Before the Fall

One summer evening a private jet takes off from Martha’s Vineyard, en route to New York City. There are ten people aboard: seven passengers and three crew. Among the passengers are the Bateman family: father David, mother Maggie, daughter Sarah, and son JJ.

Sixteen minutes after takeoff, the plane crashes in Long Island Sound.

The plane breaks apart on impact. Floating amid the burning wreckage are two survivors, the boy JJ, and an artist, Scott Burroughs, only on the plane because Maggie Bateman, an acquaintance he had encountered earlier in the day at the local farmer’s market, had offered him a ride when he mentioned he had business to attend to in the city.

With JJ clinging to his back, Scott—a champion long-distance swimmer in his youth—begins the swim for shore. Hours later, they crawl up onto the Montauk beach. A fisherman takes them to the hospital, and Scott’s second, and longer, ordeal begins.

After the opening sequence of the crash and the Scott’s epic swim, Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall weaves back and forth between past and present, as the authorities begin their investigation into what brought the plane down. Vignettes of the people involved and how they came to be on the airplane that night are interspersed with the progress of the investigation and the media frenzy, and its impacts on the lives of the artist and the little boy’s remaining relatives.

This book is billed as a thriller, but it isn’t really successful as one. The author throws in various red herrings in the lead up to the big reveal of who was responsible and why, but the actual revelation was a bit of a letdown. For me, the more interesting story centered on the artist, and his shock and confusion as his life is changed drastically and irrevocably. Before the crash he was a struggling artist, a womaniser and recovering alcoholic who had recently turned his life around and begun to paint with renewed vigour. After the crash he becomes a celebrity whose art is suddenly worth many thousands and a suspect in the ongoing investigation. He is also a victim of sustained character assassination by a vicious TV newscaster convinced he was carrying on an affair with Maggie Bateman and was somehow responsible for the crash. Anyone disgusted with the privacy-invading and twist-the-story-to-whatever-sells tactics of the news media will find Scott’s face-off with the newscaster gratifying.

The other aspect that gave the story emotional resonance was the relationship between the artist and the boy: the trust the boy shows in the man, and the adult’s ongoing sense of responsibility for the child.

It’s not a great book; the pacing has problems in some places and it is littered with minor inconsistencies and clunky metaphors. But it is entertaining, and the survivors’ story has heart. Read it as the story of someone’s life turned upside down by a catastrophe and the resulting news coverage, rather than as a thriller, and it will be more satisfying.

Trigger warnings: violence, kidnapping, violent sex, bad language

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Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot

What do you get when two writers play the Letter Game, in which they take turns telling the story by writing letters to each other in character, with the only rule being that they must never reveal their ideas about the plot to each other? When Patricia C Wrede and Caroline Stevermer played, the result was Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot. Part Regency Romance (it’s set in 1817), part fantasy with a dash of intrigue, this is a romp through an alternate England alive with magic.

The story opens with Cecelia Rushton (Wrede’s character) writing from her country home in Essex to her cousin Kate in London with the news that a neighbour, Sir Hilary Bedrick, has been appointed to the Royal College of Wizards. There’s also mention of another neighbour, the Mysterious Marquis of Schofield. Within a few exchanges, Kate in London (Stevemer’s character) is writing about her adventure during Sir Hilary’s investiture ceremony, where a mixup leads to her nearly being poisoned. The chocolate pot—a very valuable chocolate pot, stolen from the Marquis—makes its first appearance, and she becomes acquainted with the Marquis, the poisoner’s intended victim.

Things soon get delightfully complicated, with Kate agreeing to a sham betrothal to the odious Marquis. (You can see where this is going, can’t you? And if the Marquis’s reasons for the betrothal don’t make a lot of sense, well, I did say it got complicated.) Back in Essex, Cecelia is working at cross purposes with James Tarleton, a friend of the Marquis, who is convinced that the loss of the chocolate pot is his fault, and that Sir Hilary has it and is up to no good.

As Kate and Cecelia get drawn deeper into the schemes swirling around the Marquis and the chocolate pot, they find themselves in serious danger. But neither one is the helpless passive female their older relatives keep trying to force them to be, for which the Marquis and Mr Tarleton should both be suitably grateful.

(This is not, by the way, anywhere close to an accurate representation of an upper-class woman’s life in the real 1817 England. The antics of these two irrepressible young women would have scandalised society and caused them and their families to be ostracised. Having a talent for magic would have changed the dynamics between the sexes, certainly, but the resultant society would either have (a) been unrecognisable as Regency England, or (b) imposed such severe restrictions on women’s use of magic that no man would ever have considered teaching Cecelia anything about it. Oh, well, this is fantasy…)

Given the nature of the game these two writers were playing, the fact that the plot makes as much sense as it does is rather remarkable. It’s a triumph for the seat-of-the-pants school of plot development. (That is, working out the plot as the story develops, rather than planning it out before starting to write.) The writers did, of course, clean things up a bit, dropping some loose threads and tying up others, before publishing the final version, but there are still some plot holes. Not everything works, but the pleasure they had playing this game comes through. I had more sheer fun reading this lighthearted tale than in just about everything else I’ve picked up recently.

It’s cotton-candy fluff, but delicious fluff.

Audience: teens and up. Nothing offensive that I noticed.

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Shards of Honor

In Shards of Honor, the superb introduction to Lois McMaster Bujold’s many-volume Vorkosigan saga, Commander Cordelia Naismith, citizen of Beta Colony and head of a planetary survey mission, is down planet with a small team of scientists when they are attacked by the militaristic and highly aggressive Barrayarans. Caught by surprise, and with the other members of her landing party dead or dying, Naismith orders her out-gunned ship, still in orbit, to run for home, leaving her at the Barrayarans’ mercy. She is soon captured by a man with a fearsome reputation: Aral Vorkosigan, the Butcher of Komarr, a man who ordered the slaughter of innocent civilians after they surrendered to his troops.

Vorkosigan, she soon finds out, is in the middle of a vicious political struggle within Barrayar. One faction sees this uncolonised planet as a strategic stepping stone on their way to expansion and dominance of their neighbours, the more peaceful Betans and Escobarans. The raid on the Betan scientists, which Vorkosigan had expected to be a straightforward and relatively peaceful capture of prisoners, turned violent when some of his own men used it as cover for an attempted assassination, and he is left for dead. He and Naismith embark on a 200 kilometre trek through native bush populated by aggressively carnivorous local fauna to reach a Barrayaran supply cache. If they are going to survive, they will have to work together. They do, and develop a mutual respect, sharing secrets over the nights’ campfires, and she learns he is not the coldblooded monster he is reputed to be. He is, in fact, a man of great personal honour, who gave his word to the prisoners at Komarr that they would not be mistreated, and was betrayed by a political operative who ordered the slaughter carried out in his name. He is now fighting a losing battle to keep Barrayar from engaging in a war it cannot possibly win.

Naismith and Vorkosigan are attracted to each other. (You did see where this was going, didn’t you? This is, after all, part of the Vorkosigan saga.) The only surprise is how early in the book their acknowledgment of the mutual attraction comes. But of course, an uneventful courtship doesn’t make for an interesting story, and Naismith’s crew reappears, against orders and in league with Vorkosigan’s enemies, to rescue their now very conflicted commander.

This is just the beginning of a wild rollercoaster ride as the two juggle demands of the heart with wartime duty to their respective societies and responsibilities for the lives of many innocent people on both sides. Naismith and Vorkosigan are adults, and act like it. Both are well-developed characters, fleshed out in dialogue, gestures, and actions. And Naismith is a terrific female character: an active agent with a strong personality and deep moral convictions.

I’m a late-comer to the Vorkosigan party. I don’t know how I missed out earlier on this science fiction classic, but now that I’ve read a few of Bujold’s stories, I’m eager to read more. Shards of Honor is space opera at its best: large scale, exciting adventure with high stakes, with moral dilemmas that reflect on contemporary society. The stakes here are high indeed, and the story contains adventure, heroism, colourful villains, and a clean, sweet romance. What more could one ask for?

The book ends with an epilogue titled “Aftermaths.” This short story dealing with consequences of the war was  originally published separately and doesn’t have anything to do with the Vorkosigans. It’s an intriguing story on its own, but if you’re not prepared for it, it can be confusing.

Trigger warnings: war, violence, attempted rape, sadism, mental breakdown, and psychiatric misdiagnosis. (Hm, sounds rather awful, doesn’t it? But the tone is not grim dark, and the physical details are skimmed over. It’s an easier read than this list might suggest.)

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RotoVegas: Earthcore Book One

Strange things are going on in the New Zealand resort town of Rotorua. Tourists targeted in a rash of pickpocket incidents seem dazed, unable to give a clear description of the thieves. Ghostly visitors drive a family out of their home. And Anira, a teen settling in for a week’s holiday with her mum and younger brother, has her perceptions enhanced and her mind thrown into overdrive when breathing the steam from a hot springs in their campground by the lakeshore.

Anira hadn’t wanted to go to Rotorua at all. She would rather have stayed in Auckland. But her mum had insisted, and once in town Anira soon finds others who have superpowers apparently bestowed by Rotorua’s sulphurous waters. Among them are a teenage boy with eyesight good enough to pick out details on the far lakeshore, a young mother who can make fire in her bare hands, and a retiree who can run across the surface of the lake. Anira brings them together, insisting they need to know why have been so blessed. Calling themselves the Earthcore, with Anira as their de facto leader and the blessings of a local Maori iwi (tribe), they step up to the challenge of thwarting the schemes of the mysterious Mr B, who seems to have a serious grudge against the entire town.

Unfortunately, Mr B is the weakest part of RotoVegas, the first book in the YA Earthcore series by New Zealand author Grace Bridges. He’s a cardboard villain, with no apparent motivations other than unreasoning hatred and standard evil-overlord megalomania. Moreover, his own superpowers don’t make a lot of sense. If the Earthcore team’s superpowers are gifts of the taniwha (spirits from Maori myth), then who bestowed a very powerful gift on this man they disapprove of?

I had another negative reaction to a minor plot point: when Anira decides to stay in Rotorua at the end of the week with someone she’s just met and her mother didn’t know, her mother doesn’t object. Would I have let my mid-teen daughter do that? Not a chance, especially when she appears to be in the throes of her first romance. Even if she were staying with someone we knew well and trusted, I’d leave with a fervent ‘Dear God, give her more sense than I had at that age.’

Aside from those problems, there are several things I like about RotoVegas:

  • The Earthcore team with its members from all ages, not just oddball teens. The group includes several teens, but also the afore-mentioned mother with a nursing baby, the speedy retiree, and two adults working in the tourist industry. None of them, at either end of the spectrum, are dismissive of the others because of their ages.
  • The respectful treatment of Maori culture and mythology. (Respectful as far as I, a newcomer to New Zealand, can tell, anyway.)
  • A friendly relationship between a teenage girl and teenage boy that didn’t turn into an angsty hormonal-driven romance, despite their mothers’ ‘help’.
  • The unusual nature of some of the superpowers, not all of them immediately or obviously useful.
  • The sense of place evident in the descriptions of the town of Rotorua and the surrounding area. With its in-your-face geothermal activity—geysers, steam venting from random holes in the ground, sinkholes suddenly opening in someone’s yard—Rotorua is a place where the veil between the worlds seems very thin, and anything can happen.

Audience: Fine for teens, and a clean, fun, light read for adults too.

Posted in Kiwi author, New Zealand, Urban Fantasy | Leave a comment

The Blacksmith Book Launch

The Blacksmith, the third book in my YA high fantasy Reforging series, is now available in paperback for non-North American readers. We will be holding a book launch to celebrate. Join us, if you can.

When: 5:30pm, 14 August 2019

Where: VicBooks, Pipitea Campus, Ground Floor,  Rutherford House, 27 Lambton Quay, Wellington

Facebook event:

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The Molenstraat Music Festival

An accident leaves a brilliant young cellist brain-damaged. She can still play, but her concentration slips after a few minutes, leaving her unable to finish a piece. In The Molenstraat Music Festival, set a thousand years in the future, medical technology has advanced sufficiently to repair the scar tissue in her brain, but no one can predict exactly what the repairs will do: they might fix all her other difficulties and leave her unable to play at all. Unwilling to risk that, she comes to retired musician Clancy Jonah for help. With his help her concentration improves, but will it be enough to let her once again perform before an audience?

Beside music and creativity, this lovely novella by New Zealand author Sean Monaghan touches on loss and discovery, hard choices, and the depth of feeling in a student/teacher relationship. There’s quite a lot packed into this story’s mere 70 pages.

Audience: anyone interested in understanding the creative spirit.

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Where We Land

Where We Land, by New Zealand author Tim Jones, deals with the human impact of the worsening climate crisis. Set in the near future with crops ruined and river deltas drowned, refugees are streaming out of Asia in unseaworthy boats, only to be turned away or sunk by the navies of their overwhelmed neighbours. The story alternates between the viewpoint of a single survivor of a Bangladeshi ferry headed for New Zealand and a member of a local militia patrolling the shores to repel people like him. Amid societal brutality and xenophobia, there are still a few glimmers of compassion.

This novella was originally published in ebook form as Landfall, but just been reissued in print under the title Where We Land by The Cuba Press

Audience: anyone concerned about humanity’s future.

Posted in Climate fiction, Kiwi author | 1 Comment

The Kingfisher’s Debt

“Aunty Tamsin, was Billy my dad?”

I stopped applying my lipstick and and angled the rear-view mirror. … With grey eyes and auburn hair framing her face, Gwyn looked like her mother. She hadn’t inherited the blonde hair and blue eyes I shared in common with my older brother Billy, her dad.

“Well, was he?”

“No, sweetheart.”

From the opening paragraphs of The Kingfisher’s Debt, New Zealand author Kura Carpenter’s debut novel, I was hooked. Who was this Tamsin and why was she lying to her niece? The answer to that question is a long time coming, and lots of other questions are raised along the way.

The main plot driver of this urban fantasy, set in the city of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island, is a mystery involving forbidden bloodmagic. The police call in Tamsin Fairchild, translator and presumed psychic, to help when a dead baby is found with a knife through a pentagram drawn on its chest. Another baby is missing. Kidnapped.

Tamsin is not a psychic. She’s not human, either. She is, however, in debt to the Chief of Police R. Wiremu Jackson, and can’t refuse when he pairs her with new cop Scott Gale and sends them off to research the ritual sacrifice angle. It soon becomes clear that someone from the shadowy world of Fair Folk, elementals, and witches that Tamsin inhabits is involved, and she has to find out who is responsible for the kidnapping, before she and Gale are framed for the crime.

For about three quarters of the book, this present-day storyline taking place around the Winter Solstice alternates chapters with a summer romance twelve years earlier, providing much-needed backstory. The secondary thread draws the reader into the extended family of Tamsin’s clan, and its Capulet vs. Montague world of Fair Folk vs. Elementals, and cops vs. criminals. Both threads are engaging, and at the end, with the focus back solely on the mystery, I didn’t want to put the book down.

The things you get from this novel include an intriguing mystery and a sweet romance, fine writing, great characterisations, some terrific dialog, and snark. Lots of snark.

And there are some things you don’t get:

  • Filler, fluff, or info dumps. You do have to be willing to work at figuring out what’s going on, but the payoff is worth it. (Reminds me of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series. They both throw you into a fantasy environment and write as if they are talking to a friend, expecting you to keep up.)
  • All your questions answered and all the dangling plot threads neatly tied up. The end is a bit messy, like real life.
  • Fairies that fit cleanly into the established folklore. (Fairies drive hot muscle cars? Who knew?)

I had to read this through twice for it to really make sense. The first time through, I skimmed, and that was a mistake. Important details are embedded in what look like throwaway lines. (Embedded in the prologue, too. Don’t skip it.) After the first reading I was a bit frustrated with all my unanswered questions, but my second, closer reading answered some (not all), and convinced me this is a terrific story despite the loose ends.

The things I like include the acknowledgement that family ties are sometimes lifelines, sometimes shackles. Also the richness of the imagined world and the feeling of depth in Tamsin’s history. Some events that must have been traumatic—life with her grandmother, her boyfriend’s sister’s death, among others—were just touched on in a couple of sentences.

There’s enough meat there for many more stories in this world. I will be looking forward to them.

Trigger warning: a brief mention of non-sexual child abuse, and some swearing.

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Lutapolii: White Dragon of the South

Winner of the 2019 Sir Julius Vogel award for Best Youth Novel, Lutapolii: White Dragon of the South by New Zealand author Deryn Pittar is a story of a young dragon’s efforts to escape the tyranny of his flight’s abusive monarch and to establish his own flight in a new territory.

It’s a pretty predictable story line, but nicely told. The solutions Lutapolii comes up with for his problems are rather clever, and I enjoyed the descriptions of his new home in a cold climate, where hot springs keep him and the dragons who join him warm through the harsh winters.

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Abandoning Books

For most of my life, I would plow through and finish every novel I started, even if it wasn’t very good and/or I wasn’t enjoying it. I’d feel guilty if I abandoned one partway through.

Those guilty feelings were probably the result of ingrained habit from years of required reading in school, where I sometimes had to slog through stories with the expectation that someone with more experience saw something of value in them and eventually I would, too. In general, that’s a good thing; cultural literacy is important, as is the broadening of outlook we get by dipping into different genres and perspectives we wouldn’t notice on our own. (That doesn’t mean I liked all their choices. I still can’t stand one classic my 7th-grade teacher inflicted on us, and I’ve not read anything—and probably never will—by Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck since I graduated from high school.) But once I was out of school and reading on my own, without a teacher filtering out the dreck and guiding me towards the good stuff, I still read everything all the way through, somehow believing that I might miss something valuable if I didn’t.

Pretty silly, eh? I also seemed to feel that I owed the author the time, especially if I’d bought the book, rather than borrowing it from the library. Maybe I felt that if I’d spent money on it, it had to be worth something. Or, more likely, I’m just borderline obsessive-compulsive.

I no longer have the time to waste on uninspiring fiction. A sense of mortality is creeping up on me; I’m old enough to accept that my time on this earth is limited. If I’m fortunate I may have another thirty years, possibly even more, given good genes and continuing advances in medical science. But at the current rate I’m reading, and the number of books already on my shelves and e-reader, I already own enough books to keep me busy for the next twenty years. Twenty years! (How’s that for an overflowing TBR pile?) And there’s the library, and new books being published all the time. Hundreds of thousands of them every year.

So many books, so little time.

I’m reading now mainly for fun, and trusting my own judgement about what’s good and what’s not. I will still keep plugging on a novel that has some dead spots if it has enough substance and originality to convince me it is worth the slog—An Instance of the Fingerpost, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and Doomsday Book are good examples—but I am becoming much more ruthless about most novels, particularly run-of-the-mill genre fiction, even if they come highly recommended. If the writing’s bad, if it’s a thinly disguised rehash of a story I’ve already read, if there aren’t any likeable characters, or if I’m just not enjoying it, for whatever reason, out it goes. A predominant theme of deception and betrayal usually earns a book a quick trip to the giveaway box by the back door. (I can’t stand spy novels, which are by definition about that.) So does plot-induced stupidity, failure of the imagination, or a sense of déjà vu.

Here are a few of the more memorable failures of imagination* that have led me to abandon a book:

  • A group of friends are staying at a resort hotel. One man who had been enjoying himself dies after drinking from a bottle of poisoned whiskey. The bottle had been left in another man’s room—a man who was known to favour the whiskey—but everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that the dead man had committed suicide. No investigation called for.
  • In a fantasy set amid merfolk, the author seems to frequently forget that they’re underwater. One character has blood trickle down her side. Another characters suggests it’s time for a cup of tea.
  • A supposedly experienced FBI agent acts like a green rookie. At home alone in an isolated farmhouse, threatened by a crazed and violent criminal, the agent answers a call from an unrecognised number and replies “Yes” to the question “Are you home?”

Some of these failures are screamingly funny, but that’s probably not the effect the author wanted. It’s not what I’m after, either, when I pick up a mystery or fantasy. I’d rather just move on to something better, and find my comedy in sparkling dialog and characters aware of life’s absurdities.

* I haven’t identified these books because I don’t want to further embarrass their authors, or get into pissing contests with them. I’d usually rather use my airspace writing about books I enjoyed and would encourage others to seek out, but just because I don’t often write about them here doesn’t mean that I haven’t encountered some that were awful.

Posted in On Reading | 2 Comments