Dark Eden – Chris Beckett

Dark Eden is both the name of the book and the alien world where a small group of humans have been stranded for generations.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the science of world, how biology works and how the world could not have cooled too quickly for life to evolve, but it is distinctly alien. I love the animals and fauna and how the humans interact with them.

Dark EdenScience fiction of course always reflects the world it was written in. Dark Eden is no exception as it tackles themes on conservatism, destruction of ecosystems, the strength of belief and a shared mythology, but also how it can be taken apart by a desire for change and determination. The capacity of the human nature for faith in the impossible and belief that the unthinkable can be undertaken gives an inspiring look at humanity.

In contrast there is an exploration of the darker side if human nature, as once-close family ties teach their limit. And a society which is having its understanding of the world tested. The naming of “Eden” suggests a new cradle of human civilisation, bit of course the inhabitants don’t have that sane mythology to draw on.

The finale sets up a sequel well, so all the elaborate world-building can be extended. I will certainly buy it when it comes out!

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Deathless – Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless is a fantastical retelling of some Russian folk tales against the backdrop of early Soviet Russia.

I think I would really have benefited from knowing a few Russian folk tales before reading this, it took me a while to work out which parts were the “original” folk tale (as much as any folk tale can be original) and which parts were Valente’s original thinking.

Deathless

Irrespective of this though, it is a compelling read with some common folk tale themes (like the rule of three) and a mythical setting. The links back to “real world” social change and how this effects the the folk tale world as it reacts to collective changes in the imagination and life experience of the Russian people.

Have you enjoyed a retelling of a traditional tale?

Shadows & Dreams – C. Robert Cargill

Both parts of this dark, folk-myth fantasy stand quite well as novella-type books. They each talk about what’s beyond the veil that protects us from fairies and similar.

Where it really falls down is the linkage. We go from two innocent boys to two troubled adults with minimal exploration of why. Instead its very much “bad stuff happened” offscreen which is quite jarring and could really have done with a few chapters of them growing up and meeting up. I mean its logical how they both end up somewhat disfunctional, but some things have to be experienced.

This was possibly to be expected as the early setup had a similar feel, with leaps in how relationships within the family twisted and how this damaged everyone involved. We were taken through all the steps of what was happening but I didn’t feel any connection to it.

The fantasy elements were brilliantly done, with a very strong helping of the no gift without a curse trope. There was a good exploration of the interplay between magic and humans strongest desires, and how the best and worst of humanity are so often linked.

Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation calls itself a fantasy novel, although I found it to be more a a distopian science-fiction setting. However due to the style its written, and the set-up for the other two books in the trilogy, its hard to be certain what directino the books will go in.

It is written as a journal of the protaganist, who is nameless (along with all other characters) and the journal is dateless. She has been sent into this mysterious “Zone X” to discover what the disaster was, following extensive training and careful selection. The journal format also allows for a great deal of introspection, and I enjoyed the lack of clarity and gradual reveal as she made discoveries about the nature of the place.

I’m reluctant to say more as this book is one that has to be experienced, but will definitely be putting book two on order.

 

Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

This was one of the books from my book spa that I chose based on a heuristic by breaking the books I had to choose between into groups and picking one from each group. This was at the forefront of my mind reading this book, all about how we exchange hard decisions for easy ones.

The premise for the book is an exploration of how good humans are at intuitive statistics and an exploration of how our “intuition” is based on heuristics. Its a fascinating look at how our minds “frame” problems, even ones which are well within our mental abilities to understand.

Its a physchology book, but made sense to me, explaining how people behave perfectly normally whilst making decisions that analytically seem irrational. It also explains how difficult it is to shortcut those mechanisms however well you understand them rationally.

The Panda Theory – Pascal Garnier

The Panda Theory was I think the last book that slid into my “buy” stack from my book spa. I mostly picked it up today to take on the train because its a nice light, thin volume (unlike the Song of Ice and Fire books I was tempted by).The Panda Theory

This is a modern novel, set in current France, and without having read the original French the translation reads very well.

Its a slightly strange novel. Starts off by looking as though it will have a friendship theme, but then flashbacks of strange coincidences start appearing and you suspect that it isn’t all as it seems.

I found as it built to a climax it got a bit too gritty for me, but if dark is your thing then it might be worth giving it a try.

Book Spa and Hay Festival

I had a very exciting week last week. Firstly I had a book spa at Mr B’s in Bath, then I had a day at the Hay Festival.

Book Spa

This was my anniversary present from my husband, I was slow in using it because of life and time, but finally got around to booking in for last week.

It was an enjoyable experience. I was installed in an armchair with a cup of tea, and one of the staff member had a long chat with me about what I usually enjoy and don’t enjoy reading. Then I stayed there, or rather browsed the shelves in that room, whilst a couple of them went around the shop finding books I might like. They each spent a long time talking me through each book, telling me what it was about and why they’d picked it out for me.

Then I was given another cup of tea, a slice of chocolate cake and left to browse through the books (three towering stacks of them) and pick which ones to take home with me. I did go over the budget because there were far too many good books to stay under it!

Its well worth it for getting a stack of new books which I wouldn’t normally buy (and a list with buying links for when they run out).

Hay Festival

We actually went out for a day’s walking in the Black Mountains (lovely area, great long ridges to hike along) when Radio 2 mentioned the Hay Festival (been before, loved it) and I was instead dropped off in Hay-on-Wye for the day.

First task was to buy a program (£1!) as I had no signal and no plan for what events to go to. Then into the box office to buy event tickets, which ran impressively smoothly and had a clear list of what had already sold out. I had time for three talks, so picked out the most interesting-looking one in each slot, which varied from “I want to go to three of them” to “which of these is least likely to be boring”.

My first event was “The Last Vote” by Philip Coggan. This was a look at the state of Western Democracy, especially topical as the EU election results had come out overnight. The main arguement was that we have lost a lot of the initial momentum and exileration due to getting the first vote, but considering the tendency for democracy to decline during hard economic times we should all vote as though it was our last vote. If this had been in paperback I would probably have bought it at the festival bookshop, got it signed etc but as I’d blown the month’s book budget at Mr B’s I couldn’t really get the hardback so I’ll keep an eye out for it coming out in paperback.

Then I went to a talk on the importance of Jane Austen by John Mullan. I didn’t have high expectations for this, but I wasn’t going to waste an hour of time at Hay sitting twiddling my thumbs. It was very entertaining, gave me new insights into how Austen’s writing works and I’ll be rereading Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park as soon as I get around to them with a new way of reading them in my mind. I might even pick up a book my Mullan in case he’s as good a writer as he is entertaining as a speaker.

The last talk “Think Like a Freak” by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame actually ended the festival on a bit of a low note for me though. I think the Q&A format may not have played to their strengths very well, it prevented them from talking for too long about any one subject and meant they couldn’t have as a dialogue that was as well-prepared as the other speakers. Didn’t help that by the end I was late to leave and get a lift so was getting a bit inattentive.

Even alone and without the time to go and potter around the town (love Hay-on-Wye at any time of year) a day at the Hay Festival was a day very well spent though.

Have you been to a literature festival recently? Or have you got one planned for this year?