Category Archives: 3 shoes

Review: Fram

Fram
Fram by Steve Himmer

It’s not often I read a book and think ‘hmmm, that was quite odd.’ And yet with Fram I couldn’t quite figure out what to make of it. It is very much a book of two halves. I developed huge fondness for the main character, Oscar, a man whose obsessive love of the concept of the north pole (charmingly abbreviated by his longsuffering wife to PF, or Polar Fever), and his unquestioning bureaucratic dedication mean that Oscar has his dream government job at the bizarre Bureau of Ice Prognostication, complete with its ridiculous, meticulous processes and shroud of secrecy. He has a dream marriage too; however it is at risk of going sour. But then Oscar finds himself sent north on a secret, inexplicable mission fraught with peril that anyone with less bureaucratic dedication might find perturbing… Oscar is brilliant. I loved the first half of this book. But with his bizarre mission to the north pole, or somewhere like that, I started to love it a bit less. I got impatient reading it. There were questions that were never answered. I flicked through some bits about a hunter that I didn’t quite get. It all turned into a strange sort of adventure which was entertaining, a bit inexplicable, and ultimately either hopeful or hopeless. I heard Steve Himmer speak about the book (and he was brilliant) and when asked about how it ended, he refused to reveal his intent. So whether pessimism or optimism… apparently that depends on the reader. Having heard him speak just before I finished it, and knowing his intent, this left me in a state of angsty lack of resolution.

Rating: 3/5 shoes

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The Forever Watch by David Ramirez

One-sentence synopsis: The world has ended, and Hana happily lives aboard the Noah, a giant spaceship transporting the remainder of humanity on a hundreds-of-years journey to a distant planet – until she discovers there’s a grisly secret.

It’s a bad sign when you go to write a review of a book finished a couple of days ago and think: “gosh, what was that about again?” The Forever Watch was recommended to me by a friend, and as a dystopia enthusiast, I was excited about reading it. I was partly rewarded, but mostly left unfulfilled.

First, I will say that this is an ambitious and well realised sci fi world. The author sets up a meticulously detailed civilisation inside the massive spaceship Noah where a whole population lives and works together to keep the spaceship running as efficiently as possible on its long journey to the distant planet where humanity will eventually repopulate. Everyone has a role according to their talents, and everyone’s talents are somehow augmented. There is a complicated, cool system of tapping into humans’ powers to achieve different things and to communicate in a way that is fascinating and compelling (and explained with slightly too much detail).

Descriptions of life onboard the Noah take up the first third of the book, and this was my favorite part – though I’ve read other reviews complaining that this part dragged. It clearly depends on whether the reader’s taste is for daily life in a dystopia (me) or murder mystery hijinks and peril (really not me). The last two thirds of the book involves a complicated hunt for the truth, involving a certain amount of highly complicated technology use. This was done reasonably well though I kept getting confused about what was happening.

The element of the book that put me off the most was Hanna’s relationship with ‘my man’, ‘my lion’, ‘my beast’, aka her unconventional boyfriend, a policeman with a mission to uncover a secret, which he draws her into. Every time she spoke about him like that, it made me cringe, and like both of them less.

There were all sorts of fascinating questions explored in this book, and the dystopia was well realized. Other than her sloppy soppy way of referring to her boyfriend, I liked Hanna a lot as a main character. Plus the ending is good.

The reviews I’ve read have mostly been glowing. Personally, I can name about 30 sci fi books I’ve enjoyed more. Nevertheless, an interesting read. But one I nearly ditched with a third of the book to go due to boredom, irritation, and lack of taste for murder mysteries…

Rating: 3/5 shoes

Greyhound by Steffan Piper

One sentence synopsis: negligent mother sends her 12 year old son alone on a 3-day cross-country Greyhound bus trip where he learns about life.

Greyhound was an enjoyable romp through a depressing theme. Sebastian’s mother is rubbish and ditches him in favour of her latest boyfriend. He’s sent across America to live with his grandparents on the Greyhound bus, and 95% of the book is that journey. Various alarming things happen, but he befriends a guy and various other characters who give him insights into life and try to look after him in their own ways – more looking after than he ever received at home.

It’s not great literature, but it’s fairly well done and certainly the story is compelling – I stayed up late to finish it. Its main problem is failing to capture the voice of this 12 year old boy – the author constantly uses words that clearly Sebastian would never use, or even know, which jolted me out of the story every time. And some of his musings would only make sense if he was looking back on the trip as a worly weary older man, which he isn’t. This failure to grasp the right tone for the book’s protagonist and narrator is fairly distracting.

Sebastian himself doesn’t have much character to him – he’s more of a blank slate on which the other, colorful characters write. But somehow it all pulls together despite its flaws. This is a road trip book in the American tradition, with a pleasing sprinkle of bus nerdery. It is surprisingly satisfying.

Rating: 3/5 shoes

A batch of holiday reading: We Are Water, His Dark Materials trilogy, TransAtlantic, and The Dispossessed

I recently returned from a delightful trip to Costa Rica. In between all the hiking and rafting and tubing and cocktail drinking, I was of course reading. And now I return, faced with an intimidating prospect of six book reviews. So, dear reader, I shall cheat. Behold, some short reviews of  the books I read during my 11 day vacation!

We Are Water by Wally Lamb

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One sentence plot: Told from the perspective of several characters, this is a study of families, abuse, marriage, and how to be happy – plus art, gay and race subplots.

One sentence review: This took me inexplicably long to get through, considering it was compelling, funny, interesting, distressing, intriguing, engaging, and clever – all the good stuff I’ve grown to expect from Wally Lamb, and it was indeed good.

The verdict: 4/5

His Dark Materials Trilogy – The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

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One sentence plot: An epic coming of age/fight of good against evil where the boundaries blur as young Lyra moves between parallel universes in a race to save the world.

One sentence review: This is a suspenseful, complex and intelligent adventure, with compelling, multidimensional characters, and lots to say about the institution of religion, in a beautifully, imaginatively, believably drawn set of worlds, full of their own customs, joys and terrors.

The verdict: The Golden Compass gets 5/5, The Subtle Knife gets 4/5 and the Amber Spyglass gets 3/5. If this is your sort of thing, beware of finishing the first book without ensuring the next one is close at hand…

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

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One sentence plot: A series of intergenerational, interlinked stories spanning from the first TransAtlantic flight, between the US and Ireland, that depict various personal and sociopolitical elements of the US-Ireland relationship over 150 years.

One sentence review: McCann is trying to recreate the luminous Let The Great World Spin but the same device that worked so well for that book is awkward and self-conscious here, sometimes giving moments of beauty and delight, but often feeling labored and a bit irritating – though I really liked the history of the first TransAtlantic flight…

The verdict: 3/5

The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin

dispossessed

One sentence plot: A utopia/dystopia sci fi book set between the two societies of a capitalist world and its anarchist/feminist/communist moon, through the eyes of a brilliant scientist who loves his own world, but faces disillusionment when he looks for science to rise above politics.

One sentence review: This is a rather clever and thought provoking story of two beautifully drawn societies, embodying some really interesting ideas about politics and power, while providing intricate, fascinating detail of life in each society, with an interesting, suspenseful plot and a main character who provides a good lens through which to view it all.

The verdict: 4/5 stars

The Outward Urge by John Wyndham

One-Sentence plot
A speculative history of five stages of space exploration, each fifty years apart, told through the eyes of five generations of the space-going Troon family.

The Outwrd Urge

The review
I have never made a secret of my love of John Wyndham. He lured me into the world of science fiction, a genre I had previously avoided with unjustified prejudice. I always love his narrative voice and measured tone, his imagination, his characters, and his compelling future-based stories. I particularly loved The Chrysalids and the Midwich Cuckoos, but to be honest I’ve enjoyed all of them. So when my lovely wife tracked down the out-of-print The Outward Urge, I leapt upon it.

To be honest, after all that excitement, I was a bit disappointed. It’s perhaps unfair to review a book I anticipated being so excellent – I feel cheated because it is only good, and hold it against The Outward Urge that it is not another Chrysalids. However, in its own right it is an interesting book. Before the first moon landing, John Wyndham was imagining not just that landing, but landings on Mars, Venus, and the Asteroid Belt. He was imagining the sociopolitical implications, the geopolitical implications, and the personal pull towards the stars – and its consequences. His ideas are ahead of their time, but it’s possible to imagine a world in which they are disturbingly, fascinatingly prophetic. There are a lot of ideas in this little book. What, in my feeling it lacks, is plot and characters. Which is a pretty damning assessment – but I’m making it sound worse than it is.

Of course there are characters – the various members of the Troon family. This book is, ostensibly, their history. But somehow, I didn’t bond with any of them. They felt a bit devoid of personality, a bit interchangeable, a bit lacking in real lives outside their space exploits, save for mentions of their children who will grow up to star in the next chapter. I wondered if it’s because each character only briefly featured in the book but no – my wife gave me Wyndham’s The Seeds of Time for Christmas. In these short stories, the characters were often quite vivid. When the punchline comes at the end of this book, I didn’t even really remember the relevant characters sufficiently to feel excited or intrigued by it.

Similarly the plot – these are five little vignettes, and were apparently published separately, with the final one added as an afterthought to pull it all together. This is quite apparent in the reading of the book. There are frustratingly insufficient links between the vignettes and the last one is therefore rendered a bit confusing – too little too late, an add on rather than a clearly planned twist. There isn’t much of a plot – it’s more a dispassionate recounting of a futuristic history. Which is not what I’d expect of this author.

That said, I love John Wyndham’s writing and imagination. I enjoyed the book. It was very interesting. It was nicely written. I just can’t forgive it for not being The Chrysalids…

The verdict: 3/5 shoes

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

One sentence plot
A man’s experiences and observations of an invasion from Mars bent on the destruction of humans in Victorian England.

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The review
The first book in my classic sci fi challenge, I quite enjoyed The War of the Worlds. Having somehow not read it or seen any of the adaptations (including the radio play version which reputedly had Americans believing the invasion was really happening and causing national panic…), I didn’t know how it would end, which made for a suspenseful read as these Martians land, construct machinery, and kill everything in their paths.

The story is narrated by a dispassionate, slightly pompous, ‘ordinary’ Englishman observer, akin in style to the narrator in The Hopkins Manuscript, or plenty of the John Wyndhams. This book must be one of the originators of this particular tone of narrator, which seems to permeate much of the sci fi I’ve encountered. However, I must admit I enjoyed the Hopkins Manuscript and the Wyndham narrative voices more. There was something a bit irritating about this man. And like all the other characters in this book, he seemed a bit two dimensional, just playing out his purpose in the plot without evoking personal sympathy or even much interest.

As the book progresses, it feels a bit unusual compared to some of the adventure style sci fi stories encountered today. I wonder whether calling it ‘war of the worlds’ is in fact ironic – as the narrator notes, it’s no more war than the act of humans crushing an anthill. The point of this book is a treatise on Darwinian philosophy – humans may currently be at the top of the food chain, and hold the power in the world – but it only takes a more sophisticated species to emerge for humans to lose all that power we currently have, and be crushed, reduced to a pet, or food supply… If survival of the fittest is true, we shouldn’t assume that humans will always be the fittest. Also, should we think more carefully about how we treat other living things? Intriguing, progressive,and thought provoking ideas. This book was first published in 1898.

Its other unusual point is that there is not some great climactical battle. It doesn’t play out like that at all. Granted this made for a read that was occasionally a bit dull. (This book was not a page turner for me – it took oddly long for me to get through it.) But on the other hand, I really liked this thoughtful, measured approach to the destruction of civilization: rather than dramatics, humans simply have to lie down and concede they are already defeated, and the survivors to consider their few options. All with an occasional wry tone which I enjoyed. I’d have liked to have heard more about what was happening abroad. But in general the conclusion felt quite satisfying. I don’t think this will be my favorite sci fi book of the year, but it’s a classic of great influence on the development of the genre that I’m glad to have read.

The verdict: 3/5 shoes

Light Boxes by Shane Jones

One sentence plot
A fantastical, whimsical fairy tale of a village rebelling against a never-ending winter with an allegorical twist.

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The Review
Ever since I finished this little book I’ve been swithering on my opinion. Was it an inspired, quirky, charming delight of a fable, beautifully rendered? Was it an insipid, self-conscious attempt to be clever and philosophical? Was it an allegorical autobiography of a writer’s depression? A metaphor-ridden study of seasonal affective disorder? A creepy, imagery-rich essay? A magical, whimsical poem? I think it might have been all of these.

The book, written mostly in one-page chapters, with font size and placement taking on particular significance, begs to be read in a single sitting. I obliged, and as I turned the pages the story unfolded: the little town whose inhabitants loved to fly in hot air balloons is trapped in an unremitting winter dubbed ‘February’, which robs them of their flight, their children and their joy in the world. They eventually rebel with all sorts of whimsical methods of defeating ‘February’, who indeed is increasingly personified until, well, I never really understand how to use the latest word in vogue, ‘meta’, but if I did, I suspect it would be an apt adjective here. Until it all becomes a bit meta. Mustn’t give more away. If that’s something you like, great. If it’s annoying, I’m with you.

This book promised a lot. But for all its poetic set-up and moments of beauty, occasional elements were worldly and jarring (how could mentioning myspace have seemed like a good idea?), and as it veered towards its conclusion it became increasingly self-absorbed and prosaic. In my view, be whimsical, or don’t be whimsical – a combination works poorly.

However, I must be fair: this book delivers a lot of its promise. Until I started writing this review, I still hadn’t really decided if I thought it was brilliance or saccharine pomposity. There are elements of both. But I bet the author is feeling very proud of how very clever he is. And looking forward to making money from the perhaps inevitable film version. Which annoys me enough to demote the book to a rating of 3/5. But it’s a short, fascinating read that I think will affect different people in very different ways. So don’t be deterred! This one’s hard to pin down, except to say: unusual.

The verdict: 3/5 shoes