Monday, 30 June 2014

All This Belongs to Me

Image sourced from here
This has taken me several nights to write this. Mainly as I get started googling Mongolia and can't stop.

I got gifted this book by two very special friends. Interestingly it was from my Czech friends by a Czech writer, but I got no Czech while I read this book. I was expecting a glimmer or two of Prague or somewhere similar and then a dive into the deepest and darkest Mongolia. But on that front I was disappointed

What I was I was thrown into, and then stayed, was into the lives of a family living in the shadow of the Red Mountain as they called it. I'm not sure exactly the population, but thanks to wiki, I can tell you how many livestock animals live in the area. Kind of shows what is the most important thing in these peoples lives. Who cares about how many people there are, they all are stuffed without livestock.

We are introduced to a family living in a ger (yurt) under these mountains, which includes 4 daughters, no sons. This is an element of tension already in the family, but add in that the two middle daughters seem to be products of infidelity (given away really by different racial characteristics), and this makes for a happy family of 7 (grandma's there too) in a small tent. The book is then told in 6 parts, 4 by 3 of the sisters, 1 by the mother, and 1 by a daughter of one of the sisters.

It's a fascinating story really. You have the life on the land in the family ger, the girls being sent off to socialist state boarding school for nomadic kids (compulsory I have just learnt. Due to this policy they pretty much got rid of illiteracy!), some of the girls moving to the capital city and dealing with an incredibly different world, and the challenges they and their family have with this cultural change.

There is so much change occurring in the this book. Socialism to capitalism. Traditional culture to modernity. Rural to urban. And then other underlying problems tied to the above such as poverty and alcoholism. It's a thin book (under 200pp) but it is full of issues.

I loved learning about the culture (hence the constant googling). I have had a fascination with Mongolia since I was a little kid. People living in tents in high mountains and freezing conditions or deserts, moving around whenever they wish. For an urban aussie kid, this was a magical place. You really feel the remote landscape while in the family home, which is impressive to convey the feeling of remoteness while focusing on a tent with 7ish people crammed inside. Again, as with a few books I've read lately, none of the family were instantly likeable. And I feel this is what let the book down. I just needed someone to engage with, and that was lacking. And for me, that's what I need to take a good book, to an amazing one.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Children of Men

Image sourced from here
First up, I can't get my head around the science of this book. I don't think that was the point at all. The author had an idea, and then built the story up around that idea. What happens to our world if we just stop reproducing. Not by choice, we just stop. How would that fundamentally change our society? How would we act? What would we care about? Really interesting premise, mass sterility. However, I can't get my head around that basic biological fact.

But one scientific problem is dealable. Unlike previous reads where all science seems to be completely and utterly thrown out the window. Here is this problem, can we deal with it and move on? Especially seeing it's not dealt with in detail, just as a thing we know about? Answer is yes. I could move on.

And I am glad I did. PD James' storytelling is great. I really do like her writing. She just has that style of writing that draws you in, envelops you and makes you feel safe. Which is a weird feeling when she is telling you about the dictatorship that has taken over the United Kingdom, or the state enforced "suicides" of the old and demented (interestingly enough, in the idyllic, seaside village where I visited my friend doing her gap year. The school is mentioned by name), or you know, the mass extinction of your species. But don't worry too much dear, have a cup of tea and a biscuit. It completely suits the book though, with an ever ageing population with no children to replace it.

While there are flashes of brilliance in this book, like the storytelling, or moments within the story, I wasn't overly won over. I liked the dictator, even though he had a weird authoritarian system in place. But there were elements of that regime that I understood and even vaguely agreed with (although implementing them would be a completely different thing all together). I didn't overly like our protagonist. I didn't buy the "love" story at all. And I must admit there was a whole element of "saviour" that I found a little odd.

The book took an interesting idea and explored it slightly. Then whacked it together with a lot of other thoughts. Some of them worked for me, some didn't. Glad I have read it, but I won't be bashing down anyone's doors forcing them to do the same.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Knots and Crosses

Image by me.
I've been meaning to read a Rebus novel for a very long time. Ian Rankin has almost grown to mythic proportions in my world over the last 9 years. At uni, a friend of mine (who went on to be a housemate and so much more) wrote her Honours thesis on these books. For most of that year, I couldn't for the life of me actually work out what her thesis was about. I thought I was missing something. But it has ended up sinking in. For one whole year of her life, she wrote about and studied Scottish murder mysteries and crime fiction. I also have realised I chose the wrong degrees.

So I eventually thought I needed to work out what all the fuss what about and got myself the first Rebus novel. This book did read like a first novel in many ways. Every now and then there was a clunky turn of phrase or a little logic jump in the plot. But if I had written this as my first novel, I would have been incredibly happy.

Mainly because it does exactly what I as a reader want my crime fiction to do. Give me an interesting protagonist with a good background story to fill in the down times of the book, who tracks down clever nasty people and stops them from being nasty again. Rebus seems to have buckets and buckets of back story as well (yay for troubled, broody, European policemen. Where would us crime readers be without them?).

The bonus to this book is that this is all happening in Edinburgh so the book is full of Scots, and also has that absolutely beautiful city as a backdrop. I am so fortunate to have gone there before reading this book. Rankin turns the city into an inseparable part of the novel, like a character really, that just adds this other dimension to the story.

It's a short novel (I read it in a day), and a pretty good read as an introduction to a series ... 18?... books long. I will be revisiting Edinburgh and paying another visit to Inspector Rebus, without a doubt.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Oryx and Crake

Imaged sourced from here
I don't really like horror books. I find them unrealistic, usually funny and not very scary. But what does scare me are believable dystopias. Ones I can see us hurtling or even just crawling towards. Political decisions leading us towards a dictatorship we don't recognise. Reliance on technology or medicine that leads to dependence and thus control. Censoring to the point of lack of free thought, or lack of an educated population to challenge authority. Completely and utterly ignoring the looming ecological disaster that is coming towards you from a stubborn state of denial. Each and everyone one of these statements could in someway be applied to Australia at this point in time, and it's terrifying to think what could just be around the corner from us. But I love reading them, because if you don't think about what could be coming, how do you possibly avoid it? (Besides building a bunker in your backyard of course).

Oryx and Crake is one of these kind of books. It's completely perturbing as you can see it all happening. Everything is rather plausible. Of course as with most scifi, there are a few scientific jumps, but not to the realms of unlikely. And most terrifyingly, even if you sit and think on it for hours and hours, you're not quite sure how to, of if we could, stop it.

This was a very welcome surprise. I have had mixed experiences with Margaret Atwood. I enjoyed The Handmaid's Tale for the same reasons as this book. Lexx has read it too, and wasn't as taken with it as me. I do wonder whether there is something particularly chilling about that book that you can only fully get as a woman. The lurking misogyny lingering at the fringes (and in the spotlight more often than we'd like) of our culture. All it needs is a catalyst...  I have also read The Blind Assassin, which I did not enjoy much at all and honestly wish I could get the time back I spent reading that novel.

As you will have guessed though, this book fell squarely on the good side of Atwood's books. I did feel though that there was an awful lot of backstory while I was reading it. I wasn't sure how much of Jimmy's childhood was really relevant, or was it just Atwood trying to build up a society. At the end of the book I definitely felt more of it was relevant than I had thought while reading the first three quarters of the book. Not meaning to spoil at all, just saying, if you are struggling with this too, stick with it.

The book is a pretty substantial rollercoaster through the emotions. Anger, disgust, sympathy, empathy, outrage, heartbreak. What it isn't, is a hardcore scifi, and that's what I love. I am more about the sociological, psychological scifis. That gets me going. However, if you are all about the SCIENCE! in your science fiction and want to move into the softer elements of scifi, this isn't a bad option as there is a heap of biology and logic discussions to "ease" you in. And terrify you.

Sunday, 1 June 2014


Image sourced from here
Sarah Waters is a genius. A twisty, little genius. She has this ability to lead you along a story, where you are all comfortable with how it's going, and how it got there. But then she completely spins you around without warning. Everything you relied on is wrong, and yet makes complete sense just like the story you believed in the first place. And you feel so goddamn stupid that you never, ever saw it coming. But it's okay, you'll pay attention now, you've worked out her ruse. Then BAM! She does it again! And again and again... genius.

Fingersmith, from the three books I have read of hers so far, is the most adept at this. Possibly because the subject matter lends itself more easily to this. The book focuses on two characters playing a con on a rich, young woman in order to access her fortune. The list of characters feature con artists, forgers and petty thieves. It's a clever concept and one Waters executes fantastically.

What I will remark on though, is that compared to Affinity and Tipping the Velvet, the sense of place is not as developed in this book. In her other books I almost felt that London was a character in her books, but not so much this time. Mind you, with so much else going on, this may not have been such a bad thing.

I'm sorry for the vague review. I just feel like if I discuss the book in more depth I will accidentally spoil something for you. I also do feel like I have hit a bit of Sarah Waters fatigue. I tend not to read the same author in a row very often, or even the same genre back to back. And I have read 3 of her books in 6 months, 2 within one month, due to group reads and buddy reads that came up and I didn't want to turn the opportunity down. I wonder if I had read it later if it would have been a 5 star for me? All speculation, but still a brilliant read any way.