Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

October 31, 2010 at 19:01 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Philosophy, Politics) (, , , , )


It is startling and discomfiting when one reads a supposed classic only to find it devoid of any redeeming features whatsoever. All the way through, the thought replays itself; “Somebody must like this book…” Ayn Rand’s characters have been excused their lifelessness and two dimensionality by the nature of their parable. How better to paint a grim and frightening picture than with dreadful and wearisome implements?

Her murky and aggressive philiosophy has been defended as a reaction against the pallid socialisms or dreadful communisms of her day, though a clearer case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, might never be found. She takes the frigid, souless and utterly unfair ideas of equality-at-all-costs, shirking and uncompensated theft and proposes as a champion an equally souless monster that turns a blind eye to suffering, pain and humanity; that treats thieves as murderers and seeks to enthrone some sort of anarchic oligarchy as a god to be worshipped by the cringing masses.

Her writing, I suppose, has been defended as a towering classic of modern literature. “Towering” is an easy one to see. But this is a manifesto, plain and simple. One might as well describe Mein Kampf as a collection of iambic verses as pin the label “literature” onto this lumbering behemoth. Quite beside its decidedly unpalatable philosophy (it is tempting to refer to it as a theology), this book is unreadable largely because of Ayn Rand’s refusal to admit that people are complex. Her heroes are flawless symbols of her better age; her villains make Captain Hook seem intricately motivated and multifaceted. When not engaged in political speeches (which may or may not last in one case for some 30,000 words) her heroes regress to thinking about sex in clean, clinical and machinelike terms. Can anyone say, “metaphor”? The shameless transparency of Rand’s writing might be intended to demonstrate how black and white the issue is, and how never the twain shall meet, but it sometimes seems as crude and risible as a childish scrawl.

So much for that, then. But besides the crass and artless message portrayed in the book – and the brutal way in which it is crammed down the reader’s throat – is there anything to redeem it? Well…no. Really, the book reeks of a tantrum of global proportions, and if you ever manage to claw yourself to the end of this 1000 page sleeping pill, it will be to the reverberating echo of Rand’s sad ghost screeching, “Me! Me! Mine! Give!”

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Heir to the Empire, by Timothy Zahn

October 30, 2010 at 13:47 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , )


It is unfortunate that the expanded Star Wars universe is so often passed off as a step above fanfiction, the result of cold pizza, mothers’ basements and too many video games. It is even more unfortunate that this depiction of the expanded universe is so often richly deserved. When Timothy Zahn launched the first Star Wars novel a few years after Return of the Jedi half-heartedly wrapped up the film franchise,  this was not the case. His books were forced to stand on their own, and the fact that they succeeded, and that his characters were more than a sugary shell in which to wrap the celebrity characters we knew from the movies, ultimately earned his trilogy the right to lift up its head, and proclaim itself something different. These aren’t “Star Wars books”. They are Star Wars literature.

Expertly told and actually containing booky things like “themes” and “characters” and “a plot”, Heir to the Empire set a high water mark that could have been surpassed, bettered and respected. It wasn’t. But that is not Timothy Zahn’s fault. It is perpetually amusing that he returned to the scene a decade later to bulldoze through a maze of unlikely villains, tepid heroes and milquetoast life-or-death-or-boredom struggles – and set the story straight, momentarily returning the Star Wars expanded universe to the straight and narrow.

Zahn does have his issues, as all science fiction writers do. The temptation to find hilariously futuristic words for everyday objects, and his not-so-subtle quotations of the Star Wars movies, or the love affair he has with his characters, each of whom is the paragon of whatever particular discipline Zahn has assigned to him (Thrawn, the infallible strategist; Karrde, the unerring gentleman pirate; Jade, the invincible sexy assassin; Drayson, second-to-none at being an inept commander). His failings, however, are few and far between, and pale before his ability to write reasonably well, his fertile imagination when it comes to creating characters and creatures, and his respect for his reader’s intelligence. This book is to be recommended even to those who aren’t diehard fans of the Star Wars saga, and to any affecionado of science fiction.

Related reviews:
Specter (sic) of the Past

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The Great Fire of London, by Stephen Porter

October 29, 2010 at 18:02 (Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical) (, , , , )


It is always fun to see a book begin extremely pompously and pontifically, only to make a hilarious mistake, and I did enjoy how Porter began by referring magnificently to “the thirteenth book of Revelation”. I settled in for a long (or not so long) list of sonorously muddled history and grandiloquent mondegreens, and found instead an intelligent and exciting history of the Great Fire of London that was stunningly complete, considering the minute size of this book.

Porter might not be able to find 666 in his Bible, but he is certainly on top of 1666, and although his sources are oft-repeated this cannot be his fault, and his textual criticism is second to none. It seems unfair to criticise a book simply for being short, especially when it seems to cover its subject matter perfectly adequately in its brevity, and yet it must be noted that this is perhaps the shortest serious history book I have ever seen, much less read. Despite this, Porter has provided us with that rare jewel in reading history; an economic event that is not lost in the historian’s obfustication with numbers and figures, and yet not whitewashed with rude approximations.

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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

October 26, 2010 at 20:02 (Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , )


Where to begin? Three pages in, it becomes readily apparent that Susanna Clarke has thundered onto the map of British fantasy literature, and hammered out an ineffable niche for herself. When one talks of Caspian or Frodo or Alice Liddell, Corum or Potter or Rincewind, the names of Norrell and Strange will henceforth follow naturally.

The story, in fact, must wait until the reader has taken time to imbibe the delicious savour of Clark’s own inimitable style. Admittedly, readers are generously granted four or five hundred pages to fully appreciate the richness and background of Clarke’s fantasy and wallow in her delightful turns of phrase and elegant prose; but if one has no patience for the bombast and verbosity of fantasy authors, then one really has no business in the genre.

Indeed, it has become rare that any writer takes time enough to create an entire functioning history and society. The attention to detailing both a regency period and an entirely original fantastical history is remarkable, and if any complaint were uttered for the book’s considerable length, surely in this it would be answered in full.

While certain rather despairing outcomes detracted somewhat from the book’s initial foppish or whimsical air, and the darkening of the tone overpowered some of the charm and warmth that is so native to English fantasy, these disappointments are to scale with the book’s monumental successes as a piece of literature, and cannot assail it upon the pedestal it richly deserves

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Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire

October 18, 2010 at 19:43 (Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )


Gregory Maguire has a wonderful imagination. He has some very clearly thought-out ideas of what life is, and what it is for. The premise of this book is not new, but it is interesting, and the storyline that he fancies could very well have been an enthralling one. Whether through laziness or ineptness, Wicked fails in its self-confessed attempt to whittle out a spot on the classic literature shelf. Maguire might have a fine imagination – he might even be a passable storyteller – but he is a bad writer.

This books starts out as Hogwarts and ends up as Lord of the Flies, and while even that sounds like a good (or at least tolerable) premise for a story, Maguire is simply not good enough to pull it off. He begins to describe his scene, whether a character or a place or a concept, and then becomes distracted. Invariably it turns to sex. What do missionaries spend their time doing? Having sex. With anything that moves. Assassination? That sort of subject leads invariably to sex. Robots? They’re about sex. See that cliff over there? Makes you think of sex, eh?

This sort of writing is not daring or enticing. It is not even good enough to be offensive. It is simply sloppy. His children are not childlike enough, his adults are more petulant and irrational than his infants, and when he finds a situation that he cannot write his way out of, he avoids the problem by skipping ahead a few decades. Presumably whatever the crisis was, they sorted it out.

All this might make a very plain third-rate novel, but the accolades attached to this book and printed brazenly across its jacket turn the whole thing into somewhat of a farce. Maguire may well have confused his already clumsy storytelling with some half-baked philosophising, but his most monumental failure is his utter inability to capture the essence and the magic of the Yellow Brick Road, the vivid colour in the characters of Dorothy and the Wizard, the detail given to the fantastic country. Maguire has attempted to fill in a line drawing with colour, and found to his chagrin that the original licks his childish smudgings hollow.

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The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli

October 17, 2010 at 17:01 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Renaissance)


It is a simple fact that the word “Machiavellian” is one of the most delightful and flexible adjectives in the English language, capable of being applied to subjects and persons as disparate as foreign dictators, games of Risk, the children of friends, the actions of one’s employers and the latest corporate actions of Apple. It is maybe a little disappointing to find the actual man a little more pragmatic and a little less scheming and manipulative than his reputation (and his eponomy) suggests. He also seems a lot less creepy than Santi di Tito’s painting (see left) would lead us to believe.

Honestly his book feels less like a demonically-inspired treatise on how to dominate people and murther (sic) them in their beds than a rather patronising strategy guide for Settlers of Catan. The discerning and non-criminally insane reader will probably agree with much of what Machiavelli has to say, and even admit that the remainder makes good sense, though is morally questionable and would quite likely lead to problems down the road.

For a renaissance tract dealing in political philosophy it is surprisingly accessible (much more so than Leviathan, for instance) and Machiavelli does everyone a service by providing his ideas in short and persuasive sentences without piles of flowery clauses cluttering the place up. His allusions and references to classical writers are usually appropriate rather than showy, and the examples that he pulls out of his contemporary Italy are usually such that even passing familiarity with the period is sufficient to understand his points. In all, this is an excellent book for the casual reader looking for some heavily compressed and concise summaries of Renaissance politics, and an absolutely essential stop for any serious historian.

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Solo Command, by Aaron Allston

October 2, 2010 at 18:09 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , )


Aaron Allston’s series of books, based on Michael Stackpole’s series of books, based on bestselling space simulator X-Wing, based on George Lucas’ original Star Wars movies, based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 blockbuster, was never going to end up framed in the hallowed halls of great literature. When spin offs of spin offs of spin offs begin to appear on the shelves, the idea of finding something fresh or exciting is rather over-optimistic. But despite the flotsam of rehashed characters and subjects and events stretched to breaking points, Allston manages to produce a highly entertaining novel, following wisely in the footsteps of his predacessor and realising that stories do not have to be flooded with cameo appearances by the likes of Luke Skywalker in order to be enticing. It might be said that Allston and Stackpole have each made highly successful careers out of the one-line extras – except that in Solo Command (despite the eponymous General taking a significant part) almost all of the developed or important characters are original.

This might have been a poor decision for the thirteen-year-olds desperate to hear improbable deeds about the invulnerable heroes sheltered by the Lucasfilm licensers, but it adds some badly needed originality to Solo Command, and for a few chapters, it seems like it might even be a genuinely good book. Unfortunately, Aaron Allston thinks himself something of a comedian. Much worse than this, he can’t write for toffee.

His introduction of a host of happy-go-lucky fighter pilots, living in close quarters and living, dying and falling in love – more dangerously yet, the fact that these characters are supposed to be the ragamuffiney washout patrol – means that he feels compelled to turn the whole thing into a third-rate sitcom. A laugh track might have helped the book out. A miniseries would have been interesting. But this choice, when coupled to his plodding and immature writing style, leads inevitably to disaster. His dialogue might have been written by a high schooler, and his lacklustre attempts at tension and drama belong firmly between the pages of a fanfiction magazine. Certainly a shame, considering the bravery in abandoning the main characters and plot elements of so many other Star Wars novels, and considering the passion he clearly has for developing deep and intriguing characters.

Related reviews:
Wedge’s Gamble
The Krytos Trap
Starfighters of Adumar

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