Saturday, 16 February 2008

Review: Peeps by Scott Westerfeld

As a vampire novel, I guess Scott Westerfeld's 'Peeps' would normally be classed as fantasy. However, Westerfeld has turned the idea on its head and given vampirism a proper scientific explanation - so I guess this book is actually science fiction. Hooray!!

Cal is a 19 year old virgin from Texas, who moves to New York and finds his life radically changed after a one night stand with a woman he meets in a bar (the product of far too many banana cocktails). Not only does he finds himself sans virginity, he's also gained something too - infection with an insidious parasite that makes him stronger, gives him excellent night vision and smell, and an almost debilitating libido. Fortunately he's only a carrier of the parasite and doesn't suffer from other side effects of the parasite - an anathema to everything you once loved, an affinity with rats, and a liking for human flesh. Unfortunately he has unknowningly infected several girlfriends, who are not so lucky and have become full blown parasite-positives (peeps for short). After being identified and recruited by the Nigh Watch (an ancient Buffy-like Watcher's Council that controls the vamp population) it's up to him to track his ex's down and bring them in for the cure. Cal still has questions about the woman who first infected him, however. Who was she and how can he track her down? Most importantly, why did she not just kill him?

Narrated by Cal, this book is fast paced and really captures the teen voice (something Westerfeld also did well in the Uglies Trilogy). Interspersed between the actual story chapters are alternate chapters detailing the life history all sorts of icky real-life parasites. By including these factual chapters, Westerfeld builds up all sorts of evidence supporting his theory. It's mind-blowing stuff and it feels like that the ordering and exposition in these factual chapters was just as important as the character and story development in the fiction. I did feel that Peeps had a better scientific grounding than the Uglies Trilogy, where lots is talked about recycling, energy efficiency, and *hoverboards* but most details are unsatisfactorily hazy.

In a world where even the author admits there are a no shortage of vampire novels, Westerfeld's take on vampyrism is both fresh and appealing, as are his characters. My only criticism is that Peeps feels like it's the first in a sequel, when apparently it's a stand alone novel[1]. The whole novel is a slow build up, as Cal finds out more about the origins and history of the Peeps, and of the ancient evil that the Peeps must ready themselves to fight. However, the book is devoid of a real climax; Cal does fight the evil, but it is not vanquished. The novel ends with only a few of it threads tied satisfactorily and the characters (and this reader) waiting for the 'real show' to begin.

I would class this as an 'older' young adult book. The protagonists are all 19-plus and therefore only borderline teenagers. There are fairly frequent references to sex and some of the parasites are quite confronting too. I think it has great potential as an allegory (or mebbe it's more of a literal warning) on the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, as Westerfeld manages to explore the consequences of STD transmission without any preaching. Bottom line, though, it's a just really fun read.

[1] Actually there is a sequel, 'The Last Days', but I'm not sure it's a sequel sequel, or more a novel set in the same universe. I'll let you know :-)

Friday, 15 February 2008

Review: Mucha by Renate Ulmer

I'm supposed to be reading 12 'art' (design/whatever) books this year - one a month - and this is the first! (A bit behind schedule given it's February, but never mind). I bought this book in Prague, Alfons Mucha's final home. I had probably seen Mucha art before I went to Prague[1], but it wasn't until I visted the Mucha Museum that I fully appreciated his skill and the effect his art nouveau designs had on popular culture in the late 19th century. Since leaving Prague (in November 2006), I'd flipped through the images in the book, but never read the accompanying text. Until now...

There's not a *heap* of text accompanying this images - it's more a brief summary than a full analysis of Mucha's work. However it gave extra context to the images in the book and also reminded me of some facts that I'd forgotten. The art nouveau movement was actually much earlier than I remembered, for example (1890s to the early 1900s). All seven of the ground breaking posters that Mucha drew for Sarah Bernhard are present in the book, as well as a good selection of the 'quartet' panneaux decoratifs he designed (e.g. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter). One of the really interesting aspects of Mucha's work is its often commercial nature - he designed commercials for cigarettes and bicycles and everything else. Reading this also reminded me of Charles Rennie Macintosh (a contemporary of Mucha's, though I have no idea if they were aware of each other) in terms of his commitment to total design, rather thna just art/illustration. Particularly, the fact that Mucha designed jewelry and fitted out Georges Fouquet's Parisian jewelry store mimicked Machintosh's works in Glasgow very closely.

Relatively little is said about Mucha's final (?) work, the Slav Epic. Perhaps this is because this work is less popular than his design work, perhaps it was just considered less influential. It wasn't until I'd read the book that I realised that this was a Taschen book, my very first. It's a beautifully presented book - good quality images on good quality paper. What I'd really love to own, however, is a copy of Mucha's Documents decoratifs (1902), a loose-leaf collection of decorative arts. A few copies of pencil sketches are reproduced in ths book and they are stunning, demonstrating just how accomplished an artist Mucha was. I have faint hopes that if I search on Amazon that it will pop up as a recent reprint, but in reality I suspect that getting hold of a copy would be a very very expensive exercise...

[1]Actually I definitely had - there was a piece in the lounge room of the house I was living in!

Review: Shade's Children by Garth Nix

Shade's Children is young adult novel, written by Garth Nix and with a science fiction twist. Set in an alternate reality, evil Overlords have ruled the city (the world?) for fifteen years since a catastrophic 'Change' caused everyone over the age of fourteen to simply disappear. (Kind of like 'Children of Men", but the opposite). The Overlords use the city to play full-scale war games, gaining and losing territory in an apparently never-ending game. The remaining children have been rounded up and placed in prison-like dorms to await their fourteenth birthday, when they will be taken to the Meat Factory and changed into the cyborg creatures that act as servants and army to the Overlords.

The 'Change', however, has also affected some of the children, giving some talents that enable them to escape from the dorms. Shade's Children have found shelter in a beached submarine with the only 'adult' to have survived the 'Change' - the uploaded consciousness of a human scientist, now known called Shade. Fifteen year-old Gold-Eye is saved from the Overlord's cyborgs by a team of Shade's Children. He decides to join them and is soon sent off on his first mission with the team that saved him. Shade begins to send them on increasingly dangerous missions to retrieve data from his old university labs and the lair of one of the Overlords. As Shade learns more, he is able to construct metal 'deceptor' crowns that very conveniently render the team invisible to their hunters, but also fail (or threaten to fail) whenever Nix needs to produce dramatic tension. The climax of the novel sees the children set out to destroy the device that Shade has learnt controls the 'Change', hopefully bringing reality back to normal.

Nix has written the novel in a sort of split narrative; chapters of Gold-Eye's story are interspersed with short snippets of additional information in the form of video interviews, lists of data, and Shade's internal monologue where he questions his humanity. While I enjoyed this aspect of the writing, I found other parts less satisfying. Gold-Eye's speech, for example,affected by years of living along, is disjointed and jarring and did not mesh with his apparently smooth and 'normal' thought processes. While I can understand what Nix is trying to convey, I found it Gold-Eye's speech distracting.

While Nix has created a novel and interesting world, ultimately I found the Shade's Children too slight to be satisfying. The reasons behind the Overlord's territorial battles are never explained and we never find out where they have come from. Although a happy future is foretold, the reader never learns if the 'Change' is completely reversed or not. The city in which the battle takes place is faceless (to me at least), and I felt to a certain extent that the 'damaged' characters were sacrificed at the end in order to produce the promise of a happy 'Hollywood' ending. Shade's Children is one of Nix's earlier works - written after 'Sabriel', but before the two later books in 'The Old Kingdom' series. It certainly reminded me much more of 'Sabriel' in terms of character development and depth. The good news is, of course, that this book was written eleven or more years ago and, assuming Nix's later books develop more along the line of 'Lirael' and Abhorsen', then there's plenty more good Nix reading to be had.

Review: The Inner Life by Thomas a Kempis

The Inner Life
This is the second book I (randomly) picked to read out of the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's number 4 in the list and part of series one (the red series).

Thomas a Kempis and I were never going to see completely eye to eye. He was a deeply religious Renaissance Catholic monk and I am... not. Ultimately I found Kempis' exhortations to renounce all worldly life for quiet religious devotion irrelevant and repetitive. (Particularly the repetitve). This is perhaps uncharitable; apparently 'The Inner Life' is actually an excerpt of Kempis' more well-known text 'The Imitation of Christ" (see reviews at Amazon for more info). Perhaps the whole book would be more satisfying - it was never meant to be a literary masterpiece, but a text to offer religious instruction to monks. However, I'm not religious, not looking to devote my life to Christ, and therefore not going to read the extended version.

In its favour, some of Kempis' views (that we should not worry about gossip, arguments, and what other people say about you or what they do) do have an appealing zen-like quality and are probably an ideal that is worth aiming for. Like Marco Polo before it, this has been disappointing as it is not a complete book in itself. I'm hoping that my next (random) choice will be a full text and a great idea.

Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the first or final (depending on which way you look at it!) book on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. I've had discussions with a friend about these more recent books on the list - how can a book that was only out for 6 months or less before publication of '1001 Books' make the list? How can anyone have enough perspective on how well it will last - how significant it will be in the future?

Ishiguro does have a very good record 1001-Bookwise, with five books on the list (none of which I'd read), and I guess we could always wait for the second edition to see if 'Never Let Me Go' stands the test of time :-) Or, I guess, you can just read the book and decide for yourself. This is what I did, and I heartily agree with it's inclusion on the list. Told by Kathy H., 'Never Let Me Go' is a deeply personal tale that also, eventually and inevitably, has huge social and political implications. It's beautifully told and it'll make you think.

It's very hard to describe what happens in this book in a way that won't spoil the story. Even knowing that the story could be spoilt is more than I knew going in. All I had done was briefly skim the back blurb and got 'a group of students growing up', 'contemporary England', and maybe 'idyllic Hailsham School'. What I missed, however, was 'darkly-skewed'. Ishiguro has written an excellent first person narrative. Kathy sees her life as normal and so she narrates it as such. However, as we hear tales of her school life and friendships in slow and absorbing detail, it becomes apparent that all is not as we would expect. Apparently innocuous words begin to take on a sinister feel, as the context in which they are used makes us realise they have other meanings in Kathy's world. These 'flashes' of discord enticed me, drew me in and made me want to know what was on earth going on. However Ishiguro narrates this story so slowly and skillfully - so true to Kathy - that it is only, finally, at the end that the reader can finally appreciate the world into which Kathy and her friends have been born (if even then). I couldn't help but think of the huge implications of the world in which Kathy lives, should it ever occur in real life.

I'm going to keep this book for a while and then read it again to see how I feel about it on a second reading. I won't be so caught up with finding out what's happening, and perhaps then, I'll be able to just experience the emotion of the story. I suspect I'll cry...