Monday, 25 January 2010

Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. Books 1 & 2, 2010

Titles: Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Genre: Dystopia, sci-fi, climate change
Rating: 7.5/10
Comments: Both novels are set in a future time when climate change is already destroying the earth, genetic manipulation of plants and animals is commonplace, and the haves living in gilded compounds for their own protection while the have-nots struggle for survival. A fast-moving devastating plague breaks out killing nearly all humans and leaving only a handful of survivors whose future is far from assured.

Oryx and Crake looks at this period through the eyes of one of the 'haves', Jimmy who becomes friends with a brilliant but disconnected scientist and is left to chronicle the last days of humanity. The Year of the Flood looks at this time through the eyes of a couple of the 'have-nots', members of a scientific/religious sub-group known as the God's Gardeners who are working to survive both the current period and the time after a 'waterless flood' destroys much of civilisation.

The books augment each other very well and I found myself understanding and appreciating each better after reading the other. Margaret Atwood is an excellent writer and paints a uncomfortably believable dystopic future.

These books, however, will probably be too odd, depressing and sci-fi for many of her fans. The Handmaid's Tale is a far more accessible example of her brilliant rendition of a bleak future for humanity.

Friday, 1 January 2010

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie - Book 84, 2009

Title: A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie
Rating: 8.5/10
Plot description: From Amazon
When an unpleasant businessman is taken ill at his London office and subsequently dies of taxine poisoning, authorities discover a house full of likely suspects: a young, sexy wife having an affair; a money grubbing son worried about his father's management of the family business; an angry daughter frustrated in love by her father's control. But no sooner do police suspicions begin to form around one of the three than murder strikes again--and then again--in such a way as to leave them baffled. Enter, of course, Miss Marple, who sets about uncovering a killer who may be a psychotic that is killing victims in accordance with the old "Sing a Song of Sixpence" nursery rhyme.
Comments: An enjoyable and easy read - classic Christie with an enjoyable twist at the end.

Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie - Book 83, 2009

Title: Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
Genre: Detective
Rating: 6.5/10
Comments: One of Agatha Christie's earliest books that really doesn't stand the test of time. Accompanied by his faithful friend, Hastings, Hercule Poirot is summoned to the home of a millionaire - only to discover he has been murdered just prior to their arrival. His wife, found firmly bound and gagged, tells a strange story about two strangers who took her husband away demanding a 'secret'. But there are plenty of people close to the household who might have had a motive for his death.

Poirot has a major personality clash with the local police officer investigating the case - both display annoying levels of arrogant superiority in their own way. Hastings almost bungles the investigation through his romantic pursuits. And while no-one expects a book written in the 1920s to have high-level DNA forensics, if Poirot can identify a stab wound made after death, one would expect the examining doctor to do the same.

The Mirror Crack'd by Agatha Christie - Book 82, 2009

Title: The Mirror Crack'd by Agatha Christie
Rating: 8/10
Comments: One of Agatha Christie's later books featuring Miss Marple. A local woman dies suddenly at a party after drinking a drug-laced cocktail handed to her by an actress who has recently moved into the largest house in town. Was the poison meant for the actress herself? But who would have a motive for killing her - or the local woman?

By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie - Book 81, 2009

Title: By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie
Rating: 7/10
Comments: Not my favourite Agatha Christie book but very well written (as all her novels are). Tommy and Tuppence Beresford visit Tommy's elderly aunt in a nursing home, where another patient, Mrs Lancaster, poses a cryptic question to Tuppence about a child buried behind a fireplace. Three months later Tommy's aunt is dead, Mrs Lancaster has been whisked away by relatives, and Tommy and Tuppence have inherited a painting that was apparently given to Tommy's aunt by Mrs Lancaster. The pair try to track down Mrs Lancaster to return the picture to her but she seems to have vanished into thin air. Tuppence becomes obsessed with the painting and is determined to track down the house featured in it. In the process she finds a village with more than its fair share of past mysteries including a history of child murders and the suspicious disappearance of the local landowner's wife.

What annoyed me most about the book was the very thin premise and coincidences used to lead into the main story. I found it too hard to suspend disbelief about how Tuppence could recognise the significance of a common landscape painting, not to mention identify the house in it from her past.

The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher - Books 78-80, 2009

Titles: The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire by John Christopher
Genre: Sci-fi/Young Adult
Rating: 9.5/10
Plot description: (from Wikipedia)

The Tripods is a series of novels written by Samuel Youd (under the pseudonym "John Christopher") beginning in the late 1960s...

The story of The Tripods is post-apocalyptic. Humanity has been conquered and enslaved by "the tripods", unseen alien entities who travel about in gigantic three-legged walking machines (the unsophisticated humans believe the walking machines themselves to be their living overlords). Human society is largely pastoral, with few habitations larger than villages, and what little industry exists is conducted under the watchful presence of the tripods. Lifestyle is reminiscent of the Middle Ages, but artifacts from previous ages are still used, giving individuals and homes a rather anachronistic appearance.

Humans are controlled from the age of 14 by implants called "caps", which suppress curiosity and creativity and leave the recipient placid and docile, incapable of dissent. The caps cause them to adore the tripods as their saviours. Some people whose minds are crushed under the pressure of the cap's hypnotic power become vagrants who wander the countryside shouting nonsense.

In The White Mountains Will is a 13-year-old boy who will be capped in the next few months. He finds himself having doubts about the whole capping process and meets a "vagrant", who is nothing of the sort but a free man with a false cap, who tells him of a place far south in the white mountains where people live without caps and are fighting the tripods.

Will sets off for these white mountains accompanied by his cousin, Henry, who is also having doubts about the capping process. In France they take up with a third runaway, a tall thin scientifically-minded youth called Jean-Paul, who is immediately nicknamed 'Beanpole'.

The City of Gold and Lead, Will volunteers for a dangerous mission to enter the tripods' city and learn more about the new rulers of earth. Here he discovers that the tripods are mere vehicles for an alien race that are unable to handle earth's atmosphere or gravity and the aliens have plans to permanently change these, killing all human and other life on the planet in the process.

In The Pool of Fire, the free men decide to invade the tripods' cities and destroy the infrastructure that keeps the aliens alive. But once they destroy the common threat to all humanity, it becomes apparent that they must still deal with a bigger crisis - learning to live with one another and work together without a common enemy.

I first read The White Mountains in primary school and loved it but was frustrated to discover it was part of a trilogy and hence I wouldn't find out the answer. In the days of limited pocket money, access to only the school and a local library and no internet/Book Depository it seemed as if I would never find out 'what happened next'. But I kept the book and nearly 30 years later stumbled on The City of Gold and Lead in a local second-hand bookshop. As the virtually unsaleable second book in a trilogy I picked it up for a dollar. I re-read The White Mountains and The City of Gold and Lead and decided I wanted to finish the series. As is often the case, the Book Depository came to my aid.

When the biggest complaint one has about a series is that the author leaves you wanting more, it is the sign of a very good book. My only real complaint is that the protagonist/narrator Will shows virtually no emotional development over all 3 books and 5-6 years in time. Other characters mature from boys into adults but Will remains as childish, impulsive, self-centred and irresponsible as ever from the age of 14 to 20. This becomes particularly frustrating in the final book, The Pool of Fire.