Author Archives: Abi

Ursula K. Le Guin – Changing Planes

There are some books that an established author can get published but which, coming from a novice, would never see the light of day. It’s not always a question of quality, either. A “concept” book may only be saleable with a big name attached. This is a case in point.

The concept behind Changing Planes is that, given the right set of physical stimuli, a person can travel to other “planes” of existence, populated by intelligent nonhuman races. The stimuli in question include tiredness, boredom, and slight nausea. In our society, they’re best found in airports, waiting for delayed airplanes. In theory, you can spend the two-hour layover in O’Hare as a week-long holiday on some alien planet.

The book itself is a description of some of the other “planes”. Each description is almost entirely plot-free, and some are pretty heavily polemical. But the ideas are different enough, and intriguing enough, that Le Guin manages to sustain the idea for the entire book. She would be well-advised not to do a sequel, though.

Rob Grant – Incompetence

Incompetence takes place in a near-future Europe, where anti-discrimination laws have been taken to extremes: no one can be denied employment (or discriminated against) on any basis – even simple incompetence. The results include blind airline pilots and a police chief with serious anger management problems (and a loaded gun). The plot is your basic espionage/thriller: the main character, a secret agent, travels through Europe trying to find out who killed his colleague, and incidentally getting framed for various crimes, beaten up, and having his shoes stolen along the way.

The book is of mixed quality. Some of the vignettes and short scenes are excellent (Such as when the main character talks his way onto a plane without a ticket by pretending to have short-term memory problems . He simply replays the same conversation with the stewardess until she gives up and lets him on board.) But in the end, the fast pace becomes frenetic, and all the amusing touches can’t disguise the book’s lack of such essential ingredients such as characterisation, or any complexity of plot.

If you like Grant’s other magnum opus (the TV series Red Dwarf), then you will probably like this book. If not, well, maybe give this one a miss.

Sue Grafton – Q is for Quarry

I used to really enjoy Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone books, but I went off them for a while in the middle of the alphabet. Somewhere around M or N she wandered away from the things I liked, focussing more on Kinsey’s past and less on her detective work. (I like my murder mysteries the way I like my Regency romances: just a shade too inventive to be labelled formulaic, but safe and predictable in tone and overall content.) With Q, Grafton and Kinsey are back on form.

Unlike most of the Grafton books, Q is for Quarry uses a real-life murder as its starting point: the unidentified body of a young woman, found in a quarry in 1969. Now, years later, Kinsey Millhone is asked to look into the murder along with the original investigating policemen. Kinsey’s sarcastic tone works nicely with the acrid personalities of the cops, both of whom are facing their own mortality. There is the usual assortment of interesting characters with undiscovered pasts, dogged legwork on Kinsey’s part, and a faintly embittered outsider’s view of social structures and functions.

At the end of the book is a note from Grafton herself, about the Jane Doe who was the genesis of the book. She explains which details she has added to the true story (the presence of a tarp, for instance) and which are original (the pattern on the victim’s trousers). She also includes a facial reconstruction, on the off chance that a reader may recognise the dead girl. The serious postscript would make a pooly written book seem tawdry, but Grafton’s prose and plotting, the sheer humanity of her characters, is not shamed.

William Gibson – Pattern Recognition

Anyone who reads Gibson knows he knows cool. His worlds are full of that intangible quality; his characters make Neo from the Matrix (who could not have existed without Gibson, of course) look dowdy. But this is the first book where he’s talked so explicitly about coolness. His protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is a “coolhunter”, finding the Next Big Thing and passing judgement on proposed brands. Ironically, she is violently allergic to excessive branding, breaking out in hives if she flies Virgin Atlantic and experiencing panic attacks when faced with the Michelin Man.

Anyone who reads Gibson knows he also knows the online world. Again, though, Pattern Recognition takes a new look at a favourite topic. In this case, the characters exist in the real world, but are members of an online community whose group dynamic drives some aspects of the plot. As a long-term member of an online community myself, I instantly recognised the personalities and situations that crop up in any such group, from newbie floods to sock puppets and troll-baiters.

The story centres around snatches of a black and white film that have been released on the Internet. The “footage” is so compelling that several online groups have formed to investigate it, and so mysterious that the groups haven’t learned anything. The plot follows Cayce’s travels from London to Tokyo (a Gibson staple) to Russia in search of the source of the footage, accompanied, aided and hindered by a mix of odd personalities.

It’s standard Gibson, with fast motorcycles and obscure technology. Fun. In some ways, though, Gibson builds the mystery too well. I was almost disappointed to find out the truth about the footage, not because the solution was weak, but because the enigma was so compelling. Apart from that, however, I did enjoy Pattern Recognition.

Pizza Hut

When you have kids, you start looking for different things in a restaurant. Fine wines and Michelin stars are all very well until the two-year old wants his pizza NOW. It may not be fancy, but Pizza Hut is perfectly tailored to the family trade. The food is tasty, the prices are reasonable, and the service is relatively quick. They even seem to hire real adults, capable of thinking and anticipation, as waiting staff. I find myself tipping on the high side most of the time I eat there. My only quibble: the children’s goodie bag, handed out with the menu, has a packet of biscuits in it. Ruined appetite, anyone?

The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin’s books are like the little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead, and this one is not very, very good. It uses her old trick of demonising something she disagrees with (in this case, organised religion) to set up the plot conflict. As with that unfortunate run of books where her male characters were capable of evil, but her female ones were never worse than misguided, she has substituted paper tigers and dogmatic thinking for serious character development. It is a waste of a good background and a previously invisible bit of her future history. Even her usual luminous prose cannot save The Telling.

The Thames and Hudson Manual of Typography

An invaluable reference, this book discusses the history of typography and of various font types. It covers issues like composition, paper, and book design, all in easy to understand terminology. We bought it because its companion volume, the Thames and Hudson Manual of Bookbinding, by Arthur W. Johnson, is one of my invaluable bookbinding sources. It does not disappoint.