Sep 21

Review: Time Heist

[SPOILERS]

Another good episode of Doctor Who. Once again radically different in tone than what we saw last week. And while I enjoyed last weeks more, I was well and truly entertained by Stephen Thompson’s best Doctor Who script. (With Moffat as co-writer I can’t help wonder how much of the script was re-written. I’d like to think that it was a genuinely collaborative effort, but as with the RTD era, I’m going to guess that a good chunk of the dialogue is Moffat’s).

Because it’s a story that’s trying very hard to be clever and a bit twisty, the plot doesn’t entirely hold together. Or more to the point I felt like crucial bits of exposition were left on the cutting room floor. For example, why wasn’t the bank protected against solar fares? Or better yet, why was it situated close to an unstable star? Is it because the flare wasn’t expected? I’m assuming that’s the case, but the episode doesn’t tell us.

And then there’s the question of why the Doctor doesn’t just take his TARDIS straight to the Private Vault before the solar storm. OK, yes, the Director is still present. But so what? It doesn’t looks like she’s that well defended and I’m sure this Doctor would have done something a bit naughty to release Mrs Teller.

I think that issue a little easier to answer. For one, the Doctor doesn’t know about Mrs Teller until he’s told. So going further back in time to rescue Mrs Teller would have resulted in a paradox – i.e. he has knowledge of something that was never imparted to him. There’s also some guff mentioned late in the episode about a telepathic link between the Teller and the Director. I got the impression that the only way Mrs Teller could be freed was for that link to be broken and the only time the link is broken is when the Director leaves the bank. In anycase, I think the episode just about gets away with it.
And frankly, even with those niggles I still enjoyed the ride. The episode looked wonderful. The direction was slick. The Teller is a great idea, complete with a shitty Doctor Who wobble effect. The shot of the man with his head caved in is genuinely icky. (I love how the episode keeps coming back to that caved in head, as if to say – LOOK AT HOW AWFUL AND ICKY THIS IS!!!!!)

Capaldi goes from strength to strength. He’s still a cool… pragmatic Doctor… willing to give someone a suicide pill rather than try his best to save them – because in his mind that is saving them. But here, for the first time, we get glimpses of a twinkle in his eyes and his step. A genuine sense of happiness that his friends didn’t die and best of all that he got the chance to reunite two members of a race. Yes, it was reminiscent of Hide, but as Paul Ebbs notes somewhere on Facebook, it was lovely that the thing the Doctor wanted the most was to save a species.

Time Heist wasn’t ground breaking. The twist that Doctor is the Architect is obvious and yet for some reason satisfying. Possibly because it gives us another side to this very layered new Doctor of ours.

For me this has been a very consistent run of Doctor Who. This is the most I’ve enjoyed the show since Moffat took the reigns. May that consistency continue…

Sep 21

Review: Robot of Sherwood (sort of) and Listen

[MINOR SPOILERS]
I didn’t review Robot of Sherwood last week because I didn’t have much to say. I thought it was fun episode with a silly ending that had me laughing out loud a couple of times.
The hatred toward it has been over the top. As much I respect and enjoy Grant Watson’s reviews, there’s no way it was the third worst episode in the shows history, it wasn’t even Gatiss’ third worst script for New Who. (Idiots Lantern is terrible, Victory of the Daleks is a wasted concept with an ending that makes Robot look smart and original and the Ice Warrior one is a predictable yawn-fest).

If Robot has done anything it’s showing how the mood and tone of Doctor Who can change so radically from episode to episode. That’s one thing this season has got spot on – dark and gritty followed by comedy romp followed by quiet and spooky and introspective.

And Listen, frankly, was a masterpiece. Rather than malign it by calling it Moffat’s greatest hits, instead it’s a culmination of those things that have always interested Moffat. That is that Doctor Who is at it’s best when the monster is a product of our fears and anxieties and that children are both a victim of this but also the best at dealing with those fears because of their wild eyed curiosity and innocence. And while he might not be innocent, the Doctor has often been compared to a child and so it should be no surprise that what terrifies him is intangible and not entirely rational.

That whole paragraph got away from me. What I’m saying is that I unreservedly loved this episode.

Sep 19

National Book Awards Longlist

Over the last few days the National Book Awards have been announcing their longlists in categories such as Poetry, Non Fiction and Young Adult. Today was the turn of fiction. Here are the ten nominees:

Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press/ Grove/Atlantic)

Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans (W. W. Norton & Company)

John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner/ Simon & Schuster)

Phil Klay, Redeployment (The Penguin Press/ Penguin Group (USA))

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House)

Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories (The Dial Press/ Random House)

Richard Powers, Orfeo (W.W. Norton & Company)

Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jane Smiley, Some Luck (Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House)

I haven’t read any of the books on the longlist, though I am aware of the Powers and Phil Klay’s Redeployment which received quite a bit of hype when it was published earlier this year. I’ve also heard very good things about Molly Antopol’s short story collection.

Also, for those expecting that opening the Man Booker up to US works would result in a large overlap between the Man Booker and NBA longlist, today’s announcement shows that different judges, different tastes. Only Orfeo by Richard Powers appears on both lists.

My intention is to read the shortlist when it’s announced in the middle of October.

Sep 17

Better Late Than Never: The Man Book Shortlist

The Man Booker shortlist was announced on 9 September. The nominees are:

Joshua Ferris (US) — To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (Viking)

Richard Flanagan (Australian) — The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus)

Karen Joy Fowler (US) — We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Serpent’s Tail)

Howard Jacobson (British) — J (Jonathan Cape)

Neel Mukherjee (British) — The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus)

Ali Smith (British) — How to be Both (Hamish Hamilton)

I’m currently in the process of reading all the nominees. I’d already read the Fowler, which I reviewed here. It’s my favourite book of 2013 and I’m looking forward to discussing it on the next episode of Writer and the Critic.

I’ve just finished Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others. It’s an eye opening, confronting and at times angry novel set in India during the late 60s and early 70s. Told through the eyes of the Ghosh family, it’s a book that has something to say about India, about social change, about revolution without you ever feeling that it’s preaching or trying to sell you a message. I thought it was a little long, but overall I highly recommended it.

I’m currently a quarter of the way through the Flanagan which is very good. So, based on 2 and a quarter books I’d say this is a pretty strong short list.

Having said that J by Howard Jacobson, the one clear genre novel on the list, has been praised by mainstream critics while being panned by people I respect in the genre. As a result I can’t wait to read it.

Aug 26

Deep Breath

I know, I know it’s been, like, forever since I blogged here.  I seem to gravitating toward Facebook more.  I have promised myself, though, that when my new ClamCase for the iPad Air arrives in the mail that I will start book reviewing here again.

Anywho, I seem to sharing my thoughts of the new Season of Doctor Who on Facebook.  So I thought I’d cut and paste those thoughts here.  Of course, if you’ve already friended me there then feel free to ignore.  Or friend me on FB.  In anycase I will be cutting and pasting my deep Doctor Who insights here.

________________________________________________________________________________________________

I liked Deep Breath.


[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

It does have its problems though. The first half is poorly paced. There a couple of scenes – like the one where Strax is examining Clara – that feel more suited to an extra on the DVD then being part of the episode. And when the Doctor does a runner, jumping off a bridge into the Thames, the subsequent scenes lack any sense of momentum or action. It’s as if everyone, except for maybe Clara, are going on with the rest of their day as if the Doctor hadn’t vanished and a T-Rex hadn’t caught on fire in the middle of London.

Even the opening feels jerky and wrong. The opening credits – which look gorgeous but sound dreadful – should have crashed in as the T-Rex vomited the TARDIS onto the shore (there’s a sentence you never expect to write). And yet the scene goes on for another three minutes.

Having said that, there’s some nice comedy moments in the first half hour that make Deep Breath watchable. But it’s not until the restaurant scene that the episode picks up and goes from a bit rubbish to good.

The last thirty minutes are great, and apart from a poorly directed action scene toward the end, I loved the fact that this was an episode with a proper ending, rather than the Doctor doing something obvious with the sonic screwdriver. The fact that the Doctor sits down with the villain of the piece to talk before he might have to do something terrible feels interesting and new. I just can’t imagine either 11 or 10 pouring a drink for a baddie while requesting he sit and have a chat. (Maybe 9 would have…)

And that leads onto my assessment of Capaldi. He’s magnificent, but not in the way I expected. His Doctor isn’t like any of his predecessors. Oh, some of the language has a Tennant feel, especially early on, but there’s something unique about Capaldi, how he deals with the moment, how he delivers the lines, how he pours whiskey for the villain, that feels nothing like the Doctor we’ve seen in the last seven years. Yes, his costume has Pertwee overtones but I can’t imagine this Doctor wanting to get into a hovercraft to chase after a spider possessed baddie. And we know he thinks scarves are silly.

Capaldi’s Doctor isn’t just mean or dark or brutal or bad. He has aspects of those things, but like any well rounded character he also has other sides to him. He can smile. He can look anxious. He can have a laugh. And yes, maybe he can kill as well.

Finally, I happen to like Clara. Always have. The bit where she’s hoping, praying the Doctor is behind her, while standing up to the bad guy, is great stuff. But I’d already been sold. And I like how this episode is about Clara dealing with the fact that her best friend is gone forever. She understands what regeneration is but she’s always had her Doctor standing next to her when she’s seen his other faces – more or less. Dealing with the new Doctor is a shock to the system because her dear friend isn’t there to help with the transition… well until that lovely cameo anyway.

So it’s no Eleventh Hour, but Deep Breath (has anyone called it Bad Breath?) is the sort of flawed episode that has enough good and great that you want to see more. Roll on Season 8.

May 26

Book Review – Rupetta by Nike Sulway

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four hundred years ago, in a small town in rural France, a young woman creates the future in the shape of Rupetta. Part mechanical, part human, Rupetta’s consciousness is tied to the women who wind her. In the years that follow she is bought and sold, borrowed, forgotten and revered. By the twentieth century, the Rupettan four-fold law rules everyone’s lives, but Rupetta—the immortal being on whose existence and history those laws are based—is the keeper of a secret that will tear apart the world her followers have built in her name. 

This stunning new novel by award-winning Australian writer Nike Sulway invokes the great tradition of European fantasy/horror fiction and moves it forward in a superbly imaginative, highly original fashion.

Rupetta won the 2013 Tiptree award and was nominated for an Aurealis in the science fiction category.  You only need to read the first few pages of the book to understand why it gained critical attention.  Beginning with the Foreword, Rupetta – who shares the book’s narrative with the historian Henri – tells us that:

I have known loss for centuries.  I have borne the deaths of each of my companions, both dear and tolerated.  I have lost families, loves, houses, villages.  Whole cities, whole nations, have grown and decayed while I persisted.  I have seen rivers change their course, mountains beaten down into hills, oceans swell and subside, seeds grow into great trees only to fall and die and rot.  And yet this loss – the loss of one child – this loss I cannot bear.

If I were human I would weep.

It’s epic and it’s personal and it sets the scene of what’s to come – both in terms of the story and the quality of the writing.  Echoing the intricate cogs and wheels that make up Rupetta’s heart, there’s something both beautiful and meticulous about the prose.  As if each word has been carefully checked and polished to ensure it fits with the word that comes before it and the one that comes after.

But while it’s a delight to read, I never truly engaged with Rupetta’s or Henri’s story.  The writing is evocative but also very earnest, lacking a sense of humour.  The subject matter – twisted faith and historical truth, power and subjugation –  doesn’t lend itself to a slap and a laugh.  But that means that Rupetta and Henri feel one note, always serious even when they’re falling in love.

I also didn’t entirely believe in the world that Sulway has created.  Its antecedents are clearly in steampunk, Rupetta is a clockwork automaton who becomes sentient.  The added wrinkle is that her clockwork heart needs to be wound by someone who has an intimate and psychic bond with her.  Neither Rupetta’s sentience nor the psychic link is adequately explained, we’re asked to take them on face value.  And yet it’s a process that can be replicated to some degree as the privileged few are granted the possible gift of immortality with the replacement of their organic heart with a clockwork facsimile.  Given that people don’t drop dead after the operation, and they seem to live longer lives, I can only assume that whatever magic brought Rupetta into being also plays a role in the Transformation.  I just wish this had been better explained.

But maybe I’m being pedantic and anal.  This isn’t really a book about the science of Rupetta.  Rather it’s an exploration and critique of the religion and culture that has formed since her re-discovery.  The books strength – especially in the first half – is understanding the role a reluctant Rupetta played in the radical development of her society.  What’s interesting here is how Rupetta’s story is at odds with the ‘historical’ truth that’s been built around her – something that Henri becomes aware of.  It’s this conflict between truth and faith that drives the themes and plot of the story.

What I also found refreshing – and what I’m sure caught the eye of the Tiptree judges – is the central role that strong, empowered women of different ideologies and backgrounds play in the formation of their society.  It’s a woman, Eloise, that builds Rupetta.  It’s a woman that re-discovers Rupetta after she’s been left unwound and forgotten.  That same woman, Kamila, introduces the Fourfold Rupettan Law.  And its courageous women, forced to live in the nooks and crannies of their society, who fight against those who slavishly uphold the Fourfold Law.

However, while I can acknowledge the books strengths and appreciate why it’s won and been nominated for awards, at the end of it all, the novel never entirely worked for me.  I should have been more engaged with Rupetta’s tale and Henri’s search for the truth.  And yet more often than not I found my attention drifting.

May 13

Book Review – The Martian by Andy Weir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first man to die there.

It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he’s stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive–and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to get him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills–and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit–he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

Originally self published in 2012, Andy Weir’s The Martian took the Amazon world by storm when it sold 35,000 copies in three months.  Not surprisingly it caught the interest of the big publishers, with Random House releasing the novel earlier this year.  A film option soon followed. And, going by the lavish praise afforded to the book on the interwebs, it’s likely to hit a number of best of lists at the end of the year.

I can absolutely see why.  Not only does it have real science, but it’s also a story about survival, about human ingenuity, about refusing to give up against all odds.  It’s uplifting, it’s positive, it’s thrilling and it’s an antidote to all that ‘message fic’ published by left wing New York publishers. And then there’s good old Mark Watney, our affable hero whose machismo and engineering skills and distrust of authority makes him the perfect example of Heinlein’s competent man.  It’s Mark Watney who gives us such classic observation as:

The lunatics at NASA have me doing all kinds of rape to the MAV…

or

If Commander Lewis were here, I’d do whatever she said, no problem. But a committee of faceless bureaucrats back on Earth? Sorry, I’m just having a tough time with it

or

NASA: By the way, the name of the probe we’re sending is “Iris”. Named after the Greek goddess who traveled the heavens with the speed of wind. She’s also the goddess of rainbows.                                                                                     WATNEY: Gay probe coming to save me. Got it.

What a top bloke!  And we get to spend a good chunk of the novel with him.

Interestingly Weir is unable to sustain the entire book through Watney’s diary entries.  About a quarter of the way through we’re introduced to the NASA officials and technicians trying to save Watney.  It has the effect of killing the tension because rather than experience Watney’s uncertainty – do NASA know I’m still alive?  Are they coming to help me? – the reader is spoon fed what’s going on.  It was a much more interesting novel – though not necessarily a good one – when we were restricted to Watney’s world view.

The Martian is not a terrible novel.  As a piece of storytelling, it’s definitely engaging.  You might think Mark Watney is a dicksplash and you might get bored with all the American exceptionalism or the fact that NASA seems populated by clichéd aspergery geeks who make constant references to Lord of The Rings and other geekery, but to Weir’s credit this is a book that you can zip through.  Ultimately though it’s forgettable fluff.  A nice idea let down by clichéd characters and inability to follow through with the central idea of the novel.

May 01

Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind.

Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man.

And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined.

THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a difficult book to review.

It’s a sentiment I’ve seen echoed by a number of critics caught between the rock of wanting to tease and unpack the novel’s thematic layers and the hard place of not wanting to give away the book’s major revelation.  I appreciate the conundrum.  This is a novel that’s been manufactured and molded around its twist.  Not in a O’Henry, thriller sort of way – OH MY GOD THE KID WAS TALKING TO A DEAD GUY ALL ALONG!!!! – but in how the themes come together once this important puzzle piece is revealed.

That said, a reluctance to spoil Fern’s identity is not the reason why I found it so tough to organise my thoughts about the book.  Conflicting emotions kept getting in the way of the criticism.  I certainly loved the novel.  If I’d read it in 2013, it’s year of publication, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves would have been my favorite book of the year.  But it’s also a book that made me so very angry; especially once it’s revealed that Fern is a chimpanzee, and that her parents decided to bring up their infant daughter, Rosemary, and Fern together as part of an animal human behavior experiment.  Who the fuck does that?!  Was the question I kept asking.  What sort of arrogant selfish parents think it’s a good idea to raise their child with a chimpanzee?!

As a newish father (four years and counting) I know that parenthood is a tough gig.  And that’s when you have a reasonably healthy, normal (whatever that means) child.  You know that every decision you make, ranging from what you feed them to whether you go back to work and send them to daycare, is going to affect their burgeoning personalities and minds.  Because as they’re soaking it in, they can’t helped but be influenced by your decisions.

And fuck me if that isn’t the scariest thing about being a parent.  Destroying your child’s potential because of a stupid decision you made.

As I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I grew increasingly angry because it never seems to occur to the Cooke’s that this decision to bring Fern into their family was going to have lifelong consequences for both their children.  Infant Rosemary and their young, idealistic son Lowell.  Even if Rosemary’s recollection of events isn’t entirely clear, and even if she’s spending a good chunk of the novel trying to come to terms with the truth and her own identity, it seems evident that the Cooke’s sacrificed her potential and the health and well being of Fern for what might be gained from a psychological experiment.

And then… then Fowler does something to gut me completely.  The book, I should say, never feels like a polemic against animal experimentation.  Obviously Fowler. through Rosemary, is not supportive of the practice, but there’s a sense that those who experimented with primates, who did psychological experiments like the Cooke’s, loved the animals as much as their own children, and never wanted either to come to harm.  Yes, the lasting message of the book is that animal experimentation is something that as a society we should avoid at all costs.  But Fowler’s novel isn’t in the mood to point fingers and rant.  It’s much smarter than that.

And it’s with that context that I return back to the bit that gutted me.  Toward the end of the novel we hear from Rosemary’s mother, a person who is slowly making amends with her daughter.  And this is what she says:

We’d been talking about raising a chimpanzee for several years.  All very theoretical. I’d always said I wouldn’t have a chimp taken from its mother. I’d always said it had to be a chimp with nowhere else to go. I kind of thought that would be the end of that. I got pregnant with you and we stopped talking about it.

And then we heard about Fern. Some friends of some friends bought her from poachers at a market in Cameroon, because they hoped we’d want her. They said she was all but dead at the time, just as limp as a rag, and filthy, streaked with diarrhea and covered in fleas. They didn’t expect her to live, but they couldn’t bear to walk away and leave her.  She was listless and uninterested in things. Whenever I saw that she was awake, I’d talk to her, but she hardly seemed to notice. I worried that she wasn’t healthy, after all. Or not very bright. Or so traumatized that she’d never recover.

Still, that was the week she took hold of my heart. She was so little and so alone in the world. So frightened and sad. And so much like a baby. So much like you, only with a lot of suffering added. I told your dad I didn’t see how the two of you could be compared when your world had been so gentle and hers so cruel. But there was no turning back by then. I was deeply in love with you both.

It’s not just that the Cooke’s had thought of the possible consequences of what they were doing, it’s that they saw Fern, and they saw how damaged she was and they wanted to help.  They wanted to make her better.  And they genuinely thought they could.  Maybe a naive belief on their part, and yet a decision made completely from love.  Yes, I cried.  But then it’s that sort of book, one that triggers profound, slightly frightening emotions, the sort that are never easy to confront.  Complicated and conflicted but so beautifully written, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a novel that might be difficult to review but is well worth reading.

Apr 20

I’ve been nominated for a bleeping Hugo Award and other thoughts

At about 5:30 this morning Melbourne, while I slumbered innocently, the Hugo Award nominations for 2014 were announced.  The full list is here.  I could sleep because, as Jonathan Strahan pointed out on an episode of Coode Street a few weeks back, Hugo nominees are made aware of their nomination (so they can confirm and approve) a week before.  So I’ve been yaaaaaying and giggling for a good seven days.  The only thing that has tempered my excitement is the fact that Joshi, Sophie and Jules have all been sick.  And I’m sure I’m next on the list.

Anywho, as I said on Facebook I’m extremely proud about the nomination.  Well, of course I am.  Since I became aware of fandom and the Hugos more than twenty years ago I’ve wanted to be on the ballot.  In those dreams I saw myself winning Best Novel for a multi-book series about the Victorian public service.  And magic.  The fact that I’ve come to be nominated with my BFF Kirstyn for a project that we both dearly love puts those wild, impossible fantasies to shame.  (Though I’m still convinced that stories about an enchanted Victorian public service are a winner!)

So yeah.  I know have a Hugo PIN.  I’ll be wearing the shit out that little rocket.  Even if my co-workers do think it looks like a penis.

As for the rest of the ballot.  Some thoughts:

  1. The Best Fan Writer category shines a bright piercing light on the rest of the ballot.  After so many years of complaining and grizzling about the lack of representation of women and online fan writers, the day has finally arrived.  Four women on the ballot and all five are online writers.  I personally nominated Foz and Abigail, but also love Liz and Kameron’s work.  I’m not as aware of Oshiro’s output, but I hear good things.  It’s a shame that only one person can win this category.  Unless they all tie!  Yes!  Let’s engineer that!
  2. Talking about engineering results, while I don’t believe that Correia or Day cheated the system by getting their dead granny to nominate them, they certainly engineered their fanbase to by whipping up their support in a pre Hugo frenzy.  But as Nick Mamatas foreshadowed, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  Correia and Day are not the only writers who’ve spent months mobilising their fanbase to nominate them.  And they won’t be the last.
  3. I am genuinely shocked that Neil Gaiman did not appear on the Best Novel ballot.  I thought he was a monty to feature and win.  Could this be a residual effect from the Jonathan Ross debacle?
  4. Of the best novel category – I’m with those who think it’s ridiculous to have The Wheel of Time on the ballot.  Yes, I know it’s within the rules.  But come on!  If the rules can be perverted in this way, where a category has four apples compared to one massive pear, then there’s something fundamentally broken with those rules.  That said, I still think that Ancillary Justice will win the Hugo.  Or maybe that’s just hope on my part – because it’s not the most inspiring Best Novel ballot.
  5. On Fancast, lovely to see that Australian rule!  Coode Street and Galactic Suburbia continue to produce top quality work.  Coode Street’s recent interviews have been marvelous (the one with Nnedi is a highlight) and the recent Galactic Suburbia podcast on Veronica Mars is an example of the passion and love those guys bring to their podcast.  Also very happy to see Verity and the Skiffy and Fanty show make an appearance on the ballot.  I was on an episode of S/F and I can say that Shaun, Jen and Julia are a blast to podcast with.  I’ve never heard of Tea and Jeopardy (more shame me) but I shall check it out.
  6. Best Fanzine is also an example of Hugo’s finally reflecting the transition from old skool fanzines to the online variety.  The Book Smugglers, A Dribble of Ink and Pornokitsch are must read sites.
  7. If I don’t read Larry Correia’s Best Novel nomination it’s not because of what I think of his online presence.  It’s because it’s the third book in a series.
  8. I do intend to read Day’s novelette (if it’s in the Hugo pack).  Assuming I read any of the short fiction categories.  It will depend on time.
  9. On short fiction, congrats to Cat Valente who is simply brilliant.  And to Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages who also very much deserve their nom.
  10. I’ll be cheering on Jonathan Strahan for best editor short form.  The same goes for Sofia Samatar who I’m so happy to see get a John W Campbell nom.  (I should read Max Gladstone though.  And I’ll be reading Wesley Chu in the next couple of months).
  11. Oh and Strange Horizons for best Semi-Prozine.  Coz it’s an indispensable resource.
  12. Also, Fiona Staples.  YAY!

I’ve run out of puff.  It’s only 9:30 in the morning and I have to dress the kids and wipe my daughter’s snotty nose (where does that stuff come from?).  But I am so very happy. THANK YOU to everyone who nominated Kirstyn and I.

Apr 08

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable band of iron binds him to the physical world.

The Golem and the Jinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.

At first glance, there’s something refreshing and a little bit exciting about Helene Wecker’s debut novel.  Partly it’s the innovative move of having a female Golem, something I’ve never seen done before.  And partly it’s having the Golem meet a Jinni in early 20th Century New York, both of them well and truly outside their comfort zones.  And finally it’s Wecker’s beguiling writing style, almost fairytale in quality, that pulls you through the narrative.

Dig a bit deeper though and you discover the novel lacks substance.  While I loved the idea of Wecker exploring two very different cultures through the eyes of the Golem and the Jinni, the actual representation of those cultures rang false.  Wecker may have been drawing on her own Jewish background and her husband’s Arab / American heritage, but in the service of a rip roaring, page turning read, she falls back on caricature and stereotype.  Whether it’s the kindly old Rabbi with a heart of gold, or the earnest, hard working tinsmith, or the owner of the local coffee shop who knows everyone and is in everyone’s business, or the socialist who tries so hard to do the right thing, these characters feel like they’ve been cut and pasted from the latest Disney animation.

Wecker’s take on Jewish mysticism also feels like it’s been given the Disney treatment.  Although there’s much debate in orthodox Jewish circles as to whether the Maharal of Prague actually created a Golem in the 16th Century (to ostensibly stop pogroms and blood libels), in the world of the Golem and the Jinni, animating clay is something any rabbinical student can do with a little bit of knowledge.  Added to that is the laughable idea that Rabbi’s have hidden texts – for all intents and purposes spell books – that they keep away from prying eyes.  Yes, the Kabbalah (which is only referenced twice in the novel) and books like the Sefer Yetzirah talk about the manipulation of reality and the notion of sod, secret and esoteric knowledge hidden from all but the most learned, but the role of mysticism in Jewish culture is far more complex than the magic spell and formula treatment that Wecker provides.

I’m in no position to question whether Wecker’s take on the Jinni and Arabic folklore is accurate.  There’s obviously a push back against the popular culture view of the Genie that grants wishes, and making the Jinni a “fiery” character seems logical given its environment.  But for all I know the same problem of simplification exists.

That said, if you’re willing to forgive the book its Disneyfication of Jewish and Arabic culture, you can admire Wecker’s handling of both the Golem and the Jinni.  There is something genuine and real in how both Chava and Ahmad approach and explore their new environment and their burgeoning friendship.  In particular their sense of loneliness, even when they find each other, gives the novel its emotional core.

It’s also interesting that while the other characters refer to them as Chava and Ahmad, Wecker always labels them as the Golem and the Jinni.  It’s a reminder that they will always be outsiders; and while it’s a little depressing, I credit Wecker for not falling into the trap of trying to humanize either character.  This is not the story of Pinocchio.  Being human – at least in the context of this story – is not something the Golem and the Jinni aspire to.

Unfortunately, once the plot kicks into gear about two thirds of the way through, much of the nuance around the Golem and Jinni’s relationship, including where they fit in the great scheme of things, gets lost in a battle of good and evil, wizards and magic spells, evil laughter and evil schemes.  In other words all a bit Disney.  Which is a shame because in amongst the caricatures and the broad cultural strokes, we have a quirky and unique love story about a Golem and a Jinni.

Older posts «