Extreme Planet (Not for Parents) by Lonely Planet

I’m finding it hard to find fault with this book. We’re big fans of the Lonely Planet  Not for Parents Travel Book in this house, but it is not without its flaws. This latest incarnation seems to me just about perfect for inquisitive children who have an interest in the planet, and those who like a few gross-out facts too (which is just about all of them).

My seven year old is currently telling everybody about the people in the Phillipines who reenact the crucifixion and the festival in Thailand where they stab themselves with sharp implements. The bullet ants initiation ceremony also caused quite a stir. It’s that sort of book.

As you’d expect with a Lonely Planet book, production values are high. Good tough cover and lots of excellent photos. Each subject has a double page spread and topics are as diverse as Light, the Sepik river and holes in the ground. There are countless interesting facts, each one able to start off further discussion about the world around us. It’s an educational godsend.

Despite the title, it’s not even just for kids. It’s taken me ages to write this review as I keep stopping to read bits of the book. Christmas is coming and Lonely Planet is clearly positioning Extreme Planet in the Guiness BofR/Ripley’s Believe it or Not market. It’s a far better alternative to both.

With the internet and tablet computers rendering this type of book obsolete, Extreme Planet is the perfect riposte. Beautifully produced, well-written and captivating to read, this wonderful volume proves that sometimes the printed page is best.

The Butterfly Effect – Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver writes beautiful measured novels and Flight Behaviour is no exception.  Though slow out of the blocks, Kingsolver gradually binds her threads together to form an utterly compelling whole.

Dellarobia Turnbow steps out from her back door intent on wrecking her marriage. For ten years she has lived a humdrum existence on her husband’s family farm.  She is heading for a secret tryst with a young telephone engineer, but in small town Tennessee can anything be kept secret?  On her way she is stopped in her tracks by a natural wonder, a valley of fire.  She returns to her home, glad of the wake up call, and her narrow escape from infidelity.

The Turnbow farm is struggling to survive.  The recession has hit hard, wiping out the farm’s meager profits.  When her father-in-law decides he is going to allow a logging company to decimate his land’s trees Dellarobia feels obliged to speak out.  She exhorts her husband, Cub, to take look over the land.  When he does Cub discovers the same unnatural wonder as his wife.  Convinced that Dellarobia has had a vision, Cub blurts out in church what they have seen.  A wondrous sight on private land suddenly becomes public property.

Flight Behaviour is about so many things it’s hard to know where to start.  At its heart is the interaction between three distinct groups of people.  The media, who want to present the phenomenon in a way that will generate as many ratings as possible, the scientists, who want to present only the facts, and the farmers, who must do what’s needed to preserve their livelihoods.   Dellarobia sits in two camps.  She is a farmer’s wife, reliant on the farm turning a profit, but she yearns for more.  Can she use her brush with science to kick-start a life arrested by an unwanted teenage pregnancy?

The book is filled with fabulous beauty.  The wilderness and Dellarobia’s discovery are described in rich detail.  Counterpoint to the beauty is the heartache and harsh reality of lives spent hovering around the breadline.  The World’s media is often disparaging of Bible Belt Republicans, but Kingsolver’s depiction of them is compassionate and heartfelt.

As a father who, fortunately, has never had to worry about where my family’s next meal is coming from, I found Dellarobia’s struggle to feed her children particularly affecting.  There is one section where she and Cub are trying to find Christmas presents that left me emotionally wrung out.  It encapsulates the plight of countless families in the world’s richest economy.

Ultimately, this novel is about the fragility of existence. Whether it be a farm, a marriage or an entire ecosystem, continued survival is a fine balance of uncountable variables.  Even the most innocuous changes could mean extinction.  Flight Behaviour is an understated novel, rich in language and themes.  It’s by no means a page turner but it is a powerful meditation on twenty-first century morals and the difficulties of balancing what is best for the planet against what is best for humanity.  Flight Behaviour sees Kingsolver at the height of her powers and once again she has delivered an authentic meaningful and compelling read.

One final word about the cover.  Whoever commissioned it wants shooting. This a work of surpassing beauty, but the cover looks like it was knocked up on someone’s home computer.  A few wispy trees with gold leaves badly superimposed over the top. It’s not remotely convincing (though it looks much better in the picture here). Considering the wonder instilled by the book’s central phenomenon the cover is unforgivable.

Many Thanks to Lauren at Faber for providing me with a review copy of this book.

Skirmishes in Bookworld

There is an eternal war in the world of books.  Two forces line up against each other, slugging it out for supremacy. Both sides have champions, fearlessly battling to promote their cause, but it’s a fight nobody can win.  The conflict? Literary vs genre fiction.

I’m perhaps not qualified to comment on the subject, certainly there are people who would say that I’m not, but I read a lot of fiction, and nearly all of it calls itself one or the other.  Clearly I set some store in these categories. Looking at the tags of books I’ve reviewed this year. 21 are literary fiction and 27 are either SciFi or Fantasy, so-called genre fiction.  Not very many are both.  I use the terms freely, yet the distinction feels meaningless.  Some books are good, others are dull, some are throwaway. Many are inspirational. Books are vital; they can change your world, and, when they do, labels are pointless.

This has been brought into focus by the last two books I have (attempted to) read.  The first was feted by the literati, tipped for a Booker; a thick tome with a story that spans several decades.  I managed 170 odd pages before giving up, bored out of my tiny mind.  The other book was slender, coincidentally just over 170 pages.  In that same number of pages, it made me angry, it made me gasp, it made me think, it even made me question the very idea of humanity.  It was science fiction.

A Stranger’s Child by Adam Hollingshurst opens in a wealthy home.  Its players are people of privilege; peers and poets.  The opening section details two friends returning home after a term at Cambridge, one is a poet, both are gay.  Indeed, it appears to be the novel’s central contention, that every man in the ruling classes is gay. This is stupid.

Other startling revelations include upper class society is bound by convention, and that Edwardian women led unfulfilled lives and were treated badly by the men in their lives.  Sheesh.   Claims to literary excellence perhaps stem from long and excruciating descriptions of inanimate objects.  Rather than making me feel like I was reading a novel of great import, it’s more like the dullest episode of Antiques Roadshow ever made.

Structurally the novel appears to have been given the sort editorial freedom that only comes with having previously won a literary prize.  The abrupt transition from part one to part two seems to be saying, ‘come on reader, catch up, work out what’s going on. I’m so clever and you should swoon at my deliberate opacity’. Well, if I was the slightest bit interested in your characters or story I might.  When it became evident the mysterious and enigmatic ‘Revel’ was another dull clichéd stereotype, the book went down, never to be opened again.

Yet the critics absolutely loved it. It somehow ticks all the boxes that are required for literary greatness.  Genesis by Bernard Beckett on the other hand seems to have garnered no mainstream literary criticism whatsoever, apart from a fabulous review in the Guardian by the equally fabulous YA author Patrick Ness.  No doubt the fact that it is YA AND science fiction preclude it from entering literary circles, but it is magnificent from first page to last, and poses its readers deep philosophical questions about life and the way it is governed.

The set up of Genesis is slightly peculiar.  It is, in essence, the transcript of an elite academy’s entrance exam.  Anax is sitting a four hour oral test, to justify her inclusion amongst her nation’s elite. We learn that the world has been ravaged by war, plague and uncontrolled climate change. Only the foresight of an energy billionaire saved New Zealand.  By quarantining the islands, humankind continued, but at what price?

‘The Republic’ was constructed with survival in mind.  Individualism is considered to be the root of the Earth’s decent into anarchy, and as such it is crushed.  The population is divided into categories, each person given their role. Nuclear families no longer exist, each population type is responsible for raising its own.  The Philosophers are the highest order; it is they who decide what function each person should be assigned.  Only those put through the Academy can rise to be Philosophers.

Anax’s specialism for her exam is the life of revolutionary Adam Bode.  Adam’s individualism led him to save the life of young girl whose boat washed up on the Republic’s shores.  He should have terminated her on sight, but he could not. Through testimony and discussion with the Examiner, Anax discusses what she thinks about Adam and what his motivation might have been.  From the outset there is the sense that Adam irrevocably altered the the Republic’s status quo.  Arguably, Genesis is about Adam spawning a new society.

The most interesting sections of this discussion revolve around Adam’s time spent with a self-teaching robot. In a few short pages Beckett dissects and analyses what makes us human.  What is sentience? At what point is something alive? He also asks questions about state control and then role of religion in a technologically advanced society. It is a fascinating ethical and moral discourse.

The novel’s unusual structure, does sometimes impede the narrative flow, but from start to finish Genesis is a compelling story, told with a brutal economy.  The novel’s conclusion will leave readers amazed and outraged in equal measure. It will also have them pondering life and humanity long after they have finished reading.

This, for me, is what fiction should do.  Hollingshurst’s story may have been dressed nicely but it offered no new insights about life, past, present or future. Beckett on the hand challenges preconceptions, and forces his readers to think about why the world is the way it is. Genesis is a wonderful novel, that everybody over the age of 14 should read.  1-0 to genre fiction? Maybe, but the real winners are the people who read Bernard Beckett’s wonderful novel.

Hell and Darn-nation – ‘Wool’ by Hugh Howey

This review contains mild spoilers. There are no specifics but I do hint at the direction the novel takes.

Wool by Hugh Howey is one self-publishings success stories.  Having garnered rave reviews as an ebook, it has now been picked up by a major publisher and given a physical presence.  It is a taut post-apocalyptic thriller set inside a sealed system.  In essence, it’s end-of-days in a tin can.

The novel’s structure is slightly unusual, reflecting the story’s genesis.  The original tale was a short story. It’s popularity led to demand for more stories, five in total.  This novel is all five collected in a single volume, and it feels like it. Whilst there is continuity and an overreaching story arc, the overall effect is not as cohesive as one might expect from a traditional novel.  Nevertheless, the first three stories are breathtaking in their elegance and, as a whole, Wool makes for compelling reading.

The action of Wool takes place inside a hermetically sealed Silo.  The last survivors of the human race live inside a gargantuan storage container, safe from the hostile atmosphere outside.  The Silo is over one hundred levels, a striated civilisation, with each function of society occupying one or more floor.  So there are maintainence levels, infirmary levels, farming levels and IT, to name but four.  Relations between the levels are harmonious; the entire Silo is governed by a democratically elected mayor, and law and order maintained by the Sherrif and his deputies. The levels are connected by a huge central spiral staircase; a metal double helix, essential for life.

The silo is a huge organism, each part relying on another to ensure its continual survival.  Society’s most heinous crime is to wonder what might be on the outside.  There is no escaping the Silo, to even suggest it, may sow discord, and is punishable by death.  Perpetrators get their wish, when they are sentenced to ‘Cleaning’. They are dispatched to the outside world to clean the lens that captures the Silo’s only view of the world above.  There is no returning and life expectancy is a matter of minutes.

The opening story is short, taut and compelling.  Somebody has effectively committed suicide by stating that they wish to leave the Silo.  That somebody is the Silo’s Sherrif.  There is a back-story of the Sherrif’s wife who had been sent to clean three years earlier.  She worked in IT and some hidden knowledge drove her to her death.  Holston has become convinced he can join his wife, and so he takes the walk.  The results of this decision will turn his world on its head, but by then there is no way back.

Book 2 follows the Mayor and  deputy Sherrif as they hope to appoint a replacement Sherrif.  In this section, and book in 3, we learn much about the workings of Silo society. Howey’s world building is supreme.  The political order and social structure he has created feels entirely plausible.  Though egalitarian, Silo society is not classless, with those on the upper levels believing that those below are beneath them, literally and figuratively.  It becomes clear the appearance of harmony between levels thin veneer thin.  The silo contains secrets, and they are potentially explosive.  By the end of part three, there’s been another murder and the new Sherrif finds herself ensnared by a political power play.

The opening three tales are a masterclass in storytelling.  Howey’s prose is economical, yet thrilling.  Every word counts; like resources in the Silo, nothing is wasted. As the tension builds, there is a palpable sense of claustrophobia. The long climbs down the Silo’s staircase, and arduous ascent to the upper levels, make communication through the Silo awkward and open to abuse, adding to the oppressive weight that bears down on the novel’s players.  The twists, when they come, are like body-blows.  It’s fantastically compelling.

The final two stories are not quite in the same league as the first three, but still make for an exciting read. In order to give himself more wiggle room Howey prises the lid off his creation.  He changes the parameters of his world, diluting its power. With the sense of claustrobia gone, his prose becomes more verbose.  I’m tempted to suggest the cumulative success of his books has made Howey less rigorous in his paring down of his work, but this feels churlish, as he still delivers bucket loads of tension.

I wasn’t completely sure about Wool’s conclusion.  Whilst the ending works, I felt there was an obvious, much more convincing finish, but one that would have come with a much higher body count.  The ending given is neater and more palatable than some of the alternatives, but I think it lacks the emotional resonance a more apocalyptic finale would have given.   Personally, I would have been happy to read a ‘Whodunnit’ inside the pressure cooker environment of the Silo; this would have been a unique reading experience.  Instead, Howey serves up another dystopian revolution, which are everywhere at the moment.

A final word about the title. ‘Wool’ is a strange name for a book on any subject (with the exception of knitting), and feels particularly peculiar for an apocalypse novel.  It turns out that there are many reasons to call the book Wool. Some are obvious, whilst others lurk beneath layers of meaning and allusion.  That a simple one word title can be given such depth is testament to the quality of Howey’s writing and the thought behind it.  Tense, exciting, contemplative and relevant, ‘Wool’ is an exceptional addition to the ever growing canon of dystopian fiction.

My Copy of Wool was obtained through the Amazon Vine Programme

Sextet for Overlapping Soloists – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I read Cloud Atlas when it was first published, having loved Mitchell’s debut novel Ghostwritten.  I must confess that though I enjoyed Cloud Atlas on its first read, there were aspects of it that I struggled with. Most notably the middle story, written in post-apocalyptic pidgin, and the slightly dry opening chapter.  (I even momentarily thought my copy was duff; chapter one breaks off mid sentence.  I bought my copy in Thailand, and I thought there must have been a ghastly printing error!). Whilst I admired much of Cloud Atlas,  it confused me in equal measure.  I’ve been meaning to return ever since, but I rarely reread books.  The release of the film inspired me take another look.

Second time around, I was blown away.  Whilst not faultless, I think Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece of modern fiction.  The structure alone is enough to qualify it for greatness. I loved the interconnecting short story structure of Ghostwritten, but Cloud Atlas takes it one step further.  There are six stories, each nested within the previous one.

Every story has a wildly different voice and timeframe.  Chapter 1 is set in the 1800’s during the height of Empire and is the Journal of the rather priggish, but deeply honourable Adam Ewing. 2 is letters written by Robert Frobisher, musician, dilletente, cad and bounder.  3 is detective thriller fiction set in the 70s. 4 is roughly contemporary, following the blustering owner of a publishing house.  Chapters three and four are the most conventional and therefore accessible chapters.  The reader then needs to make a mental shift before tackling Chapters 5 & 6.  These are set in the future, with civilisation in decline.  5 opens in a futuristic fast food bar, the work force of which are clones.  Chapter six, is set after the fall of civilisation, and is narrated by a young member of a tribe of survivors.

All the stories, with the exception of the troublesome middle story are split in two.  So for example, Chapter 1 is excerpts from Adam Ewing’s journal, which Robert Frobisher in chapter 2 is reading, and frustrated about because it has been torn in two.  It is only as Frobisher’s own epistolary story is reaching a climax that he finds the other half, and finally we, the reader, get to read it too.  So, the story structure goes 12345654321, like a delightful literary matryoshka.

Each chapter contains many allusions and references to other chapters in the book, which is the sort of trickery I love.  These are certainly easier to spot second time around; it’s hard to spot an allusion if you have no idea about what it might be alluding too.  The themes too are many-fold.  Subjugation, Communication, corporate greed, and self awareness are all analysed, as is the nature of storytelling.  Such is stacking of the interleaved narrations, even the nature of reality is called into question, with the reader forced to wonder whether anything is real.

I could happily discuss the intracacies of the novel at length, but that would not make a book review.  The novel is undoubtedly clever but how should we determine whether its any good?.  It certainly isn’t very accessible.  Penetrating the middle chapter pidgin, will tax some readers patience and the futuristic fifth chapter will turn  away those prejudiced against sci-fi.  I think to get the most from Cloud Atlas it probably needs to be read more than once.

I’m tempted to suggest that a book that requires more than one read to fully appreciate cannot be a good book, but this would be over simplistic.  I had to read Great Expectations twice to fully appreciate its majesty; Cloud Atlas is the same.  In other areas of the Arts, I would not be so exacting. Great paintings demand multiple visits, and my favourite pieces of music took many listens before they found their way to my heart. Why should it be any different for Mitchell’s symphonic Cloud Atlas sextet. Why should books give up all their secrets on a first read?

All I can say is you must approach Cloud Atlas with an open mind. You will like some bits more than others.  Some parts will take great effort to get through, other parts you will devour greedily.  It should intrigue you, move you and ultimately, hopefully, it will blow you away.