Fatherland, by Robert Harris

December 30, 2010 at 03:56 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , )


Fatherland is one of the better attempts at alternate history, a genre that seems to have been stifled to death with dreary writing that decides to focus on the might-have-beens and the dropouts of the past, usually in a misplaced effort to make a particular point that the author has nurtured since he/she was an angsty teenager/graduate student/communist.

Also, there are Nazis.

Nazism seems to be a rather easy thing to write about, and a rather easy subject to write alternate history about, and so it is somewhat of a relief that Harris comes up with an interesting storyline, a convincing murder mystery and a climactic revelation that manages to thrill and horrify, even when it is no revelation at all.

There is no sign of Hitler, or any glimpses of the higher echelons of the Nazi party, which was almost certainly a good choice. A handful of the skeletal villains lurk in the blackness like the puppet-masters they are, but otherwise the reader’s imagination is left more or less to itself.

Robert Harris deserves full credit for telling a good story, but he also deserves criticism for his style. It is telling throughout that this is his first foray into fiction, and one can hear the transmission grinding and shuddering when he changes gears from Dialogue into Description, or from Chase Scene into Romantic Interlude (and hear the capital letters dropping into place, too). His writing isn’t clumsy, but it does feel very much like a first attempt, and like he is constantly glancing to one side where he has a dozen “real” books propped open to help him out. Perhaps this is more of an editor’s problem, but despite his immense success in writing Nazi Alternate History without making it dreadful, he has a long way to go yet.


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The Miserable Mill, by Lemony Snicket

December 27, 2010 at 22:20 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )


Daniel Handler hits his stride at last with the fourth of the Series, and after an adequate but disappointing third book. By The Miserable Mill, he manages to branch out of the rut he has begun to dig himself, and place his star trio in some newer scenarios. The book is darker and the perils imagined more deadly; the stakes are higher than before, and serious injury and death (which have been constant themes) are brought out from behind the curtain and put on full display.

A braver style of writing is evident, and Handler finds a much clearer balance between consistency and novelty and adaptability. His settings are as imaginative as ever, and he begins to flesh out some characters other than the thrice-accursed Olaf and whichever temporary guests appear.

Most importantly of all, we begin to find concrete glimpses of both the “character” of Lemony Snicket himself, and the whole metafictional construct surrounding the admittedly repetitive lives of those poor tragic Baudeliars (sic). Villains, characters and ideas are introduced that set the stage for a much deeper and lengthier story, and exposition of the kind we haven’t seen since the first chapters of the first book begin to rear its head. The only moment to criticise would be the author’s unfortunate propensity to run out of ideas and lose control of the willing suspension of disbelief. Orphans enslaved in a mill? I’ll buy that. Hypnotism? Sure. A swordfight between a baby (avec teeth) and a sword-wielding maniac? Amusing, but an unwise lapse that is sadly not too foreign to Handler.

Related reviews:
The Ersatz Elevator
The Vile Village

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I am America (And so can You!), by Stephen Colbert

December 23, 2010 at 14:20 (Book Reviews, Politics, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , , )


Sarcasm works in one of two ways: either it can provide a satirical commentary by taking ideas to their extreme (if illogical) conclusion, or else it can take ideas and repeat them word-for-word in a silly voice, and hope that everyone gets the point.

Sadly, this book takes the latter course. There is plenty to make fun of in American ultra-conservatism, and plenty to ridicule in contemporary American politics, so it’s a fairly rich playground for any comedian/journalist/satirist/hack to play in. Colbert stretches a rather thin joke over some two hundred pages after essentially using it up on the front cover.

Most of his humour throughout a book that surely has most of its copies consigned to the bathrooms of impulse buyers, consists of his persona offering up right wing views in a stupid voice, and then waiting for the laugh. There are a few moments where he becomes offensive (mostly when he is gratuitously graphic), but mostly this book ends up as a bitterly ironic reflection of its own target of lampoonery: a fellow with a vastly over-inflated view of his own wit and intellect, talking loudly. Stephen Colbert, you just are not that funny.

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A Man Without a Country, by Kurt Vonnegut

December 20, 2010 at 17:29 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Philosophy, Politics) (, , , )


This is a book designed to upset all those who are stunned to find that although they really liked Kurt Vonnegut as an author, they would have hated him as a person; or, a book to make those who have always agreed with Vonnegut’s innoffensive centrist agnosticism swell up with pride and nod their heads sagely at his pompous disowning of the world.

It is not creatively or artistically written – which simply means it is readable, relatable and interesting – and it is jarring when Vonnegut veers wildly from topic to topic without warning. Towards the end, however, a fuller picture is formed of a surprisingly holistic worldview, and the feeling of a long fireside chat with a man who can be summed up as wise, and very, very nice.

The fact that wisdom and being nice aren’t magic bullets that will address all of the world’s ills aside, A Man Without a Country is above all a plaintive cry from a desperate – and very nice – man, demanding an answer to things that are bad, and holding out his hands, hoping that in his final moments he might find something so elusive as peace. It’s a shame that Vonnegut never found it, but his life’s postscript is still a beautiful and soulful piece of literature, abundantly worth reading and processing, and sure to be relevant even when George W. Bush is one of history’s footnotes, and when all of the things Vonnegut is afraid of have either happened, or gone away forever.

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Darksaber, by Kevin J. Anderson

December 19, 2010 at 03:47 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , )


Kevin Anderson is a peculiar writer. Occasionally, he comes up with some splendid and original characters, and sometimes even lets them get as much as four or five chapters into a book before he ends up breaking something. On the other hand, sometimes he just does dreadful things.

It is a mercy that he didn’t consider the driving idea behind this book to be worth a full trilogy – because when you’re Kevin Anderson, who needs the Galactic Empire? Just take an idea that totally didn’t have the very life squeezed out of it already in two of the Star Wars movies, and mix in a comically incompetent crimelord. Couple that with some good old fashioned deus ex Jedi and a few messages about how Khommunism (sic) is bad, and what could possibly go wrong?

The entire book feels like a plate of leftovers, reheated once too often. The kids like Return of the Jedi, right? So let’s go back to Jabba’s Palace! That Timothy Zahn fellow wrote some decent books, eh? I’m sure he left some decent characters lying around! Oh, and scrape up what’s left of Admiral Daala, and we’ve got the beginnings of a good story! Sadly not. The attempts at writing some kind of romantic subplot for Luke Skywalker are as dire as can be expected when a second-degree writer tries to warm the hearts of a warrior monk and a ghost zombie, the tension Anderson builds is rotten to its core, and it turns out that cloying messages about trusting-in-your-friends always ending up as being more powerful than military force is as stupid as it is utterly redundant. Not the blackest depths the Star Wars franchise has plumbed, but maybe the worst of Kevin J. Anderson.

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