I haven't read much SF since I was a teenage fan of Asimov. I'm a big fan of Iain Banks, so who better to introduce me to the modern form of the genre...moreI haven't read much SF since I was a teenage fan of Asimov. I'm a big fan of Iain Banks, so who better to introduce me to the modern form of the genre, especially when I've just finished the magnificent The Crow Road, which he must have been writing at the same time as Feersum Endjinn?
SF writers have always grumbled that they're not taken seriously by the literary world, and clearly they're trying to do something about it. I found the complexities of the plot tortuous to the point of bafflement, with the book slowly resolving itself into four main characters operating in different places, with storylines that don't come together till the very end. Each is in a different part of a completely alien future Earth – one that includes its own alternative reality – which makes it a struggle to keep track of what's going on and to identify which details are important to the plot and which are mere colouring. It doesn't help that Bacsule toks in weerd fonetick teckst speek & u ½ 2 konsentrate reel hard coz it goz on 4 payjiz an payjiz lyk dat.
As far as I can grasp it, the Earth is entering a dust cloud that will extinguish all life. Two factions are fighting for control of some power that might save the planet. At various times they can transport themselves into an alternative reality; one that is infecting the real reality and where time moves at about 1,000 times the speed of the real world.
Gadfium works for the king and is trying to decipher the messages from a mysterious plain of stones, which she thinks might be messages from an earlier race of humans who abandoned Earth centuries before. Count Sessine also works for the king but keeps getting assassinated and is pretty soon down to his last life as he tries to work out who keeps killing him and why. Asura has no idea who or what she is but is trying to find out. Bacsule has lost his pet ant Ergates and is trying to find him. One, many or all of them might hold the key to saving mankind and saving the reader from his utter confusion about what is going on.
What Bacsule calls the "feersum endjinn" isn't even mentioned till the last page, and how it works and exactly what it does isn't adequately explained even then, as if Banks had collapsed over the line, mentally exhausted, hoping his readers wouldn't think it mattered.
This is Iain M Banks (he uses the 'M' to distinguish his science fiction from his literary fiction), so the characterisation is brilliant, there is a subtle vein of humour running all the way through and the prose style is masterful. In anyone else's hands this story would have collapsed under its own weight, leaving the novel with as much structure as a bowl of porridge.
You've got to admire Banks for the feat of imagination that created this richly detailed world and for holding it together all the way to the end. Considering the complexities of the plot and the bizarre universe where it takes place, I'm amazed that I understood it at all, though it still needed an unsatisfactory passage at the end where one character explains to the whole world exactly what was going on. That's always a sign of failure in any novel. And two days after finishing it, I'm not sure I could explain to anyone exactly what it was all about. (less)
For a novel by a Booker Prize winner, Sweet Tooth seems, well, slight. McEwan seems to be cruising in third gear here, but then, McEwan in 3rd gear is...moreFor a novel by a Booker Prize winner, Sweet Tooth seems, well, slight. McEwan seems to be cruising in third gear here, but then, McEwan in 3rd gear is like an Aston Martin in 3rd gear: exuding easy class while leaving mere Ford Mondeos in its wake. So four stars it is.
The blurb advertises a novel of betrayal and subterfuge; what it doesn't say is that the author is as untrustworthy as anyone. The result is that what seems like a highly readable yet not especially gripping novel has layers of subterfuge and dishonesty that run through every character and extend to the author himself.
The story concerns Serena, who is recruited into MI5 in the early 1970s and finds herself in charge of funding an unwitting author, who is expected to produce work that will validate the West in its ideological struggle with the Soviets. This gives McEwan the chance to find an outlet for the outlines of books he's now never going to write. Fair enough, author Tom's debut From The Somerset Levels looks a bit too close to The Road by Cormac McCarthy for McEwan ever to publish it himself.
As the ending reveals, McEwan has been playing several games with the reader, all of which raise an appreciative chuckle. It's only then that the fundamental dishonesty of the book is revealed, with teases hidden away and lies usually having two levels. It's this that reinstates the fourth star that Sweet Tooth lost by being a thriller that is neither thrilling nor dangerous. (less)
It's difficult to see why such a grossly flawed book could have won such high praise. Sure, there's a decent story here, but the prose is pedestrian,...moreIt's difficult to see why such a grossly flawed book could have won such high praise. Sure, there's a decent story here, but the prose is pedestrian, the action is confusing and O'Brian is obsessed with the minutiae of 1800s maritime life to the exclusion of all else. He doesn't want to tell a story; he wants to show off his research. What's worse, he doesn't even want you to understand what he's writing because his baffling descriptions of how a sailing ship works are intended to show that he's cleverer than you. Being confusing isn't simply an error: it's intentional.
So there are some fascinating actions fought, but O'Brian skips over them so he can get back to the really important business of describing how the topgallants are lanyarded through the larboard fo'c'sle or some other such nonsense.
Characters are introduced by other characters talking about them, so we don't get to learn about their personality; we simply have it explained in a style befitting a school report. O'Brian is clearly an exponent of the 'tell-don't-show' school of writing, and his characterisation is shallow. One of the most important relationships in the novel - that between Aubrey and Dillon - goes sour for barely explained reasons, and the dramatic tension that this could have created is lost by Dillon simply being written out of the book without any resolution, as if the author realised he had an interesting human story developing and wanted to kill it before it got in the way of another few paragraphs about rigging.
The blurb on the back of my copy includes a tribute from Amanda Foreman, which is worth quoting because it describes what a book such as this should do but utterly fails to do:
His novels … embody the cruelty of battle, the comedy of men's lives, the uncertain fears that plague their lives; and yet, not far away, is the vision of an ideal existence.
This is staggering, because O'Brian deliberately fails to do any of these things. Had he bothered with them, then Master & Commander would have been a brilliant novel. Instead, it's frustratingly half-baked.(less)
The much-quoted first line about Jude's name neatly makes the point that Rosa Rankin-Gee is a good writer with a deft touch. Even if the book doesn't...moreThe much-quoted first line about Jude's name neatly makes the point that Rosa Rankin-Gee is a good writer with a deft touch. Even if the book doesn't live up to its potential, we're in for a good read. Sark rises out of the sea "like a soufflé"; 'The Last Kings of Sark" rises, but doesn't quite rise all the way. Three stars is a bit harsh, but it's a kind of compliment, because the writing hints at how much better Rankin-Gee's later books might be.
It's easy to concentrate on the flaws. Even if you didn't know the book started life as a novella, you'd soon guess. A few incidents seem to have found their way into the book because they really happened to the author, not because they add anything to the story, and so don't quite escape from memoir to fiction. The intensity of the narrative dissipates as the characters go their separate ways and the action moves to Paris, Le Havre and London. One senses that the publishers were keen to get the author's signature and publish the book, even if it wasn't quite ready.
But even if it doesn't quite come off, it's still a delightful read. Rankin-Gee's writing fulfils the promise of that opening line, and the confused yearning of post-adolescent, pre-adult emotions are beautifully portrayed. Some reviewers have criticised the way the characters aren't entirely fulfilled, but that's part of the charm, reflecting the immature outlook of the characters themselves, who love each other and yet don't quite understand each other. The reader's incomplete understanding mirrors that of the characters, making us empathise with them all the more.
One is left with a vivid and poignant sense of a time in life on the cusp of adulthood when the future beckons, and yet later seems seems to be nostalgically perfect.(less)
An infuriating ending knocks one star off what was a grimly humorous steampunk homage to Catch-22, although other readers might feel that the ending i...moreAn infuriating ending knocks one star off what was a grimly humorous steampunk homage to Catch-22, although other readers might feel that the ending is actually an affirmation of humanity that elevates the book to classic status. They're wrong of course, because I'm always right.
The story centres on an illegal war on a distant planet, with a human corporation intervening in a centuries-old conflict in order to grab land rights. The problems of supply and maintenance mean that the pilots are flying souped-up WWI aircraft, but that's fine because the technology level of the 'indigs' is medieval. But the pilots and ground crew are just starting to realise that something is wrong and that victory isn't just taking too long, it isn't going to happen at all. Quite possibly, they are all going to die on this wet, filthy, miserable planet. Appropriately, they are slowly going mad.
Sheehan does the grim humour well, just as Heller did in Catch-22, although he can't match Heller's dark, absurdist philosophy. Each character gets a sympathetic portrayal, even psychotic commander Ted, who, unlike Colonel Cathcart in Catch-22, is stressed to breaking point rather than blinded by his own pompous stupidity.
It's a well-written, well plotted book - I particularly liked the hisses and consonants of the indigs' language described as like "a wet cat being beaten with an abacus" - although it does meander a bit in the middle. It's just a shame about the ending.(less)
'Intermission' is a flight of fancy, based on legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans' lost months following the death, in a car crash, of his young bassist...more'Intermission' is a flight of fancy, based on legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans' lost months following the death, in a car crash, of his young bassist Scott LaFaro in June 1961. Martell imagines Evans staying with his brother Harry in New York, and then with his parents Harry Sr and Mary.
Each of Bill's family in turn watches him and thinks about him and reflects on their own lives. Little is said. Eventually Bill returns to New York to resume his career. And that's about it.
There's some excellent prose here, but there's no real substance. I lost a brother in a very similar way at a very similar age, and yet nothing in this book spoke to me on an emotional level. Evans' silence implies a deep grief, but Martell barely scratches the surface of it, concentrating instead on more mundane introspection of his family members. All three of them react similarly, and despite their different personal histories they think and express themselves in exactly the same ways. This can only be a failure of the novelist's craft.
There are no deep revelations about the human condition and no resolution of anything. The character arcs are almost completely flat. The real-life Evans sounds like a fascinating character, but there's no hint of that here.
This short book seems less like a novel and more like an exercise in novel-writing. One wonders why Martell bothered to write it at all.(less)
The internet is the curse of modern fiction. Why imagine anything when you can Google it? Too many novels are researched to within an inch of their li...moreThe internet is the curse of modern fiction. Why imagine anything when you can Google it? Too many novels are researched to within an inch of their lives, and they aren't better for it. You have to be patient with the early pages of 'She Rises' as Worsley gets her research out of the way, and you can almost see her ticking off the boxes on her 'List of Period Dialect Phrases I've Looked Up' and 'Research Notes on Visiting Harwich'. Once she does, the novel thankfully kicks into gear.
Louise is plucked away from churning butter in the manor house kitchen and into domestic service in Harwich, where she develops a strong bond with her young mistress - one that she doesn't understand but modern readers will, even without the heavy emphasis that's placed on the fact that Worsley was mentored by Sarah Waters.
She is also under orders to find out what happened to her brother Luke. We discover in a parallel narrative that Luke has been press-ganged and is serving on the HMS Essex, on its way to the Caribbean to fight in the War of Jenkins' Ear (which places the novel squarely in the year 1740).
It takes a long time for these narratives to come together (one prospective publisher apparently advised Worsley to slash the first quarter of the book, and I think they were right), but when they do the twist is staggering. (One reviewer said they saw it a mile off, but I'm usually quite good at spotting approaching plot twists and it caught me out.) The way the stories come together sends the novel off in another direction, again suggesting that the opening quarter should have been cut to avoid unbalancing the book, but by this time the reader is so caught up in the story of Luke and Louise that this flaw is easily forgiven. Also, the gradual build-up of tension makes the brief and not very graphic sex scences all the more erotic.
Some authors are one-trick ponies, but I think Kate Worsley might have an even better second book in her.Sarah Waters(less)
A quarter of the way through this book, I was ready to throw it across the room. I'm glad I didn't.
The charmless and self-obsessed David pursues Victo...moreA quarter of the way through this book, I was ready to throw it across the room. I'm glad I didn't.
The charmless and self-obsessed David pursues Victoria through the streets of Paris for four hours, forgetting about his daughter's birthday party and losing her present along the way. Rather than call the police, Victoria agrees to meet him in London, where they indulge in one of the most tedious conversations ever recorded between two human beings. They discuss architecture and politics, rather than comment on the only remarkable aspect of dinner: the fact that either their table keeps changing size or that Victoria has extendible arms, such that at one moment they can barely touch their fingers across the table and the next Victoria is able to spoon-feed David without leaving her seat.
David talks like a written submission to the general assembly of the Socialist Workers' Party, while Victoria's conversation resembles a press release from the Institute of Directors. David also tells her about his plans for houses on rails, whereby residents will wake up to find their next-door neighbours' barbecue outside their patio door while their lawnmower is now in their other neighbour's garden along with the kids' bicycles and the koi carp. For all her business acumen, Victoria fails to laugh out loud at this idiotic scheme, sealing their relationship.
By the end of dinner, each of them is so smitten at having found someone who can listen to them without chewing their leg off that they repair to David's hotel, where they rut like accountants for four hours.
…and then the story picks up, becoming an existentialist political thriller in the old French style. David's thoroughly dislikeable, self-obsessed, whining neuroticism carries us through a tale of sexual obsession that destroys both characters. It still falls down on the dialogue, which reads like carefully prepared statements, and on the implausibility of Victoria falling so heavily for someone as pompous as David. The running theme of David's corruption by Victoria's capitalist morals underpins the story, but this is balanced by his strange sexual dysfunction: he can't reach orgasm. Victoria represents the alluring corruption of capitalism: David finally achieves release at the moment he completely succumbs morally, and in that moment he becomes unable to save Victoria.
'The Victoria System' represents the dance between opposites in French political life: David is a builder and Victoria a destroyer, and the antagonism between left and right is actually what keeps both alive. In that sense 'The Victoria System' is a political allegory in the best tradition of Sartre and Camus. (less)
It's my first brush with Simenon, so I'm expecting this 1938 roman dur to be something a bit noir and a bit psychological: somewhere between Albert Ca...moreIt's my first brush with Simenon, so I'm expecting this 1938 roman dur to be something a bit noir and a bit psychological: somewhere between Albert Camus and Raymond Chandler. I was close on the first call: The Book With A Title Too Long To Quote In Full does seem to foreshadow Camus' The Stranger, but it quickly becomes clear that this is a satire, not a thriller. Time to reorganise those Goodreads shelves again.
When his boss tells Kees Popinga that the company, and thus Kees himself, is on the brink of ruin, the mild-mannered, responsible family man decides to shrug off all socially imposed conventions and do whatever he pleases. Step one is to abandon his family, step on a train and seduce his former boss's mistress. She has other ideas and laughs so hard that he leaves her gagged on her hotel bed and debunks to Paris. Unfortunately, he gags her too tight and she dies, leading to a manhunt through the streets of the French capital.
Simeonon has great fun puncturing Popinga's confused vanity: having declared that he is free from social conventions and the opinions of others, he then sits down and writes lengthy, self-justifying screeds to the newspapers complaining about how he has been misrepresented and misunderstood. In his new, 'free' life he is even more a slave to society's opinion than he ever was before.(less)
Joyce: genius or charlatan? Ulysses: greatest "novel of the 20th Century" (Anthony Burgess) or literary fraud?
You can back up any of these statements,...moreJoyce: genius or charlatan? Ulysses: greatest "novel of the 20th Century" (Anthony Burgess) or literary fraud?
You can back up any of these statements, but there is no question that Ulysses is one of the hardest books to read in the English language. At times it defies comprehension, and at times Joyce deliberately makes it more difficult than it needs to be. For instance, the last 60 pages, where Molly Bloom is finally heard giving her side of her husband's story, is rendered in a single, unpunctuated sentence. I can't think of a single justification for that, except to create a barrier between author and reader. This is Joyce getting self-conscious about his own genius.
But Joyce is a genius. It's impossible to write a book like Ulysses without genius. Joyce challenges our idea of narrative, meaning and the purpose of story-telling. The day-long odyssey of Bloom and Daedalus is a celebration of the heroism of the mundane, in an era when the admiration of traditional heroism had led the world into the cataclysm of World War I. Joyce's idea was taken up by a generation of authors, so even if Ulysses isn't a good novel, it's unquestionably a great one.
Oh, but it's hard work. It took Joyce seven years to write Ulysses, and anyone who truly wishes to understand it should take six months and possibly a year to read it. There are passages that defy comprehension, and Joyce challenges the reader to stay with him. Most of us can't. Some of the prose is poetically beautiful and points towards the modernist poetry of especially TS Eliot. In reading it, I felt I learned more about literature than I did about the human condition, and I can't say I enjoyed the experience, but I felt better for understanding it and even a bit sad for realising that I'll never reach those intellectual heights.(less)