The Hair-Carpet Weavers by Andreas Eschbach

This book was really very grim in parts; though the overriding sense of the ridiculousness of making human hair rugs, however much it depleted society and the environment, kept it from being too dark until the very end.

The Hair Carpet Weavers By Andreas Eschbach

The Hair-Carpet Weavers proved to be about revenge in that the whole energy and purpose of ‘so many planets’ (the author has used awesome numbers in terms of years, people and resources), even unto their depletion, was to make rugs made of human hair to be laid end to end. The mystery of the end purpose of the rugs into which millions poured their energy and artistic talent is not revealed until the very last: I thought the plot of the book was clever as I did not finish connecting the dots until then.

There is no linear character development as Eschbach stitches together cameos of the various characters, mostly unconnected, except each experience threw light on the how an Emperor’s revenge was so pervasive in that it created a horrible, regimented coercion, were effective but some were definitely more powerful than others. The author delighted in the unfinished quality of these characters though I felt they were all similar in style and I was frustrated by his unimaginative, old testament depiction of women.  Even the rebellious characters proved to be trapped by their conditioning and their limited knowledge! Was Berenko Kebar Jubad, who stabbed the Emperor, actually infected with a disease (another revenge) or was it a form of self-harm?    

The Hair-Carpet Weavers made me think about such things as Prometheus chained to his rock; the pharaohs expending slaves and resources in a pissing contest; the impossibility of escaping from one’s conditioning; honour killings; and the difference between casual and calculated cruelty. I thought in very few lines the author, Eschbach, captured the essence of thuggery with the attack and murder of the teacher.    

This book is an extended metaphor about the stupidity of continuing on an illogical path and parallels with the current behaviour of the human population. It also made me think about another book, The Year of the Angry Rabbit by Russell Baddon, which I read in the sixties. It was a satirical science fiction novel, which altered my thinking, and shares a common theme with The Hair-Carpet Weavers, being about the destructiveness of the juggernaut of elite top-heavy power. I thought I might buy it to reread but when I looked it up it is going for between £350 and £850!!!! I think it is available to read via libraries or audible. I wish I nicked from the hotel bookcase after all!   

The Hair-Carpet Weavers by Andrea Eschbach is well worth reading but not, definitely not uplifting, unless you call love in the cracks sufficient unto the day.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

The Glass Hotel took me by surprise. It begins with ‘plummeting down the side of a ship’ and then withdraws from this dramatic start to focus on a short series of snapshots. The next chapter is from the perspective of a different person in a different time. It is another beginning; a slow, elegant, desperate dance commences whereby Vincent and her brother, Paul, are swept together and away by encounters, choices and circumstances. By the end of the novel they are implicated in scandals which power through and damage more lives than just their own and we are back at the beginning.

The Glass Hotel By Emily St. John Mandel

This is the sort of novel I want to read more than twice it is so clever in its structure and rich in detail. The Glass Hotel does not only swing around the characters of a damaged family but explores the way of corruption. Vincent has assumed the role of trophy wife though it cripples her emotionally. As her ability to maintain the facade of attachment crumbles so does the investment charade over which her benefactor, Jonathan Alkaitis, officiates. Paul is on the run from responsibility and it blights all of his choices.

The novel very beautifully delineates the damage to relationships, to economic independence and to mental stability once the corrupt and unstable arrangements begin to unravel. Although St. John Mandel has written a novel of great sympathy for the losses incurred by its characters it is, never-the-less, more about about justice and clear-sighted appraisal the journey down the primrose path to hell.

I am absolutely bowled over by the magnificence of The Glass Hotel.

Stillicide by Cynan Jones

I have taken a long time to write this review. I thought Stillicide, a beautiful, evocative, tragic, too-credible futuristic novel and throughout I was enthralled by the evocative power of Jones’ language; as Jones is enthralled by the precision of a phrase or a word.

The reason I have taken so long is, despite it being a mere 157 pages long, and that in a generous sized print and with the sparse paragraphs double spaced, the material is dense and the relationships between the characters take time to fathom. The word Stillicide, which means the continual dripping of water, is a constant in the thirsty city where water is controlled by corporations and people are swept aside by the gargantuan efforts to ferry the water into the heart of the city itself. Climate change has dried up earlier, promiscuously-used sources of water and joy is measured in ticketed access to rare gardens,shade and the clarity of the water. People are fascinated by insects as the larger animals are now rare competitors.

Stillicide by Cynan Jones

The water train is carrying water melt from an iceberg into the Dock in the centre of the city but politically and socially the city response is unstable. We are given fragments of the dystopian effect of urban living in a drought stricken world through a fragmented family. These individuals and the people they meet in the course of a day, all interact with the water train; their involvement is erratic, emotional and incidental.  But together, their droplets of experience and suffering and action reveal the desperation of life in this new dry world. By the end of Stillicide, the stories have run together to swamp us with the tragic trajectory of this enormous engineering feat which surplants the other flawed efforts, wind farms, desalination units and enclosed rivers, to meet the great need of the city and its people.

Stillicide is a book to keep and I wish to read more by this author, Cynan Jones. I was enriched by reading this book.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

A Memory Called Empire is a wonderful book. I have been considering, while I read it for the second time, how to do credit to this breathtaking, breakneck, racetrack of story by Arkady Martine.

A Memory Called Empire cover art

One of the reasons the book is such a success is because the humans in this futuristic place are unapologetically human and, despite the technology, the spaceships, colonised worlds and multifaceted AI systems, the Empire about humans jockeying for power and for control. It is peopled by quirky, plausible, clever characters who are ambitious to promote their cause to their individual advantage.

The Lsel independent state, which consists of a collection of mining ships, rushes a under prepared ambassador, Mahit Dzmare, as requested by the Teixicalaan Empire, to ‘the City, heart-planet and capital … an entire planet rendered into an ecumenopolis, palatially urban.’  Mahit’s remit is to keep Lsel independent and to find out what happened to the previous ambassador, Yskander Aghavn. She has spent years preparing for such an assignment and she has been selected as the most compatible with the previous ambassador. Compatibility in Lsel has a whole extra dimension: Mahit has been awarded the imago of her predecessor, albeit fifteen years out of date. ‘An imago – the implanted, integrated memory of one’s predecessor, housed half in her neurology and half in a small ceramic-and-metal machine clasped to her brainstem – wasn’t supposed to take over the host’s nervous system unless the host consented.’

Mahit’s pleasure in her appointment is short-lived as within a day she learns her predecessor has been murdered, her living memory file is faulty and she is a target. She learns Aghavn had special access, not approved by all factions, to the old and fragile Emperor and one of the reasons he rose so high was related to a misrepresentation of the ‘imago’, which he was using as a bargaining chip to keep Lsel from being engulfed by The Empire.

Over the next few days Mahit, aided by her elegant, eloquent and brilliant assistant, Three Seagrass, navigates political minefields, civil unrest and a suborned AI system in the awful and exultant Teixicalaan City: is a pinnacle of civilization, but a horror of elitism, of appropriation and of savagery.

Ann Leckie says A Memory Called Empire is a brilliant book and Stephen Baxter said it was ‘Deeply Impressive’ and they are right on the button in this instance. Arkady Martine has also managed to have a complete book, the story is suitably rounded and sufficient unto itself, while suggesting future books about the Empire are in the offing for which I am a reader in waiting. The author describes in her acknowledgements the long gestation of this book begun in 2014 but the fluidity and exciting complexity is a tribute to the skill with which she writes has created a truly fascinating and engaging book.

The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

You have to ask yourself if Christina Henry had a crystal ball when she wrote this extremely powerful apocalyptic novel, The Girl in Red! The novel follows the struggle of a young twenty-year old woman to survive the Cough, a disease which is fatal for the people who contract it. She is determined to go to the sanctuary of her grandmother’s house and avoid being one of the survivors are being rounded up and transported to camps.

The Girl in Red (Paperback)

Red is one of the more entertaining characters I have encountered in novels about catastrophes. The author obviously adores her as she loads her with the best lines, quirky insights, resilience and an ability to act rationally and aggressively in a crisis; and there are a lot of crises. Red is a rebel in her interests and her insistence that she not to be defined either by her name,Cordelia or by her colour, as one of two children of white and black parents. She rejects stereotypes about women and she is emphatic about rejecting efforts to  limit her because of her a disability, the loss of a leg in an accident when she was eight. Never-the-less, as Red continually informs us, she is a realist and she makes practical preparations which will enable her to best survive despite being female, black, crippled and the child of a romantic mother.

The author, Christina Henry, who won my heart when she declares through her character a love of Robin McKinley and Macbeth,with which I heartily concur, is not content with one catastrophe but introduces another in the form of a lab-born organism. Red has learnt most of her survival skills from watching movies, especially how to avoid the traps due to inattention and trust, and she applies these rigorously while she makes the 300 mile trek to the haven of her grandmother’s house. Yet even she is unprepared for the associated product of the Cough. The introduction of Sam and Riley, children who require her assistance and intervention, adds a much needed alternative view. It gives another dimension to finding safety and to danger.

This a clever and witty novel and it will remain on the bookshelf and I will be seeking out other Christina Henry publications, especially the next.

 

In Our Time by W.L.L (me) – short story

As well as reading I have been writing. And, because I just had a good review for my collection of short stories, Here and There, I have decided to post the latest one … well it is a short script. Hope it provides a bit of entertainment.

 

In Our Times

I    You took your time!

II   Ah, the days when I could shimmy through the mob and wave a smile and a wad of cash and get an early serve are long gone.

I    The queue was long, then?

II   Yeah, but not in terms of people, only three ahead of me, but then one of them ordered seven pints.

I    Seven! How did he swing that in this day and age? The SD lot will be all over him!

II   Naahh. Apparently he takes them upstairs to the landing; it’s a part of the pub where the residents can Social Distance and talk to each other. It’s …

I   Hey, what is it with using the coaster as a lid? I thought the plan was to put your glass on them?

II   It’s the latest wheeze whereby bar staff are instructed to protect the beer from contamination … any heavy breathing or coughing while transporting the amber nectar and the lid takes the damage.

I     Guess I just flick it onto the table with a fingernail then?  Then what?

II    It’ll be collected after we leave by minions wearing blue gloves, stored for three days and then be trotted out as a lid once more.

I    Can’t help but admire the ingenuity of creative drinking. I mean look at this place. Who’d have thought we’d be in a pub with SD still laying down the law. Yet we’ve booked this table which is the regulated two metres long; we’re sat at either end and we’ll able to have a drink together for forty minutes before surrendering it to a deep clean and another couple of desperados.

II   You know I’m real grateful even if it is just forty minutes. Drinking on my own was bloody awful and the beer tasted sour. Good to see you my friend, good to see you!

I    Hmm. Where’d did you say those seven pints were going?

II   Up to the residents – they’ve found a position which fulfils SD but where they can sit on the carpet and see each other and yarn.

I    I wonder how they distribute the beers? Do you think they’re using the method popularised by that TV café; you know where the waiter puts the tray on a high table and the drinkers take turns to squat-crawl over to the table and take their drink without ever letting more than whites of their eyes show above the surface.

II   Yeah, that was a funny skit. You know the man with the seven beers said something funny just before we did the SD dose-doe so he could leave the counter with his tray.

I    What did he say?

II   He said if SD kept on much longer eulogies wouldn’t hold many surprises anymore. What you reckon he meant by that?

I    Well … it’s a thought. It is probably pretty true in the circumstances.

II    Yeah, but what did he mean?

I     Oh come on! You’ve been to funerals where you don’t know the deceased all that well; well you’ve been around them for years but you just know them through the job or something and drinks for a couple of hours once a week. At the funeral some person you’ve never seen with your dead friend gets up and starts to talk about the past.

II    Yeah! And it all comes out in this tidy little story, polished up for the event.

I     But you find out stuff! You hear about losses and successes your old friend had never mentioned but sort of explains a few twitches and the reason why he stormed out of one of the company meetings.

II    Or you make connections. You realise the weedy bloke was her cousin and the high stepping drape of shawls was her aunt and that’s the Sunday commitment she’d never dodge ‘cos was because they’d come through for her when the going was tough.

I    Or you find out they’d had a love child or been the founding member of anti-something club or they ran away when they were ten and caused a nationwide child hunt.

II    Yeah, I get that but what’s the connection to my man with the seven pints?

I     Well these days the distractions in the pub have been muted. You know, the big screens are scarcely wound up much above a whisper, so drinkers, forced to sit miles apart, can talk to each other. There’s no sport except reruns so nobody really bothers with that either.

II    Yeah and you’ve had a few months to realise most popular songs and TV are crap but the link to eulogies is?

I    In the early days of 2020 if the music was blaring and the commentator shouting urgently about a game you’d stick your head right next to someone else’s and bellow a bit of nonsense in their ear.

II   Yeah! And spray spittle and warm beer all over their face in the process and then flick your attention back to the main event. Do I miss those days?’

I     But now with SD you can’t get up close and personal without a permit and promise to household so you have to focus and really concentrate on what is being said.

II    And what is being said is now in sentences and even paragraphs instead of fragments. I get the drift but I am still struggling here to make the connection!

I    Those men boarding in the pub are listening, probably for the first time, to the longer story about another person’s life.

II    Ohhh! No surprises at the funeral then?

I   Sort of disappointing in a way, isn’t it.

II    Don’t worry.  I’ll keep a few gems to myself to have trotted out on the day that’ll make your eyes roll.

I   Not you, mate! You’re an open book!’

Cold Storage my David Koepp

I almost didn’t read past the first chapter of this book, Cold Storage by David Koepp, which hammered out a familiar nasty refrain and it is only so I can have a rant about irresponsible writing that I decided to review this book.

The  blaise way in which an indigenous community in Australia was casually wiped out, victims of a fungal plague created by Skylab debris,  by the author was meant to be witty but it really annoyed and affronted me. It was a piece of colonialistic writing right up there with the imperialist stuff being churned out by the apologists of the British Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, Koepp, is writing in the 21st century and it is hard to stomach. To then follow it up with a nuclear blast to solve the infection problem was pretty horrible; I do suppose Koepp knew, which the Australian population did not, that the outback of Australia and islands off the coast of W.A. were being used for nuclear tests which has a deleterious effect upon the indigenous population and is still off limits due to it being still being a dirty site. I wonder why Koepp didn’t begin by setting his story in one of the deprived areas of North and South America?  In the USA grinding indigenous rights into the dust is still a regular occurence just ask he beleaguered Standing Rock and Cheyenne Sioux about Dakota Access Oil.

And then low and behold the author does bring the terrifying fungus and the the struggle to implement the scorched earth solution home to the USA. It is interesting he chose Kansas. It made it more feasible to select a part of the country with low population density but I wonder if he knew it was also had been home to the Kansa or Kaw Nation, which had been corralled in a reservation by white settlement, and then the nation was harrassed and dispossessed by white aggression of even that very small piece of land granted to them.

So were there any pluses about Cold Storage once I got beyond the the opening chapters. Well, the author is writing a spoof, and it is a good one once we get to the personal storage facility. He mocks the purpose of the facility but it provides lots of levels and doors and has a deep secret which makes the staging of the action work really well. The danger, a hungry and mutating fungus, is presented with gruesome and  ridiculous descriptions; the moment when Mooney, mesmerised by the animation of corpse, and standing with his mouth open is infected made me laugh out loud.  I loved the running characters, Teacake and Naomi,  who just keep the whole story attractive in the midst of general unpleasantness. The other hero, the decrepit Roberto, is a comic swipe at the heroes who adorn so many of the apocalyptic books and films in the genre. His nuclear solution, which had worked so well in Australia, now implemented in Kansas with some difficulty due to back spasms and fungus infected humans.

I am well aware that Koepp is mocking the superficiality of the plethora of ludicrous solutions to the imminent end of the human race. This declaration by Roberto is a case in point: ‘”We’re not going to kill anyone. Detonation will be hundreds of feet underground. This immediate area will be irradiated, and they’re going to sell a lot of bottled water around here for the next twenty years, but there will be no atmospheric fallout, and the problem will be solved.”‘ is superb insouciance about the consequences of the solution. The secret of Koepp’s comic method in Cold Storage is how cleverly he mixes the prosaic, mundane and limited with grandiose gestures and actions.

I actually wish the novel had started at page 49 and then I wouldn’t have had to wade through the least effective and least amusing parts of the book and I could have been more wholehearted in my appreciation.

Gin Legacy of the Doomed by Ivor Noel Hume and Lance Mytton

This recommendation comes with the caveat that the book is unavailable if you wished to buy it on the mainstream outlets. Maybe it is available through specialist suppliers. I just wanted to say how engaged I was by this elegant book with its wonderful pictures.

     Gin Legacy of The Doomed is a brilliant title but the subtitle, Collecting Stoneware Spirit Flasks – A Perspective, did make me pause as did the glowering stoneware figures on the front cover. However, I decided to read a bit more and I am so glad I did. My perspective on gin, on collecting stoneware spirit flasks and on the multi-faceted nature of historical documentation has been enriched by reading this beautiful book with its lush photographs and detailed explanations.

I knew about the gin palaces and the degradation of gin drinkers; I had seen William Hogarth’s engraving of Gin Lane many years ago, but in this book there are other engrossing, many in colour, sketches and etchings. Also the authors use extracts from poets and observers to depict the gin blight. Hume and Mytton carefully and clearly explain the links between government acts of 1680 and several thereafter which actively encouraged the grain producers of the nation to make spirits from surplus grain. The sale of spirits within the nation soared and were further increased by the imposition of restrictions on wine and spirits from Europe.

The spirit dispensed was strong and often adulterated; both factors increased the addiction and the desperate poverty and dreariness of the addicts. The Parliament ‘pressured by the worthy and righteous’ began in the mid 1700s to try to retrieve the situation though in 1815 Thomas Rowlandson put the following caption at the base of his illustration, ‘ Some find their Death by Sword and Bullet, And some by Fluids down their Gullet’ and in 1848 George Cruikshank illustrated a cautionary series called ‘The Drunkard’s Children’ who ‘drink at that fountain which nourishes every species of crime.’

The gin was delivered to the drinkers in their stoneware flasks. sometimes as gin-to-go, the majority of which held about twelve ounces. These flasks tell of the makers and the moulds and techniques used; the design and character of the flasks reflect social interests and preoccupations; some are marked with the names of the inns or the publicans and some are commemorative. They are the survivors of the two centuries of gin drinking.

lord.jpg

Gin also told me about how a passion for collecting engages a person, brings them into contact with likeminded people and who then build a whole society wherein information and stoneware are exchanged. Just type in Stoneware flasks into the search engine! I do wish more of the museums displaying ceramics and bottles could link the objects so well to the history of their use and making as well as this book has done. The bibliography is wonderful.

It has certainly given me a new perspective on the gin cafes and gin boutiques which seem to adorn many of the streets in centre of Liverpool; I wonder how many of their gin containers will survive two centuries.

 

Reading to beat the news blues

I do read the news on a daily basis and the majority of the time it is very depressing because it lists fatalities, incompetence and dishonest as a routine. My other reading oscillates between non-fiction about historical events, how easy it all is when the author has a 200 year or more between her/himself and the time of the usually abrupt historical sea-change, and travel logs which focus on fungi or trees or ice or geology. My fiction reading has recently involved revisiting several children’s books. My main reason is to see if they are really the books I wish to put in the plastic bucket so the local children can come and borrow them and to enjoy them all over again.

Several of these children’s books are worth the mention. In the picture book range it is hard to beat Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark, Possum Magic by Mem Fox and Wombat Stew by Marcia K Vaughan. It is the stories for primary school children which I have found most enthralling to reread.

The Siege of Swayne Castle by R.C. Sherriff, yes the author of that extraordinary play, Journey’s End, is a delight. There are no female characters but it is very easy to identify with the young and reckless Gregory Swayne even so. The description of the roles played in the siege by inventiveness, prohibitive costs for both sides in conducting the conflict, significant deaths, grit and luck is clear and clever.

Bartlett and the City of Flames by Odo Hirsch is about adventurers, all male again (but the Pashanne is the most intelligent of the minor characters), which takes the persevering and tenacious Bartlett and his companions in and out of rocky barren deserts, deep tunnels and cities run by a capricious pasha in one and a poetic ahsap in the other.

Companions on the Road by Tanith Lee is still a glorious, haunting tale about the eerie fates of three thieves who have stolen a cup with an infamous past. Tanith Lee writes with such clarity and uses language evocatively: ‘He had seen lepers treated so, or the sick in time of plague. His skin crept and the wind gnawed at him.’

Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword are marvellous adventures with stalwart and steadfast heroines assisted by faithful and intelligent horses.

All of the books by Diane Wynne Jones are terrific but I love Power of Three the best because it is witty, thoughtful and the perspectives of other characters, who have vastly different backgrounds and prejudices arising from that, are gradually revealed to the other protagonists during the course of an adventure to save the Moor.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel and The Golem and the Djinni by Helen Wecker

Today is the day I would have returned from the overseas trip I did not make because of Covid 19. It seems a bit weird to be writing book reviews on Science Fiction and Fantasy Fiction when we are currently living in a world wide response to a potentially lethal virus. The circumstances mean however that being able to read books and immerse oneself in an imagined situation is a joy; and an immersion with less guilt than normal. Paradoxically I am more restless and so my reading is done is shorter bursts! I have, though managed to read a few books but as is my normal practice I am only reviewing the ones I am positive about.

Well, mostly positive!  Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel and The Golem and the Djinni by Helen Wecker are books I am ambivalent about in that there is so much that is good about these stories but they crash into a few hurdles on the way which undermines their power and impact.

The Golem and the Djinni begins powerfully. Helen Wecker has a really ability to conjure an environment and I am able to envisage Schaalman’s shack, the steamship to New York and the congested, noisy, desperate lives of the inhabitants of a city of immigrants. The character of the Golem, Chava, and her rescuer, Rabbi Meyer, leap off the page as both grapple with her existence and her place in a world of striving humanity to which Chava is over-sensitive. Helen Wecker builds an equally powerful entrance for the Djinni, Ahmad, into the life of another immigrant in New York, the kind tinsmith, Arbeely. The Djinni also struggles but in his case with a reduced, enslaved life made more unbearable by the memory of his unearthly airy existence prior to his capture.

Helen Wecker has me delighted with her characters and with her world but, for me The Golem and the Djinni, fails to maintain the pace and interest it promised. I did read to the end as her style is good and I still like the characters but the villainy of Schaalman, who reappears to blight the life of his creation and the Djinni, does not convince me. His understanding of the potential power of the Golem is slow; and why did he simply not make another?  Why was he living so badly in a hovel when he had the ability to manipulate so much more for himself? The intimate relationships between the Golem and Michael does not win me over nor am I engaged by Ahmad and Sophie. Part of the problem is the length of the novel; so many episodes could have been written in far fewer words without losing the style or the story but by not doing so the characters became too thin.

There is a dramatic and clever finish to the The Golem and the Djinni, and in that it is satisfying.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Nuevel is also a good story. I like the way Neuvel has shaken together radioactive body parts drawn, as if by magnetism, to argon-37; alien seeding of a primitive primate; Titans; coded messages; abandoned experiments; the ancient mixed-blood keepers of the secret knowledge and waking the giant. I could even like the cartoon elements of the connecting the head with amazing  equipment to a redoubtable pilot in Kara Resnik while the legs were operated by sheer grunt and effort in the opposite direction; though later there was a selection of one grunt over the other by the helmet but he still had to train to reshape his walking.

9780718181680: Sleeping Giants: Themis Files Book 1

The irritation of the reporting by the characters, who were working in secrecy with very little support, monitoring or backup, to a senior field officer with the bigger picture always in his mind, (truly the epitome of a mandarin) who meets a kindred spirit at a New Dynasty Chinese Restaurant in Washington D.C. began to overwhelm the story. I particularly disliked the presentation of the interviews in bold and ordinary case as it began to make my eyes ache as well as making me feel I was being controlled by traffic lights. Given the story was so fantastical I hated the connection of the evil Alyssa  Papantoniou, PhD in genetics and an unfathomable and inexplicable access to being the head of the project regarding the sleeping giant, with the Bosnian-Serbian war; I thought trying to suggest a degree of evilness by making a connection between that war and a cartoonish character indicated a lack of understanding by the author about appropriate register.  The sudden move from USA domination to handing power to the UN was farcical, the interplay between the characters became totally unhitched from reality and their own personalities and the mythical creature turned into a disney display. And the purpose of the last chapter? What about the others who were zapped?

Still I read to the end of Sleeping Giants and I was often amused.