25 September, 2012

A Most Favourite Author

John Wyndham & Lucas Parkes

This is the only one of Wyndham's books of which this statement is true: I had not read this since UHill, which means it is at least thirtyfive years since i had last read it. And how has it aged in that longish stretch of time? It seems to me that we had agreed, in class, that it was one of the weaker of Wyndham's books that we read together (though none of his books are actually weak); i would say that the passage of time has not strengthened it.

Part of the weakness is the structure: The book, novel, is five short stories which are linked by being about several generations of the same family, and the urge that the male members of that family seem to have to get into space. A novel usually has the strength that the same characters are kept through all of it, thus giving the author and the reader time to get to know them properly; a collection of short stories may have a common theme, but tends not to have much linking the stories other than that; this collection has more than theme, the plot develops from one to the other, to a degree they are dependent upon the previous stories, but the tenuous familial relations (the last is a four greats grandson to the first) are not enough to hold them together as a novel. This is unfortunate, as each of the stories is actually good, and could stand by itself.

I think the error was in the collecting or, perhaps, in the attempt to make the five stories hang together; as i say, each, alone, is quite a good story, a part of the development of space, how Britain, along with the USA and the USSR was able to enter space and go to the moon, how Brazil, after a nuclear war, made space a monopolised part of its domain, and how that monopoly was broken. Fascinating to read, as the stories were written at least ten years before Armstrong and Aldrich were on the moon, so perhaps even before Sputnik. The estimates Wyndham made of how things would be done, what the effects of space would be, what other planets would be like, are fascinating ~ as always with his writing. So much so that i feel a little guilty in criticising the overall presentation of the book; i would not be honest, though, were i not to report my reactions, even when less than favourable to one of my favourite authors.

18 September, 2012

A Second Bite...

Irene Radford

It must be six months since i started reading this book, i should think, though without investigating i don't know. And it's also been, surely, two or three months since i decided i just could not finish it and regretfully posted a review on Library Thing for the Early Reviewers programme explaining that inability. And it is a fortnight or so since i came back to it and tried again, certain that i had the willpower to force my way through it ~ after all, i can read anything, just about, surely an historical fantasy isn't going to defeat me! And it did not: I have, indeed, finished. Having finished, then, was it worth it? Is the book a success?

Well, to answer that question we have to define “success” and what would or would not put a book into that category. For years if not decades implicitly, and at least five years explicitly i have considered a book's success purely on the grounds of one criterion: Am i, having read a book, likely to pick up another by the same author based solely on my feelings about and response to it? If the answer is “yes”, well then, the book is a success. By my book definition, then, Guardian of the Vision; Merlin's Descendants #3 can in no way be considered a success. I regret saying this. Deeply i regret it, for a number of reasons: A free book, given to me solely so i can read and review it, i want to like; an historical novel, about an interesting time and place in history, i should like it; a book by a professional historian, no less, i ought to like it; a fantasy novel (one of my favourite genres), with a simple “What if this were true” premise, how could i not like it?

Sadly, many of the points i catalogued against the novel a few months ago still stand; they were not simply a result of not having finished the book. The characters are not sufficiently delineated one from the other. The narration is mixed in person and, consequently, confused in effect. The history is not accurate, which is acceptable in an historical fantasy, but the background history is not close enough to reality to carry the imaginative elements.

Let a mere reference to the previous list suffice. Here i shall explore a little further the actual plot of the novel, which i only touched on last time i reviewed it. The three main characters are, in their differing ways, touched by another life or another dimension; two of them, brothers, are descended from Merlin, their family bound to try and keep England, though perhaps Logres would be what is really meant, safe from chaos; the third is also, perhaps, a descendent of Merlin, though more on a distaff side, and she is linked with a demon whose sole desire is to create chaos and destruction. Each uses magic, of a form, in what they do, though one, in whom the magic is perhaps the strongest, renounces its use in the belief that that is what he must do to remain in the Church of Rome, where he has become a priest. There are, as is common with historical fiction, a number of actual personages within the pages (a peculiarly inept turn of phrase for a book read on an e-reader), pre-eminent among them Elizabeth Tudor, Mary or Marie Stuart, and Thomas Howard. They are really only in the book as mechanisms for the furthering of the plot; only Elizabeth has any real development of character, and what we are shown is, quite in line with actuality, not the most attractive (it is depressing to discover that the monarchs i most admired as a child are the ones i find least attractive as i learn more about them; i can only hope this will not happen with Elizabeth Windsor).

The biggest problem i have with this book, the key point in why i cannot call it a success is, i think, something i touched on in my previous review. There simply is nothing in it to make me care. None of the characters is compelling, i don't really care if their desires are fulfilled or not, and none of them (except maybe the dogs) is consistently nice or good. In addition, i'm afraid, the plot, the action, is not strong enough to carry the novel without characters; it's obvious from the beginning that the demon isn't going to be able to bring the levels of chaos he wants, but there is not even enough tension over that conclusion to force me to continue reading to find out why, how he is to be defeated. All in all, i am very sorry to have to reiterate, not an experience i care to repeat. Sadly.

15 September, 2012

A surprise success

Thuggin in Miami; The Family is Made
R.A. Robinson
I do not remember how i was given the e-copy of this book to read and review; i shall have to make more careful records if that is to continue happening.

While i was reading Thuggin in Miami there was no way that i could stop myself from comparing it to the other book i was reading on my kindle at the time, also for review, and this one benefited from that comparison, which in some ways is surprising. I say it is surprising because there are a number of things about this novel which would have lead me to expect myself not to like it: It is written in dialect, which i almost never enjoy; not only that, but the dialect used it a variety of African-American English, which i cannot help but read as poor grammar, spelling, and usage in general, no matter how much i accept intellectually that it is a legitimate means of communication; as well, the subject matter, gang life, murders, drug use, jail experience, all in southern Florida, is not really something that i am drawn to ~ to be sure, i've read it before, in Elmore Leonard in particular, though i read him more for style than content ~ but it isn't a subject i'd naturally turn to; then the style is rather more explicit than i am used to or generally comfortable with, at least in casual reading, with plenty of “penises” and “pussies” (why is it that, no matter what word people use for the male generative organ almost no one feels it appropriate to use the correct word for the female, in almost any genre or context?) as well as interaction between them to a level i'm not sure i've come across previously in work not intended to fall within the erotic genre. And yet...yet i found the book oddly compelling.

Almost from the first i was involved, though i wasn't attracted by them ~ any of them ~ interested in what was happening to the characters, and what the plot action would be. Let me be clear: None of the characters are attractive people; in fact, they are gangsters, drug dealers, criminals of the worst sort, so that even the one prison officer we know anything about is entirely corrupted. Nor is the plot, as may be expected from the characters, uplifting, as drugs are sourced, bought, and sold, and Richard Gale, the protagonist, has at least two separate revenges he has to research and prepare for.

And yet, as i said above, though almost every element of this review is negative, the book itself, as a whole, is greater than the sum of its parts. I have struggled to understand this, and one conclusion i can come to is that the author, R.A. Robinson, is a product of the environments he writes of, that these are his experiences, and the truth in what he writes may be what pulls me in. Also, the ease of the writing ~ despite the awkwardness of reading the dialect ~ meant that in reading i was able to continue quickly, other than sometimes having to puzzle out who the heck was being talked about, as all the characters have multiple nicknames and see themselves as one big family, using incorrect relationship terms for each other, continue quickly, i say, and feel that at the end of each chapter it wouldn't take long to read another, so it was probably going to be worth starting it. In the end, despite the negative points i made, i found that this book fit my terms of success ~ i would read another by the same author based solely on his name and mine experience here. I cannot fully explain this success but, for me, it exists.

12 September, 2012

Something's lost, but not just a symbol

Dan Brown

Curiously i had recently read on-line that this was the most borrowed book in libraries last year when i happened to see it in the local library, so i picked it up; after all, i enjoyed each of Brown's other books, though they were formulaic, so why not this one? I am now in a position to answer that question: Because it is more farcical than believable, more ridiculous than clever, more pointless than a broken pencil. Because i enjoyed his previous books, though they were, to an extent, predictable, and because i respect his success (both financial and on my strict, single criterion) i regret having to write this review, but The Lost Symbol was laughable; literally, at points during it, i was laughing ~ from embarrassment at how bad it was, at the ridiculous things he was expecting me to accept, at the mistakes of fact he made, at the absurd ways his characters behaved in order to further his plot twists.

When i started reading the book i really had to work quite hard to get into it; indeed, it has been three weeks since i took it out of the library, and i started it the day i took it out. I felt guilty because i was not being gripped by the story, desperate to turn the pages, as i had been when reading his other works. It was not until well over halfway through that i felt i was going to be able to make it to the end: Though i knew intellectually i would, as i do with practically every book i start, i didn't know it emotionally, i wasn't excited about reading it. Because of my previous experience, i confess that i thought there was something wrong with me, with mine understanding, mine involvement. I was clearly, very mistaken. There was something wrong, all right, but it was with Brown and his book, not me. Sadly, this sequel is an absolute indictment of the idea that because one book has been successful, another in the same vein must be, too. Certainly it was popular when it came out, i remember the displays; i bet, however, if he were to write another about Robert Langdon not half the people that read this one would rush to pick it up ~ assuming that, like me, they felt it was, rather than a can't put it down, a can't pick it up book. Brown should have stopped after The Da Vinci Code, while he was ahead.

07 September, 2012

My First Real E-Book

Keith Curtis

This is the first book i have read on my Kindle; not actually the first e-book i’ve read ~ that might have been Mendenhall’s about ancient Israel, i don’t remember ~ but all others have been done on the computer screen, whereas this one i purposely saved, after i downloaded it months ago, as i was pretty sure that at some point i’d be buying an e-book reader. So, this review can serve to speak of the book and the reader.

Curtis is interesting; he is an apostle in the gospel of free software, converted like St. Paul from an enemy of it; in Curtis’s case he was a Microsoft employee, but now urges Linux on the world, as the way into a better future, powered by the ability of thousands of volunteers who will scratch what itches ~ fix or improve what annoys them. The main message that Curtis gives is not that Microsoft (or any other entity which charges for software) is evil, nor that their products are, of necessity, poor quality; rather it is that software which is charged for because people are employed to make it cannot be of such high quality, at least after a period of time, as that which is freely available both to use and to be improved upon, because people will improve it ~ not because they will be paid but because they want it to be better for themselves. Thus free software takes advantage of people’s own self-interest to improve and evolve. The secondary example he uses to illustrate the process is that of Wikipedia, which improves daily as readers make changes to something they believe can be better expressed or more accurate or simply add what had not previously existed. This perspective, at least as Curtis gives it, is quite persuasive, to the point that i shall at some point more than likely try Linux for myself, as i already use free software (OpenOffice) daily, both at work and at home, it is not too great a stretch to imagine migrating.

The points at which i tended to lose interest were those at which he moved from talking about free software to making points about capitalism and space exploration, both of which he has beliefs on, and neither of which he seems especially qualified to be listened to on. This is a shame, because i enjoyed the book, other than at these points. Still, one mustn't complain.

The other point i need to address is the use of the Kindle to read this e-book. I cannot at all remember where i got the PDF file from, but i remember downloading it some months (or more) ago and keeping it because it looked interesting and i imagined that at some point i would obtain an e-book reader. I did not try reading it on the PC, because i dislike PDF files to read, by and large, as they are cumbersome and sitting upright at a desk is not, i find, a particularly comfortable position. That was, as i recall, the sole complaint i had about the prepublication PDF of Mendenhall's book.. I have to say, however, that reading on the Kindle was both comfortable and pleasurable. I did quite a bit in bed, fully warm, except for the hand holding the device, and that could be changed and warmed up frequently enough for it not to be an issue.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the electronic reader will not replace physical books for me, nor is it likely that it will become even the primary method of obtaining and keeping reading material. There is too much invested emotionally in actual books for me to give them up; i can quite easily see, though, that i and people of my generation and perhaps the one after me could well be the last regular users of paper books, as children being born now are quite likely to consider us as we consider the monk with vellum ~ a relic of a previous age and method.