Monday, 31 January 2011

Sister Alice by Robert Reed

Very, very close to being mind-blowingly amazing.

It's set at least 10 million years in the future, when humans have become immortal gods. Some humans at least - the clone members of the "thousand families." It starts as youngsters of some of the families (already hundreds of years old by this point) are growing up, taking part in ritual snowball fights. The action starts when Alice of the Chamberlain family (one of the oldest clones) returns home to Earth with some very bad news.

Despite being fairly short this does feel like an epic. It stretches over thousands of years, the ambition is immense and there's some great character arcs going on. Unusually, it gets better the further you get into it.

The most impressive aspect is how these unthinkably powerful humans are portrayed. They don't need spaceships to travel, but it's not as if they're flying through space like Superman. They still haven't broken light speed, and journeys and battles take hundreds and thousands of years relative to the relatively normal humans on nearby planets. They're made up "talents" - different abilities created from normal matter, dark matter, dark energy and exotic matter. Indescribable, yet described really well.

It reminded me of two books in particular (well three, if you include Marrow, which is Robert Reed's first book) - Olaf Stapledon's Starmaker and Dune. Starmaker's a fairly straightforward comparison because it takes the long view of the universe, and deals with god-like being who create new worlds, galaxies and universes. Dune because of the ruthless manipulation and breathtaking trickery going on between massively powerful families.

It's not perfect - I felt the addition of some of the characters towards the end was a bit redundant. The start drags a bit and the lead character Ord isn't very interesting (clones, eh?) But very impressive stuff overall.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks


Quantum of Solace had more recognisable Bond elements than Casino Royale - a car chase, a speedboat chase, a plane chase and a dead girl in a hotel room covered in an expensive commodity. And it was arguably the worst movie in the entire series. It's not all about shoving in as many scenes copied from other 007 movies as you can, as Sebastian Faulks should've realised.

Devil May Care is the official sequel, launched with massive hype a few years back, with respected novelist Faulks writing as Ian Fleming. It's about a villain with a funny hand called Dr Julius Gorner (Dr Julius No) with an inscrutable oriental henchman called Chagrin (Oddjob) who's flooding the west with drugs (Mr Big in Live and Let Die) but he also plans to instigate a nuclear war (Blofeld in You Only Live Twice) to get revenge on Britain, which he detests (Hugo Drax.) Bond's first meeting with Gorner is when he wins a game for high stakes despite the rotter cheating - tennis in this case (golf in Goldfinger, bridge in Moonraker, chemin de fer in Casino Royale.) And the henchman Chagrin is killed when he tries to jump Bond and his lady friend on a train (Red Grant in From Russia with Love.)

I wouldn't have a problem with this mish-mash of previous characters and scenes if it was done well, but there so many missed opportunities. There's the interesting addition of an ekranoplan (A real soviet invention - half plane, half boat) but nothing's done with it! Why not have Bond fighting people on the outside of it as goes at 250 miles an hour a few yards above the Caspian Sea? He ends up deep behind enemy lines in Russia at the height of the cold war, but gets out with the minimum of effort. And there's a twist at the end which manages to be pointless, stupid and obvious.

Some of the action sequences are pretty good, including a fight on board a plummeting passenger jet, and I did enjoy the tennis match. But the bits I probably liked best were about food, strangely. There's a lengthy sequence about an Iranian banquet, descriptions of wine, martinis and coffee, and caviar seems to be mentioned every few pages. This really helped the sense of place and time - I got a strong sense of luxurious living in 1967. Or maybe I'm just greedy.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

An unruly toddler causes trouble at a barbeque in Australia. He goes to hit an older boy with a cricket bat, and gets the titular slap off the other kid's father. This sets off a massive barney; the police are called, it goes to court and friends and family draw up battle lines over the rights and wrongs of whacking this horrible child.

It's told in linear fashion, but each chapter is from the point of view of a different person who was at the party. And it's a wide spectrum - from the mother of the toddler to the man who hit him, but also from schoolkids and grandparents who've been drawn into the drama. You get to see things from changing perspectives and nothing's as cut and dried as it looks at first glance.

Except it is really. This kid's a nightmare. He's fawned over by his creepy mum (still getting breastfed at four), and he parrots slogans like "no-one can touch my body without my permission." It feels like the author's making it pretty obvious he thinks children like this could do with a good slap now and then.

But perhaps I'm wrong - one of the points the books makes is that there are three kinds of people in the world - men, women and mothers. Perhaps a mother reading this book will think it's always unacceptable for someone to slap your child, no matter their behaviour. They'd be wrong, of course.

The whole slap thing is really a way to look at issues of parenthood, love, desire, growing up, growing old, disappointment, money, class, race and roots. It's very skillfully done - the characters are believable and interesting, and the different storylines are well handled with some unexpected twists and red herrings. One of the characters writes for a soap opera, and this is what it reminded me of - a good soap.

This was a book on tape, and I'm now listening to Devil May Care the "official" Bond book by Sebastian Faulkes. I'll be finished that soon. But my reading's taken a bit of a battering this month. I've started four books and finished none. The title of 2666 I suspect refers to the number of pages you have to read before something happens. I've been enjoying Thunderstruck about Doctor Crippen and the invention of the wireless. Pretty interesting, but I don't know if I'll finish it. Also, PJ O'Rourke's latest. He's nowhere near as funny as he used to be. And a miscelleny of weird facts and opinions from ancient Romans. I'll certainly finish that one (it's short) and then I'll have to take stock. My bad old habits are returning.