I am, perhaps, one of the last five people on Earth to read this book. In case you, too, happen to be one of those five (and didn’t watch the movies),...moreI am, perhaps, one of the last five people on Earth to read this book. In case you, too, happen to be one of those five (and didn’t watch the movies), there are spoilers in this review.
I have some rather mixed feelings. First of all, there are things that Rowling does extremely well. On the other hand I’ve read better books by almost any metric. I’ve always been puzzled at the success of the Harry Potter series because it seems to be unsure of it’s intentions. In particular this book can’t seem to decide if it’s going to be a farcical slapstick comedy or a dark fantasy about a boy meeting his destiny in a dark lord.
Rowling knows her audience. This book speaks right to the heart of how pre-teens feel. Harry lives with the Dursley’s and they hate him and pick on him, then Harry gets to go to a magical place where he will become, not only a celebrity, but the hero. In fact the story reads like a laundry list of childhood fantasies. Harry seems to have a knack for finding amazing adventures. He wanders the halls at night, breaks the rules left and right, sneaks into the forbidden section of the library, drops some eaves, uncovers secrets and defeats puzzles that were designed to deter very powerful wizards.
I get the feeling that everybody else at Hogwarts lives a much duller life, mostly doing homework, being students, things like that. Harry, who is terrified of being sent back to live with the Dursley’s ignores the threat of expulsion and larks about all over the castle at any hour of the night — no mention is made of needing to sleep.
The behavior of Dumbledore, who is supposed to be very wise and powerful, seemed extremely irresponsible. We are led to believe, in the end, that he expected Harry, Ron and Hermione to go after the Stone and fight Voldemort… and he went to London anyway. To be fair his character is more than a little bit of a loon as his speeches and other interactions suggest. In fact it seems like a charge of negligence could be leveled at any of the teachers at the school except for Snape, who is the only one who holds the children to any kind of standards (and we are told to despise him for doing so). Harry and friends get caught running around at night and their punishment — determined by McGonagall — is to do detention with Hagrid in the Forbidden Forest which is off-limits to students because it is too dangerous. “For not going to bed you must go swimming in eel infested waters.”
The world the Dursley’s live in feels like a strange shadow of our world, like a reflection on clouded glass where the characters of Roald Dahl and Douglas Adams come face to face with trying to be taken seriously. This is in sharp contrast to the focused depth of the magical world where everything feels crisp and real and slightly off kilter — but sensical.
I think my biggest problem with the book is Harry’s quiet arrogance about himself and his friends. In the beginning of the book we hear nothing about anybody Harry knows except how stupid they are — mostly because they pick on Harry. When he gets to Hogwarts he immediately decides who the villain is based simply on the fact that Snape doesn’t like Harry, therefore Snape must be evil. Hermione actually wants to learn something and take her new opportunity seriously and so she is dismissed as a nuisance, until Harry realizes that he’s offended her and she might actually be useful after all.
Finally, the ending. I had a hard time with this. After defeating a series of troublingly simple obstacles Harry walks into a room and confronts Voldemort. Voldemort, it turns out, can’t hurt Harry because Harry’s mother loved him. That’s it. Apparently Harry’s mother loved him so much more than any of the mothers of all the other people Voldemort killed, including Harry’s own parents (and doesn’t Harry have any grandparents?), that it makes all the difference. In fact it was so powerful that Harry, as a baby, obliterated Voldemort’s body and left him decimated and weak. I get the message, here. Love is the greatest thing — except maybe a nice BLT. But did Voldemort only pick on orphans before he tried to kill Harry? Why didn’t anybody else destroy him with a hug of burning love?
I enjoyed the book. There are things that don’t make sense but I can understand how people might ignore them — I staunchly ignore any questions that arise about Star Wars because I still want to love it –, sometimes it’s more fun to just go with it. I will read the next one, but not right away.(less)
Halfway through this book I determined to surprise everybody, including myself and be completely positive about this book.
After all many of my previou...moreHalfway through this book I determined to surprise everybody, including myself and be completely positive about this book.
After all many of my previous problems have been dealt with. Snape proves himself to actually be vindictive this time rather than just acting responsibly and getting labeled by the story heroes. Harry and Ron have mostly grown out of their inability to follow direction or obey rules. (Until Harry starts running off to Hogsmeade despite apparent death threats — this happens after the halfway point of which I spoke.)
There are the silly excuses for Harry not being punished when he blew up his aunt — which would have ended the series in the first couple of chapters, or taken it in a fascinating new direction that could have been very interesting — and the fake tension of Sirius Black escaping from Azkaban. There’s also the complete lack of disregard for children’s safety that seems to permeate every aspect of the series, from the Quidditch games to the Dementors guarding the school (seriously, I though letting children fly around at ridiculous heights with no safety harness was irresponsible, I’d like to know who thought that having the Nazgul wander around the local school grounds was a good idea).
I decided to let those things slide, they’re just inherent parts of the story being told. The irresponsibility of the adults is part of the… charm, I guess you could call it.
Then I got to the one part of the story that completely ruins everything. As soon as you introduce time travel into a story you have to rethink the entire story and what is going on. You have to remove your own mind from it’s locked-in fourth dimensional linear time perception and look at time from above, seeing the whole picture. That isn’t possible, by the way. Very few time travel stories work and that’s because they establish very firm rules for how and why and when time travel works.
The problem with this one is that now we know that this world has the ability to travel in time. It may only be for a few hours and there are limitations but the entire plot of the series no longer works.
All the ministry needed to do, all those years ago was wait for Voldemort to strike somewhere, turn back the clock a couple hours and then be there waiting for him. The attack that killed the Potters and most of the bad history of the world would not have happened. I know there’s a throw away line about the time turner being dangerous and terrible things can happen to wizards who time travel but if that’s really the case then why did they give the power to a thirteen year old girl, however responsible and trustworthy she might be.
Most of the story fell apart at that point. Not just for the book but for all the books. This is a fatal flaw, one that needed to be thought out more cleverly.
There are some really good things in this book, too, that try really hard to cast smoke and mirrors on the giant hole that is the plot and the sleight of hand almost works. Snape has finally descended to the ranks of the nasty, Professor Lupin is the first competent Dark Arts teacher we’ve seen (which isn’t saying much) and is a genuinely likable person. I actually wanted him to continue at Hogwarts at the end — of course he can’t because these books are about Harry not having any adult support except from Dumbledore who mutters asinine cryptic phrases in the place of wisdom in an attempt to keep from ever doing anything himself.
This brings up something else I’m wondering. Who hires the idiots that teach at this school? Presumably Dumbledore, being the headmaster, is at least in on the discussion. However we end up with confused hacks like Trelawney who, admitted by Dumbledore, has only been correct twice and one of those times during the course of the novel — why was she hired for the job? Or the bumbling, Dark Lord sycophant and the arrogant fraud that taught the Dark Arts class in the last two books.
I’ll get back to good things.
Harry’s inability to think of memories that make him truly happy is quite sad, especially coming from the family that he lives with. The Dursley’s are comical and slapstick cartoon characters but they would be a horror to live with and that fact is made poignantly apparent when Harry realizes that Sirius Black might take him away from them. When this becomes impossible and his only true adult friend is driven away because of politics at the end his despair becomes palpable. These are real emotions that Rowling has built up to with panache.
The plot, story, characters, and writing seem to improve with each volume to the point that the books seem to be growing up with the characters (and readers, many of them) which I think may have been a small part of their popularity. Many of Harry’s thoughts echo those of every preteen, even ones raised in loving families.
I’ll stop there before I talk about the undue embarrassment caused by the shrieking letters and the blatant expectation that children who are shy or introverted are somehow less than those that are confident and comfortable, or how…
I’m done. You’ve probably already read it, so you know if you love it or not. This was by far my favorite of the series so far — despite my complaints it was leaps above the previous two books.(less)
I have recently discovered that the reviews that I write about the Harry Potter books are seen as negative and I guess that’s a fair judgement to make...moreI have recently discovered that the reviews that I write about the Harry Potter books are seen as negative and I guess that’s a fair judgement to make. There are a lot of things to be negative about. One of my favorite things about reading anything is thinking critically about the messages and portrayals that are present. One of the unfortunate problems with that is that having discussion about those things usually doesn’t work. Either people are not interested or they haven’t read the book.
With Harry Potter I find that people are almost alway interested and if they haven’t read the book by this point… well, I think the statute of limitations has passed.
What this means is that I can discuss all my feelings about these books without prejudice (as far as that is possible) without spoiling anything for anybody.
That said, if I don’t like a book I don’t read the sequels. If a book is bad enough I won’t finish it — though I can count the times that has happened on one hand, I’m pretty tenacious.
I like the Harry Potter books, so far. Rowling has a voice that is witty and sarcastic while also being succinct and interesting. The books feel like they should be read aloud, the narrator is so present that she frequently seems to be physical.
It is impossible to pin down what has made these books (or any books) so successful. I suspect that any attempt to ascribe one aspect of the writing to their popularity would be false. It is many things in congress that make the whole. The voice is definitely one of those things. As well are the memorable characters who are almost universally interesting even in their cliches, if only for their names.
The plot and setting and especially the character names in these books are decidedly Dickensian which lends a great deal to the feel of the books. The man who turns into a dog is named Sirius, the woman who becomes an insect is named Skeeter, etc., the largest proponents of evil are named Malfoy, the list of symbolic and literal names is almost endless. The setting is an English boarding school which was almost defined as a literary backdrop by Dickens and the continual mistreatment and vindication by differing parties of Harry Potter resonates very well with Dickens model of Victorian literature.
Rowling also captures the angst, distress and confusion of being fourteen spectacularly.
Harry, in this fourth volume, has become a likable character, showing some restraint and genuine empathy for others rather than the arrogant self-centeredness of the early novels. He still maintains an ugly penchant to judge others on first impressions and an inability to stop snooping around in things that are really beyond his demesne — which is why there is a story — a book about Neville wouldn’t be nearly so interesting.
Ron, on the other hand has become much less likable, coming off as selfish and uncaring most of the time and downright rude on occasion. He is also completely unable (along with everybody else) to see the slavery of house elves as a bad thing.
Hermione struggles to start a movement to free the house elves, one which every other person is completely ambivalent about, including Harry Potter (who should be sensitive to such things having been enslaved in all but name his entire childhood). At first I was hoping that this was an introduction by Rowling of some darker elements into the story, a bit of morality to ask some questions and give the reader something to think about. The problem is that there is nothing to think about. Perhaps this is because I have lived in a world where slavery is not just wrong but one of the darkest kinds of evils but I find I am wholly in agreement with Hermione on this subject. Slavery is wrong. There is no gray area here. It doesn’t matter if house elves like being slaves. Rowling didn’t introduce a morally gray discussion point, she made all of her wizards — good and bad alike — into slavers.
Hermione, in fact, seems to have become not only the voice of exposition but the voice of reason in the triptych that makes up the main cast. She is constantly pointing out to Harry and Ron why Snape could not have been the bad guy, yet again. (After three plus years of blaming everything on him and being wrong every year you’d think they would get over it.) She is also the one who eliminates the easy explanations for mysteries. She is always spouting out plot convenient excuses why electronics won’t work at Hogwarts or why that spell can’t be done in this case.
Despite Hermione’s best efforts (can you tell that she is the one that I identify with the most) Snape and Malfoy are still regarded with suspicion with the added red herring of one of Snape’s old Deatheater buddies. All in an attempt to turn the reader away from the obvious mastermind behind everything.
Rowling is fascinatingly fluid in her prose style and powerfully communicates a variety of emotions and grand schemes. The depth of the plots seem to be lacking, however.
I’ve had problems with the plots of each of the books. The most egregious being the Prisoner of Azkaban which had a world-breaking introduction of consequentless time travel. This book follows that tradition by having Voldemort implement a plan to waylay Harry Potter that is so needlessly convoluted that it borders on mustache-twirling villainy (I know he’s supposed to be a villain, but he’s the dark lord not Boris and Natasha — the kidnapping scheme that he perpetrates with the help of Crouch Jr. disguised as Moody feels like it belongs in an episode of Rocky and Bulwinkle). The plan only worked out of sheer chance, and because Dumbledore is the idiot who happens to be the best player on Voldemort’s team. If Crouch Jr. could make a port key out of an object why didn’t he just use one of Harry’s items, like the Marauder’s Map, for instance? The book and showdown could have ended in the first month of classes without any of the key Deatheaters experiencing any more danger than they did already.
In fact, one of the most glaring problems with the plot (Voldemort’s not Rowling’s — though technically they are both Rowling’s) is that Harry is almost completely helpless by himself. I suspect this is on purpose. It is through his friends that Harry succeeds at everything he does. This is in stark contrast to Voldemort who is also helpless without his vast array of Deatheaters who miraculously survived prosecution and succeeded into places of power while awaiting his return. The clever bit of contrast here is that Harry knows and understands that and depends on his friends to be there and help him. Voldemort intimidates and frightens his friends until he grinds them into dust. However, if Harry had not had help from Cedric in the final task of the Tournament, even with Crouch Jr. keeping him from facing the worst of the maze, he would not have even made it to the port key that was set up for him. Voldemort’s plan, Crouch’s plan, only worked because Harry had tremendous friends and an ability to inspire kindness and friendship in others.
I think as a message to readers this is brilliant. You can’t do everything on your own. Even if you are amazing. The way it works in the story — is a little farfetched.
I applaud Rowling for dealing with some of the emotional trauma that comes with the experiences these children are going through. I especially like that it is Harry’s being nice to Cedric and helping him that gets Cedric killed. The followup to the climax where Harry has to deal with his grief and survivor’s guilt over Cedric’s death is succinct but poignant.
The foreshadowing and misdirection are clumsy at best, almost always flagging themselves as such with an audible dun-dun-dunnn in true 1920’s radio drama fashion. Foreshadowing is hard, though, especially if you want it done subtly (which you usually do) and few authors can pull it off convincingly without hanging a flag on it.
The story feels disjointed in places because each chapter seems to focus on individual crises, one after the other (like ‘who will I ask to the ball?’) but the themes of jealousy and revenge are well-played strongly enough and the teenage turmoil of emotion resonates strongly enough that those things are overcome. Rowling has also improved in her prose style as an author. She will probably never be considered a great wordsmith but that’s not the point of these books — most books that are crafted that carefully lack any entertainment value and exist rather as exposition piece than as storytelling. The result is that among the choppy pacing and the clumsy foreshadowing and obvious red herring the story is never dull and hums along quite nicely.
Harry has the distinction of always being in just the right place to get in on the mystery/trouble/action. It happens often enough that it begins to feel contrived. This is a problem more of the limited viewpoint than of the book itself but it is noticeable.
I would like to reiterate that I like this book. It is a grand adventure and deals with some very poignant emotions in the three main cast members as well as touching on some of the troubles and emotional scars of side characters. As a work of fiction it is an excellent example of adventure.
I have mentioned multiple times that Rowling’s wizard world seems more real than her real world. I think that is part of the appeal of the stories. Harry comes from some kind of fairy tale bad place where he is kept under the stairs, mistreated and belittled in an almost comical and slapstick kind of way that cleverly draws attention away from the darker aspects of Harry’s childhood. (In many ways this is just another aspect of the Dickensian story being told. Abusive family life of young orphans is a trope that Dickens practically created. Going to boarding school to escape is just the next step.) Rowling gives a reason why Dumbledore left him with abusive step parents — apparently Voldemort can’t get to him if he lives with family — but leaving a child unprotected in that kind of situation seems untenably careless. Dumbledore, in fact, continually spouts bits of wisdom without ever putting himself into any danger or actually doing anything useful. He has proven himself completely incompetent as an administrator or a leader. He hired Quirrel and Lockhart one after the other and his choice to bring in Moody and Lupin backfired spectacularly in both cases. Even his choice to hire Hagrid is inspired in it’s ineptitude to do anything for the education of the students. (Hagrid is a wonderful person but he is a terrible teacher, as evidenced by the quality of the class provided by his substitute when he was unwilling to teach temporarily.)
Wizards seem unable to enact basic laws of human decency, having no consequences for slander or outright falsification of facts in news reporters. Rita Skeeter slanders her way through the book until Hermione puts her in a jar — another act which should have some consequences, kidnapping, even somebody as slimy as Skeeter, is a horrible crime.
Hermione, in this book, suddenly has large front teeth and she shrinks them in an attempt to improve her looks. Upon discovering this Harry and Ron suddenly realize that she’s a girl — because they aren’t superficial at all — and ask her to the ball. I have been thinking for several weeks about how I feel about this. On the one hand it seems perfectly reasonable behavior on the parts of Hermione and the boys. Teenagers are superficial by nature. Hermione would be self-conscious of her appearance. These are all real things. I also feel disappointed that Hermione would feel that way. She should know that she can fit in regardless of the size of her teeth — and what if she would have grown into the teeth, now she will have teeth that are too small causing no end of dental problems as an adult.
Finally, Quidditch is boring to read about. Waiting for a Quidditch match to start is even more boring to read about. The first hundred pages are a drag. This realization came as a shock to me. Quidditch is one of my favorite parts of the movies. In a visual medium it is fascinating, on the page it becomes tedious and yet another sports scene.
That is why I am happy to say that after the initial hundred pages this book is entirely devoid of Quidditch.
In conclusion I thought this book was the best of the ones I have read. Each one has gotten better as the series progresses. The movies have given me the impression that this is the high point of the series but I’m looking forward to reading the rest of them.(less)
Daniel Abraham is a local author that I have been aware of for a while but never read any of his work. I knew about him because his name appeared in a...moreDaniel Abraham is a local author that I have been aware of for a while but never read any of his work. I knew about him because his name appeared in anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. He also coauthored short stories with Walter Jon Williams, Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin. With that kind of a resume I expected anything that he wrote to be somewhere in the excellent range. After all, if George R. R. Martin and Walter Jon Williams (also local authors) think your good enough... not to mention Gardner Dozois – inarguably the greatest science fiction and fantasy editor still alive.
After many years of honing his skills on the short story he came out with a debut novel, the first of a planned quartet. The book came with some of the highest praise from authors and critics alike. Nobody could say anything bad about Daniel Abraham.
Unfortunately, despite all the praise, Daniel Abraham remained a secret to the world – his books were almost unfindable.
I finally obtained a copy and read the first book in the series. A Shadow in Summer is possibly the most beautiful story I have ever read. There is a plot, there is a beautiful setting, there is some of the most fantastical prose that I have ever encountered but all of this pales next to the vivid characters and their individual struggles.
The summer countries are ruled by the Khaiem and maintain their power and economic flourishing with the use of Andat. The Andat are ideas made flesh by the complicated descriptions given them by the poets. Heshai, the poet of Saraykeht has created the Andat Seedless, or 'Removing the Part That Continues'.
Seedless wants to be free so he conspires with Marchat Wilsin, a noble from a less advanced country living in Saraykeht, to create a scandal that will destroy Heshai emotionally and cause the poet to let the Andat go. They plan to force Heshai to use Seedless to abort a child from an unsuspecting young mother – without the girl or the poet knowing fully what is happening until it's too late.
The result will be that Saraykeht will no longer hold the monopoly on cotton, as they will no longer be able to remove the seeds effortlessly and the other nations need not fear them.
This is the plot of the book. The story is much different.
Amat is the personal aid and accountant of Marchat Wilsin, aging and crippled she refuses to take part in the plot and flees into the city to try and make her way while Wilsin's men search for her to kill her. Amat is brilliant and devious but lacks any physical strength and must use her wits not only to survive but also to put together evidence of Wilsin's betrayal to take before the Khai.
Liat is Amat's apprentice, left behind, young and naïve, she acts as Wilsin's agent. Liat does not suspect anything about the plot to destroy Heshai, she thinks she is simply doing her job and trying, desperately to fit into Amat's shoes.
Maati is the poet's apprentice. He has survived the poets school in the far north and has been sent to learn how to be a poet so that when Heshai becomes too old Maati will be capable to describing Seedless in a new way (it only works if it is completely new, which makes it harder with each generation) and accepting the burden of the Andat.
Otah is the youngest son of the Khai Machi. His only choice as the youngest was either death or to become a poet. Instead he left the poet school behind and changed his name, becoming a laborer in Saraykeht.
A Shadow in Summer is about these characters and the things they do and the ways they think. The events of the plot happen around them, some of them are involved directly, some of them observe what is going on in their city. They act and react in a tapestry of life that feels as real as documented fact.
Liat is consumed with guilt when the result of Wilsin's and Seedless's plan becomes clear. She feels that it is her fault. Amat fanatically pursues justice for her former employer, not out of vengeance but out of a profound sense of patriotism toward her own country. Maati tries nobly to make up for Heshai's shortcomings and to learn from an under-devoted teacher. Otah just wants his simple life, but when he is recognized by Maati he is thrust back into the world of cruelty and depression that the poets live in.
Seedless, meanwhile, is devious and conniving. He is truthful in just he right places to be deceptive. Nobody trusts him but he is able to wheedle and pry information from them anyway. He just wants to be free, but his desire to be free is so consuming that he is willing to do horrible things to any number of people to get what he wants.
Daniel Abraham keeps the story moving at a quick pace throughout. His characters are as real as any I have ever encountered and his descriptions of their feelings are so personal that they become your own. His prose is astonishing. Every word feels like a small piece of a symphony, slowly unfolding until the whole is one great masterwork of beauty and grace. I have never experienced writing so well crafted and honed, every phrase and sentence and paragraph feels lovingly built and chosen to form a noble choreography of words.
In short A Shadow in Summer completely blew me away. Daniel Abraham is one of the greatest authors to write fantasy in a very long time. I can't wait to read his next book.
Some books are important. This is an inarguable fact. Like bacon and ice cream (not necessarily together – though I have done that). Not all important...moreSome books are important. This is an inarguable fact. Like bacon and ice cream (not necessarily together – though I have done that). Not all important books are popular. For example, Moby Dick was one of the least liked books when it was released – critics hated and nobody bought it. Fast forward a hundred years and we have Star Trek that can’t seem to go for more than fifteen minutes without quoting from it – apparently it becomes even more popular in the future.
Snow Crash is one of those popular books that is also important – or an important book that is also popular. Its importance isn’t immediately clear without context. Much of our current Internet technology has been inspired by the technology in this book. Perhaps as a sign of its importance to the programming nerds almost every business in America has a domain server named Snow Crash.
I’ve observed something else about this book.
People love mediocrity. The biggest movie ever made (disregarding inflation) is Avatar – a study in average story telling with mediocre writing and good-enough acting (but truly powerful special effects so I guess it had something). Last year’s summer blockbuster was Transformers 2 – a decidedly less than mediocre movie (I hold that this is the worst movie ever made but I don’t have time to get into that). Harry Potter and Twilight completely destroyed previous book sales records, Eragon succeeded by lifting whole scenes out of other fantasy stories, the new Hunger Games books have recently become a phenomenon by retelling a story that’s been told in science fiction until it seems cliché.
In fact seldom does something that is truly excellent catch the public attention and hold it. There are thousands (millions?) of Firefly fans that discovered the show was brilliant too late to save it from being cancelled after only 11 episodes.
Of course there are exceptions. The original E.T. (I know nobody likes this movie anymore) is one of the greatest movies ever filmed – every shot is from the point of view of a child, the writing and acting and direction are near perfect – and it spent nearly a year as the number one movie in America when it was released. The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular series of books ever printed.
The books and shows and movies that get the most attention seem to be, more often than not, truly unexceptional.
Unfortunately the exceptions to this rule of media mediocrity can fall in the other direction as well. Sometimes something truly horrible becomes popular and shakes my faith in the good judgment of the common man. I offer for an example the more than $400 million dollars that Transformers 2 made last year.
Alas, such was Snow Crash. Nothing in this book inspires the reader to keep reading. It alternates between silly, boring and textbook while never trying very hard to actually accomplish anything other than sacrifice abstruse phrases on the altar of prose.
The main character is named Hiro Protagonist – really – and he is not only the most brilliant hacker the world has ever known but he is also the worlds greatest sword fighter and carries his katanas everywhere. If that doesn’t sound too bad don’t worry, it gets worse.
The story is constantly being brought to a halt by pages of explanations and descriptions of technology, the companies that control and develop them, the reason for their invention, who invented them, what they are capable of, etc. Hardly a page goes by without this kind of blatant lecture on made-up technology. But it doesn’t stop there. Every time a number is mentioned which happens to be a power of two (2,4,8,16,32, etc) that fact has to be pointed out in the text. I kept thinking that it must be really important at some point for us to understand 2 to the nth power but it never had any bearing on the story.
At the end all the technology discussed in such detail gets used in reverse order in a couple of pages – almost like the author was purposely going back down a list to justify all the pages of banal explanation he provided earlier.
Neal Stephenson obviously did mountains of research for this book, which in this case is a bad thing. It seems after all that research he felt like he had to put all of it in his book, in order to justify the time he spent. The middle three quarters of the book read like a compendium of research on Sumerian culture – which it is, and it’s quite interesting – the book needs to be two separate books, one about the research, one about the story. Or he could do like Tolkien did and put it all in an appendix or four.
The things that Neal Stephenson does in this book are groundbreaking. Before the Internet existed he imagined a world where people communicated through the Internet – he even got the name right – using virtual reality goggles, and custom designed avatars – in fact he was the first person to use the term ‘avatar’ to refer to a computer character counterpart. This is one of the few books that I’ve ever read that accurately portrays programming and computer interactions.
The prose struggles to be clever by using twisty phrases but fails by being over long and boring. Also, did I mention that this is confusing? I don’t know if this is a prerequisite of all cyberpunk but all of it that I’ve encountered feels like this. I never know what is going on.
I can’t really recommend this book. It has obviously had its mark on society – hence the plethora of servers named Snow Crash – but in the end it fails as entertainment, which is its intended purpose. The theories that it proposes for the Babel effect – Infocalypse in the jargon of the book – are interesting to think about but hardly worth the effort of dragging yourself through this opus of purple prose.(less)
From the first lines of this achingly beautiful story to the last Carlos Ruiz Zafon has written a novel that is both haunting and powerful.
It begins w...moreFrom the first lines of this achingly beautiful story to the last Carlos Ruiz Zafon has written a novel that is both haunting and powerful.
It begins with a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in 1940’s Barcelona where young Daniel Sempere discovers a work of heartbreaking genius, The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax. Desperate, in that obsessive way of all young fans, to have more he seeks out Carax’s other works only to discover that there are none. They have all been destroyed
Over the next ten years he embarks on an adventure of discovery to find the truth behind those missing books and the powerful drama that took place in the past.
Through it all the reader is swept along the streets of Barcelona to visit it’s beauty and grandeur with such descriptions as will leave you aching to go there and see it. I rarely do this but examples are necessary. From the first paragraph:
“It was the early summer of 1945, and we walked through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies as dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Monica in a wreath of liquid copper.”
“The city is a sorceress, you know, Daniel? It gets under your skin and steals your soul without you knowing it…”
Just flipping through this book I find passages of surpassing elegance on nearly every page. I can’t help but wonder if this is the power of Zafon’s own prose or the great skill of the translator, Lucia Graves.
Whatever the cause the exquisite prose is merely set dressing for the story that it contains. Daniel Sempere and his friends embark on a quest (metaphorically, they never actually leave Barcelona) of discovery and while they are searching out the mysterious past of the great unknown author, Julian Carax, they discover things about themselves along the way that are both terrifying and emotionally sweet.
I find it hard to talk about this book because any words I might use are inadequate in describing how it makes me feel. I can say that there have been only two other authors who have shown me this same kind of heartbreaking love for the setting (Richard Adams and Khaled Husseini) and only a handful of books that have gripped me, heart and soul in this manner until I was carried away. It’s as if, by opening the book you start down that path that Bilbo is always talking about and you never know where you might be swept off to. In this case, it’s fantastic and powerful and will grab you by the throat and drag you along cobbled streets teaming with life and sound and love and mystery.
It is partly a mystery, partly pure horror and partly a romance between the author and Barcelona as well as two of the characters. Its heart, however, is a love song to books.
“Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.”
“Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return.”
Zafon is among the best writers and will leave you heartbroken and rejoicing by the ending of this fabulous and gratifying work of imagination and splendor.(less)
So I finally decided I would see what everybody was so excited about.
I read it. I don’t really know what to say about it.
Austen is definitely skilled...moreSo I finally decided I would see what everybody was so excited about.
I read it. I don’t really know what to say about it.
Austen is definitely skilled with the words. She has a particular talent at concise language that communicates a significant amount very quickly. This is unusual for somebody writing in her time period. She has a firm grasp of characters and makes them each different enough that they seem realistic.
My problems with this book, and Jane Austen’s writing in particular, are somewhat more to do with content. First of all she was unable to convince me that there was any reason that I should care about anything that was going on. Most of it was just gossip. The beginning is so abrupt that it feels as though the Bennett family, and in fact the whole of England, just popped into existence as the first famous words were being penned. It felt as though the Bennett family was suddenly set down in the middle of England like pieces on an Olympian game board and then Austen said “Go.” None of them seem to exist prior to the beginning statement that all women want to marry a rich man. It’s as if by stating such in the opening paragraph Austen programmed the brains of all the characters to think of nothing else for the duration of the book. It begins and ends with no other thought on anybody’s mind.
I do have to say that Elizabeth’s father is probably the most rational character in the whole farce. I think he and I would have been tight.
My other complaint is one of a more general contempt for the society of which Austen seems so fascinated. The British aristocracy of that time period was one of the laziest and most ignorant groups of people that have every existed. They spent their time complaining about their poor prospects and their lack of wealth while depending on cooks and servants to do all their work for them, all the while completely ignorant of the much worse plights of the servants that they employed at such low wages. Their indolence and unwillingness to recognize the suffering of other less fortunate people is inexcusable. Austen’s idolization of their lifestyles feels like sand in my socks.
I find that I can’t fault those who like this book. It is certainly well written. I think it is just not written for me. Maybe I’ll try one of the Bronte sisters after this.(less)
I have recently formed the opinion that I do not like novels written in a foreign language. I do not know if this is because the translations are poor...moreI have recently formed the opinion that I do not like novels written in a foreign language. I do not know if this is because the translations are poor or that I’ve only had the wrong books but that seems, according to my experience to be the case.
I have, even more recently, been apprised of the error of my thinking. It is French novels that I do not like, not foreign ones. I have read Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (originally written in German) which I enjoyed immensely. Then I read two books by Spanish authors that have completely changed my expectations of foreign language books.
The first of these books is the story of Don Quixote, the delusional Knight Errant and his (mis)adventures. Don Quixote can’t seem to decide if it’s a violent and consequential tale of the unfortunate demise of a lonely man who has lost his senses, a scatological comedy full of prat-falls and fart jokes, an epic romance about unrequited love or a treatise on the cynical, unforgiving world in which the idealistic and assuredly self-deluded Don Quixote must stand stalwart.
Or maybe it’s about the way people can be so enraptured by media influences that their imagination begins to alter their judgement. If that is the case then Don Quixote becomes the first case of video game inspired violence in fiction (though his is inspired by decidedly unworthy novels).
Don Quixote de la Mancha is about all of those things and it is brilliantly told. With good reason phrases like ‘tilting at windmills’ are part of our modern lexicon and references to Rocinante are scattered throughout other works of fiction.
Miguel de Cervantes created a classic that holds up surprisingly well for modern audiences. The humor and social commentary sounded so much like the kinds of things seen on modern evening television that I had to look up when it was written (1605) for fear that it was newer than I thought.
This is one of the classics of modern literature and, unlike the overly written works of Victor Hugo or the self congratulatory Balzac it works as a modern story to this day. If you haven’t read this literary masterpiece you should add it to your list.(less)
In May of 1845 the Erebus and the Terror, two refitted ships of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy set sail from Greenhithe. Outfitted with the latest in steam...moreIn May of 1845 the Erebus and the Terror, two refitted ships of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy set sail from Greenhithe. Outfitted with the latest in steam engine technology (including retractable drills that could be pulled in to protect them from the ice) and new metal plating outside of their 14 inches of hardwood hull they sailed North on a quest to find the fabled Northwest Passage. They spent their first winter in Baffin Bay and then continued. They were never heard from again.
Known as the failed Franklin expedition – after the commander of the Erebus John Franklin – more than a century has passed and still little is known about what happened to them.
Dan Simmons tries to fill in some of those gaps. The Terror is a tragedy that the ancient Greeks would have loved. Betrayal, treachery, and plain human ignorance threaten to destroy the crews of Terror and Erebus if the cold and ice don’t kill them first.
After the death of John Franklin the command is left up to Terror’s captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier and Erebus first mate James Fitzjames. It is a desperate fight to survive in a harsh land where temperatures reach -100 degrees, the sun does not shine for several months of the year and their ships are being slowly crushed beneath them by the ever shifting and treacherous ice.
Then the food starts to run out. And the coal. The canned goods are poisoned by botulism and the solder on the cans is giving the men lead poisoning. Then there is the scurvy.
A hunting party returns one day with the body of an old Eskimo man they shot accompanied by his mute daughter. The soldiers name her Lady Silence and quickly come to regard her as a witch. For shortly after she shows up a monster – the sailors dub ‘The Terror’ starts talking and killing men. It stands twice as tall as the great polar bear and can rise up out of the ice and disappear back into it. Most of all it possesses a cunning that taunts Crozier and his men with rearranged pieces of corpses and brutally timed but seemingly random attacks that indicate a preternatural intelligence.
Between the cold, the scurvy and the ‘Terror’ I found myself alternately freezing (no mean feat in southern Arizona), starving and curious – I wanted to know what the creature was.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of the novel is the characters. Some you will cheer for and depend on. Others you will hate with a burning passion.
To me that alone makes it a success but added to it is Simmon’s signature ability to write. The man just understands words and the way they fit together so intimately that they become a frozen wasteland of jutting jagged ice and it becomes easy to get lost and frozen.(less)
I just finished reading The Hobbit and I have some thoughts about it that I find interesting so I'm going to see if I can get them all out in a relati...moreI just finished reading The Hobbit and I have some thoughts about it that I find interesting so I'm going to see if I can get them all out in a relatively cohesive manner.
First is the fairly obvious observation that every time I read any of Tolkien's work I glean new layers of understanding and thought. He truly is a master at what he does. Many authors are very talented at many things. There may even be some authors who are better than Tolkien at certain aspects of story telling. But what Tolkien excelled at and, what I believe, he is completely unmatched at is his ability to craft characters and stories and worlds that resonate with the very souls of its readers. David Farland (aka Dave Wolverton) has a rather lengthy discussion of how Tolkien worked to build that resonance with western culture. He only touches the tip of a much larger iceberg that itself hasn't finished breaking away from the glacier. That is to say, entire books have been written (many of them longer than The Hobbit themselves) and classes taught about how Tolkien managed to speak so intimately to people's hearts. His works have endured and will continue to endure because of his ability to speak to us.
I noticed that this book spent a significant amount of time underground, or in underground-like places. I know that Tolkien fought in wars (WWI I believe) and spent some time in trenches and fox-holes. Like most people who survive those kinds of trauma he doesn't openly discuss what happened or how he felt. At first I thought that perhaps Tolkien, because of his previous trauma in the trenches, had some kind of fear of small places and hence made it a part of the book, possibly unconsciously, possibly not. On closer thought I don't believe that is true. It feels almost like Tolkien is playing with a series of themes here. Almost like a chiasmus in Hebrew poetry. The story starts with Bilbo's home which is described in the first paragraph as not a dank, wet or dark hole but bright and cozy and comfortable. The next hole they come to is associated with some peril but only after the danger is past. The cave that the trolls lived in where Bilbo finds treasure. Next is the brief interlude at Elrond's house where there is singing and dancing and partying. Then the lightless, frightful and perilous cave of the goblins under the mountains. Once they escape there they move into Mirkwood which is every bit as perilous and dark and damp. Then the cave of the wood elves which is full of parties – though Bilbo and company are not participants in such. Everything comes back full circle with the halls under the Lonely Mountain, which is abandoned by Smaug and then Bilbo's return to his comfortable hole. So:
i. Bilbo's hole – comfort ii. Troll's cave – past peril iii. Elrond's house – parties iv. Goblin caves – dark and perilous iv. Mirkwood – dark and perilous iii. Wood Elves – parties ii. Lonely Mountain – past peril i. Bilbo's hole – comfort
It's a brilliant way to tell a story because it makes everything tie together and feel connected. It's a kind of subtle repetition that helps with that resonance thing I mentioned earlier.
Also if you look at the pacing that is implied by the movement through each of these cave (or cave-like) structures is also interesting. In many movies and books today the story moves from action to action – I don't know if this is because the writers are scared to slow things down or because they think that's what people want. Regardless of the reason it becomes tedious. It's just another giant robot beating up another giant robot, etc. Tolkien sets a perfect example in The Hobbit (this is also present in the Lord of the Rings) of setting minor climaxes that escalate as the story progresses followed by a short lull in the action. A time of peace and recuperation for the characters and the readers. It starts with the trolls that Gandalf had to rescue them from followed by a short rest at Elrond's house. Then there are the goblin caves that Gandalf again rescues them from followed by a rest at Beorn's house. After that Gandalf leaves and Bilbo is left to save the dwarves from peril himself. They escape from the spiders and the elf king and spend some time resting at Laketown before going to the Lonely Mountain and the final, largest climax.
Tolkien was not a writer. He was a philologist and loved the origins of languages very much. He spent most of his life researching the origins of words for the Oxford English Dictionary, which actually takes up twelve very large volumes when complete – not your usual condensed college edition. That said he also spent his entire life writing his stories and creating the world in which they lived. In his study of languages he learned to love the stories that have been told in those ancient tongues and he set about to create a mythology of his own, one that would stand as a mythology for his native England. Tolkien belonged to a writing group that called themselves the Inklings. They met regularly to discuss their writing.
Because of his lack of education as a writer and his apparent disregard for established 'rules' of the trade Tolkien is often called a hack or a one-trick pony by his detractors (mostly just idiots who haven't actually read his books).
In any art form there are established 'rules' that need to be followed in order to create good art. It is the knowing, understanding and following these rules that makes the art pleasing instead of bland or just plain bad. For example in photography we have 'rules' that help us know which part of a picture the eye is naturally drawn to in order to place our subject there. We have 'rules' that tell us how small (or big) to make the aperture to get the depth of field that we want, or when to use the flash or how to use negative space. There are similar 'rules' to painting with oils, or water colors, or making films, or video games, or music. There are also certain rules accepted in writing stories, not the least of which are grammatical. Most of us know what these rules are at a subconscious level. We see a movie or read a book and we know that it was terrible but we don't really know why it was terrible. Alternatively we don't know why a book is good either.
Most of these rules in writing concern things that have to do with story structure. Like foreshadowing events so that when they happen the reader says, “Of course,” rather than, “Huh?”, or using the hero to solve problems rather than random characters. How frustrating is it when the hero always just waits around for the more powerful characters to save them. There are also rules that tell us that stories need to have a consistent point of view – no jumping from one characters thoughts to another without some kind of break. Many of these rules are things that readers know instinctively because they've seen it so many times that they expect it.
If following the 'rules' helps to make art pleasing then knowing how, why, where and when to break those 'rules' is what makes art truly fantastic. Have you ever seen a photograph and been completely breathless at the beauty of it, or watched a movie and felt afterward that it had changed something deep inside of you, or read a book that completely blew you away? Compare that to a similar photograph, movie, book, etc, that was beautiful but not so that it made you feel empty inside like all your experience of art had just reached a climax.
Knowing the right way to break the rules is what makes that difference between beautiful art and luminous breathtaking masterpieces. That knowledge is, sadly, an art, not a science – no pun intended. It's the artist that breaks those rules, but in the right way, that creates that something that truly resonates and becomes stunning, or beautiful.
Tolkien knew when to break the rules, and how, and he pulled it off frequently and beautifully.
And it works every time. The anachronisms don't feel jarring from the story. The deus ex machina moments feel realistic and almost expected, even when there was no foreshadowing or hints of their approach. Random chance feels completely believable and the characters conform to the stereotypes that he applies to them while still behaving differently from others of their same race. The exception to this one of course is the goblins who are just mean and evil. The narrator of the story actually breaks the fourth wall on occasion to comment to the reader – something that almost never works except in the silliest of comedy and jumps between characters points of view on occasion in order to elucidate some point about the characters. Somehow this doesn't feel silly, though often times The Hobbit is quite funny.
I think this is why Tolkien's detractors criticize him as being a one-trick pony. They don't understand how he made it work and in their literary arrogance they assume that he didn't understand it either. But Tolkien didn't do it just once. He did it over and over again. All throughout The Hobbit I found myself amazed time and again that he could pull off the things he did. It has never even been noticeable to me before because of the subtlety with which he accomplished it. Then he does it again in The Lord of the Rings.
If everyone could come to grasp Tolkien's supernal understanding of story perhaps the 'rules' that we accept now would be changed. Perhaps not. Those rules are a backbone of support for beginning writers and more sage ones alike.
Something else that I was surprised to notice was that Tolkien did not write Tolkien-esque fantasy. After Tolkien became so popular in the 60s and 70s hundreds of authors were inspired to do exactly what he did. The problem is that they got it all wrong. Oh they understood that it was best to start with a young, inexperienced, humble character (usually and inexplicably a farmer or a scullery boy), put him (or her) in a party of companions on some dire quest and have a wizard of some kind to advise and be mysterious. (This is known as the monomyth and is described in much more detail in Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces.) I remember as a teenager reading Terry Brooks and David Eddings and other fantasy authors that wrote Tolkien inspired fantasy and I was always excited to determine who was the Gandalf in this new book, what were the 'Orcs' like, who was the 'Aragorn' – almost every roll was always filled. As a teenager I thought it was fun to determine that the Warlock Lord in the Sword of Shannarra was really Sauron, and Belgarath in The Belgariad was really Gandalf. I enjoyed the parallels.
The problem is that while Tolkien had these elements: the mysterious wizard, the young intrepid and naïve hero, the party of adventurers on a quest, elves, orcs, goblins, wolves, dwarves, etc. (Tolkien knew about the monomyth – whether from familiarity with Campbell's work or from his own extensive research of mythology I don't know but he was familiar enough to use it in all of his work.) His story was not nearly as simple nor as contrived as his imitators. The quest in The Hobbit is not a contrived dependence on a farmer-who-is-really-the-son-of-the-lost-king to save the world from destruction. It is actually just an adventure that Gandalf sort of forced upon Bilbo. Plus, he's getting paid for it.
The hero does many very heroic things but in the end he does not learn that he is a powerful magic user, or a great warrior. He is still just Bilbo who now has a great deal of gold and a magic ring. He doesn't even kill the dragon. What kind of Tolkien-esque fantasy is this.
The story also steps beyond Tolkien's imitators in it's ending. Any other book would have ended with the death of Smaug. The Hobbit continued on for several chapters with the elves, dwarves and men all fighting over the treasure and Bilbo being forced to betray his friends in order to beat some sense into them. This is emotionally and fundamentally more than the story ever hinted and more than most of the slew of fantasy that came after was able to grasp.
I really enjoyed The Hobbit. I always do. I recommend it to anybody who has not read it or who remembers it fondly.(less)
I don’t really know why this book gets such high praise in literary circles, or rather, I do know why but I don’t understand the blind acceptance of i...moreI don’t really know why this book gets such high praise in literary circles, or rather, I do know why but I don’t understand the blind acceptance of its flaws.
The Road is a post apocalyptic tale of a man and his son walking down a desolate road seeking the ocean, or maybe food, or maybe other people, or probably just death because that’s all that’s left.
The biggest flaw of the book is McCarthy’s artistic sensibilities which make the book difficult to read and overweight at only a couple hundred pages. He refuses to give the two characters names. They are The Man and the The Boy, which gets confusing when they meet other men and boys. There are also no dialogue tags. McCarthy eschews the use of such pedestrian phrases as ‘the man said’ so that the reader can tell who is talking, which becomes moot eventually as every conversation is a variation on the first one, the boy is scared, the man reassures him, the boy is still scared, the man doesn’t listen to him. McCarthy seems to also be above punctuation. When you’re Cormac McCarthy you don’t need to follow the rules.
Using detail to tell story can be a powerful tool, as anybody who has read “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien can testify to. However, McCarthy falls victim to using the detail in such repetition that it becomes unplanned self parody. Each fire that must be lit, each drink of water, even the tying of shoes must be described in detailed, short sentences so that every action could be painstakingly recreated by future generations.
The Road is often used as an example of a literary author dipping his toes into science fiction. If this is the result I’m not sure it’s worth it. McCarthy is blatantly vague about the cause of the apocalyptic collapse, or even of how long it’s been (about as long as the boy is old, which is never stated). Instead of a story about how humanity deals with disaster or the survival of the human race in the face of devastating adversity, or even a metaphorical exploration of the condition of human refugees (which the story is trying hard to be) it comes across as a dry and humorlessly depressing treatise on the hopelessness of life caused by sheer over attention to detail.
Now spoilers, for those who care.
The boy in the book exhausts every conversation, page after page, too scared to explore abandoned houses in case people are there, asking his father not to go looking for food because it’s too dangerous. Then, when his father dies and a crazy wild man hops out of the woods to save him and adopt him he shrugs his shoulders and goes along, suddenly over his fear of strangers now that the man is dead. It felt like an unfair change of character in order to offer a sliver of hope at the end of a story of hopelessness. Which, if the hopelessness that the book spent so much time packing into the open wounds of despair was the point, then it is undermined by this ending. If the point was that you just need to trust people then the lesson falls flat as every other person up to that point in the story has tried to betray or kill them for personal gain.
I can’t really recommend this book if you’re looking for something entertaining or something to teach you about humans or raise questions about human nature. If you like McCarthy’s over indulged ‘artistic’ style then you’ll probably like this one as well.(less)
This is a short novel about a woman in Africa who inherits some money and decides to open a Ladies Detective Agency. The book consists of a series of...moreThis is a short novel about a woman in Africa who inherits some money and decides to open a Ladies Detective Agency. The book consists of a series of small anecdotes about Ma Ramotswe acting as a private detective, usually by just being sensible. The stories are occasionally humorous and Ma Ramotswe has a weakness for assuming she knows what’s going on immediately — it’s usually a man being unfaithful or cruel — but she is quick to see the truth when she discovers it.
For a light-hearted story that skirts around much of the deeper social and political turmoil that a novel like this could dive into it is entertaining and fun. Smith writes well enough that he is never boring and is frequently quite amusing as a story-teller. So much so that it often reads like an englishman is sitting in the room telling you stories about Ma Ramotswe.
The characters are mostly just broad-strokes stereotypes with amusing quirks that distinguish them, but they are usually only around for a single conversation or occasionally two.
The problem with this book is that it shies away from anything remotely dangerous, either to its characters or to its author. It feels safe and pleasant but in a book that’s about a woman trying to get by in Botswana by doing a job that women just don’t do in Botswana the issues of gender equality, racial hatred and the terrible crimes that can happen in any country that lacks the infrastructure to police it’s population are hinted at and then steered away from.
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is a fun story but lacks any conviction. Sometimes we want a nice juicy burger with fries and sometimes we want cotton candy. If you’re in the mood for cotton candy, give Ma Ramotswe and the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency a try.(less)