There are two ways to review Pat Frank's "Alas, Babylon." The first, as literature, would result in perhaps a 3-star rating: readable, but little in the way of verbal finesse or sophisticated character development. At least half-a-star of that would be for its accurate depiction of the attitudes (political, racial, gender) of a late 1950s small town in Florida.
The second way to approach "Alas, Babylon," and the one that results in my 5-star rating is as a faux-documentary, expertly designed to scare the Living Bejaysus out of you. Frank wasn't aiming for clever writing, or poetic imagery, or complicated narrative -- you could say that the text itself is a metaphor for his thesis, that in the aftermath of nuclear devastation of the kind he describes, the clever sophistications of life will mean nothing. Survival will depend, to a great extent, on luck -- the luck of your location, the luck of the community that surrounds you, and the luck of each individuals willingness to adapt, and let go of comfortable assumptions.
Supposedly, in the past year or so, the question has been asked, "If we have nuclear weapons why can't we use them?" I wish the person who asked that question would read this book, He won't, of course. Which is why Pat Frank's tightly written, almost journalistic vision of the aftermath resonates -- and should terrify us all -- as much as it did when he first wrote it.
I wanted to like this. I really did. I am familiar with CJA's work for io9 -- her columns on movies, fiction and the State of SF brightened many a morning. And, with the opening chapters of this book, I thought I was on to a winner -- a book like Lev Grossman's "The Magicians" which took the "child magician" phenomenon, looked at it coolly, and in the context of other pop culture phenomenons, did something interesting. I even liked the absurdities -- the unnaturally abusive parents, the "Dotheboys Hall" schools, the unrelenting attentions of the mean kids -- not fun, but very appropriate for a fairy tale, and who said fiction was always supposed to be fun, anyway?
But once Delphine (the apprentice magician who will save the world) and Laurence (the apprentice nerd who will save the world) have grown up, I found their further adventures dreary and very difficult to care about.
I gave up on this book after about 70 pages. It wasn't the jargon that tried my patience, as with some negative reviewers -- a well-plotted novel can make the most esoteric jargon feel like wallpaper, something you make a note of and glide past as you get where the author is going.
No, what finally made me give up was the realization that Stross was mistaking world-building for plot. The narrator grumbles about how hard his job is. This is supposed to be cute because he does it with lots of jargon and pop culture references. See, you're smart, just like the narrator. He goes home and grumbles about how hard it is to live with roommates who are in his line of work. He goes into the office, and grumbles about how hard it is to do his job when his supervisors are such job's-worth jerks. Finally, around page 50, Our Hero is sent out into the field, and I thought we were getting to a PLOT -- but no. The assignment goes pear-shaped, Narrator returns to base in ignominy and ... we're back to the grumbling, the jargon, the cute pop references, and I'm outta here.
Awful, simply awful. After a couple of chapters (in which the author mistakes short, choppy chapters for building tension ...), I skipped to the end, just to find out what the "twist" was. What a load of codswallop.
Out of the unpromising material of a headstone inscription and a few lines from a scrap of a letter, Helen Dunmore has created a beautifully written and constructed novel that tells the story of the most dramatic and heartbreaking months of a young woman's life. While the "great events" of the early days of the French Revolution unfold three hundred miles away, Lizzie Fawkes endures loss and makes discoveries that could destroy her. This novel is a fascinating reminder that each and every life is a drama: every one of us has a story to tell, that the "great" personalities and events of history have no monopoly on drama, terror and grief.
Like Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall," Dunmore's sense of period and tone is impeccable: she hits exactly the right balance between characters who feel very real and relatable, while at the same time are obviously products of a different time. (For example, Lizzie's placid acceptance of her husband's controlling abuse: when she married him, she became his property, and she accepts that it's her obligation to adapt to his demands, whatever they are.)
Dunmore's Afterword provides a fascinating glimpse into her methods, and her theme: the way that fiction can save forgotten lives from being lost in the background noise of history.
If you are new to the story of Robert Falcon Scott, and his four companions, who were beaten to the South Pole by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and died in their attempt to get back to home base, then this novel isn't the place to start. (One place to start: "The Worst Journey in the World," by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of Scott's final expedition.) This novel consists of five first person stream of consciousness "reflections," which depend on some knowledge of the legend of the tragedy, and its key characters: the "noble" leader Scott; scientist Wilson; plucky, gung-ho team player "Birdie" Bowers; taciturn, self-sacrificing Oates; and the "gentle giant" (and only representative of the non-officer class) Petty Officer Evans.
Without knowing the cliches that these five men were turned into, in the "Boy's Own" fairytale that their disastrous mission became in the 100+ years since their death, I don't think it would be obvious just how cleverly Bainbridge puts flesh on bones that hero-worship had stripped of most of their humanity. While revisionist histories put the blame squarely on Scott, as a poor leader who made very bad choices, Bainbridge does a remarkable job of channeling the voices of the five, demonstrating how the weaknesses of each one (and even their strengths) contributed to the tragedy. And at the same time, she gives credit to the power of the legend, leaving the reader with a sense of profound sadness that such good intentions and --yes, let's be old fashioned for a moment -- nobility should have ended so badly. I'm greatly looking forward to Bainbridge's take on the Titanic ("Every Man for Himself") -- another tragedy that might have ended very differently if only one person in a position of authority had thought for a moment and said, "Hey, wait ...."
So if you're familiar with the story of Robert Falcon Scott, I highly recommend this novel for its canny insights into the characters involved, and how an expedition that was supposed to demonstrate an Empire's strength of technology and character went so badly wrong. And if you are new to the story of Robert Falcon Scott ... it's a great story. And this wonderful novel will be waiting for you.
Very readable, well-written, and the locale is very evocative of the wonderful setting of the Peak District in Derbyshire. But I'm hoping for better as this series gets into its stride.
Other reviewers have (quite rightly, I think) commented on how the author tries too hard to make the female half of the detecting pair "complicated" -- I don't mind unlikable, but DC Diane Fry's moodiness and sullen assumption of the worst in everyone says more "psychotic cow" than "complicated" ... The fact is, we eventually learn that the woman has very good reason to be defensive and depressed, and the authors "cute" drip-feed of her backstory belittles that. While, dare I say it, her reluctant partner, DC Ben Cooper's personal problems and personality quirks just make him seem more real and likable.
Another thing I found very worrying -- Possible SPOILER (but I think this becomes obvious from an early stage in the novel) -- is what I would describe as "victim blaming." The victim and her family are not nice people, and that's ok. But there's a relatively superficial attitude to the murder, and her family's grief that rings very false.
This review started at 4 stars, and I've talked myself down to 3. I think I'd better stop ...
(Just an additional aside: Diane Fry is NOT Ben Cooper's "sidekick"!! I think it's to the author's credit that he really is trying to depict a partnership of equals -- two detectives whose personalities and talents balance each other out, and even causes friction.)
Once again, a report from the In-House Mystery & Thriller Expert: we both read a couple of Carol O'Connell Mallory novels back in the 90s, and lost patience with the super-human Mallory (brilliant, beautiful psychopath who is always two steps ahead of everyone else. Just as brilliant, beautiful psychopaths always are ...) I recently picked this up at the library for the IHM&TE, thinking that the author's name sounded familiar. He dutifully plowed through it, but he says that, in this the 12th Mallory novel, she has, if anything, become even more smug, annoying and ... psychopathic ...
The story of how one lost little boy has his soul saved by his quest through the tropes of a dark, dismal fairyland landscape. A reworking of some of the most famous fairytales, deeper, darker versions that sweep away the prettified, Disneyfications that we think we know so well, and restore the danger, power (and violence) of the originals. Like the wonderful Broadway musical and movie "In the Woods," the power of the tales are enhanced by the mash-up of characters (Rumpelstiltskin, meet Sleeping Beauty!), and a return to their violent roots (this Sleeping Beauty has sharp teeth ...)
This grew on me as I read on: I found the opening chapters, in which David loses his mother and has to adapt as his father remarries and presents him with an unwanted half-brother, a bit resistible. David seems like a very young twelve-year-old. (The ghost of myself at 12 -- who considered herself quite a grown up woman of the world -- bitterly resents babyish depictions.) Some elements of his grief at his mother's death feel like the way a pious adult would think a child should feel.
It got much better SPOILER when David passed over to the blighted fairyland, set to work saving himself, solving the mystery of the blight that had befallen the kingdom, and finding his way home. There was some humor, some lightness of touch, SOME recognition of the absurdity of it all. The ending was genuinely touching and, like all the best fairytales, the "happily ever after" was relieved by a good dose of reality.
I love archaeology. And I don't mind non-fiction books in which the author's opinions and personality are given a place in the narrative. Done properly, treating the research as the author's journey can lighten up the dry facts and science. However ... Did I say "done properly"?
I had to give up about half-way through when I realized that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that Dr. Hassett won't footnote. Jokey asides about pop culture? Shout outs to friends, colleagues, rivals? Paleographic in-jokes (usually of the not-very-funny "you had to be there" kind)? What she ate, what she wore, how she slept on any number of digs she has participated in? Yes, yes, yes and YES.
Or should I say, no, no, no and NO! The lady is obviously very knowledgeable, but a misunderstanding about how much we want to know about her subject, and how much we what to know about her, constantly get in the way. What could have been an interesting study of the impact of our distant ancestors' somewhat questionable decision to take up agriculture and cluster together in villages and cities became an impossible read.
I discovered James Patrick Kelly when I read his amazing novella "Mr. Boy." In "Burn" (which I think I would describe as novelette), Kelly demonstrates all of his usual flair in worldbuilding -- creating a future, an alien planet, and a social system that is both familiar and satisfyingly strange. The world of Morobe's Pea, the Transcendent State, the character of Spur and his fellow strivers for "simplicity," the sort-of alien L'ung, and their leader, the High Gregory, are absolutely fascinating. Where I felt that "Burn" was less than satisfying was the plot: in spite of a lot happening (forest fires, terrorism, treachery and the tantalizing possibility of romance with what seemed like a sexy spider lady!), it felt thin, and the big "reveal," (trying to avoid spoilers here) could be seen coming AND (more important, in my opinion), left more interesting questions unanswered. But I think leaving you wanting more is deserving of 4 stars ...
My In-House Thriller Expert describes this as not a light or easy read, but one that gives some fascinating insights into the way drug cartels operate in Mexico, and the horrors they unleash on the ordinary, non-criminal population.
Full disclosure: I am only one frowning husband away from being a Crazy Cat Lady. Cats have been part of my life since a stray moved in to the family home when I was about 10 years old, and together we turned my heretofore dog-loving parents. I've never had more than two cats at a time -- always siblings who just about got on with each other -- but that's not to say I haven't been tempted.
This is the book for anyone who wants to understand more about those wonderful fluffy bundles of contrariness and rampant ego who have taken over our hearts, and are working on taking over the Internet. Some reviewers have complained that it is drier and more scientific than they expected, but I liked that -- the conjectures on the inner workers of cats' minds, their instincts and behaviours, is backed up by observation, rather than (what you would get from me) blind love at how cute and clever they are.
This is nicely balanced by the author's clear affection for his subjects: the science is back up by anecdotes about cats he has known and loved. For me, each chapter had a least one moment when I thought "so that's why they do that!" Scientific, yes, but dry, no.
"In general, I know, I am much given to deprecating the fusty old Past at the expense of our improved and brighter Present, but in this one respect my allegiance is all to the long-ago. Let the critics have their "-isms" and their "-ologies," their Ibsens and their Shaws. Give me "East Lynn"! Give me "The Frozen Deeps"! Give me "The Turn of the Tide"!"
In general, there is a magnificent irony to this almost-pitch-perfect pastiche of the three-volume Victorian melodrama being the work of Thomas M. Disch, the distinguished writer of serious, thoughtful science fiction, and doyen of queer criticism, a master of -isms and -ologies himself. But there you are: Disch probably had as much fun writing this magnificent confection as the Gentle Reader will have getting lost in its labrynth of family secrets, twisted intrigue, gender bending surprises and poplin petticoats. (His inventory of Clara's wardrobe, once she has come into her unexpected fortune, was probably worth a PhD thesis in its own right ...)
For an extended review and thoughtful analysis of What Is It All FOR (with serious SPOILERS -- did these people know no decency?), you can do no better than a July 1975 review from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/08/09/specials/disch-reeve.html
I agree wholeheartedly with the reviewer when she says that the novel could have benefited from some tightening up: this is one of those times when having the book's Big Reveal spoiled was a benefit as, knowing that the denouement was going to be worth the effort, I soldiered on through all the crinolines and the Baedeker-inspired tours of Venice and the Bay of Naples. The middle third probably stretched out the tension a bit more than absolutely necessary.
However, this is a novelty that is well-worth reading in its own right.
PS: I spotted one blooper. The main action of the novel takes place in the 1860s. At one point, Clara refers to something looking like a "teddy bear." But, as we all know, the teddy bear was launched by Stief in the first decade of the 20th century -- and named after Teddy Roosevelt. It was such a blatant goof, it made me wonder if Disch was having a bit of fun with us, and a more knowledgeable scholar of 19th century culture and manners might be able to spot other "deliberate errors" seeded in the text.
Excellent: "just" a good, old-fashioned police procedural, but could serve any writer, in any genre, as a masterclass in narrative, pacing, characterisation and sense of place. The crimes under investigation -- the murder of small children -- was handled with due respect for its horror and heartbreak, but also with the flashes of dark humour that I'm sure police investigators must use to cope. I particularly liked the way that MacBride has his team juggle the investigations of 4+ cases: much more realistic than stories in which an inspired Lone Wolf has the luxury of concentrating on one case, to the exclusion of everything else.
MacBride must VERY popular with Aberdeen Tourism Board: how many ways can you describe rain? (Until it starts to sleet ... ?) Great sense of place, however: Aberdeen is like a character in its own right
There are many, many reviews of this novel, so I won't try to go over the same territory covered by those who love it or hate it. I will just try to explain why I have mixed feelings -- obviously, I didn't "hate" it, because I kept reading right to the bitter end, and I found it a real page-turner. and a quite impressive piece of work.
I didn't LOVE it ... I wasn't bothered by the length. As other reviewers have said, the length, the level of everyday detail and the leisurely development of character and situation, makes this novel an immersive experience. Nor was I overly bothered by the graphic sexual content that some readers complain about. (Look, if you pick up a book about Victorian prostitutes, um, what do you expect?) Yes, perhaps, "yuck" -- but isn't that the point? We only have to read about it, Sugar and women like her had to live through it or starve.
I think my mixed feelings arise from a sense that Faber was just showing off: "I'm doing this (900 pages, intrusive narrative voice, very graphic sex scenes) just because I can ..." By the end, I wasn't sure what I was supposed to take away from it -- about Victorian prostitutes, the ambitions of women in a repressive society, about the importance of storytelling -- except that Michel Faber is very, very clever.
Fascinating topic, well-researched, but the author has been poorly served by her editor/publisher: frequent use of awkward phrasing and misused words, assuming (I suppose) that it sounds "posh." (Things don't "happen," they "transpire." On almost every ...single ...page ...)
Sad, but very interesting account, of a great tragedy in the family history of the author: in 1919, Busby's great-grandmother drowned her twin newborn daughters while in the grip of what was probably postpartum psychosis. Busby uses the story of Beth Wood and her family's tragedy as the launching point for a memoir/family history/social history which examines pressures in the lives of mothers from the mid-19th century to today.
This is a flawed book, but it's very worthwhile, and on the whole very readable. (I feel almost as if it's unfair to overemphasize negative feedback, as the author herself died in 2012 -- and she's in no position to respond!) The narrative suffers from poor organization, skipping around too much in time -- moving almost at random from Beth Wood, to her grandparents and parents, to the subsequent effect that the tragedy had on Woods' son Reg (a teenager, on the brink of adulthood when his two baby sisters died), and even to Busby's own experience of a difficult childbirth. I used the clumsy label "memoir/family history/social history" deliberately, as I felt that she might have been trying to accomplish too much, and occasionally lost sight of what a reader might find important and interesting in her great-grandmother's sad story.(I think the truly talented memoirist/historian learns what to leave out ...)
However, the material is fascinating, and the research that Busby did-- both personal history, family history, and social, historical research -- was intensive: by sharing the sad story of her great-grandmother, Busby brings alive an account of pressures on women, and women who become mothers.