Wings of Fire; The Dragonet Prophecy – Tui T. Sutherland

February 26, 2020 at 14:36 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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Chillikebab junior the first turns ten years old soon. I asked her what theme she wanted for her birthday party, and she wanted it dragon themed. Specifically Wings of Fire themed. There had to be a quest, and a prophecy, and dragon eggs, and fire, and magic. I enthusiastically joined in with this, suggesting a range of cool things I could do – from making dragon eggs to creating an escape room to brewing magic potions and so on. My imagination ran wild, whilst Chillikebab jnr’s eyes grew wide and she proclaimed that it was going to be cool. (I had, at the time, consumed a fair number of alcoholic beverages, it should be noted.)

I should take this, I suppose. Once she turns ten, I doubt her dad will ever be cool again. But in the cold light of day, the scale of what I had suggested and the expectations I had set up were a little daunting. I had a lot to do… (I’ve also stopped drinking. At least for a while. Remind me not to start again until after Chillikebab junior the second’s birthday.)

Anway, I am now engaged in mounding dragon eggs out of paper mache, googling where I can buy dry ice and writing prophesies in rhyming couplets. Ho hum.

In order to ensure verisimilitude in my approach to the prophesy writing (it’s not easy being a prophet, let me tell you), I read the first book in the Wings of Fire series. They are kids books, but also popular with adults it seems. they are New York Times bestsellers, no less.

I don’t know what to say about it really. It’s non-stop violent action from start to finish. Battles, fights, sadistic torture, imprisonment, gladiatorial arenas, horrible deaths, mutilations and poisonings. There’s a sort of story about five young dragons that are going to save the world, there’s a war happening, and there’s some mysterious goings on. That’s probably all you need to know. It rattles along at a cracking pace, and I can see why my daughter likes them – they are action packed.

There’s not much scenery, however. The world the dragons inhabit is barely sketched; this is not an immersive and intriguing universe that you can visit in your head. There’s also a load of glaring inconsistencies that left me scratching my head; the dragons have rather clumsy claws but are also able to put a hand on each others’ shoulders; they move things by awkwardly pushing them around with their snouts but somehow they also have magnificent castles and complicated metalwork; their bones are stronger than diamond and can’t break, yet they do break when they fight. And so on. Perhaps I’m too much of a pedant.

Anyway, I now have a better idea of how to plan this party. Perhaps some kind of death match where the last child is left standing…

Identity Crisis – Ben Elton

February 19, 2020 at 15:00 | Posted in books | 1 Comment
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This book is very Ben Elton. You know – take a current societal conflict or controversy, dial it up to some sort of extreme, and create a satirical comedy about it that also acts as a pointed commentary on the ills of the world and our relentless slide into conflict, nihilism and catastrophe.

The topic for this book is ‘culture wars’, and the way bad actors manipulate public opinion via social media campaigns in order to sow discord and win elections, with side tours into reality TV, policing and race.

It’s OK. Elton’s books are very readable, and it rattles along in fine style, with plot twists and cliffhangers aplenty. But somehow I feel it doesn’t quite connect with its targets; many of the characters are not quite right and at times I get the distinct impression that Elton is dealing with subjects that he does not properly understand himself – and his pointed satire about how tone deaf we all are comes off as a bit, well, tone deaf.

Hey ho. If you are unaware of the link between social media, fascism and populist election wins, then you might learn something from this book. (Of you could read what actually happens – I suggest starting with Carol Cadwalladr.) But for me this wasn’t one of Elton’s best.

 

Mythos – Stephen Fry

February 8, 2020 at 20:41 | Posted in books | 1 Comment
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About thirty years ago, Mrs Chillikebab and I got married, and went to Greece on our honeymoon. We had a lovely time walking on the beach, swimming in the sea, visiting the many wonderful ancient Greek sites and drinking beer. The beer was, I recall, Mythos.

Mythos beer is now available in Australia. So the other day we ordered one, hoping to relive a little of our honeymoon. Did the taste of that fizzy golden lager bring back memories of our younger selves lying lithe on the sand? Well, not really, because Mythos beer, it turns our, is not that good when not drunk in Greece whilst on holiday. So the whole thing was a bit of a disappointment.

This incident was brought to mind just a few days later when I picked up a book to read, titled Mythos. Written by Stephen Fry, it is a retelling of various Greek myths in a contemporary style. I think the standard term is ‘made accessible for the modern reader’ or something. I have very much enjoyed Fry’s other books, so was indeed hoping for a good dollop of accessibility, and even possibly some entertainment. (Although I do feel that I’m rapidly reaching an age where to call my self a ‘modern reader’ is a bit of a stretch…). But then again my recent disappointment with a Mythos product was in my mind too. How would this one go?

The stuff of Greek legends is, well, the stuff of legend, You know – Prometheus, Zeus, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Spartacus, Thor, and all the rest. Now, here’s a thing. I have always struggled with this kind of thing, because I have an atrocious memory for names. People who are good at remembering names like Greek myths. But people like me struggle. Opera and jazz and much the same. In fact, I reckon the Venn diagram of people who like Greek myths, jazz and opera would be a circle. They are all sort of fun, all sort of inaccessible and all seen to require a near encyclopedic recall of names. (I bet Stephen Fry likes jazz. And opera. And I bet he can name loads of singers, bandleaders and the rest.)

Anyway, Mythos was fun. Fry’s retelling are lively and easy to read. It is entertaining. The stories are quite good, as it turns out (although if I was being critical I’d say a few of them were rather same-y. I sense plagiarism was an issue amongst ancient Greek bards). But. But but but. The names thing. Oh my goodness. Chapters start with things like ‘You recall earlier how we learned that Achaeus was son of Xuthus and Creusaon, well….’.  Well no, Stephen, I don’t recall. I don’t recall at all. All those names just blur together before vanishing into the mists of forgetfulness.

I fear there is no hope for me. I enjoyed Mythos. But it has not helped one jot in making me sound more erudite at parties by being able to name drop Greek deities. They just drifted from my head minutes after finishing each chapter.

The Binding – Bridget Collins

January 24, 2020 at 12:48 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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The Binding is apparently a genre called ‘magical realism’, which seems like an oxymoron to me, but hey. It was a Christmas present, and I read it over the holidays. It’s set in a sort of quasi-19th-century parallel universe, where books are not as we know them – rather they are magical objects, created by ‘Binders’, and they contain real human memories. If you go to a Binder and have your memories put into a book, then those memories are erased from your mind. I thought this premise was quite intriguing, and certainly quite thought provoking.

The book is in three parts, and it revolves around to main characters (and is told in their voices) – Emmett Farmer, a farmer’s son, and Lucian Darnay, the privileged son of a wealthy industrialist.

The first part of the book is, I thought, slow going. It’s full of those ‘you aren’t allowed to know that’ tropes that can be intriguing, but actually sort of got so piled on they were in the way of the story. Anyway, eventually the real nature of books is revealed, and Emmett ends up, after a feverish illness, apprenticed to a Binder in a remote spot far away from civilization.

The backstory to this is revealed in part two, which is the best part of the book, I think. It’s a love story, although not a conventional one, quite nicely told.

Part three gets very dark; the sinister underbelly of this bucolic society is revealed and the role of Binding in hiding abusive behaviour is revealed. There were some exciting parts in this, but I wasn’t a big fan of the ending. Your mileage may vary.

Looking at reviews, this seems to be a book you either love or hate. I sort of mostly liked it, which I suppose puts me in the middle. If you like magical realism, then I think you would like this book. The premise is intriguing, the alternative world that Collins creates is sophisticated, well drawn and full of colour and detail, and the characters are vivid and alive. All this is a joy to read. But there are some niggles; some slow points, some internal inconsistencies and some pacing issues that prevented me, at least, from fully immersing myself into this book.

 

Storyland – Catherine McKinnon

October 28, 2019 at 16:47 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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Storyland is the second novel by Catherine McKinnon, and is an ambitious novel created out of a palindromic interlinking of different short stories – all linked by place, but moving from 1796 to a distant dystopian future and back again. The stories are all very rooted in the place – the area around Lake Illawarra, a few hours south of Sydney. This sense of place is well grounded; it is a very Australian story, and takes inspiration I think from the Aboriginal concept of songlines – stories that relate places and traverse the land.

The first story is a reimagined account of Matthew Flinders exploratory voyage south from Sydney in a small boat, and his encounters with the local Aboriginal nation of that region. As the stories move forward through time, that connection with both the land and Aboriginal experiences of modern Australia continue.

Some of the stories work better than others, but they are all evocative and thought provoking. I would say however that not all of them land very satisfactorily, and I somehow wish the linkage between them had been somehow both more subtle and also more overt.

This is a god book that is worth reading – its interesting structure and rich evocations of Australia make it very worthwhile. Yet somehow for me it falls sort of being a really great book – it just seems to struggle a bit under the weight of it’s ambition.

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

September 7, 2019 at 10:56 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I got this book for Christmas, and finally read it. It’s a fantasy magic kind of thing. It is getting mostly rave reviews, and is billed as a kind of Harry Potter meets CSI.

It’s sort of fun, and it passed the time, but it’s not a great book in my opinion. The main character, Peter, just seems to sort of drift along, hordes of characters come and go and the ending is a bit of a muddle.

There is plenty to like; some good humour and the whole magic thing is quite well handled. It offers a rich taste of London life too, and it’s also nice to read a book with plenty of characters who are POC, but in a way that just so happens they are, rather than they being the point of their role in the story.

I doubt I’ll read any of the others in the series. But this would make a good holiday novel.

Antifa : The Anti-Fascist Handbook – Mark Bray

March 20, 2019 at 13:29 | Posted in books | Leave a comment

antifaThis is an important book. It is an impressive and comprehensive history of the anti-fascist movement, from its roots in the resistance to Hitler and Mussolini through to current day activism against the alt-right.

It’s a long, sometimes dense and detailed book which is not always easy to read, but it is worth it. Rather than a retailed review, I will share two startling lessons which came from it for me.

The first is the importance of denying the far-right a platform. There is currently endless debate about the rights to free speech, and how ‘de-platforming’ should not be tolerated. This book offers a much-needed perspective on this issue. What is absolutely clear, throughout history, is that far-right movements have faded when they have not had easy access to the public. Debating fascists does not work, and never has worked. It merely gives them oxygen. It’s also important to realise that for the owner of a hall or institution to deny fascists the use of their facilities to hold a meeting or rally is not denying their free speech. For a noisy counter-protest to drown out far-right voices in the street is not denying their free speech. For an internet platform to ban fascist individuals from their services is not denying their free speech. They are free to speak, to organise, to set up their own institutions, buildings, platforms and publications. But history shows when they have to do this using only their own resources, rather than subverting more liberal institutions to promote their cause, they wither.

We have no problem telling our children that certain things should not be said or done; that it is wrong do things that are mean or to hurt people people or to say things which are untrue. We do not debate our children on these topics, we simply tell them that it is not acceptable, and prevent them from doing it. We should have no hesitation or qualms about doing the same for fascist and far-right voices, and refuse to get drawn into a manipulative argument about ‘free speech’.

The second is related to the first, and is the important of direct action. Organising, marching, campaigning, shouting and physically restricting have always been important tools in the fight against fascism. This does not need to mean violence (although this book reveals an uncomfortable truth, and that is that violent protest has protected our societies from fascism on many occasions), but does mean confrontation. As an example, an annual (and growing) far right rally in Germany was in recent years disrupted and destroyed simply by concerned citizens campaigning directly against it – blocking access to railways stations when trains of fascists arrived, holding counter-marches in the same streets, chanting loudly when fascists tried to speak, forcefully engaging individuals in the fascist groups and telling them they were not welcome, that their ideas were unacceptable and that they should leave immediately. Within two years, the largest far-right rally in Germany was abandoned by its neo-nazi organisers as support for it withered away.

We live in a world where fascism is on the rise. Far-right propaganda is now piped into our homes from mainstream media outlets and politicians. This scourge can be defeated. It has been before. But we will not do so with debate and liberal engagement. Fascist hate can only be shut down with concentrated and direct effort.

This book at the end has a section of ideas and practical tips for disrupting fascist networks. Some require a lot of courage and time. Others you can do by writing letters.

Read this book. Then join the fight.

Quark’s Academy- Catherine Pelosi

April 28, 2018 at 21:30 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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The last time I reviewed a childrens’ book was I think in 2010, when my eldest daughter was just a few months old. My, how time flies. She’s now devouring books on her own at a prodigious rate – perhaps I should get her to review them on this blog, as it would dramatically increase my post count. She probably reads nine or ten books in the time it takes me to read one.

As a holiday activity, she went to a kids writing workshop at the rather marvellous Better Read Than Dead Bookstore in Newtown, which was in part run by Catherine Pelosi. In preparation, she read Quark’s Academy, a junior fiction book about a strange science academy that takes talented children scientists and supposedly helps then to perfect their inventions as part of a fantastic competition. After she’d finished it, I read it too.

From the beginning the Academy is a rather sinister place, and the three main protagonists – Augustine, Celeste and Oscar – gradually overcome their suspicion of each other and end up working as a team to uncover the horrific secrets of what really happens in all the strange laboratories.

The story is a madcap mix of crazy inventions, clones, robotic animals and time travel and it all reaches a huge finale, which, to be honest, didn’t really make much sense but was fun nonetheless. I really liked that two of the main characters were female and science-y – gender stereotyping in children’s literature is really a thing, so it’s refreshing to find a book without it.

The elder junior chillikebab loved it, and especially liked the twist at the end where it turned out that…….

But that would spoil the surprise. The workshop was great too, and now she has her copy of the book signed by Catherine Pelosi, she’s doubly happy.

 

The Auschwitz Violin – Maria Angels Anglada

April 6, 2018 at 08:43 | Posted in books | 1 Comment
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This slim volume is a delicately written novella with an intriguing premise. A luthier, interred in the terrors of Auschwitz, is forced to make a violin for the camp Kommandant. If the violin is not of an acceptable standard, he faces terrible consequences.

The story is told in flashback; by the now owner of the violin – which possesses a rich and sonorous tone. The story is simply told, and quite affecting. That said, on some level the characters seemed to fall a little flat for me; it’s hard to pin down quite why. Each chapter is preceded by a fragment of a real document from the camps – a regulation, report or correspondence – which are in some ways the most powerful thing in the book.

That said, this is a great read, and being short is easy to take in in a single sitting. It will certainly stay with you for a while.

Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond – Dalrymple / Anand

March 29, 2018 at 12:05 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I got this book for Christmas, and read it whilst on holiday in January, so sorry it’s taken so long to get to it. It’s the story of the Kohinoor; the ‘Mountain of Light’, one of the worlds most famous diamonds that was owned by various Persian kings and moghuls before eventually arriving in England and becoming part of the Crown Jewels.

It’s a well researched and well written book; the first section (the early history of the Kohinoor, as it passed between the Mughals, Afghans and Persians), and the second section covers its expropriation by the British, as they subjugated the Indian subcontinent. The first section is written by William Dalrymple, the second part by  Anita Anand.

The second part I think is actually slightly easier to read, though that is in part because the history is much clearer and the thread of the narrative more contained. The first section deals with early myths and possible mentions of the Kohinoor; its possible origin in India and the various wars and gifts that saw it passed around various different kingdoms and treasuries in the region. The extraordinary riches, expressed in gemstones, of the region prior to the British invasion is quite staggering.

The section dealing with the way the British treated those territories; the way those treasuries were plundered and the last remaining Punjab prince, the child Duleep Singh, is made unwittingly to sign over all of his vast riches to the British is quite movingly told.

The book finishes with some discussion of the various voices still calling for the Kohinoor to be returned to India.

It’s a great book, and well worth a read.

 

 

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