When this novel first came to my attention, I was excited, since Richard Herley had already authored one of my favorite books, the outstanding The Pen...moreWhen this novel first came to my attention, I was excited, since Richard Herley had already authored one of my favorite books, the outstanding The Penal Colony. Then, when I read the blurb and realized what Refuge was about, I admit my excitement faltered a bit. I felt the post-apocalyptic, I'm-the-last-man-on-Earth survival milieu had already been pretty well strip-mined in a hundred works ranging from I Am Legend to Children of Men to The Stand, and I thought it would be difficult for an author to come along in 2008 and give the genre a treatment that was anything other than derivative and tired.
Happily, I was wrong. Herley immediately puts his stamp on the proceedings, much as he does in his other works, with concise, economical detail, great pacing, and a level of research and thinking-through that leaves the reader wondering why other novelists didn’t think of these things. Here is just one small example: the protagonist, John Suter, is shown to be obsessive about flossing and brushing his teeth, because he understands that a simple cavity or abscessed tooth, to a man living alone, could prove fatal. In this and many other similarly mundane details, the author shows just what it would truly be like to live in a post-civilization world.
Herley's chops as a writer are simply amazing - several wide cuts above the average writer of popular fiction. Several themes from Herley’s other works are revisited here, most notably the villains’ Christian/Satanic delusions and the protagonists’ struggles for survival in a wild, uncaring natural world, but it’s a very different novel to The Penal Colony.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you like brainy, propulsive thrillers with characters who are complex, flawed and not always easy to love, this is the book for you.(less)
The Tide Mill is an immaculately crafted work of period fiction where love, pain, gritty daily detail, natural beauty, and human ingenuity meld seamle...moreThe Tide Mill is an immaculately crafted work of period fiction where love, pain, gritty daily detail, natural beauty, and human ingenuity meld seamlessly into something almost epic. The depth and richness of Herley’s language is always a treat: through his writing, he constantly reminds the reader that the perfect word for the situation is not always the common or expected word. As terse and economical as his prose is, he seems bent on selecting every word for maximum impact, and succeeds over and over again, achieving an exhilarating mix of fast-moving action and rich detail. Herley is one of the few authors who can send me scrambling for the dictionary without seeming as if he’s showing off.
Much like the other books of Herley’s that I’ve read, The Tide Mill inspires not primarily because of the ending – which is never uniformly sweet in his books – but because of the characters’ personal journeys. Herley’s protagonists are never static. They err, fail, learn, grow, and eventually achieve a kind of personal redemption that is utterly believable, and The Tide Mill's Ralf Grigg is no exception to this rule.
The Tide Mill is also a love letter to England. Not the urban, tourist England of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, but a wild, unspoiled place that I’ve never seen but, thanks to Herley’s powers of description, I feel I know. This is another running theme in Herley’s books: in The Penal Colony, the protagonist had to be exiled from civilization to find and appreciate it; in Refuge, it took the death of virtually every human on earth. Even in The Tide Mill, set in a time when England was far more sparsely populated, there’s a hint of mistrust of the city, and a naked affection for the flora, fauna, and geography of the land.
As always, Herley’s level of detail and knowledge of his setting and subject immerse the reader in the world of the story, without ever resorting to didactic, 20 page long "research dumps" - the exposition always propels the story along, rather than slowing it down. Above all, Herley is a craftsman: you feel that he knows his subject, his story, and his characters perfectly, and that every sentence of every paragraph has been meticulously honed. I was shocked to find out that The Tide Mill and Refuge were self-edited, because the pacing and continuity, normally the most obvious victims of self-edited novels, are virtually flawless here. The word "perfectionist" comes to mind.
This is my favorite book of all the ones I’ve read this year, and given the assortment of #1 bestsellers, genre essentials, and literary classics that that entails, I think that’s the highest praise I could give it.(less)
Once you're this far into Martin's monstrous sprawling story, you're pretty well buckled in and along for the ride. Taken as a whole, I unequivocally...moreOnce you're this far into Martin's monstrous sprawling story, you're pretty well buckled in and along for the ride. Taken as a whole, I unequivocally give this series five stars, as it's the biggest, most ambitious work of fantasy I've ever seen. Even epic works like The Lord of the Rings and The Dark Tower, as huge as they are, simply flip the narrative camera back and forth between two or three main subplots. By comparison, A Song of Ice and Fire has dozens, and the scope is nothing short of dizzying.
Whatever unevenness there is between the individual books is largely the result of the POV characters featured and how I feel about them. So the preponderance of Daenerys in this volume (yes, to be expected, given the title) detracts slightly from my enjoyment, as she continues to be the shining counterexample to the otherwise consistent Martin theme that people who habitually make poor choices in A Song of Ice and Fire end up dead. Lots of Dany + no Brienne + very little Jaime = not my favorite book so far.
My enjoyment was redeemed by a surprising amount of Roose Bolton (my favorite psychopath is always a treat), lots of Tyrion and Jon, and a dash of Davos and Arya. Can't wait for the next book, assuming George and I both live that long.(less)
One of the best books I've read in the past year. I'm a sucker for memoirs in general, and one this well-written would have drawn me in whether it was...moreOne of the best books I've read in the past year. I'm a sucker for memoirs in general, and one this well-written would have drawn me in whether it was about a chef, a baseball player, a plumber or a quilter. The fact that it's by and about a chef, and one I was already a fan of to boot, makes it a slam dunk. Bourdain is a fantastic writer: erudite yet foul-mouthed, vivid, occasionally poetic.
Bourdain's narrative voice is equally gripping, as he is hilarious, humble, self-effacing, and forthright about his flaws and failures in a way almost every writer fails to be when writing about him- or herself. In this, Kitchen Confidential reminded me of Stephen King's On Writing - another nakedly confessional memoir in which the author doesn't flinch from portraying himself as a jackass when appropriate.
This book is also reminiscent of the King memoir in that he jumps back and forth from memories of childhood, to adulthood, to a sort of how-to guide on becoming a solid craftsman in his field. Just as King would be the first to tell you he isn't a great writer, just a good and successful one, Bourdain acknowledges that there are far better chefs than himself out there making far less money, and his advice to would-be cooks takes a similar "this is what has worked for me" tone.
I read this in five or six hours on a Saturday, and I'm sure I'll read it again, or at least refer back to favorite passages.(less)
"It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty — it is the thing you have feared all your life, th...more"It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty — it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it is all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring."
So, I finished this, and I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. I came to it through Anthony Bourdain, who mentioned it as an inspiration and a must-read in his own memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. It's a collection of vignettes more than any kind of coherent story. It's definitely Orwell at his most self-righteous, and I mean that as completely non-ironic praise; he might be the most fiercely moral writer in the history of English literature, always striving to find and root out evil.
I give it three stars instead of four rather unfairly, as my reading was tainted by the knowledge that he was more or less willfully slumming it for this period in his life. Like the fauxhemian coed in Pulp's "Common People," he moved right back in with his affluent family afterwards, and his ability to do that set him apart from the dishwashers and hobos in the book. I say "unfairly," because that knowledge was a discordant note in the back of my head, souring many of the intellectual and emotional chords Orwell strikes in this book, yet that's no fault of the book itself.
All in all, this was a fast, funny, eye-opening read. The three stars don't adequately convey how highly I recommend it.(less)
This book was an exhilarating ride, to say the least. It was smartly paced, almost entirely action-driven, and so brutal in spots that I think it woul...moreThis book was an exhilarating ride, to say the least. It was smartly paced, almost entirely action-driven, and so brutal in spots that I think it would have to be trimmed somewhat to qualify as a rated "R" film. And, incidentally, "this could be made into a very good movie" is what I found myself thinking over and over again. If Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear and Crichton's Eaters of the Dead were able to make the transition from (speculative) historical fiction to successful films, this book probably could.
The book immediately plunges the reader, as do so many of Herley's books, into the day-to-day world of people in another time and place. His skills at research and description allow him to do this more convincingly and more immersively than most writers, and his natural knack for pacing and self-editing allows him to do so without allowing the essential storyline to bog down. He's clearly a author in love with story and place, rather than with his own language.
While The Stone Arrow was a fast, exciting read, it doesn't quite stand up to the quality of Herley's later works, such as The Penal Colony, Refuge, or the incomparable The Tide Mill. That's because The Stone Arrow shows only some of Herley's many strengths: while his amazing vocabulary, powers of research, economy of words, and manifest love of nature are on full display here, his ability to sweep the reader through the full spectrum of human emotion is not, nor is his delightfully bone-dry sense of humor. While the book is nominally written from a third person omniscient perspective, the narrative eye spends relatively little time inside the characters' heads, preferring instead to focus on action and setting, showing how the characters must be thinking and feeling through their deeds.
Those observations are not necessarily fault-finding - this book strikes me as the work of a talented twenty-something writer out to make a big first impression, and that it certainly does! As it is, I'm now excited to sit down to The Flint Lord and The Earth Goddess, the two remaining books in this trilogy. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in pre-historic fiction, anyone who has read and enjoyed any of Herley's later works, or anyone who just wants to sit down and read a ripping tale of honor, vengeance, and ingenuity, with a Rambo-level body count.(less)
I held off on writing a review of this book until I had finished the entire trilogy, because I felt my opinion of it might change with the benefit of...moreI held off on writing a review of this book until I had finished the entire trilogy, because I felt my opinion of it might change with the benefit of the whole picture. I was right.
This book follows very much in the footsteps of The Stone Arrow, its predecessor in the Pagans trilogy. If anything, it features most of the same themes and the same feel, only amplified: where The Stone Arrow was somewhat grim, The Flint Lord is positively bleak. Where The Stone Arrow was shockingly violent in places, The Flint Lord is unrelentingly brutal. Where The Stone Arrow featured scenes of pitched battle between small groups, The Flint Lord ratchets up the stakes to include large-scale warfare and Stone Age sieges. Again, the action comes fast and thick, and Herley's powers of research and description are in full force, plunging the reader into a different world with all five senses. If you want a gripping tale of war and intrigue, with plenty of prehistoric commando action and a seriously satisfying level of violence, this is your book.
What ultimately kept this book from getting four stars from me is that most of the characters didn't quite grab me. A trait in Richard Herley's later fiction is that he is able to draw complex characters with a few deft strokes, and to engage his audience so that the reader becomes invested in those characters' successes and failures. That trait is not on display here, and as a result this book pales slightly in comparison to The Stone Arrow. However, the three stars don't adequately convey how enjoyable a read this was, or how well the book fits as a bridge between the first and the (very different) third book in the series.(less)
The first two books in the Pagans trilogy, The Stone Arrow and The Flint Lord, are definitely two of a kind: action-oriented rather than introspective; cinematically violent; atmospheric yet fast-moving. I knocked each of them out in a day or two, and enjoyed them very much. In beginning The Earth Goddess, I expected more of the same, and would have been happy with it. What I got instead was something altogether different, surprising, and in the end rewarding. Where the second book in the trilogy is more or less a direct sequel to the first, this book quickly serves notice that that will not be the case here. The story wastes no time in breaking some major ties to the first two books, sweeping the reader to a different place, full of different people and a very different culture - seeing the agrarian vs. hunter/gatherer conflict of the first two books from the other side.
The book takes more apparent liberties with historical speculation than its predecessors. Set largely within the elite, secretive priesthood of the titular Earth Goddess, it was actually easy to forget that I was reading a novel set in a real, historical time and place. The priesthood's ethos is sometimes reminiscent of Buddhism, other times of some medieval monastic order, other times utterly unique, and surprisingly sophisticated, especially compared to the protagonists of the first two books.
All in all, this was a great wrap-up to The Pagans. The central theme of the series (i.e, the agricultural revolution and its far-reaching effects on human civilization) was well-served by the change in point of view, as well as the gentler (though still plenty violent), more character- and intrigue-driven feel of The Earth Goddess. A fine read in its own right, and a worthy close to this unique trilogy.(less)
I'd been meaning to start reading Philip K. Dick for a long time now, at least for the twenty-plus years since I realized that Blade Runner and Total...moreI'd been meaning to start reading Philip K. Dick for a long time now, at least for the twenty-plus years since I realized that Blade Runner and Total Recall were based on books by the same guy. Two decades and probably three or four more Dick film adaptations later, including the excellent A Scanner Darkly, the decent Minority Report, and the mediocre The Adjustment Bureau, and I'm finally getting started.
This story, the basis for that last film, was rather disappointing. It just felt skeletal and underdeveloped, almost like a draft version where the author was spitballing ideas ("Hey, wouldn't it be cool/crazy if..."). And, don't get me wrong, it is a cool/crazy idea, but once he came up with the premise, the story itself couldn't have taken him much longer to write than it took me to read it. Combine the overly sparse narrative with the stilted dialogue and some very dated, 50s-feeling touches, and it came off more like a script for an episode of The Twilight Zone than a fully-realized work of speculative fiction.
Having said that, it was a fun half-hour read, and I am certainly not deterred from trying out more of Philip K. Dick's work.(less)
It seems to me that a lot of science fiction writers, even well-known and popular ones, aren’t great writers. They’re great at concept and imagination...moreIt seems to me that a lot of science fiction writers, even well-known and popular ones, aren’t great writers. They’re great at concept and imagination, but not always that good at conveying their imaginings to the reader. One example would be Larry Niven, whose Ringworld quartet I finished a couple of years ago. As captivated as I was by his world-building, I was equally frustrated by his storytelling. The pacing hitched and jerked like an old truck, racing through some parts while draaaaaaaagging through others, and the description was so vague that it was often like looking at Niven’s (presumably amazing) world through a small, dirty window.
After reading Philip K. Dick’s Adjustment Team, I was prepared to put him in the same category, as that book was built on an interesting premise, but just felt skeletal and under-written. Fortunately for me, I decided to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and see if I was wrong. I was. The book is richly written, nicely paced, and while the dialogue is slightly wooden, that actually fits well in a story where most of the characters are androids, psychopaths, or mentally retarded – it added an uneasy, off-kilter feel to character interactions that worked nicely with the atmosphere of the book. I also found the religious and philosophical aspects of the story very interesting, not to mention unique, which is pretty hard to accomplish.
I was of course very familiar with Blade Runner, the film inspired by this book, but I did my best not to let that affect my expectations. As it turns out, the book is very different in feel to the film, being desolate and post-apocalyptic rather than claustrophobic and noir-ish. There’s also a pretty heavy dose of cultural satire with a feel somewhat like Stephen King’s The Running Man or the film Robo-Cop. Except for the shared names of a lot of the characters, it would have been easy to forget the movie was even based on the book.
I highly recommend this book, whether you've seen the movie, liked it, or not. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is an intriguing, thought-provoking creature all its own.
PS - One interesting thing is that the titular electric sheep actually feature significantly in the plot. It’s not just some metaphor, as I assumed it would be. Crazy. (less)
After growing up on Sherlock Holmes movies, Sherlock Holmes parodies, Sherlock Holmes-inspired characters and plots, and all manner of Sherlock Holmes...moreAfter growing up on Sherlock Holmes movies, Sherlock Holmes parodies, Sherlock Holmes-inspired characters and plots, and all manner of Sherlock Holmes culture references, I figured I owed it to myself to actually read a real, live Sherlock Holmes book. Otherwise, I felt like a bit of a poser, as if I was taking the name of Sherlock in vain, kind of like people who say "let's get the hell out of Dodge" without even knowing that they're quoting...(Googles furiously)...the classic 1960s-70s television series Gunsmoke.
I must say it was an interesting experience coming to these stories so late in life, as I simply kept shaking my head at how influential this stuff is. Yet it wasn't stuffy or stilted at all; the thirteen short episodes that make up this book were all brisk, readable, humorous, and fun. They have only the most tenuous continuity - they aren't even in chronological order - and the plots are very much of the cookie-cutter variety. What keeps you reading is just the drive to see who's lying and how Holmes is going to figure it out. Which, aside from an arrogant druggie protagonist, is just one more way House, M.D. robs Sherlock Holmes dry.
Definitely a worthy read, especially if you snatch it free from Project Gutenberg, as I did.(less)
I read this book a second time before sitting down to write a review, simply because I didn't trust my flood of first impressions after the initial ru...moreI read this book a second time before sitting down to write a review, simply because I didn't trust my flood of first impressions after the initial run-through. Having finished it again, with six months in between to digest its contents, I feel I can safely say that The Drowning is one of my five favorite novels. I found it spellbinding, poignant, painful, joyful, and ultimately uplifting, and I give it my highest possible recommendation.
I was unprepared for a book like this from Richard Herley. His early work - which I love - does nothing to prepare the reader for The Drowning. Books such as The Penal Colony, The Pagans, and Refuge are all smart, thrilling, and immaculately researched and written, but they don't approach the sheer ambition of The Drowning. Only The Tide Mill, which immediately precedes this book in Herley's fiction catalog, and shares several key themes with it, rivals it in reach and scope.
The ambition I speak of here is, in my opinion, the highest one to which a book, or film or painting or song or any other work of art, can aspire: to help the audience make sense of the world and their place in it. Writers who tackle this lofty challenge fail far more often than they succeed, in my experience, and those failures are often cringe-inducingly preachy and pretentious.
That Herley succeeds in such a grand undertaking is testament to his skills as a novelist; he is a master at research and forethought, and he is truly an artist with language. His language is by turns elegant, blunt, dry, hilarious, or whatever else best serves the story, and it provides him with a palette and set of brushes that very few other writers can match. Whereas his considerable technical skills were once put to service writing fast, brainy, razor-sharp genre pieces, here they are employed in creating a warm, sprawling, character-driven epic, where the dramatis personae move in and out of one another's lives over a period of decades. The narrative follows these characters as they learn to live with themselves and the far-reaching consequences of their actions as well as those of others, and as they deal with death, either their own or that of loved ones.
Much of this book consists of the various characters trying to find meaning or answers in life, and while many of them come to different conclusions, a plurality of those conclusions are Buddhist in flavor. This is not a new theme for Richard Herley, but here it is made rather more explicit than in his other works, with several characters actually becoming Buddhist, and the topics of reincarnation, karma, and dukkha being openly discussed. As the child of one Christian and one Buddhist parent, yet who ended up atheist himself, I found this search for meaning enormously evocative. The book's notions of rebirth, of bodhisattvas, of dharma, are all devices serving to illuminate what I took to be the overarching message of The Drowning, to wit: We are all beings looking for redemption-happiness-enlightenment-call it what you will, and in that search, all the help we have is each other. Flint-hearted materialist (speaking philosophically, not economically) that I am, I nonetheless was forced to look back on my life and reflect on people who almost seemed to have been put in my way simply to teach me some small or large lesson, and who then moved on in some other direction, out of my life. Which then, of course, led me to wonder if I had knowingly or unknowingly played that role in someone else's life, and which in turn led me to reflect on the greater consequences that even my small and seemingly insignificant decisions might have. Deep stuff.
The Drowning is all this and much more, and I'm at risk for beginning to ramble here. The weighty, meaning-of-life stuff in this novel is adroitly balanced with humor, for one, and this is probably Herley's funniest novel. Yet on the other hand, it features some of the most painful and poignant love stories I've ever read. There's also a lot here for British readers of the Baby Boom generation (is it called that over there?) that they would probably experience in quite a different way than I do, as the book covers more than a half-century of British history and popular culture. The Beatles and Stones, the Nigerian-Biafran war, Great Britain's final transition into post-colonialism, a cavalcade of Prime Ministers of whom I only recognize the names of about a third, it all rushes by along with the characters' lives.
Ultimately, The Drowning feels to me, in much the same way W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge does, like one man's powerful statement of philosophy and artistic purpose. It says to the reader, "After a good amount of living, and much consideration, this is what I think the world is about." And whether or not the reader agrees with the substance of that statement, they can't help but be enriched on some level by its eloquence and beauty. I know I was.(less)
So short as to barely even qualify as a novella, The Scarlet Plague still manages to be slow-moving. There's almost no action, as 90% of the book is t...moreSo short as to barely even qualify as a novella, The Scarlet Plague still manages to be slow-moving. There's almost no action, as 90% of the book is the aged protagonist rambling on to his four grandsons (all of whom are filthy, illiterate post-apocalyptic savages) about how the world was before and immediately after the titular plague. London commits one of the cardinal sins of speculative fiction - making his characters speak in weird pseudo-futuristic jargon, which always always always just ends up sounding dated and silly, yet he avoids one of the other cardinal sins in that he does not try to make too many specific predictions about future technology. Because of that restraint, the book doesn't feel as quaint or archaic as say, H.G. Wells or Jules Verne or even early Asimov.
If this book came out today, I'd probably give it two stars, but in 1912 the idea of ragged survivors struggling in the aftermath of a global plague must have been shocking, mind-blowing stuff. As I read this, I tried to pretend I had never read The Stand, or Refuge, or seen Children of Men or I Am Legend. (Actually, I always kind of like to pretend I didn't see that last one.) And in light of that, remembering that there was no I'm-the-last-man-on-Earth genre until Jack London came along and created it with this book, I had to give it three stars.
Plus, I grabbed it for free (public domain) and read it in like 45 minutes. Did I mention it's short?(less)
This was a tough one for me to get through. Not only was it completely lacking in horror, it was fairly dry of emotion in general. Oh, they were feeli...moreThis was a tough one for me to get through. Not only was it completely lacking in horror, it was fairly dry of emotion in general. Oh, they were feeling emotion, all right - most of the book is breathlessly melodramatic correspondence and conversation between various characters - but very little of it made its way off the page to me. It didn't help that Victor Frankenstein was an emo-riddled, maudlin, whining, constantly fainting idiot. (Were men really like this in the late 18th century? The guy gets the vapors for months at a time.) Much of the plot of the book hinges on him doing foolish things, keeping impossible secrets, and continually failing to grasp the situation; I couldn't help but wonder how differently the book might have turned out if someone had grabbed Frankenstein by the collar halfway through Act II and said "He just told you, in so many words, that HE IS GOING TO KILL EVERYONE YOU LOVE, and he means it!" We might have been spared 150 pages of Victor's family and friends being picked off one by one like counselors at Camp Crystal Lake. Nothing kills my suspension of disbelief faster than a plot that only works if the characters keep doing stupid things.
I was also frustrated with Shelley's pre-Victorian squeamishness about action and violence. I'm not a bloodthirsty reader (I don't think!), but I got really tired of Frankenstein arriving on the scene to find yet another person dead "with the monster's hand print on [his/her] neck." Maybe it's my desensitized 20th/21st century sensibilities, but I come from the generation that grew up on Stephen King; I can handle someone dying onstage, and if you want me to feel terror, you'll probably need them to die onstage. In addition, Shelley glosses over the actual creation and animation of the monster so quickly that I had to flip back and make sure I hadn't accidentally skipped a page. Everything popular culture associates with Frankenstein's monster - stitching, bolt neck, Igor, even electricity - it's all been added after the fact. It's shocking how sparsely described he is, especially in light of how exhaustively described everything else is (but more on that later).
The one saving grace of the book was the monster himself - he was the only character with a believable motivation and conflict, and the story he tells of his short life is truly sad and moving. To me, the conversations between Frankenstein and his creation are the most readable parts of the book.
In spite of all these things, I would have given this book three stars for its significance and influence, except for one simple fact: it was a chore for me to read. I admit I haven't read very much pre-Victorian literature, but the language was like a wet blanket thrown over the story. Mary Shelley takes five sentences to convey what a modern writer would get across in two, and Mary's sentences too often look like this 48-word jawbreaker: My father observed with pain the alteration perceptible in my disposition and habits and endeavoured by arguments deduced from the feelings of his serene conscience and guiltless life to inspire me with fortitude and awaken in me the courage to dispel the dark cloud which brooded over me. Sure, I understood what she meant, but it's so needlessly wordy that any feeling is squeezed out. It made the book boring and annoying when it could have been pretty entertaining. Another jarring problem is that everyone in this story talks EXACTLY THE SAME: everyone from the supposedly spottily self-educated ship's captain, to the very well-educated Frankenstein and his family, to a house full of peasants, to the monster who only learned to talk a year ago, speaks and writes with the same eloquent vocabulary and deeply nested compound/complex sentences. It made for a suffocating, dreary read, and not in a good way.
I haven't read any of Mary Shelley's other work, but at this point in her career I simply don't think she was a very good writer. I know that much is made of the fact that she was 19 when she wrote this, but I think it shows: she has an outstanding vocabulary, but just doesn't know when to scale it back and let her story breathe.(less)
This was a lot of fun! Gleefully absurd, thick with wordplay and puns (some of which I had to go back and re-read in an English accent to "get"), and...moreThis was a lot of fun! Gleefully absurd, thick with wordplay and puns (some of which I had to go back and re-read in an English accent to "get"), and a quick, joyful little read. I highly recommend this to anyone, whether or not you've seen any of the film adaptations - I've seen most, and I was still missing out until I read this.(less)
Kids’ books: they don’t write ‘em like this anymore, if in fact they ever did.
I know that this is supposed to be a kind of mirror-image response to Al...moreKids’ books: they don’t write ‘em like this anymore, if in fact they ever did.
I know that this is supposed to be a kind of mirror-image response to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but I found it decidedly trippier. Where Alice kept a fairly consistent tone throughout, this book constantly goes in and out of focus: one moment, things are more or less lucid (yet still absurd, of course), very much in the style of Alice. Then the next moment, the reader is plunged into the queasy uncritical miasma of the last seconds of a dream; or further yet, into slippery madness logic reminiscent of a mushroom trip. It's a much more extreme experience.
While constant changes in size and proportion played the most prominent role in lending Alice in Wonderland its dreamy feel, in Through the Looking-Glass the surrealism comes chiefly from manipulation of distance and movement. Any time Alice tries to go somewhere, the resulting narration takes on a blurred, unreliable feel; Alice is thinking of getting out of her present situation, or moving towards some objective, and suddenly the walls of reality melt and shift. Very much like a dream in that way, where certain images and scenes are ultra-vivid, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how you got from one to the next.
This was a fascinating book, one I’m sure I will read again. And having read both books recently for the first time as an adult, I'm going to say that this book is better than Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, if only by a nose. Read Alice first, then pick this up for sure. (less)
I have somewhat mixed feelings about this book. It's cut from the same cloth as Mrs Craddock and Maugham's other pre-Of Human Bondage novels in that t...moreI have somewhat mixed feelings about this book. It's cut from the same cloth as Mrs Craddock and Maugham's other pre-Of Human Bondage novels in that the prose is a bit on the flowery side and the tone somewhat melodramatic compared to his later work. If anything it feels even more like a 19th Century novel than Mrs. Craddock does, with so much of the plot centered on marriage proposals and such. It's also unusual for a Maugham book in that it becomes obvious pretty early on what the main conflict is going to be, so early on that it's almost tedious waiting for it to come. Or would be tedious, if the book weren't so well-written.
Having said that, though, the book is far more enjoyable than I fear I make it sound. The crisis of honesty and honor at the center of the plot, while a little precious-seeming to my 2011 sensibilities, certainly makes for some heart-wrenching moments. Also, surprisingly for such an earnest novel, the book is a lot of fun. A high point is the constant banter between supporting characters Dick and Julia, which deftly dances along the line between plausible and hilarious. The two of them make a comic relief/"perfect match" pair that would be at home in any modern romantic comedy, and their presence leavens the proceedings like a breath of fresh air. Thanks to their dialogue, this is the first Maugham novel that made me realize why he was such a successful playwright. It was also interesting to see the continuities between this novel and some of his others: familiar places such as Blackstable, Tercanbury, and Court Leys all make appearances, and Mrs. Craddock is even mentioned in passing.
In other words, another fine early work by Somerset Maugham. I wouldn't recommend it as a first Maugham, but as a tenth or eleventh, I enjoyed it quite a lot.(less)
What a surprising, interesting book. After reading all of W. Somerset Maugham's most celebrated works several times over, and delving eagerly into his...moreWhat a surprising, interesting book. After reading all of W. Somerset Maugham's most celebrated works several times over, and delving eagerly into his lesser-known (though not necessarily lesser in quality) material afterwards, this is the first one to completely surprise me.
The book is preceded, happily, by a foreword, "The Fragment of Autobiography," in which Maugham admits that the character of Oliver Haddo is indeed based on Aleister Crowley. He pulls no punches in his assessment of the real Crowley, whom he knew peripherally, and the more you know about Crowley going into this book, the more scathing a portrayal it is. At any rate, the foreword is hilarious, humble, and charming in its English understatement, like all of Maugham's essays. Among other things, he admits that he hates to reread, or even talk about his novels once they're finished.
The book itself, as I stated up there, is surprising and utterly unique among Maugham's work (at least that I've read so far) in that it has the whiff of the supernatural. The reader is left to guess, for most of the length of the book, whether Haddo is truly a magician, or simply a cunning, manipulative charlatan. I won't spoil anything for you by saying which is the case, but by the time the reader is sure, it's Act III and the rest of the book is a breathless chase to the end. In this, The Magician is also rather unique among Maugham's novels, because nonstop action is not his normal style. Here, he pulls it off with aplomb, showing himself to be one of the most versatile writers in the history of English literature.
I would recommend this book to anyone who's read at least Maugham's big three - Of Human Bondage, The Razor's Edge, and The Moon And Sixpence, and maybe Cakes and Ale or Up at the Villa to boot. To read it before those might give you a mistaken impression of W. Somerset Maugham as a writer. In my opinion, the best time to read The Magician is when I did: as a longtime fan who thought he knew the old master's style forwards and backwards, and was ripe for having his assumptions blasted. This book did that for me and I was delighted for it.(less)
One of the best books I've ever read, and one that I'm sure will stick with me for a long, long time. Not to say it's a perfect book. For one, it's pr...moreOne of the best books I've ever read, and one that I'm sure will stick with me for a long, long time. Not to say it's a perfect book. For one, it's pretty colonial-feeling, what with its fondness for dropping the n-word on anyone browner than an Englishman, its blithe references to sneaky, inconstant "orientals," and so forth - so much so that it's distracting and jarring in a few places. As a 21st century reader, it took me some mental effort to get past that easy matter-of-fact racism, but much the same as with The Trembling of a Leaf, another colonial-era work that niggers and chinks its way through the Eastern hemisphere, I was richly rewarded for that effort.
The greatest element of the book, the thing that propels the plot, illuminates the places, brings the other characters to life, and (most importantly) makes you care about any of it, is Kim himself. Kimball O'Hara must be one of most lovable, believable, absorbing characters in all of literature. Kipling's quintessential urchin is streetwise, smartassed, clever, courageous, with chutzpah to spare; yet unmistakably still a kid, capable of boredom, fear, and loneliness. He's also complex: for example, it's established early on in the story that Kim is not above cynically exploiting other people's religions and superstitions in order to secure himself room and board, or escape trouble, yet he frequently allows his own steps to be guided by prophecy and the supernatural. Most importantly, Kim is not static. I think one of the hardest feats for an author is to portray a child's progression to adulthood convincingly, and Kipling does an amazing job of it here.
For Kim's presence alone, this book would be well worth the read, but other storytelling treats are here for the taking, as well. For one, it's a fantastic spy thriller, set in the so-called "Great Game" played for control of India in the late 19th century. Deception, disguise, theft, secret agents, overarching plots whose true aims are hidden from those who are carrying them out - it's all here, like a slightly low-tech James Bond story.
Kim is also a fascinating depiction of a clash between religions and cultures. Without seeming to make a big deal out of it, Kim is a story of Hindus, Buddhists, Jainists, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians rubbing shoulders with varying degrees of respect and tolerance. Characters frequently switch languages in mid-conversation, either to facilitate comprehension, underscore particular social or religious meanings, or exclude certain people. Credit here must be given to Kipling for doing a fantastic job at transliterating different accents and dialects. That's usually difficult for an author to pull off convincingly, but here it is flawlessly done. Particularly effective is when Kim and other characters switch from translated Hindi, fluent and full of thees and thous, to transliterated English that comes out like "Oah, I am verr-ee sorr-ee, Sahib," and can't help but be read with the author's intended diction and cadence.
Finally, of all the works of fiction I've read, this may be the one that portrays Buddhist ideals with the greatest clarity and beauty. For all its (frequently breathtaking) racism, the book is earnest and sensitive in its depiction of Westerners finding enlightenment through Eastern religion. In this regard, I think it even surpasses The Razor's Edge and may be rivaled only by Richard Herley's The Drowning.
I think I will feel the urge to reread this book soon, and I encourage you to read it if you haven't done so already. It's a story about friendship, loyalty, courage, and finding redemption, even when that word means different things to different people. It's smart, funny, and touching. A total classic.(less)
Gay culture touchstone? Turn-of-the-20th-century political allegory? Nah. Much more of a straightforward fairy tale than I would have thought based on...moreGay culture touchstone? Turn-of-the-20th-century political allegory? Nah. Much more of a straightforward fairy tale than I would have thought based on having seen the Judy Garland movie adaptation. Once you strip away the 1930s MGM musical-ness (pretty hard to do, considering what a part of the cultural consciousness that film is), and substitute in Baum's simple yet lyrical language, it feels very much like an American answer to classic European folk tales. At its heart, this felt like a story about believing in yourself, being kind, and being a good friend. If I had owned this book when any of my kids were four or five, it would have been wonderful to read to them.
Of course, as a former history major, I looked for the populist, free silver, political satire that was supposed to be here, and I've gotta say I think that must be some bullshit interpretation tacked on by later critics. This suspicion of mine is borne out by the fact that Frank Baum wrote approximately 327 sequels to this book, and to read them all would take more time than the actual Free Silver controversy lasted. I think Baum just set out to write a great children's story that wouldn't bore their parents to death, and he succeeded.(less)
I enjoyed this far more than I expected! Having read The Return of Sherlock Holmes, I found Holmes and Watson more rewarding here, in the context of a...moreI enjoyed this far more than I expected! Having read The Return of Sherlock Holmes, I found Holmes and Watson more rewarding here, in the context of a novel, than in that collection of short mysteries. Again, it's pretty amazing how influential this stuff is - as you read, it becomes obvious that everything from House M.D., to Patricia Cornwell, to Harry Potter, to Scooby-Doo, bears the fingerprints of Arthur Conan Doyle.
What's surprising, though, is how readable this book was, and how non-dated it felt. It was humorous, suspenseful, and (since I've never seen a film adaptation or anything) kept me guessing until the climax. Holmes is one of the best-known characters in literary history for good reason, and The Hound of the Baskervilles must be his high water mark. Great stuff.(less)
Such, such a strange and interesting book. Yet I can't give it more than three stars.
The easiest way to look at The Picture of Dorian Gray, to me, is...moreSuch, such a strange and interesting book. Yet I can't give it more than three stars.
The easiest way to look at The Picture of Dorian Gray, to me, is to break it into three acts.
For the first few chapters, I was completely captivated. The three main characters (Basil, Henry, and Dorian) are laid out quickly, succinctly, and beautifully (and all three are shining literary archetypes), the MacGuffin is introduced (though it doesn't commence Guffination until well into Act II), and the exposition is lush and gorgeous and decadent. In addition, the dialogue is witty, pithy, scathing, and eminently quotable: literally 75% of the conversation in the book is pure epigrams. It eventually gets a little tiresome, but in the first third of the book, you feel as though you're sitting in a room with the coolest kids in the world - especially Henry, whose pronouncements in favor of amoral pursuit of pleasure must have been shocking to Victorian-era readers, at least so bluntly put.
This section of the book is also double triple gay. It's the gayest thing that ever gayed it up in Gaytown. This was the first Oscar Wilde I'd read, and while I was certainly aware that he himself was homosexual, I was surprised nonetheless. I found myself repeatedly muttering out loud, as I read the first third of the book: Wow, this is all really rather gay...HOLY COW these dudes are gay...god dammit, get a room, guys...YES I get that he's beautiful...OMG you dudes are so gay...not that there's anything WRONG with that...REALLY? His lush red lips again? Are these guys gonna start doin' it?... Yes, I made quite a scene, reading my Kindle on the commuter train in downtown Salt Lake City and mumbling over my gay little book.
Suffice it to say, amid the handsome men throwing themselves onto couches in louche, careless manner, crushing daisies in their graceful hands, etc., the homoerotic subtext was so overwhelming that I was actually slightly surprised that it never jumped from subtext to just plain text.
Nonetheless, if the book had continued in the vein of Act I, it would have been a fantastic read. The problem, however, was Act II. Near as I can tell, Act II's purpose is to convey, as quickly as possible (and the book is a fairly short one) that Dorian Gray experiences every sensual pleasure that the world has to offer, and becomes more and more debauched and decadent, all the while showing no outward signs of moral decay or physical aging. Honestly, the whole thing feels rushed. There are large stretches in the middle of the book where Wilde rattles off interminable lists of things that Dorian experiences: first he's into beautiful smells; then it's exotic music; then it's precious gemstones; and then luxurious fabrics, and on and on. In each case, the author lists multiple examples, with descriptors, and it all flies by in a blur. It's tedious. What shoulda coulda come off like a montage scene in an 80s movie comes off instead like a particularly dry chapter from the Book of Numbers or perhaps like Bubba reciting the 1001 culinary uses for shrimp in Forrest Gump. At any rate, the middle sections of the book are a drag. You can get what Wilde is going for, but it lacks the poignancy and impact of the first act.
Act III picks up the pace again, and surprisingly (to this reader at least), becomes a pretty standard late-19th-century morality play. For as much as the book is neck deep in Henry's amoral aphorisms and shockingly debauched philosophizing, the actual resolution of the story contradicts pretty much everything he preaches. The titular character suffers for, and regrets, his wanton ways, and he comes to a miserable end. The End.
Worthwhile read, but fails to fulfill the promise of the first two or three chapters.(less)