ever.

This is not a biography, more of an episodic type of memoir. The author tells us nothing of her formative years, or of her post-Africa life. It is as if she simply came alive when she first moved to her farm, and after she left it, she ceased to exist. It is clear that she had a deep affinity with Africa, its people and wildlife, and in particular with her own little patch of land, so perhaps she felt that the rest of her life spent elsewhere was not important to her.

What she chooses to tell the reader is very selective. There was at one time a husband, but whether he actually owned the farm or it was in her name is not clear. He is mentioned in passing two or three times, and was clearly not a significant part of her life. Instead, she talks a great deal about the Natives (capitalised) who worked on the farm, the Masai on their reservation nearby, her Somali servant, the Indian businessmen in Nairobi and the lions and other animals out on the plains. These were her interests, the things which absorbed her time and energy, together with her coffee plantation (never very successful and eventually sold, reluctantly, when its losses became unsustainable).

She seems to have treated her servants and farm workers very benevolently, setting up a school for the children, treating injuries and illnesses herself, although in a fairly haphazard fashion, or carting more serious cases off to hospital, and supervising (and adjudicating) their disputes. She was regarded by them as a combination of a local chieftain and the representative of law and order, almost like a demi-god, so they turned to her in any difficulty, seemingly confident of her ability to resolve all their problems. She regularly took the role of judge, applying a mixture of European and native rules to achieve an outcome which satisfied all sensibilities.

Nevertheless, she had an instinctive acceptance of white superiority, and a very pragmatic understanding of her workers as an economic resource. It was worth some effort to keep them well and contented, but there was no grief over a death or missing individual, or at least no more grief than when the hyenas got into the oxen shed. She observed them with the fascinated and curious eye of the naturalist, regarding them in exactly the same light as the wild beasts that roamed the plains - magnificent in their own way, but not her equals. She turned to her white friends for comfort or conversation or friendship.

The later chapters become even more episodic, being no more that a few paragraphs here and there - musings on wildlife, or an anecdote about someone she knew, sometimes second or third hand. These are not uninteresting, but so disjointed that any depth developed by the earlier chapters is lost. They emphasize, too, the impersonal nature of the whole book, for there is virtually nothing illuminating the author herself as a character. Right to the end, she remains shadowy.

The ending is rather a sad one, as she is forced by economic circumstances to sell the farm (it is bought by a builder for housing since it is conveniently close to the expanding city of Nairobi), and return to Europe. She finds the idea so intolerable that she effectively ignores it, even while her furniture is being sold around her. Eventually she finds herself surrounded by nothing but a few empty packing cases, but still she clings on. And then, passively, because the tickets have been booked, she allows herself to be sent back to Europe, leaving her chosen home behind. And so the book ends. The reader is left, rather sadly, to wonder how she got on and whether she ever got over a grief that was almost too deep for expression.Three stars.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Review: 'Ready Player One' by Ernest Cline

I loved every single word of this book. I actually read most of it with a silly grin on my face, even the seemingly boring info-dump bits that started off 'X was born in...' - it was just pure pleasure, especially the parts set in the OASIS (the avatar-populated artificial universe where most of the action takes place). I'm not even much of a geeky technophile - OK, I love computers, I'm a programmer by trade, and I confess to being one of the first people in the UK to own a Commodore 64, and I had a smartphone before the term was even invented, but I'm not a gamer in any way, shape or form. I recognised a few of the 80s games, hardware, music and film references, but most of them went right over my head. Didn't matter at all. The book is well enough written that anyone can play along. All the jargon and retro technology is explained along the way.

Plot? Well, there's a quest and a team of underdogs and an evil cheating group of corporate bastards and... well, that's about it, really. It just rolls along beautifully, and although there are no wildly unpredictable twists and turns, it never feels cliched. The lead characters are charmingly geeky and (initially) quite juvenile, and OK, they do seem to be incredibly good at everything game-related, but then that's the basic premise of the story, so it's hard to grumble about it. The author makes good use of the avatar vs real world persona problem - you just don't know anything about the people you meet inside the OASIS-verse, not gender, age, location, appearance - absolutely nothing beyond what they choose to show, and the reveals at the end are nicely done. Only one quibble here - the first person protagonist is initially the stereotypical geek, pasty-faced and overweight, but about halfway through he suddenly decides to get fit and ends up with a perfectly honed physique. I found it disappointing that the author didn't have the courage to leave him as he was. But it's a minor point.

The book would make a great movie. I actually wished I had a soundtrack to listen to (on 8-track tape, naturally) whenever a piece of music was mentioned, and it would be so much fun to actually see some of the OASIS-verse worlds. The final gate battle would be just awesome to watch on the big screen. But as a book - terrific. Five stars.