Children's books are perhaps even more ephemeral than others. And those that survive are mostly because their reputations are mainly gained from nosta...moreChildren's books are perhaps even more ephemeral than others. And those that survive are mostly because their reputations are mainly gained from nostalgia rather than, say, literary merit - bearing in mind that writing for children is a different sort of skill. And that's largely true of The Phantom Tollbooth. It's merely a series of entertaining encounters making fun of the absurdities of the English language along with some sideswipes at numbers as well. It has very little to recommend itself to an adult reader who had not read it as a child (although the Humbug seems to become less and less ridiculous as you get older..!) But for those of us who read it at the right sort of age, and embraced the logical absurdity of Juster's world, it will never get old.(less)
I was already predisposed to like this book for various reasons. Firstly, I like "meta narratives" - books where the purported story you are reading i...moreI was already predisposed to like this book for various reasons. Firstly, I like "meta narratives" - books where the purported story you are reading isn't really the story at all; instead it is being told underneath, alongside or even outside the narrative, so here we not only get footnotes but also margin notes and even ephemera to add to the feel. Secondly, I like "stuff" - books where the physical object is as much a work of art as the content; the conceit that this is a 1950s library book is taken to almost perfect level. And thirdly, I like JJ Abrams' ambition - his tv shows are never less than fascinating, no matter how flawed or ultimately frustrating they end up.*
There's no point in recounting the details of S. - it somewhat defeats the object** and perhaps detracts from the overall effect. The basic conceit is hardly original - a translated text proving to be more complex than the translator imagined***, although the extra layer(s) of narrative imposed on top here is cleverly handled. And the production quality is glorious - a two-fingered salute to those who proclaim the death of the physical book by producing something that would lose an awful lot in an electronic form.****
In the end, I think it felt a bit too much like hard work. The puzzlebox nature of the book certainly works well, and there are moments when the bits suddenly fit together and you smile at the effort taken. But ultimately, I didn't care sufficiently for the characters to properly appreciate it as a novel. Even so, it gets four stars from me for doing everything else right.
* LOST probably being the canonical example*****, although I think that both Alias and Fringe are much better shows. ** And anyway, there is clearly no right answer here; every reader will probably have their own opinion as to the value and ordering of the "layers". *** Try The Athenian Murders for a really good example of this (especially since the English version has the meta-meta bonus of being a translation already!) **** Having said that, I can see that an annotated ebook ought to work quite well. But the electronic medium has different ways of doing fiction; it should be exploring them rather than revisiting print. ***** although I believe he didn't have much to do with the show beyond the basic premise, there may (or may not!) be links to it in S.(less)
(Add another star if you are an SF geek. You know who you are. Take one off if you think fantasy is for children. You know who you are.)
Every so often...more(Add another star if you are an SF geek. You know who you are. Take one off if you think fantasy is for children. You know who you are.)
Every so often you read a book and realise that the author wrote it just for you. Not for anyone else, just for you. Among Others is one of those books. It's a paean to all those of us who grew up without the slightest understanding or interest in the pop-culture trivia or sport that obsessed our peers, and instead read. A lot. Jo Walton doesn't bother to explain her references, she just assumes that you have read them too.
A beautiful character study that, whilst not being intricately plotted (indeed, it seems a little slapdash at times), sucks you in and keeps you interested. Sure, the school sections are a little shallow, but the bookclub is a joy and the diary format feels convincing. The fantastical elements are cleverly understated - to the point that even at the end you aren't entirely sure how "true" they are meant to be, which is unusual. I guess my only real complaint is that, with the exception of Miss Carroll the librarian (and, I suppose, Auntie Teg), the women are largely all horrible and the men are largely all ideal. Which may be intentional, of course, but it read oddly (to this man.)
But the real gem is the way she vividly recaptures a time when stumbling across a new title by a favourite author was an unexpected delight - hard to remember in these days of instant blogs and promotional campaigns on the sides of buses... (less)
Whilst it is increasingly difficult to class Pratchett's work as "humour" in the same sort of sense that "101 Uses for a Dead Cat" is humour, his dete...moreWhilst it is increasingly difficult to class Pratchett's work as "humour" in the same sort of sense that "101 Uses for a Dead Cat" is humour, his determination and commitment to satire is undiminished. And whilst none of the targets of Raising Steam are new within Discworld (we've had dwarvish politics/fundamentalist obsession/industrial revolution etc. often before), they fit together with the usual engineering quality that is a hallmark of the series and particularly appropriate to a story about controlling the world through measurement rather than faith.
The most striking thing about Raising Steam is the travelogue nature of the story. Most Discworld novels content themselves with one or two settings - even ones that are located in Ankh-Morpork are usually confined to specific places (like the University, the Opera House or the Bank.) Here, we revisit a lot of places that have appeared once or twice before (even if only in passing), and, combined with an alarming number of cameos from older characters (including HIMSELF), this gives a distinct sense that this is Pratchett perhaps saying his first proper goodbye to a world that no-one knows better than him.
The story itself is slight, but none the worse for that. And it gets an extra half-star from me because I am a lapsed train geek, so the engineering jokes and the railway movie references were all good fun (even if some of them were alarmingly unsubtle.) And I had more laugh-out-loud moments in this than I have for the last few of the series.
So no, objectively this is not one of the greatest in the series (although I think that it may well end up in my own personal top five simply because of the theme), but - as has been observed often before - even average Pratchett is better than the best of a lot of other people. (less)
What makes PG Wodehouse a genius is the ability he had of making what he wrote sound exactly as though he had just sat down at the desk and dashed it...moreWhat makes PG Wodehouse a genius is the ability he had of making what he wrote sound exactly as though he had just sat down at the desk and dashed it off - when, of course, he had slaved over every word and sentence to make it perfect. With Fortunately, the Milk, Neil Gaiman pulls off the same trick. It has a gloriously easy and assured style to it, with ideas bouncing around everywhere apparently at random, but underneath there is a beautifully structured and clever story that is (almost!) wasted on the children for whom it is ostensibly written. This is quite definitely a book for parents. Not even necessarily for parents to read to their children.
And what elevates this (UK edition) book into five-star status for me is the perfect union of Gaiman's text with Chris Riddell's cartoon illustrations (especially the section at the end where the characters who largely remain unnamed in the story acquire perfect matching identities.)
No, this isn't destined to be a classic Gaiman but it's oh so much fun.(less)
The current genre trend of urban fantasy crossed with police procedural gains another quality entry here. This is definitely quite a bit darker than I...moreThe current genre trend of urban fantasy crossed with police procedural gains another quality entry here. This is definitely quite a bit darker than I was expecting, but I suppose that's only natural when the set-up gets deeply entangled with drugs, guns and, ultimately, occult forces. Cornell does a good job making his central characters sufficiently unlikeable that they have space to grow without becoming too "nice" at any point (I particularly liked the way that the black characters weren't identified as such until it became relevant), and he uses the London setting to great advantage. I was impressed by his approach to religion and faith (something that has been a cornerstone of his work without ever being overstated) - the scene with the police chaplains is cleverly positive and negative at the same time; he makes it clear that the world he is painting contains supernatural forces but he doesn't provide easy solutions to them and yet he manages it without making the "official" representatives of faith look stupid.
I wasn't surprised to discover from his endnotes that it originally started out as a tv pitch; all I can say is that the commissioning editors were idiots to turn it down. (edit: and now I understand that it has finally been "optioned" for tv. Huzzah.)(less)
I want to give this one six stars. Not since I read The Eyre Affair have I felt so enthused about a book; Harkaway captures that peculiarly English fa...moreI want to give this one six stars. Not since I read The Eyre Affair have I felt so enthused about a book; Harkaway captures that peculiarly English fantasy humour sensibility of Fforde, Holt, Adams, Pratchett and Gaiman - a perfect blend of an intricate plot, engaging characters, terrific one-liners and clockwork bees. What's not to like?
Essentially, what Harkaway has done here is to write a steampunk novel that isn't - for once - set in Victorian England (despite the overt Dickensian nature of the prose), and combined it with a lovely pastiche of James Bond. That sounds like a mix that couldn't possibly work but somehow it does; perhaps because the inherent fantastical absurdity of Bond fits with the world Harkaway has created, but mostly because of the effort he takes to make the central characters feel both real and unreal at the same time.
Yes, it takes a bit of time to get used to the style (although the gags more than make up for that) and there are moments when you realise that he's running quite fast in the hope that you don't notice the thin ice, but it hangs together wonderfully. The best compliment I can pay this book is to say that Harkaway has joined that short list of writers I shall be buying sight unseen in future.(less)
Man, I hate trying to review books like this. Partly because the "star" rating I have given is completely unrepresentative: for me, the high concept i...moreMan, I hate trying to review books like this. Partly because the "star" rating I have given is completely unrepresentative: for me, the high concept is worth 5 stars, but the execution was average enough that I felt disappointed to the extent that it almost didn't work at all for me.
Let's start with the basics: this is a meta novel that uses an SF conceit to have fun with ideas around identity and free will. And I love meta novels because at heart I'm a gamer and that's what they are: puzzles and games that are disguised as prose. And I appreciate the effort that goes into constructing something like this - it's not even a case of starting at the resolution and working backwards, it requires a different sort of construction (and one in which, ironically, the characters cannot be allowed to break the structure because it is incredibly fragile, even as they comment about the structure...)
The fundamental problem for me is that Scalzi is writing at least three books here, but doesn't seem sure which one he would like the reader to take away from the experience. Is it the bad TV SciFi parody (mainly the first half), the meta-narrative philosophy (mainly the second half) or the ever-so-slightly-heavy-handed self-help mantra (the codas)?
Because none of them are quite strong enough to sustain the narrative on their own (oh, the even bigger irony of that) and when he tries to sneak in an ultra-ridiculous meta-meta-conceit, it almost made me abandon the whole thing (luckily that's only in a one page aside and it's very unclear to me why he didn't just cut the whole character involved anyway.)
In essence then, I definitely enjoyed the three separate books, but together they added up to less than the sum of their parts. And that's a shame.(less)
Time-travel - at least in the paradox-inducing non-linear form - is challenging to do well. You have to decide how you are going to handle the consequ...moreTime-travel - at least in the paradox-inducing non-linear form - is challenging to do well. You have to decide how you are going to handle the consequences of introducing a time-traveller at all, especially into recorded history, and you need to ensure that the incidents that occur "out of sequence" don't feel arbitrarily forced into the narrative, and you need to
In this entertaining alternate history novel (I guess you could call it Steampunk given the heavy Victoriana clockwork technology involved), Hodder decides to make the time-traveller a largely background character, making his appearances enjoyably unexpected and wonderfully bizarre - and yet all making a sort of sense by the end. He avoids dealing with the grandfather paradox almost entirely, despite specifically going out of his way to create one, much as most time-travel stories do. He doesn't quite make it work (a couple of the time-jump encounters do end up feeling clunky) but in general it is pretty smooth.
But his exploration of the butterfly effect: that a casual conversation in 1837 might be enough to transform the entire industrial revolution into something much more sinister, leads to a world that is genuinely fascinating, albeit extremely unpleasant in the details (although some of those details, like the avian messenger service, are pretty funny as well.) And Hodder has a great deal of fun using real historical characters in some very unexpected ways; whilst other authors have used Sir Richard Burton before - he's just too unreal to be true, but he is - the unexpected use of Algernon Swinburne, a poet who is largely overlooked today despite being well-regarded, makes for a genuinely well-matched partnership. I look forward to their future adventures.(less)
I find this one as funny today as when I first read it decades ago, and that was decades after it was originally written. Wodehouse is a master of the...moreI find this one as funny today as when I first read it decades ago, and that was decades after it was originally written. Wodehouse is a master of the farce plot, and this one combines his love of England and America in one beautiful package, in which it is clear that he understands the foibles of both societies perfectly. To new readers it will doubtless feel dated, but - as with many other things - the problem is mostly that inferior later copies have made a genuine original feel too much like pastiche. This may be my favourite "stand alone" Wodehouse.(less)
This is one of those books where a 3-star rating is a horrible compromise between the 1-star and 5-star ratings. There are really no "mediocre" bits i...moreThis is one of those books where a 3-star rating is a horrible compromise between the 1-star and 5-star ratings. There are really no "mediocre" bits in it - it's well written with a consistency of style that works (I like first-person narratives and this one is better than many), and all the characters have distinct voices (something that YA fiction seems to do better than more "grown-up" genre literature) but the premise is so utterly stupid that it beggars belief. I could just about buy into the idea that the event had happened three or four times before (maybe even at four-year intervals), but seventy-three?! One every single year?! Yeah, sure. And that's just scratching the surface of the absurdities which have been exhaustively explored elsewhere; the artificiality of the setting undermines some of the power.
Meanwhile the equally artificial moral dilemmas are skated over too easily - it's fairly clear where the author wants to take the overall story, and dealing with some of those issues in the first book of a series would probably have undermined her intent. (Having said that, there are a couple of moments that - in hindsight - are good bits of foreshadowing.) However, Lord of the Flies is a far better example of how this sort of thing should be done.
I did feel engaged enough to want to read the rest of the series (which disappointed me) but I am not rushing to read it again.(less)
As is often noted, short story anthologies are always hard to judge, because there will inevitably be some you like, some you don't and some you hate...moreAs is often noted, short story anthologies are always hard to judge, because there will inevitably be some you like, some you don't and some you hate - and each of us will differ as to which is which. I found more hits than misses in this collection, but not enough to make me want to recommend the book as a whole. There are basically three groups of stories here: the sideways looks at the canon (these worked best for me, especially things like the "Twisted Lips" and the "Concert Pianist"), the off-beat angles (as usual, Neil Gaiman supplies a gem, and the "Bone Headed League" made me laugh), and the stories that were just other detectives (the "Eyak Interpreter" was the most interesting of these because the format was well done.) On the whole, I could have done without the third category of stories, none of which really felt as though they belonged in the same collection with the first two types. (less)
This one is a tough call. Whilst I enjoyed it a lot, and it's certainly clear that Pratchett has settled into his new writing style well (some books b...moreThis one is a tough call. Whilst I enjoyed it a lot, and it's certainly clear that Pratchett has settled into his new writing style well (some books back I was seriously worried that his well-advertised condition was proving too much for him), there is also the growing sense that he is running out of places to go with his well-established characters. We lost Death a long time ago, and the Witches had to be diminished to a supporting cast for Tiffany, who has now come to the end of her story. In the end, I felt I learned nothing new about Sam Vimes this time out that I didn't know before I started. And whilst this is hardly a criticism - perhaps I am expecting too much - there was a distinct sense of retreading old ground; even the "goblin" story felt a bit too much like the "orcs" from Unseen Academicals. But the set-pieces are as good as ever - the Austen tea-party and the village face-off are fabulous, and the river sequence is more epic than anything we've really had before (harking right back to the apocalypse scenarios from early-mid period Discworld), and the running gags manage to stay the right side of funny.
As usual, even deja vu Pratchett is way better than pretty much everyone else.(less)
Any series of books that has reached #9 is one (or both) of two things: successful enough to have a readership base to sustain itself / intricate enou...moreAny series of books that has reached #9 is one (or both) of two things: successful enough to have a readership base to sustain itself / intricate enough to mean that new readers should absolutely not start here. Whilst I have no idea about the first condition (although I imagine it can't just be vanity publishing!), the second is most definitely true. Although the basic plot is sufficiently independent to be comprehensible to newcomers, the universe building is not explained at all, and several crucial parts of the dénouement do require background knowledge to understand.
Duane's Wizard series is very strange in one particular way - the first book was written nearly 30 years ago* but the timeline of the story is very compressed: only a couple of years have actually elapsed in "real" time. But she has been forced to make the technology upgrades that have transformed our life in the last few decades, which makes for a weird experience if you read the first one now. *I think that it was only the mid90s reprint that reawakened interest in the series and led to the new books though.
Still all that hardly matters. This is another solid entry in a generally pretty solid series, with some proper character development and tantalising hints of what is to come. The core story is a fine romp, albeit a tad predictable, and the resolution is satisfying even if Kit and Nita come across as being far too nice given what has gone before.
And the major loose end still dangling is nicely set-up for the next volume. Can't wait.(less)
It's always hard to read a book based around technology which is so clearly dated; you find yourself pausing to consider how silly it sounds today. Wh...moreIt's always hard to read a book based around technology which is so clearly dated; you find yourself pausing to consider how silly it sounds today. When I first read it twenty years ago it was a little ahead of the game and still sounded slightly old-fashioned; now it clearly isn't even that! But in the end that doesn't matter. What matters is whether the story is good, whether the characters are engaging, whether the writing works. And in all of those respects, it is still as good today as it was when I first read it. Sure, it is self-indulgent (which keeps it from a 5-star rating) and some of the plotting is a bit of a stretch, but the conceit is wonderful and the occasional twist catches you by surprise. It's also a fine meditation on theology - what it might truly mean to be God, what "all-powerful" and "all-knowing" might actually mean, and why those who try to limit God to the size of a human imagination are missing the whole point. (less)
A fun homage to 80s geek culture, combined with some nice riffs on the Hero's Journey. The only thing is that all the way through I was getting this d...moreA fun homage to 80s geek culture, combined with some nice riffs on the Hero's Journey. The only thing is that all the way through I was getting this distinct sense of deja vu - that I had read this book over a decade ago, when it was called Wyrm (by Mark Fabi.) Not in the sense of plagiarism, but in the basic structure and narrative style of the story, even down to the scattergun approach of dropping as many references as possible. Mind you, I didn't think this was a bad thing, given that Wyrm is one of my favourite books, so I was already predisposed to like this.
Apart from the opening sequence in which Cline tries to build a plausible alternate future world (that doesn't quite hang together although it is nicely dystopian), the story is pretty relentlessly focussed on the actions of our hero (and his trusty band of allies/sidekicks) in the online world which has become the escape valve for much of humanity in the future. There are a couple of excursions into the real world (including an admittedly excellent and tense sequence in the heart of the enemy camp) but these feel a little perfunctory. There are countless plot devices that are introduced almost from thin air - especially the one that enables the ending to work - and a little too much self-indulgent "research" on show (although at least a good proportion of the references shoe-horned in are left for the reader to appreciate.)
Indeed there is practically nothing here that isn't subordinate to plot. There is a minor element of character development for the hero, but it is mostly irrelevant as he doesn't really have much of a character to begin with. There are a couple of nice curve-ball moments relating to the other characters but they aren't quite as surprising as perhaps they should be. But in the end you aren't reading this for the characters or for emotional revelation. Like a good Hollywood Blockbuster (as opposed to, say, an arthouse/indie flick), you're here for the roller-coaster ride, and it's a good one.(less)
One of the great paintings of Western European art, the van Eyck portrait of the Anolfinis turns out, in the hands of Caola Hicks, to tell you everyth...moreOne of the great paintings of Western European art, the van Eyck portrait of the Anolfinis turns out, in the hands of Caola Hicks, to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about how Western Europe became the powerhouse of global civilisation. This is essentially two separate books - one on the symbols and meanings within the picture itself, and the other on the complex history of an important historical artefact. The approach of interleaving these two lines of thought in alternate chapters is hardly original but it works very well, with some good linking between the themes in each part. The discussion of aspects of the painting itself is fascinating - why the woman probably isn't pregnant, why the room is laid out the way it is, and so on. And, just like any other masterpiece, the painting is resistant to any sort of definitive explanation. Meanwhile the parallel story of the history of the picture is a reminder of just how fragile our culture is; how easily things get lost or destroyed and what a mistake it is to presume that they will survive even when in an apparently safe place.
The book is not perfect, but this is mostly because the author sadly died before she could finalise the manuscript. Her husband has done an excellent job of tidying up some of the loose ends, but there is still a feeling that a final polish was needed (there is perhaps a little too much repetition of information at times); this does not detract from what is a wonderfully accessible book about a fantastic piece of art.
Oh yes, and - of course, - the observation about how Mr Arnolfini looks just like Vladimir Putin is hard to forget once it has been made...(less)