09 November, 2013

Fast Pace

Simon Kernick

Like the others of Kernick's books i have read, this was zipped through in one or two sittings, the sole difference being the time of day when i pick it is and what commitments i have over the next four to six hours. The essential theme of the plot was taken from the events in Mumbai in the autumn of 2009 when terrorists attacked and took control of several buildings there; here, the action is transported to London, and the motivations of the criminals are not so transparent or unitary, as there are some who appear to be terrorists of a vaguely Middle-Eastern variety but others who are acting solely for financial gain.

Kernick has the knack of creating characters and giving us sufficient information about them and their situation that we become sympathetic to them, which obviously is and excellent ability for a writer of suspense novels as he can ratchet up the suspense by worrying us about the future of the characters we have been taught to like. I find that, although once started i have to read the book as fast as i can, once done i am satiated for the foreseeable future with the level of tension he creates. This is good, i suppose, as it means that i am in no hurry to rush and find another of Kernick's books but, in some months or more, if i come across one as they are rotated around the various branches of the Powys library system, i can be free to pick it up and have another race for the end.

Speaking of the Powys library, the most annoying thing about this book was a part of the the physical artefact itself: Whoever covered it for the library did a less than perfect job, so that the dust-cover and its plastic protection were not correctly folded around the front cover. I constantly found myself trying to adjust it, to make it fit properly, but it was not possible to do so. Mind you, i am aware that this may say more about me than the book!

06 November, 2013

J. Mead Falkner

There was no question of passing this book by when i saw it in the library: Falkner wrote Moonfleet, one of the best children's stories ever written, so clearly i was going to have to see if i enjoyed this as much as the other. It is different, quite different, that is important to say at the outset. Stradivarius is a lot shorter, possibly a novella or novelette, though i'm never sure of definitions with those words, and intended for adults not children (not to say that Moonfleet can't be enjoyed by adults). It is more of a ghost or Gothic tale rather than an adventure; indeed, very little adventurous happens at all: It is more what happens within the characters, most especially the protagonist, who is almost possessed by a ghost or a piece of music or a violin, or all three.

Falkner has purposely reached back into the past ~ his past, as well as ours ~ to create his story, telling it by means of a letter from an aunt to a nephew ~ the protagonist's sister and son ~ some number of years after the event, as an explanation of his family's past. I have to say that, were this the first of Falkner's books i had read, i would not now be considering it a success; my reception of it, however, is affected by my affection for the other. Gothic is not my favourite genre, though i don't hate it; nor am i overly enthusiastic about the narration technique ~ not just here, but in general the epistlatory style is not one i love. These are not enough to make me turn from it, though; i think that more of my response is due to the story itself, which is curiously plain, meaning that the events do not seem to flow properly from the character and actions given. It is more forced, in other words, than i am comfortable with.

31 October, 2013

A Brace of Robinsons

Marilynne Robinson

I read the first page or so of this, just for the flavour, several years ago, when Lynne gave it to me as a birthday gift; i wasn't impressed. Today i'm happy to report that i was incorrect in that very quick assessment, as i have greatly enjoyed reading this novel. It is very simple, in some ways, and yet lovely and complex in its entirety. The text is a letter written by the narrator, minister in a Congregational church in a small Iowa town, to his young son, explaining things he wants his son to know that he knows he will never have the chance to tell him, as he is a very old father, having been sixtyfive or so when his son was born. The letter is written in about 1957, and the story it tells ranges from roughly the American Civil War until its present; the key characters are the narrator, his father and grandfather, his lifelong friend, and that friend's son, named after the narrator himself. All woven together it is the story of families falling apart, struggling to survive the tensions within them, the sorrow that parents both give and are given, and, this being America, race relations.

Peter Robinson

The second Robinson i have read (and, funnily enough, the second finished in the same day by someone called Robinson; coincidence is bizarre stuff), and i enjoyed this one at least as much as the previous. Peter Robinson's books are very much a part of a series, and i was feeling, as i read, that i really needed to read others ~ perhaps all others ~ in the series to fully understand the characters, who is who, and the relationships between them. Of course, i do recognise that this is partially a function of or attributable to a certain amount of my necessity for order and understanding, and that in fact i am perfectly capable of enjoying any of the series (if they're well written) without having to relate them to any others ~ just as it is possible to read, say, Lieutenant Hornblower without having to follow all the rest of the novels. Because something is possible, though, does not necessarily make it desirable. So, all in all, despite this wandering review, i enjoyed this novel, which kept me reading later than intended, and hooked me into trying to solve and work it out.

24 October, 2013

Non-Holmes Doyle, hmmm

Arthur Conan Doyle

It is curious how completely Conan Doyle's reputation has been attached to his creation Sherlock Holmes; so strong is the tie between the two of them that one just about forgets that he did anything else, let alone wrote much else; often the only other thing he is remembered for is his interest in spiritualism and being taken in by photographs of fairies at the bottom of the garden. In fact, though, i know he wrote more; i read at least one of his Medieval adventures about ten or fifteen years ago, and i was aware, vaguely, of Professor Challenger through the influence on subsequent generations of science fiction authors. This was, though, the first of Doyle's SF that i have read.

Professor Challenger is almost a character out of a farce, he is so much the easily offended intellectual, sublimely confident in himself (with some justification, it must be said), always ready to resort to physical violence to back up his mental powers. Doyle has provided him with a challenge sufficient to his abilities in the lost world plateau in the middle of South America somewhere, where remnants from past aeons of Earth's history are living together in some imitation of harmony. This lost world is clearly the precursor to any number of other isolated environments where a series of characters can explore and interact with no reference to the outside world, from Burroughs' Barsoom (not to mention the jungles of his Tarzan) to Lewis's Malacandra and Niven's Ring.

I am glad that i bought this edition, which contains all three Professor Challenger novels, as well as the two short stories Conan Doyle wrote, as i shall return to it in the future and read the rest; The Lost World is obviously a success for me.

15 October, 2013

Another classic completed (again?)

It's a strange thing, but i have finished this without being reminded of the previous reading. I am certain i did read it, at Loretto, maybe for O Level, maybe not. But reading it i have not had the flash of recognition that i usually have at some point while rereading a book. Thus i have been forced to reconsider, have i read it? did i perhaps misremember, remember other pupils reading it? Who knows. Parts of it are familiar, but perhaps only in the sense that i am familiar with books which are a part of my cultural heritage, even if i haven't read them myself.

Without worrying further, i need to respond to the book itself, though, and decide how i felt about it and whether, which is more important that possible past events, i will read another Lawrence in the future. I have to own that, to my regret, i was not as impressed with the writing as i probably should have been. For one thing, Paul Morel, the Lawrence stand-in, is an unattractive character, tied to his mother’s apron-strings, either unable or not willing to make a decision for himself, and in the process he hurts at least two other people, the two women he is interested in but unwilling to make a commitment to.

Another point i found irritating (laughable, really, me, with no credit, being irritated by someone universally acknowledged to be one of the Giants of the Twentieth Century) is that for much of the plot, while not much is happening in the lives of the characters, Lawrence spends his time telling his readers what the interior life of the characters, Paul in particular, is; he does not show it, does not allow the readers to grow their own perceptions and understandings, but lays out in detail how Paul feels, why he reacts in a particular way. I cannot but help think that the better novel is one in which the character is revealed through action. I cannot say that i won't read Lawrence again; i have read some of his poetry before, and perhaps some of the travel writings also; but i can say that i am not inspired to rush out and find another to read immediately. Which reaction, given his stature, and the place of this novel in his canon, makes me question mine own critical ability.

26 September, 2013

Three from One

John Wyndham
I found a collection of six of Wyndham's novels a couple of weeks ago, at one of the charity shops in town, and snapped it up immediately; at one pound there was no question but that it would go with me. There is a bit of overlap with the three i already own, but it does mean that i'll be able to send one to Stephanie for her opinion of him. Mine own opinion, of course, is clear and without doubt: He was one of the best of the British writers of science fiction, whose control of plot may have been slightly less than perfect, but who forced the reader to think about consequences and ideas with every story he wrote. The Day of the Triffids, then: This is probably the most successful of his novels, from either writing period (before and after the War), both in terms of critical and cultural (and maybe financial, though i wouldn't know) success; certainly it is the one which has been the best known, having been made into a film (which i have never seen; one of those 'fifties sci-fi/horror genre, i suspect, it could have been appalling, but it was popular, i believe), and spawning at least one sequel which i read and reviewed about half a dozen years ago.

John Wyndham

A collection of short stories; i think this is the lesser of the (i think) two collections made in Wyndham's later period (not including The Outward Urge which could, arguably, be considered a novel), the other being Consider her Ways. I have read neither of them recently (well, not until i just reread this one, obviously), but it seems to me that Consider has the stronger stories in it. This is not to say, however, that those in this collection are weak; they are not, in the main. Wyndham clearly wrote attempting different styles and genres in these stories ~ he says as much in his introduction ~ with fair success. To my mind the better of the stories include the first (“Chronoclasm”), a romance between time-crossed lovers, “Survival”, a horrible development of the idea in Asimov's first published story, “Marooned off Vesta”, “Pillar to Post”, a very complicated story of time travel and body swapping which ends rather unsatisfactorily, and “Dumb Martian”, which shows almost more clearly than any fiction about actual racism the pointlessness and foolishness of prejudice.

John Wyndham

Though i can see flaws in it, this has always been my favourite Wyndham ever since i read it; i'm not altogether sure that i can pinpoint why, other than sheer pleasure in the clever simplicity of the plot and characters, along with, as always with Wyndham, a necessity for the reader to think about what would happen if.... It is hard to be critical in some reviews, and this is one, because i feel too invested in the book that i'm reviewing; i don't feel as though i can ever write less than effusively about Wyndham or, for a further example, Dick Francis, because i enjoy them too much, though, as i say, i can see imperfections in what they write those imperfections seem less important than the whole which surrounds them. So, clearly, i enjoyed reading this, and i'm glad i now own a copy, so i can reread it any time i choose.

20 September, 2013

Not Hornblower

C.S. Forester

I have, obviously, known C.S. Forester for many years as an excellent story-teller (the Hornblower books are old favourites). I had never come across him previously as a murder/suspense writer, unless i allow The Peacemaker (first read about forty years ago, before even Hornblower) to fall into that category; i clearly have to increase my understanding of his abilities.

This was a delightful, though horrible too, book, telling the story of a man who murders once to secure his future and comes to find that he is prepared to see it as a way of answering many more of his needs than he anticipated. Indeed, there are few characters in the book whom he would not be ready to murder should the need arise. Forester's skill is shown as he makes his protagonist, the murderer, while clearly an unattractive person, sympathetic to the reader, such that i was almost rooting for him to succeed, hoping that he'd have just one more successful killing. When i thought about it, of course, i was horrified; while immersed in the book, though, clearly Morris had my sympathy.

Undoubtedly a success by my criterion, i had not expected otherwise, knowing Forester's other work; i shall definitely look for his other works in the same genre.

07 September, 2013

"Lists" usually = "Goodness"

Matt Richardson

Just the sort of book i would write, and therefore find interesting ~ nay, fascinating ~ full of facts, trivial and otherwise, in this case about the British royal family, arranged in easy to consume lists. A couple of small annoyances to the thing: The adjective in the title is surely in the wrong place ~ they must have intended it to modify lists not book in order to make real sense ~ that i can put down to the publisher, though; the responsibility for error of fact, on the other hand, belongs squarely on the shoulders of the author, and leads me to question just how reliable he is in other facts, ones i didn't previously know, when he can give Richard II Edward II's dates. Such a simple error is really unforgivable, if for no other reason than that it is so basic, so easily verifiable. I have to admit, however, that this was the only real horror i found ~ though i wasn't looking for them ~ for which i was grateful. There is something about a list which is satisfying, to me at least, as it consists of almost nothing but information; the selection of that information does lend a certain amount of authorial interpretation to it, but a good list or series of lists is relatively complete, the selection is not biased, and the unmediated facts are pleasurable. This series meets these criteria.

02 September, 2013

Bizarrely Unsatisfying

Richard Dawkins

I was curiously disappointed in Dawkins in this book. For some years i have read about him ~ i think i've read one or two of his previous works, but i can't be certain ~ and read a number of refutations of him and, more particularly, this work, and he has been built up as a great and terrible foe of the Church, of God (or any god) and of religion. I expected, then, to be challenged, to be logically argued into submission, to read strong and convincing prose of a scientific nature. Not what happened. In fact i found that Dawkins wrote in a fashion that, to my perception, is surprisingly close to what he stands against with all his force: The book reminds me of nothing so much as an evangelical preacher ensuring that the choir stay convinced and and strangers in the congregation are whipped along into following him. I'm afraid that his arguments generally were, to say the least, unconvincing, and he attempted to cover that up by using rhetoric designed to bludgeon his readers into agreeing. Let me explain.

Towards the beginning of the book Dawkins writes that he amused himself by noting in the margin of a book he was reading the false arguments used by one or other of his opponents; i have a healthy respect for books, and library books in particular, so i did not actually do so, but i noted in my mind at least a dozen times during Dawkins debating points at which i would have written BISS in the margin as a comment on the paucity of his argument: It solely consisted of “This is so, Because I Say So”, which really is not at all convincing as a means of persuasion. He does this, for example, in dismissing the idea of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) as suggested by Stephen Jay Gould, among others. He does not really argue against NOMA, other than to say that there is no reason to think that, if there are questions science cannot answer, they may be questions religion is capable of answering ~ or even exploring. There are, as i indicated above, a number of occasions on which Dawkins uses this argument from authority; it's simply a shame that the authority he uses ~ his own ~ is not actually sufficient to support the argument he makes. It is possible that NOMA is a poor idea, but not possible to discover that by reading this book; as far as Dawkins' argument goes, there is nothing wrong with NOMA at all ~ except that he doesn't like it.

The second point at which i found the book frustrating is the style. I likened him earlier to someone preaching to the choir; to explain that image a little let me point out that he uses rhetorical devices which are frequently and usefully used by preachers on Sunday mornings in church services to carry the congregation along a path they already believe and travel willingly: humour, exaggeration, straw man arguments, appeal to authority, and others. The most annoying, maybe offensive, was the use of humour; i find it offensive, i'm afraid, from a couple of perspectives, because it feels as though i am being patronised since he clearly believes i'm stupid enough to be convinced something is wrong if i can be made to laugh at it, and because on many occasions his humour is more vitriolic than funny, especially when he is relating anecdotes (and when did a personal anecdote become a strong logical argument?) about how he either has or should have demolished his opponents with his wit. It may be the case, as has been argued elsewhere, that harm to someone else in one or another form is the basis of all humour; when taken to extremes, however, it serves no purpose other than to make me uncomfortable and to rather dislike the instigator.

To be honest, quite a lot of the book seems surprisingly personal to Dawkins, as though he takes it as a personal affront that anyone should disagree with him (i suppose that this links back to my feeling that BISS was his major argument). That this is so is illustrated by the anecdotes i mentioned above as well as by the authorities he tends to appeal to. It may not be that they are the most common in the book, but certainly high among his authorities are Carl Sagan, admittedly a scientist, though more of a science-explainer than an active discoverer, and Douglas Adams, an author (non-scientific) and comic. The two primary reasons Dawkins seems to appeal to them are that he liked them personally, and they both agreed with his point of view. Neither of these is a sufficient reason.

A further way in which the book seems personal rather than reasoned is the way in which Dawkins seems to go out of his way to be offensive to theologians for no other reason than that they are theologians. He argues that there is no reason to be polite about religious beliefs, that religion is given a free pass in society because people are not willing to offend one another over their God and faith. The truth, of course, is that, in fact, there are all sorts of things people do not say to one another (i cannot imagine, for example, that Dawkins would be comfortable saying to a stranger, “Goodness, your wife is ugly”, or “What a stupid daughter you have”), because we have evolved (within the species, genetically, or in society, through trial and error, i do not know) a certain self-censorship over what we say in order that society may function. Religion falls into this category of Things We Are Polite About, yet Dawkins is attempting to remove from the category with no explanation or justification. Indeed, he treats it as falling in the opposite category, Things We Can Be Vitriolic About, as he all but personally insults theologians. Not, i am afraid, the actions of the reasoned, reasoning man he would portray himself as.

In the end, as i mentioned above, i found reading this book disappointing. I expected a real challenge to my thinking capacity, but what i found was similar to a secondary school level response to Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian ~ from the other perspective, of course! Less than satisfying, i'm afraid.

29 August, 2013

How to be Happy?

Eric Weiner

Stephanie gave me this for Christmas, saying it was quite interesting ~ and the reason that she shows her location on Facebook as Iceland. Weiner claims to be a largely unhappy person, so considers himself perfect for conducting an investigation into happiness, specifically how the country one inhabits affects one's happiness. I suppose i like the idea; the writing was a little cuter than i care for usually; not enough to put me off reading the book, but perhaps enough to slow me down before picking up another by Weiner. The actual research ~ the book itself is largely anecdotal ~ is interesting, fascinating, one might almost say, as one's location and culture do seem to have some effect on happiness. In particular, monocultural places seem to be happier than multicultural, which is information that large swathes of the liberal West would do well to know and appreciate. Still, some of the responsibility must lie with the individual person, and Weiner seems to accept this, embrace it even, as he finds that his happiness level doesn't seem to change much no matter where he is nor how his circumstances vary.

18 August, 2013

Five books; two reviews

Roger Zelazny

I stayed with Chen and Tony for the weekend, and while she was showing me her books Chen and i talked a bit about this series, how i encouraged her to start it one time when she was bored, how i had read it with Kathy White back in the summer of 1980 on the Oyster River farm, how it is so good and easy to read. I remembered the opening lines of Nine Princes, or thought i did, and opened it to take a look, and i was hooked, again.

It is surely a sign of a classic that i can remember the first time i read this series, the events surrounding that reading, when and where i bought the books, as well as the appearance of the first ones i read and the set i bought ~ which is, sadly, a part of the huge collection we have “temporarily” left in the US ~ and at least one other time i read the whole thing. I have, on at least one occasion, gone on to reading more, beyond the original five, which Zelazny added some years later, but did not find them of the same compelling quality; i know, for example, that i have read more, but i don't remember how many, nor am i certain where i got them, nor when (those two are close to the same, libraries depending on geography and personal history for me), nor anything about them other than a certain disappointment. That lack of compulsion, the relative loss of memory about the sequels, tends to show me that the subsequent books are of a lower quality; understandable, as the originals are so high, but disappointing nonetheless.

So, looking at the opening lines, as i say, i was immediately drawn in, as i suspected, if i am honest, i would be. The books read so quickly that i really had no difficulty in racing through them, finishing three of the five in the fortyeight hours or so i was in Cardiff. As well as the conversations, the walk to the city, the music we listened to, the films we watched. What is it, then, which makes these so easy to read? Part of it has to be the plot, which is fairly simple, but quite compelling; who doesn't understand family strife, the desire to change situation or circumstances, and the struggle to better ourselves? Another part is clearly the language; Zelazny is not prone to complex grammar or sentences, nor is his vocabulary awkward or specialised, which makes the whole easy going. The characters, too, are a part of the attraction, as it is possible to see truth in all of them, their interactions, their different facets. Overall, whatever the reasons, this is a series i love, and it was delightful to be able to renew acquaintanceship with it again.

Roger Zelazny

Visiting Chenowyth again, so reading more of her collection of Zelazny's Amber Chronicles, finishing them, in fact, and liking them in just the same measure and way as i have previously. I have always found certain portions of the novels a bit too florid, confusing, ultimately pointless, for my taste. Zelazny has Corwin, his narrator give several descriptions of what he calls hell-rides, and he describes Chaos on one or two occasions as well; to my mind they are unnecessary and distracting ~ to be perfectly honest, i often skip them altogether, leaving me a slight feeling of guilt ~ and more about showing that Zelazny is more than just a story-teller, that he can write exciting prose too. There are more of these passages in the final book, The Courts of Chaos, than in any of the others, and ~ coincidence? probably not ~ it is the weakest book. Not actually weak, though; the whole pentology is excellent, despite one or two untied loose ends which are probably because the whole is so complex that there simply would have been too much to pull everything together and answer every single question properly. Or maybe Zelazny just missed some. I just wish that the later books lived up to these five.

10 August, 2013


Aimee Bender

Judging by the picture on the front cover (a young girl holding some lemons) and Jodi Picoult's name endorsing it, i assumed when Abi lent it to me that this was going to be a (female oriented) juvenile such as she and Bailey used to read. Now, having finished, i'm not sure. Not sure at all, in fact, what category or genre it might fit into: There are elements of that juvenile (the protagonist/narrator is female and, for a large portion of the book, prepubescent or adolescent), to be sure; there are also pointers towards the adult (not least the themes of broken people and relationships); not only that, but also a strong current of the surreal which doesn't really aid in genre-assignment but certainly adds to the interest of the book. 

The first element of surrealism encountered is the ability of the narrator to taste the emotions of a cook in their products. Actually, it might be fairer to say, the inability of her not to taste their truest emotions and desires in anything they make. As interesting as this sounds, it is for her the most awful ability, as she does not have a happy home life and, in particular, her mother (chief cook) is lonely and sad to begin with, then guilty over an affair later. There are other surreal elements, not least the knack that her brother has of completely disappearing, at first for a few minutes while babysitting, later for days or weeks at a time. 

I'm glad i have read it, mostly for the oddity; the portrayal of characters is good, particularly the relationship, such as it is, between the narrator and her brother's best friend, which is perhaps the realest portion of the book.

31 July, 2013

Oh. Yes!

Full disclosure:  I had some small part in helping to prepare this book for publication.

Warrior of the Ages
S.R. Karfelt

Why should you read Warrior of the Ages?  Great story; well defined characters who are easy to like (love); an unusual idea of immortality (dying some thirty times a millennium); an easy, flowing narrative style.

Why not read it?  I've given it thought, and for the reader of fiction, especially speculative fiction (a rather wide genre), i can only think of one reason:  There is a religious element, in that some form of non-corporeal beings form a part of the structure of the book.  On the one hand, this might be enough to turn some off; on the other, it's only religious in the sense that A Bear Called Paddington is ursine.  In other words, that's no reason not to read the thing.

To be perfectly honest, i love this book; and i am not shy about spelling out the flaws of books i read and review (see others of my reviews ~ this one ~ or ~ that one ~ for proof).

27 July, 2013

A Mixed Review

H. Brading

Rather funny that two books i finish within consecutive days are both ones i have complex reactions to. There are a number of things to be said about Joshua's Key, the question is, where to start? Perhaps, in this case, with the greatest strength of the book, its plot. Something over five hundred pages long, it is filled with the action and development of a strong plot. While there is never any true doubt that good will triumph (the result of the opposite being the entire destruction of the world Brading has created), the threat to that triumph is strong and, while it lasts, well developed.

In addition to the plot, another strength is the characters; they are numerous and varied, from wizards to aquatic men with gills and webbed feet to, perhaps her greatest thought, nurturers who whisper to plants and encourage them to grow usefully. The world itself is quite an invention also, stretching from a land beneath the sea to the Garden of Eden. Each of these, plot, characters, world, is a reason for a positive element to the complex reaction Joshua's Key has evoked in me.

There is, however, a negative element provoked by other aspects of the book. The first thing i think of in this regard is something i have actually written about previously in reaction to reading this very book, some months ago, and it is very annoying to me, and that is the use of punctuation ~ or misuse, to be exact. Consistently, for example, Brading writes “tree's” when she means the plural of “tree”; i could give many other examples of the same or a similar errors with apostrophes. Clearly the book lacked a good, strong copy edit before it was published ~ or, if it had one, the copy editor was not worth his salt. There is no denying that i am a pedant and many errors i notice and am frustrated by would not be a problem for the average reader; nevertheless, the level of errors here is sufficient that, i have to think, even normal people (non-pedants) would be annoyed.  (I should not that i have written previously about this issue in Joshua's Key, at the other end of this link.)

The bigger issue, though, than the misuse of punctuation is another prepublication lack. I mentioned above the quality of the plot; unfortunately that quality is marred, for me, by a need for an editor to go through and reorganise and smooth out parts of it. Brading tells an excellent story, but she allows her reader to get muddled by whose story she is telling, at points, or how they link together, at other points. The problem arises, i think, because an author knows his story intimately, so is less able to see any weaknesses or quirks in the flow; it is the editor's job to point these out, maybe make suggestions as to corrections, and not allow the thing to go further until the story flows and is as strong as it can be.

I have no proof of it, but it is my suspicion that the story began as a series of bed-time stories which developed and grew into this huge novel. In mine opinion each of the flaws i have found can be explained by this origin and development as, for example, if the recipient of the story forgets a character it is easy for them to ask the story-teller quickly. The large plot is explained by the ability of the story-teller nightly to expand on what has happened, is happening, and, again, benefits from the intimate relationship between teller and listener. The occasional jumpiness of the episodes is explained by the necessity of nightly breaks and restarting the story after reminding the child what had happened. The huge character list is a result of not needing to work to the physical constraints of the space of a book, but having the time and luxury to expand and expound organically and as the demands of the story seem to require. None of these are fatal flaws, of necessity, to my mind, but they each lead to a build-up of annoyances and frustrations which made the book increasingly difficult to read, so much so that it has taken me several months to read what could have been done (by me, at least) in no more than one or even less.

I mentioned copy problems earlier; having been peripherally involved recently with the independent publication of a friend's book, i suspect that the manuscript was not submitted to a beta reader, nor to an external editor, which has proven to be a mistake. I think either, or both, would have caught and suggested corrections to many of the issues i have perceived as flaws (structural, grammatical, and typographical). In the end, my mixed response comes down on the “good book” side, but not heavily; i would, however, more than likely read another by the same author based on the name on the jacket, which is my criterion of success, especially if it had been through a stronger editing process. Brading clearly has great imagination, she merely needs additional prepublication discipline to tame it and make her creation fully accessible.

18 June, 2013

Happy to be pushed

Mystic River
Dennis Lehane

Abi ranted and raved about Dennis Lehane until i felt i had to read one of his books to see what she had enjoyed. And i am glad i did: By my severe but simple criterion, i would call this a successful book.

Lehane is a skilful producer of characters he is able to make the reader like; his murder victim, for a start, was more than just a bland entity to be killed, and i felt particularly sorry for her though i knew from before she was introduced that she was destined for a sticky end. Also the beginning of the book, taking place some twenty years before the main action, was an interesting touch; many authors have important events in the pasts of their characters, but they do not always make them such a complete part of the plot. Here the fact that Dave got into the car and Sean and Jimmy did not was essential, given totemic significance maybe, by the actual telling of the story, although Lehane, as is the wont of mystery writers, kept secrets to himself until he felt like revealing them.

The end of a the book was a little surprising ~ not the solution, well, that was a surprise as well, nicely done ~ but in the end a character i had grown to like (though he was becoming more and more fearsome) eventually essentially decides to ignore the forces of good and law in the city and run or rule his own neighbourhood himself; it was a bit like watching Vito Corleone become the Godfather, and not the ending i had wanted for him. Part of what makes a good author is the ability to be both predictable and surprising.

22 April, 2013

Playing with Early Reviewers'

Tim Forbes

A month and a half since i’ve finished a book! Surely a record for me ~ and not one i would care to surpass ever again.

This was an Early Reviewers’ book, and one which i enjoyed, albeit not one i probably would have picked up of mine own accord. Sports is not something which particularly interests me, to participate in, to watch, or to read about. I can, obviously, do all three, and have done, in the past: Most especially playing at school or, less frequently, with friends (football, rugby, cricket, hockey, softball, among others) and watching ice hockey in Canada. Usually it is merely chance, though, that brings me a book on sport, and that chance this time has done me a favour, as Forbes is quite interesting in his quest to spend a year watching different sports.

He is a man of about the same age as me, who has a mid-life crisis by way of suddenly realising that his chosen field of labour ~ specifically chosen for its pleasure potential, as he left finance to work in golf tournament promotion ~ no longer holds joy for him; he begins to wonder if he has the capacity to enjoy sport, any sport, any more, or if working in it has drained it for him. Similar, i suppose, to what might happen if i had left retail to work in publishing then, after some years, discovered i no longer read nor missed it. This quest which he gives himself, watching 100 games in fifty sports in a year, is his attempt to discover if he has entirely lost the enjoyment ability, or if he can recapture it.

For much of the year, it seems, his quest is not very successful, as he is shown over and over that professional sports has little to offer, and is intent on making money in any way it possibly can. This he calls the Monster. Apparently later in the year, however, certainly later in the book, Forbes starts to undergo a change, driven by the sports he is compelled to watch in order to complete the quest under the original terms ~ there not being fifty professional sports available to watch he has to go to some lengths to find amateur games and finds some he had never run across before. During this latter portion, he is given several experiences which renew his faith in sport, cover or remove the bad taste left by the Monster, and help him to understand that those who participate in a sport purely for the love of it have a great advantage over those who have other motivations. In the end the moral is fairly predictable, not entirely believable, but worth the time put in to it.

I have some reservations about the book, partly Forbes' style (which is perhaps a little overly humorous and casual for my taste), as well as quirks of the digitalisation which left the second of every double “f” capitalised (you have no idea how tired i got of reading “ofF” or variations thereof), and put in paragraph breaks where none were needed or expected. I'm not certain i'd read another based purely on Forbes' name ~ perhaps if it were a subject i wanted to learn more about, which would leave most sports out ~ so i cannot sincerely call the book a success by my criterion. On the other hand, certainly not a complete failure, either, as many of his descriptions of events, places, and people, are well done (by no means did i intend to imply above that his style is appalling, just not entirely to my taste), and he is clearly knowledgeable about his subject.

19 April, 2013

Alistair MacLean

One of MacLean's earlier books, and perhaps stronger for being that. The action depends more on character and plans than coincidence or deus ex machina, which is more satisfying than some of his later books' plots. The characters are his usual types, almost superhuman, a man who drinks ridiculous quantities of alcohol without being affected, men who are willing to die but, generally do not have to; interestingly, there is a woman who functions as a romantic interest for the protagonist, which is fairly unusual for MacLean ~ perhaps he needed to put her in to further the plot, which her presence does do a few times, so overcame his usual reluctance for romance which might slow down the action.

Curiously, for a man who was concerned about keeping the action going, there is quite a large amount of moralising or philosophising in the novel, largely in the mouth of one character; certainly the character who expresses the opinions, which are essentially those which say all men are brothers and must learn to live together, is a man who is in a position to speak with authority: He had been a partisan during the Second World War, successfully and violently fighting the Russians in Ukraine, then ending up as an anti-government actor in post-War Hungary, helping his fellows to escape the torture and inhumanity of the Communist government. Unfortunately, i found that the philosophy slowed down the action at a point when really it should have been racing towards the end. Still, it seems to me that MacLean was willing to take this action because this character seems to speak for him, and he believed it essential that the world think about his points.

As mentioned above, the book takes place in Hungary; as it was released in 1959, it seems likely that it was inspired (some of the action makes this clear also) by the events of the Hungarian Revolution and its awful oppression by the USSR, and fairly clearly MacLean was so horrified by these actions that he found it necessary to use his available pulpit to publish his opinion of the Cold War.

13 April, 2013

History, Times Two

Esmond Wright

I still don't have the almost instinctive grasp of American history that i find in myself over the British variety; i suppose this is because the one was not put into my brain through stories, books, classes, while i was young enough to take it in without realising it, whereas the other most certainly was. Influenced, i suppose, by my many years of living in the United States, i feel strongly that this lack of grasp is a weakness in me, though i am well aware that the average American probably doesn't know as much of their own history as do i, and it is a weakness i am always willing to correct; Wright's book was the latest venture in that direction.

I have learned some, though of course the outlines were familiar to me previously, of both Washington's biography and the course of the Revolution ~ as well as some of its causes; more, though, i have taken pleasure in the quality of the writing, which is never preachy, nor overly rhetorical, but simple and easy to follow (i only recall one name i had to chase down for a previous reference, despite taking some weeks to read the book), clear and good prose. I shall, which i don't often do with history, see if i can find more of Wright's writings to pursue.

Gordon Brown

I was a little disappointed in this book, i have to confess. I could not help comparing it, even unconsciously, with JFK's Portraits of Courage, which comparison must have been in the back of Brown's mind when he conceived of and produced the work; and i am not sure that the comparison is to Brown's benefit.

Kennedy's book has its drawbacks or weaknesses, not least the suspicion that it was largely written by someone else, but it was and is an enjoyable book; though this one is, i would suspect, more completely “All my own work!” than Kennedy's, Brown does not have a sparkling prose style. A highly successful Chancellor, in part because he had the earned reputation of being able to destroy his detractors in Parliament or the press, the iron fist style is not so useful in writing what was surely conceived as a collection of popular biographies. Writing for the public, one does not want to bludgeon one's readers into appreciation; that way lies an ever diminishing audience.

A further problem i found was that Brown tries to analyse what he means by “courage”, and i'm not sure that i followed him properly; either that or i just disagree with his definition. He seems to be using a definition different from the usual, and it appears that it is on occasion flexible to the point of not really meaning anything other than “something i admire”; the chapter on Cicely Saunders, for example, completely puzzles me, because i don't understand what about her or her actions was courageous: Admirable, certainly, needed, appropriate, difficult, each of these would be apposite adjectives, but courageous

I was ready to be pleased by Brown's choices of portrayers of courage, a modern continuation of JFK's book in some sense, and was pleased to see Mandela (obvious choice), Cavell (a uniquely British heroine), and Wallenberg (unbelievably heroic, and not well-known enough) on the cover. King and Kennedy (RFK, not his brother) and even Bonhoeffer i imagined were particular and personal choices for Brown. Saunders i knew nothing about, not even the name, so i had no opinion; i have to say, having read the book, i can only imagine that she is a personal hero of Brown's for some reason he feels unable to bring out, or she is a cultural hero i haven't heard of (not an uncommon thing), and he felt he couldn't miss her out, even though she doesn't fit the scheme.

All in all, not a successful book, by my criterion. Certainly, if i come across it, i am quite likely to read another book by Brown; it won't be on the basis of my pleasure in this one, though, so much as who he is.

06 April, 2013

I'm not a film critic, but...


I find it rather difficult to decide what i want to say about Up in this review: I am glad i've seen it, as i like Pixar's work and am happy to see any of their films at least once ~ and there are still several i've not seen, though one less now; on the other hand, i found it curiously unsatisfying, much more so than any other Pixar film i've seen. I hope they haven't lost their touch, that this was simply an aberration or, as may be more likely, just something that did not work for me, however well it may have been received (i really have no idea of its reception, so that statement is simply guesswork).

So, to explore my reaction, i start with the thing which Pixar says is at the heart of every one of their films, story. I really found the story troubling, i have no other word for it. The first minute or so sets up the plot, an explorer returning to the wilds to redeem his name. The next five to ten minutes tell the lovely and touching story of a boy and his neighbour who grow up together in admiration of the explorer, with determination to follow in his footsteps; they appear to have a lovely romance, marry, and live happily together; like so many things in so many lives, their plans do not come to fruition, and she eventually dies, leaving him an apparently bitter old man. The rest of the film recounts how this man defies the world he lives in, is brought to a new humanity by a small boy, and discovers the feet of clay of his childhood hero, in the process attempting to fulfil the ambition he and his wife had always had. The problem that i have is that by far the nicest character in the film is killed off within the first ten minutes, and from that point on it seems a let-down.

There are also a number of plot points left unanswered that, under usual circumstances i don't think i would be bothered by but, with the big plot problem mentioned above, they bother me now. For example, how could the explorer possibly be still alive and so active as he is some fifty years, at least, after he left civilisation the second time? Is there some non-aging characteristic to the atmosphere in this lost world area? Has he discovered the fountain of youth? Whatever the answer, it ought to have played some part in the story. Another annoyance: How has the explorer managed to create devices which allow his dogs to talk? It's a nice conceit, but needs some kind of explanation. How does his device interpret what the dogs think? Why does the alpha dog talk with a foreign accent? Questions that are demanding to be answered because the story is not strong enough to hold mine attention.

To move on from the story, the quality of the rest of the production is, as always, very good. The animation is well done, though less realistic or believable than in some other of Pixar's films (i believe in Woody and Buzz, for example, because they appear real; the explorer is the only character here who has that same reality appearance, which makes the rest of them less believable, though not less visually enjoyable). The actors lending their voices to the production are well chosen and have given enjoyable performances. Always a pleasure to hear Cliff Claven's distinctive sound in one of these films. Production values, then, whatever exactly that phrase means, seem not to have been lost.

My only issue with the film is with the story ~ unfortunately, arguably, the most important feature about it. I wonder if this slip by Pixar has anything to do with the fact that they were bought by Disney, as opposed to merely having a distribution agreement with them, at some point before it was made. I have no reason to think that Disney would mess up Pixar's abilities; it is simply a guess based on timing and result (and, admittedly, the fact that like much of corporate America, Disney has a habit of steamrollering anything which does not fit its own “values”). Whatever the reason, though, i was disappointed by Up, and hope that the next film i watch from this studio will have a better focus on story.

01 April, 2013

A Film (for a change)

JAG should be glad i have now watched this (The Prestige): I bought it several months ago and started to watch it but couldn’t go on, it absolutely didn’t grip me at all, and he was quite upset with me when i told him that, as he thinks it’s a brilliant film. So, now i’ve finished it (again, actually, i have watched it previously, on an aeroplane, i think, which probably lowered my standards), which i managed by turning on the subtitles and paying more attention to them than the sounds ~ in fact, i don’t remember any of the noise of the thing, music, voices effects, nothing at all ~ so i followed the plot a bit more easily.

That is, in fact, one of my primary problems with films like this ~ and there are far too many like this ~ in which the director has forgotten what he is supposed to be doing and has lost himself in the fantasy of being an auteur and making a piece of Art: He no longer realises that one of the essential points of all good art is that it be accessible. In The Prestige, for example, i found it hard to tell which character was which, to understand the flow of the plot (because it is told through flashbacks and memories and flashforwards with neither reason nor concern for clarity and care of the audience), to know which characters were supposed to be good and which not, and certainly to care when the final plot twist and revelation was made ~ mine only feeling at that point was gratitude that the thing was obviously coming to an end (though it still dragged on for longer, even when there was nothing left to be told).

If the thing were truly an artwork, rather than an artifice, none of these things would have been true; though i might have had to work at understanding parts of it, the whole would be greater than the parts, and the time would have been well spent. As it is, cross-applying my definition of success from books to this film, it clearly is not a success: Far from watching another simply because it is directed by Christopher Nolan, i would positively avoid another film if i knew he were the director. Not, then, a success.

20 March, 2013

One of the Greats

John Wyndham

This was the first of Wyndham's books which i read, for Barb Baker, or Killough, whichever she was at the time; i can very clearly remember sitting in my Dad's office in the MacMillan Building on UBC, trying to read it and, a bit later, explaining that i was having a difficult time getting into it, as it all seemed to be introduction not action: As i was several chapters into the book at the time i cannot now work out what my problem was, as the action seems to start almost straight away. Evidently i was, though enthusiastic, not quite as skilled a reader as i think i have been developed into (i can scarcely take credit for it; i have just been taught well).

The Chrysalids is, regardless of my first thoughts of it, one of Wyndham's best books; there are probably four of the later, post-War, group he wrote, that of his highest quality; in mine opinion, clearly this is one of those four: It is a flawed book, in a couple of minor ways, but it is also skilfully written, well thought through, cleverly imagined, and a delight to read.

Flawed, i say, though perhaps in conception rather than execution ~ as though that makes the flaw the less! ~ because the appearance of the Sealanders/Zealanders at the end to rescue David, Rosemary, and Petra comes across as more of a deus ex machina device than Wyndham was wont to use. If i think of the others of his classics, The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes both end with an amount of hope, but no certainty for the future, and The Midwich Cuckoos is resolved purely by the actions (within character) of one of the leading residents of the village. At the time of my first reading (and several afterwards) i did not find this to be a problem; now it seems to me to be a weakness that might have been avoided, had Wyndham changed some of his conception of his post-Tribulation world. On the other hand, it is that world, close enough to ours to be recognisable, yet different enough to horrify us, which makes this such a powerful book.

A second point which has arise on this reading, though i'm not sure i'd go so far as to classify this one as a flaw, is the crosses which all the inhabitants of Waknuk ~ indeed, all the citizens of the whole of the civilisation of Labrador ~ wear so constantly as to surprise David when he finds they are not worn in the Fringes. Certainly they are intended to be related to the fundamentalist religion of the Labradorians, based as it is on the Bible (implied to be what we understand by that term, as it is the only book to have survived the Tribulation) and Nicholson's Repentances. The problem is that nothing other than the crosses implies that their Bible contains the New Testament: There is nothing in their practice or speech which points to a post-Jesus religion, quite the contrary, it seems to be very dogmatic, legalistic, bound by Law. It is not the lack of the New Testament which is an issue, as i can easily postulate only an Old Testament survived; what i see as problematic, though, is that the cross has no meaning at all in the Old Testament, so why do they use it? I suppose it is merely one of those puzzles an author is allowed to pose without necessarily giving a solution. Flawed or not, The Chrysalids is an excellent book by an author i love, and i will continue to buy his books when i come across them on market stalls and take them out of the library when i unexpectedly see them.

13 March, 2013

Not a Successful Comic

Stephen Colbert

A bizarre book. Colbert is some kind of television comedian in the US (at least, i really, really hope he's supposed to be a comedian; it's a little hard to tell because he's not really funny [see below], but it would be scarier to think he's serious in what he writes); i've never heard of him, except as someone who has encouraged people to vandalise Wikipedia to make some kind of (perhaps humorous?) point, but i gather that he has some fairly large following. I suppose i can see why, having read this.

He affects, truly or not, to be the most conservative person, an American of Americans, fairly ignorant and unthinking, unwilling to see any perspective except his own, Cyclopean, and convinced of his own correctness in all things; his character could, in fact, be described as an American version of Joyce's Citizen. Not the best basis for comedy, one might think and, indeed, the book is not really funny.

There are funny lines, a few amusing ideas, but on the whole it is more depressing than amusing, because i know too well that such people do exist and believe and behave in this manner. Colbert's main idea of humour seems to be to make outrageous or stupid statements as though they were perfectly natural; this can be funny ~ i do it myself ~ but generally only in fairly small doses, otherwise it becomes tedious. I have to say, i found that word (tedious) appropriate for this book; clever and amusing in concept, but in practice, probably not really worth it.

06 March, 2013


How do you feel about strong language? Personally, i don't use it, which makes me an anomaly among my colleagues. I am capable ~ my lips can form the words. You'll have to take my word for it, but i just spoke aloud one of the naughty words. The thing is, i wasn't actually using it, just saying it as an example; this is a part of the difference between use and mention. I can mention the words; in fact, be warned, i will be, a little later in this piece, some of them at least. It's just that i don't use them. Prudery? Maybe. Puritanical? Possibly. Who i am? Quite likely. Perhaps from mine upbringing.
Thinking of childhood, i remember the very moment i realised that profanities actually meant something, that they weren't merely collections of letters put together then never spoken by proper people. Judging by where it was, a particular school room, i must have been eleven or twelve; some of my classmates were talking, one said something about a person he saw, “shovelling shit” the previous day. I didn't know what this shit was ~ and i certainly wasn't going to ask! ~ but clearly it was a real substance.
More interestingly i think, i also remember where i was, though i can't narrow down the time so closely, the first time i saw one of these words in print. I spent a good portion of my high school career, nearly three years to be exact, skipping classes and reading in the school library ~ when i bothered to go to school at all. During that time i read a huge amount, a lot of it science fiction; in an SF book i came across a reference to two people having sex, making love as i thought it was always called. The author so shocked me when he said that they were fucking that i had to shut the book for a moment to recover. I honestly don't think, looking back from several decades on, that i thought adults, mature people (which surely writers were), used such language.
This use of profanity in writing is what i find most interesting at this point. As i say, i don't use it in my life; curiously, that extends almost completely to my writing, as well. I have used so far in this piece a couple of words, and it might seem to you ~ in fact, i hope it does ~ that they fit in the flow quite easily and naturally. To me, writing, it felt quite awkward: I found myself slowing down as i typed, not quite willing to commit myself to the word, although i knew, had known from before i started writing, that it was coming and i was going to use words that make me uncomfortable.
There is, in fact, a little sex in a roundabout way, in my current work in progress. The strongest, most explicit language i have used yet is, “I was instantly aware of something under the fabric of her shirt. Two somethings, in fact.” I actually embarrassed myself a little as i wrote that some time ago, felt that i was saying something a little bit naughty that perhaps might not be approved of; it seems likely that there will be no stronger language.
I might have matured a bit since i was first shocked at school; nowadays i can skip over profanity and blasphemy as i read with almost no hesitation at all. One book i read recently, though not erotic, was filled with such language, so much that i mentioned it in the review i wrote. I was still able to read it without embarrassment, with enjoyment.
Shock is not too far away, however. I recently read a short work which contained shit, bitch, fuck, and cock. It was, oddly, the last of those which surprised me most; perhaps because the author is a friend, a chaste woman who oughtn't know that language. Mind you, she's probably chased too, since she, like her two daughters, is a blonde bombshell; perhaps that's where she's learned the language.
All of which goes to show me that i still carry the imprints of my childhood, although i have learned what all of those words mean now and can run across them and continue with barely a blip. Maybe one day i'll be comfortable enough with them to actually use them myself.

04 March, 2013

Almost Unqualified Success

Toddie Downs

Wow! This is the first Early Reviewers' book that i have read in a long time and felt this good about on finishing ~ at least since November 2011 and the Treehorn trilogy, and that's an established children's book ~ so the first thing to say is, definitely a success.

I would guess that Summer Melody is probably marketed as a juvenile, aimed at teenage girls, certainly an audience i am fitted to be part of by neither age nor gender. The primary character, the one we are introduced to first, and from whose point of view much of the story is told, is a female teenager. Jane is fourteen, distinctly uncool, and feeling rejected by the world, including her family. Fortunately all is not as dark as it seems for Jane, though the summer does get fairly bad at times, what with her mother's stress over her grandmother's dementia, her cousin's on-again off-again romance, and trouble with the boy she is asked to babysit. The end, while perhaps simplistically happy, does seem to signal that things may be preparing to improve.

The other two main characters, from whose alternating perspectives the other chapters are told, are Bonnie, Jane's mother, and Meg, her cousin. Each of the three have problems in their lives, mostly rotating around familial orbits, and each has to rely on others to help solve them. I like this feature, as it seems to reflect quite closely on real life, where we have to depend on others as well as ourselves.

I must say that i found the alternating perspective a little confusing at first; i would say that i was about four or five chapters in before i fully understood, and i remember having to go back twice to see which character was which: Somehow the very simplicity of the names allowed them to be blurred in my mind. Fortunately the chapters are short enough that i had not invested too much time in each, and was not really confused for long before being able to go on.

The rest of the writing style i found enjoyable. Downs developed the lesser characters and plot-lines well, so that i felt that there is quite a lot of texture to the book (ironic, as it's an e-book), a good background against which the main lines and characters develop. The question of who Pete was, for example, and why Vivian is the way she is; the lovely actions of Brady's father at the wedding reception; the relationship between Mona and her dress designer: These are all non-essentials, but cleverly thought through and well written, adding much to the pleasure of the book.

In the end, the one minor caveat aside, Summer Melody was a complete success for me, and i am delighted that i was given the opportunity to read it.