“Superpowers” by David J. Schwartz (2008)

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“It all started at a party, which is damn convenient if you ask me, and if this weren’t a true story I wouldn’t expect you to believe it.”

We’ve probably all, at one time or another, wondered what superpower we’d want. Some of us want to fly, others wouldn’t mind being able to teleport, or shapeshift, be able to manipulate the weather, or be able to predict the future. I’d want all the ones around time travel and time manipulation, or else being able to jump into fiction and interact with the characters inside. Broadly speaking though, you probably won’t complain with whatever you end up with – it’ll still be cool.

Superpowers takes us back to 2001, and is the account of five students in Madison, Wisconsin who all develop superpowers unexpectedly after a night drinking home-brewed beer in a colossal thunderstorm. Mary Beth is now the strongest person on Earth; Jack is faster than a speeding bullet; Caroline can fly and spends her evenings enjoying her new power; Charlie can read everyone’s thoughts and is becoming overwhelmed; and Harriet can turn invisible. Once they start getting a handle on their new abilities, they decide to form a superhero team, dubbed by the media as the All Stars, thanks to the patterns on the chests of their Lycra uniforms.

The five struggle to keep their identities secret from the wider world, but they’re drawing attention to themselves and not always in a good way. Some of the people they’ve tried to save don’t appreciate the help, and the police, including Harriet’s own father, are on the case of the All Stars, since vigilante activity is illegal. They soon realise that they are still fragile, and even they can’t solve all the world’s problems. This will become vastly more apparent to them soon, as it’s 2001. September is coming, and with it, an event that will rearrange the world order and prove to them that being a hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

The situation, while fantastical, is handled in a startlingly realistic way. Naturally, the characters take a while to come round to the sudden changes, but quickly decide that they must use their powers for good. When other people begin to find out about them, no one declares that it’s impossible or rounds them up for medical tests, and it’s all taken in its stride with the more pressing issues of keeping their names and faces out of the media, and how to fight crime at keep up with their classes at the same time.

It’s also quite funny in places, but does deal well with the struggles that would occur with these powers. Charlie, for example, is overwhelmed by his ability to read everyone’s thoughts, and considers it an invasion of privacy he’s not happy to have. Jack’s super speed has meant that he’s now aging far faster than the normal human rate. And Harriet soon discovers that she can use her invisibility to spy on people and pretend to be living someone else’s life. Also, it can’t maintain the comedy for the whole thing because of what happens at the end – I won’t spell it out for you, but it’s clear if you’re reading properly. The situation is dealt with in a respectful and fascinating manner, and reminds everyone of how tragic that single event was.

Ultimately, like pretty much all superhero fiction, it’s a book about power and responsibility, but even more so I would say it’s about accepting our limitations, whether we’ve got superpowers or not. It’s important to know that none of us can single-handedly save the world or do all that needs doing, but we can help out in our own small ways.

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“Passenger To Frankfurt” by Agatha Christie (1970)

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“Fasten your seat-belts, please.”

Some things get better with age; a fine wine, a smelly cheese, unwashed jeans. Other things are better then they’re younger, and I hate to be the one to say this given my overwhelming love of her, but Agatha Christie is definitely part of the latter group. It’s suggested now that by the end of her life she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, but it was never diagnosed at the time. It’s without question though that even for a fan, her later books simply do not stack up to the earlier ones. I’ve noted this before with Postern of Fate and Nemesis, but I think it’s especially evident here.

The story begins with diplomat Sir Stafford Nye flying home from Malaya. His plane is rerouted, and while waiting for the next connection, he is approached by a woman who wishes to borrow his passport and cloak so that she can get home safely and avoid the people who are trying to kill her. Nye decides that his life needs a touch of excitement, and agrees.

However, without knowing, he has endangered his own life, and a while later he meets the woman again, although this time she has an entirely different name and it’s quite clear he’s not meant to acknowledge their having met before. Soon, Nye is caught up in an international mystery that will take him and his new companion around the world on the hunt of an invisible and dangerous enemy. There is much danger afoot, with stories that the student protests going on around the world have a much more sinister motive. And could it be that the rumours are true – did Adolf Hitler really survive the war?

This book was released for Christie’s eightieth birthday and it makes me wonder if people were now too afraid to edit her, given her reputation as such a great author. Robert Barnard, crime writer and critic, noted; “Prizes should be offered to readers who can explain the ending.” Unfortunately, I have to agree with him. The novel bounces around a whole host of characters, many of whom seem to have more than one alias (although that might just be me being confused) and covers all manner of topics. The beginning is engaging enough, but I found my attention wandering quite a lot until you reach a point over halfway through when you’re wondering why they’re talking about Hitler’s possible son who was raised in Argentina with a swastika branded on his foot and why no one’s been killed in an old country house.

One particularly notable inclusion is Mr Robinson, a secretive financier who seems to have fingers in a lot of pies and knows a lot about the world’s money. He is notable in that he ties together much of Agatha Christie’s fictional universe, having had dealings with Poirot, Marple and Tommy & Tuppence over the years. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book isn’t actually part of the story. It features an introduction in which Christie herself explains to the reader how she would ideally answer anyone who asks her, “Where do you get your ideas from?” As a writer myself, I found it honest and hilarious.

There’s a touch of fantasy about this one, and it’s all a little strange and unwieldy. A completist would, of course, find it necessary to read this, but in general, Christie’s novels of the 1970s are not ones you’d ever really recommend. They can’t all be winners, I suppose.

 

“News From Gardenia” by Robert Llewellyn (2013)

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The future doesn't always have to end in disaster...

The future doesn’t always have to end in disaster…

“I feel confident that through the long annals of human history plenty of people have regretted not making a greater effort to understand someone they loved.”

And so the new year begins, and where better to begin than two hundred years in the future. If the name on the cover is familiar to some of you, that’s because the Robert Llewellyn in question is better known for his portrayal of Kryten on the sitcom Red Dwarf, a show that I feel I should really enjoy, but have never really bothered with. Moving into writing science fiction seems quite a natural sidestep, and fortunately he does it well. So, time to crack my fingers and get on with this reviewing malarkey.

Engineer Gavin Meckler has just had an argument with his wife Beth and, not really sure what she’s annoyed about, he makes his escape to attend a meeting. He takes his electric light aircraft to his meeting, but on the way he encounters a bizarre cloud formation. Unable to avoid it in time, he flies into it where he finds a bright light and when he emerges from the other side, he finds he doesn’t recognise the landscape below him and all his electrical devices are fully charged.

Having no other option but to set down in a field of crops, he encounters the friendly locals who are fascinated by his flying machine. Gavin, however, is too busy being confused by the suddenly enormous amount of trees and fields in this part of the country. Taken to Goldacre Hall by a few of the farmers, all of whom seem far too old to be doing such strenuous work, Gavin soon discovers the truth, although he is not quick to accept it. It turns out that he has accidentally travelled in time and it’s 2211. The UK no longer exists as he knew it and it’s now called Gardenia, home to gardeners who have to grow food or they don’t eat, and society has done away with money, religion and the combustion engine. Stranded and with no obvious way to get home, Gavin begins to learn more about this new world, which seems utopian. This is a future where aliens didn’t invade, pollution didn’t take over and we weren’t all eaten by zombies. This is a future where humans, for once, got it right.

The book is actually a fond homage to William Morris’s novel News From Nowhere, in which a man from the 1890s wakes up to find himself in the 1980s which is, like here, a utopian paradise of sorts. Here, Llewellyn takes the idea and stretches us to two hundred years into the future to find an unrecognisable planet. It’s oddly comforting to read a book in which the human race isn’t struggling and where everyone seems happy and we haven’t destroyed the world. Maybe because we’re so used to dystopia, this gave me a weird underlying fear that something sinister was going on.

In terms of actual plot, there isn’t a huge amount here. More, we just join Gavin in his exploration of this new world and share in his discovery of how things like food, medicine, community, travel and energy work here. There’s a small plot about him falling in love with one of the women from this future time, and he also seeks out the living descendants of his ex-wife, who had remarried.

Gavin is quite an enjoyable character to follow, but in truth the book is really just looking at the potential future of Earth rather than anything to do with plot or character. Gavin just acts as our way in to this world. The history that occurs between 2011 and 2211 is also very well done and definitely plays up dystopian tropes but then suggests that humanity sorts itself out. Thanks to the modern methods of super fast international travel, we also get to see what has happened elsewhere on the globe. For example, America is no longer united and the Midwest is its own country that doesn’t let anyone in or out, especially if they’re not white, and China is an enormous economy with huge, sprawling cities and skyscrapers over five hundred storeys tall. We also find out a few tantalising facts about Africa and India.

Don’t take my mention of a minimalist plot as a complaint though, because it reads easily and is genuinely funny in places. Apparently all of the science shown has currently seen the light of day, but just not very widespread, which is very interested. It’s refreshing, as I said, to read about a world where humanity, for the most part at least, managed to sort itself out. The book is the first of a trilogy, and to be honest the whole thing feels a little bit like a prologue, as there’s a lot to set up here and it ends on a wonderful cliffhanger which means I will have no choice but to continue the series, and I look forward to doing so immensely.

For more of my writing, check out my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus available across the Internet for all eReader devices.