In examining The Children of Hurin, the first question will be, “Is it any good?” while the second question will be, “Is there anything new or unique here?”
The answer to both of these questions is not all that simple. The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion from which this story is assembled are both notorious for being difficult and labyrinthine tomes reserved exclusively for people who don’t get invited to parties. They are both very, very good, which answers the first question somewhat. Any reader who has gone through either one of those books will not find anything particularly surprising in The Children of Hurin, which answers the second question.
But there is something very valuable and very new in these pages. Christopher Tolkien (who edited together these fragments) has long been a target of scornful dismissal by many fans of his father’s work, but it is remarkable how seamlessly he has managed to collate the pieces of Hurin’s tragedy from the disparate sources available to him, and come out with something very much approximating literature.
The grandiose style that has been mistaken for unwieldiness by many readers of Tolkien’s miscellaney has been sanded and polished, and in the process of cutting Hurin’s family out from their tangled web of thousands of years of history there is much that has been either abbreviated or removed entirely. In fact, the peculiar thing about this book is that the very act of making it ‘more readable’ and ‘more accessible’ has in fact denuded it of helpful context for many readers unaware of the arcane details of Tolkien’s legends. Those deeply intimate with the history of the Noldor and Thangorodrim will find a clear and thrilling edition of a familiar story; those who have only read The Lord of the Rings will still be faced with the constant stumbling blocks of how this story fits in with the world they know. It is therefore interesting that the simflification of the books has consequently made the story more inviting for those who are already comfortable with the original versions.
The most noticeable artefact from The Silmarillion stylistically speaking, is the rather grim absence of levity or mirth. This is a much harder story than Tolkien’s more famous works, and while that does not make it worse at all, it does make it different, and it will doubtless unsettle many readers. This setting also allowed Tolkien to explore more adult themes, and his characters here are much more driven by fear and by jealousy, by pride and by vengeance and by honour. Turin and Morwen, Beleg and Glaurung, are much more human and much less fantastical than the array of hobbits and men seen elsewhere; which is again a comment, and neither criticism nor praise. There is some difficulty in finding the focus of the story–for the grand millennial struggle against Morgoth is a background theme, and incidental to the plot. But in that, the smaller details and choices assume a wider significance than in the original editions, and a warmth which is difficult to set upon initially is brought out.
It is incredibly difficult to consider this book apart from the other forms in which it has already been published. Most readers who come across it will come across it because of their admiration for these other works. But those others who will have to painstakingly arrange the context (or do away with it entirely) will find a bitter but enticing fantasy story, expertly written and without any of the baggy and painful luggage that so much modern fantasy is encumbered with. Surprisingly satisfying to read, and one that even committed Tolkien-devotees might find themselves reaching for more often than they think.
Tom Stoppard’s humour is not necessarily of the zinger-punchline sort. He tends to be wry and ironic; but evidently the overly pronounced surrealism in After Magritte persuaded him to let loose just a little bit, and there are passages in here to elicit more than the occasional snort of laughter or satisfied chuckle. It goes without saying that the dialogue is razor sharp; and the characters, constructed in such a short time, will remain memorable and distinct even after speeding into and out of the reader’s attention. More tellingly, they are more than just props with which to adorn a clever repartee. Not a lot more (there simply isn’t time or space for that), but Stoppard skirts around the edges of pathos and offers up the vaguest hints of elaborate and unlikely backstories. He demonstrates very well how successfully a single uttered word at the right time can speak volumes for a character’s motivations, general attitudes, and inclinations.
It is not necessary to be familiar with or even aware of René Magritte’s work to thoroughly enjoy this play, although certain set-pieces and tangential features will seem like a little wasted space as a consequence. If a criticism is to be made, it is that the exposition and the build-up to the play’s climax are proportionally a little too long for the conclusion, which is remarkably sudden and brief. Despite this perceived imbalance, the ending is not at all unsatisfying, and at risk of charging Stoppard with conceit, makes some nicely subtle references towards Magritte’s own theories of art.
Unlike Stoppard’s more famous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, this play is markedly more straightforward and simple to understand, for all that it is a surrealist nod to a surrealist icon. For that reason alone although it might not be the ideal entry point into his catalogue, it would certainly not be a bad place to start for a reader investigating all of the well-deserved hubub around this renowned writer.
This is not a good book. The authors might have encyclopaedic knowledge of all there is to know about early Victorian England, but that evidently does not qualify them to write about it. In fact, the overwhelming impression a reader will be smothered with is that the pages are crammed with lists, compendia, tallies—endless nattering and gibbering—put down anything on the page, anything! So long as it looks period-authentic, and so long as it sounds old-timey, and so long as it’s got something to do with steam or antiques.
This book is packed to the gills with the sort of rubbish one might expect from people who think everything in the Middle Ages was “Olde”, and who imagine peasants to have spent their days doest-thou-ing and verilying. A lot of style over substance, but a mongrel, desperate sort of style. One only has to read Dickens or Melville or Stevenson or even Austen to realise that even in the olden days, people did not speak how Gibson and Sterling’s horrid pantomime mockneys and lords speak.
An unforgiveable sin in literature is an author’s laziness. In The Difference Engine another sin is laid bare: the sin of trying much too hard.
Quite besides the stylistic failings that make this book so painful and embarrassing to read, is the terrible state that the actual story itself tangles into. Absolutely nothing of any significance takes place within the first fifty or sixty pages. While a decent head of steam is built up shortly thereafter with a mystery to solve and protagonists and villains nicely lined up, the authors then make the inexplicable decision to bring everything to a screeching halt, and proceed with an entirely new tangentially-related plot. To crown the entire mess, the story finishes about a hundred pages before the book actually ends. The mystery is wound up, the villains despatched, the heroes safely accounted for…and the silly thing plods on, like a lumbering beast mortally wounded, yet too stupid to succumb.
Entire subplots are woven into this book for no satisfactory reason, other than to showcase things. Elsewhere in this review site, it has been mentioned that authors of alternate histories fall so much in love with their own cleverness and adroit reconfiguration of history, that the tail begins to wag the dog, and any pretense of telling a good story utterly vanishes. The Difference Engine does not make it quite so far, but not for lack of trying. There are artefacts and truncated plot lines and characters littered like dross through the book. Pages at a time could be cut out without consequence, because they introduce ideas or characters with no bearing whatsoever on the story.
Any author might be excused for mentioning unrelated details offhand. Tension must be built, scenes must be set, characters must be developed. Shakespeare had his gravediggers, Hugo his Waterloo. But Gibson and Sterling suffer from a rather catastrophic collaboration of crises: their asides are frequently more interesting that the fifty pages of dead space that precede them; their insignificant intrusions come typically just as tension has finally reached some paltry critical mass, and stifle any chance of a revival of the story; their tangents introduce questions that are unanswered, clues that go unsolved, promises that are not kept. Frankly, they are an annoyance that this weak book cannot afford, and ought to have been edited out at the first draft.
There are occasional sparks of light, though they often serve to illuminate only the shoddy work surrounding them. For those interested in the bric-a-brac of a time gone by, Gibson and Sterling provide a rich table. The adjective “rich” could here describe a banquet, a bank account, or an overpowering odour, and its richness will be of limited interest to most readers. There are the buried germs of an interesting (though not brilliant) sort of Victorian thriller; perhaps a facsimile of one of the Penny Dreadfuls that they make sure to reference a few times, so that their readers know they’re really getting authenticity. The only remaining virtue of this book is its honest conjecture on an age of mechanical computing, and some geopolitical, scientific, and sometimes jocular ruminations on the world that Babbage and his ilk might have made. It seems that it was this core around which an unprofessional and unlovely story was wrapped. Unwrapping it might not be wise.
This book was a difficult one to rate. Ultimately, it was more exciting and action-packed than either of its predacessors. Unfortunately, even well-written action and adventure cannot compensate for a poor story, and in spite of a fast pace and some magnificent set-pieces, it was simply not as good.
There are some books that fall apart on one terrible issue that the author cannot get his head around: a devastatingly anticlimactic ending, or a limp and flat character inexplicably placed in the centre of everything. But Peter and the Secret of Rundoon dies a death of a thousand pinpricks. Popped seams and stretched plausibility from the earlier books — repairable mistakes left for a moment too long — combine to create an ultimately negative impression. Errors that ought to have been corrected by now, by a competent editor at least–or by an excellent writer–finally come of age and somewhat capsize this venture.
Molly has always been rather desperately pushed forward by the authors as a strong female character, usually comedically contrasted with Tinkerbell’s jealous sniping and grousing. She has never been a tiresome nag or a helpless idiot, but the feeling has always hung heavy that Tinkerbell is actually right, and that all of the jokes have contained a serious edge. Molly has several very uncomfortable and grown-up fights with several of the characters at a couple of different points, and this does an enormous amount of damage to the painstakingly cultivated character that Barry and Pearson nurtured over two other books.
The decision is finally made for the ghastly and mysterious Lord Ombra to come clean about his origins and his goals: which ultimately proves to be a disastrous choice. There is a bleak and surprisingly atheistic rant that comes out of nowhere, and the villains become considerably more prosaic and less impressive as a result. Indeed, the story loses much of the magic and fairytale beauty that it had managed to create in a surprisingly short time. Coupled with some bewilderingly anachronistic inventions that are shoehorned into the story seemingly to lazily patch plot holes, and any reader might be forgiven for wondering if the burst of enthusiasm with which this series began, has…run out of pixie dust?
Andrew Mango announces his rules clearly in beginning this book with a brusque and stern explanation of the Turkish grammar he intends on using, a hard rebuke towards prevailing racist western attitudes towards Turkey, and a firm reminder of his credentials as an historian who has searched exhaustively through sources Turkish and English for what, the subtext thunders, is a comprehensive, definitive, and especially serious biography.
This forbidding introduction then unfolds surprisingly into a spellbinding and rich tableau, and a deliciously-rendered summary of Turkish and European history ancient and modern; often straying, frequently magniloquent, always utterly and devastatingly pertinent. It is genuinely surprising how well Mango manages his charge: Atatürk bears all the hallmarks of a stiff and fatally padded book, wherein an author seeks to prove his mettle by including every anecdote, chasing down every family tree, dwelling on the minutiae of every source he can be sure nobody else has included in their biography. To borrow a phrase, this is indeed a loose and baggy monster, and while it would be difficult to claim that any particular event or period in a man’s life is irrelevant in the discovery of the whole, there are chapters that drag endlessly and which might have been truncated, particularly in Mustafa Kemal’s early life.
Of all the books to compare this to, it might well be compared to Tolkien, but with a keener sense of purpose. The quality of the writing is impossible to condemn, but the grinding thoroughness with which Mango attends to each scene in the theatre of Kemalism is impressive, to say the least. As churlish as it is to say, there are moments when readers will grow relieved that Kemal’s life was not another twenty years longer.
It is difficult for a reader unaccustomed to Turkish history to manage the unfamiliar names littered prolifically through Mango’s history; particularly seeing that so many of the principle characters share titles or given names in common. The author’s parenthetical use of the surnames that Atatürk introduced late in his reign is a confusing anachronism that aids identification at the expense of interrupting the lucidity of the writing.
Any good historical text ought to be judged not only on its readability, but on its voice. Andrew Mango’s history is peculiar, in that he comes across as an unabashed Turkophile, but without a great deal of antipathy or admiration for any particular faction of the nascent Turkish Republic. Thus, he has no sympathy at all for the Kurds, British, or French; and treats the Greeks with something approaching open hostility. At the same time, it is difficult to tell whether or not he truly approved of the methods Atatürk used in silencing Kâzım Karabekir, or what he thought of the Young Turks. He does not even reveal whether he is a believer in Kemalism until the final chapter, Aftermath, which is a brilliantly insightful essay on the entirety of Atatürk’s life and government, and on Turkey through the Twentieth Century.
There are shorter books and easier books, and probably many which would confer similar benefits to Mango’s biography. But it is truly a joy to be in the hands of an author that the reader can trust, and then forgive for the length of the road and a handful of inconveniences along it. In delving into the recent history of Turkey, why start anywhere else?
Gellman does not really have much reason to coddle the subject of this biography. The notorious secrecy that he describes as innate to the Cheney Vice-Presidency extended past 2008, and it is clear from an examination of Gellman’s sources and his postscript that on matters of substance, Cheney’s office was generally cold and hostile towards him in the construction of an attempted intimate portrait of the Bush government. He puts a faintly transparent mask over his perplexity at Cheney’s intransigence, which leaks through readily when describing events that he considers to be indicative of Cheney’s worst moments. But it is important to note that it is perplexity, and not outrage or dismay. Gellman might be a rather emotive author prone to strong reactions, but he keeps carefully balanced on a plinth of professionalism, and takes great care not to tread on the narrative with heavy feet of approval or disapproval.
George Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Karl Rove, and many of the other big-noise names from Bush’s presidency receive only marginal recognition in this carefully-focused book; obviously Bush himself is the most important peripheral figure, but surprisingly he is only studied when Gellman seeks to explain his oft-misunderstood relationship with his Vice President. In the hands of a poorer author, such a myopic focus might be detrimental, but Gellman is absolutely terrific at crafting context without stepping outside of a very tight circle. There is much that is missed, but few readers will complain for missing it.
Barton Gellman has little or no patience with stupid questions, and when he is obliged to bring up accusations or issues without basis in fact, he does so brusquely and with marked brevity. He is unafraid of admitting a dearth of information with a particular subject, and purposely leaves some questions dangling for future authors to pick up, rather than neatly trimming them off. He clearly recognises that an unanswered question is sometimes of equal value to an answer, and his attention to detail and zeal for a comprehensive account are both commendable.
This book could never be described as a panegyric, but neither is it a bleak demonisation or even harsh criticism. When Gellman has (frequent) cause to be critical, it is not always because Cheney has done something “bad” that he ought to be punished for. Often it is because Cheney has done something that the author neither condemns nor lauds, but which led to certain consequences that are spelled out as far as is possible, and then analysed. Such an approach might be considered dry, but either to Gellman’s credit or because of the rich subject matter, even the most noncommittal verdicts read very fluidly. This will hardly be the last word on Dick Cheney, for better or for worse, but it is a valuable insight that succeeds on all of the goals that it sets out to achieve.
In the parlance of the Twenty-First Century, On the Road is a singular and remarkable blog transcript. The problem in claiming this is that it is incredibly difficult to find a blog that says anything worth saying; and those that are written about the most fascinating things are never written by gifted storytellers. Jack Kerouac sets down a truly spellbinding trail of experiences and maturations, but in spite of the constraints of reality (or the freedom of writing fact as fiction), he produces a throbbing, vibrant, masterpiece that transcends the brief span of post-war years in which it was set, and becomes something almost spiritual.
There is a startling mysticism clasped within these pages, where Kerouac repurposes the “beat” label with no small trace of irony into beatification, and in hushed tones describes the holiness of the unwinding road. Psychoanalysts will have a field day (and surely already have) with the oft-discarded and oft-rejoined quest to find Dean Moriarty’s errant father who is always at the end of the next road, and Dean’s own transformation into the same type throughout the erratic adventures, but what Jack Kerouac writes–powerfully, and crashing through and above any attempts to psychoanalyse the protagonists–is a profound sense of longing; of desperation through madness and passion in a passionless world.
Without hectoring his readers or (worse) shamelessly romanticising the journey he recounts, Kerouac has some moving things to say about the human condition and the ubiquity of modernism. More importantly, he says it in a personable and unpretentious way, and with a warm and inviting style. To open this book is to open the door of a run-down old car–from any decade, providing it is fifteen years old–and find smiling and mad and troubled faces there within. Where you going? Sure. Hop in.
Throughout this novel, Eco writes with an impressively dualistic pen (which is not a reference to the dual nature of his protagonist), managing a gentle and likeable humour in the midst of a biting and sarcastic narrative. It often seems that Eco loves his grotesque Simonini as much as he despises him; and the result is a sympathy that the reader cannot but help being drawn into.
The Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect of the story, introduced almost at the outset, at first seems like a bad idea–especially when the narrator adds his voice to the tumult, resulting in the sort of “believe me, gentle reader” voice that has been about done to death. Although the narrator’s intrusions remain a little unwieldy throughout the book, Eco’s protagonist (or protagonists) share their duties well, and the style is neither heavyhanded nor aggravating. A vanity, perhaps, but a useful one. Eco’s debt to Dumas is flaunted openly, but he is also skilled enough as a writer to address Dumas as a peer, and uses his predacessor as a gilded frame and not as a crutch. One of the gravest pitfalls of consciously emphasising another writer (in homage or in plagiarism) is to remind the reader how much they’d prefer to be reading that book rather than yours, and Eco avoids this trammel and remains convincing and lively throughout.
The subject matter is of the very coarsest: quite besides the outrageously racist and misogynistic protagonist, when the setting is the darkest slums and salons of nineteenth-century Paris and the cast includes corrupt priests and satanists, one might rightly expect some decidedly objectionable material. It is surprising then how discretely Eco treats his foulest and dirtiest plot elements, in a way that other authors ought to take careful note of. The pages of murders, whores, and assassinations are not visceral things dripping with clinically-described gore, and the casual sidestepping of the most indelicate acts is written neither lecherously nor prudishly. With exception to a few needlessly graphic pages near the end, this book might be a study in writing maturely and sensitively about the very nastiest of actions. Again, this might be a conscious emulation of Eco’s influencers.
It would be far too generous to say that this book is faultless, but it is a compelling thriller written by an author who is both competent and comfortable with his subject, and whose depiction of his antihero is subtle and clever.
The problem with Randall Garrett, is that he was a writer with a tremendous imagination and an enormous stock of cleverness and creativity, but without a matching talent for writing. Despoilers of the Golden Empire showcases a terrific amount of clunky clauses and grammatical errors, some truly dreadful schoolboy dialogue, and reads much like an extended exercise from the workbook of a particularly gifted college student still learning his trade. Nevertheless, the surprise element of the story is managed with an almost careless finesse: it is difficult to criticise an author who–in the midst of his unprofessional demeanour–is nevertheless so very convincing.
It might almost be said that Garrett’s short stories lend themselves perfectly towards adaptation, where a clever idea might be seized upon, and all the unrefined penmanship in the world forgiven in a heartbeat–were it not for the perverse fact that so many of his stories are so intractably and immutably wed to their literary format, and by their nature would be deucedly difficult to adapt. Instead then, they ought to be read and cherished by those patient enough to recognise in his words an impatient dreamer, satisfied with scribbling his brainwave (or his private joke, or his tantalising but unfinished sketch) and abandoning it in mid-stroke. Misshapen, unlovely, but interesting in a very unique and attractive way.
Perhaps no genre has been sullied by the feet of so many slipshod hacks as the genre of alternate history. Of all the vast morass of “genre fiction” (that is, popular fiction written around a literary trope specifically for a saturated market), it is possible to find excellent science fiction, or skilfully-written romances. Historical fiction and fantasy from masterful pens stands proud amongst the tidal waves of bad imitations. But explicitly state that a book is an alternate history, and it will almost certainly be no good at all.
Perhaps it is the tired habit of trotting out dozens of cameo appearances by characters who happened to share a time period. Maybe the temptation proves too great to bore the reader with a litany of improbable events that make “this” history distinct from what really happened: and there are few things more horrifying than an historical lecture by an amateur who thinks he knows everything. Perhaps it is an undiscovered physical constant, that an author declaring, “I think I shall write an alternate history” automatically churns out something dreadful.
Philip Roth is by no means a novice writer, nor is he a talentless hack. But tragically, this constant seems to apply to him as well. It really is too bad. Most of The Plot Against America is a tragic and dysfunctional narrative about a struggling working class family. There really is no reason why President Lindbergh has to put in an appearance at all. In fact for that reason alone, Roth actually succeeds in telling a very very good story. There is some excellent tension between the characters, and Roth even blindsides the reader to a degree in shuffling the cousin and the father and the elder brother in and out of the “villain” and “hero” boxes. Unreliable narrators are always fun to read, and unreliable characters even more so: the pettiness of heroes and the nobility of antiheroes is subtly depicted, and makes for excellent reading.
Here is an excellent piece of advice. Upon reading this book, when you reach page 300 (or thereabouts), stop. The final hundred pages contain a confused and incredibly bland denouement, written in much the same style as one might expect in a dull newspaper. Roth has been accused by some reviewers of pulling out a deus ex machina, but this is unfair to writers who use deus ex machinae. He pulls out at least three of them, and piles them up in a precarious and pointless mess. The whole ending reeks of a publisher’s deadline, or of a writer’s indecision. Incidentally, the whole ending is also the part where Roth plummets irretrievably into the alternate-history pitfall of dully explaining a convoluted and meaningless (in the context of the rest of his story) timeline.
Not a recommended read, and definitely not for finishing.