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Review of Marked Cards edited by George R R Martin

5 November 2010 Leave a comment

This is the fourteenth Wild Cards book and the second in an internal trilogy consisting of Card Sharks, Marked Cards and Black Trump. The first book wasn’t brilliant, being a disjointed, scene-setting, prequel-ish, rewriting of history sort of a story.

This volume was better, though. Instead of being focused on the past, the narrative here moves forwards consistently as things actually happen in the story’s present. The story adopts the usual format of a number short stories/novellas alternating with an episodic narrative about one central character – in this case, former Senator, presidential candidate and ace, Gergg Hartmann – an important player in several of the earlier Wild Cards novels.

This structure is generally effective and was, for the most part, in this book. However, the Gregg Hartmann sections tail off in interest towards the end. Most of the other stories are pretty strong, although, Sage Walker’s ‘A Breath of Life’, introducing a new and so far peripheral character, was fairly weak. The strongest part, I thought, was ‘Feeding Frenzy’ by Walter Jon Williams, where Croyd Crenson and Black Shadow embark on a mission to destroy the Card Sharks – with a fair amount of success.

The general thrust of the story isn’t much altered by Crenson and Shad’s efforts, though and by the end, all Wild Card-infected people are facing grave danger in the form of a deadly virus. This sets the scene for a potentially thrilling conclusion to the trilogy – which will be much needed, frankly.

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Review of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

I’d never read any Hemingway before I picked this book up, but I knew that he was famous for his pared-down style. For Whom the Bell Tolls is based on his experiences reporting on the Spanish Civil War. It relates a period of about three days during which a young American Explosives expert, Robert Jordan (which is also the pen name of the James Oliver Rigney, author of The Wheel of Time), arrives at the hideout of a small band of Republican guerillas and embarks on the demolition of a nearby bridge. During this time he has to plan the attack and deal with the tricky web of relationships between himself and the partisans.

It’s a sizable book (perhaps not as big as some Wheel of Time volumes) and the fact that only three days pass is quite impressive. The length of attention given to the build-up to the attack on the bridge heightens the sense of danger, doom and melancholy. This is a book about death and although Robert Jordan manfully avoids thinking about the risks of his task, the inevitability of death hangs over him throughout – from Pilar’s harrowing recounting of the slaughter of fascist-supporting townsfolk, to the fate of the previous dynamiter who worked with the guerillas, to the suicide of Robert Jordan’s own father.

The way language is used is interesting. The characters speak in Spanish throughout, but, of course, the book is written in English, so Hemingway uses various techniques to create a sense of Spanishness to the dialogue. There is a smattering of actual Spanish used in the book, particularly the expression que va? which is used to show disbelief or disgust. In order to convey the Spanish informal pronoun , thee and thou are used. Some of the grammar is idiosyncratic; whenever the Spanish characters mention the plan to blow up the bridge they say, ‘this of the bridge’. There’s also some use of ‘false friends’ – these are words in two language that are similar enough to suggest that they have the same meaning, when, in fact, they don’t. For example, the Spaniards in the novel say that a Russian character has a ‘rare’ name, but this is a false friend of the Spanish raro, which actually means ‘strange’.

There is a lot of dialogue in this book – both between the characters and within the protagonists’ own heads. A lot of this dialogue is also quite repetitive. Robert Jordan repeatedly asks the partisans questions – perhaps because he is afraid of anyone making mistakes (although this isn’t stated explicitly). All these qualities give the text a strange readibility – I was always aware that I was reading dialogue and always trying to guess how much of the technique is authorial invention and how much based on experience.

The book paints a consistent and believable picture of life behind enemy lines in the Spanish Civil War. As I mentioned, the shadow of death hangs over the whole narrative – especially given that the reader knows something the characters don’t, namely that the Republicans lost to Franco’s forces. There’s a certain coldness to the story – I felt that I was appreciating the events and the characters and their feelings intellectually rather than emotionally.

Another weak point was the character Maria, a brutalised young woman who falls in love with Robert Jordan as soon as she sees him and who provides a tender counterpoint to the harsh realism of the rest of the story. She’s an annoyingly passive and girly character, always fawning over Jordan. She jumps into bed with him despite the trauma she has very recently experienced.

Incidentally, one episode in the book shows the last stand of the leader of a nearby band of guerillas and a few of his men on a hill, surrounded by fascist troops. This scene was the inspiration for the Metallica song, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ (and what a stupendously brilliant song that is).

All in all, the novel is engaging, thought-provoking and occasionally moving. It is dark, but not depressing – the protagonist may be doomed to die, but he is prepared to die for something he believes in.

Review of Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

12 September 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve never been into comics – strange, I know, but true. I read The Beano when I was a child, and, more recently, I discovered the wonderful What’s Michael? books (‘the Japanese Garfield‘). The recent Watchmen film with it striking visual style, bleakness and political content made me contemplate buying the graphic novel – but I never got round to it.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books are highly regarded and were possibly first recommended to me by someone I knew at university. She also bought me a copy of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which I didn’t like for its paint-by-numbers imaginary world and its simplistic thesis of rich people = bad, poor people = good. On the other hand, I enjoyed Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Stardust.

More recently, Habiba, enthused by visiting the new What the Book? store in Itaewon, bought Preludes & Nocturnes, the first of the Sandman omnibuses, and recommended that I read it. So, as I always say, her wish is my command, and I complied.

In short, I didn’t really get much out of it. I’m not really sure if that’s because of its inherent merit (or lack thereof) or because I’m just not au fait with the medium.

The Sandman, aka Dream, is one of a group of immortal beings, personifications of aspects of human life, called the Endless. Others include Desire, Despair and Death. In the first chapter, the Sandman is trapped by an Aleister Crowley-type wizard in the early 20th century. After better part of a hundred years of patiently waiting silently in his cell, the Sandman finally has a chance to break free. The story of the graphic novel concerns his retrieval of his possessions and return to power.

As the introduction and afterword both suggest, as a whole, the graphic novel is a somewhat uneven. One subplot concerns a pre-existing character, Doctor Destiny; another sees Dream descend to Hell to challenge Hell’s triumvirate rulers; another has the Sandman team up with John Constantine. From what I’ve read, in later editions Gaiman follows his own inspiration more, without trying to shoehorn the Sandman into others’ worlds and mythoses. The graphical style also changes a lot throughout – the Sandman himself getting more good-looking towards the end.

I’d say I never particularly enjoyed any of the stories in Preludes & Nocturnes, the surprises didn’t surprise me, the horrors didn’t horrify me. This may be due to a prejudice against comics as a medium worthy of adults. It may also be that, after years of reading prose, my brain is simply wired to understand and appreciate that particular form. I can’t help think that, just like radio, the pictures are better in prose stories – one’s imagination isn’t limited by an artist’s interpretation of the story.

However, Habiba has already bought book two in the series, and it doesn’t take much effort to read, so I’m willing to give it another chance and see what develops in the next book.

Review of Card Sharks edited by George R R Martin

12 September 2010 Leave a comment

Card Sharks is the thirteenth book in the Wild Cards series and the first in ‘new cycle’ of three books.

For the uninitiated, the Wild Card virus was a disease genetically engineered by an alien race genetically identical to humans and tested on Earth in 1948. Its effects are to kill horribly the vast majority of its victims, to turn to mutants – ‘jokers’ – the majority of the rest, and, for the remaining minority of a minority, to bestow superpowers – these are the ‘aces’. The Wild Cards books are gritty, alternate history superhero stories, and, for the most part, quite entertaining. The series is the brainchild of George R R Martin (although he didn’t contribute, writing-wise, to this book) and some of his writing and roleplaying friends. Numerous authors have been involved in the project over the years.

Card Sharks wasn’t one of the most entertaining books in the sequence. The format of the books generally varies – the first book was a set of short stories detailing various episodes in the world of the Wild Card virus, others have been true collaborative, ‘mosaic’ novels, a couple have been written by single authors. This one takes the most common form: one longer, unified narrative broken up by shorter episodes penned by different writers. The difference here is that each of the episodes is a first person narrative of things that have happened in the past. The book is set in the early nineties and the stories within the story go back as far as the fifties.

The book works well enough as a prelude to things to come later in the three-book sequence, but the heavy reliance on these backward-looking stories robs the book of emotive and narrative force. In other words, everything the reader learns has already happened, is history.

The story running through the book, appropriately named ‘The Ashes of Memory’, sees a young female fire investigator looking into the deaths of hundreds of jokers in an arson attack on a church, by following leads and interviewing various jokers and aces, she learns far more than she bargained for about the background to the attack.

Basically, it appears to be the latest incident in a conspiracy that has lasted for forty years or more. The problem is that, with the reader (this reader, at any rate) having already read twelve books about the fall-out of that fateful day in 1948, it strains belief that this conspiracy is only now coming to light, that those who have witnessed it in action are only now speaking out, that the conspiracy is only now taking action to kill Wild Card victims on a large scale.

The episodes narrated by the investigators interviewees are generally interesting and readable. There’s an alternate history version of the early stages of the space race, a tale of a centaur doctor unknowingly being used to infect poor jokers in Kenya with AIDS, an private investigator and ace being hired by Orson Welles to look after Marylin Monroe and prevent the film they’re working on from being sabotaged.

This latter story provides the book’s highlight – the detective and Monroe have a relationship – she seems to have sex with any man she meets. Then Monroe betrays him to save her own life. And, because this is an alternate history universe, Marylin didn’t necessarily die like she did in reality.

Card Sharks was a bit of a disappointment, but that hasn’t been uncommon with the first books in Wild Cards‘s internal trilogies. It certainly won’t stop me reading on.

Review of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

7 September 2010 2 comments

I think the last time I tried to read 18th century literature was when I did (or was supposed to do) Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders at university. I found that book hard going, and nowhere near finished it. Gulliver’s Travels is a much more accessible and engaging book.

In it, Lemuel Gulliver, inveterate traveller (he keeps leaving his wife and family to go on hazardous voyages half-way around the world) journeys separately to four previously unknown civilisations: Lilliput, where all the inhabitants are a few inches tall, Brobdingnag, where the people are sixty feet tall, Laputa, where the men (not so much the women) are obsessed with science and philosophy, and the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent and noble horses.

The book was intended as a satire on society at the time and people in general. So, for instance, in Lilliput, human pettiness is highlighted: official Lilliputian doctrine states that eggs should be broken at the narrow end; the contrary ‘Big Endian’ practice is punishable by death. In Laputa (or one of the associated islands – I forget), scientists are paid to work on such projects as reconstituting food from excrement. In Brobdingnag, Gulliver offers to show the king the secret of gunpowder; when he explains what can be achieved with the black powder – muskets that fire lethal bullets, explosions that tear men to pieces etc – the king is horrified, just as a young child would be; Gulliver, however, can’t believe why the king would pass up a chance to gain dominance over neighbouring lands.

The land of the Houyhnhnms is populated not only with the sentient horses, but with the reprehensible Yahoos, creatures that are physiologically identical to humans, but without civilisation or anything but the basest rudiments of intelligence. Over the course of his stay in this land, Gulliver comes to despise and fear the Yahoos – probably more than the Houyhnhnms do – even though the only difference between him and them is his upbringing. Consequently, when he is forced to return home, he sees his fellow humans as similarly base and disgusting. After some years back home he is able to spend time with his wife in the same room, but not for very long and certainly not while she is eating.

The portrayal of human imperfection is probably not as amusing or as cutting as it was in Swift’s time, but it still works. Some of the ideas are pretty funny – and also thought-provoking. Is it right that humans should take pride in our military might? Or pleasure in our lumpy, blotchy flesh?

As a work of fantasy, Gulliver’s Travels doesn’t work as a story – because it isn’t a story: it’s four stories. And even then, none of these four have much in the way of plot other than Gulliver arriving, learning about the culture and leaving. For me, fantasy is the use of story to explore issues about power and morality. In this book, though, this exploration happens more through the agency of setting. World-building is a vital part of any fantasy book and Swift’s – predating by a long time any of the early modern fantasies like William Morris’s novels (let alone Tolkien) – is pretty solid; except from a scientific standpoint, the various lands visited all make sense (kind of) and support the satirical purpose of the book (although how the Houyhnhnms hold things between their hoof and pastern is rather far-fetched). It’s also refreshing to read a fantasy that doesn’t focus on the stock, quasi-Medieval Europe of many, many novels.

Gulliver’s Travels seems to be seen as a children’s book, but, while there’s a lot in here that would certainly amuse children, the political content of the stories would go way over most children’s heads. The grammar, too, while not at all that difficult an adult to get to grips with, would prove heavy going for younger readers; it’s full of long sentences broken up with colons and semi-colons. I think the orginal text would prove to trying and dry for most children. And then there’s the scene where Gulliver becomes a plaything of some Brobdingnagian maids-in-waiting who naked in front of him; at one point he is sat on one of the girls’ nipples.

All in all, a surprisingly entertaining book – or maybe not that surprising when you take into account that it’s been in print for nearly three hundred years.

Review of The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

21 August 2010 2 comments

A strange book. A short one, too. The first ten or so chapters are set out as individual, spaced paragraphs, each one starting with a bold title in line with the text. These paragraphs are linked, but they don’t read like the consecutive paragraphs of a conventional story. Each contains an idea or a scene. Each chapter functions (or is supposed to function) as a separate novel – but these novels are linked. They are about the same characters with the same preoccupations. One character, although he is the same throughout, changes name from chapter to chapter – Traven, Travers, Travis etc. The chapters, therefore, are very repetitive; they are modulations of the same idea. The last few chapters vary this form, but not by too much.

The subject of the book is at once extremely specific, yet disturbingly ambiguous. It is about the deaths of President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and others, it is about fatal car accidents, it is about sex, it is about the media. There is a lot of sex in this book – but there isn’t. Sex and death are presented, interpreted, recreated in the form of auto-crashes, in collections of photographs and other documents, in the angles of stairs and walls.

Where it works best, the book is about the maniacal and surreal investigations of Traven and his alter egos into the deaths of Kennedy, Monroe – and his own wife. He does this by staging their conceptual re-deaths; simulating – or perhaps achieving – the death of a female character. He is endlessly searching for meaning in the angle of a woman’s thighs, in the wrecks of American cars. These first ten or so chapters are a portrait of a man in the midst of a breakdown. His story is like a mirror, smashed and then inexpertly pieced back together.

The remaining few chapters don’t add much to this story (such as it is). One is entitled ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Raegan’ and describes the politician’s rabidly reactionary views spoken in his friendly, reassuring voice – a voice that deafens listeners to his meaning. Another later chapter portrays the assassination of President Kennedy as a motor race.

The copy I read (which I bought at a branch of Fopp for the pleasingly small sum of £3 a few years ago while at university) was padded out somewhat with annotation written by Ballard for a 1993 edition. Each chapter concludes with notes on the author’s inspiration and memories relating to the content of the text. He talks a little about his experience as a child in war-time China, its liberation by the Americans, his love of things American, his wife who – like the main character’s – died. These notes are a little distracting, but for the most part are interesting and provide a much needed context for the book. There is also an introduction written by William Burroughs.

In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages of War and Peace.

These words, written in the late 1960s, are scarily prophetic – just think of Basic Instinct. While The Atrocity Exhibition is bizarre, surreal, difficult, obscene, the above quote highlights the seriousness of its intent. It’s a satire of the fragmentation, mechanisation, sexualisation, trivialisation of modern society.

I’ve read a few J G Ballard books, and this is the first one I’ve read since his death a year or two ago. His earlier ones, like this, are not easy to read; his later ones, while taking similar topics, are much more conventional narratives. I think, with the benefit of greater age and maturity, I’m better able to appreciate works like The Atrocity Exhibition. Which isn’t to say I loved this book; I respect it greatly, but it is, nevertheless – by its very nature – cold and alienating.

What has always most intrigued me about Ballard is his interpretation of and position within the science fiction genre. As he wrote in his introduction to Crash – a novel that this one closly prefigures – he is not interested in the science fiction of outer space – laser guns and spaceships and the like – but in the science fiction of inner space – man’s relationship to techology and its effects. The Atrocity Exhibition demonstrates that interest in ways that are both crude and subtle.

Review of Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams

The fourth and final book in the Otherland series – and not a moment too soon.

In the first book, Renie Sulaweyo, !Xabbu, Orlando Gardiner, Sam Fredericks, Martine Desroubins, Paul Jonas and others find themselves trapped in a massive and massively realistic secret computer simulation called the Otherland network. Outside the network, a number of other people are caught up in its mystery. All of them are trying to find something – the truth about relatives who have become comatose after going on-line, the truth about their own lives, the truth about Otherland – or they are trying to use, subvert or bring down the network.

In a later book, the reader learns that Otherland is a kind of immortality machine, possibly powered in some way by the comatose children. At the end of the third book, Felix Jongleur, the network’s master becomes trapped along with the others and Orlando Gardiner dies.

In the fourth book, most, but not quite all, of the characters’ questions are answered. And it all has a happy ending that I think aimed to be bittersweet.

I read the first three books nearly consecutively and enjoyed them a lot, although by diminishing amounts. I waited a while before reading book four because I didn’t want Otherland fatigue. Unfortunately, that seems unavoidable.

The big problem with the series is its length. It consists of four long books and not enough really happens in much of that time. It’s almost as if Tad Williams had designed a certain number of the virtual worlds that make up the Otherland network and he was damned if he wasn’t going to squeeze them all into his series. Throughout the four books, the characters who are trapped inside Otherland are constantly travelling through world after world achieving little more than finding another virtual realm through which to journey. I think the series could have been completed in two books, and should have been no more than three.

In addition to all that, Williams’s writing is journeyman-like at best, so finishing the final book was a fairly pleasureless exercise. Especially at the end, it was full of infodump – long explanations of what had happened and why – mostly, perhaps exclusively, delivered by Sellars, a man with cybernetic implants that give him godlike powers to interact with and investigate the network. Sellars and !Xabbu’s infinite patience and good humour make them two pretty boring characters – who are absolutely crucial to the good guys’ efforts to achieve anything.

The revelations about the network’s true nature (when they are revealed by Sellars) make some sort of sense, but a lot of the set up of the characters’ dilemmas require a great suspension of disbelief. The idea that people can be trapped on-line, and put into permanent comas through simple VR equipment, the idea that the world’s wealthiest people could build such a network and then rent out space to a number of less wealthy but still rich people and keep it a complete secret, the true secret of the network’s power – it’s all too much to swallow.

I think if Tad Williams could write this series again, he may well choose to write it differently. In the first book, Renie is very much the central character, but by the end it turns out that the most important character is Sellars – he’s the one who seems to solve everyone’s problems.

In short, it’s not so much Otherland as Overlong.