Saturday, 20 March 2010

Review: Darkover Landfall - Marion Zimmer Bradley



I am going through quite a phase with Marion at the moment, and it was her Avalon series that got me hooked on her work. So I decided to give Darkover a go as well. In terms of internal chronology, Darkover Landfall is the first book in the series and tells the story of the first earthlings stranded on Darkover following the crash landing of their spaceship. Landfall was first published in 1972 - ten years after the publication of "The Planet Savers", Bradley's first Darkover novel.




Darkover: First Contact (Darkover Omnibus: Darkover Landfall & Two to Conquer)


Don't expect too much in terms of storyline, this book is intended to set the scene and fill a chronological gap providing the reader with background info on the initial phase of the planet's colonisation: Who were the first humans on Darkover? How did they end up there? Why did they stay? What were their first impressions of the planet and which challenges - both in terms of internal / social as well as external / environmental - did they face? In line with this, Landfall is mainly concerned with the exploration of various themes, whilst the characters remain superficially drawn. Giving a thorough synopsis of the book would give away too much of its content. Below, I will briefly summarise some - but not all - of the plot and introduce Bradley's main themes.


What happens when a group of highly skilled and educated humans get stranded on an uncharted, seemingly inhospitable planet? The group consists of the spaceship's crew and a number of colonists, originally on their way to be dropped off on another planet. Whilst the astronauts are keen to get the spaceship up and running again, the colonists are more inclined to accommodate their fate and make the best of their predicament by settling on Darkover.


Darkover, however, isn't everybody's cup of tea. Due to a lack of metal deposits, it is unlikely  that it would ever support the requirement's of a technologically advanced society, its climate is subjet to severe - and mostly freezing - temperatures and it is already inhabited by two other, humanoid species. Each of these characteristics on their own is reason enough not to earmark the planet for potential colonisation. What's more, Darkover's "powers" seem to gradually set free psychic abilities in its new inhabitants and a strange "Ghostwind" causes barriers between the individuals to temporarily break down, thereby leading to mass orgies with at times grave consequences.

However, when it becomes clear that the spaceship is not salvageable, the colonists, a bunch of red - haired Scots from the Outer Hebrides, take the lead and get everybody "winter - ready". Adapting to life on the planet is not easy, especially not for the spaceship's tech - savvy crew. On Darkover, the colonists' skills as food growers and house builders are sought after and essential in ensuring survival, whilst the crew members' scientific and engineering backgrounds are as good as obsolete for all but future generations. This is what I loosely term Bradley's "back - to - basics theme" and it  permeates Landfall throughout, culminating in the settlers' recognition that a society governed by the principles of scientific knowledge and technological innovation is not a viable option for the organisation of life on Darkover.

Bradley's depiction of this dichotomy (skilled manual labour versus academic education) moves to another level when she explores the effects of the newly regained telepathic abilities on her protagonists. Whilst some are at ease with being guided by their gut - feelings, others, such as the spaceship's captain, find it much harder to come to terms with the existence of these powers. Hard science and its principles are thus pitted against the powerful forces of psychic intuition.


One final point worth mentioning is Bradley's engagement with the pivotal role of women and their significantly altered attitudes towards motherhood. Darkover's chemical composition has rendered all hormone - based contraceptive methods ineffective and due to above - mentioned "get - togethers" a large number of females have become pregnant. When it becomes clear that there is no escape from the planet, all pregnant women are literally forced to continue their pregnancies in order to ensure the colony's survival. Initially, this goes against the grain amongst those women who tend to have a rather sanitised attitude towards motherhood. As we move through the book, this attitude gradually changes. Rather than viewing motherhood as an inferior choice, which is to be avoided at all costs - the dominant viewpoint held by the spaceship's first officer -, its true value is uncovered by the characters in the end.


My verdict: Darkover Landfall was a highly enjoyable read and a good starting point for getting a feel of the series. It certainly got me hooked and more Darkover novels are on the way.  Bradley's work undoubtedly differs from the more technology - oriented novels in the genre, as she views human development as a function of its environment and focuses on exploring the effects of alien environments on societal norms and values. Written in the 1970s, Darkover clearly reflects the concerns and technical advances of a different era, but Bradley's ideas are still contemporary for a 21st century audience.













Friday, 12 March 2010

Currently Reading....


More information on Marion Zimmer Bradley's Avalon Series


For all those who want more info on Marion Zimmer Bradley's Avalon series, here is a collection of links that might be of interest:
  • More on Marion Zimmer Bradley (including advice for aspiring writers) can be found here:


Marion Zimmer Bradley - Avalon Series

 

  • In depth info on Diana L Paxson, who continued Marion's Avalon series, is available on her website. This site also contains info on her Westria series:



  • Diana's blog can be found here:

http://dpaxson.livejournal.com


  • The latest instalment in the Avalon series was released in the latter part of 2009 and is available now.

Agatha Christie - Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile (The Christie Collection) Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
It is obviously quite difficult to review a book that has been commented upon so many times, and it is therefore challenging to come up with anything new that hasn't already been said or written by others before. Nevertheless, here is my opinion on "Death on the Nile": If you like murder mysteries and the quintessentially English "whodunnit", then this should certainly be a candidate on your "must-read" list. Christie's story is unputdownable and a perfectly crafted example of the genre. The author introduces a myriad of characters, which is quite often a guarantee for confusing your readers. This is not the case with "Death on the Nile" and due to the author's skill you will remain on top of the story and its various sub-plots at all times. As with all murder mysteries, it pays to have your attention on details revealed throughout the story, but in "Death on the Nile" it is difficult to guess in advance, who really was the perpetrator of the three murders. In the end I had to rely on the guidance of the ingenious Hercule Poirot.

In this context I have to admit, how glad I am only to have watched snippets of the Hercule Poirot film adaptations, which enabled me to imagine a Poirot that was rather different from the character in the films. Above all, by reading the Poirot books you are not constantly bothered by Poirot's stylised French (sorry, Beligian-French)accent. Instead, you get a chance of improving your rudimentary language skills when Poirot throws in a few remarks in French here in there. The same applies to the Teutonic character, Dr Bessner. The different nationalities of the characters lend themselves very well to stereotyping and Christie seems to thrive on this throughout the book.
Another interesting aspect permeating the whole story was Christie's rather subtle mockery of the upperclass protagonists.

Reading the book in 2008, I was quite shocked by the extremely racist references about "wretched Negro children" and various other derogatory remarks about the natives. Perhaps, this should not come as a surprise, bearing in mind that another of Christie's stories was originally published under the title "Ten Little Indians", only to be renamed "Ten Little Niggers", which was scrapped again. The story is now titled "And Then There Were None", which obviously fits better with a post-colonial audience. Nonetheless, the book is so interesting, especially because we have to see it in its historical context.

Another downside for me was the superficial characterisation of the protagonists. This is naturally not Christie's fault (and as stated above, I think she has done a good job) but a generic problem of murder mysteries, especially when these often only span around 250 pages. I personally prefer the somewhat deeper psychological analysis of authors such as a Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell). This criticism, however, only derives from personal preference and does not touch upon the author's skill. Without mentioning any details, I also think that the ending lets the book down a bit.

All in all, "Death on the Nile" was a page-turner and an enjoyable weekend-read, even though the denoument is a trifle disappointing. I will refrain from going into detail about this, but it felt a little rushed and unsatisfying to my mind. Despite this, the story is worth a read, and I guarantee you will get sucked into it, provided murder mysteries are your preferred genre.

View all my reviews >>

Review: Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell

I stumbled upon Ruth Rendell in my teens and, with the exception of Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, I have persistently returned to her novels. To me, Rendell is a genius! Judging by the synopses on the covers of her books, most of her plots seem a trifle bland, not to say boring. However, once you give it a go, you quickly get sucked in.

Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell

All her psychological novels have got one decisive feature: She creates protagonists that on the surface have got absolutely nothing in common with each other. As her stories unravel,  Rendell creates a web of fateful connections between her protagonists, and, in the end, all are entangled in a web of (often) unintended and horrific consequences. Lake of Darkness serves as a good example.

Following guidance from his erstwhile university friend Tim Sage, Martin, a young accountant from a well-to-do family, wins a fortune in the football pools. Due to philanthropic impulses, Martin decides to put his wealth to good use and draws up a list of deserving people, who he considers to be in need of financial help. Amongst the beneficiaries is Lena, the family’s former, mentally–ill cleaner, who lives together with her son, Finn, in a shabby London bed-sit. 

Finn is a sociopath, who not only works as a handyman, but also as a contract killer. When Martin contacts Finn with the good news, Finn completely misunderstands Martin’s philanthropic motive and assumes that Martin’s “gift” is intended to pay for his services as an assassin. Meanwhile, all the reader can do is follow the tragedy unfold as the two worlds collide.

Just like Martin, the educated and professionally successful bachelor, who has only recently moved out from a somewhat (sterile) parental home in order to move into an up-market (sterile) flat, Finn lives in an isolated world, defined by a belief in the supernatural, his own invincibility and his mentally deranged mother. Whilst Finn is a loner by choice, all of Martin’s social relationships are of a more or less functional nature. By the same token, it is exactly this very isolation that is the trigger behind Martin’s irrational choices. Above all, this is exemplified by his almost childish devotion to his girlfriend, Francesca. Both characters simply occupy different social spaces, which in the end collide. 

The motif of social isolation and its consequences permeates many Rendell novels and Lake of Darkness is no exception. In fact, it is to a large extent due to this underlying isolation that Rendell’s characters assume deeply tragic qualities.

Apart from her talent as a writer of psychological novels, Rendell’s stories should be viewed as historical documents, sketching the development of London and the home counties during the 1970s. Lake of Darkness, for instance, is set against the background of acute housing shortages and the onset of the property boom in the capital during the late 1970s and 1980s.

Whilst I have to admit that the plot of the story is at times slightly unbelievable, Lake of Darkness is a gripping book, deeply tragic, full of wonderful prose and poignant dialogue, with sometimes even comic attributes.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

One of Us - Michael Marshall Smith

One of Us One of Us by Michael Marshall Smith



My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I do not have a clue how this book ended up on my shelf, I can only remember it appeared there about a year ago and was subsequently neglected until I picked it up last week.



Needless to say, this was my first novel by the author and I was, especially for someone who doesn't read sci - fi all too often, thoroughly impressed. Smith's writing style is so fluid, full of matter - of - fact British humour and throughout the book you have the impression he is sitting opposite you, while he is telling you the story.



The storyline is at times complex but perfectly paced and his characters (even the white goods) are beautifully coming to life.



There is only one point of criticism: The denoument of the story and Smith's deus ex machina are slightly disappointing, but the book as such is worth a read.



View all my reviews >>

Shutter Island - Dennis Lehane

Shutter Island Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane



My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Enjoyed this a lot and am keen to watch the film (the trailers looked promising and very true to the book).



This book was the group read in one of the seasonal reading challenges here on Goodreads and I got my copy from the library without knowing what to expect. I had never even heard of the author before. I was able to read this book in just one morning, which is very fast for me.



The setting is a creepy prison for the mentally insane on an island somewhere off the New England coast. The medical staff could have just walked out of the cast of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest". And there is the proposition that things are just not what they seem. These ingredients alone ensure you will keep pages turning.



A lot of reviewers feel disappointed with the final twist and I somewhat agree (hence only four out of five stars), but overall this is a highly readable, atmospheric book and I will definitely go back to read more by the author.



View all my reviews >>
By the Light of the Moon By the Light of the Moon by Dean Koontz



My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This was my first Dean Koontz novel and a thorough disappointment, especially bearing in mind how critically acclaimed a writer he is supposed to be.



The plot is wanting and slow - paced. Koontz is spending far too much time on the thorough and often dragging description of his protagonists' visions, thereby neglecting the advancement of his plot.



Logically speaking, I was unable to understand why "nanobot - implants" would enable anyone to gain the ability to physically fold from one place to another.



Koontz's characters remain utterly on the surface. Jilly's annoying attributes and Koontz's forced humour at times render this book unbearable, and at some point I considered myself unable to finish the story.



The most pathetic part of the book remains the (thankfully) rushed ending, when - over a nice glass of wine - our protagonists announce their aim to become something akin to superheroes and vow to fight evil whenever they are faced by it, thus enabling Mr Koontz to produce a sequel. Please spare us!



View all my reviews >>

The Forest House - Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Forest House (Avalon, #4) The Forest House by Marion Zimmer Bradley



My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first foray into MZB's Avalon series and I intend to read all of them in chronological order.



I enjoyed this a lot and would recommend this to anyone who is interested in Druids, Roman Britain etc.



A lot of other reviewers pointed to the historical inaccuracies in the book, I would say that this is something that simply cannot be prevented in a book of this kind. If you want to read an academically researched book on Druids then I would recommend you pick up Jean Markale. If you want to be entertained, then this is a perfectly good choice.


Other books in the series include:



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