Archive for September, 2013

The Long Earth and The Long War, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter: Book review

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

The Long Earth, Terry Pratchett and Stephen BaxterOne day, humanity makes a stunning discovery: There are parallel universes neighbouring ours, stacked next to each other, stretching out to infinity, each one holding an Earth that is more or less identical to ours. Humans can step out of this world and into the next almost at will. Overnight, society is transformed by this new “Long Earth”.

The Long Earth and its sequel The Long War are structured entirely on that premise – and what a premise it is. It’s simple, with the kind of deceptive simplicity that cracks your skull open and makes your imagination blaze. Authors Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s imaginations are incandescent: Both books in this series are bursting with digressions and musings and speculation about the big and small effects that the Long Earth would have on humanity.

The premise is so huge, so ambitious, that it’s almost a struggle to build anything as closed as a plot around it. Long Earth is structured around Joshua Valiente, a natural “stepper” – unlike almost every other person, he doesn’t need a special device to hop from one Earth to the next – who has explored more of the Long Earth than most. He’s recruited on an expedition to explore the vast extent of the Long Earth by an eccentric supercomputer known as Lobsang, and the pair turns up some of the Long Earth’s mysteries as they traverse it in an airship*.

(*Remember the golden rule: Pretty much anything with airships in it is, by default, cool.)

The Long War, Terry Pratchett and Stephen BaxterIn Long War, which picks up several years after Long Earth, the weakness in the story become even clearer. The characters are mostly a benign lot (if you’ve read a lot of Pratchett’s stuff many of them will feel familiar to you) and none of their individual stories are especially interesting or surprising. Various threads follow the tensions between humans and other intelligent species residing in the Long Earth, a Chinese expedition into far-flung worlds, and Lobsang’s continued meddling. But there’s never a sense that everything won’t work out OK, and eventually, everything does.

But it’s testament to the strength of that remarkable central idea that the series is never boring. Pratchett and Baxter wander off on side quests exploring the social and economic effects of infinite Earths, which are often so intriguing it’s sometimes it’s disappointing to be gently steered back to the main plot.

Summerland, Michael Chabon: Book review

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

SummerlandIt’s been a while since I read anything by Michael Chabon, so I’d almost forgot Michael Chabon is stupendous. And Summerland has been perched unread on my bookshelf literally for years and I never picked it up till now, because I am merely stupid. How good is this book? It’s so good it actually convinced me to care about baseball. Baseball!

Summerland centres on 11-year-old Ethan Feld, the worst kid in his Little League team. He lives on Clam Island, off Washington, with his dad, an aviation engineer who’s designing a consumer airship. (Sidenote: Basically anything with airships in it is at least a bit awesome, just by default, and the rule holds true for this book.) Ethan’s baseball games are played on a part of the island where it literally never rains in summer – nicknamed “Summerland”.

The reason Summerland is so eternally sunny is because it’s (more or less) the gateway to a fantasyland also known as Summerland, one of the four worlds that comprise the universe – there’s Summerland, a corresponding winter world, our humdrum reality, and a sealed-off fourth world that’s something like heaven. Ethan learns this when he’s called upon to save the worlds, and the cosmic Tree that binds them, from Coyote – basically every trickster god rolled up into one. Accompanied by his baseball teammates, (the awesome) Jennifer T. Rideout and (the odd) Thor Wignutt, Ethan starts out on a trek across Summerland to halt Coyote’s scheme, encountering fairies, sasquatches, giants and were-animals, and playing a ton of baseball. Fantasy creatures are really into baseball. Apparently.

I say “more or less” up there because Chabon’s mythology here is messy and sprawling and hard to follow – I never quite got a grasp on how his four fantasy worlds tie into each other, exactly. But even when his ideas are muddled, his sentences are clear and crisp and his metaphors are frequently delightful. (Though even the best turns of phrase in Summerland can’t rival his all-time best simile: In The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, he writes of rough voices that sound like “onions rolling in a bucket,” which oooooh tingles.) Maybe that’s why the film John Carter, which Chabon penned, was such a flop – because imagination works works best on the page, when it’s moulded by his superb words. Take away the words and you’re just left with muddle.

Summerland is such a through-and-through American book it makes me want to use the word “quintessential” to describe it. Its Americana is boiled up with slices of “traditional” folklore into some strange, complicated, charming stew that’s ostensibly a young adult or even a children’s novel. But I’m curious to know what a kid of Ethan’s age would make of this book. I looked forward to reading it every time I pulled it out of my bag and cracked it open.

 

Prime ministers’ pets

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

While fawning over new photos of Sunny Obama yesterday, I wondered: Which animals are the Australian equivalents (and how come they’re not more famous)? So.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott (oh writing that phrase is a blast, lemme tell you) has a dog. Tony Abbott’s dog is called Maisie. Maisie is a “cream spoodle”, which sounds like a super-inappropriate breed of dog for someone who almost became a Catholic priest to own.

Here is Maisie obediently campaigning for her master (just like all the other females in his family, right guys!) before the election:

And here is an actually-pretty-good photo of the Abbott family (I say “actually pretty good” because Tony is… doing that face. You know. That face.):

Tony Abbott's dog Maisie

Maisie takes over the title of first dog from Kevin Rudd’s golden retriever Abby:

Kevin Rudd's dog Abby

Kevin’s wife Therese Rein once claimed Abby has psychic powers, which is probably why Kevin didn’t seem particularly surprised he lost the election to Tony Abbott.

Kevin also had a cat named Jasper. Below is a video of Jasper drinking tea, because of course Kevin Rudd put a cat video on YouTube.

In addition to starring in several Crikey comics, Jasper and Abby appeared together in a picture book (?) co-written by Kevin Rudd and actor Rhys Muldoon (??), about a “kerfuffle” at the Lodge on Australia Day (???):

Jasper + Abby

Abby looks kind of weirdly frowny on this cover.

Sadly, Jasper died of kidney failure in October 2012. But as far as I can tell Abby is still alive.

Julia Gillard also has a dog (and let me tell you, I was frightened of Googling “Julia Gillard dog”). Her dog is named Reuben, and he’s a cavoodle:

I think Julia Gillard wins the prize for Most Adorable Australian Prime Minister’s Pet of All Time, and since I don’t have the energy to research any further back right now I’m going to award it to her. Nice work, Reuben.

Divergent, Veronica Roth: Book review

Monday, September 9th, 2013

Divergent, Veronica RothAfter she turns 16, Tris Prior undergoes the same rite of passage as every teenager in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Her futuristic society is split into five factions: Abnegation, for those who value selflessness above all other things; Dauntless, for fearlessness; Erudite, knowledge; Candor, honesty; and Amity, love. She must take a test that determines which faction she’ll be in the rest of her life.

But Tris’s test result doesn’t tell her she belongs in Abnegation, which she was born into, or in Dauntless, which she secretly longs to join. Instead, she shows equal aptitude for Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudity – which makes her (dun dun dun) divergent. Tris is warned that the authorities hate the divergent and told to keep her test result a secret from everyone. And then she goes against her family’s wishes and joins the Dauntless faction.

After leaving her loved ones behind, Tris is pushed through rigorous and brutal Dauntless training. She starts to fall for her suitably aloof and brooding instructor Four (yes, like the number). And she gradually stumbles into a plot to overthrow society that she will inevitably become a central part of because she’s divergent.

So what, you might be asking, is so special about being divergent? If the factions are artificially created and you can essentially choose whichever one you want to be a part of, what does it even mean to be divergent? Why are the divergent (spoiler alert) immune to the mind-control serums that can turn everyone else into zombies? Well, those are good questions. But author Veronica Roth’s mythology is so complicated and muddled that the answers are never clear – the divergent are special because… they just are. The factions are a neat idea, but attempting to really understand Roth’s world is like trying to pick up a whole puddle with your fingers.

(I’m sure Roth, if given the chance, could give long, detailed and probably pretty interesting solutions to the plot holes Divergent raises. And there’s two books after this one in the series, so maybe there’s more answers there. But as it stands, this book, read as a standalone, makes no sense to me at a fundamental level.)

I got interested in Divergent the book because of this trailer:

I like Shailene Woodley! I love Kate Winslet! The guy who played Pamuk in Downton Abbey is crazy handsome! From the look of it, the screenwriter has done some hard work clarifying the story. Hopefully in the film adaptation there’ll be a more solid build-up to Winslet’s character, Erudite leader Jeanine, declaring war on the other factions; on the page Jeanine is a flat, pretty boring villain.

Those faults aside, Divergent isn’t too bad, I guess (you may quote that strong endorsement on future editions of the book, publishers). Tris is an appealing protagonist, even though she does a bit too much of that YA heroine thing where she moans about how ugly and useless she is while being pursued by half the male characters and outdoing her peers at every challenge. And the plot is engaging and unexpected – I was especially surprised by how violent the final chapters are. But none of it is enough to convince me to read the second instalment Insurgent and the soon-to-be-released Allegiant. I’ll just skim through the Wikipedia plot summaries instead.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, J.K. Rowling: Book review

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

The Cuckoo's CallingReally I guess that title should be “The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith”, except we all know how that whole attempted pseudonym thing work out, so I’ll just stick with “J.K. Rowling”.

There’s been talk of Rowling penning a crime novel for years, since even before she wrote those little-known books about that magic kid whose name escapes me. It turns out she’s as deft at detectives as she is at wizards and witches: Rowling’s prose is rarely that remarkable, but her stories are always captivating, hard to step away from.

Cuckoo’s Calling starts with the suicide of supermodel Lula Landry, who leaps from the balcony of her London penthouse on a snowy, silent night. The rabid British press feasts on her death for a while, till she’s swept aside into the heap of forgotten celebrity carcasses. That’s when Lula’s adopted brother John approaches private detective Cormoran Strike, convinced Lula was murdered. Strike starts poking around in the case, and – what do you know – finds that the circumstances of Lula’s death are darker and more complicated than they seem.

I don’t know how Rowling does it, but she’s terrific at constructing fictional worlds that are believable and organic. Her mythologies never feel forced. Strike’s London is as alive as Hogwarts, rich with secrets and shadows and intriguing characters – especially Lula, who’s vividly realised even though she never speaks and dies on pretty much the first page, but especially Strike, a wounded war veteran struggling to hold his personal and professional lives together. He’s such a big, striking (no pun intended) character I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been knocking around in Rowling’s head for almost as long as Harry Potter has.

Like all good detective fiction, Rowling throws out scores of seemingly innocent details. If you’ve played the crime game before you know most of them are red herrings, but a tantalising few are clues to the identity of Lula’s killer/s. The conclusion is satisfying and melodramatic and expertly tied up, but it’s still disappointing to come to the end and have the mystery all laid out for you – because it means your time spent mulling over those clues is over.

Previously: The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling