Sunday, 27 October 2013

Gods Without Men

The formation and dissolution of a UFO cult; a British rockstar slowly losing it; war games for an displaced Iraqi teenager; and the disappearance, then the reappearance, of a young autistic child. All taking place in the Californian desert near a strange rock formation known as the Pinnacles.

And that's about as close as I got to understanding things. I really enjoyed reading this extremely well-written novel, but I haven't really the faintest idea what it all meant. Though the stories are all connected by a location, and by occasional random intersections, if there was a deep explanation for their co-occurrence within the same pages, I completely missed it. But, strangely enough, even in the end I wasn't too bothered. I enjoyed the individual tales enough without being able to discern what Hari Kunzru was doing here in Gods Without Men. The tale involving Jaz, Lisa and the wayward Raj, in particular, really gripped me, even when its resolution teetered on the supernatural (or space alien).

Anyway, if anyone ever finds out what it's really all about, do let me know!

The Honey Guide

Next up, The Honey Guide by former BBC journalist turned novelist, Richard Crompton.

Set during the run up to, and the bloody aftermath of, the 2007 elections in Kenya, this novel takes what seems a common path these days of placing a social or political commentary within the reader-friendly confines of a crime novel. Centre to the action is a Maasai detective, Mollel, a widower following the 1998 bombing of Nairobi's US Embassy, with a young son that he struggles to engage with. Though he is only passing through Nairobi, the discovery of the body of a young Maasai woman, initially lazily presumed a prostitute, leads to Mollel's assignment to the case, accompanied by a cocky local detective, Kiunga. Against the backdrop of the preparations for the election, and for the trouble expected in its wake, Mollel and Kiunga gradually trace the origin of the dead woman and uncover the circumstances leading up to her death. But their investigation takes them into the path of powerful interests, both political and religious, threatening both their jobs and their lives.

A bit of a curate's egg this one. Taken as a whole, it's a fairly good read, and very interesting for someone like me who knows only vaguely of Kenya's political problems. Crompton does a creditable job introducing the reader to the country and its people, and it feels thorough without coming across as a dry history lesson. As ever, using the police procedural format allows the novel to go to places that are exotic, but within a reassuringly familiar framework. So though one isn't quite sure which facet of Kenyan society will next present itself as a hurdle for the policemen, their goals and methods are comfortably recognisable. And the twists and turns of Crompton's tale do weave in genuinely interesting details of Kenya's struggle with corruption and, at times, tribal politics.

Given all this, it seems rude to be critical, but Crompton also misses a few tricks along the way. One somewhat confusing aspect is that, though billed as a "Mollel mystery", Kiunga steadily competes for the reader's time - and affections; he's a lot more chipper than Mollel - as the novel progresses. For readers like me, raised on novels with a central detective that's named on their covers, this is a little distracting. Worse is the rapid unspooling of both plot and character details late in the book, which rather undoes some quite careful set up. For instance, after stalling the investigation, several pivotal characters are suddenly altogether too quick to resolve things as the novel's pages start to run out. And the hinted backstory of Mollel - but also that of Kiunga - is rushed out in a rather contrived scene that finds both spilling their guts during an extended ascent up the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, where the election results are being collated and corrupted. These aspects sap the novel's credibility somewhat, making it feel a little like Crompton was rushing to meet a publisher's deadline.

But for a first novel - and one that's already labelled up as being the start of a series - it's a good start by Crompton. And it's not as if that other famous detective, John Rebus, had a solid first outing!

Saturday, 26 October 2013


It's time again to clear out the pile of finished books from the side of the bed. Let's see if I can do this quickly-and-concisely rather than ponderously-and-never ...

First up, Eater by one of my favourite science fiction writers from the 1990s, Gregory Benford. By way of summary: astronomers are surprised to detect what turns out to be a small black hole entering the solar system, but even more surprised when it communicates a desire for conversation with the Earth. But dreams of a scientific bonanza from this ancient galactic traveller quickly turn sour as its requests for information turn into demands for much more.

What to say? Well, a great premise ruined by clumsy execution and an excruciatingly bad ménage à trois. Though borrowing liberally from Fred Hoyle's classic novel The Black Cloud (a previous read), it heads off in its own interesting directions before becoming bogged down in some painfully bad "relationship" nonsense between the central astronomer characters. As the novel progresses it also relegates the Eater, which was shaping up to be the most interesting character by a country mile, into a cartoon villain whose hinted subtleties get completely lost in a ridiculous plot where humanity, well on its way to getting humbled by the cosmos, inexplicably and implausibly turns the tables. The only interesting bits are those where the Eater philosophises away, but this is but a faint echo of Benford's alien intelligences from his Galactic Center Saga. There, he did a creditable job of making believable the thoughts of beings on a scale epically removed from humans. Here, his efforts to do the same are simply wasted when interspersed by the thoughts of beings that seem cribbed from a bad "young adult" novel.

Disappointing from someone such as Benford.