A review of Hajime Isayama’s “Attack on Titan.” Vol 1.

Attack on Titan is a Manga comic-book series tour-de-force written and drawn by Hajime Isayama.
It’s the first Manga book I’ve read.  You read the reverse you would in a Western publication, starting at the back and going from right to left.  This pretty quickly becomes standard and the novelty does add to the experience.
Something about a physical comic book like this that takes me back to my childhood.  This is why I’ve avoided the Kindle version.
It tells the story of a future post apocalyptic world which has been decimated by flesh eating giants that have over size mouths, have no genitals, and regenerate their head if removed or damaged.  They give off palpable waves of heat.  There’s a “Colossus” that is sans its skin, all muscles exposed, and “Abnormals” that are even freakier than their ‘normal flesh eating giant counterparts.
At the start of the book humanity is living in a walled off city with a wall bigger than the Titans, as they are called. So a state of complacency has developed.  It’s a long time since the Titans have breached.  But the arrival of a Colossus changes everything.
The characters are young, fierce fighters who fight with the aid of an acrobatic harness through which they abseil and glide around, seeking to pierce the Titans weak spot at the back of the neck.
It’s inked in black and white and these clear lines and a sense of perpetual motion keep the action zipping along.  Be prepared for ‘Walking Dead’ style offing of good guts, though.  The gang isn’t all here by close of this first installment, and there are some pretty merciless deaths.
So with Book 1 sorted I may make this a weekly treat, it’s a massive series.
Huge fun.
Advertisements

A review of C.S.Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew”

This is the prequel to “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” but was written after that book, first published in 1955.  Nothing unusual in this, we do it today with successful franchises, going back to before the beginning for new adventures and fresh insights into the world of the tales.  George R.R. Martin has just written a prequel to his staggeringly popular ‘Game of Thrones’  series, for example.  Then there’s the Star Wars prequels.  So you can see from these examples that sometimes this is successful, sometimes not.  Questions to consider; does it link in coherently with the world building of the series as a whole?  Does it bring fresh excitements and understandings?  Does it work as a stand-alone tale?  For George Lucas, arguably, there were real problems with these things.  Here, it most definitely does.
This is a cracking story that you could come to with no other introduction to the works of Professor Lewis.  It tells, as many of our richest children’s stories do, of a new friendship in the long Summer holiday, of exploring long secret passageways and secret rooms, of sinister relatives, and a heartbreaking reality of  dying mother.  Then, an exploration into a wider fantasy world, with a wicked Queen, a certain magical and heroic lion, and the birth of a new world.  Welcome to Narnia.
There are wonderful scenes that live on in the imagination, including the ‘multi-verse’ anticipating glade of pools that provide routes into different worlds and a haunting vision of evil in the dying world of Charn, with its progressively evil rulers represented in statue form, so the increasing moral despair and degradation in their faces is preserved and plain to see.  Then the evil breaks into this world, and there’s a semi-comic and chaotic chase involving the evil Queen, a hi-jacked Hansom cab, the Police, and various others.  The creation of Narnia is a hauntingly beautiful beautiful scene, life birthed by song.  And we see the origin of Narnia’s eco-system of intelligent, talking animals, and the framework is set for the future novels with a human King and Queen and the introduction of evil magic to this new world.
It’s a cracking story well told.  Seasoned readers of Lewis will enjoy spotting Lewis’s signature themes explored in his more grown up novels and writings such as the power of myth, the estrangement of evil, and more.  It’s a joy, and I recommend it.

A review of Daniel Keyes “Flowers for Algernon.”

This is the genre source novel for a lot of recent SF on science and human intelligence, for example the novel, book and spin off tv series ‘Limitless;’ the drama of someone failing suddenly boosted to genius status, the excitement of that journey, but also a commentary on what it does to their soul, and the recognition that humanity is profoundly more than it’s shared IQ. But I don’t think this tale has ever been told with the tragic weight and pathos with which it is told here.

‘Flowers for Algernon’ is a Nebula Award wining novel from 1968. And as such it has that period feel of determined smoking by men in suits and in white coats, a drama back-lit by hard, white clinical lighting. And yet the story is heartbreakingly human.
Charlie Gordon is, in the language of the day, retarded, but with a determination to learn and improve himself that brings him to the attention of Messers Strauss and Nemur, scientists ready to try their new treatment of enzymes and brain surgery that, following succesful experiments on the titular mouse Algernon, they believe will make a breakthrough in treating human mental retardation.
Slowly Charlie’s progress reports move from the barely literate, priamry school spelling journal entries to more intelligent, insightful and sophisticated prose, as Charlie’s intelligence grows, all the while gainong momentum. Along the way he starts to remember the abuse suffered at the hands of his mother. The scientists have added therapy to Charlie’s treatment as they foresaw that a boost in IQ would cause emotional issues in their patient. Meanwhile Charlie’s co-workers at the bakery where he works in a janitorial role view him with increasing bewilderment and fear, as he moves from warm and likable idiot to a much colder, frighteningly intelligent and emotionally aloof persona. Charlie finds himself coming to terms with sexual attraction and love, and soon he comes to resent the scientists who seem to refuse to believe he was a genuine person before the operation. Particularly as that genuine person, the frightened retarded child, still peeps fearfully out from the new Charlie’s gaze, making his presence felt at unexpected times. Most notable of these are when he attempts to make love to Alice, a woman who taught him in a ‘special school’ in his past life and who recommended him to the University hospital for their new research, because of his passion to learn. The ‘old’ Charlie had his early sexual urgings met with physical and emotional abuse as a boy, and that boy surfaces when new Charlie tries to move beyond it.

And so the drama plays out at all these different levels. There’s the excitement of the growing intelligence, the thrill of learning, the astonishment and fear of old friends and colleagues, the hostility, the mysteries of Charlie’s boyhood and the family trauma to unravel, and Charlie’s struggle to move into adult sexuality. Then the next phase, the outstripping his mentors as he become a genius, his intelligence reaching up to the Heavens…and then you get the fall of Icarus. Algernon the mouse grows sick, frenziedly throwing himself against the walls of his cage and diminishing in intelligence. Charlie has to face up to the fact that the science may have overreached itself, and that his house is built on treacherous sand. The story can and does go in only one direction, it’s no spoiler to say, as it’s telegraphed clearly though-out the novel (and on the back blurb). And it is a heartbreaking journey, very bleak, but with the hopeful recognition that the human condition is richer than IQ alone, and that the journey, for Charlie and for humanity, is still a noble one.

This is an excellent novel, true landmark SF. As stated it has a steely, clinical prose, but this does not undermine the very human drama. The litereary trick of the incremental development of Charlie’s prose in his journal entries to signify his growing intelligence is masterfully done.
So if you are looking for an antidote for the sprawling, multi-verse spanning ‘hard SF’ that’s in favour today, or just want to read a SF classic, pick this up.

A review of Iain Maitland’s “Dear Michael, Love Dad.”

This is a series of letters Iain Maitland wrote to his son Michael, over the period 2007-2013.  It covers a series of family adventures and misadventures Iain relates to his son, and running through them is a growing awareness that Michael is desperately ill, with Anorexia and depression.  Until the moment when Michael hits bottom and has to be hospitalised, in the last section of the book, Iain and his family’s stock reaction is one of angry denial that Michael needs to do no more than pull his socks up, and not be so dependent on his girlfriend Niamh, who increasingly speaks for Michael and cares for him.
Through Iain’s letters we get to know the family well; Iain the hard pressed, long suffering writer, fighting a losing battle against the internet (he wrties information bulletins amongst other things), ‘your dear Mother’ Tracy, a classroom assistant who is clearly the emotional heart of the family, and Michael’s volatile sister Sophie, ambitious, intelligent, and with a tendency to go ‘nuclear’ if angered or disappointed.  There is also a string of Sophie’s boyfriends, each with their own foibles, but all ‘good sorts’ who do not survive as Mr Right, but become part of the family nevertheless   And Michael, at University, with Niamh, studying an art degree and increasingly frightened and unwell.
Iain’s letters are interspersed by a commentary which outlines key events, why the family reacted the way it did , their growing understanding (which comes late) of mental health issues, and through it all a raw, unflinching honesty.
The book is also very funny, Iain knows how to be laugh out loud amusing in his writing.  We come to know and love this family.  They are clearly warm, loving, accepting, generous and hospitable, with an open door policy to their family and family friends.  Iain is frustrated and angered by his son and honest about what he did not know and what he chose to ignore.  He relates his own childhood  which was shockingly painful, not by way of excuse, but important context.
It’s a book whose main truth is that their no such thing as a perfect parent, that there is no manual of perfect parenting.  We are complex, our children are complex, we live in a complex of world.  We have our bedrock of values and moral code, and that has to inform an infinite variety of relational combinations of issues and possibilities.  But love here shines through it all, as it must for all of us if we are to stay afloat, and keep our loved ones afloat, through all life’s storms.
The book serves to inform on the important issues of mental health and young people, and is an important corrective to the common misconception that anorexics are all fashion mag obsessed teenage girls.  The mental health of young men is often overlooked, although there has been a lot of corrective awareness raising recently, and it’s good to have this book as part of that.  The book is also full of important social history of our recent past, in our rapidly changing world.
But best of all, it’s honest, funny and loving.  I feel richer for having read it.

A review of Robert Harris’s “Conclave.”

Cardinal Lomelli, Dean of the Vatican, is summoned one night with dread news; the Pope is dead.  And as Dean he must mange and officiate over the process of electing a new Pope, a Conclave, a meeting of and vote between all the Cardinals to choose one of their number to hold this most Holy of offices.
A handful of ambitious men, representing the various traditions of the Church, Liberal and Catholic, start their manoeuvring and machinations immediately.  And Cardinal Lomelli must ensure due process is observed, and resolve terrible dilemmas and crisis that will come to the fore.  And to complicate matters further, an enigmatic new Cardinal appears at the Vatican, one sworn into office In Pectore (in secret) by the late Pope.  And the world, and its darkest and most violent forces, begin to press against the walls of the Vatican.
This is an utterly compelling page turner, with vivid characters, tight plotting and epic themes of ambition, corporate and personal responsibility, faith and the world, set in that most troubled but fascinating of institutions, the Roman Catholic Church.  Harris writes fascinating detail on the layout and organisation of the Vatican, its traditions and history, without it slowing down what is in essence a political thriller.   The writer also avoids any trite judgements or observations on the individuals or the institution he portrays.  He describes it with real human sympathy, but not with any kind of bias or idealisation.
 I read this in a few days on holiday, and its an ideal choice as a holiday read.  A thoroughly entertaining and gripping novel, its a cliche to say that the pages flew by, but with this, they did.

A review of Chuck Palahinuk and Cameron Stewart’s graphic novel: ‘Fight Club 2.’

I have always been a fan of Palahinuk’s original ‘Fight Club,’ and Fincher’s brilliant adaptation, a film I have watched repeatedly.  It’s a fantastic concept, the manic alter ego capable of doing all the stuff you wish you had the balls to do, and the savage satire of consumerism (“the things you own end up owning you”) resonates ever more strongly as our embrace with shiny gadgets and latest must-haves gets ever tighter.  The stories also have a lot to say about the crisis of modern masculinity and the difficulty of carving a meaningful male identity in a world of soggy and treacherous material values.
I picked up this with high hopes, and the blurb led me to expect truly great things.  It involves Palahinuk himself as writer after all, as well as some brilliant talents in the comic industry today.  How disappointing then to finish feel frustrated, empty and disappointed.
First, the pluses.  Cameron Stewart’s art is mesmerising, and captures well some of the signature visual elements of Fight Club.  His characters visually reinterpret Sebastian, Marla and Tyler but carry forward all the elements we love.  Sebastian’s perpetual bowed head of subjection, Marla’s a tightly coiled, highly sexual spring, Tyler is a lean, muscular panther of a man, bold and kinetic.  And yet they are not just copies of Edward Norton, Helen Bonham Carter and Brad Pitt, and that is good.
It’s fun to see Brian Paulson, the House on Paper Street and the support groups, the Space Monkeys and more also return and given fresh spins and perspectives.  It’s also a neat concept to have Sebastian having kept Durden at bay (he thinks) through medication.  Sebastian and Marla’s son ups the ante and gives a fresh dimension and urgency to things.
What frustrates is that the narrative falls flat.  It’s way too ambitious, too knowing, constantly turning to wink at you  instead of keeping its eyes on the narrative road.  This is especially true in the last quarter of the book, where Chuck Palahinuk and his team of writers take center stage as characters, dealing with reader dissatisfaction of the story’s ending.  It’s fourth wall busting that does not work.  And it breaks a narrative that is already strained from over-ambition.  It posits that Tyler has now developed a global military mercenary force, has a castle in Europe and is able to bring about a nuclear holocaust.  The other central conceit is that Marla enlists the help of a support group of sufferers from Progeria (aging disease), children that look like small elderly people.  They become a parachuting crack military force.  It’s too absurd, it doesn’t work.
Where this is flabby and over-extended, the first ‘Fight Club’ was stripped back and mean, it had ambitious scope and pushed imaginative limits.  This feels like a film sequel where the production team feel that a mega-budget and massive scale will solve everything.

A review of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2017, “Dethroning Mammon”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2017, “Dethroning Mammon,” is a rich (no pun intended) and thought provoking read on spiritually opposed value bases on wealth.  On the one hand we have Mammon, “the love of money” which the Bible tells us is at the root of evil (not just “money” as some suppose).  That is when, in our hearts, we believe that everything is a resource for our own enrichment (we may build in an ethical get out clause on “trickle down” economics), then we will see, value, and interpret everything in that light.  Christ will be a threat, as he was in his day, to those holding that value.  Chapter 1 of the Archbishop’s book explores this, with reference to Matthew 13 (the Pearl of Great Price) and John 11 (the death of Lazarus), on the different ways we can value what we see.
Moving on from this, there’s a danger that we will see everything as a finite resource to be assessed and measured accordingly, driven by ethics of scarcity, i.e. we have to acquire and pile up wealth as otherwise someone else will.  And we will aggressively defend and acquire accordingly.  We are put into an adversarial position with the rest of creation.  The opposite to this are the economics of Grace.  We have a generous God who gives abundantly and outrageously.  No one deserves or earns Grace.  With Grace at the centre  the Archbishop begins to draw out how else we might understand wealth, in the light of having no fear, and faith in an infinitely abundant and generous God.  It posits a very different approach to the world around us, and how we find and use our resources.  The key texts here is John 12, with Mary anointing Jesus with very expensive perfume, apparently wasteful but in fact an act of Grace and love that is not motivated by the scarcity of the resource or the need to frantically hold onto it.
Chapter 4 expands on this, looking at the relationship between money and power, and how Jesus’s servant-leadership subverts this, especially in the key act of the washing of the disciples feet (John 13).
Chapter 5 further looks at how apparent motiveless and wasteful generosity can in fact be Grace in action.  Something as apparently of no benefit to people or the world as acquiring and anointing for burial the body of Jesus (John 19), are in fact Kingdom actions, actions that show that real wealth as decisions to give money and time based on no hope of reward, but as service to God, actions that can ultimately transform the world, as they move away from fear, to faith, to generous and transformative action.
Chapter 6 moves to Revelations, the end of all things, with the ultimate dethroning of Mammon (Babylon) by the eternal and redeemed creation of the City of God.  This moves into an action plan as to how we can start to live this message now, through listening, repentance and action.This book is intelligent, wise, and written with a clear integrity.  There are points of reflection throughout the book, questions to help individuals and groups preparing for Lent share and understand the material.
Much recommended then as a Lent book, or to be read at any time.  You’ll find it’s messages live on in your mind and heart after reading.