Review 24: The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel


Let us take a trip back. All the way back to May 2015, in fact. To what was only my second review on this site: Meadowland. The trip through a year in the life of an English field was a beautiful foray into nature, and in the present day, 2018 (Happy New Year, everyone!), I have two tattoos (of a planned many) relating to nature: A soaring peregrine falcon and a rearing stag. As one who believes his tattoos are an ‘outer manifestation of one’s inner state’, and someone who grew up with a family cottage in the English countryside (many references to that in some of my other reviews here and here), it’s safe to say nature is close to my heart. So when I saw The Secret Life of the Owl in the half price section in Waterstones I was both upset that it hadn’t been given more credit and pleasantly surprised that I could snap up such a pretty little read on the cheap. Student life, I’m afraid.

The author has a resident tawny owl, Old Brown, at his family home on the Welsh border. She swoops over his head by night, and is nowhere to be seen by day. This is the life of the owl, and Lewis-Stempel reveals it in all its wonder in this charming book.

The Good:

Short of science textbooks at school, I don’t think I’ve learnt as much from a book in my entire life as I did from this one. I finished it in two or three sittings, and each one was stuffed to the brim with new tidbits and oddities about these beautiful creatures. The chapter on Owl Factfiles in particular has most of the juicy stuff, but the preceding chapter is also jam-packed with info. I learnt that owls bob their heads because they’re gauging the distance of objects, and they have to do that because their eyes are fixed and immovable in their skulls. I also learnt that said eyes take up SEVENTY percent of the space available in their heads. The phrase isn’t ‘bird-brain’ for nothing, as my dad pointed out. Those facts alone are amazing, but the book is full of so many more. On top of that, a section on literature relating to owls was a particular favourite of mine as an aspiring author, future Creative Writing degree student and general bibliophile.

To be Improved:

With Meadowland, I could find little wrong. But I ended up giving the book a seven out of ten purely because, try as the author might with amazingly poetic description, there’s no way past the fact that the subject matter is a single field. Besides, it wasn’t really focused on the animals in general for educational purposes, more so an autobiography of a year of Lewis-Stempel’s life. With The Secret Life of the Owl, the subject matter is already something beautiful, and it is played upon to great effect. My only issues are that the book is far too short, perhaps because owls are as mysterious as they are, so we know much less about them than other creatures, and also that I would have enjoyed fact files and information on many more owls than the few found in Britain. The problem I had with Meadowland resurfaced with this book, because Lewis-Stempel has this sort of arrogance (charming all the same, but arrogance nonetheless) in the way he writes, wherein anything he is unable to experience for himself is not allowed. But I’m sure he isn’t doing this on purpose, and it does make the book nice and contained when it focuses on the wildlife of one particular place. If I wanted loads of variety I’d read one of my many RSPB bird-watching books.

Overall: 9/10

As mentioned above, I finished The Secret Life of the Owl far too quickly, which stands as a testament to how un-put-down-able and fascinating it is, but goes to show it could have been extended into a larger tome and I would have enjoyed it all the more. I know the author is British, but if he adores the creatures as much as he claims to in the book, he might have stretched to include some owls encountered beyond the realms of his own experiences. However, on the whole I don’t know how I could bring myself to give this book any less than a near-perfect score, for that’s exactly what the book is. Near-perfect.


Review 23: All Systems Red by Martha Wells


So, I guess I haven’t finished a book in a while, despite the fact that I’ve had time to see plenty of films. But that’s what happens when you go to university for a few weeks then withdraw, and films are only two hours while a book takes a lot longer to get through. Either way, I thought it best to get back into the swing of things by reading something shorter, and the 150 or so pages of All Systems Red seemed like the best place to start (especially seeing as I’m considering possibly tackling Dune next, goodness me).

Following the crew of PreservationAux, a mission to a distant planet goes awry when they discover a conspiracy bigger than anything even their elusive sponsor, known only as ‘The Company’, is willing to ignore. With the help of their SecUnit, which unbeknownst to the crew has become self-aware and calls itself Murderbot, they must get to the bottom of the sinister GrayCris organisation before it’s too late.

The Good:

One of my favourites aspects of the novel is this: The ambiguity of the level of technology utilised in the narrative does the opposite of the complexity of universe-building seen in books like A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, but to great effect. By this I mean we don’t need to know how advanced civilisation is by this point, because by demonstrating the technology the author gives us just enough information to allow us to determine the scope of the setting. It’s very tasteful, in short, and doesn’t require further explanation because the story is driven by the characters rather than the world around them, in a way. The characters themselves are very well thought-out, and each one has a distinct personality. You can really picture what they look like just based on the way they act, an admirable achievement on Wells’ part. Naturally with the exception of the Murderbot, the primary protagonist, who is on the cover, which is a great shame in my opinion, as more than enough written description is given for the reader, especially one as into sci-fi as I am, to picture it easily. On that note, however, the description itself is very minimalistic in parts, and this is but one factor contributing to why the book is so short, though it works to great effect because it means you visualise it all in your head instead of being told what to picture. Like I said, the story itself isn’t the driving force here, but the interactions between the characters. But I shall continue this in the below section, right about…

To be Improved:

…Now. Although the plot is a mystery of sorts, with lots of strange occurrences eventually leading up to some minor reveals, it all happens too quickly for the tension to really be allowed to build, and there’s lots of running away then going back to where you were but this time with a plan then running away again because it goes wrong but now you know a little bit more than before and ugh! It just gets tedious after a while rather than atmospheric. In terms of specific story elements, there is an all-encompassing company in control of most of the goings-on in the book, which is only referred to as… Well, ‘the Company’. But the problem is that around two thirds of the way through the author refers to said Company’s competitors, shattering the mystery and making me wonder why such a subtle name was chosen if the original so-called Company is not the only one in existence. The author also falls into the trap of writing in a style where yes, if you’re the one who came up with the story, you’ll understand what’s going on, but as the reader these moments sort of go over your head. Moments like the fact that the good guys’ expedition to the planet is called ‘Preservation’, and that’s somehow supposed to obviously signify that the leader of the expedition herself is the political entity controlling it, as opposed to an outside influence like it normally is. Make sense? No, I didn’t think so either. It’s little things like this peppered throughout the novel that sort of attach a weight to the story every time they crop up, ever so slowly dragging it down until you get to the end.

Overall: 5/10

A short and sweet read, ASR whisks you away for a brief outing on a hostile alien planet. I really enjoyed the more toned down yet still atmospheric horror undertones once the conflict really got going. Because I’m a nervous wreck when it comes to anything more than mildly scary (see my Alien review), reading something that went easy on the fear factor but still added elements of scariness constituted major tension in my timid mind, so it worked out really well. Not a spectacular story by any stretch, but certainly an enjoyable one. Besides, even though I didn’t adore it one can plough through Wells’ novella in such little time that I’m definitely going to be picking up the sequel (or prequel?), if for nothing except to see how this tale wraps up.

Review 22: Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee


I read Ninefox Gambit again to prepare for this, read the whole thing. All while Raven Stratagem sat on my shelf, taunting me, tempting me to just open it, cast the first book aside and find out where the story goes instead of reminding myself where it had already been. But I finished Ninefox, which meant I could, at long last, dive into the sequel.

Brevet General Kel Cheris’ fleet has been destroyed, and she has bonded with the undead general Shuos Jedao, stripping herself of her faction and taking over another Kel swarm for herself. Only Kel Brezan, a crashhawk and formation breaker, manages to wrench himself from the General’s influence, and seeks to destroy his swarm’s captor once and for all. But is Jedao trying to defend the Hexarchate, or is he putting into motion an even more sinister plan… A betrayal four centuries in the making?

The Good:

One of the main positives of Raven Stratagem, which, as we shall see, is a staple of sci-fi sequels, is the fact that there are many chapters which explore the origins of certain protagonists. These are much more interesting and fun than the muddled nature of some from the first book, offering insight into the background of a character and adding more consistent and grounded lore to the story on the whole. Other than that, honestly, short of flat out copying and pasting the paragraph from my review of Ninefox Gambit praising Ha Lee’s writing style, I have nothing more to say about Raven Stratagem. So… Let’s do just that, shall we? This is going to be a very short paragraph otherwise. Here we go:

“All of the imagery, description, names of the ships and weapons, it’s superb, it really is. It’s just so well-written. I’m going to have to get specific here, so let’s just list some things. The imagination that has been required to come up with all the weapons, ships, factions and imagery throughout is just staggering. Boxmoth troop transports, Cindermoths equipped with Erasure Guns and Dire Cannons, Kel Ashhawks, Threshold Winnowers, it goes on and on. And they never start to get boring, that’s the main thing. So much new weaponry is introduced that drastically turns the tide of battle (and that’s really what this book is about on the whole, so it just adds to the gritty feel) but none of it done cheaply in dull ex machina fashion.”

There! That was easy. But in all seriousness, it’s a problem in and of itself that Raven Stratagem is just consistently good throughout. It becomes sort of… blandly enjoyable. Like a superhero movie, or a dessert that tastes good but is far too big to finish by yourself so you’re left forcing yourself to get through it because you know that even though you feel sick now, it was nice originally so it should be worth it. There are no moments whatsoever that stand out, and whereas with Ninefox I could tell you about Cheris’ duel, the carrion glass flashback sequence, the fungal canister disaster, or the battle with the kaleidoscope bomb. With Raven Stratagem… What happened in this book again?

To be Improved:

Immediately, I actually regretted having read the first book again before picking up this one, because there were many instant discrepancies between this and the ending of Ninefox Gambit. It seems a lot of moments have been tailored for people who decided not to reread the first book so need a little nudging reminder every time something is mentioned. Ah yes, that’s what “lucky unlucky four” is, ah yes, now I remember who the main character is, ah yes, that’s what a boxmoth is. It’s tiresome, and one would think anyone with some semblance of memory wouldn’t need these little prompts. But to go through a more jarring example: Cheris still wears her gloves, despite taking them off in the closing paragraphs of Ninefox Gambit, dramatically stating that she would be Kel no longer. Ooh, scary, but the impact of this is decidedly dulled by the fact that she is now back, once again donning the gloves. To say nothing of the fact that no one is at all surprised to see Captain Cheris alive and well, simply letting her aboard and allowing her to walk straight into the command centre with all her weapons, despite the fact that the entirety of her fleet was just bombed into oblivion. She should be dead and the fact she isn’t should be an immediate cause for concern, yet everyone is hunky-dory about letting an armed captive into the room where all the highest ranking officers are. This is just one example, but it really sticks out and makes me wonder if Yoon Ha Lee even remembered what happened in his own novel before starting its sequel. Very odd. Also, from the first few pages there are spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. This is becoming more than a little tedious, as we saw in my review of Ninefox, so I shall say no more on the matter. Raven Stratagem, on the whole, sees Yoon Ha Lee fall into the same trap as Jeff Vandermeer with the Area X Trilogy, and indeed William Gibson with Neuromancer‘s sequel, wherein the second book in the series is way more political and wooden than the first. It does mean that we get to explore the wider workings of an already-established universe rather than getting bogged down in more of the same, yes, but when the original was as amazing as it was, a little similarity would have gone a long way rather than move backwards. This means that it’s a great shame that Raven Stratagem is as comparatively boring as it is. Many mysterious characters we wanted to know more about are introduced unsubtly and suddenly, obliterating any impact they would otherwise have had, and the characters we know from Ninefox who make a return are bland and lack continuity in relation to how they were before (see above glove example).

Overall: 6/10

Nothing is wrong with Ha Lee’s writing, it must be said. And this book is an enjoyable one to read, unlike Vandermeer or Gibson’s sequels that I couldn’t even get halfway through. However, I should have taken a hint when it came to those two juggernauts, as Raven Stratagem was of course not worth the wait, like my mum told me it wouldn’t be, because sequels hardly ever top the original (perhaps with the exception of Empire Strikes Back). And of course it has left me completely devoid of any excitement or desire to read the finale of the trilogy, if indeed there is going to be one at some point. After Ninefox Gambit, I had so many burning questions that I needed answers to. Those I harbour after Raven Stratagem are embers at best. Sorry, Yoon.

Review 21: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee


I read this a year ago, very nearly to the day. It seems so strange to try and look back on that time, because I was so different and my tastes weren’t what they are now, but I’m sure it gave me a ton of inspiration for my own novel, and really pushed me to keep going with it. Well, a year down the line, I’m a hundred pages in (to my own sci-fi, that is!) and still going strong, and the sequel to Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem, has just been released. I’ve waited a long time for it, so I’m not about to just dive in without giving myself a refresher of the first in the trilogy beforehand. I make a point of the fact that I never read books twice, but Ninefox is among my all time favourites so, for once, it’s a pleasure to get lost in it once again. Because I may have changed a lot in the last year, but what certainly hasn’t changed is how much I love this book.

In a distant and hierarchical future of calendrical warfare and exotic technologies, the ruling Hexarchate loses one of its central fortresses to a heretic takeover. The Liozh, the abolished seventh faction of the old Heptarchate, seek to reinstate themselves, and are willing to kill thousands in the process by purging the fortress. When Captain Kel Cheris of Heron Company is selected to take down the heretics and is given full access to the Kel arsenal, she decides on the undead tactician General Shuos Jedao as her weapon of choice. She bonds with the ghost of the man who massacred two armies, one of them his own, and sets out to take back the Fortress of Scattered Needles. But will she succeed, or will Jedao drive her insane before she does and get them both killed?

The Good: 

I think this may have happened before with my reviews, but this is another book where the ‘Good’ section will be a lot shorter than the ‘To be Improved’ one, for one simple reason. When you have a book that is consistently amazing throughout, it’s very hard to narrow down your praises, so you’re sort of just left saying “It’s all great, simple as”, which is a lot less complicated than, for instance, describing a whole scene in depth because that was the only silver lining you could find in an otherwise mediocre novel. Consequently, any criticisms are super specific so, even though they warrant a lot more explanation, just because there are more words doesn’t mean there are more things wrong with the book. Capeesh? Case in point: All of the imagery, description, names of the ships and weapons, it’s superb, it really is. See? That sentence is a lot shorter than if there was only one example of gorgeous imagery and I went into it in greater detail, but I can’t say anything more! It’s just so well-written. I’m going to have to get specific here, so let’s just list some things. The imagination that has been required to come up with all the weapons, ships, factions and imagery throughout is just staggering. Boxmoth troop transports, Cindermoths equipped with Erasure Guns and Dire Cannons, Kel Ashhawks, Threshold Winnowers, it goes on and on. And they never start to get boring, that’s the main thing. So much new weaponry is introduced that drastically turns the tide of battle (and that’s really what this book is about on the whole, so it just adds to the gritty feel) but none of it done cheaply in dull ex machina fashion. Instead, there are genuine surprises which grip you and keep your fingers flicking the pages, moments of terror that make you hold your breath, conversational gambits (pun intended, as I’m sure it was intended in the book) that make you grin in satisfaction, laugh out loud or shudder, and, of course, a whole host of explosive space battles and infantry skirmishes complete with all the aforementioned cannons, guns and winnowers, along with many others. As well as all this, the lore behind the story is established incredibly cunningly. When I first read it, sure, I was incredibly confused by all the “calendar” stuff, as none of it is explicitly explained; but, and this is something many people cite as a reason to avoid sci-fi as it is too easy a genre to write to be awarded any credit, it doesn’t need to be explained, because it is shown not told. That’s the joy of reading Ninefox Gambit and unravelling the mystery for yourself. On top of that, many questions are left unanswered and I am very much looking forward to having them answered in the sequel, as well as having new ones raised to be reserved for, I hope, an eventual finale to a trilogy.

To be Improved:

Yoon Ha Lee has clearly chosen some things that very much resemble but not quite enough for copyright infringement multiple items and characters from Bungie’s Destiny and not even bothered to change the names. Servitors are enemies that look very similar to the small drones of the same name described in the book, and serve (pun intended) much the same function. Exotics, even though this is already an English word, I guess, are the powerful weapons you unlock at high levels in Destiny, and they’re the ones used in the book, too. The Kel are a race in Destiny, and a faction in the book. Look, I’m all for a bit of homage, but when you mention all three of these things in the first page and the reason I buy your book is because of how much it initially reminds me of one of my favourite video games, you’ve cheated a bit. But that’s not to say that’s the reason I carried on reading. Another slight issue is that as you go through the book there are perhaps a few too many characters to keep up with. When you also consider the fact they all start with the name of their faction (Kel Cheris, Kel Nerevor, Kel Diaia, etc) it becomes frustrating to try and keep track of them all, especially seeing as they all seem to be equally important at various points in the narrative. Although maybe that’s the point, as the main character herself finds herself unable to keep track of her subordinates due to her inexperience in her newly-brevetted rank, so I’ll overlook it. And on top all this, there are some VERY convoluted plot points that are never really followed up. If they are eventually explained, there’s too many to keep track of so whenever a “She dreaded to think what was going to happen” moment crops up, the reveal comes so much further on in the book and there are so many of these moments that it all gets a bit lost and muddled. But now we come to my biggest complaint, albeit one that will hopefully have been ironed out by the time there’s a second printing of this book. It’s now incredibly annoying when this happens, and yes, it’s an editing rather than an authorial problem, and yes, before I picked the book up this time around I’d forgotten about it which means it can’t have been too much of a problem the last time I read it, but Ninefox Gambit is one of if not the only book I’ve read where whole paragraphs (short ones, mind, but paragraphs all the same) are accidentally used twice, in completely different contexts. It’s immersion-shattering, it’s tedious, it’s just a mistake that shouldn’t even be made if you do any sort of proofreading before publication. Rather unfortunate, but there it is. No fault of the author, of course, as switching around paragraphs to places they work best is a must during one’s own editing sessions, but I try to give reviews of books as a whole rather than just the skill of the author. If a movie was amazingly done but they used a line of dialogue or a specific shot more than once (Michael Bay, take notes) you’d definitely notice, so I try and critique books in a similar vein. Other than that, I have no more criticisms to offer regarding the actual content of the novel, the description, the plot and the way it’s all done. I did mention that this was in my top five favourite books of all time, right?

Overall: 9/10

Ninefox Gambit is incredible. I love military science fiction (like Joe Haldeman’s Forever War), and this is a brilliant blend of rip-roaring battle sequences punctuated by intricate instances of political intrigue and backdoor influences. I say instances because all too often (in novels like Dune, for example) authors choose to focus drastically more attention on the politics of it all at the cost of anything exciting. Probably need to change that attitude if I’m planning on getting through Frank Herbert’s 400 or so pages at some point in the near future, but that’s just my opinion. Ha Lee does decidedly the opposite, and does it very well indeed, adding little pieces of what’s going on between the characters pulling the strings, adding some nice background and lore to the story, but mainly focusing on the hard realities of space warfare, the thing you can really bite on as you read, which is what catapults the narrative forward, keeps those pages turning, and, above all, is fundamentally, grin-inducingly fun. It makes for an awesome and compelling read, and one which, like I said, sits in my top five. Bring on the sequel.


Review 20: The Frogs by Aristophanes


Well, well, well, what do we have here? This is a bit of a wildcard, isn’t it? In a reading career almost entirely comprised of sci-fi, peppered through with a few Westerns, what’s classical literature doing in the mix? Well, if you’ve read some of my other reviews you may know that I am a budding classicist, and as I’ve always wanted to read Greek Comedy (we only ever did epics and tragedy at A-Level), I knew it would be a good idea to buy this when I found out it was available in the form of the adorable one-to-two-pound-a-copy Penguin Classics series.

The Frogs follows Dionysus and his sidekick Xanthias as they travel to the underworld disguised as Heracles and his slave, in order to bring back Euripides from the dead and experience true poetry. Expertly translated by David Barrett, The Frogs is outrageous, hilarious and, beneath the surface, unexpectedly political. This review is a little shorter than usual because technically it’s a play rather than a book, and this copy is tiny in and of itself.

The Good:

  • Actually laugh out loud funny which even modern on-screen comedies don’t get right the majority of the time.
  • Plenty of intricate and carefully tailored characters who each have their own personalities from the moment they first speak.
  • Fantastical settings as are only appropriate for a work in the classical genre.
  • Some hilarious precursor-to-Deadpool fourth wall breaks, really including the audience (and, if you use your imagination a little, as we’re not seeing this on stage, after all, the reader) in the antics.

To be Improved:

  • Too much singing, always boring in literature (here’s looking at you, Tolkien) and would work much better if actually seen on stage. Doesn’t translate (no pun intended) well to written word. Obviously not the fault of the original author or translator but there it is, I suppose.

Overall: 8/10

Examining The Frogs for what it is, and being nowhere near as critical and exploratory as I’ll no doubt need to be when I inevitably come to read it again at university, the play does its job incredibly well. Aristophanes was never afraid to poke fun at his contemporaries, and The Frogs appears to one massive satire piece on that subject, a sheer stroke of riotously funny genius.

Review 19: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Mar UK

Little disclaimer: Two reviews have gone up today as I finished On the Black Hill and decided to give up on this one. Because when it gets to the point where you’re forcing yourself to pick up a book, it’s probably a signal to put it down.

This is a little bit nostalgic for me, because I stopped writing reviews on this site and went on my depression- and manipulative relationship-fuelled hiatus way back in March 2016, when I was just about to finish Something Wicked This Way Comes, also by Bradbury. That was a really fantastical book, and one I enjoyed thoroughly. When I recently discovered he’d also written some science fiction, it was obvious to me that I had to at least check it out. I read the first two chapters online at work, as is customary if I’m considering buying a book and want to see if it’s my cup of tea, then bought it that same day (which also seems to be the trend at the moment).

Written in a time when landing on Mars and finding life there seemed the next big step in man’s journey away from Earth, The Martian Chronicles follow the colonisation of the red planet and the various trials that come with living life on strange new world. As Bradury’s stories are often heavily character-driven, I can’t say much more without including specific plot details, so let’s get right to it.

The Good:

Bradbury is a master of description. His imagination, though much more fantastical (which is a lot less my thing than, say, military science fiction) is awe-inspiring throughout. He comes up with things most of us can only dream of, like firebird chariots and metal books you run your hand over in order to hear them sing to you. As opposed to being technical and technology-driven in the aesthetic, for instance in books like Neuromancer, lots of it is very vaguely carnival-themed and magical, as per his preferred style of story, but this is no bad thing. Leaving things, plot-wise, to the reader’s imagination also helps with this imagery and the whole wonder of it all. It’s very cleverly done and it’s even nicer that it connects the chapters when you consider the fact that they were all originally individually-published short stories. The mystery which begins from the very first chapter is intriguing and really keeps you reading, hungry for the answers to the burning questions the red planet raises. The characters themselves are also enjoyable if a little archaic, but that’s simply because the book is pushing seventy years old.

To be Improved:

Lots, not only in terms of the story but also in terms of the way it is written. Namely, very juvenile mistakes and writing choices. Naming the Martians Mr and Mrs *insert three identical letters here*, for instance (Mr Ttt, Mrs Iii, Miss Lll and so on). This leads to so many problems. First, it makes you wonder: are there only twenty six couples on the whole planet? How the hell do I pronounce these names? I know they’re alien and that’s the point, but this is something that would only really work in a film where we can hear the, to us, unpronounceable sounds, but written down it’s just jarring because you actually have to look at the word and not be able to read it. And also, when we meet some main characters called Mr and Mrs K (obviously only given one letter to avoid association with the cult, which is also jarring because it doesn’t match the other aliens yet Bradbury has also been perfectly happy to include a Mr and Mrs Xxx despite the connotations), it begs the question of why Bradbury didn’t choose one of the other twenty six letters to focus on, or even scrub this naming system entirely as soon as he discovered these discrepancies. Another similar occurrence of this sort of thing is when the astronauts discover a settlement where they find every one of the relatives and friends they left back on Earth alive and well, mysteriously brought back to life. But what is odd about this is that it is inconceivable that every single acquaintance, family member or lover of the twelve astronauts each died in a separate tragic accident before their time. Again, Bradbury should have just realised that this didn’t really work and scrapped the idea. That’s what I’ve had to do time and time again with my own novel so it seems very lazy indeed that such an accomplished author hasn’t. On top of this, characters spout Bradbury’s own fantastical similes, making the same mistake Neal Stephenson made in Snow Crash by speaking through his characters instead of them actually having their own voices. Another childish aspect of the writing is the exposition, where in his plot Bradbury himself acknowledges that even he doesn’t know the full story of what’s happening. For example, a character who is eighty years old yet apparently still young for his age, talks vaguely of “a science” that is the explanation for his youth, without elaborating further, showing Bradbury’s own complete and utter lack of information on this so-called “science” that he has come up with. And again, when the Captain is later worried about a lack of firepower and a crew member tells him that they have a full arsenal on board. These people are already in this situation, and by that I mean they would already know all the details and workings of the setting, without the need to constantly explain it to each other. It’s as if they know as little as the reader and that Bradbury is just using them as vessels to exposit unnecessarily. A really simple fix could just have been “Might I remind you, Captain, that we have a full arsenal on board.” and the Captain replying “Ah, yes, how could I forget.” This immediately solves the problem, cleverly letting the reader know the stakes without actually having to entirely delete any aspects of the conversation, however Bradbury has failed to implement this obvious workaround and it really shows, not just at this point but throughout the novel. Furthermore, description is more often than not overly fancy for the sake of it and even contradicts itself regularly. The Martians wield guns that shoot bees which then drop dead once they’ve hit and killed their target, but when the gun is cracked open it reveals two spent bee ‘shells’ which fall to the floor. There are many little technical examples like this which just wouldn’t work in a proper sci fi but which Bradbury has for some reason been allowed to get away with, which is incredibly frustrating.

Overall: 4/10

Reading back this review after finishing the book, I feel like some people may think I’ve been a little harsh. But this is not a good book, I have to say, and I couldn’t finish it. It comes nowhere close to the standard Bradbury set with Something Wicked This Way Comes, making it even more disappointing. With some clever concepts, especially for the time, but ones that are not thought through in the slightest or tied together in any way shape or form, and description that bleeds into the characters’ speech and inner thoughts, Martian Chronicles proves that Ray really should have stayed away from sci-fi.

Review 18: On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

My dad wrote and directed the screenplay of this! That’s about as simple as the backstory for my interest in this novel gets. But when it comes to how I got it, the record shop down the road from my workplace (the one where I got Tau Zero and A Fall of Moondust) has a surprisingly decent selection of books despite the fact it’s decidedly not a book shop and is only made better by the fact that they’re two for a fiver or three pounds each. I was in there with my girlfriend a few weeks ago, and they’ve got a new ‘Vintage Classics’ shelf. I managed “Wouldn’t it be funny if they had…” before my eyes rested on the lovely greens of the cover you see above. I decided it was high time I read it as I was probably developed enough up in the ol’ neural pathways to enjoy it.

Two twins (or would that make four people? A twins?), Lewis and Benjamin Jones, are brought up on their father Amos’ farm, the Vision, on the Black Hill. No idea what the title is referencing, *wink*. Either way, the book is just the story of the twins from birth (and a little bit before that, in fact) all the way up to their 80th Birthday as they live out their lives on the Welsh Border. The story isn’t my usual action-packed affair, but my goodness is it gorgeously written.

Little disclaimer, a few of my critiques are based on specific story elements rather than negatives in the way the novel is written, so it’s a bit of a spoiler minefield down there.

The Good:

There are only so many times I can look up synonyms for ‘gorgeous’ and ‘beautiful’ when it comes to praising nature-oriented description and imagery in novels, so it’s far easier just to come out and say I have no other words for how lovely it is when it comes to this one. Every chapter is filled with rich and powerful observations on the wildlife and flora in each setting, and hardly any two passages contain the same species of either. A few too many jackdaws alight from belfry rooftops, and the characters traipse past lines of hawthorn fairly regularly, but it’s just so fundamentally pleasantly written that I’ll overlook any slight repetition. Besides, there’s only so many animals in the UK, hardly any of them exotic, but each chapter is like an exquisitely painted picture, each new, exciting and entirely different from the last. Speaking of pictures, a theme running through the novel that I particularly enjoy is the paintings, mentioned in the very first chapter when the twins are in their eighties, as the author describes the contents of all the frames on the wall. The description is nice enough if a little disjointed a thing to focus on above all else, but as you read on you suddenly see why this has been focused on. Every so often, at various points throughout the book, one of the paintings will pop up, and it’s just a nice callback to the start every single time it happens. Be it the wedding photo that Mary, the twins’ mother, smashes during an argument, the postcard of a Red Indian received from a Canadian uncle, or a painting by a strange lady artist the boys go and stay with by the seaside, each one has an intricate tale behind it which just ties the whole narrative together so elegantly and almost serves as a backbone for the story on the whole. The story itself is so heartfelt, poignant and human that it just struck this previously dormant chord with me. I never knew that I’d be able to get so into a book like this straight after reading a string of explosive, rollercoaster science fiction, but it’s all just so personal that I can’t help but laugh and cry along with Chatwin’s superbly-crafted characters. Wound up in some rather dark over- and under-tones, there are so many innocent and light-hearted moments, too. When the runt and only piglet of a litter is adopted and cherished by the twins then tragically killed by their father, the twins vow to never speak to him again, offering only: “You killed our Hoggage.” Cue an attention-drawing fit of laughter in the middle of a packed tube carriage on my morning commute.

To be Improved:

Not a lot, honestly! The only thing I can think of is the fact that there are a few unsatisfying moments which have been specifically tailored by Chatwin to work out in his favour, like when the twins are separated as Benjamin is sent off to fight in the Great War but it then ever-so-conveniently ends before he can even complete his training. There are also lots of little scenes that seem a bit disjointed from the rest of the plot and are rather frustratingly never addressed again despite being left on what I take to be at least minor cliffhangers. These moments are few and far between but they’re painfully obvious when they do occur, and it just detracts a little from how watertight the rest of the narrative is. Other than that, it is just so refreshing to not have to criticise any errors in the techniques used by an author. Speaking through the characters in their own voice, for instance (on a completely unrelated note, review of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles coming soon), or simply not knowing one’s own story so including massive contradictions that are plain unrealistic or otherwise damaging to the plot. Nothing of the sort appears in Chatwin’s work, and it makes for an incredibly satisfying read when you’re not constantly torn from your immersion by a glaring mistake every couple of chapters. You know a novel’s good when I have to criticise other authors’ works to show you how few problems this one has.

Overall: 9/10

In my Lego Lakeside Lodge review I mentioned my parents’ and my little cottage in Dorset, and to me the description in On The Black Hill is just so evocative throughout of the very same types of animals, plants and settings I grew up with on our fortnightly weekends away in the countryside that I can’t help but fall in love with it. On every page of Chatwin’s novel I can practically smell the country and sea air wafting from the paper, filled with wildflower fragrances and the sounds of a myriad garden birds, and it really is a beautiful feeling. The imagery alone really appeals to me and raises my opinion of this book, but a few cheeky authorial freedoms unfortunately let some small parts of the narrative down. Besides that, though, On the Black Hill is now among my favourites, and I very much look forward to finally watching the film.