Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dragonholder: The life and times (so far) of Anne McCaffrey

Dragonholder was written by Anne McCaffrey’s son, Todd. It is an attractive illustrated book of mainly family anecdotes providing a basic though uncritical biography of a very successful science fiction writer. Any fan of McCaffrey’s work will enjoy the insight into her life and work, and this book is clearly intended for the fans. It also gives a few anecdotes involving other well known SF authors, particularly McCaffrey’s friendship with Isaac Asimov, (after whom the McCaffrey family named a cat).

I have a few Anne McCaffrey books. I’ve had them for many years, but the only one I’ve read is Dragonflight, the first of her Pern novels. My first reading of the book must have been some time in the 1980s, and then I read it again in the early 90s as part of a university course. Now, 20 years later I don’t recall much of the story, but I do remember I enjoyed it. About the only detail I recall is the unexpected twist upon which the whole book turns, so maybe any future reading wouldn’t have the same impact as previous readings.
Several years ago my wife gave me a special limited, autographed and numbered edition copy of Dragonflight, which is one of my most prized literary possessions

I wanted to read more of the Pern series, but I wanted to read them in order and I never found the second book. Clearly, these days it wouldn’t be so hard to track a copy via the internet, but to some extent, over time, my motivation has diminished. Maybe if I ever find it in a second hand book store my interest will be renewed.

Todd McCaffrey has since joined Anne as co-author of additional books in the Pern series, and more recently has taken over sole authorship of some titles.

An audio interview with Anne and Todd McCaffrey can be found here:


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

All Clear by Connie Willis

All Clear at last!

In writing this “review” I need to exercise great restraint. It would be easy to turn it into a bombardment of superlatives as I try to say how much I enjoyed Connie Willis’s All Clear. But I can’t help indulging myself with at least one word that keeps jumping into my mind. Maybe using that single word will give enough satisfaction to allow me to move on. It’s not a word that I recall using often but at the moment it seems the most appropriate to use.

All Clear is a MAGNIFICENT book.

It is complex without being complicated, weaving separate threads of time and multiple characters into a tight and cohesive story that I didn’t want to leave. It had twists, turns, surprises and puzzles as well as creating some vivid images of wartime London.

Willis’s characters are the core of the book. Time travelling historians, delinquent children, a venerable actor, shop girls, ambulance drivers, intelligence officers and clergymen give a human face to the horrors of a war where civilians were regularly the victims.

The central characters are historians from mid 21st century Oxford, part of a project utilising time travel to study the past. They were introduced in Blackout, the first volume of the story. Britain is at war and each of them is studying a different aspect of wartime England.

At the end of Blackout, they are trapped in London during the Blitz. They were afraid they had somehow interfered with events and changed the direction history had taken – maybe even altering the outcome of the war. This fear seemed to be confirmed when the casualties at the bombing of a department store exceeded the number recorded in historical accounts.

All Clear brings the story to its conclusion. Written as one long novel, the publishers decided to release the story in two volumes, thinking the modern reader could not cope with book of over 1100 pages.
In my review of Blackout I said it ended with a whimper. So hopefully the few months wait between volumes hasn’t discouraged any readers from completing the journey: but unfortunately that may be the case.

Those who don’t return will miss out on the experience that Willis intended to share, with the whole story presented as a united whole. The biggest obstacle to reading All Clear was trying to pick up a story that had been put aside months ago. It took a while to become reacquainted with the interwoven plots spread across different wartime periods. But it was worth the effort. After a chapter or two I was caught up again in the character’s lives. One day I hope to get the chance to read the whole story as it was intended by the author – from beginning to end without a disruptive break in the middle.

Why did I like the book so much? It has an all round richness and depth. There’s nothing shallow or simplistic about it. It gives the mind a workout without becoming convoluted and confusing, dealing with one of science fiction’s most iconic conundrums – the potential effects of changing the past and how it would affect the future. The characters are given time to develop and grow, drawing the reader in to experience their emotional journey through very difficult and unknown territory. It deals with the heroic as well as the horrific with occasional humour to balance the growing tension. Willis is able to do all of this without resorting to anything cheap, gratuitous or potentially offensive.

Yes, with its use of time travel the book is built upon a science fiction foundation, which will probably be a stumbling block for some potential readers. That is unfortunate because they will miss out on a very rewarding journey that has very little to do with scientific speculation. This book is about people, relationships and how the worst of experiences can bring out the best of human character.

I loved it.


Thanks to Allen & Unwin,the publishers of this book in Australia for sending me a review copy.

See here for their All Clear webpage:

NOTE: Allen & Unwin were not responsible for the decision to divide this story into two parts.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Something is Out There

Something is Out There by Julie Miller and Grant Osborn is a very accessible introduction to some of the best known cases of Australian mysteries.

Miller and Osborn take the reader through a variety of haunted locations and UFO “hotspots”, introducing some of the people whose lives have been affected by strange personal encounters with the unexplained.

These phenomena can be annoyingly elusive, rarely (if ever) leaving convincing, tangible evidence. Mostly the only evidence available is the testimony of witnesses both past and present.

This book is divided into three main sections in which Miller and Osborn look at Ghosts (Supernatural), UFOs (Ufology) and Strange Creatures (Cryptozoology) with a mix of anecdotes, folklore and personal experience.

The book combines material gleaned from other sources with some of the authors’ own investigations. Their personal investigations include interviews with witnesses and researchers, and their experiences on some of the increasingly popular commercial ghost tours in various parts of the country, from Port Arthur in Tasmania to Picton NSW.

I’ve had my own experiences with strange phenomena. Those experiences don’t fit a rational, scientific worldview but I know they happened. But even from this “insiders” perspective I still maintain a distinct desire for accountability when it comes to extraordinary claims. Too often in these matters subjective experience and personal opinion are presented as fact, with little or no justification.

In parts I felt Miller and Osborn were a bit too accepting of some of the testimonies they presented. I am particularly sceptical of the testimony they give of “psychics” in researching haunted sites. Their subjective impressions help to pad out the lack of real experience or evidence, overshadowing and replacing genuine, though rare, ghostly activity at a particular location.

The only exceptions I can recall to this open acceptance are mild allusions of suspicion directed towards the number of Rex Gilroy’s* claimed sightings of anomalous creatures, and a couple of doubts expressed about the validity of “orbs” in photos. Although, regarding the latter, their doubts didn’t prevent them from illustrating the book with their own photos of “orbs”.

“…while we are sceptical about orbs as a manifestation of spiritual entities, we can’t help but ponder the size, brightness and intensity of these particular anomalies. Did we capture the little boy ghosts at play?”

A lot of what is covered in Something is Out There has been dealt with more extensively by others, but newcomers to these mysteries are given plenty to increase their appetite. Extensive bibliography and end notes provide more than enough leads to seek out more for themselves.

* Rex Gilroy is one of major characters in Australian cryptozoology. Credited with being the first to bring attention to the Yowie, the Australian cousin of Bigfoot, Yeti and Sasquatch. His early work inspired many of todays investigators.


I thank the publishers Allen & Unwin for providing a review copy of this book.
For further details see:

Something is Out There


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park

While watching neighbourhood children playing a game they call “Beatie Bow”, Abigail Kirk sees another spectator, a young girl who remains unnoticed by the other children. Abigail’s curiosity leads her to follow the girl who runs to escape Abigail’s attention.

During their chase through the streets and alleys of The Rocks, there is a change in the surroundings and Abigail finds herself in 1870s Sydney. An accident results in Abigail being cared for by the young girl’s family who see Abigail as “the stranger” a mysterious visitor who always appears at significant times in their family history.

The stranger’s significance relates to the passing on of “the gift” of second sight from one generation of the family to the next. Granny, the current holder of the gift is growing weaker and the identity of its next custodian is uncertain. Abigail is not able to return to her own time until her role as the stranger has been fulfilled.

The consequences of its fulfilment affect not only the 1870s family, but also Abigail and her family in the present day. Through her journey Abigail learns to appreciate life and relationships in her own time and eventually finds hope for the future.

One of the appealing things about this story is its setting. I became quite familiar with The Rocks area when I lived in Sydney. It was perhaps my favourite part of the city. Right next to the harbour it maintains a lot of its historical character with many original buildings remaining intact. Gloria and I went there a lot, either to a favourite Irish pub for a Guinness or to the markets on the weekend, and sometimes to walk along the harbour, round circular quay to the Opera House. For a few years it was our favourite place to be on Australia Day, braving the media helicopter invasion to see the end of the annual ferry race.

I can’t remember where or when I bought Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, but it was many years ago and I bought it because I enjoyed the film adaptation.
While watching the film I could recognise some of the locations used. Now after many years of neglect I’ve read the book, and my familiarity with its setting helped me better imagine the places being described.

Time travel has been recurring thing in my reading and viewing this year. The next book on my list is Connie Willis’s All Clear, the continuation of the story started in Blackout and I recently finished For All Time by Meredith Resce.

Each of the books relies on a different means of moving through time. With Willis’s books a new technology makes it possible. Ruth Parks relies on “the gift”, a more paranormal approach: a step beyond clairvoyance in which a physical link to the past creates a kind of bridge between two times.

The idea of visiting the past brings up interesting questions about how much our knowledge of the present would prepare us for life in the past. Would it help us avoid potential dangers or could that knowledge even help us change the past to avert tragedy or prevent injustice? And if we change the past, what affect would that have on our own time? Would our own present even exist if the past was changed?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reckless by Cornelia Funke

As a boy, Jacob Reckless found a way into a world of magic through a mirror in his father’s study. It was a world he tried to keep to himself, but that desire was frustrated when his younger brother Will discovered the secret and followed him.

We enter Cornelia Funke’s Reckless when the boys have reached adulthood, with Will suffering from wounds inflicted in a recent encounter with a Goyle, a stone-like race at war with the mirrorworld’s human population.
From the injuries a spreading petrification is taking over Will’s flesh. Jacob knows he has very little time to find a way of saving his brother. His search for help takes them through a place where many familiar fairytales have a foundation in reality.

While I found the first few chapters a bit unclear, it didn’t take long to get caught up in the brother’s situation. Joined by Will’s girlfriend Cara, and a shapeshifting fox, Jacob’s attempt to save Will takes us through fantastic landscapes and into contact with a variety of “fairytale” characters.

A story with references to ginger bread houses, child-eating witches, fairies, unicorns, dwarves and elves may sound excessively clichéd, but the story of Reckless is told with convincing grit without the slightest hint of cutesy Disney, or the grand epic feel of Tolkien. Well known fairy tale and fantasy references (like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel) give a surprisingly convincing familiarity to the world of Reckless, but are mainly used as background colour rather than primary plot features.

This was a book I didn’t look forward to finishing; a book I hope will lead to a sequel or even a series, revealing more of the characters and their world. It has definitely made me keen to look for more of Cornelia Funke’s work.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I Am Number Four

Before I start on the content of this book, I need to address some things that affected my expectations prior to reading it.

I bought I Am Number Four without noticing the author’s name. When I got home and saw it was attributed to a fictional character I felt a bit concerned. It seemed like an overly contrived marketing ploy, or that the author had something to hide. Was he/she reluctant to be associated with the book?

A quick piece of research revealed the following about the author Pittacus Lore:

“Pittacus Lore is Lorien's ruling Elder. He has been on Earth for the last twelve years, preparing for the war that will decide Earth's fate. His whereabouts are unknown.”

Other searches reveal that Pittacus Lore is in fact TWO people, James Frey and Jobie Hughes. Frey was earlier the author of a memoir A Million Little Pieces, an Oprah book club best-seller that apparently caused some controversy when parts of the memoir were found to be not as true as many were led to believe.

So, was the pseudonym used to hide the involvement of an author with a controversial writing history? Or was it also the “marketing ploy” I mentioned above?

I suspect marketing played a significant part in the creation of this book. It seems like it is the first in a planned ongoing series, (perhaps hoping to follow the success of the Twilight Series). Also, a film is already in production. How long before the characters are sold as action figures?

But aside from the cynicism arising from the books background, how did I like the story?

Mostly I enjoyed it. I’ve had an interest in aliens, conspiracies and the unknown since childhood and the book covers that ground. I found the characters and situations were portrayed quite plausibly despite the fantastic elements. This perception may have been helped my longstanding interest in such things.

John Smith is “number four”, one of nine children rescued from Lorien, a planet being destroyed by a hostile alien race, the Mogadorians. The children and their guardians have made their way to earth where they each go their own way and try to hide their identity, in case the Mogadorians follow to destroy them.

The children have been partly protected by a “charm”. They can only be killed in a particular order. Attempts to harm or kill one of them out of that order will backfire on the assailant killing or harming him instead of the intended victim. The story starts when John (fourth in the order) receives confirmation that the first three have been killed and he is next in line.

The story has several elements. The most crucial is John’s evasion of the Mogadorians and his need to stay alive. Then he has to fit in with a normal school community life, dealing with teenage friendships, romances and bullying while trying to remain out of the spotlight which could draw unwanted attention. He also has to contend with developing special Loric talents (legacies) as he comes of age.

The book is paced quite well, continually developing new situations to keep the reader’s interest. This also helps to keep the reader from thinking too much about the implausibilities and weaknesses within the story. The “charm” intended to protect the nine is one of the weaker and least credible aspects of the story. The only reason for its existence seems to be to increase the stakes faced by John. He KNOWS he is the next one the Mogadorians will be coming for, making his situation more urgent and threatening.

The story moves on towards a showdown with the Mogadorians and we find out how John’s developing talents can help his struggle to survive. When the inevitable confrontation comes, the scale of it seems overwhelming and melodramatic in comparison to the tone of the rest of the book, and I found it difficult to see these events as part of the “real” world in which the story is supposed to be set.

As the first part of a continuing series, this book introduces some interesting characters and possibilities for the direction the story will take. What started as one teenager’s fight for survival will clearly expand into more widespread struggle for earth’s salvation, not only from the Mogadorians but from ourselves.

If earth survives the Mogadorians, will we take the right actions to ensure our planet’s survival? Will we follow the example of the Loriens, and reverse our exploitative and destructive practices before it’s too late? Or will we end up like the Mogadorians who, on depleting the resources of their own world seek out other worlds to despoil?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Hélène Berr's Journal

Hélène Berr lived in Paris during the Nazi occupation and worked with an organisation devoted to saving Jewish children from “deportation” by the Nazis. About 500 children were sent to safety by this group.

As a Jew herself, Hélène was also in continual danger, but denied herself the opportunity to escape so her work with children could continue. She, along with her parents, was eventually arrested, “deported” and murdered in a concentration camp.

Journal is her diary, kept through the war years until her arrest. It was brought to publication by her niece who provides an afterward to conclude the story, informing the reader of Hélène’s fate after her last diary entry.

This book was not easy reading. As a diary it is a collection of experiences that are often unrelated and cryptic. There are gaps in the “narrative” when days and even weeks go by without an entry. But its structure and nature as a diary is not the hardest aspect for the reader. The recorded experiences and thoughts of real life horrors are the most difficult thing to take in and comprehend. Could these things have happened in “civilised” Europe so recently, within the lifetime of my parents?

The diary starts in April 1942, in a time of relative calm when there is a degree of freedom and it initially focuses upon Hélène’s relationships with family, friends and love interests with little attention given to the political situation.

As the diary progresses, hints of unrest begin to appear as political events start to have an impact on her life, such as being forced to wear a star to identify her as a Jew in public and the arrest and temporary imprisonment of her father.
More and more the realities of Hitler’s anti-Semitic agenda become evident, especially when fellow Jews start to be “deported” – a euphemism for being transported to concentration camps.
Hélène struggles to understand what is going on around her and this becomes the dominant topic of her writing.

“Is it not dire that I, reacting and rebelling against this, am an exception, whereas it ought to be the people who are capable of doing such things who are abnormal?”(Hélène Berr, 9 Nov 1943)

Journal was translated form French into English by David Bellos who provided an essay at the end of the book. The following paragraph from that essay is an astute summary of Hélène's diary and society portrayed within it.

The Journal is a precious unique record of denial - of Hélène's initial unwillingness to see what was staring her in the face - and of the blindness of her family, her immediate milieu among the elite of Paris students and then, more broadly of her neighbours, her colleagues, her whole community, its policemen and officials. For that reason, it is also an historic document showing just how the Final Solution was imposed: by incremental stealth, by secrecy, in an atmosphere of utter confusion. It explains and demonstrates how so many people really did not know what was going on before their eyes.

For more information about Hélène Berr:
Hélène Berr

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Christian Fiction

For a while I’ve wanted to read some Christian fiction to see what the quality was like. It had been a long time since I’d read any Christian novels. The last I recall were three by Ray Blackstone starting with Flabbergasted that followed the developing relationships of a group of young Americans, one of whom served as a missionary in South America. I quite enjoyed those books.
Apart from the lack of swearing and sexual content, they would almost fit in the (maligned but popular) genres of ladlit/chicklit.

It wasn’t easy to find books that I thought I could enjoy. The fiction shelves of my “local” Christian bookshop seemed filled with Little House on the Prairie clones, The Left Behind series, or other styles I didn’t find appealing. In the end I found a couple of books in the bargain bin that seemed promising, and to these I added two other titles I’d seen advertised. My brief impressions of the books are given below – without identifying the “bargains”.

1) Yellow Zone by Janelle G Dwyer
An end time story set in Australia. After devastating terrorist attacks around the world, The Government sets up strict controls over citizens. Essential utilities have been severely disrupted so most people are gathered into camps in an alleged attempt to restore order and security.

Good points. Overall the story idea had credibility and presented a world in which Christians face increasing restrictions, imprisonment and ultimately execution for their beliefs. I find this to be more or less consistent with bible prophecy.

Bad points. Dialogue was stilted and unconvincing making it a struggle to enjoy the telling of the story. Because of this I found the characters unrealistic. The story also presents a “pre-trib” rapture scenario, which isn’t overly emphasised but, added to the other shortcomings, spoiled my reading experience

2) Ulterior Motives by Mark Andrew Olsen.

A potentially catastrophic terrorist plot is discovered. Osama Bin Laden’s successor is captured and interrogation is started to try to find enough information to prevent it from being carried out. A disgraced serviceman and now Christian minister is brought in to conduct an unorthodox plan to obtain the required details

Good points. Easy reading and kept my interest.

Bad Points. One of the most ridiculously implausible stories I’ve ever come across. Very “preachy” in a heavy handed way.

3) Tomorrow We Die, Shawn Grady

A mystery novel about a paramedic who is becomes embroiled in a conspiracy after a dying patient passes him a strange note.

Good points. Maintained my interest throughout. Included references to Christian faith without turning the book into a clumsy tract.

Bad points. Used too many obscure medical references. My wife was a nurse so I was familiar with some of the jargon but a lot meant absolutely nothing to me. Plausibility seemed to suffer a little towards the climax and conclusion of the novel – but perhaps no more than in many other “thrillers”. A bit gruesome at times which may disturb some readers.

4) For All Time, Meredith Resce

A 21st century Australian doctor visiting England becomes trapped when part of a castle collapses. Her situation is shared with a male member of the cast of a medieval show being performed at the castle. After finding a way to freedom from the rubble, they emerge in the time of Henry VIII and have to survive in a world where an educated woman is viewed with suspicion, especially when the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins is in town.

Good points. A lot of naturally expressed Christian elements that don’t seem forced. A very proficient and plausible story created out of a very implausible (but intriguing) situation. Touches a little on the religious beliefs and superstitions of a time when knowing scripture in English was enough for someone to be considered a heretic.

Bad points. Nothing of significance. While no great literary masterpiece, and while some liberties may have been taken with history, I’ve found this book to be the most enjoyable of the four – but I haven’t finished it yet, so the whole thing COULD come crashing down in the last few chapters.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Alternative Kitchen Garden and A-Z

Earlier I said I would provide a link to my review of Emma Cooper's The Alternative Kitchen Garden an A-Z.
I have now written the review and have posted it here.