Thursday, April 24, 2014

Review: The Green Storm, by Bud Santora

There are some very creative and original ideas in this sci-fi/fantasy novel. I would classify it more as sci-fi than fantasy, because the author seeks to provide a real world, pseudo-scientific explanation for the strange events that occur in the story. This is very much our world, without magical elements.

The story is told in two main streams, a present day stream, in which we find the Guillory family and their close associates living in their island home off the New England coast, and a past stream, beginning in the early part of the twentieth century, telling of their forebears. This latter stream tells of William Guillory and his family and the founding of a carnival on the island, with the aid of Pompey Wright and his carnival troupe and family. We learn of the tragedy that strikes William’s family, and of the friendships and even romances that develop among these people. There are some lovely, warm, romantic touches in the human element of this story. This stream of the story is also peppered with delightfully eccentric minor characters. The era is recreated beautifully. The contemporary story tells of strange meteorological events occurring, of the strange transformation taking place on the planet, and their effect on William’s present day descendants, Mike and his family. I did not become as attached to these people, although the family dogs are endearing. At times, the story is told from their point of view (you will understand how and why when you read the book). The descriptions of the transformation taking place in the world, and of the creatures populating this new eco-system, are carried out with considerable imagination and flair. The author was able to paint a very vivid picture. The scenario also has a certain internal plausibility, given the parameters.

About the sci-fi element of the plot I cannot say too much without giving the plot away. However, I will say that it is here that I find the main flaw in the novel. The plot involves an underwater civilisation of merfolk. This is not giving too much away, since it can be read in the blurb about the paperback edition. However, there are, in my mind, two sci-fi plots here, the second of which ultimately subsumes the first and makes this first plot virtually irrelevant. This second sci-fi plot, introduced in Chapter 27, is sufficient to account for the events that occur in the present, without any reference at all to the earlier events. It would be possible to read the present day events, plus Chapter 27, without any need at all to refer to these earlier events. What occurs to William’s wife Emily and other members of his family has no connection with what later happens to Mike and his family. The fate of these earlier characters is also dealt with rather callously. Others may disagree with this interpretation of the plot, or may be prepared to overlook this perceived discontinuity.

I’m not sure why the author decided to structure the sci-fi plot in this way. In my opinion, the story would have worked perfectly well with just one of these two plots. The future events could easily have been made to occur without the event described in Chapter 27, based just on what had happened prior to this. Alternatively, the events in Chapter 27 could have been made to predate the story. Both of these options would have also made it possible to deal with the earlier characters more kindly, and create a stronger emotional link between the characters of the past and those of the present. I could envisage a meeting between Mike and his great grandmother, Emily... I see this as a missed opportunity.

I have a few other minor issues. At times the author has to resort to an omniscient ‘Orson Welles’ type narration to tell the story of the transformation of the world. This doesn’t quite work for me. Otherwise the point of view tends to jump around from character to character even within a single chapter, and the writing would have benefited from more discipline and control. The author also sometimes resorts to dialogue between characters to impart information to the reader, which makes these conversations awkward and unnatural. There are also a couple of anachronisms in the early narrative stream: while both radio and telephone had been invented by 1919, the island was extremely unlikely to have a telephone line, and radio did not begin widespread broadcasting as early as this. Finally, vinyl wasn’t in use for making records until much later.

For the originality of the plot(s), for the vividness with which this new world is created, and for the warm, romantic elements of the earlier narrative, I give this book three stars.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Toys for the Boys

It sickens me that even during this so-called ‘budget crisis’ in Australia, we can always, somehow, find money to spend on toys for the boys: 12.4 billion dollars on fifty-eight new fighter planes.

We are told that, in the upcoming budget, there will be cuts across the board, that everyone will have to pull their weight. Not defence though, apparently. Oh no, not defence. And you can probably include our various spy organisations in that too. We have to be prepared, apparently, to defend ourselves against possible future hostile actions from all of our great ‘friends’ in the region.

We have to cut back on our foreign aid; but oh no, not defence. Never mind that increasing our foreign aid in the region would probably be a much better investment and, in the long term, a much better form of defence. But pictures of our Prime Minister beside a newly dug well are not nearly as impressive as pictures of our Prime Minister sitting in the cockpit of a fighter plane.

Defence, apparently, is more important than health, education, social services, disability support and the environment. Defence, apparently, is more important than the lifestyle, wellbeing, and values we are supposedly defending.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Never give up! Really?

Every so often on this blog I launch an attack on a popular saying or sentiment. Why? Because these are often repeated without any real thought or understanding of their implications. Because they are often said in lieu of actually saying anything at all. ‘Never give up’ is one of these.

Giving up is sometimes the most appropriate response in a given set of circumstances… Unless you are absolutely convinced that bashing your head against that wall will eventually knock down that wall, rather than turn your head into pulp. Sometimes what we are trying to do is not a good idea. Sometimes we are not very good at what we are trying to achieve. Sometimes the cost of continuing is far greater than the benefits that might accrue from ‘success’.

‘Never give up’ is the cry of the gambling addict. It is always possible that the next press of that button—or whatever it is you do on those infernal machines—will be the winning press. If I stop now I will be tormented for the rest of my life. Just one more press and I might have won millions! Just one more bash of my head and the wall might have come tumbling down. The next publisher could be THE ONE!

Even those who have succeeded after never giving up—and, who knows, they might have been just one bash short of giving up—may have been better off giving up. Maybe JK Rowling might have written something better if she had not expended so much energy on promoting Harry whatsisname. Or maybe she would have written nothing, become a Nobel prize winning physicist, and invented time travel.

If we decide to give up, if we decide to make a strategic retreat and cut our losses, there will always be that nagging doubt that we might have succeeded if... Those (few) who appear to have persisted and ultimately succeeded—and we never hear, of course, about those who died still trying—will always be there to urge you on. Give up, and there will always be that nagging doubt. Deal with it.

Finally, don’t let the never-give-uppers convince you that to give up is to fail. It’s actually a very profound and courageous form of success. To give up is to realise that I am not, after all, particularly well-suited to that particular pursuit. I’m not, after all, quite cut out to break the fifteen hundred metres freestyle record. I’m probably not going to invent that time machine. Maybe I’m not quite as good a writer as I thought I was. Giving up sets you free to follow other pursuits, to find that thing you really are good at. And maybe it gives you the freedom to live in the here and now, rather than in the unrealised—and possibly unrealisable—dream.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

What to do next...

At the end of the novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey (as also in the movie), we are left with an image of the Starchild, the super-evolved new form of Dave Bowman, astronaut, hovering above the earth and wondering what to do next. That, to me, has long symbolised the challenge, not just of being a super-evolved human, but of being an ordinary, everyday human. What do I do next?

Traditional religion has often posed the question: Why am I here? Personally, I don’t believe that I have been brought into this world for some kind of secret (or obvious) purpose. Human beings came into existence through an entirely natural and wonderful process of evolution. Evolution has no plan. It doesn’t think ahead. Natural selection responds to existing conditions, and sometimes it leads to useless dead ends. So I am not here for a purpose, as a result of some divine or natural plan. Nevertheless I am here; and the question that always faces me is: What do I do next?

I wouldn’t claim that we are the only creatures on this planet, let alone in the wide universe, who face this question. Nevertheless, we do seem to depend less on instinct and more on conscious decision-making than most other animals. Almost certainly we are driven by instinct more often than we care to admit. But much of what I do has to be decided. It doesn’t really matter whether other creatures also face this dilemma. It doesn’t even matter whether you do. I know that I do.

When we are younger, particularly in our teenage years, we battle for our freedom. We don’t like being told what to do by those in authority. We rebel! And spend the rest of our lives looking for someone or something that will tell us what to do next. Whether they are political leaders, great philosophers, religious leaders, or pop stars, we look for someone to lift from us this terrible burden of decision-making. No wonder neither religion nor totalitarianism ever quite go away. We want what we so detested in our parents: someone to tell us what to do next.

It can be tiring, this decision-making, this unending process of self-motivation. One of the characters in the novel I am currently working on has these thoughts:

He wanted to be a bee or an ant, or some other creature that was simply what it was, and didn’t have to decide what to be, or feel guilty about what it was or wasn’t. He doubted that an ant or a bee experienced guilt.

No doubt someone will want to argue that it’s possible that ants and bees feel guilt. Fine. Let them. All I know is that decision-making inevitably involves guilt. When faced with a choice, it is always possible that I will make the wrong choice. And, of course, in the real world there is never a simple ‘right or wrong’ choice. Every choice I make will have good and bad consequences, to a lesser or greater degree. There’s always room to feel guilty about the bad ones.

So, every day—every moment—I feel like that Starchild, looking at the world around me and wondering what I will do next. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all bad, by any means. It’s also wildly exhilarating! Possibility is both frightening and exciting, like the best rides in a theme park. With all the burdens that come with this freedom to do, I would never again swap it for the security of the State or the comfort of Religion.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Review: The Radovaks' War, by Robert Wickson

This is quite an ambitious undertaking, tracking a Polish family, the Radovaks, and their connections through the six years of the Second World War, across Europe and North Africa. Although the story follows all members of the family from time to time, it focuses most closely on the two sons, Stefan and Igor and, to a lesser extent, their father, Max.

The point of view (POV) adopted in this novel is crucial to how well it works or doesn’t work. When the focus is on Igor and Stefan, the POV tends to be third person and intimate. This is also sometimes true from time to time of other characters, but it is Igor and Stefan whom we come to know most intimately. We are made privy to their emotions and thoughts; we are taken into situations of suspense, jeopardy and intimacy with them. These are the parts of the novel that work best. Having said that, sometimes, even during these more intimate moments, the POV might shift momentarily to another (sometimes quite minor) character. This was not always successful. As far as other members of the family are concerned—particularly the mother, Anna, and Igor’s wife, Trishka—even when the narrative concerns them, the POV tends to be more remote and external, and events are often related quickly and sketchily. Sometimes they are not seen for many chapters, and even when they are finally seen again, the reader never comes to know them very well. As a result, the reader does not become very heavily invested in their fate.

There are large gaps even in the stories of Igor and Stefan. Sometimes they disappear for several chapters, and many months might pass. Although the external events of their stories are quite different, I never really acquired a sense of these men as distinct personalities. They remain, rather generically, young men involved in dangerous circumstances. These circumstances and the men’s activities dominate over personalities. Nevertheless, some of these individual episodes are very well told. Max, although given less airtime, seems to have a more distinctive personality, perhaps because he is an older man. Among the women, Anna the wife and Trishka the daughter-in-law scarcely come to life. It is actually Marie, the love interest of Stefan, who acquires the most substance among the women, probably because there is at least one chapter in which her POV is adopted and becomes very intimate. Minor characters come and go throughout the story, some given—briefly—more prominence than others, only to disappear off stage, never to be seen again; or to have their fate reported briefly later. One character is introduced only very briefly and his death scene is reported. We are then informed that over several months Igor had become close friends with him. This has important implications for the final chapters of the novel. Yet this friendship is only very briefly reported, and his death leaves the reader unmoved because the reader has no relationship with this character. This is an example of the inconsistency in the treatment of minor characters which is sometimes problematic.

I would rather the author had made a firmer decision to follow closely the trajectory of the two sons (and, to a lesser extent, the father) through the war, rather than popping back occasionally to relate what had been happening with the women for the past few months. In the end, these brief episodes were a distraction from the central narrative. The alternative would have been to give a much closer and more intimate account of the women too, which would, of course, have made this a much larger novel, perhaps of Gone With the Wind or War and Peace proportions.

All in all, I felt that the author the captured period quite well. As to the historical accuracy of the events reported I am not entirely sure; but I did notice one historical discrepancy: although referred to several times here in 1945, the KGB was not formed until 1954. This did make me wonder about the historical accuracy of other parts of the story.

As seems to happen so often in many (particularly self-published) novels, there appeared to be an increasing number of typographical errors as the novel progressed, as though whoever undertook the editing and proofreading became tired and lost focus along the way. I was particularly irritated by the persistent use, during one section of the novel, of mien for the German mein. This inevitably stood out in the italicised font.

I did, in the end, enjoy this novel, although the way the author sometimes skipped lightly over important events, or made large jumps in time, irritated me. Overall, I felt the novel could have used a firm editor’s hand. I give it three stars.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Commas Put Editor in Coma

Commas Put Editor in Coma

This might be the headline one day, as I tackle an editing task. They look so sweet and innocent, don’t they? Look at him back there, dangling prettily behind that ‘t’. But they invade my dreams at night, those tiny, tailed dots. Beware the comma apocalypse!

Is it just me, or do they drive you crazy too? Where to put the little buggers? When I edit my own writing they pop in and out all the time. I figure it must be something to do with what I have eaten on the day that determines whether I put a comma there or there. Now there are some rules (and guidelines) of course. We all know the famous ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ vs ‘Eats shoots and leaves’ example. There are many other situations in which the presence or absence of a comma changes the meaning. Nevertheless, there remains that grey area. ‘There are a number of situations where their use becomes a matter of judgment and personal preference’, observes the Australian style manual. Damn! Where’s a good rule when you need one?

The use of commas is as much about rhythm as it is about grammar and meaning. This is tricky for someone with little or no sense of rhythm. Or, perhaps, with a fluctuating sense of rhythm. Do I use more commas on days when I have eaten salsa?

Consider one of my earlier sentences: ‘Is it just me, or do they drive you crazy too?’ My natural inclination is to place a comma there, because I ‘hear’ it. But it’s not long before I begin to second guess myself. ‘Is it just me or do they drive you crazy too?’ Now I can hear it without the comma. Does it matter? Probably not.

My inclination when editing someone else’s work is only to modify the use of commas when it actually affects the meaning, or when one of the actual rules for using commas clearly applies.

Even so, you can bet that during each pass that I make through your manuscript commas will pop in and out of existence like some kind of weird sub-atomic particle.