Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

Unsung NZ Sci-Fi

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

Three neglected science fiction books by New Zealand writers:
The Red Dust by Bee Baldwin (1965) is one of the first NZ post-apocalyptic novels. A deadly red dust released by Antarctic drilling wipes out much of the world. A group of immunes must survive roaming gangs and a mastermind who wants to rule New Zealand. It’s a chilling, well-structured story, with great use of NZ settings (this adult novel was inexplicably in my primary school library where I read it at age 10 and understood about 10%).

red dust

The Unquiet by Carolyn McCurdie is a strikingly original intermediate novel and a suspenseful read. It has an apocalyptic opening when the planet Pluto and parts of the Earth’s surface vanish. A small town girl has a gift for sensing unrest in the fabric of the universe and becomes the focus in a battle as the novel turns into a fantasy.


Where All Things End by David Hill describes a spectacular journey into a Black Hole. A mission to study the hole goes wrong and the crew race towards the Singularity- a point where all things become no-things. A ripping yarn underpinned by a convincing depiction of space travel and universal theories.



New Moomin Book

Friday, January 11th, 2013

firstmoominbookAt last! The original Moomin book has been released in an elegant hardcover English edition for the first time.  Moomins and the Great Flood (1945) is a junior novel that reveals the Moomin’s origins.  Moominmamma and her son leave the world of humans (where they lived behind stoves) and become refugees, seeking their lost beloved, Moominpappa, who has been swept away by a flood. We meet the characters who will populate the later novels: Sniff, the Hemulen, the Antlion and the surreal Hattifatteners, who “did not care about anything except travelling from one strange place to another.” This poignant story was Jansson’s response to the Second World War that had interrupted her painting career. The book has her beautiful atmospheric watercolours.

 Reading this book in the light of the suffering of the Finnish people in 1939 as they were caught up in the turmoil of their Winter War casts a different glow over what is essentially a classic adventure story.– Esther Freud

Why Does The World Exist?

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Why Does The World Exist? by Jim Holt is a fascinating book that asks the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’  Holt looks at all sides of the question, interviewing scientists, philosophers, atheists and believers (Richard Swinburne, John Irving, Roger Penrose, Adolf Grunbaum…). There are three types of theorist:

The “optimists” hold that there has to be a reason for the world’s existence and that we may well discover it. The “pessimists” believe that there might be a reason for the world’s existence but that we’ll never know for sure… Finally, the “rejectionists” persist in believing that there can’t be a reason for the world’s existence, and hence that the very question is meaningless.

Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason says that ‘For every thing there must be a reason for that thing’s existence‘, which is the basis of our scientific worldview. Holt does a good job of summarizing some knotty philosophy, physics and maths (understanding it is another matter!).  Although he offers no firm answers, the book left me feeling “optimistic”; and it’s oddly comforting that after picking the brains of the world’s greatest thinkers, Holt concludes,

No one can confidently claim intellectual superiority in the face of the mystery of existence.


Photo: Solar eruption, Dec 31, 2012 – courtesy of NASA Images

Science Set Free

Monday, December 17th, 2012

sheldrakeThe Science Delusion by rebel scientist Rupert Sheldrake challenges the current scientific dogma that life is mechanical and purposeless. His chapters ask: “Are the laws of nature fixed? Is nature purposeless? Are minds confined to brains?” The title is a bit misleading but perhaps it’s a dig at Richard Dawkins (of ‘God Delusion’ fame), who describes living things as ‘machines’. The US edition title is Science Set Free, and it’s Sheldrake’s aim to break free from rigid materialistic science. Anyone who has ever had a pet, kept bees or grown a tree, knows that plants and animals are living organisms with a sense of purpose, not just an assembly of chemicals:

 All living organisms show goal-directed behaviour. Developing plants and animals are attracted towards developmental ends…Even the most ardent defenders of the mechanistic theory smuggle purposive organising principles into living organisms in the form of selfish genes and genetic programs.– Rupert Sheldrake

Even the smallest entities seem to have a form of consciousness. He describes remarkable single-celledStentor_roeseli swamp creatures, called Stentor (photo), which have a memory despite having no nerve endings (synapses). Sheldrake writes most lucidly about science and philosophy, and he’s not afraid to theorise about fringe science events (which he explains with his rather cryptic theory of ‘morphic fields’). Read a review.

This Is Not The End Of The Book

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

ecocoverThis is not the end of the book is a fascinating conversation between two great bibliophiles, the author  Umberto Eco and film-maker, Jean-Claude Carriere. They discuss the history of the physical book and our digital future. It’s a rambling, wide-ranging conversation (as the best are) and the enthusiasm of these book lovers swept me along. And there’s an especially fine chapter on book censorship.

The Internet has returned us to the alphabet … From now on, everyone has to read… Alterations to the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.’ – Umberto Eco

Italian Twilight Zone

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition. And, it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. – Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone)

Catastrophe, the strange stories of Dino Buzzati (1949) is a brilliant collection of surreal stories. Each deals with a disaster and many have an allegorical mood. People are trapped on a train rushing towards an unknown cataclysm; a reporter searches for a elusive landslide; a rich family refuses to believe there’s a flood outside their house.
Buzzati wrote Catastrophe after WW2 and it reflects the fears of the time. My favourite is a kind of parable about dictatorship in which a bat-like creature terrorizes a household. A more satirical story has an epidemic of ‘state influenza’ which attacks only those opposed to the government. The scariest tale is about a hospital with seven floors that lead a patient either upwards or downwards, towards life or death.
These bizarre, suspenseful stories reminded me of the best of The Twilight Zone which also walked the fine line between real and imaginary (eg. the episode Nick of Time) .

Fantasy should be as close as possible to journalism.– Dino Buzzati

Across Many Mountains

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Book review: Across Many Mountains by Yangzom Brauen is the remarkable true story of three generations of women from one Tibetan family, who encompass cultural extremes from old Buddhist Tibet to Hollywood glitz. The first part of the book is a gripping account of an escape, via the Himalayas, from the brutal Chinese invasion of 1950 ( which fulfilled a 1,200 year old Buddhist prophecy: ‘The Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth‘.) Part two is fascinating because of the culture clash when the Tibetans experience Western ‘civilisation’. When the family finally return to Tibet in the 1980s they find ‘a country that has been robbed of its soul’. The Chinese have suppressed the language and culture (and still do). But the book is even-handed and also has a warts-and-all picture of Old Tibet where Buddhism was influenced by folk religion. The 90 year old grandmother-nun, Kunsang, is the heart of this inspiring book.

Book group discussion notes.
Recent news about Tibet