The Natural Way of Things

The Natural Way of Things, by Charlotte Wood

Allen & Unwin (2015), Paperback, 320 pages

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An entrancing mixture of flowing lyrical beauty and sordid, confronting brutality. Ten women are abducted and taken to a crumbling farm in the Australian outback. The only thing they have in common is that all were involved in sex scandals with powerful men. Upon arrival their heads are shaved, they are dressed in filthy clothes and made to undergo arduous physical labour by two male guards, the thuggish Boncer and the narcissistic Teddy. A mentally unstable “nurse”, Nancy, completes the staff of the prison, which is surrounded by a lethal electric fence. It becomes clear that the guards know as little about what is really going on as the girls, only repeating that “Hardings is coming.” The action opens with extreme violence as Yolanda is bashed so brutally her jaw is broken, another girl has her arm held to the electric fence to prove it is real. The book soon comes to centre on the most resilient of the girls, Verla and Yolanda, who gradually assert their strength of character over the mentally weaker guards, and who come to control of their situation by the symbolic acts of trapping rabbits, for Yolanda, and collecting mushrooms for Verla. Its is not revealing too much to say that the eventual outcome is much better for the girls than for their guards. “Rescue” eventually comes, but Yolanda and Verla realise it is no rescue at all and opt to take their chances beyond the fence.  There is no real resolution provided as to why the girls have been subjected to this horror, but the fact of Verla and Yolanda’s empowerment in the face of such appalling treatment provides a satisfactory conclusion. The book is mercilessly confronting, yet its descriptions of people, animals and the landscape is mesmerisingly poetic. Wood’s obvious anger at the sort of institutionalised misogyny that can lead to acts like this is palpable, but the strength of the women, despite their very human flaws, is triumphant. This is not an easy book to read, but it is ultimately rewarding. I would never call it a casual read, but its a good one.

9/10

Death by Video Game

Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession from the Virtual Frontline, by Simon Parkin

Serpent’s Tail (2015), Paperback, 288 pages

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A thoughtful and thought-provoking book, ostensibly focusing on the recent disturbing stories of players, particularly in Asia, who literally have played themselves to death. However, Parkin moves on from this to look at a wide range of issues relating to gaming, from the usual suspects, such violence, whether games area a waste of time, whether kids are playing too much, and so. None of it is particularly original, and the experienced reader may want to skim a lot of this. However, where the book really gets interesting is when it probes, as the subtitle suggests, the outer edges of the gaming world, where people are doing interesting things which games were never meant to be about. I particularly loved the story of the guy who has set out reach the borders of the virtual world of Minecraft, a journey which may take more than 20 years. The rationale Parkin offers for this, that since the real world has been so thoroughly mapped, people who want to be genuine explorers can now draw the maps of virtual worlds, really struck a chord with me. I really delight in playing open world games, because of the opportunity they offer to really explore nooks and crannies that have nothing to do with the game story but have been placed there, either intentionally or unintentionally, by the developers, to give the player a momentary thrill of discovery. I first experienced this more than decade ago, playing a game called Boiling Point, which was set in a fictional Central/South American country with lots of jungle and mountains. I happened,  in the far north-west of the country, well away from any game action, to suddenly come upon a beautifully rendered waterfall. It had absolutely nothing to do with any part of the game plot. It was just there, either put there by one of the game developers, perhaps for the benefit of explorers like me, or even by some random permutation of the game’s algorithm.  The thrill was immense, I felt like I was the first one to discover it. I have sought that feeling in every open world game I have played ever since, and its a huge drawcard for me, much more so than the game plot or gratuitous killing or anything else. For that reason, I very much appreciate that Parkin has isolated this particular unexpected attraction in gaming, as well as numerous other surprising ways in which people are using games in ways that games were never intended, some like the use of games to help with depression, domestic violence, terrorism, actually proving that games can be beneficial. This is a really worthwhile book, I recommend it for all gamers, and in fact anyone who has the slightest interest in games.

8/10

The Secret Chord

The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks

Little, Brown (2015), Hardcover, 320 pages

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A lyrical poem of a book, every bit in keeping with David’s legendary skill with the harp. The story of King David, largely stripped of the religious content, although the worship of Yahweh still forms a key part of some of the characters’ actions. This is the story of David as a figure of secular power, king of a nascent Israeli empire, with its enemies pushed back on all sides. The main enemies in this book are all internal, including David’s own family and entourage. Narrated by Natan, David’s pet prophet and adviser, who has sworn himself to celibacy to serve his king, yet must watch as David’s lust and that of his sons bring the king’s family to deadly conflict. Natan’s only comfort in in his custodianship of David’s youngest but most promising son, Shlomo (Solomon), who shows developing signs of the great and wise king he will become. The real charm of this book is in the deft, confident writing, which carries the reader effortlessly back to a time when people interacted with their gods and by sheer hard work, coaxed fertility out of an unforgiving land. Natan is a superb narrator, by turns carried away by David’s power, and shocked by his blatant disregard for the most sacred of Israel’s laws. Often he is melancholy and defeatist, but is always elevated when he beholds the blossoming Shlomo. His curse on David, for sending the Hittite mercenary Uriah to die in battle after sleeping with his wife Batshiva, is a chilling highlight – although David’s line will rule for ages, he is forever disfavoured by Yahweh and four of his family will die as punishment. This is a terrific read, a book to be savoured, and quite possibly re-read to gain further nuances. It is to be hoped that there is a follow-up covering the reign of Shlomo, that is something I look forward to.

9.5/10

Ministers at War

Ministers at War: Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet, by Jonathan Schneer

Oneworld Publications (2015), Hardcover, 352 pages

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Superbly written, lively account of the eclectic group of politicians, Conservative, Labour, Liberal and Independent, that Churchill put together in the darkest days of 1940 to firstly, save Britain, and secondly, win the war. Schneer shatters many myths about those days, not least that the War Cabinet put aside all its political and personal enmities to concentrate on the task at hand. Instead, infighting was frequent, and Churchill spent as much time hosing down squabbles, and fending off potential rivals, as he did planning the war. The other great myth was that Churchill’s popularity and position were unassailable for the duration of the war. Rather he reached his peak of popularity during the days after Dunkirk, during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. After the treat of immediate invasion passed, his pubic popularity declined and various rivals started to measure the possibility of supplanting him. The two most significant were the high-minded independent Socialist Stafford Cripps, and the tough as nails Canadian-born magnate Lord Beaverbrook. Churchill saw off both of these challenges, but his legendary political skills failed him, when he underestimated the strength of public feeling for a complete overhaul of British society after the war, led by the firebrand Labourite Herbert Morrison. Churchill, and to a lesser extent  the Labour leadership both downplayed Morrison’s continuing agitation for a post-war reconstruction plan, but in the end the canny Labour leader Clement Atlee, always held in contempt by Churchill, went with the flow and won a totally unexpected landslide in the 1945 election, with Churchill irredeemably branded as a figure of the past. The book is a breathtaking piece of living history, with every tense moment, every argument, every vital meeting recording in a fast-moving style. I had my doubts initially about an American writing a book like this, evidenced by his need to explain, presumably to an American audience, how Westminster-style  democracy works, but Schneer has pulls it off brilliantly. People who claim to find history boring should read this, it snaps and crackles as well as any novel. A first-class piece of historical writing.

9.5/10

Six Against the Rock

Six Against the Rock, by Clark Howard

Granada (1979), Paperback, 432 pages

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Simply the best prison break book I’ve ever read, and right up there as one of the best books I’ve ever read, period. It is a highly dramatized account of the Battle of Alcatraz, which started on May 2, 1946, and blazed for 2 days. When it ended, 3 convicts and 2 guards were dead. Two more convicts died in the gas chamber at San Quentin. Howard bases his account around the leader of the break, Bernard Coy, a bank robber from the backwoods of Kentucky, thought of as a model prisoner, quiet and thoughtful, who nevertheless was perceptive enough to spot a chink in the Rock’s impenetrable fabric and figure out how to exploit it. To carry out his plan, Coy recruits five very disparate convicts to break out with him. There is Marvin Hubbard, a backwoods bank robber like Coy, Dutch Cretzer, a violent gangster, Buddy Thompson, a lone-wolf criminal from Texas, Sam Shockley, a mentally subnormal kidnapper, and Clarence Carnes, a young thug with lightning fists (Howard puts Carnes under the pseudonym of Dan Durando, because Carnes was the only one of the gang still alive at the time of writing). Other famous criminals resident on the Rock, including Robert “The Birdman” Stroud, George “Machine-Gun” Kelly and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, also feature in the story. The break begins perfectly, only to be foiled by the thousand to one chance of a guard on duty that day not returning the key for the outside yard to its proper rack. The result is that the desperate convicts are trapped inside the cell block with guns, determined not to be taken alive. The battle escalates to the proportions of a small war, with the Marines and the Navy called in to bombard the cell block, causing major damage to its fabric and threatening the lives of dozens of convicts trapped inside. Eventually, Coy, Hubbard and Cretzer are shot dead, Thompson, Shockley and Carnes captured. Thompson and Shockley are sentenced to death for the murder of captive guards, Carnes escapes because of his youth. There’s no doubt that Howard took some liberties with the truth for the sake of creating a fast-paced, dramatic story, but substantially the story he tells is true. You’ll rarely find a true-life account that reads so much like a good novel while retaining its sense of being a real story with real people’s lives at stake. Howard really humanizes his characters, violent criminals are portrayed as very human, with fears, hopes and dreams, and the overall theme of the book is how men pushed to the brink, with no hope left,  will finally crack. Amidst the violence are some touching, melancholy, bittersweet moments that will really affect the reader, and Howard’s admiration for Coy, the still water that ran deep, who managed to do what no-one else at Alcatraz had ever done or ever would again, is very obvious. I can’t recommend this book any more highly, it is a fantastic read, and now that it’s readily available second-hand for a pittance, it is extraordinary value.

10/10

Star Wars: Aftermath

Star Wars: Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig

Arrow (2015), Paperback, 384 pages

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I will give this author credit for attempting to write a serious novel set in the Star Wars universe without resorting to using any of the big names. There is no Luke, Leia or Han, no Chewie, R2D2 or C3P0, not even Lando. This is a novel that attempts to ride on its own merits, without resorting to the cheap relief of parading an established star to gain reader interest. A noble sentiment. Unfortunately, by the time you are half way through this book, you will be wishing that one or more of the big names would appear, just to liven up the deadly dull parade of nobodies doing nothing in a particularly unexciting manner. I’m afraid this story is just painfully dull. The characters are uninteresting and cliched. The fact that the only character in the book that made me sit up and take notice is a kick-ass but deranged battledroid named Mr Bones is a damning indictment on the breathing segment of the cast. The plot is just nothing, really. A group of Imperial admirals meet around an insignificant planet in the backside of nowhere to decide how to proceed as Imperials in the wake of the death of Vader and the Emperor. On the planet below a motley assortment of Rebels, disaffected Imperials and dodgy black marketeers run around in circles for obscure reasons pursuing God only knows what aims. And that’s it. The story goes nowhere, does nothing. I can appreciate that this is an attempt to show the respective states of the Alliance and the Empire in the wake of the Emperor’s death, but why set the whole thing upon one dismal planet? Why not something a bit more expansive, that spans a few planets and shows a bit more of whats going on in the wider galaxy? There are a few interspersed sections showing snapshots of whats happening elsewhere, but since they are completely ephemeral and contribute nothing to the overall story, what’s the point? Cameos by some of the lesser lights of the canon, Wedge Antilles, Mon Mothma and Ackbar are completely bungled – Antilles is either unconscious or an Imperial prisoner for most of the book and the other two do nothing but talk and wring their hands (or fins). Again, what’s the point? And those three words pretty much sum up this whole book. Nothing about nothing equals nothing, really.

3/10