Snow White and Other Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Happily ever after…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a new entry in Oxford World’s Classics gorgeous hardback series, which so far seems to be concentrating on classic collections of short stories. Like most people, I know some of the Grimms’ stories from childhood, though in a bowdlerised version, and from Disney, pantomimes, ballets, etc. However, I’ve only tried to read the originals once before, in Philip Pullman’s version. He’d modernised the language horribly and tried to put in some archly knowing little jokes, and I disliked it all so much I only got about a third of the way through. So when I saw that this collection is a modern translation too, I was a bit apprehensive. Of course, I needn’t have worried – as always the OWC have treated the stories with respect and the translator, Joyce Crick, has done an excellent job of using standard modern English, making the stories easily approachable and enjoyable, while still retaining the sense of antiquity which gives them part of their charm. She tells us she has striven to return the stories as far as possible to the Grimms, by stripping out the layers that some later translations and adaptations have added over the years.

Rumpelstiltskin
by Anne Anderson

The book includes the Grimms’ Preface to the Second Edition where they explain how the stories were collected, from where, and that the point was to preserve the stories before the custom of oral storytelling died out. However the interesting main introduction, also by Joyce Crick, reveals that some at least of the stories were not collected from peasants but from friends of the Grimms from their own social class, recounting tales they had been told in their childhoods. Crick uses the introduction to supply some historical context to the stories, an insight into the then-contemporary drive to collect folklore, and to give some background about the brothers’ lives, while also looking more academically at the relevance of the stories to their own time and place.

Rapunzel
by Walter Crane

While many of the stories could be shared with children, either to read themselves or to have read aloud to them, others may be less suitable, either because of some fairly strong images of horror or simply because of the more adult themes they contain. This volume is clearly aimed primarily at the adult reader, with the introductions, appendices and notes, and also because it lacks illustrations. Crick explains: “The present edition has no pictures, though its conversations have certainly invited them, taking place as ever between a princess and a frog, or a wolf and a girl in a red bonnet, or two frightened children in the forest, but also between a disgruntled fiddler and a Jew, and between a boy-giant and an officious bailiff. So this selection finds itself aimed at readers who once read these tales in their childhood, or had them read to them, and are returning to them late, apple bitten, naivety lost, in history. It was Jacob Grimm who spoke of a ‘lost Paradise of poesy’.”

The Brothers Grimm

There are 82 stories in the collection, including all the best known ones, like Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella, although sometimes not going by those names – here we have the originals rather than the versions that have developed over time. So Cinderella appears here as Ashypet, and we have the spirit of her dead mother sending her aid rather than a wand-wielding fairy godmother. But there are also lots that I either didn’t know or hadn’t heard for many years, so I found it an excellent mix of the familiar and the new. There’s humour, horror, lots of poor girls finding their Princes and even some poor men finding their Princesses, animal fables, morality tales, supernatural intervention and human goodness and evil. There are quite a lot of stories that repeat or echo other ones, but each time with enough of a different take to allow them to stand as individual.

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs
by Maurice Sendak

I loved the retellings of all the stories I already loved – Rapunzel, The Singing Bone, The Tale of the Boy Who Set Out to Learn Fear (some great horror imagery and lots of humour in that one), The Tale of the Fisherman, etc. But I found lots of new favourites too, including Cat and Mouse as Partners (a timely warning of the perfidy of our beloved felines), Faithful John (horrific in parts, but they all live happily ever after, even the beheaded children!), The Three Little Men in the Forest (which I’m sure I’ve come across before but for some reason particularly enjoyed the way it’s told here), Clever Hans (lots of humour enhanced by some lovely repetition). And on and on… too many to list. There were very few I didn’t enjoy – a couple that felt unnecessarily cruel, like Sensible Elsie whose fate seemed rather worse than she deserved, and a couple which had rather ugly depictions of Jews – of their time, but didn’t sit comfortably with me in today’s world.

Hansel and Gretel
by Arthur Rackham

Overall, I loved this collection, and will undoubtedly dip into it again often. I heartily recommend it to anyone who doesn’t know the stories and would like to, or to people who are already familiar with them but would have their appreciation enhanced by the great extras always found in OWC editions.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The evolution of the rippling bicep…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Lord Greystoke and his young wife Lady Alice are on their way to take up a new colonial appointment in Africa when the crew of the ship they are on mutiny. The mutineers drop their passengers off on a wild coast, far from civilised habitation, but close to the jungle. For a while they survive, long enough for Lady Alice to bear the son she was already carrying. But when disaster strikes, leaving the baby all alone in the world, he is adopted by a tribe of apes and grows up learning their ways, unaware of his own heritage. However, when he discovers the hut his parents built and all their belongings including their books, he realises he is different from the other apes. And then more white people are marooned in the same place by another bunch of mutineers, and he sees the lovely Jane…

Johnny Weissmuller played the role many times…

Basically, this is simply a romping adventure story that is as enjoyable now as when it took the reading public’s imagination by storm back in 1912, when it was first published in the pulp magazine The All-Story. There’s something about the way Burroughs tells stories that makes them great fun despite all the many ways he transgresses modern sensibilities. It’s a sort of innocent charm – I feel sure he’d be amazed and appalled if he thought he’d offended anyone. He so truly believes that white Anglo-Saxons are the pinnacle of evolution and that women will forgive any little character flaws (like cannibalism, for example) so long as a man has rippling biceps and the ability to fight apes single-handed. (Both jolly good attributes in a man, I admit – I wonder if Rafa fights apes…)

Evolution was still a relatively new idea when Burroughs was writing this, and many authors were exploring the subject in different ways. Burroughs’ ideas may seem pretty shocking to us now, but they were fairly mainstream at the time. He shows a kind of pyramid of evolution starting with real apes that we would recognise as such. Then there’s the tribe that adopt Tarzan, who are a kind of link between ape and man, with the beginnings of a verbal language and some basic forms of ritual, such as…

the fierce, mad, intoxicating revel of the Dum-Dum.
….From this primitive function has arisen, unquestionably, all the forms and ceremonials of modern church and state, for through all the countless ages, back beyond the last, uttermost ramparts of a dawning humanity our fierce, hairy forebears danced out the rites of the Dum-Dum to the sound of their earthen drums, beneath the bright light of a tropical moon in the depth of a mighty jungle which stands unchanged today as it stood on that long forgotten night in the dim, unthinkable vistas of the long dead past when our first shaggy ancestor swung from a swaying bough and dropped lightly upon the soft turf of the first meeting place.

Burroughs’ depiction of the ape society is great – he humanises the apes just enough so that we see them as individuals and like or dislike them accordingly, but he ensures that even the “good” ones never stop being wild, brutal beasts. I found them utterly believable as a type of proto-human.

Next on the ladder are the black “savages”, along with Jane’s black maid. Oh dear, this is where you have to keep reminding yourself that it was the times! The maid is the traditional figure of fun – the black mammy who continued to appear in American culture well into the ‘50s, or maybe even later, so poor old Burroughs can’t be condemned too harshly. The savages – well, it’s not so much their savage lifestyle that’s the problem; many writers from Kipling to Conrad via Rider Haggard et al have depicted the indigenous African tribes just as problematically to modern eyes. It’s more the suggestion that they’re actually another link in the evolutionary chain – less intelligent, less resourceful, a lower form of life altogether than the white man.

Book 39 of 90

Tarzan is the zenith of the evolutionary heap. Not only is he a perfect physical specimen of rampant manhood, but he’s so intelligent he actually manages to teach himself to read and write without ever having heard a human speak. But also his prime pedigree as an English aristocrat can’t be hidden for long…

…and so he rose, and taking the locket in his hand, stooped gravely like some courtier of old, and pressed his lips upon it where hers had rested.
….It was a stately and gallant little compliment performed with the grace and dignity of utter unconsciousness of self. It was the hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate.

Christopher Lambert in the 1984 movie version, Greystoke

It goes without saying that women aren’t quite so evolved, though obviously white women outrank black women. But frankly, girls, when you have Tarzan looking out for you, how evolved do you need to be?

….Jane Porter – her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration – watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman – for her.
….As the great muscles of the man’s back and shoulders knotted beneath the tension of his efforts, and the huge biceps and forearm held at bay those mighty tusks, the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl.

The racist and sexist aspects are so overblown and unintentional that personally I found them hilarious rather than offensive. And while many aspects of the story are a bit ridiculous if you stop to analyse them too deeply, it’s so full of thrills, excitement, high love and general drama that it swept me along on a tsunami-sized wave of fun. Highly recommended!

* * * * *

(I reckon Rafa should play Tarzan in the next film. I shall of course be auditioning for Jane…)

….He did what no red-blooded man needs lessons in doing. He took his woman in his arms and smothered her upturned, panting lips with kisses.
….For a moment FictionFan Jane Porter lay there with half-closed eyes. For a moment – the first in her young life – she knew the meaning of love.

Ooh, I say!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A world without Darcy…

😐 😐

Three young men are part of an expedition in some obscure unexplored corner of the planet when they hear rumours of a country where all the inhabitants are women. They don’t believe this, of course. Firstly, they’ve heard all about the birds and the bees and they know such a society couldn’t exist for more than one generation. But more importantly, they know that women are too silly and incompetent to run a whole country on their own. If the country exists at all, they decide, the men must live elsewhere and visit for… ahem… a bit of the old nuptials every now and again. However, the prospect is tantalising – all those women must be pretty desperate for a bit of male company, what? So they decide to investigate…

The book starts off quite well, rather in the broad wink-wink tone of my introduction, full of male stereotypes of females, and incidentally managing to stereotype the three males pretty heavily at the same time. Then, unfortunately, they arrive in the country they dub Herland. And from there on in it’s an utterly tedious description of how this all-female society operates. Gilman even remarks at one point, in the voice of the male narrator, that nothing much actually happened to them during their stay, so presumably she was well aware of the narrative deficiencies of the book as a novel. Pity she felt a glancing reference to them was sufficient.

And odd! Because what I learned from this book is that women are perfect in every single way, excel at everything they do, and the only thing that causes misery, disease or turmoil in the world is men! Horrible men. Gosh, don’t you just hate them all? With their cruelty and their grubbiness and their greed, and all that nasty, nasty sex business. Women build nicer houses in beautifully clean, well-ordered cities, and they never fight or quarrel or get unhappy. They are naturally far, far better than men, because their capacity for motherhood makes them want to make the world a better place for their children. Unlike nasty men, who only see children as an unfortunate by-product of sex.

The unfortunate thing about some strands of feminism, this included, is the tendency to go well beyond the desire for equality and harmony, towards replacing a world where women are subject to men with one where men are disparaged and despised by women. I’m more of a happy-medium kind of girl myself. At risk of being drummed out of the sisterhood once and for all, I’ll admit my guilty, shameful secret. I like men. Not all of them, obviously – Trump, Hitler and Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t be my idea of a fun night down the pub – but then, Thatcher, Kellyanne Conway and Myra Hindley wouldn’t be my first choices for dinner guests either. But on the whole, I think most men are just bumbling along, behaving the way society has taught them, and most women are doing much the same. And most of us, of both genders, are trying to do better.

The idea of a world with no men in it (or no women) is my idea of hell. Most of our art and ninety percent of our literature is in some way about the interaction of the sexes, even going back past Shakespeare and on to the Bible. Flirting is fun, as is the whole falling in love thing. I’ve even heard the occasional woman admit to enjoying sex! Motherhood is brilliant and for some women it is indeed the most important thing in their lives (just as fatherhood is the most important thing for some men) but it’s not the only or even necessarily the ultimate ambition for womankind. In fact, I thought part of feminism was to get us away from the idea that women are incapable of thinking about anything except having babies and bringing them up, important roles though those are.

So some feminists may see this as a great feminist tract. I saw it as adding fuel to the worst of feminism – the kind that aims to replace patriarchy with matriarchy, where women rule and men become the subjects. Of the three men in the book, one is utterly convinced of male superiority and that women are primarily sex toys; one wants to worship at the feet of femininity; and the third is shown as rational, considering both sides of every argument. (Not that women ever argue, of course, because we’re all lovely when we’re not being jealous over silly men.) He, the rational one, becomes convinced along the way of the innate superiority of women and realises that what all men really want to do is surrender to a mother figure. And that that’s what all women aspire to be. Yeah.

(I have never wanted to be Darcy’s mother…)

But apart from the inanity of the ideas expressed in the book, which I try to forgive because I’m sure Gilman must have had some bad experiences to have become quite so misandristic, it commits the even worse sin of being almost entirely dull. It’s like reading a Rough Guide to Herland, without the humour and the photographs. I kept expecting her to tell me how much I should tip restaurant staff. Interesting, if you want to have nightmares about a world with no quarrelling, no disputes, no politics, no ambition beyond motherhood and child-rearing; and worse – no Anne and Gilbert, no Jane and Mr Rochester, no Cathy and Heathcliff, no flirting, no sex, no dancing, and no Darcy! Me, I’ll stay in this world and just keep striving for equality, thanks very much. I’d rather be driven up the wall by pesky men than bored to death by these unrealistically idealised Herland women.

Book 27 of 90

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Pearls on a Branch edited by Najla Jraissaty Khoury

It happened, or maybe it didn’t…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection of Lebanese and Syrian folk tales begins with an introduction from the author explaining how she came to record them. During the Lebanese civil war, Khoury travelled with a theatre group that put on shows for those dispossessed or marginalised by the conflict. As she travelled, she began to ask local women to tell her the stories they were told as children so that she could adapt them for the theatre company. She speaks very interestingly of how she went about the task of collecting the stories, sometimes from individuals, more often from groups of women, and sometimes having to find a time when their children were otherwise occupied to allow the women to relate the more bawdy tales! As with most oral traditions, she found the stories varied from telling to telling, with regional differences and also different emphases on humour and darkness. Then she discusses how she decided which stories to include, firstly in the collection of a hundred stories originally published in Arabic, and then for the thirty stories in this English translation.

This is followed by a second introduction, equally interesting, from the translator, herself a folklorist. Inea Bushnaq explains the storytelling conventions of the region, pointing out the similarities and differences to our own. She talks about the patriarchal society that has only recently begun to change. These stories are ones told by women to their daughters or amongst themselves, so they’re often about girls outsmarting men, but they also show clearly the restrictions under which women lived. Bushnaq also explains the “farsheh” – a kind of nonsense rhyme or humorous story, often involving word play, that the storyteller would use to introduce herself and get the attention of her audience before beginning the telling of the main story. Where we would begin a story “once upon a time”, the Arab convention is to begin with the less definite “there was, or maybe there was not” or “it happened, or maybe it didn’t”…

Najla Jraissaty Khoury

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of folk tales, so I expected to find this interesting rather than enjoyable. But I’m delighted to say I was wrong! I loved these – they’re fun, or moving, or occasionally horrifying, they’re very well written, the translation is excellent, and there’s a wide range so that they don’t begin to feel repetitive. Also, they shed a huge amount of light on a society and way of life that is so different from my own, and which is slowly passing; so that there’s an importance and even urgency to the act of gathering and recording these oral traditions before they are lost. Some are fables, like the story of the fox who turns vegetarian and goes on the Hajj, while many are stories of love and marriage, two things not always connected in a world where girls have no say over who they marry.

There are loads that got five stars from me, so here’s just a brief flavour to tempt you…

The Farsheh – in traditional fashion, the book kicks off with a farsheh, on this occasion part rhyme part prose. A deliciously wicked story about a young man who falls in love with a beautiful girl and decides he must have her for his own. But the girl isn’t quite as docile as he perhaps hoped. A great little starter, very well told with good language and rhythm and lots of humour.

A House Without Worries – a rather horrifying story (to western eyes) about a woman whose husband beats her every night for no good reason. (Not that I’m suggesting there’s ever a good reason!) But as with so many of these stories, the man gets his comeuppance in the end and the woman escapes to a better life. While these stories are quite uplifting with the happy-ever-after endings, they really show the grimmer side of a life where women have no rights. I loved the idea, though, of the kind of subversiveness of women sharing these stories as a form of mutual support.

Lady Tanaqueesh and the Eggs of the Tawawees – tawawees being peacock eggs, the eating of which makes you pregnant apparently! (There are lots of stories where women get pregnant through strange means – I’m sure there was an underlying meaning to this that I couldn’t quite grasp…) In this one, Lady Tanaqueesh has two jealous sisters who trick her into eating the eggs and the resulting pregnancy leads her father to expel her. There’s lots of rather nasty stuff in this one, including the brutal revenge Lady T considers for her sisters. But it’s very well done, with lots of rhyming and repetition – a real feat of translation, I think.

The Fly – a little kind of repetitive question and answer thing that reminded me of the style of “Who Killed Cock Robin”. The fly lands on a series of creatures, praising each, but each replies to the effect that yes, but I can be hurt by another creature or thing, so the fly then goes off to that creature or thing, praises it, etc., until eventually… well, that would be a spoiler, but I love the end of this – quite dark.

O Palace Beautiful! O Fancy Friend! – First off, what a great title! I’ve included this one because it has many elements of Snow White in it, which made me realise how much crossover there is in traditional tales – it made me feel closer to the culture than some of the other tales. Plus, it has Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in it! Jealous mother, beautiful girl, poisoned apple – what’s not to love?

Oh, I want to tell you about the woman who farts in front of the cow, and the chiffchaff who wants to be Queen of the Birds, and the donkey who ate the wheat, and… but I’ve run out of room! So loads of variety, lots of interest and hugely enjoyable. Great stuff – highly recommended, and not just to folk tale fans!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Archipelago.

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From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury

Creatures of the night…

🙂 🙂 😐

from the dust returned 2Usually I give a short blurb at the beginning of my reviews, but I found it exceptionally hard with this one because basically the book isn’t really about anything discernible. Lots of creatures of the night and weird people with strange powers (maybe werewolves and vampires – I really have no idea) are en route to a family homecoming at the Elliot house in Illinois. While there, we will be told a few stories about some of them which seem to be almost entirely unlinked to each other but for the repeated appearance of a few of the characters.

I’m guessing you’ve already worked out that this book didn’t exactly thrill me. Fantasy is always a big ask for me, but at least most fantasy has some kind of story. The book apparently originated as short stories written over a long period of time which Bradbury then brought together in 2001, writing linking portions to try to give it some kind of coherent structure. This is the same way as Bradbury’s much earlier (by half a century) The Martian Chronicles evolved – a book I thought was truly wonderful despite the fragmentary feel of it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite as well with this one. Firstly, with one or two exceptions, the separate stories aren’t terribly interesting; and, secondly, there doesn’t seem to be much of an overarching theme to outweigh the weakness of the linking.

The main residents of the house are a mummy known as One Thousand Times Great-Grandmère, Cecy, a girl who can dream herself into other people, Mother and Father (nope, got nothing to say about them at all) and a mortal boy, Timothy, who was taken in by the family when he was abandoned and now dreams of one day having wings like his Uncle Einar. Later Grandpère appears too – OTTG-G’s husband. Most of the stories involve one or other of these characters plus an array of other characters who tend to make only one appearance.

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury

If there is a theme, I think it might be that Bradbury is regretting the passing of belief in tales of the supernatural – sometimes comparing it to the loss of childhood, sometimes suggesting a kind of connection with the growth of atheism. But I think I may be looking too hard. Perhaps we’re just supposed to enjoy it for what it is. And maybe people who like fantasy more than I do will indeed enjoy it. Some of the descriptive writing is great, though sometimes it becomes rather overblown. I enjoyed the stories that had more of a story, if that makes any sense – the one where Cecy inhabits a young woman’s body in order to experience falling in love, for instance; or the story about the ghost, fading because of people’s lack of belief in the supernatural, and the nurse who helps him on his journey to Scotland, where he hopes that superstition still thrives enough to save him. But others are really just a series of descriptions and odd little vignettes that left me searching for the elusive point.

I think it might have worked better had it just been left as a book of short stories – the attempt to link them actually highlighted the unevenness of quality and lack of depth of meaning. Nope, I’m afraid this just wasn’t my kind of thing. Ah, well!

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Book 17
Book 17

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

three moments of an explosionImagination is not enough…

😦

This is a collection of 28 short stories from an author who appears to be one of the big names in current sci-fi/fantasy. I’m afraid I only made it through four of the stories before deciding to abandon the book, so this review is more an explanation of why I came to the conclusion that life’s too short.

The title story, Three Moments of an Explosion, is only a couple of pages long. The basic premise is that in a future world, a building is being demolished. Some young people take a drug that slows down time for them, allowing them to go inside the building during the explosion and witness it from the inside. An imaginative premise, but there’s not enough room to allow for any kind of development, though it hints that it’s maybe trying to make some kind of point about capitalism. Maybe.

Next up is Polynia, which is still quite short, though longer than the first one. Again a brilliantly imaginative premise and, as with all the stories, well written, if you don’t mind the constant swearing (which, of course, I do). Suddenly one day, with no warning, icebergs appear floating in the sky above London. No-one knows why. And by the end of the story, still no-one knows why. And nothing much happens in-between. Another great idea left completely underdeveloped and unresolved. I was still trying to buy into the whole thing at this point, so speculated that perhaps this was some kind of apocalyptic climate change warning, but I think I was being too generous.

The third story is The Condition of New Death. Very short. The idea is quirky and original – suddenly when people die, their feet always point towards anyone who looks at them, even if several people look at them at the same time from different angles. This is a kind of joke on shoot-em-up computer games, but it’s a fragment of what could have been a fun story had it been developed.

The one that finally made me give up was the fourth story – The Dowager of Bees, touted as the best in the collection by many reviewers. The premise has loads of potential – sometimes in poker games, a mystery card will turn up from nowhere, and when it does the players either get a prize or have to make some kind of forfeit. Had Miéville bothered to tell us what the prizes or forfeits were, that might have been fun. And the ending, possibly intended to be intriguingly ambiguous, felt completely unsatisfactory and a bit of a cop-out.

China Miéville
China Miéville

Frankly by that stage I’d had enough. I looked at reviews on Goodreads and even the positive ones (mostly as far as I can tell from generous existing fans) suggest that all the ‘stories’ are like this and that some are in fact even more fragmentary than these. Each of the four that I read had the potential to be a really original story, but ended up feeling like it was a great idea the author had jotted down in a notebook intending to develop it later, but then couldn’t be bothered. I don’t think every short story necessarily needs a beginning, a middle and an end, but neither do I think throwing a nugget of imagination onto the page is enough, however golden.

The quality of the writing and imagination make me a bit regretful to be giving the collection 1 star, but since I metaphorically threw it at the wall at the 12% mark, I reckon it’s the only rating I can give. The consensus of existing fans’ reviews seems to be that his novels are better. I’ll take their word for it – I’m left with no real desire to find out.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

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Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Two Years Eight Months 2Once upon a time, in our own time…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Back in the 12th century, disgraced philosopher Ibn Rushd has a love affair with Dunia, who he thinks is a young woman of Jewish descent, but is actually a princess of the jinn. In these far-off days there are slits between the world of the jinn and our own world, and the jinn sometimes interfere with humanity, often wickedly, but Dunia is unusual in that she falls in love with a human and has children with him – many children, sometimes twelve or more at a time. Ibn Rushd is a highly intelligent rationalist, but manages not to notice the oddity of this. Centuries later, not far in the future from our own time, the slits between the jinn world and our own have been lost for many years and Dunia’s descendants have spread throughout the world, unaware of their jinn heritage. But after a great storm lashes the world, strange things begin to happen – people finding their feet no longer touch the ground, people being struck by lightning and finding themselves afterwards possessed of strange powers, people suffering from what are either terrifying hallucinations or perhaps even more terrifying reality. It appears the jinn are back…

“We” are the creature that tells itself stories to understand what sort of creature it is. As they pass down to us the stories lift themselves away from time and place, losing the specificity of their beginnings, but gaining the purity of essences, of being simply themselves. And by extension, or by the same token, as we like to say, though we do not know what the token is or was, these stories become what we know, what we understand, and what we are, or, perhaps we should say, what we have become, or can perhaps be.

The story is told by the humans of the far future, a thousand years from now. As they point out, after such a length of time they can’t be completely sure about the details of what happened but the tale they tell is the one that has been passed down to them over the intervening centuries. This is a wonderful device for Rushdie to look at some of the sillinesses of our own time as if from a great distance, allowing him to compress our complicated interlinked world down to a manageable size. And he ranges widely, through philosophy, politics, religion, terrorism, the importance of words, language and stories, optimism and pessimism, the disconnect of modern humanity from the planet, and so on. It’s all handled very lightly, though, with a tone of affectionate mockery more than anything else. And, much to my surprise, it’s deliciously funny – had me laughing aloud many times at his razor-sharp satire of many of the things we take so seriously.

He was a big man like his father with big competent hands, a thick neck and hawkish profile and with his Indian-Indian complexion and all, it was easy for Americans to see the Wild West in him and treat him with the respect reserved for remnants of peoples exterminated by the white man, which he accepted without clarifying that he was Indian from India and therefore familiar with a quite different history of imperialist oppression, but never mind.

Religion takes a beating. I’m new to Rushdie, but am of course aware of his history of upsetting the lunatic end of Muslim fundamentalism. But I found him quite even-handed really – he mocks all religions equally! And yet, although I believe he classes himself as an atheist, I felt quite strongly that it is formalised religion he’s mocking rather than faith itself. There is an ongoing debate in the book between Ibn Rushd and Ghazali, another philosopher, (and both of them real 12th century philosophers), on whether it is ever possible to reconcile reason and faith – indeed, whether one should even try. Though for a good part of the book I felt the tone is pretty pro-reason, in the end it seems as if he pulls back a little – a suggestion that reason may win but that it might turn out to be something of a hollow victory in the end. As an atheist, the book didn’t offend me – the tone is not nearly as arrogant and dismissive as the worst of the ranting atheist fringe achieves – but I suspect I might have struggled with it a bit if I were a person of faith – any faith.

Djinn by jwilsonillustration via deviantart.com
Djinn by jwilsonillustration via deviantart.com

However, religion aside, he has lots of fun with less contentious subjects. There’s some brilliant satirising of politics, totalitarianism, world financial institutions and so on and, on a more intimate level, of love, sex, and human relationships in general. Extremely well written, with incredible long rambling sentences that wander all over the place but always manage to find their way to their proper destination in the end – although just occasionally this reader had forgotten where we were heading by the time we got there. It’s really a tour de force performance, hugely entertaining while also being deeply thought-provoking. There are references to philosophers and history, but also to the various mythologies of the world, some of which I got and many more of which went flying over my head as fast as a jinn on a magic carpet. But it didn’t matter – the book makes sense internally whether the reader gets the references or not – catching the odd one or two just gives that extra little glow of satisfaction. He parades his huge knowledge and intelligence blatantly, but with such warmth that the trailing reader feels caught up in his wake rather than left behind.

…for a period of time variously described by different witnesses as “a few seconds” and “several minutes”, the clothes worn by every man in the square disappeared, leaving them shockingly naked, while the contents of their pockets – cellphones, pens, keys, credit cards, currency, condoms, sexual insecurities, inflatable egos, women’s underwear, guns, knives, the phone numbers of unhappily married women, hip flasks, masks, cologne, photographs of angry daughters, photographs of sullen teenage boys, breath-freshening strips, plastic baggies containing white powder, spliffs, lies, harmonicas, spectacles, bullets and broken, forgotten hopes – tumbled down to the ground.

As to the actual story, I’m already seeing it being referred to as magical realism. Not in my opinion – this is satire masquerading as a fairy tale. There’s nothing real about it on the surface – all the reality is hidden below the story, the top layer is purely magical. As with the best fairy tales, it all comes down ultimately to a battle between good and evil. The first three-quarters are deliciously light, full of intelligence but wrapped in a layer of warmth and humour. The last quarter becomes somewhat grimmer and, for me, loses a little of the magic. Rushdie’s previously light touch becomes a shade more heavy-handed and the philosophising becomes a little repetitive as if to be sure his points have been made. But the dip is short and it all comes together again in a satisfying ending.

“…you, Jinendra Kapoor, who can’t trace your family history back further than three generations, are a product of that great love, maybe the greatest love there ever was between the tribes of men and jinn. This means that you, like all the descendants of Ibn Rushd, Muslim, Christian, atheist or Jew, are also partly of the jinn. The jinni part, being far more powerful than the human part, is very strong in you all, and that is what made it possible for you to survive the otherness in there; for you are Other too.”

“Vow,” he cried, reeling. “It isn’t bad enough being a brown dude in America, you’re telling me I’m half fucking goblin too.”

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie

I wasn’t sure whether I’d get along with the book at all, having previously started and abandoned another couple of Rushdie’s books many years ago, but this one surprised and delighted me – a book that could be read on many levels and that I’m sure would reveal even more on each re-reading. I wondered all the way through whether it was deeply profound or pretentious twaddle – I suspect it may be a bit of both, but if it is pretentious twaddle then it’s immensely entertaining and intelligent pretentious twaddle, and that works just as well for me as deeply profound. Perhaps I’ll try some of his other stuff again…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

Amazon UK Link
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The Shapeshifters by Stefan Spjut

the shapeshiftersWeirdly wonderful…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1978, a small boy and his mother are staying in a holiday cabin in the forests near Falun, in Sweden. All seems well until the mother accidentally kills a bat that was flying around her. She throws it into the undergrowth, but the next day, when she goes to the fridge, there is the dead bat lying crumpled on a shelf. Now some of the forest animals begin to behave strangely, sitting motionless staring at the house. The mother tells the boy to stay in but he wants to see them, so he runs out of the house into the forest – and is never seen again. His distraught mother claims that she saw him being taken by a giant…

In the present day, Susso visits an elderly woman who claims she has seen a strange little man watching her house and her grandson. Susso believes in trolls and is on a personal mission to prove that they still exist. Most of the reports she receives via her website are obviously false or hoaxes, but something about this woman convinces her to investigate further. Elsewhere, Seved is busily clearing up the havoc caused by the Old Ones who live in the barn – a sure sign they are getting restless…

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914
Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

This is one of the weirdest books I’ve read in a long time – weirdly wonderful, that is. The world it is set in is undeniably the Sweden of today, but in some isolated places the creatures of myth and folklore still exist. It’s essential that the reader can accept this, because there’s no ambiguity about it, but Spjut’s matter-of-fact way of writing about them somehow makes the whole thing feel completely credible. But although their existence is established he leaves them beautifully undefined – the reader is never quite sure what exactly they are or whether they are fundamentally good or evil or perhaps, like humanity, a bit of both. They’re not all the same, either in appearance or behaviour, and there seems to be a kind of hierarchy amongst them. Although most humans remain unaware of them, some are very closely involved with them. And every now and then, a child goes missing.

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914
Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

It’s the writing that makes it work. Spjut builds up a chilling atmosphere, largely by never quite telling the reader exactly what’s going on. Normally that would frustrate me wildly, but it works here because the reader is put in the same position of uncertainty as the humans. There’s a folk-tale feel about the whole thing as if the fables of the old days have somehow strayed back into the real world. But despite that, fundamentally this is a crime novel with all the usual elements of an investigation into a missing child. As with so much Nordic fiction, the weather and landscape plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere of isolation – all those trees, and the snow, and the freezing cold.

Stefan Spjut
Stefan Spjut

There’s a real air of horror running beneath the surface, though in fact there’s not too much in the way of explicit gruesomeness – it’s more the fear of not knowing what might happen. The beginning is decidedly creepy and sets up the tone for the rest of the book brilliantly. It takes a while to get to grips with who everyone is and how the various strands link, but gradually it all comes together. I admit there were bits in the middle that dragged slightly and felt a little repetitive at times, but the bulk of it kept me totally absorbed. And the last part is full of action building up to a really great ending that satisfies even though everything is far from being tied up neatly and tidily. So much is left unexplained, not in the way of careless loose ends, but more as if some things just are as they are and must be accepted.

If you can cope with the basic idea, then I highly recommend this as something very different from the normal run of things. 4 stars for the writing, plus one for being one of the most original books I’ve read in a while – I do hope there’s going to be a sequel…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis narrated by Michael York

the lion the witch and the wardrobeAlways winter, but never Christmas…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

I loved the Narnia books as a child and read them many times, especially this first one. As a child, I was completely oblivious to any religious symbolism in the book, so for me it was simply a great adventure story with a fantastic hero in Aslan. I think I was around eighteen when I last read them and, as with many childhood books, have always been a bit worried to revisit them in case my older, more cynical self has turned me into a Susan – unable to remember the magic and find my way back to Narnia. But when I came across this series on Audible, with some great narrators, I decided to take the risk.

And it was worth it. The book didn’t have quite the same effect on me as when I was seven, but it’s still a great story very well told. This time around I was obviously more aware of the parallels to the Christ story but I was intrigued to note that there are a lot of other references too – Bacchus puts in an appearance, as does Silenus, and of course all the stuff about fauns and centaurs and other creatures from folk legends and mythology. It’s all a bit of a mish-mash really but it works, and stops it from becoming overly preachy. Occasionally the messages are a little heavy-handed – about the evils of lying and so on – but this was fairly standard for children’s literature of the time from what I recall, and isn’t nearly as blatant as in some of them.

The White Witch from the 2005 movie
The White Witch from the 2005 movie

I was also much more aware of how terribly middle-class the children are, and how indoctrinated we were through the books we were reading to accept the subordinate, nurturing role of women and the heroic warrior status of boys. It’s amazing that the generation of women who grew up reading books like these, and Blyton and most of the other books I remember, managed to both love the books and rebel against the message. I did wonder if young mothers of young girls today would be quite so happy to have them reading books where girls help lay the table while boys go off in a manly way to catch fish for dinner, not to mention the girls ending up on the diplomatic marriage market when they were older. Daughters of Eve, Sons of Adam…hmm! Correct me if my knowledge of biology is a bit shaky, but my understanding is that the procreation process requires both genders to participate (or a test-tube or turkey baster at the very least). But I’d encourage young mothers not to let it put them off – my generation seemed to survive the onslaught of not-so-subliminal messages. (I also found myself thinking how little had changed in the role of women in the thousands of years between the Old Testament and this book and yet how much has changed, for those of us in the West at least, in the sixty or so years since. It rather made me proud…)

lucy and mr tumnus

But apart from all this adult over-analysis, I enjoyed the story a lot. The descriptions of the frozen world are great and the Queen is just as scary and horrible as I remember. Edmund is still a revolting little oick, Susan and Peter still badly need brought down a peg or two from their superior teenage smugness and I still identify with Lucy – youngest of four siblings, you see – even if she is a bit too sweet to be true. I loved the thaw – the way he matches the returning of life to the landscape with the returning of joy to the characters. Mr and Mrs Beaver are lovely, and poor Mr Tumnus! The bit with Aslan and the Stone Table is as moving and beautiful as ever it was and I still want to run and play with him, and put my hands in his golden mane! But why, oh why, must it end with them all having turned into stuffy, pompous adults complete with mock medieval language? I hated that bit when I was young and I hate it now – in fact, it was surprising how in tune young FF and old FF turned out to be. Perhaps my inner child isn’t so deeply buried after all…

Aslan, also from the 2005 movie
Aslan, also from the 2005 movie

Michael York’s reading is excellent. He gives all the characters distinct voices, and uses different British regional accents for the creatures. Mr Tumnus is Irish, the Beavers are some kind of rural English – Somerset-ish perhaps? – and I laughed a lot at Maugrim the wolf’s vurry, vurry Scottish accent. The children’s voices grated a bit on me – awfully posh standard English – but I did think they were right for the characters. And crucially he does Aslan’s voice (and roar) brilliantly – just the right deep tones filled with power and menace, but with a warmth beneath.

Michael York
Michael York

So overall a happy visit to my childhood and I can now look forward to enjoying the rest. Since I’m sticking with the original publication order, next up will be Prince Caspian, narrated by Lynn Redgrave. Doesn’t that sound good?

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

children of duneJust say no…

😀 😀 🙂

(This is the third book in the Dune series and therefore the review will contain spoilers for the first two, Dune and Dune Messiah. And maybe even some for this one. You have been warned!)

It is 9 years since the blinded and heartbroken Paul Muad’dib walked off into the desert of Dune to die. His weird little children, Leto and Ghanima, take after their Auntie Alia in so many ways – prescient, gifted or cursed with the memories of all their ancestors, nuts. Until now I thought the horrid little kids who sing the duet in Polar Express were the creepiest children ever, but Leto and Ghani have them beat hands down! Alia, meantime, has overindulged so much in the spice drug melange that she has become what the Bene Gesserit feared – an Abomination! No longer able to control all the voices of her ancestors inside her head, she has fallen under the influence of the strongest of them – the evil Baron Harkonen. Leto and Ghani look on this as a warning and are assiduously avoiding doing the spice drug conversion thingy that Rev Mothers do, as they think this is what caused Alia to become Abominable.

Alia and the Baron Harkonnen from the 2003 TV Mini Series - imagine having him inside your head!
Abominable Alia and Baron Harkonnen from the 2003 TV Mini Series – imagine having him inside your head!

Meantime Jessica has returned to the folds of the Bene Gesserit and has now been sent back to Arrakis (Dune) for reasons that remain somewhat hazy. Basically she appears to be trying to protect the genetic line by persuading Leto and Ghani (9-year-old twins, remember) to mate and breed. It’s always good to have a supportive granny, isn’t it? And has Paul really died in the desert? Who is the mysterious Preacher who keeps popping up and calling Alia names? If he is Paul, why is he trying to undermine his family’s rule? Why do Leto and Ghani want to get to Jacurutu? How come Leto is having prescient dreams if he’s not taking spice? What is the Golden Path that Leto keeps banging on about as the way to save something? Save what? Or who? Seriously – if you know the answers, do tell – personally I’m baffled!

Leto and Ghanima from the 2003 TV Mini Series, which clearly decided to age the 9-year-old twins considerably...
Leto and Ghanima from the 2003 TV Mini Series, which clearly decided to age the 9-year-old twins considerably…

By all the descriptions this had to be Fondak, and no other place could be Jacurutu. He felt a strange resonant relationship with the tabu of this place. In the Bene Gesserit Way, he opened his mind to Jacurutu, seeking to know nothing about it. Knowing was a barrier which prevented learning. For a few moments he allowed himself merely to resonate, making no demands, asking no questions.

The book starts off well, getting straight into the story. I was about to say that it’s important to read these in order or you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on but… I did read them in order and I still found this one almost completely incomprehensible! I can only assume that Mr Herbert too may have been sampling the delights of mind-altering substances while writing, and I wondered if perhaps it’s necessary to be doped up to the eyeballs to follow the ‘plot’. Unfortunately, having no illicit drugs to hand, I was forced to attempt it on wine only and that clearly wasn’t strong enough. (I also tried sobriety – but that was so much worse!)

wine bottles

The thing is it seems as if it’s going to be good. The writing is as good as usual and Herbert creates a nicely chilling atmosphere. The description of all the personalities within Alia trying to take control of her mind is brilliantly done, and Leto and Ghani channelling the thoughts of their dead parents is incredibly creepy. Herbert uses Leto’s mullings on what he should do as a vehicle to indulge in a bit of philosophising about the Cold War concerns of his own time, concluding unsurprisingly that the American Way of Life is best. There are loads of conspiracies going on with everyone scheming against everyone else, and Herbert makes this a fascinating look at the loneliness and ultimate fragility of power.

But… Herbert forgets to tell us what’s actually going on! Having a rotten memory, I usually jot down brief notes for review purposes – here’s one of my notes… “About 2/3 now – haven’t a clue what’s going on, don’t like anybody, don’t care who wins (wins what?) and thoroughly bored with the psychedelic drugs, man! Lots of pseudo profundity that’s supposed to be taken seriously and sooooo repetitive. Just want it to be over now.” You can tell I was really enjoying it!

The last third shows some brilliant imagination even if it’s frankly weird to the point of laughable. I have to mention the sandtrouts…

(Spoiler!!! Spoiler!!! Spoiler!!!)

Dune Leto II - The Tyrant by andrewryanart who seems also to have decided to age him.
Dune Leto II – The Tyrant by andrewryanart who seems also to have decided to age him.

The bit where Leto and the sandtrouts merge is without a doubt one of the most inspired pieces of lunacy I’ve ever read, made beautifully squirmily disgusting by the quality of the writing. But when the process turns Leto into some kind of pint-sized superhero who can leap tall buildings in a single bound and destroy hardened warriors with one punch, I began to giggle. And, during the big dramatic finale, that giggling turned into uncontrollable, tears-running-down-the-face, hysteria when he picked up his Abominable Auntie Alia and swung her around his head! I’m not altogether convinced that was the effect Herbert was aiming for…

Alia feinted to the left but her right shoulder came up and her right foot shot out in a toe-pointing kick which could disembowel a man if it struck precisely.

Leto caught the blow on his arm, grabbed the foot, and picked her up by it, swinging her around his head. The speed with which he swung her sent a flapping, hissing sound through the room as her robe beat against her body…Alia screamed and screamed, but still she continued to swing around and around and around.

(End of spoiler)

Great start, incomprehensible middle, unintentionally hysterical end. The last sentence of my notes reads “Right load of old tosh!” and I stand by that! Will I be reading more of the Dune books? Not for the foreseeable future… see? I’m prescient too…

…though…

God Emperor of Dune by BlazenMonk Apparently this is what happens to Leto in the next book. Seriously, just say no to drugs... before it's too late! I'm almost tempted to read it now...
God Emperor of Dune by BlazenMonk
Apparently this is what happens to Leto in the next book. I’m almost tempted to read it now…

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Transwarp Tuesday! The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The naked truth about Mars…

 

Yet another cliffhanger at the end of the second book in the series, The God of Mars, left me with no alternative but to return to Barsoom (Mars) for the third instalment in the adventures of John Carter. Will he ever manage to release Dejah Thoris from captivity? Is Woola alive or was he eaten by the hideous plant men? Are they still all running around naked???

All will be revealed in this week’s…

Transwarp Tuesday!

 

The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

 

Edgar Rice Burroughs
Edgar Rice Burroughs

This review will include spoilers for books 1 & 2 in the series… but since they’re all basically the same it really shouldn’t matter too much…

Last time, we left poor Dejah Thoris trapped in a prison cell with her friend Thuvia and her deadliest enemy Phaidor. As the rotating cell disappeared from view, not to be seen again for a full Martian year, Thuvia had leapt in front of Dejah Thoris to shield her from the knife being wielded by Phaidor. Did Dejah Thoris survive? Did Thuvia survive? Did Phaidor survive? (Exciting, isn’t it?) Poor John Carter – left alone again to wait for his incomparable Princess, with only Woola the dog/cat-like calot for company.

My sweet little Woola...
My sweet little Woola…

He has quelled the forces of the false Gods of Mars and peace has been declared amongst the red, green, white and black races. But he suspects that some of the followers of the now dead goddess Issus are conspiring against him, in particular one man, Thurid. Following him one day, John Carter overhears Thurid conveniently reveal his dastardly plan to open the unopenable cell and steal the matchless Dejah Thoris for himself – for all men love her on sight. Admittedly, all women love John Carter on sight so it seems only fair. In fact, I should probably have mentioned that the three prisoners, Dejah Thoris, Thuvia and Phaidor, are all in love with him – a cosy little gathering, eh?

Admittedly, one can see why...
Admittedly, one can see why…

Anyway, John Carter decides to follow Thurid and, after lots of feats of superhuman endurance and stuff like that, he catches up with Thurid just in time to see him make off with the girls and Phaidor’s Dad (who quite fancies Dejah Thoris for himself). Encouraged by the sight of Dejah Thoris’ unsurpassable beauty, John Carter joins up with Thuvia’s Dad, Thuvan Dinh, to follow them to the ends of the… er… Mars, if necessary. (Hold on! I’ve just noticed a major plot hole! Thuvan Dinh is not in love with Dejah Thoris! Must be a printer’s error, surely…)

Banth by Joe Jusko - he's just a big pussy cat really though...
Banth by Joe Jusko – he’s just a big pussy cat really though…

Accompanied as always by the lovely, loyal, ten-legged Woola, off they go to the wild frozen wastes of the North, from whence no man (or Thark, or Thern) has ever returned. Along the way, John Carter will have to escape from the lion-like banths who like nothing more than a tasty bit of live Martian for breakfast, and the giant hornet-like sith with its poisonous sting. And then he must face the horror of the Apts – giant creatures with four legs and two arms, complete with human-like hands, who prefer their Martians dead in the form of ripe carrion. But nothing is too great a danger for our heroic John Carter, in the throes of love for the unrivalled beauty that is Dejah Thoris, for as he tells us himself with his usual inspiring humility…

If your vocation be shoeing horses, or painting pictures, and you can do one or the other better than your fellows, then you are a fool if you are not proud of your ability. And so I am very proud that upon two planets no greater fighter has ever lived than John Carter, Prince of Helium.

The horrible carrion-eating Apt... no match for our John though!
The horrible carrion-eating Apt… no match for our John though!

And finally, they will encounter the yellow men of Barsoom (a disappointment – I was hoping for purple) and John Carter will have to battle as he never battled before to win his way through to his peerless Princess. (Well, OK – he’ll battle pretty much the same way as he has battled in every book, but he does have to use a different kind of weapon at one point – so that’s good.) For the evil ruler of the yellow men has fallen madly in love with the unmatched beauty of Dejah Thoris and will stop at nothing to gain her for himself!

Salensus Oll - evil leader of the yellow men and in love with Dejah Thoris - obviously.
Salensus Oll – evil ruler of the yellow men and in love with Dejah Thoris – obviously.

(I know some of you will, like me, be deeply concerned about the possibility of fatal goosepimpling what with the whole nakedness thing combined with the frozen wastes thing. So I’m delighted to inform you that the yellow men wear clothes when they leave the confines of their artificially heated cities. How John Carter and Thuvan survive till they they get to the cities goes untold – one must assume they were carrying suitcases throughout the journey… or perhaps all that battling was enough to keep the circulation flowing. I’m also relieved to note that Dejah Thoris is apparently irresistibly beautiful even when clothed…)

Disney preferred  the peerless Princess Dejah Thoris clothed too, thankfully..
Disney preferred the peerless Princess Dejah Thoris clothed too, thankfully..

For a moment tense silence reigned in the nuptial-room. Then the fifty nobles rushed upon me. Furiously we fought, but the advantage was mine, for I stood upon a raised platform above them, and I fought for the most glorious woman of a glorious race, and I fought for a great love and for the mother of my boy.

And from behind my shoulder, in the silvery cadence of that dear voice, rose the brave battle anthem of Helium which the nation’s women sing as their men march out to victory.

And at the end of the inevitable war, will John Carter and the incomparably lovely Dejah Thoris finally be together? You shall have to read it to find out…

* * * * *

 

Great fun! All the books are fundamentally the same but each one has new twists of imagination and John Carter’s feats grow more ridiculous amazing every time. Silly they may be, but they keep me turning the pages and provide much chuckling along the way.  Will I read the next one? Oh, yes, I really think I must…

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

the martian chroniclesA distant shore…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Written as short stories for magazines in the late 1940s and pulled together with a series of linking pieces for publication in book form in 1951, the book is set around the turn of the millennium, when man is beginning to colonise Mars. But a very different Mars from the one we know today – this one is populated by intelligent beings who seem fairly human in some ways, but have telepathic powers that mean that some of them can sense the approach of the men from Earth.

The book is very episodic in nature though it does have a clear underlying timeline. While the human side of the story is populated with consistently ’40s characters, the Martian side evolves and changes as the book progresses, meaning that it never becomes a fully realised world in the sense of most fantasy novels. Instead, the stories are fundamentally about humanity and it seems as if Bradbury creates Mars and the Martians anew each time to fit the story he wants to tell. This gives a kind of dream-like, almost surreal, quality, especially to the later stories.

the martian chronicles 3 les edwards 2009

The first few episodes tell of the first astronauts arriving on the planet. There are fairly clear parallels here with the arrival of the first settlers to America, with the misunderstandings and tragedies that happen between the races. As happened there, after a few setbacks the incoming race becomes the dominant one, with the Martians proving unable to resist the new diseases the humans have brought to their world. At this early stage, the stories are quite interesting but I was wondering why the book had acquired such a reputation as a sci-fi classic. The science is pretty much non-existent, and there is very little fantasy beyond the basic premise of what can be done with telepathy. Bradbury’s Mars is Earth-like in its atmosphere and requires little or no alteration to make it habitable, and the humans have simply transported their recognisably 1940s world to a new place.

Ask me, then, if I believe in the spirit of the things as they were used, and I’ll say yes. They’re all here. All the things which had uses. All the mountains which had names. And we’ll never be able to use them without feeling uncomfortable. And somehow the mountains will never sound right to us; we’ll give them new names, but the old names are there, somewhere in time, and the mountains were shaped and seen under those names. The names we’ll give to the canals and mountains and cities will fall like so much water on the back of a mallard. No matter how we touch Mars, we’ll never touch it. And then we’ll get mad at it, and you know what we’ll do? We’ll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves.

However, as the book progresses, Bradbury allows his imagination to take full flight and some of the later stories are beautifully written fantasies with more than a little philosophical edge. There is the usual mid-20th century obsession with approaching nuclear holocaust on Earth, but Bradbury widens it out, using the isolation of the Mars colonists to examine human frailties and concerns more broadly. Loneliness features in more than one story, with the contrasting sense of community and nostalgia that first drives people to make their new homes as like their old ones as they can, and then calls them back home to be with those they left behind when Earth is finally ravaged by the inevitable war.

the martian chronicles 1 les edwards 2009

There is a fabulous story about race, Way Up in the Middle of the Air – black people choosing to make a new home on Mars, leaving the southern states where, while they may be nominally free, they are still treated as inferior beings. I imagine this story must have been extremely controversial and possibly shocking at the time of writing, since it doesn’t shy away from showing the white people as little better than racist abusers.

One of my favourite stories is The Fire Balloons, telling of Father Peregrine on a mission to bring Christianity to the surviving Martians, and fighting against the prejudice of his colleagues that beings so different from humanity could not possess souls. The wonderful imagery in this one is perfectly matched by some of Bradbury’s most beautiful writing, and it is both thought-provoking and moving.

But I could go on picking out favourites, because the comments ‘beautifully written’, ‘great imagery’, ‘fantastically imaginative’ and ’emotionally moving’ could be applied to most of the later stories in the book. Though the episodic nature prevents the reader from developing much emotional attachment to specific characters, the imagination Bradbury shows more than makes up for this lack. In one story, there are no characters – just a house falling into disrepair and eventually consuming itself, and yet Bradbury makes this one of the most moving stories about the after-effects of war that I have read. The final story offers some hope for the future but the overall tone is of the inevitability of self-destruction that was felt so strongly in the world in the decades of the Cold War.

The house shuddered, oak bone on bone, its bared skeleton cringing from the heat, its wire, its nerves revealed as if a surgeon had torn the skin off to let the red veins and capillaries quiver in the scalded air. Help, help! Fire! Run, run! Heat snapped mirrors like the first brittle winter ice. And the voices wailed Fire, fire, run, run, like a tragic nursery rhyme, a dozen voices, high, low, like children dying in a forest, alone, alone. And the voices fading as the wires popped their sheathings like hot chestnuts. One, two, three, four, five voices died.

So I too am now convinced that this book deserves its status as one of the great classics. Is it sci-fi? I’m not sure, and I feel to pigeon-hole it as that is more likely to put people off anyway. And I don’t think anyone should be put off reading it just because it’s ‘genre’ fiction – it is as thought-provoking and well written as most ‘literary’ novels and shows a great deal more imagination than they usually do. One I will undoubtedly come back to again and again.

the martian chronicles 4 les edwards 2009

All illustrations © Les Edwards 2009.

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Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

dune messiahPower corrupts…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(This is the second book in the Dune series, and therefore the review will contain spoilers for the first book, Dune. You have been warned!)

It’s twelve years since we left Paul Muad’dib at the end of Dune – twelve years in which his war against the Harkonnen and the Emperor has grown into a jihad resulting in the deaths of tens of billions and the destruction of several planets. Paul’s beginning to wonder if perhaps things might have gone a little too far. His power of prescience has made him an unwilling Messiah to his people, but the ability to see so many possible futures, none of them good, has left him desperate to find a way out that will stop the killing. Now married to the old Emperor’s daughter, poor Princess Irulan, Paul’s heart still belongs to his concubine, the Fremen woman Chani, and he is denying Irulan the child that she and the Bene Gesserit want to continue the bloodlines of these two important families. Driven to desperation by his cruelty, poor Irulan has reluctantly joined a conspiracy against him…

Art by Henrik Sahlstrom
Art by Henrik Sahlstrom

In contrast to the first book which took a bit of time to get going, Dune Messiah leaps straight into the plot with a great introductory chapter, giving a brief summary of how the war went after the end of Dune and foreshadowing what’s to come – Paul’s downfall. It’s very definitely a sequel – all the world-building was done in Dune, so anyone trying to read this as a standalone would be totally lost. To my disappointment, Lady Jessica doesn’t put in an appearance, but Alia is now fifteen and plays a major role. Stilgar is still there as Paul’s loyal right-hand man, and Duncan Idaho makes a distinctly creepy return. And the Reverend Mother Gaius Mohiam is back in all her Bene Gesserit single-mindedness.

New characters are also introduced – Edric, the fish-like Guild Merchant, floating around in a tank filled with melange gas – the spice drug, and Scytale, the Face Dancer, able to change his appearance and even gender at will. Dune has now become the centre of Paul’s Empire, and the hub of the conspiracies that are going on around him. But what the conspirators don’t know, though the reader does, is that Paul has a plan of his own to bring an end to the jihad – a plan so complex and obscure that I’m still not sure what it was, but whatever it was, it was a bad one!!

Edric by Mark Zug
Edric by Mark Zug

The odd thing about this second book is that I really disliked just about everybody (except poor badly-treated Princess Irulan) but loved the book. Paul has turned into some kind of manically depressed dictator – it really seems pointless being able to see lots of possible futures if you always end up picking the most miserable one. I can’t help feeling if he’d got off the spice drug and cleaned up his act, he might have found that as Emperor of Pretty-Much-Everything he could have insisted on peace. Given that the book was written in the ’60s, surely he must have known that there were alternative drugs readily available on any college campus that would have had him happily emblazoning ‘Make Love, Not War’ on his troops’ uniforms? And it was so incredibly mean of him to marry poor Princess Irulan and then to refuse to… well, you know… make a baby with her. No wonder she was slipping contraceptives into Chani’s food and conspiring against Paul – what red-blooded girl wouldn’t in these circumstances? Personally, I reckon they should have ditched Paul and made her Empress! She couldn’t feasibly have done a worse job.

Poor sweet Princess Irulan
Poor sweet Princess Irulan

Of course, then she’d have had to deal with Alia who, you will recall from Dune, at the age of four was cheerfully stabbing enemy prisoners to death to recover their water for the tribe. Imagine what a fun adolescent she has turned into! She has now become the religious figurehead for the regime, much to the annoyance of the displaced Bene Gesserit, and is just of the age to fall in love, which she promptly does with the most spectacularly freakish man in the universe. To be fair, she at least seems to have realised that Paul’s gone nuts, which is more than either Chani or Stilgar seem to have spotted, both of them remaining downtrodden sycophants.

Sycophantic concubine Chani
Downtrodden sycophantic concubine Chani

There is a sense of fatalism about the book. For all his mental powers, Paul is unable to see a future that will allow him to stop the jihad while protecting the people he most loves. In the end, he must decide whether to put the welfare of his family above the greater good, and Herbert does an excellent job of showing his struggle. To the outside world, he is either Messiah or dictator, or both, and is as hated and feared as he is loved. Conspiracy and mistrust are all around him, each faction with its own reasons for resentment and its own differing aims. And perhaps there are possible futures that are hidden even from Paul.

Cute little Alia aged 4
Cute little Alia aged 4

But the stand-out character in this one is Alia. With powers as great as Paul’s, perhaps greater, she hasn’t yet acquired his fatalism and is ready to fight against what he sees as inevitable. Blessed or cursed while yet in the womb with the knowledge and life experiences of the whole host of Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers who came before her, she still has the normal struggles and desires of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. The portrayal of the society and women’s subordinate place in it remains as curiously outdated as in the original, but Alia transcends this, becoming a major power player in her own right. Even in her romance she undoubtedly takes the lead. Having a female character of such strength makes the book feel more modern and better balanced than Dune itself.

It’s not often the sequel is better than the original, but in my opinion this one is, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether the high standard of this one will be maintained in the third in the series, Children of Dune.

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Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

stone mattressTelling tales…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

In her afterword, Margaret Atwood describes this book as a collection of nine ‘tales’, evoking “the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales”. She suggests that while the word ‘story’ can cover true life or realism, ‘tales’ can only be seen as fiction. Hmm…this seems like a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card to allow the author to make her characters dance to the puppeteer’s strings rather than attempting to invest them with a feeling of emotional truth, but then I’m not a huge fan of the trend towards mimicry of folk tales in general. Certainly the tales that worked best for me in this book were the ones where, regardless of the fantastical elements of the plots, the characters’ thoughts and reactions came over as ‘real’.

There’s a general theme through most of the tales, not so much of ageing itself, but of elderly people reviewing episodes in their youth and of the reader seeing how their lives were affected by them. Most of the time those episodes involve failed romantic or sexual relationships and, while as individual stories they are for the most part interesting, I found, as I often do with collections with such a strong theme running through, that it became a little repetitive and tedious after a while.

But she doesn’t care what he thinks about her legs as much as she used to. She says the clogs are comfortable, and that comfort trumps fashion as far as she’s concerned. Gavin has tried quoting Yeats to the effect that women must labour to be beautiful, but Reynolds – who used to be a passionate Yeats fan – is now of the opinion that Yeats is entitled to his point of view, but that was then and social attitudes were different, and in actual fact Yeats is dead.

The quality of the prose, however, is excellent and, taken alone, some of the stories are highly entertaining. Perhaps in line with Atwood’s desire for these to read like folk tales, there’s something of a detached feeling about the narrative voice in many of them – a glibness that takes on an almost sneering tone at times, leading, I found, to a distance between reader and character which effectively prevented me from feeling much emotional investment in their fates. To compensate, many of them are clever and imaginative, and some of the characterisation is excellent even when the emotional response to them is absent.

The collection kicks off with three linked tales, telling of a long-ago broken love affair from the perspective of the woman, the man and the ‘other woman’ respectively. The first of these, Alphinland, is one of the most successful in the book, with a beautifully-drawn picture of an elderly woman struggling to recover from the grief of losing her husband by a kind of active retreat into the world she creates in her own fantasy novels. Despite the fantastical elements to this tale, there is genuine warmth here as the central character faces up to the necessity of taking on tasks that had always been seen as the responsibility of her husband. Although there’s a lot of humour in them, the other two tales in the trio don’t work quite so well, as the fantastical elements that were done with a lot of subtlety in the first are handled more crudely, and what was left ambiguous is made a little too clear.

“Now I’m going to get the tea ready. If you don’t behave yourself when Naveena comes, you won’t get a cookie.” The cookie ploy is a joke, her attempt to lighten things up, but it’s faintly horrifying to him that the threat of being deprived of such a cookie hits home. No cookie! A wave of desolation sweeps through him. Also he’s drooling. Christ. Has it come down to this? Sitting up to beg for treats?

Other stories include a kind of mini-Frankenstein story told from the perspective of the youthful monster; a tale of a horror writer who resents sharing the royalties of his most successful story with friends from his youth, who have held him to a contract he signed long before he had ever published anything; a crooked furniture dealer who finds more than he bargained for when he buys a job-lot of storage units; and a black widow out for revenge on the man who raped her in her youth.

And two that I particularly enjoyed are:

I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth – another tale of elderly women looking back, this time at the woman Zenia who stole a man from each of them in their youth, but this one stood out because of its sympathetic portrayal of the friendship between the three women, supporting each other as age takes its toll on them.

Torching the Dusties is the last story in the book. The premise is that young people, maddened by the economic mess left them by their elders, decide those elders should no longer be allowed to live on, eating up scarce resources. It’s told from the perspective of Wilma, a woman living in a retirement home, who is almost blind from macular degeneration and has the visual hallucinations that sometimes go with it. Despite its unlikeliness, Atwood manages to make the premise chillingly believable and as the story plays out, she doesn’t pull any punches. It’s always wise to leave the best to last, and this story went a long way to improving my opinion of the collection overall.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood

I’m increasingly convinced that collections often detract from, rather than enhancing, the individual stories within them – it’s a rare writer who can produce enough originality to maintain a consistent standard and avoid repetition. I’m pretty sure I’d have been impressed by any of these stories had I come across them in an anthology of different authors but, collected as they are here, I found myself sighing a bit as the basic premise was recycled again and again. I admired the book more than I liked it in the end – the tales are skilfully told, but on the whole didn’t engage me emotionally, and I fear I haven’t been left with a burning desire to seek out more of Atwood’s work.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

twenty trillion leagues under the seaMostly brilliant…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s June 1958, and French experimental submarine the Plongeur has taken off on her maiden voyage to test her new nuclear engines and her ability to dive to depths never before reached. The small crew is supplemented by the two Indian scientists responsible for the submarine’s design, and an observer, M. Lebret, who reports directly to the Minister for National Defence, Charles de Gaulle. It is soon enough after the war for resentments against those who supported the Vichy government still to be fresh, and Lebret was one such, so there are already tensions amongst those aboard. The first trial dive is a success, so the Captain gives the order to go deeper, down to the limits of the submarine’s capacity. But as they pass the one thousand five hundred metre mark, disaster strikes! Suddenly the crew lose control of the submarine, and it is locked in descent position. The dive goes on… past the point where the submarine should be crushed by the pressure… and on… and on…

twenty trillion leagues 2

This is a brilliant start to a novel that remains brilliant for about two-thirds of its length and then fades a little towards the end. Undoubtedly the most original sci-fi I’ve read in a long time, it’s a mash-up of references, both explicit and in style, not just to Jules Verne and the Captain Nemo stories, but to lots of early sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers, from Alice in Wonderland to Poe, and even to Dickens. And I’m sure a more knowledgeable sci-fi reader would pick up loads that I missed. Stylistically it reads like a book from the early twentieth century, Wells or Conan Doyle perhaps, but it has a surreal edge and a playfulness with the traditions that keeps the reader aware that it’s something more than a pastiche.

twenty trillion leagues 1

And the surreality grows as the adventure progresses and the Plongeur continues its dive to depths that should have taken it through the centre of the earth and out the other side. As it gradually becomes clear to those aboard that the normal rules of physics seem no longer to apply, their reactions range from panic to getting royally drunk to religious mania, while one or two are still willing to speculate that there might be a rational explanation. Arguments begin over what can be happening and what should be done, and the crew are soon at each other’s throats. And when it eventually becomes a little clearer where they might have ended up, there’s a Lovecraftian feel about the Plongeur’s new surroundings and the creatures it encounters there. The book contains 33 illustrations by Mahendra Singh, and even in the Kindle version they work well in adding to the ever-growing atmosphere of horror. There’s much science and philosophy in the book, especially around the nature of reality and God, and even a little politics, but this too all feels deliberately off-kilter – not quite in line with the real world and therefore not to be taken too seriously.

Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts

I thought I might be hampered by not having read the original Captain Nemo stories, but for the most part I didn’t feel I was, though I suspect someone familiar with those would have got more of the references. There was only one point where I felt a little lost (when we were introduced to a character and were clearly supposed to recognise him from elsewhere) and a quick look at Wikipedia’s pages on Jules Verne and Captain Nemo was enough to get me back up to speed. The story moves through the Verne originals and on beyond where they finished. But Roberts is playing with Verne’s world rather than retelling it, just as he is playing with the real world and science of the ’50s too. In the last section he gets a bit overly philosophical and a little too clever, and also takes us into a sequence that drags a little, unlike the rapid pace of the earlier part of the book. But while I felt the ending wasn’t as strong as the rest, overall I found this an exciting ride, cleverly executed and full of imagination, and with a great mix of tension, humour and horror. Highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to trying some of Roberts’ other books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St. Martin’s Griffin.

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Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman (Audiobook)

trigger warningMixed bag…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

This collection of short stories turned out to be something of a mixed bag. Ranging in length from a couple of minutes to an hour and a half (I was listening rather than reading), some of the shorter ones are so fragmentary as to be rather pointless, while a couple of the longer ones feel too long for their content. However there are some excellent stories in here too and, as I’d been told by so many people, Gaiman is a wonderful narrator.

As a fairly new convert to Gaiman’s work I was surprised to find that there are several stories in here that I had already come across elsewhere in other formats. This made me wonder how much new stuff there would be in the book for established fans, so it would probably be wise to check the contents list before purchasing.

There is a long introduction in which Gaiman explains the rationale for the collection. This may have been better if I’d been reading rather than listening, but on the audiobook it takes over an hour, most of which is made up of short introductions to each story explaining the inspiration for it. Some of these short introductions are as long as the stories themselves. I fear I clicked out of the introduction after 20 minutes – snippets of how a story came about because of something some bloke called Jimmy said down the pub one night failed to hold my attention. One of the drawbacks of audio is that it’s not possible to scan read sections like this, as I would with a paper or e-book.

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman

I found the first few stories quite disappointing to be honest. The title, cover and introduction had all led me to think that the stories would be dark and chilling, but a lot of them aren’t. And while I think Gaiman does dark and chilling exceptionally well, I was less enamoured of his musing on the writing process by using a metaphor of making a chair, for example. I also found, and this is down to personal preference, that, of the stories I knew, I had on the whole preferred them in written format. Both Down to the Sunless Sea and The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains had worked brilliantly for me when I read them – the first as straight text and the second as a graphic novel – but didn’t have quite the same effect when listening, mainly because, although Gaiman’s narration was excellent, the voices didn’t gel with the ones I’d heard in my head. However, where I hadn’t read a story before, Click-Clack The Rattle Bag, for instance, then the narration often worked superbly.

These three stories were still amongst my favourites in the collection though, and here are another few that I particularly enjoyed:

Adventure story – a son sits with his elderly mother having tea and discussing his father, now deceased. In the course of the conversation his mother reveals the story of an adventure his father once had long ago as a young man. The adventure becomes progressively more fantastical, and the appeal comes from the matter-of-fact way the mother tells it and the son’s astonishment. Quite a short story this one, but cleverly done and enjoyable. I suspect the narration made this one work better than it would have on paper.

The Case of Death and Honey is a rather good spin on the Holmes stories, which provides an explanation for why the great man went off to keep bees at the end of his career. It’s set in China with Holmes on the trail of the answer to the ultimate mystery, and while it is somewhat far-fetched it’s well-written and interesting, and Gaiman’s Holmes feels quite authentic. This is another one I had already come across elsewhere – in the Oxcrimes collection published last year.

Nothing O’Clock is a Doctor Who story and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. It fits perfectly into the Doctor Who style and Gaiman’s narration of the many characters gives a unique voice to each. The story is imaginative and nicely chilling, but of course with the traditional happy ending we expect the Doctor to provide.

So quite a lot of good things in here overall, but also some that I found rather dull or a bit lightweight. A mixed bag – I’d say most readers will find some things to like in the collection but, like me, may also find there’s quite a lot that leaves them a little underwhelmed.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by the publisher, Audible UK.

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible US Link

Dune by Frank Herbert

dune“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Duke Leto Atreides has been ordered by the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV, to give up his comfortable home planet of Caladan and take over the administration of the almost barren planet Arrakis, whose vast sandy deserts give it its other name – Dune. Harsh though the environment of Dune may be, it is the only planet in the Empire which can produce melange, the spice drug, which extends the life of those who use it. The financial rewards of controlling Dune are immense, so the previous rulers, the Harkonnens, don’t intend to give up their claim, and it appears the Emperor may be secretly supporting the Harkonnens in their campaign to destroy Duke Leto. But Duke Leto has a son, Paul, the offspring of Duke Leto’s concubine, Lady Jessica of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Paul is the result of generations of selective breeding, carefully controlled by the Bene Gesserit to produce the Kwizatz Haderach, a male Bene Gesserit with unprecedented mental powers, including the ability to see possible futures. And the spice drug melange is a crucial part of the process of bringing those powers to their full potential…

Written in 1965, Dune was the first real fantasy saga set on other worlds, and has remained in the fantasy/sci-fi bestseller lists ever since. It’s often compared to The Lord of the Rings for the completeness of its world-building, but the tone of it is much more ambiguous – the dividing lines between good and evil aren’t quite so clearly drawn. It’s a grappling for power and control, set in a society that has aspects of the mediaeval – lordly families wielding ultimate power over their peoples, where marriages are made for political advantage rather than love, and where torture and death are accepted as the norm.

Lovely Kyle MacLaclan as Paul-Muad'dib in the 1984 David Lynch film.
Lovely Kyle MacLachlan as Paul-Muad’dib in the 1984 David Lynch film.

The ecological themes in Dune reflect the beginnings of the anxieties over our own earth environment, which was just starting to become a matter of public concern in the ’60s. The importance of water on this desert planet is brilliantly portrayed, as Herbert shows how its scarcity has led to it becoming part of the mythology and even religion of the planet’s inhabitants. Everything revolves round water and customs reflect that – from water being the major currency to the ritual recovery of water from the bodies of the dead. The Fremen inhabitants of the planet are trying to make their planet more habitable by careful use and cultivation of what they already have, but Herbert, who had an interest in ecology in his real life, shows how changing one aspect of an environment must be carefully controlled to prevent the destruction of others.

Yes, that is Sting playing nasty Feyd-Rautha and look! Capt Jean-Luc Picard himself appearing as Gurney Halleck!  (I've really got to watch this film again...soon!)
Yes, that is Sting playing nasty Feyd-Rautha and look! Capt Jean-Luc Picard himself appearing as Gurney Halleck!
(I’ve really got to watch this film again…soon!)

Much of the language of Dune is based on real-life Arabic languages – there is much talk of jihad, for example, and many of the names are Arabic in origin. I suspect this, combined with the desert landscape, might make the modern reader read things into the story that probably weren’t intended and certainly weren’t obvious to this reader when I first read the book sometime in the ’70s or ’80s. Our familiarity with the Middle East is so much greater now than it was then. However it’s fun to draw comparisons between spice and oil, and to see the struggle between the Fremen and their imperial overlords as a reflection of the wars of the last few decades. But in truth, the reader can only go so far down this route before the comparison begins to fall apart.

Frank Herbert
Frank Herbert

The place of women in the Dune universe is not exactly a feminist’s delight, and seems pretty backwards looking even for the ’60s. Primarily breeding machines, even the Bene Gesserit wield their power through marriage and concubinage (yes, concubines!) and it’s a bit sad that their most urgent desire is to create a male, and therefore superior, Bene Gesserit. Often called witches by the men, and mistresses of the wierding ways, the Bene Gesserit nevertheless are feared and sometimes respected, so women do play an important, if not exactly heroic, role in the stories. And despite their inferior position in society, Herbert has created some memorable female characters, not least the Lady Jessica herself who gradually develops into something much more complex than simply the mother of the Kwizatz Haderach.

Gorgeous Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica.
Gorgeous Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica

Have I made this book sound impossibly boring? I hope not, because after a fairly slow start when the characters and worlds are introduced, there’s plenty of action. Treachery, intrigue, poisonings and battles, a little bit of romance, but not too much, the truly nasty Baron Harkonnen and his evil henchmen, and most of all Paul-Muad’dib and the heroic Fremen all make for a great adventure story. And the giant worms, the makers, are one of the all-time great creations of fantasy. Their role in the ecology of the planet and the way they are viewed by the Fremen, as something to be worshipped, feared and yet used, makes them central to the book. They are a force of nature that man, with all his technology, can’t defeat – indeed, mustn’t defeat, because without the worms Dune would lose the thing that gives it is unique importance. And they are terrifying in their destructive power, made worse somehow by the fact that they are driven by no intelligent purpose.

dune-sand-worm

There are several sequels to Dune, and while this one doesn’t quite end on a cliffhanger, the reader is left knowing there is much more to come. From memory the first couple of sequels are excellent, after which the series began to lose its edge somewhat – for me, at least. But I’m looking forward to re-reading the next one, Dune Messiah, in the not-too-distant future, and meantime would highly recommend Dune not just as an excellent read in itself, but as the book that has inspired so many of the later fantasy writers.

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Transwarp Tuesday! The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The continuing adventures of John Carter…

 

Left dangling by the cliffhanger ending of the first in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom Chronicles, A Princess of Mars, I had no alternative but to take up the next in the series. Would John Carter ever find a way to return to Barsoom (Mars, to you and me)? Would the people of Barsoom have survived the danger that threatened to destroy their world? Would Dejah Thoris’ egg have hatched?!?

All will be revealed in this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

* * * * * * * * *

The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

 

the gods of mars

There is no way to review this book without spoilers for the first, so if you intend to read the books at some point, you may want to skip this review…

Once again, we are told the story by John Carter himself, in the journals that he left in the possession of his nephew when he was last on Earth. After spending many years trying to find a way back to Mars, one night John Carter is swept back there (no explanation is given – that would spoil the fun). But rather than being returned to the city of Helium, where he hopes that his lost love Dejah Thoris and his little chicky-child will be waiting for him, he lands in a mighty forest populated by fiercely vicious creatures – the Plant Men!

Its hairless body was a strange and ghoulish blue, except for a broad band of white which encircled its protruding, single eye: an eye that was all dead white – pupil, iris, and ball. Its nose was a ragged, inflamed, circular hole in the center of its blank face; a hole that resembled more closely nothing that I could think of other than a fresh bullet wound which has not yet commenced to bleed.

From this starting point we are whirled into another frantic adventure story, filled with heroics and battles, love, loyalty and horrors of all kinds. And the greatest horror of all is the ancient goddess, Issus, obese and wrinkled (and, of course, naked – do bear in mind that everyone is naked all the time), who rules the race of the black First Born, who think of themselves as gods. This gives them the right not only to enslave any passing strangers but to…you might want to put down your bun for a moment here…eat all the red and green Martians, and they’re even willing to sample the odd Earthman should he be tender enough. But there is another race who also think themselves gods – the white Therns – who share the appetite for sautéed Martian. And for some reason all the other Martians think that this place is their version of heaven, the place they go to to die, thus delivering themselves up to the ever-peckish gods…if they make it past the Plant Men…

The Plant Men...
The Plant Men…

And by pure coincidence, who should happen along to the forest at the same time as John Carter but his old green Thark friend Tars Tarkas, and a young boy with the nature of a true warrior, and skills that he can only have inherited from his father, whose name is… well, that’s a bit of a secret actually. Much hoohah ensues, with lots of derring-do, and finally John Carter makes his way to Helium only to discover that his beloved Dejah Thoris has been captured by the First Born and is scheduled to appear on the dinner-plate of Issus in one year’s time. Will John Carter be able to get together a war fleet of airships and rescue her in time??

“And you! You shall be the meanest slave in the service of the goddess you have attempted to humiliate. Tortures and ignominies shall be heaped upon you until you grovel at my feet asking the boon of death. In my gracious generosity I shall at length grant your prayer, and from the high balcony of the Golden Cliffs I shall watch the great white apes tear you asunder.”

(A hint for travellers – when a Martian goddess says she loves you, don’t tell her about the little woman back home…)

Finally…finally…John Carter and Dejah Thoris meet as the battle rages around them. (Which is a good thing since it puts a stop to John Carter’s outrageous flirting with every woman he meets!) So brave John Carter shoves her into a side tunnel for safety while he goes off to battle a million or so of the First Born.

Just as an aside at this point, I feel I have to mention that John Carter has brought all kinds of human values with him to Mars, like love and loyalty and heroism, but unfortunately (and I think we must bear in mind here that he’s a man) it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to bring the most important human value of all – that of wearing suitable clothing…or indeed any clothing. It’s bad enough leaving the eternal love of your life unarmed and unprotected in a tunnel, but leaving her there undressed too seems so much worse somehow. I reckon there’s a huge commercial opportunity for us Earthlings to set up Marks & Spencer franchises throughout the Martian cities – surely given a choice the Martian women would be glad of some decent thermal underwear?

Anyway, back to the battle! After numerous acts of heroism, John Carter returns for Dejah Thoris only to find that… there’s another cliffhanger ending!!! Will John Carter and Dejah Thoris ever get together again? Will he be whisked back to Earth? Will my favourite character of all, Woola the dog-like calot, ever re-appear or (gulp!) has someone eaten him?? Will I really have to read the next book in the series to find out???

Woola...four legs missing, but still smiling...
Sweet little Woola…how I worry about him…

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Vol. 2

Drifting genres…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the very best of fantasy and science fictionThis is an anthology of twenty-seven stories first published in the long-running magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction and includes tales from some very well-known names – Robert A Heinlein, Brian W Aldiss etc. The stories are very evenly spaced over the last sixty years, with roughly a two or three year gap between each. This means it really gives a good impression of how the genre has developed over time, which oddly is both the main strength and main weakness of the book. Because what it seems to show is that somewhere round about the late ’70s/early ’80s, sci-fi morphed into fantasy and then gradually splintered off into subgenres like cyberpunk and even, to my great sadness, the hideousness of ‘magical realism’ (a term that should be taken out and shot at dawn for allowing authors to resolve plot problems by waving a literary magic wand and spouting a bit of mumbo-jumbo). Now, that’s all very well if you like that kind of thing, but frankly I don’t (as the discerning amongst you may already have spotted), and as a result I became increasingly disappointed as the book went on. Some of the stories were so far from being sci-fi or even fantasy that had they not been collected under this umbrella I’d have found it hard to classify them at all.

That’s not to say the stories are bad. A few of them are excellent and many are good. But a few are a bit dull and several seemed to me to be far too long for their content – perhaps a throwback to the days when writers were paid to write to a given length. A couple of the more modern ones I abandoned as we gradually sank into the modern habit of replacing adjectives with profanities and imagination with drugs and violence.

There are some standout stories in the collection, including CM Kornbluth’s The Cosmic Expense Account, which I have reviewed separately as a Transwarp Tuesday! story. Here’s a flavour of a few of the other goodies –

Damon Knight’s The Country of the Kind is a dark story about a society where no-one commits crime any longer – except for one man, our narrator. The society has developed to think that traditional punishments are abhorrent, but the method they find to control the criminal through total social isolation drives him to extreme lengths to find company in his criminality…

Robert A Heinlein’s All You Zombies is considered a classic of time-travel paradox stories. Clever and complicated, Heinlein uses the paradox to take a sideways look at what it is to be ‘different’ in society. If you can get past the sexism and near-misogyny, this is a well written and thought-provoking story.

Sundance by Robert Silverberg is a fabulous story, showing man repeating the horrors of the real-life destructions of aboriginal races as they begin to colonise new planets. But it’s done imaginatively – he alternates between first, second and third person, he blurs the lines between reality and insanity, he gives us lots of symbolism, but he leaves the central questions unanswered – the reader has to decide. Brilliantly written and intensely moving, and a fine example of how transplanting a story to a sci-fi setting can give an author room to explore a deeply human question.

So there’s plenty of good stuff in here, but overall the variability in quality combined with the drift in genres as it progresses means I find it hard to recommend it wholeheartedly. Interesting to die-hard sci-fi/fantasy fans or for someone like myself who’s looking to see what happened to the genre over the years, but I’m not convinced by the ‘Very Best’ claim – there’s plenty of older stuff that’s better than most of this and I’m still hoping to find better new stuff too.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Tachyon Publications.

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The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman illustrated by Eddie Campbell

“…and that way is treacherous and hard”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the truth is a cave

You ask me if I can forgive myself?

I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter…

So starts this dark tale of a journey, a quest into the Black Mountains to find a cave – to find the truth. Our narrator is a small man, a dwarf, but he’s strong and he’s driven; by what, we don’t yet know but we feel a slow anger in him, an undiminished determination despite his ten year search for the object of his obsession. As we meet him, he is about to hire a guide, Calum MacInnes, to take him to a cave on the Misty Isle which is reputed to be filled with gold…

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This book is nothing less than stunning. Gaiman’s wonderfully dark story is equalled and enhanced by the amazingly atmospheric illustrations of Eddie Campbell. The two elements – words and pictures – are completely entwined. There’s no feeling of the one being an addition to the other – each is essential and together they form something magical. The story is by turns moving, mystical, dramatic, frightening; and the illustrations, many of them done in very dark colours, create a sense of mirky gloom and growing apprehension. To avoid spoilers the pages I have shown are all from the beginning of the book, but as the story darkens, some of the later pictures are truly macabre and unforgettable.

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I am old now, or at least, I am no longer young, and everything I see reminds me of something else I’ve seen, such that I see nothing for the first time. A bonny girl, her hair fiery-red, reminds me only of another hundred such lasses, and their mothers, and what they were as they grew, and what they looked like when they died. It is the curse of age, that all things are reflections of other things.

I say that, but my time on the Misty Isle, that is also called, by the wise, the Winged Isle, reminds me of nothing but itself.

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Gaiman was apparently inspired to write the story by his visits to the Isle of Skye and the legends of the Hebrides. While the pictures quite clearly place the story in the Highlands – the kilts, the purples and greens, the blackness of the mountains – Gaiman has very wisely steered clear of any attempt to ‘do’ dialect. The book is written in standard English, but with the lush layering of traditional legends and with a rhythm in the words that really calls for it to be read aloud. Perhaps this isn’t surprising since the story was originally devised to be read by Gaiman himself at the Sydney Opera House with Campbell’s illustrations projected as a backdrop. I was the lucky, lucky recipient of a hardback copy of the book, but apparently the Kindle Fire edition has audio and video links, though to what I don’t know. However, the book is so beautiful that, devoted though I am to my Kindle, this is one where I would strongly recommend the paper version.

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All the way through, the story is foreshadowing the eventual end as if to suggest that all things are fore-ordained. It’s well worth reading the book twice in fact (it’s only 73 pages) – the first reading has all the tension of not knowing how it ends, while the second reading allows the reader to see how carefully Gaiman fits everything together to create the folk-tale feeling of inevitability. And then read it again a third time, just because it’s wonderful. I end where I began – stunning!

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NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Headline.

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