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Found 16 results

  1. Blue Ticket is a dystopian story, probably set in a near future, where women's fertility is controlled by the state. Young women are subjected to a lottery where the majority are allocated a blue ticket - they will not have children and will wear a mirena IUD to make them infertile. A few receive a white ticket and a life of motherhood awaits. The blue ticket girls are told they are the lucky ones, free to have fun, free from responsibilities, free to pursue a career. Calla receives a blue ticket and keeps it in a locket around her neck - as the law requires. But after a few years of freedom, she starts to yearn for a child. On the one level, this is a story of a young woman who tries to escape over the border to a land of choice. It's a game of cat and mouse as the authorities try to close in on her. She meets others along the way who also fail to fit neatly in their pre-ordained roles. She makes friendships and encounters betrayals. It's a British Handmaid's Tale. On a deeper level, it makes us feel the injustice of this forced choice when so many women in our own society face a choice between a career or motherhood - and some have that choice forced upon them through biology to bad luck. We see that people's attitudes changeover time; what may seem like the right choice at one point of life may no longer look like the right choice at another. And then there is the nature of choice - having one thing and losing another. For some people, there is no right choice - they want both mutually exclusive options. There are some plot imponderables. Why would the state choose to control fertility in this way? Why would the state stop women emigrating? How does the population remain stable when most women are allowed blue tickets? Then there's the question of men. How can all the men seem to have access to relationships with white ticket women when there are so few to go around? But I guess these are relatively unimportant practicalities when the primary purpose is surely to make the reader dwell on matters of choice and destiny. Blue Ticket does handle that well. Moreover, there is enough character development for the reader t0 care about Calla and her fate. Blue Ticket is a short novel, not perfect and not as unique as I suspect it tries to be. But it is a worthwhile and enjoyable addition to the feminist canon. ****0
  2. The Old Man and The Boy service an off shore wind farm out in the North Sea, way beyond being able to see land. They live on a platform (I imagine Sealand) and their view is just the sea and various generations of decaying turbines. As one turbine dies, they cannibalise its parts to repair others. The Boy is there to replace his father who broke his contract. The Old Man has always been there. They are serviced by a quarterly supply boat whose master runs a black market trading racket. He trades the lagan and jetsam that the Old Man is able to fish up from the seabed in return for the supplies that might stretch the lifespan of the turbines. There is no beginning and no end. The Boy and the Old Man have no past life; they have no future. There is no boundary to the wind farm and the sea. There is no hint of anyone who might benefit from the wind farm. The Boy and the Old Man are suspicious of each other. With just one another for company - and the creaks and grand and bangs of the plant as it is ravaged by the sea - they try to live independent lives despite being mutually dependent on one another. They care for each other and they hate each other. Bizarrely, this reminded me of the vast cattle stations in Australia, remote and isolated, farmers living in grinding poverty to supply a wealthy nation that they seldom see with their meat. And inevitably - probably intentionally - it reminded me of The Old Man and The Sea. Almost nothing happens, just the battle between man and nature that nature always wins. And then, there were also shades of the final scenes of The Truman Show as Truman sails for a shoreline he doesn't even believe exists. The book is short, the writing is spare and stylised. But despite the bleakness, there is a warmth in the writing that keeps the reader engaged. Through the boredom and drudgery and backbiting we see genuine affection that the odd couple feel for one another. We see that some of the mutual suspicion and prying might have come from good hearts. The novel is interleaved with occasional fragments from a past when Doggerland was dry land, inhabited by people who could never have imagined the horror of the grey, windswept sea. It is never clear whether these snippets were long ago and the sea is the present day, or whether the land is the present day and the sea is the future we all face. Either way, it has made me feel that we all owe a greater gratitude to those who endure hardship to support the comfortable lives that many of us lead. Doggerland is a short novel, but one that leaves a deep impression. ****0
  3. The Last was a bit of a guilty pleasure. Set in a hotel in Switzerland, a mixed bag of staff and guests find themselves survivors of a nuclear holocaust that seems to have wiped out the rest of the world. When the initial tweets and news stories started to circulate, many of the guests fled for the airport. Those left behind were the ones who had nothing to flee for. Jon Keller is an American academic who was at the hotel for a history conference. His fellow delegates left but Jon, an uber-rationalist, saw no point in fleeing. The roads would be jammed, the planes would be grounded. Why run? So we have a fairly standard post-apocalyptic story where people consume their way through a dwindling supply of food and clean water in the hope that a better plan might come to mind. Instead of a better plan, they find a dead body. Despite the entire planet now consisting of dead bodies, Jon decides to pass the time by playing Miss Marple, interviewing everyone and searching their rooms. Armageddon affects people in different ways: some become leaders, some become whingers. Jon becomes a securocrat. There's a standard fare of journeys out into the wilderness, raiding ransacked supermarkets, fighting off predators and such. There are unlikely friendships, amusing animosities. The supporting cast conveniently includes a doctor, a head of security, a desk clerk who understands the record keeping. There's a rapist and a feminist, a Japanese family with young children... It's all a bit like a 1970s disaster movie but without the nuns. Oh, and with occasional use of mobile phones. At points, the plot becomes impenetrable. The pacing seems wonky, there are moments when people seem to behave with great irrationality. There are enough loose ends to run at least six sequels. It should be corny, but somehow it manages to be fun. I suspect the thing that holds it all together is the pomposity of Jon, recording everything in a self-serving tone of spurious even-handedness - for posterity - and imagining what the fellow survivors really think of him busy bodying around and playing detective while they focus on the future of humanity. ****0
  4. All The Galaxies is a strange and hypnotic blend of four stories that cross and merge and unmerge again.First, there is Scotland in the near future. Following a second independence referendum (which we presume Scotland lost), law and order has broken down in The Horrors, but strong city state governments have emerged from the remnants of local councils. Within Greater Glasgow, control is being reasserted, the internet has been restored and the leader of the sinister Wardens movement, Wee Lawrence, is in Barlinnie. Oh, and Rangers FC (or should that be Sevco) is no more – so it’s not all doom and gloom.Second, there is the story of John Fallon, a news editor in the fictional Mercury newspaper. Originally from England, he has landed up in Glasgow, his wife long gone and contact with his adult son Roland about to evaporate. He and his crew try to provide objectivity and sense from the chaos, all the while lurching from bar to bar, extending one night stands for as long as they will go, living in debauched squalor.Thirdly, there is the story of Fallon’s son Roland, remembering life in Tyrdale as a child, holidays to the Scottish islands and drunken student parties.And finally, there is a boy, Tarka, travelling the heavens with his spirit-guide dog Kim.The novel is really well constructed, balancing the elements carefully – no mean feat considering the multiple points of view and the strangeness of some of the subject matter. And the fourth narrative in the heavens is very strange indeed – no longer bound by the laws of physics, time, location or society. No dog lover could read this section without falling for Kim, the wise, kind, loyal and talkative border terrier (though whoever thought a cover picture of a dead dog would sell a book needs professional help).My favourite story, though, is the Scottish dystopia. Knowing Glasgow helps – particularly the immediate environs of George Square and Kelvingrove. But knowing Scottish politics – and Northern Ireland’s recent history from which so many of the novel’s scenes have been borrowed – probably helps even more. And the great thing is that unlike typical fictional dystopias, we are not on the verge of the end of the world; we haven’t seen the collapse of the system; we haven’t descended into savage people roaming through smouldering embers in search of canned food. It is a plausible situation where commerce continues, communications remain in place, people travel and work and socialise, and Glasgow City Council officials seize the power they have spent their entire careers envying. And goodness me, Philip Miller must have spent some time in the “cube” of City Chambers to have been able to evoke it so accurately.If there is a criticism, it is that the plot does not always live up to the stellar settings and descriptions. Only Tarka is allowed a personality that develops; the other characters have to be taken as found. Fallon’s life, in particular, is not always fascinating and the intrigue involving the journalists and the council was perhaps a little too murky and ended up a little too unresolved. In fact, the ending as a whole felt a bit of a let-down after much promise.But these are minor criticisms of an otherwise excellent novel that will make the reader think about the ephemerality of life, the importance of love and friendship, the machinery of government, and astral dogs. ****0
  5. MADDADDAM is the last in the Oryx and Crake trilogy. It is set during the year following the “waterless flood”, the disease engineered by Crake to wipe out humanity. The flood left behind isolated human groups and individuals that begin to find each other. Not all of them are as ‘good’ as the few surviving God’s Gardeners. The ‘ungood’ are a trio of ‘Painballers’ - killer criminals who survived the ultimate penalty of the justice system. The most important group of survivors are the Crakers, the humanlike beings engineered by Crake to replace the human race. Unfortunately, the Crakers are ill-equipped to handle evil, having been created without any understanding of wrongness and without fear. They are - at least for now - naked, vegetarian, having an unusual mating habit, a natural insect repellent, and a unique vocal structure that allows them to purr (for healing purposes) and to sing. They can also speak. This novel gathers together all the separate threads from ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The Year of the Flood’. The technique for this is storytelling, as in the stories told by Toby, a God’s Gardener, to the Crakers, after an incident that draws the two groups together for mutual support. As they learn to cooperate in a rapidly disintegrating environment, they soon realise that they cannot continue much longer without assistance. The Painballers are an approaching threat. With the telepathic, interpretive skills of the Crakers, Pigoons (a species created by splicing human intelligence into pigs brains) become a cooperating partner. The storytelling of Toby (a middle-aged woman) becomes less prominent as the action intervenes. As a technique it could have been boring but Atwood writes it in a unique way, so effective that from it we learn a great deal about the Crakers without them having to utter a word. An example of the beginning of a Toby story: MaddAddam is a fitting finale to this trilogy. Atwood’s imagination remains at peak level to the conclusion. Her similes continue to astound. Her sense of colour continues to enhance our imagination. Her humour and wit remain unabated. Her predictions of what is to come - what is almost upon us - are as horrifyingly plausible as ever.
  6. Max Barry is an ideas man. He has previously written of a kind of government/corporate interface full of conspiracies and rules. His works have a Brave New World feel to them. In Lexicon, we find a society where people fall, unknown to themselves, into various categories of personality, each persuadable through the use of keywords that bypass the critical thinking parts of the brain and get straight into the core. Sort of. Max Barry explains it better. From a bizarre opening, we rapidly fall into a Men In Black/Bourne Identity type world where a small group of people control the world through access to secrets. They also have access to unlimited wealth allowing world travel in first class, swanky offices and labyrinths of laboratories staffed by technicians who have no idea of the significance of what they are working on. Those inductees into this glamorous, dangerous world carry the names of semi-famous poets. The novel is divided into four sections, each addressing a quite distinct episode, place and time period. The first three work well and hold the ideas together. We find two opposing storylines, one featuring Tom and Wil, strangers who are thrown together to defeat the greater evil. And the other featuring Emily, a street scammer who is inducted into the organisation. The stories converge – after a fashion – in Broken Hill, a remote mining town in New South Wales. The true awfulness of Broken Hill – previously seen in Priscilla Queen of the Desert – is conveyed well and there is plenty of intrigue in terms of what happened and what will happen. The story, you see, is quite non-linear. As the story lines develop, so too does the reader’s understanding of the science-fiction behind the words of persuasion. The gaps get filled in. And Lexicon poses interesting questions about the nature of communication and language. It also makes one wonder whether anything can have value if it can be had simply by asking. These questions are highlighted further in snippets of e-mails, news reports and reference sources (presumably all fictitious) that bookend the chapters. Sadly, Lexicon unravels in the fourth section and descends into a wide-ranging, chaotic riot – everyone shooting each other and being evil or heroic for no obvious reason. It’s a poor way to end a book that is more reminiscent of Police Academy than the Bourne films. But this shouldn’t detract too much from the really excellent build-up. Ending books can be tricky and it does seem to be a skill that Max Barry does not have, but the endings seldom linger long in the memory anyway. Readers tend to remember scenes in the build up. So, on balance, a rather generous four stars. ****0
  7. Welcome to Orphancorp is a novella set in a dystopian Australia where orphanages have been commodified, the young people in their care being little more than child labourers working for the enrichment of persons unseen. The staff are mostly unthinking automata, but at worst they are sadistic jailers. We meet Mirii, a sassy 17 year old who is due to be released into the open in just a week. She has to keep her nose clean to avoid missing her release and being packed off to Prisoncorp – which in any case seems to be the fate of former orphans who don’t quickly find employment and accommodation on the outside. Mirii has just been transferred to the Sydney Orphancorp having spent her entire life in a series of identical institutions dotted across Australia. The novella works in parts. Mirii’s voice is mostly engaging, speaking in the kind of argot that typifies petty rebellion against a much more powerful force. Hence, oaths are minced, common concepts are given new names, and common words are loaded with horrific meaning. “Consequences” in particular. What doesn’t work quite so well is that the story is just not plausible. That a whole industry could have grown up so neglectful of its assets; that despite the severe Consequences of transgression, the orphans would transgress as soon as the staff’s backs were turned; that there were no whistleblowers, snitches, saintly do-gooders; awkward relatives… There was no depth of characterisation – people who had barely met were willing to trust their lives to one another. It felt too much like some set scenes loosely stitched together with, being honest, a fair bit of passing in the middle. The pacing also didn’t quite seem right with way too much scene setting and then the crucial plot stuff being breezed through. Overall this just felt too underdeveloped – a couple of good ideas but not set in context and not carried through effectively. ***00
  8. Charmaine and Stan are living in the near future, a time when the economy has collapsed across the American Midwest, people are jobless, broke and picking over the leftovers of a bygone age. Those who fled in time to the west coast were lucky; those who didn’t face a bleak future. So, when Charmaine and Stan are offered a chance to live in a gated, self-sufficient community that still enjoys plentiful food, security and employment, what’s not to like? Somewhat oddly, at any given time half the population of the commune lives in prison whilst the other half have houses, scooters and jobs – but at the end of each month everyone switches round. And since the prisoners are just regular people, it’s not much of a hardship… The Heart Goes Last is not an exercise in realism. The plot has so many holes it could double as a fishing net. But the novel has a style and panache that carries it through the various improbabilities and impossibilities. The narrative style is simple, clear and intriguing; the reader wants to know what’s going on, how Stan and Charmaine are going to get out of the various inevitable tight spots, how this alternative world works. It’s become a bit of a pejorative term, but this is a page turner. As the story moves forward, it gets quite adult in its themes. We have passion, adultery, blackmail and… er… robots. Despite the broken world economy, it seems there is an insatiable demand for comfort robots. There are also some decidedly dodgy surgical procedures. And there are rules, surveillance, punishments, spies and snitches. Like so many of these dystopian novels, we get a whistle stop tour of the community with an access-all-areas pass, we get the reveal of the awful truth, and we get the escape and rescue scene. In terms of recent novels, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Flowertown (SG Redling), The Circle (Dave Eggers) and The Unit (Ninni Holmqvist) – but going further back and into the world of cinema, it could almost be Logan’s Run. Plus dodgy economics. We’re not finding radical new insights into our society, we’re not talking some kind of giant allegory although there are themes, perhaps, of power and control. It is a bit of fun, though. ****0
  9. Ice Cream Star is a 15 year old girl, living an outlaw life in post-Apocalyptic Massachusetts. She lives in a tribal world divided mostly, it seems, on ethnic grounds. Whilst Ice Cream and her band of outlaws scavenge the leftovers from the old world (the world of the Sleepers), other tribes seem to have a better life. One of the first things to have been lost, it seems, is the power of language. Ice Cream narrates in the patois of her tribe, a mostly monosyllabic language owing a debt to her tribe’s African American heritage, and perhaps a dose of French Creole. Hence, good becomes bone; pretty becomes bell; and bad becomes mally. It takes a bit of getting used to bit it is not rocket science. Other tribes have different idiom and one, the Marianos – residents of the former New York City of Hispanic heritage – speak in our own language. We, as bright readers, can understand both dialects whilst Ice Cream struggles. She makes up for this, however, with unexplained competence in “rooish”. Ice Cream’s world is at war; it has been for ever although it is never quite clear why. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a battle for scarce resources or strategic territory. It just seems to be war for its own sake, Oh, and Ice Cream’s world is dominated by a disease, the posies, that kills everyone once they reach the age of 18-20. Much of this very long novel is a quest for the cure. The novel comes with a heap of good reviews and has been long-listed for the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction. The language, certainly, is inventive. Howeverm it is written almost entirely in some kind of iambic meter that has a hypnotising effect, leading to long tracts being read on autopilot without any meaning being taken in. It is difficult to conceive of Ice Cream’s narrative being genuine conversation. Moreover, every break in the iambic meter jars. The language feels sort of ancient – a cross between Shakespeare and more recent pastiche. The monosyllables make it hard to convey character and convincing emotion; we know that Ice Cream is brave and stubborn but there seems to be little more to her – and almost nothing to any other character. They are just cardboard cut-outs. There is no motivation or rationale behind any the plot. It just seems to be an exercise in meeting one tribe after another; visiting one ruined city after another. It reminds me of The War Of The Ghosts, a bizarre Native American tale that was used by a psychologist for memory recall. The 630 long pages drag and drag without any sense of getting anywhere. The ending is supposed to be momentous, but the reader (or this reader at least) had long since stopped caring or believing. As a shorter work this might have had something, but for a work of this length, it takes more than an interesting pretext and an idiosyncratic voice to carry it. **000
  10. So this is where Hugh Howey and I will part company. I bought Sand when it was released, buoyed by the first two novels in the Wool series (Wool and Shift). I had not yet been disappointed by the final Wool novel (Dust). So, I have had this sitting on my Kindle for a while, not being quite sure what to expect. And it started off well. The creation of a dystopian world, a future Colorado, swamped by sand. People diving through the sand in suits that can channel the sand around the diver, creating solid sand or liquefying it as needed. Treasure hunters, diving for lost cities, bringing up artefacts from the 21st century – that the reader will view as mundane but to the characters represent a priceless link with a lost civilisation. But the characterisation is cardboard, the situation strains credulity and the plot slows to almost stationary at times. Seriously, where did the sand come from? Why did people not just move away when the sand came? Why do people insist on trying to live in cities built on sand rather than live in tents like present day desert dwellers? There are multiple strands of story but mostly they just seem to involve people chasing after each other through the desert. There’s no rhyme or reason to the endless chasing. Ultimately, that means you lose any incentive to barrack for the good guys; you don’t care whether they get caught by the bad guys; you just wish it would happen slightly more quickly. Running through sand is very, very s l o w. Until we get to the end, and that is quite quick. Suddenly there are many people, all coming together at once, seismic change and general chaos. The dust never quite settles and it’s not clear what the ending actually means. Had this been Wool, I would now have expected a sequel setting out the background to the sand, and a third book charting the escape from the sand. However, Hugh Howey tells us that this is a standalone novel with no plans for sequels. Given how dull this one is, that’s probably a good thing. **000
  11. Wool was surprisingly inventive and engaging. Shift gave an interesting backstory. And realistically, given where Wool left off, there was only one direction the trilogy could go. And it goes there. Dust is slow. The depth of characterisation seems to have disappeared - we have to take it on faith (or memory of Wool) that Juliette has a personality and that we care about her. But, alas, she seems to have become a generic heroine on a mission - much activity, mostly illogical and counterproductive - but very little reason to care about it. We meet Solo, Lukas, Donald and Charlotte from Wool and/or Shift and Hugh Howey helpfully reminds us of those story lines. But this also reminds us that Dust is a pale shadow of the previous novels, entirely driven by the breathless (bad) plot. Characters who had been integral to the story are treated as disposable; and new characters are created for the sole purpose of being cannon-fodder. The result just feels chaotic. The novel does tie up loose ends. But these were largely knots that had been implied by the two previous novels. Somehow putting it down in black and white diminishes the impact. It's always a risk to start out with a self-contained world and then set it in a wider context, and in Dust, the wider context really causes some of the basic premises to crumble. For example, the silo with endless stairs and no lift is enigmatic and intriguing. But giving a logical explanation for it just makes it seem less plausible. Although I liked Shift, I can't help feeling that it created a need for a third novel that has undermined the series. With hindsight, it might have been better to leave things with Wool. **000
  12. Flowertown starts so well. It creates a menacing world in which a town and its people have been quarantined following a chemical spill. The medicines people take to combat the poisons make them smell of flowers, hence Flowertown. The world is well created; it is frustrating but necessary. People suffer privations, but it is for the greater good. Of course, it turns out that sinister things are afoot. But these reveal themselves gradually. This is a slow burner of a thriller with the first half, at least, caught up on the domesticity of the situation. Ellie, for example, is a university graduate who was caught in the town as she was saving for an adventure in Spain with her boyfriend. But the boyfriend died in the early days of the spill, leaving Ellie trapped, eking out an existence as a filing clerk in the records office, smoking dope to numb the pain. There are other cases of people whose lives took a downturn - the professor who ended up running a papershop - as all the jobs of consequence go to the army or the personnel from the pharmaceutical company. Ellie is the novel's star. Foul-mouthed, fatalistic, petulant. She spends most of her time self-consciously telling everyone she doesn't give a stuff. She seeks comfort from her best friend Bing, a clerk from the floor below, and her room-mate Rachel who is a goody-two shoes, slavishly following the programme to get a 48 hour pass to visit her family. Oh, and there's Guy Roman, a soldier with an unlikely name and the pulling power of a tow-truck. Alongside a credible cast of supporting characters, they explore both the strategic and personal impacts of the quarantine. Now, I wanted an easy read - some interesting ideas and a well developed world. And for 90% of the book, it delivered - even if it was turning into a bit of a breathless chase by that point. But, at the 90% mark (thank goodness for Kindles' percentage display) there was a twist that simply defied belief. All the good work to that point was shattered as readers were expected to accept a paradigm shift that was inconsistent with the basic premises we had come to believe. It's not simply that the twist was unwelcome, it is that it shatters the consistency of the novel up to that point. And when a reader loses the suspension of disbelief, the game's up. A book cannot recover once the reader no longer believes the writer. The characters crumble, the story is just words on a page. It is such a pity because, up to that point, Flowertown had real promise. Oh, and at the risk of spoiling things, the ending contains a huge signpost that a sequel is in the offing. It might as well have said "to be continued". Sadly, I won;t be continuing because I no longer believe in the people or their story. But three stars for the well-written bulk of the book. ***00
  13. The Circle is a book that will appeal to readers who like a novel to have a message. A message written in such unambiguous terms that even the most unobservant reader couldn't miss it. It will appeal to readers who like to be beaten around the head with the message until it hurts. The Circle is an internet service provider that joins people's records together. We follow new recruit, Mae Holland, as she starts work in the futuristic offices of The Circle, somewhere in the greater San Francisco area. The offices have every amenity an employee could want; free food, free drink, free clothes, free accommodation. There's really no reason to leave. And the emphasis is on community, on fun and participation. Being a Circler is not just a job, it is a way of life. In return for all the free stuff, Circlers are expected to "zing" every second thought that pops into their heads; to respond to surveys; to go to parties; and to join networks. Mae finds herself drawn into the power centre of the organisation, piloting new technologies and "transparency". She feels fierce loyalty to the organisation, partly because she feels indebted to her personal friend Annie, one of the senior managers who got her the job, and partly because of the support that The Circle has offered to her in her personal life. But she also has to deal with the lack of enthusiasm of her parents and her former partner Mercer. And then there's the mysterious Kalden, a wraith like man who pops out of the office shadows to plant seeds of doubt into Mae's mind. The Circle's objective is to remove all privacy, open all secrets. Secrets are lies. The goal is to record everything anyone does, from cradle to grave. Of course, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to be afraid of. People would no longer do things they felt they should hide - an end to crime. And even the recording of the most intimate moments would lose their capacity to embarrass once everyone's intimate moments were captured and made available to everyone else (though observant readers will spot the gaping inconsistency in the plot as bathroom breaks are conveniently allowed to be taken in silence). The message, of course, is that total transparency is not a good thing and that people need some personal space. But this is a message delivered through staged, set piece speeches and presentations in meetings and seminars. Some characters exist to be nothing more than mouthpieces for these arguments - but of course, the arguments for sharing are grotesque and the arguments against are unanswerable. There is no real prospect of allowing the reader to weigh up arguments and come to his or her own conclusion - the message is so obvious and driven home so relentlessly. The novel would have benefited from allowing shades of grey; from incorporating real moral dilemmas. The Circle is not all dreadful. The "fantasy office" is created well although it has been done before (e.g. Iain Banks: The Business) and the sense of surveillance is compelling, although owing a debt to The Truman Show. There is a good illustration of "groupthink" at play. But the characterisation is thin and the plot is predictable. The ending - and any of various moments of revelation - feel like they have been telegraphed and floodlit far in advance. Dave Eggers can do better than this... ***00
  14. The Swan Book is a difficult read. There are metaphors within metaphors, literary references referring back to various cultures and ages. Broadly, The Swan Book follows the life of an Aboriginal girl, Oblivia Ethyl(ene) Oblivion. Oblivia is rescued as a child from a hollow treetrunk and grows up living in the hull of a ship in a semi-dried lake, being raised by a white woman, Bella Donna. The community seems to be a mixture of exiled aborigines, deemed troublesome by the authorities, and migrants fleeing the effects of climate change around the world. One day, swans come to the lake. The swans seem to be a metaphor for different aboriginal nations, and Oblivia seems to be a cipher for aboriginal consciousness. She is distant from her community and spends much of her time in a dream-like state. Then, one day, the lake is visited by Warren Finch, an aboriginal politician who has become vice president of Australia. Finch appears to be revered by mainstream society as the acceptable, approachable face of aboriginal culture. The trouble is, Oblivia and the swans can't recognise him at all. Finch claims Oblivia as his promised wife and takes her away to his home in the city where she spends half her time playing the role of Australia's first lady, and half her time effectively held prisoner by Finch's loyal man-servant Machine. The book considers questions of Aboriginal identity, assimilation and self government. Some of the conclusions seem to be pretty bleak; a people brought up on welfare handouts who are unwilling to engage with the mainstream; yet who have been robbed of the skills, culture and freedom to engage in real self-determination. There are close parallels between The Swan Book and Irish legend. Indeed, the text references the Children of Lir - children who were turned into swans and condemned to stay that way for 900 years - as a story passed to Oblivia by Bella Donna. Opening this parallel to Irish legend opens the way to seeing successive waves of settlers on the land. Hence, if the swans are the Tuatha Dé Danann, Oblivia and her people would be the Fir Bolg, and before them was the origin of the lake under the Nemedians. Alexis Wright doesn't seem to offer any way forward (and why should she?), but if the Irish legend analogy is followed through, we would remember that the Tuatha Dé Danann were displaced by the final wave of invaders, the Milesians. Is this an indication that the aboriginals are fighting a doomed battle for survival? The political messages are made more powerful for their cloaking in legend and analogy. The reader has to reach his or her own conclusions, and perhaps each reader will reach different conclusions. This reader, as a relatively recent European migrant to Australia, may impose a different set of cultural values and expectations on the text to those readers who pick up on other textual references. Because, for all the swans, there are other birds. We have brolgas, we have currawongs, we have mynahs and we have Warren Finch. In many of the scenes, the birds have at least equal status to the people. This is certainly not a book that celebrates man's achievements and where cities and aeroplanes and lorries are mentioned, they are depicted very much as pollutants that are small blemishes to a much bigger, older and wiser land. The heavy metaphor, use of dream sequences, absurdity and surreality make this a difficult book. The reader feels as though he or she is seeing just a small part of the full depth of this work. And it leaves a sense of unease with the accepted values and direction of society. But it is worth persevering with, even if much of the pleasure comes from having reached the end rather than the process of reaching it. ****0
  15. A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists is weird. It starts out as a pretty regular, post-apocalyptic vision of Melbourne in 2030. Climate Change has happened and Australia has turned into a furnace that is liable to flood. There is homelessness, people living in shacks and a UN peace keeping force. Infrastructure has broken down; trains seldom run and utilities are unreliable. Water is a scarce and expensive commodity. This is the world in which we meet Caddy, a 30 year old woman whose life has unravelled with the climate. There are hints of a better, more prosperous past. But for now, Caddy drifts from one drink to the next in Peira's shebeen. To pass the time, Caddy writes stories and is currently working on the take of Simon and Sarah, a brother and sister travelling through every part of the United States - as in, standing at least once in every 25 foot square of the land. As we spend more time with Caddy, we discover familiar landmarks and traditions gone slightly wonky. Loudspeakers in the station remind passengers to touch on and touch off every trip - on the non-existent trains. There's still the footy, but some of the teams have merged and others closed. There are vintage bottles of alcopops and luxury hotels that trade on for those who still have money. It's quirky. But not half as quirky as what happens when Caddy's friend Ray happens upon some maps that lead to a whole new world. What happens next will divide readers. For some, it will be a journey of discovery through experimental ideas and literary techniques. For others, it will be confusing and distracting. For my money, it's more on the side of the angels than the demons, but there are times of doubt. For a start, any characterisation that might have happened earlier (not that there was much) is blown out of the water. The plot, too, switches from a gentle progression to a wild and writhing beast. It whips back and forth, leaving very little in the way of sense. But what makes the novel is the strength and abstraction of some of the ideas. One doesn't want to give the game away, but there are touches of Flann O'Brien, shades of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and a goodly dose of Kafka. A Wrong Turn is not a long novel, but it is long enough. Any more and it might have started to grate. How many stars? Let's go for four, two of which are imaginary... ****0
  16. Shift is a prequel - don't read it unless you have already read Wool. Shift sets the scene that we discover in Wool. We find out why people are living in silos, we find out a little bit about how the silos operate and what the game plan might be. And most of all, we discover a lift. That's right, after all the stairs in Wool, we find a perfectly functional lift allowing easy access between floors. In Solo 1. Unlike the early, claustrophobic scenes in Wool, we find narrative switching between silos; we find backstories and time shifts. We find an outside world, albeit one in far history. Some of the key questions - dare one say problems - raised by readers of Wool are addressed in this prequel. But, as prequels often can, Shift tends towards slaying some of the heros of the original work. We see Juliette and Jimmy playing out pre-determined roles; their motives seem somehow less pure and idealistic. They are tainted. The action in Shift switches between three storylines - a newly elected Congressman (Donald) who finds himself in Silo 1; a man called Mission who starts to think independently in Silo 18; and Jimmy in Silo 17 whom we know from Wool. Of these stories, Donald and Jimmy work well. Mission feels like filler; he has no personality and the action around him feels contrived. This is a pity; the opening scenes in Silo 18 in Wool (the Holston storyline) were powerful and deserved a better backstory. Nevertheless, Shift is well written and mostly pretty taut. It may be long but it holds the reader's interest and the pages keep turning. As prequels sometimes do, Shift lacks a decent ending. The ending is simply the original book - which might have been sufficient on its own without beginning or end, but the creation of a beginning necessitates the creation of an end. Fortunately that - in the form of Dust - has recently been released... ****0
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