machines

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy

brightstormThe great era of exploration is over. Much of our world has been seen and documented, but humans haven’t lost their drive to be the first, to make their mark, and certainly haven’t let go of the idea of heroism. But so often the marks humans make, the braveries people display, are small acts of heroism in a known world. So, we turn to fiction to replicate that experience of exploring the unknown, of seeking out a new world and experiencing new adventure within it.

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy is doubly exciting, because it is not just the reader who is doing the exploring, but the protagonists too.

Twelve-year-old twins, Maudie and Arthur Brightstorm hear that their explorer father has died in an attempt to reach South Polaris – the very southernmost point in their world. Not only that, but he broke the moral code of explorers, stealing fuel from his competitors on his way. The daring twins are intent upon not only clearing their father’s name, believing he would never do such a thing, but also exploring the region for themselves – after all they are Brightstorms.

What could be a run-of-the-mill adventure story, Hardy turns into a fresh, insightful and clever novel of exploration with her clear-eyed writing, and her host of memorable characters.

Maudie possesses exemplary engineering skills, using her analytical mind to solve problems and provide technical solutions. She may be sited in a fantasy landscape, but she approaches technical tasks with a modern outlook – pragmatic and able – there is no gender discrimination here. She forges a prosthetic iron arm for her brother, but has the foresight to see that when they are lost, with the addition of a pool of water, it could act as a compass.

Indeed, Arthur is almost the only male in this female dominated cast, and it is he who shows his sensitive side – painfully aware of the feelings of others, sensing shifts in body language, danger in the air. But he too is an explorer – brave and intrepid.

Maudie and Arthur join Harriet Culpepper’s expedition to track back to South Polaris, on her ingenious sky-ship that uses water as fuel in a new environmentally friendly development, much to the admiration and envy of her peer explorers. What’s more, her ship has a canny disguise, to avoid saboteurs, and even I was envious of this quirk.

The environment is touched upon further with mentions of whale huntings, and humans’ domination of the landscape, all cleverly woven into the story without being preachy or self-congratulatory.

But as well as being aware of our modern leanings towards gender equality, saving the environment and STEM solutions, Hardy also shows us a mirror of our own world in the inequalities of hers. There are the slums of Lontown, the drudgery and hard work. There is the indignation of those of the Third Continent, who do not like to be called by such a derogatory name. And there is also, of course, a villainous explorer who will stop at nothing to sate her ambition.

But among the cogs and compasses, there is humour too: the cook Felicity and her penchant for endless cups of tea, Harriet and her dashing ways of pushing through the darkest moments.

Small flickers of other inspirational books light the path for readers too – I sensed a glimmer of Pullman in the ‘sapient’ animals of the Brightstorm world, who are less present than the daemons of Northern Lights, but also crucial to the plot, as well as the helpfulness of wolves from Piers Torday’s The Last Wild, and many more besides.

But mainly, Brightstorm feels fresh and modern – because although Hardy has veered into fantasy by creating her own world for the Brightstorm twins, she shows us its beauty through its simplicity. None of the landscapes are hard to envisage, none of the ships’ whirrings hard to grasp. This is a beautifully written children’s novel, matched by exquisite production with foil on the cover and a map on the gatefold.

It is testament to the accessibility of Hardy’s novel that it makes the reader think at the end, in the same way that the talking wolves ask the question to the twins – why is it that humans have the need to explore? When it is not for food or shelter – is it to seek the truth? Or to discover the beauty and complexity of the world? Like fiction, it is both and more. To discover a bit of ourselves, and a taste of the possibilities that are out there. Brightstorm is a triumph – it’s time to take the adventure. You can buy it here.

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

Eye of the NorthA timeless, icy, steampunk adventure, this is a really interesting and intriguing debut novel.

Arresting from the first sentence, O’Hart tells the story of Emmeline, a girl constantly on her guard, taking ‘always be prepared’ to the next level. So when she is kidnapped, and stolen away on a ship to the far north to be used as a bargaining chip to get her scientist parents to awaken a giant mysterious creature (the Kraken) buried deep beneath the ice, she must use her wits and her anxiety to whittle herself free.

The book is dense, and surprisingly gripping, and positively teems with ideas. Emmeline meets a stowaway on her first sea voyage, a nippy little figure named Thing, as well as an organisation trying to prevent the evil kidnapper from taking further control of the world – this organisation is named The Order of the White Flower (with headquarters in Paris). With tentative allusions to underground opposition groups in World War Two, such as The White Rose, the complexity of O’Hart’s plot begins to show itself here.

The reader learns that this underground organisation has many members who have been working against Dr Bauer (the kidnapper) for a long time, but little detail is given, although the group sound intriguing and each member fascinating; O’Hart keeps the reader completely in the dark (to the end). One member has built an intensely complex flying machine, which Thing endeavours to fly to rescue Emmeline. As with everything within this detailed and wondrous book, my issue is that the contraption sounds so terrific, so fantastical, that it is difficult to envisage in one’s mind’s eye. The same happens numerous times – with the denouement, in which Dr Bauer constructs an engineering contraption to extract the Kraken from beneath the ice, using mirrors  – the idea is so highfalutin, that it is difficult for the reader to picture.

As Emmeline moves through her adventure, so O’Hart throws more and more at the reader. We learn that the world has been submerged in much water (presumably the effects of global warming), and so Paris is much nearer the sea than it is in the real world. As with the characters of The Order of the White Flower, this idea isn’t completely developed though, which is a pity.

At every stage in the adventure, from Emmeline meeting an almost mythological horse, (which sounds as if inspired by the old Guinness advert in which the horses morph into waves – powerful like the gods), to Emmeline meeting the Northwitch, who splinters into ice shards and then re-forms with a spellbindingly cold evil chill, the inventiveness is powerful and spellbinding, and O’Hart smashes the imagery out of the park. The only issue is that the images are so extreme that the fantastical is hard to pin down in one’s imagination.

There are some wonderful touches – the tribal people living on the ice, with their sledges and their fear of outsiders, although again, this is underdeveloped as a concept, which is a shame.

The Eye of the North is a sensational story, but this book alone could probably have been developed into about three volumes – so that each part could be extrapolated more.

It touches on humans’ environmental impact on the world, scientific explorations and contraptions, evil beneath the ice, mythical horses, an evil ice queen, good versus evil organisations, greed and power, as well as anxiety and bravery.

It fits beautifully into the zeitgeist of the moment, with a wintry landscape, a future blighted by our environmental impact on the world, and a protagonist with parent scientists who have high stakes in the action. Blending a timelessness with technology and environment, and featuring children who perpetuate their scientist parents’ ideas by attempting to prevent harmful agents, but taking the best part of the science and seeing it through.

The two children are intensely likeable. They are feisty and free-thinkers. Emmeline’s character is strong at the beginning; she is determined, holds onto her comforts, remains quick-thinking and suspicious, but I wanted even more character development from her. Likewise with Thing, who has issues with his haunting past, yet has a strong determination to hold onto a person with whom he’s made a connection. Because their characters ring so true, the reader wants to stay with them.

This is a storming adventure story for the age group, ambitious and hugely entertaining, and there’s no denying this is a powerful book. I just think it could have been about three. You can buy it here.

Tin by Padraig Kenny

Tin by Padraig Kenny“Without a knowledge of history to give him [a student] a context for present events, he is at the mercy of every social misdiagnosis handed to him.” So said Hilary Mantel about history. And whilst Tin isn’t a historical novel, it is set in a distorted past, providing an opportunity to open the reader’s mind to thoughts about an alternative future. For this is a book about Artificial Intelligence, cleverly disguised as a Pinocchio style adventure.

Christopher works for an engineer, making ‘mechanicals’: children-shaped metallic figures with magical glyphs, like computer code, which empower them to act like humans. These mechanicals become some of his closest friends and family. But a devastating accident reveals a secret about Christopher’s past, and leads him down a path of self-discovery, and also a glimpse of what mechanicals could really do.

Not only is this an extraordinarily clever novel, but it is also a gripping children’s read, and a social commentary at the same time. The mechanicals are wonderfully written – Kenny showcases them with varying degrees of intelligence, knowledge and sentience – not unlike humans it must be said, but manages to portray each with its own particular personality, as well as consistently showing them to be not quite human. There’s Rob, simple, naïve, excessively loyal and caring. Manda, the small girl with her teddy bear, Gripper – the oversize muscle robot. Each has its own role, and part in the plot, but Kenny cleverly writes them ‘reading’ human interaction by studying humans’ body language and imitating it, not unlike how babies’ read their parents, but this is more stated, more blatant. The mechanicals also spell out how they are deciphering the meaning of words – especially when a word has more than one meaning. In this way, the mechanicals seem slightly less nuanced, simpler in their emotional intelligence, more childlike. And yet, they pulsate with emotion and the reader has endless empathy for them. It’s a clever manipulation of the reader, and by doing this Kenny is also showing how artificial intelligence could indeed manipulate humans.

In fact, Kenny’s point throughout this is to provoke the reader into thinking about what makes us human. With allusions to Pinocchio, who wanted to be a real boy, and was introduced to the concepts of responsibility and shunning frivolity and temptation in order to become real, and also The Wizard of Oz, in which Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man all want various human assets in order to be real, Kenny probes the essence of humanity:

“Rob turned to look in the direction of the sound. If he had a heart it would have skipped a beat -”

But in Tin, the mechanicals discover things about themselves through their interactions with others – both fellow mechanicals and humans. They realise that what makes somebody human is familial ties – the ability to love and mourn. The mechanicals experience loss, and then love to a certain degree, but they are still not completely human – they remain mechanical because they don’t have a soul, some essence of something that can’t be defined. They remain simple without ‘real’ memories.

They also remain mechanical because they can’t experience ‘malice’ or aggression. This is where Kenny steps up the pace of his book, as he explores the idea of mechanicals ensouled in order to work as soldiers. Here, Kenny nods towards The Terminator, and explores the idea of artificial intelligence used for mal-intent. What makes us human, he implies, is not just the ability to love deeply, but the ability to harm deeply too. Humans are all about power. And, most apt, in these times, a human’s ability to distinguish between lies and truth.

By setting the novel in a distorted past (a revised 1930s), in which the Great War has happened with appalling loss of life, and cars are on the increase, although there are still horses and carts, Kenny has inserted mechanicals/robots in a small way – they are chauffeurs and work in retail – although they haven’t completely dominated the landscape – there isn’t an implication of robots taking on all elements of industrialisation, yet.

But what the robots have done, in a roundabout way, is to crush the women’s movement. In Tin, females are vastly absent. There is only Estelle, who works for the engineer Absolom, albeit in an illegal way, as women are forbidden from being engineers/craftsmen. In this way, the reader can assume that if robots are working at certain tasks, the number of jobs available to humans is diminished.

Despite some horrors within the story, this is a positive book, with much humour and many more allusions to other great works. Toy Story yes, but also Willy Wonka – who ran a factory of Oompa Loompas, and was revered as the greatest chocolate maker, just as Cormier in Tin is revered as the greatest mechanical creator:

“He’s in there, behind that gate,” said Sam, pointing in the opposite direction. “No one ever comes out, and no one ever goes in.”

The outcome of the book is vastly upbeat. This is a children’s book after all, and they tend to end in a more uplifting way. But what the reader takes away is a thoughtfulness about humanity – who we are, how we treat others, and what the future may hold. As well as how humans can be better people, how we can overcome malice and aggression and the seeking of power, and look instead to focusing on love and family and connections:

“You don’t have a soul. You don’t need one. You’re not proper. You’re better than proper.” You can buy it here.

 

Below Zero by Dan Smith

below zeroCold landscapes enthral the mind in these icy months, but there are no ice queens, lyrical snowy descriptions or frosty ice rinks here. This is a fast-paced, gripping thriller that alludes to Star Wars, involves spider drones, artificial intelligence used for mal purposes, and has a protagonist who is both emotionally engaging and full of wit and charm.

When Zak and his family crash land at Outpost Zero, an Antarctic research base set up to house people who may in the future be the first humans to live on Mars, the power is out and it is as cold and dark inside as out. The people are nowhere to be found, and Zak starts to have visions of things that aren’t there, things that might be connected to something lurking beneath the ice.

The action dips back and forwards between Zak’s present day reality, and the actions of mere hours before, in which Sofia, one of the people housed on the research base, discovered something rather fascinating and dangerous about a substance beneath the ice. The time jumps sharpen and intensify the plot, and lend a satisfying anticipatory buildup to the action.

At about the time of reading, I was also watching Attenborough’s Blue Planet II and the discovery of the deep sea’s hydrothermal vents – perhaps the origins of life on Earth. Smith’s novel ideas timely dip into these vents, with the idea that what Sofia finds deep beneath the ice is alive, and indeed life-giving. His preposterous plot becomes more real, more plausible.

But it’s with the idea of the spider drones that Smith really taps into our current zeitgeist. Zak’s parents are scientists, the inventors of the spider drones that are used on the research base to perform a number of robotic tasks. When the life-giving matter beneath the ice attaches itself to the drones, the artificial intelligence of the drones suddenly isn’t so artificial. But are they a force for good, or for evil?

Smith’s playfulness with artificial intelligence and human’s use of the environment makes sure that although this novel drives home some deep thoughts, the story remains as a thriller should – playful, light, page-turning.

Zak is a warm character – he suffers from a brain tumour, and is accompanied throughout most of the action by his parents and sister, which gives him both a rounding and a humanity as he responds to his parents’ worries, and his sister’s goading. But mainly he’s a lovable character on his own. Thoughtful, daring and very real.

The author also throws in a third point of view – a mysterious character called The Broker, who has nothing but evil intent, although intriguingly enough, he too is shown with family.

And it is through families that Smith views the world. Motivation and ultimate victory comes to those who most care about the consequences their actions have on others. Despite the implausibility of most of the story and the ending, this is a cracking good read, with heart-pounding tension, limitless action and a wonderfully remote and exciting setting.

Top adventure, great fun, and a nod towards our own future. You can buy your own copy here.

Diggers and Dinosaurs (and Dodos)

My nephew is obsessed with dinosaurs. My son at that young age was obsessed with diggers. So much so, that an afternoon day out was to drive up the motorway spotting roadworks.

So when this little picture book reared its head, I thought to myself – why didn’t I think of that?


Diggersaurs by Michael Whaite
Diggersaurs was inspired by the author’s daughter, who is obsessed with both dinosaurs and diggers, leading to this ultimate mash-up. Diggersaurs are bigger than a digger, and bigger than a dinosaur, and they also roar. It’s not hard to envisage the shape and bulk of a digger as a living breathing creature – the scoop at the back its tail, the scoop at the front a large mouth. So Whaite takes each machine and anthropomorphises it into a dinosaur both in attributes and name – dumpersaurus, wreckersaurus. It’s a cute idea, although the machines all look far more like machines with mouths than they do dinosaurs to me.

The text rhymes well, and is full of exciting action verbs, as well as being chockablock with onomatopoeic digger noises, from rumbles to kerplunks and whirrs. There are even numbers to count too.

This is a huge hit with certain little friends of mine – they are particularly keen on the drillersaurus with its spike scales, pointy tail, and excavation of dinosaur bones. Watch out for the illustrations of the builders – they are exceptionally cute. It’s brightly illustrated, although I do wish they hadn’t made the ‘sweepersaurus’ pink. You can buy it here.


How Many Dinosaurs Deep? By Ben Kitchin and Vicky Fieldhouse
Perfect for the summertime as some of our lucky children embrace life by a pool for the holidays, this is an emotionally perceptive look at assuaging a child’s fears of swimming by appealing to their interests. Jim is learning to swim but is worried about progressing from the baby pool to the middle pool. So, his mother attempts to explain the depth of each pool and river by using dinosaurs as a measurement:

“I don’t think the middle-sized pool would even come up to a Stegosaurus’s knee!” she says.

The point is well-made, gradually diminishing Jim’s fears. The illustrations bear out the wisdom of the parenting well. Jim’s mother crouches down to his level and holds his hand to explain the depths, and then we see him gradually move from sitting on the bench with his mother to standing with her, tentatively holding the bench with one hand, as she leans forward encouragingly. The progress is handled sensitively and with a gradual ease. Meanwhile the dinosaurs are illustrated in a toy-friendly, colourful way, particularly when they balance on top of each other under the water.

Other points of merit include the diversity of the people around the public swimming pool and their actions, as well as Jim’s complete delight at swimming in the end. There’s even a factual dinosaur reference at the end. A lovely book for pre-schoolers and young children to see how to face down fears and take the plunge. Age 3+ years. You can buy it here.


Edward and the Great Discovery by Rebecca Mcritchie, illustrated by Celeste Hulme
It’s hard to grow up feeling that you are a disappointment. This is exactly how Edward feels, coming from a long line of important archaeologists who have all made significant discoveries. The reader first sees Edward sitting glumly on the stairs, the wall of which is hung with a plethora of portraits of the famous explorers in his family. By the end of the book, of course, Edward has made a little discovery of his own.

The overwhelmingly spelt out message of the book is that friendship is Edward’s important discovery, but for me, the redeeming features and appeal of this unusual picture book is the depiction of what discovery and exploration are – it shows what an archaeologist does, and also what a scientist does – how to investigate a discovery – learning information from museum specimens and books, as well as learning to be proud of one’s learning.

There’s a distinctive gloss and mood to the illustrations – almost like an illustrated movie, and the book is made more compelling by this – it’s a muted dark colour palate, with numerous depictions of vast bookcases, and certainly yields an unusual protagonist. These things, as well as the background detail, lend themselves well to be investigated by the reader – turning the reader into his or her own kind of explorer/decipherer. An intriguing picture book with wonderful kit list endpapers. Dig for it here.