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New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (2017) 613 p.

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Kim Stanley Robinson’s last novel, Aurora, was both a culmination of themes he’d explored for the latter half of his writing career and a sober-minded skewering of one of science fiction’s sacred cows. First Mars in the Mars trilogy, then the rest of the solar system in 2312, then to the stars: that’s how science fiction readers expect the future of the human race to play out, and that’s how we thought Robinson’s books would go. Except Aurora very wonderfully broke the rules. Robinson used his take on the generation spaceship story to propose that colonising other star systems wouldn’t work, that such a venture was doomed to failure – and just what are we trying to get away from, anyway? That’s what made it not just his best novel, but one of the best and most important science fiction novels of the last few decades.

Thus it makes sense that New York 2140 brings us back down to Earth – metaphorically, anyway, since neither this nor any of his other novels are set in a shared universe, and in fact space travel is never mentioned at all throughout this book. The ice caps have melted, the sea level has risen, and Manhattan has been transformed into a “SuperVenice,” with its streets and avenues transformed into canals. New York 2140 takes us through a few years in the lives of the varied residents of the original MetLife building on 23rd Street – cleverly chosen because the building was modelled on the Campanile in Venice. There’s Franklin, a hot-shot Wall Street trader; Charlotte, a social and community worker; Amelia, a sort of futuristic YouTube-esque web star; Gen Octaviasdottir, a police chief; Roberto and Stefan, a pair of 12-year-old orphans who live a picaresque life as scavenging “water rats;” Vlade, the building’s Slavic super; and Mutt and Jeff, a pair of shambolic middle-aged coders whose mysterious disappearance from the building in the opening passage sets the plot in motion.

All of this seems like a great set-up for a novel, and for the first third or so I found New York 2140 very engaging: a more memorable cast of characters than Robinson usually populates his books with, an interesting future vision of a city we’re all familiar with, and a mystery-driven plot to kickstart it all. But my interest began to wane halfway through, and towards the end I was checking how many pages left until I was done with it.

If I had to put my finger on exactly why New York 2140 doesn’t work, it’s because it’s clearly not quite the book Robinson wanted to write. He mentioned recently on the Coode Street podcast that he went to his editor and said he wanted to write a book about the global financial system. His editor said no, nobody would ever read that – then suggested he set it in the future, in the drowned New York briefly featured in the novel 2312. And so Robinson did, which meant he had to render the society of 2140 as not very different from the society of 2017.

Which is fine in some ways. I have no doubt that human society, if it’s still around in the 28th century, will be unrecognisable to us today – but I had no problem when the starfarers of Aurora returned to Earth in that century and it felt more or less like society right now, because that’s not what the point of Aurora was. I have much more of a problem when the still-corrupt and capitalist-driven society of 2140 is reformed implausibly easily by a bunch of Wall Street traders, community workers, coders and a celebrity after a bunch of repeated discussions about the 2008 financial crisis, about which they all seem strangely well-informed. (How much do you, for example, know about the Long Depression of the late 19th century?)

That seems like a small thing to pick on, but it’s emblematic of the greater flaw in New York 2140: it’s two books trying to be one. Robinson could have written a great book about a flooded future New York, or he could (and should) have written a great book about the economic semi-feudalism we live under here in 2017. This novel suffers from trying to be both. Which is a shame, because after Aurora I’d like to see Robinson – an author who’s always covered many topics, usually in the same book – write another single-minded, narrowly-focused deconstruction of a perceived truism. Maybe next time.

Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett (1992) 381 p.
Discworld #14 (Witches #4)

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It’s interesting to compare the Witches arc with the City Watch arc. Both are generally considered the best threads in the Discworld series, but the Witches came along much earlier. Here we are at book #14, arguably the fourth entry in the Witches series, and I would say its peak; we’ve had only one City Watch book, and its own zenith won’t come along for another fifteen books (#29, Night Watch). I don’t think there’s much to be read into there; Pratchett had no master plan, he was just writing each new book as it took his fancy. Probably the only explanation is that the Witches – as a coven of Old-Englandey villagers in a magical kingdom – segued more naturally out of Pratchett’s initial fixation on fantasy tropes, wizards with pointy hats and dribbly candles and pentagrams chalked on the floor, all that sort of thing. (Indeed, Granny Weatherwax is first introduced in Equal Rites, which opens with a wizard arriving in the Ramtops and closes with another incursion by the Dungeon Dimensions at Unseen University). The City Watch books, on the other hand, hew much closer to satire of the modern age: of the city, of politics, of a multicultural society, with fantasy tropes merely serving as a stand-in.

Anyway. Lords and Ladies follows on almost directly from Witches Abroad, with the coven arriving back in Lancre after their long absence in Genua. While the cats were away the mice were playing: Granny and Nanny are irritated to discover that a group of local teenage girls have started dabbling in witchcraft themselves, and are mortified to learn that they’ve been dancing by moonlight near a ring of “boundary stones.” The stone circle is one of the few borders between the human world and the faerie world: the land of the fey folk, the gentry, the lords and ladies, the elves. It’s been centuries since the elves threatened Lancre, and most people think of them as beautiful and benevolent creatures out of a fairytale, but as witches Nanny and Granny know better.

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

So as Midsummer’s Eve draws near, as the kingdom prepares for the wedding of Magrat and King Verence, and as the younger witch Diamanda challenges Granny to a duel, Granny and Nanny are left to try to stave off an invasion by the feared and powerful elves.

I’ve complained in the past about how much of the early Discworld books culminated in a threat by the Lovecraftian horrors of the Dungeon Dimensions. The elves are much, much more interesting, tying into Pratchett’s fascination with the power of myth and belief. They draw their strength precisely from the folklore and fairytales that surround them, blinding people to the truth, enchanting people with their glamour and beauty. (“If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are,” Granny says. “Style. That’s what people remember.”) The most obvious parallel for a contemporary reader is Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – and in fact looking back at that review now, which I wrote eight years ago, I compared Clarke’s fairies to Pratchett’s elves. Although obviously both Pratchett and Clarke were drawing on the same old European myths and folklore: they may be magical and mysterious and beautiful, but elves and fairies still ultimately represent the frightening, ineffable things in the darkness beyond the glow of the campfire.

As with Mort, Guards! Guards! and a lot of the later books, this is one where Pratchett’s central conceit maps very well onto his plot. He doesn’t get carried away with too many jokes or flights of fancy. There’s a particularly good setpiece midway through the book in which Diamanda defies Granny Weatherwax and runs between the boundary stones, and Granny has to follow and retrieve her from the world of the elves. There’s a lot of stuff to like here: the first confrontation between humans and elves, Granny’s use of her Borrowing trick (in which she can enter the mind of an animal) to trip up the elves’ horses, and the general eerie atmosphere of an aurora-lit snowscape in the middle of summer. What I like most is Granny’s reaction to Diamanda getting wounded by an elf’s arrow. She carries the girl back to the boundary stones, and – although she does unashamedly tell Nanny that she draped Diamanda over her shoulder in such a way that if another arrow were to strike it would provide her with some cover – there was no chance whatsoever that Granny would have left her there. Granny has nothing but contempt for Diamanda – more than she does for people in general – but the girl is nonetheless one of the townspeople of Lancre, and Granny has an obligation towards her. Like a doctor or a teacher or policeman, she feels that she has an unwritten duty of care towards all the people in her little country – or perhaps all people, anywhere in the world, even if she thinks they’re mostly a collection of greedy, selfish dullards. It’s a very similar thread to what we come to see in Sam Vimes: a cynic about the human race who nonetheless dedicates their life towards protecting and helping people.

But neither has Pratchett quite Flanderised these characters, which sadly happens towards the end of the series, or at least it does with Vimes. Granny is far from infallible. Much is made of her skills at human manipulation and psychology, or ‘headology’ as she calls it, but the conclusion to this passage – when they bring the wounded Diamanda to Magrat to seek her help – stuck in my mind over the years:

Magrat’s cottage traditionally housed thoughtful witches who noticed things and wrote things down. Which herbs were better than others for headaches, fragments of old stories, odds and ends like that.
It was a cottage of questioning witches, research witches. Eye of what newt? What species of ravined salt-sea shark? It’s all very well a potion calling for Love-in-idleness, but which of the thirty-seven common plants called by that name in various parts of the continent was actually meant?
The reason that Granny Weatherwax was a better witch than Magrat was that she knew that in witchcraft it didn’t matter a damn which one it was, or even if it was a piece of grass.
The reason that Magrat was a better doctor than Granny was that she thought it did.

There’s plenty of other stuff I could talk about. I have no particularly cogent analysis or insight, just a whole bunch of things I really enjoyed: the horned Cernunnos figure who serves as king of the elves, the gaming of the witches’ duel between Diamanda and Granny, Granny’s neat trick with the bees at the conclusion of the book. But I’ll leave it at that. Lords and Ladies is up there with the very best of Pratchett’s work: a tightly plotted fantasy novel which just happens to have a comedic thread running through it, rather than a lot of jokes strung together with a plot. It’s not perfect – the younger coven is brushed out of the story about halfway through (which is odd, considering Agnes later replaces Magrat) and apart from Ridcully himself, the Unseen University emissaries seem a bit out of place. But as I said before: this is, I think, the peak of the Witches series, probably the best Discworld book in the series thus far, and would easily make it into the top ten of the series overall. An excellent book.

“Go back,” said Granny. “You call yourself some kind of goddess and you know nothing, madam, nothing. What don’t die can’t live. What don’t live can’t change. What don’t change can’t learn. The smallest creature that dies in the grass knows more than you.”

Rereading Discworld index

Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? by Ian Dunt (2016) 188 p.

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In the opening chapter of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? Ian Dunt paints a nightmare scenario lying ahead for the United Kingdom. No trade deal with the European Union, hard borders, re-implemented tariffs and customs red tape, and the British government at the mercy of Washington, Beijing and Tokyo. The pound plummets, the economy goes into freefall and dark times lie ahead for the British people. “That was the worst-case scenario,” Dunt explains at the beginning of the next chapter. “It is also Britain’s current destination.”

Dunt is the editor of politics.co.uk and the political editor of The Erotic Review. I’ve followed his writing for some time, and respect his level-headed and journalistic approach to writing editorials and opinion pieces, which seems increasingly uncommon on both the right and the left. By this I do not mean that he sits in the middle and gives equal respectability to all sides. I mean that he states the plain truth even when it seems unfashionable or uncomfortable to do so – and if you find the headline I just linked to strident or inflammatory, I suggest you read the entire piece. He deals with facts and figures and resents the increasing role that emotional, gut-level tribalism has come to play in politics, not just in Britain but around the world.

This has only been exacerbated by the Brexit divide in Britain. Dunt is a Remainer, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from reading this book. He wastes no time on recriminations, finger-pointing or a dissection of the referendum campaign (riven as it was with misinformation, ignorance, propaganda and outright lies). Instead he looks ahead, to the enormous challenges Britain now faces, in the hope of making the best of a bad situation. To that end he’s interviewed dozens of economists, professors, lawyers and public servants to try to provide an outlay of exactly how Britain can extract itself from a political, legal and trading network that it’s been part of for more than forty years.

As the opening chapter explains: outlook not good. The problem with Brexit is that it’s not a simple proposition. “Brexit means Brexit,” Theresa May said firmly upon entering Downing Street, a meaningless tautology that will nonetheless go down in history textbooks which are unlikely to look kindly upon her and her current cabinet. After explaining exactly what the EU is and how Britain relates to it (not as silly as it sounds, since most Brits probably have only a vague idea) Dunt spends some time examining the three Brexit ministers – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – and how they’ve behaved since the referendum. Johnson has published multiple articles which contradict each other and ludicrously state that freedom of movement will continue; Fox repeatedly failed to understand that it’s illegal for the UK to make trade arrangements with other countries while still part of the EU; Davis conducted a meeting shortly after the referendum with business leaders who were pulled aside by civil servants beforehand and warned to only say they were positive and excited about the “opportunities” of Brexit.

By the end of this short and sobering book it seems very clear that few British people, whether they’re Merseyside plumbers or Tory Cabinet ministers, have much of an idea about exactly what the EU does and how catastrophic Brexit has the potential to be. Go on any Facebook or Twitter thread, or the comments section of online articles, and you will find a legion of Leave voters, lecturers at the University of Some Bloke At The Pub, happy to scoff at the notion that Britain will be anything other than enormously successful. There are no challenges or problems in Brexit-land, just a happily-raised middle finger at those faceless eurocrats in Brussels.

This is the problem Dunt finds so infuriating: not the concept of Britain leaving the EU in general, but the fact that it’s doing that so recklessly, so thoughtlessly, in a maelstrom of jingoistic tub-thumping and blind nostalgia for the British glory of a forgotten age. And, worse, that this shortsighted nationalism has infected the very highest level of politics. The book’s epigraph is a quote from Michael Gove:

“I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms, saying they know what’s best and consistently getting it wrong.”
Michael Gove
Justic Secretary
Sky News, 3 June 2016*

*When told that the leaders of the US, China, India, Australia, the bank of England, the IMF, the IFS, the CBI, five former NATO Secretary-Generals, the chief executive of the NHS and most of Britain’s trade unions opposed Britain leaving the EU.

Foreign readers may not find Brexit particularly compelling reading; I’m Australian, but I care about politics, I lived in Britain for a year and I still have a job which means I need to watch a lot of BBC and Sky. (On a side note, as an Australian, the Remainer assumption that the UK can just turn around and find all the old countries of the Commonwealth waiting for it is hilarious. Nations don’t have friends, they have interests, and they also have their own scheming politicians and hysterical tabloids.) I also think the world’s fifth-largest economy cutting off its nose to spite its face will ultimately affect all of us. But the reason I think Dunt’s book is worthwhile reading no matter where you live is because it touches on that nerve of modern ignorance: the insidious influence of populist politics and the dismissal of people who actually know what the fuck they’re talking about. The most obvious example of this is Trump, but you can see it everywhere, as Facebook echo chambers slowly replace actual news and opinion from measured, intelligent sources. A few years ago I started working for a news network and was subject to countless hours of vox populi, and the inane, pig-headed, simple-minded nonsense that spouts from the mouth of the man on the Manly ferry when you put a microphone in front of him slowly eroded any respect I ever had for the intelligence of the common citizen. I try to avoid using the word stupid – many of these people are mechanics and doctors and engineers and environmental scientists, all of their heads swimming with skills and abilities I could never have. But they’re ignorant. Everybody is ignorant of something, and nearly all of us are ignorant of EU political relationships and trade law. So putting a loosely-worded referendum to the entire populace, after years and years of tabloid propaganda, purely as a domestic political move to placate the right wing of your own party, arrogantly assuming you’ll easily win – was that maybe a stupid thing to do, Dave?

A lot of people, particularly Remainers, assume it will be no big deal. They are going to be painfully proven wrong. What we’re going to see is millions of EU citizens in the UK now living in fear of deportation, every British citizen being stripped of their EU citizenship rights, the jeopardisation of decades of peace in Northern Ireland with the possibility of the return of a hard border (astoundingly, David Davis seemed to believe in one interview that the Republic of Ireland is part of the UK), a second Scottish independence referendum, and a volatile economy and weak pound for a decade to come. But I’m sure it will be worth it for English people to get their bendy bananas back.

I’m clearly a tad more partisan about this than Dunt. But as I said, it’s not really Brexit itself: it’s the worrying trend of abandoning facts, reason and logic and replacing them with sloganeering and feelgood fantasies. It’s about understanding exactly what it is you’re tinkering with before you rip it apart (see also: the “Washington establishment”). I can guarantee you that the vast majority of Leave voters – and Remain voters, for that matter – and even the vast majority of the British Parliament would be unaware of the problems examined in this book, even now, nine months after the referendum. For those of us outside Europe, this is worthwhile reading. For those poor sods in Britain it’s essential.

Romps, Tots and Boffins: The Strange Language of News by Robert Hutton (2013) 135 p.

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I do closed captions for evening new bulletins. That’s my dead-end day job, and it largely entails sub-editing the absolutely atrocious scripts filed by journalists around the world, who – despite presumably having graduated not just high school but university – will still spell engine as “enjyn” and other such horrors. (Australian and Canadian journalists are far worse than the British.)

Apart from the frankly bewildering spelling errors, the more subtle thing that nags away at you is how dreadfully cliche and predictable the language of “journalese” is, whether it’s in broadcast or print. Victims always “maintain a dignified silence” in court; political meetings are always “crisis talks” which take place “behind closed doors;” scandal-gripped public figures are always “beleaguered” or “embattled.” I spend all day immersed in it, but anybody who regularly reads newspapers or watches evening bulletins will have absorbed far more of this odd dialect than they realise. Robert Hutton, a proud hack at Bloomberg, took it upon himself to compile a glossary of it which is now collected in this amusing volume. Some highlights:

designer clothes – as opposed to a sack with holes torn in it.
expenses paid– for some reason, when they hear the word ‘expenses,’ journalists assume fraud must be involved. Psychologists might be able to explain why this should be.
flat-screen colour TV – or a ‘TV,’ as they’re now known.
going forward – the reporter, possibly half-asleep, has copied out too much of the press release.
lethal cocktail – there were two drugs in their system, you say?
named locally – the cops aren’t saying who it was, but fortunately everyone in the pub knew.
smoke-filled rooms – where cosy consensuses are reached. This has survived the smoking ban.

I can’t say this would be gripping stuff to somebody who doesn’t either work in the industry or follow the news closely, but I found it quite a brief and entertaining read. Journalese is so pervasive that you don’t really notice it for what it is, and I’m pleased that Hutton has managed to comprehensively compile and articulate something that thousands of us have probably felt only as a vague, nagging sense of irritation.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett (1991) 400 p.
Discworld #13 (Stand-alone)

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This is widely regarded as one of Pratchett’s finest novels, certainly in the early days of the Discworld series. It’s a standalone – possibly the most complete standalone in the series, taking place far from Ankh-Morpork or Lancre, with only a brief cameo appearance by the Librarian and of course Death. Pratchett takes us to the vast desert kingdom of Omnia, a religious autocracy built around worship of the god Om. On the Discworld, as we’ve already learned, belief can create reality – and so gods in turn are reliant on their believers for their continued existence. Om’s problem is that people no longer believe in him as a god per se, but rather in the institution of the church. Shrunk down into the humble body of a tortoise and with his omnipotence vanished, Om finds he has only one true believer left: the naive young novice Brutha, working in the gardens of the Church’s great Citadel. Om clings to Brutha like a drowning man to a life raft, well aware that if Brutha’s belief wavers then his own existence will be imperilled, as he tries to figure out how to make the people of Omnia properly believe again.

Brutha, meanwhile, has been recruited for a special mission by one of the Church’s deacons for of his eidetic memory. Accompanying Vorbis, Pratchett’s latest Machiavellian villain of iron-cast belief, Brutha thus sets out on the journey of a lifetime to Omnia’s neighbour Ephebe, with none of his retinue suspecting their god is riding along in Brutha’s backpack.

This is a case where I really have to differ from public opinion. I remembered very little of Small Gods, and I’ve learnt on this rereading project that this usually means the book didn’t make much of an impact on me the first time around and won’t the second. The best explanation I can come to for why Small Gods doesn’t engage me is because I’m not religious, I wasn’t raised religious, and I live in probably one of the most irreligious countries in the Western world. Being an agnostic or an atheist doesn’t mean you don’t have to cope with religion’s impact on society, but in Australia it has very little effect on me compared to if I were an atheist in, say, Alabama. I just don’t find Pratchett’s ruminations on religious belief as engaging as those on racism or politics or sexism or any number of other things.

As I said, it’s one of Pratchett’s most beloved books, and apparently he received plenty of approving letters from believers and non-believers alike, praising his depiction of faith, belief, and the critical differences between organised religion and a personal relationship with God. I can believe all that, and I can appreciate why so many others love it. It just didn’t strike much of a chord with me personally, and I find myself with very little to say about it.

Next up, we’re back to the witches of Lancre with Lords and Ladies.

Rereading Discworld Index

Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry (1997) 752 p.

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Comanche Moon is the final volume McMurtry wrote about Augustus McRae and Woodrow Call, but the second chronologically – it slots in between Dead Man’s Walk, when Gus and Call are freshly minted teenage Texas Rangers, and Lonesome Dove, the original Pulitzer Prize winning doorstopper which sees them retired and herding cattle in their fifties. (There’s a fourth volume, Streets of Laredo, which takes place after Lonesome Dove and which I haven’t read yet.)

Comanche Moon takes place in the 1850s and 1860s, spanning a fair hunk of our heroes’ time at the core of their life as Texas Rangers. Rangers are of course fabled figures in Wild West mythology, but as I’ve come to expect from McMurtry, he doesn’t romanticise them. Despite their nostalgic memories of the good old days in Lonesome Dove, Gus and Call and their comrades are underequipped, undertrained and underpaid, and suffer from a nagging doubt that they really make very little difference in keeping settlers safe from the Comanche. Texas itself, now a state of the Union, is portrayed as a dusty backwater – even its capital is a ramshackle frontier town in which the senators spend their days blind drunk in saloons. Nor does McMurtry shy away from the fact that his ostensible heroes are meant to be “civilising” the frontier and driving away the “savages” – in fact, Comanche Moon spends quite a lot of time inside the heads of various Native American characters. Coming from a white 20th century Texan that would normally be cause for concern, but McMurtry’s skill with character is such that the “Indians” are as well-rounded, complex and diverse as the Americans. They’re very different, of course, since they believe they live in a world of spirits and witches and gods and portents, but at the same time some are more dubious about that than others – much like some Texans roll their eyes at the Bible-bashers amongst their number. McMurtry also manages to make the Indians sympathetic despite often being violent nightmares in human flesh. Buffalo Hump, for instance – apparently a real historical figure – is a chieftan who halfway through the book brutally murders the unarmed parents of one of the main characters during a horrific raid of rape and plunder. Yet because we see him as part of his time and place – and because we see so much of the novel through his eyes, and feel his gnawing anxiety about the end of his people and the end of his era – he’s a character you respect, even if you don’t necessarily like him. (This reminds me of quite a few characters in Game of Thrones.) Part of this is skilful character writing; another part of it is McMurtry’s dispassionate style, in which he relays the horrible facts of the frontier in unsentimental prose which can make the actions and choices of characters feel as immutable – and as incapable of guilt or responsibility – as a landslide or a flash flood. McMurtry writes about a world of implacable injustice.

And as always, he’s also very gripping. One of the driving narratives in Comanche Moon is the story of Inish Scull, a larger-than-life Harvard history professor with a penchant for combat who seeks his fortune with the Texas Rangers, and by the campfire at night reads out stories of Napoleon or the Ancient Greeks to the uneducated hicks that make up his lacklustre squad. The novel kicks off when Scull’s gigantic warhorse is stolen by the Comanche thief Kicking Wolf, who takes it to Mexico as a gift for the feared bandit warlord Ahumado. Promoting the bemused Gus and Call to captains and entrusting them with taking the Rangers back to Austin, Scull bravely but unwisely pursues Kicking Wolf alone into Ahumado’s territory, and what subsequently happens to him stretches out over a good course of the novel. From any reasonable point of view Scull’s actions are foolishly reckless, but McMurtry shows his motivations so well – his ennui, his thirst for adventure, his rollicking battle spirit which sits just this side of sanity – that when Scull ended up in an agonisingly brutal battle of wits with Ahumado, including a particularly horrific form of torture, I found myself rooting for him harder than any other character I can remember in quite a while. (It’s all the more gripping since, after the previous two books I’ve read, I know that McMurtry is up there with George R.R. Martin when it comes to killing off characters who seem untouchable).

This series – especially the first two books – often reminds me of the fantasy genre, telling of wild adventures and unknown foreign lands and death-defying exploits. (In that sense McMurtry also reminds me of Patrick O’Brien, and in fact I wouldn’t hesitate to call Gus and Call, with their odd couple relationship, the Aubrey and Maturin of the American West.) There’s one particular scene: Scull arrives in Ahumado’s territory, is led down into a meteor crater amid a horde of hundreds of starving peasant slaves, and is forced to eat the cooked brains of his beloved horse. (“So it must have been when the cavemen ate the mastodons, Scull thought.”) The way McMurtry paints this scene – the slow build-up of ominous dread, the primitive barbarism of it all – makes it feel like something out of a Norse saga. And what is the Wild West if not the great fantasy of America?

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2015) 404 p.

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This was one of the critical darlings of the past few years, garnering rave reviews everywhere from Strange Horizons to the Guardian. I was surprised by how much I disliked it, even though in the case of Becky Chambers that’s a bit like kicking a puppy.

The story, such as it is, revolves around the multi-species crew of the wormhole-building ship the Wayfarer: a gang of Super Best Friends who zip around the galaxy in their cosy spaceship drinking tea, talking about their feelings and braiding their hair. (Yes, there is actually a hair braiding scene.) I could tell within the first 100 pages that this was absolutely not the book for me, but stuck with it partly to see if it improved and partly to rubberneck. Calling it “girlish” feels sexist, but the problem I have with it is specifically that it’s girlish rather than feminine, which is to say, it’s juvenile. It’s not YA, it’s not juvenile in a good way – it’s juvenile in the sense that it appeals to a child’s cosy fantasies rather than genuinely grappling with the world.

The conflict and drama in this book, while theoretically there, is anodyne. Crises arrive, are quickly solved, and then everybody talks about how it made them feel for the next fifty pages in passages that feel more like exercises from a self-help book than dialogue in a novel, let alone an actual conversation. Everybody is super courteous and incredibly understanding of each other’s feelings at all times… except for Corbin the fuel specialist, a character deliberately written to act like a needless jerk merely so he can serve as a whipping boy for the rest of the crew, who talk about how they wish they could push him out the airlock. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Corbin is the only white male in the book.

I’m sure that fans of the book – and there are a lot of them, apparently – would disagree that the novel is without conflict. Sure, a couple of bad things happen; sure, there are nasty things in this galaxy. But rather than have her characters face up to them, Chambers opts every single time for a predictable homily about the importance of respecting differences or the value of friendship.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet has all the usual problems of a debut sci-fi novel – brazen exposition, flat characters, insipid writing – but it was really that cloying, all-pervasive niceness that drove me up the wall. This is not a grown-up novel. This is Enid Blyton meets Tumblr. This is the Babysitter’s Club in space. This is a paper version of chamomile tea and a hot bath. If that sounds like your thing, go nuts. If you want something less insufferably twee, there are far more challenging and well-written space opera series out there.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987) 208 p.

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This one was a bit of a slow burn (appropriately enough – a moon tiger is a mosquito coil), narrated by an old woman dying of cancer in hospital and looking back on her life. Important notes struck include her incestuous relationship with her brother, her adoption of a Hungarian student marooned in London after the 1956 revolution, her lukewarm relationship with her daughter, and most importantly of all, her tragically short romance with a tank commander in Egypt during World War II.

Sometimes I finish a book but don’t get around to reviewing it until later, and realise that only a week has passed and I’ve forgotten the main character’s name. Moon Tiger is one of those. I warmed to it as it went on, and enjoyed the second half more than the first. I liked Lively’s evocative description of WWII-era Cairo and its bustling population of millions of Arabs living in the shadow of a vanished civilisation, putting up with the occupying British waging a war the Arabs don’t care about. But that’s the kind of book Moon Tiger is – a good one, a well-written one, but one where I know a year from now I’ll remember very little from it except a handful of scenes and impressions.

 

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett (1991) 286 p.
Discworld #12 (Witches #3)

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In the tiny hilltop kindom of Lancre, the witch Desiderata Hollow passes away – and passes on her magic wand and responsibilities as a Fairy Godmother to Magrat, the youngest of Granny Weatherwax’s coven. The three witches must set out for the distant city of Genua to find Magrat’s young charge Ella (as in Cinderella) and free her from the manipulations of her other, evil Fairy Godmother, Lilith – who also happens to be the de facto ruler of Genua, having deposed the old Baron.

Witches Abroad, as the title suggests, is a road story. The witches don’t actually arrive in Genua until halfway through the book. The first half is a sequence of comedic setpieces as a pair of old biddies and their exasperated younger friend bumble their way through Foreign Parts. (“Abroad” is such a classically English word.) At first – the dwarves, the vampire village, the running of the bulls – this is a reason for Pratchett to exercise his overactive imagination in amusing vignettes. As the witches approach Genua, however, their encounters are lifted straight out of fairytales – not just because Pratchett wants an excuse to satirise them, as would have been the case in previous Discworld novels, but because Lilith is deliberately engineering her local world to resemble a world of fairytales, regardless of the implications. This comes out most strongly in the Red Riding Hood analogue, as the witches save an old woman, only to find that the Big Bad Wolf is a victim as well – an ordinary wolf given human predatory instincts, slowly going insane:

She stared at the wolf, wondering what she could do for it. A normal wolf wouldn’t enter a cottage, even if it could open the door. Wolves didn’t come near humans at all, except if there were a lot of them and it was the end of a very hard winter. And they didn’t do that because they were big and bad and wicked, but because they were wolves.
This wolf was trying to be human.
There was probably no cure.

“Someone made this wolf think it was a person,” she said. “They made it think it was a person and then they didn’t think any more about it. It happened a few years ago.”

Lilith’s autocratic wonderland is on full display as the witches eventually reach Genua: a swamp town, a party town, a very clear New Orleans analogue. It seems a strange place to set your novel about fairytales and princesses, but Pratchett is deliberately contrasting it with another city in the same part of the real world – Orlando, and specifically Disneyworld. In an interview he said:

[Witches Abroad] had its genesis some years ago when I drove from Orlando to New Orleans and formed some opinions about both places: in one, you go there and Fun is manufactured and presented to you, in the other you just eat and drink a lot and fun happens.

The old Genua – the swampy shanty town – still clusters around the outskirts of the new Genua, a pristine, polished wonderland which is utterly soulless, and which reminded me of Lord Farquaad’s castle in Shrek (which is, of course, another paordy of Disneyworld). The witches go about finding Ella, encountering a voodoo swamp woman who is neither quite ally or enemy, and and attempting to disrupt the threads of narrative power that will enable Lilith to cement her hold on the people of Genua.

I remember liking Witches Abroad quite a lot when I first read it, and I still do. The plot hums along very nicely considering it’s a book of two halves, treading a good balance between comedy and gravitas, much like Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! (In fact, it’s strange to me that Pratchett clearly hit upon excellent characters in Weatherwax and Vimes, yet waited so long to write their follow-up stories – six and seven books respectively, if you consider the Granny Weatherwax of Equal Rites to be a sort of proto-character.)

What works best of all is the dynamic between the three characters: Granny, the iron-willed leader of the group, a cranky and contemptuous woman who was “born to be good” and doesn’t like it; Nanny Ogg, the rambunctious, cheerful, drunken old hen, the kind of woman you wish you had as a crazy aunt, who’s nevertheless sharper and more powerful than she first seems; and Magrat, the youngest of them, a hippie-dippie New Age wet hen. Granny and Magrat in particular clash a lot over the use (or non-use) of magic and Granny’s scornful attitude towards Magrat’s idealism, which culminates in a very nice scene at the climax of the book in which Granny overcomes a voodoo practitioner by doing something she repeatedly told Magrat is impossible. (“When Esme uses words like ‘everyone’ and ‘no-one,’” Nanny Ogg notes, “she doesn’t include herself.”)

An excellent entry in the series, and I again have to say how puzzling it is, in retrospect, that Pratchett waited so long before reintroducing some of his best characters. He must have realised he was on to something after this one; after Small Gods, which is next (and possibly the only totally stand-alone book in the series) he went straight back to the witches with Lords and Ladies, which I recall being the high point of their arc. The City Watch books will start coming thick and fast soon as well.

Rereading Discworld Index

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly (2006) 310 p.

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Told in the manner of a fireside fairytale, it becomes apparent early on that The Book of Lost Things – despite having a child for a main character and a strong Narnia influence – is something more of a dark urban fantasy for adults. David is a 12-year-old boy in London during World War II, struggling to adjust to the aftermath of his mother’s death, not getting along with his father’s new wife, and filling his spare time with reading. As one would expect, he eventually finds himself sucked into a fantasy world in which he encounters a series of traditional fairytale adventures while attempting to find his way home.

This makes The Book of Lost Things sound fairly predictable, and it is, but that doesn’t stop it from being enjoyable. Connolly has a pitch perfect narrative voice, capturing the tone of a mid-20th century fantasy writer telling a straightforward fairytale with hints at a darker narrative. (I could have done without the Pratchettesque communist Seven Dwarves, though, which completely jarred with the tone of the rest of the book).

It don’t think it’s a book which left a lasting impression on me, but it is one which I think was well-written, which I enjoyed a lot while I was reading it, and which I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

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