Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book Review: Enigma Black, by Sara Furlong-Barr

At an unspecified time, presumably in the not too distant future, the United States is rocked by a series of terrorist acts. This gives the president at the time the opportunity to secure his grip on power, enforcing a curfew, being granted a third consecutive term in office, and gradually curtailing civil liberties. Totalitarianism slowly closes its grip on the nation, all under the pretext of keeping the people safe. The perpetrator of these terrorist attacks is, apparently, an almost superhuman figure who comes to be known simply as ‘the Man in Black’. Among the victims of these attacks were the parents and brother of Celaine Stevens. Ten years later, slowly recovering from this trauma, Celaine is beginning to build a life for herself. She has a good job in a bank, dear friends, and the love of her life, Dr Chase Matthews.

Suddenly, into this life, steps a strange figure, Blake, offering Celaine the opportunity to gain the revenge for which she has always longed. In order to combat the Man in Black, the government has begun a research program to develop a team of ‘superheroes’. With one of these heroes having recently been killed, Blake recruits Celaine to become his new partner in this endeavour. To do so, however, she must leave behind the new life she has built for herself and disappear. There follows the story of Celaine’s training and development as a ‘superhero’, and her subsequent missions with Blake.

This is the first part of a trilogy, so although there is action here, there is also a sense in which this volume is setting the scene and preparing the ground for what is to come. 

The story is told partly in the first person from Celaine’s point of view, and partly in the third person. This could potentially lead to confusion, but Ms Furlong-Burr actually handles this quite well: it is always clear when the perspective changes. Celaine’s character is well-developed, but I didn’t exactly warm to her. Although the author does a valiant job of taking us through the anguish of Celaine’s decision to leave her life behind, I wasn’t quite convinced that she would do this so readily on the basis of the fairly flimsy and fragmentary description of what, exactly, she was committing herself to become. Other characters are fleshed out to varying degrees. I’m not exactly sure why, but I never quite became emotionally invested in them. This may have something to do with the writing style, which lacks a certain economy. Consider a sentence such as this, from Chapter One, which describes a character’s reaction to the gambling machines in a casino:

On top of the shrill, deafening noises emanating from them, he found himself having to shield his eyes away from the flashing lights the ones at this particular casino seemed to favor.

Personally I find this too verbose. A more succinct, punchy style would help to bring me closer to the action, and closer to the emotions of the characters. The action scenes and fight scenes were among the better written sections; the quieter moments were perhaps those when wordiness intruded on intimacy.

The overall scenario for this story—the incremental loss of freedom in the name of ‘security’—is frighteningly plausible. It is also not difficult to buy into the conspiracy elements. As concerns the details of the plot, there were a few that bothered me. However, I was prepared to overlook most of these, as what action/adventure book or movie does not have some fuzzy plot moments? Having said that, I was not at all sure why an increase in the body’s levels of adrenalin (which is how these people are engineered into superheroes) would enable a human body to impact a concrete wall at very high velocity, leaving the body unharmed but the wall dented. I guess a certain level of implausibility is inevitable when we are dealing with stories about people with superhuman abilities.

Although I was not aware of a huge number of typographical errors in the text, some of those that I did notice were clangers: for example, the use of the word ‘varietal’ when the context made it pretty clear that the author meant ‘veritable’—this happened more than once. There were also several other incorrect words (eg. ‘decent’ for ‘descent’, ‘raucus’ for ‘ruckus’).

As the first in a trilogy, it is difficult to rate this. I would like to see what comes next, before giving a definitive opinion. However, on its own merits it rates around three stars. Let’s hope that Ms Furlong-Burr can deliver at least four stars next time.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Australian Election, 2013: The choice that really isn’t

I’m afraid it’s time to reflect once more about the sad state of politics in Australia. I’m not interested in the personalities of the leaders of the main political parties. Do I really care if one or both of them are occasionally cranky? Some of the greatest leaders and politicians in the history of the world had personalities that made it difficult to be in the same room with them. Who cares! What I really care about is whether our leaders have a creative vision. The most creative, visionary people in the world, I suspect, are often proper bastards. It goes with the territory. They are also people who are prepared to take risks and take a stand, even if it is unpopular.

Frankly, I don’t even care about huge budget deficits. Robert Menzies was a conservative politician who was prime minister of Australia for a total of eighteen years through the fifties and sixties. Not once did any of his governments deliver a budget surplus. Once upon a time (in a galaxy far, far away) governments sought to improve the life and well being of the people of the nation for which they took responsibility; and they didn’t depend on ‘market forces’ alone to achieve this. In my opinion, the history of the last fifty years is ample proof that market forces do not, of themselves, make this world a better place, and often make it worse. ‘Growing the economy’ simply doesn’t cut it!

We are told that we have a choice in this election, a choice between two visions for the future of this nation. I see a vision from neither of the leaders of the major parties. All I see are managers, potential managers, not visionaries (their other main concern being, of course, to get elected). They are merely quibbling about the details. Here’s a thought. If you were to pop all of our politicians from the two major political parties into a large hat (Bob Katter must have a spare one somewhere), then draw them out one by one and assign them randomly to one of those parties, would we actually notice any difference? I suspect not. This is why many people will no doubt vote for one of the minor parties, or vote informally. We are totally and completed deluded if we believe that either of the major parties present us with a real choice. 

There is just over a week to go to the election as I write this, and it is all pretty depressing.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The New Novel: Life Drawings

Within the next two or three weeks I hope to release my new novel, Life Drawings. Like all my novels, it is a story about real people in real situations. I love exploring what it means to be a human being. It is always my aim to write ‘truth’. A truth, not the truth. I love reading science fiction and fantasy. Although the best of these also reveal some kind of truth about us as a species, and each of us as individuals, they also allow us to escape our everyday reality. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately) that is where most of us spend most of our time. I am grateful that I have not faced any major catastrophes or tragedies in my life, at least so far. I am grateful for that because ordinary, day to day life is generally enough of a challenge. In this novel, as in my earlier work and as, I hope, in books yet unwritten, I seek to shed just a little light, on just one little corner, of human life.

I have prepared the following brief blurb for the book:

Tom and Diane are two young misfits who embark upon a timid relationship. Supported by friends and family, harassed by an increasingly disturbed Anglican priest, they begin an exploratory journey, discovering themselves and each other. But a dark secret from Diane's past is slowly closing in on them. 

Do Tom and Diane have a future together? 

Who will live, and who will die?

For me, there is as much tension and suspense in wondering what will be said next in a conversation, in wondering whether two people will make it together, as there is in wondering whether Bruce Willis will again foil the bad guys; or in wondering whether Robert Langdon will again solve the mystery, just in the nick of time. More, actually, since we pretty much know the outcome of those scenarios from the beginning. And because, although I am probably not going to be called upon to save the world (again), I probably will be expected to engage in another conversation sometime soon! 

So there it is: the first little taste of what is to come. And below, also, is a first glimpse of the cover (or what probably, may, could be, will be the cover). Stay tuned for more news!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Rudd-Abbott Debate

The rest of the world (and probably most of Australia, too) probably doesn't care about the political debate between the current Australian Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader which took place last night here in Australia. So this blog is probably just me, shouting into the ether. It will no doubt sink without a trace. But there is so much to say about it, that I refuse to keep quiet, whether anyone bothers to read this or not.

Who Won?
This, of course, is one of the big questions that everyone wants to ask (and answer). I thought that the current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was the clear winner. He spoke with a much greater command of the facts, and with much greater authority. I think he made a mistake repeating the 'GST scare'. I don't think anyone buys this. That lost him points in my book. But Mr Abbott, the Opposition Leader, seemed to have nothing more to say than the usual slogans. Rudd may also have lost points for using notes which, apparently, was against the 'rules'. More about that later.

Most of the polls I have seen gave Rudd the edge in the debate. An ABC Twitter poll, run for 30 minutes immediately following the debate, had Rudd ahead by 72% to 28%. I have seen no subsequent mention of this. On 'average'—although how you actually average such polls needs to be explained—Rudd seemed to win. So why did the headlines all say it was a draw? But what is one to make of such polls anyway?

Did Rudd Cheat?
Unfortunately, the actual content of the debate was almost completely lost, because the headline of almost every web page and every newspaper ran with the 'Rudd cheats' line. Apparently the rules agreed to by both parties precluded the use of notes. Did Rudd simply disregard these rules? Was he given the wrong advice? Why did no one prevent him from using the notes on the night? Whatever the answer to these questions, I suspect it cost Rudd dearly, since the issue completely dominated the news. It seems to have been, at the very least, a tactical mistake.

Notes or No Notes
The more important question, it seems to me, is whether this is a sensible requirement. My answer to that is a most definite NO. There are two important points to make. First, no leader can be expected to be completely on top of every issue and every policy that could be raised in such a debate. It is ridiculous to expect them to be so. This is why we have a cabinet of ministers, with advisers. A leader has to delegate, and be prepared to let others make important decisions, because they are in full possession of the relevant information.

Second, in a debate such as this, what do we, the public, want from our leaders and aspiring leaders? Do we want well-considered responses, backed up with accurate information (notes) or off-the-cuff, ill-informed, generalised slogans (no notes)? I know that I want the former. 

A debate such as this only serves to encourage slogans and sound bites. Let's do better than this. For the next debate I strongly suggest that the rule about no notes be abandoned. If it is not, then I strongly encourage both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader to break the rule. Let's have an informed debate. And please let's stop expecting our politicians to know everything about everything. It is simply ridiculous.