Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Gabriel García Márquez

January 29, 2011 at 01:41 (Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Mystery) (, , )

9/10

This book is about prejudice, shared guilt and culpability, the place of women in society, honour, the place of men in society, and things like that. At least, that is what the dust jacket says. Without that helpful reminder, it seems to be about a simple, tragic and unnecessary murder, with very few strings attached other than the leitmotif of the murder’s discussion in quick breathy snatches throughout the night and morning before (the death being, of course, foretold). It seems that all of these extra social themes are there to be found for anyone prepared to do a lot of looking, but that there is simply not enough story to accomodate any of them in any depth. It is a short story, and does not have any room for the exposition, characterisation or lengthy changes over passages of time that García Márquez’s other novels manage so well. Principally, this is a book about a mistake, and a very good one. It is excellently written, and its brevity serves not to pile up sociological themes, but as an illustration of a sharp, unexpected shock that is nevertheless to be found waiting around every corner.

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McMafia, by Misha Glenny

January 27, 2011 at 01:00 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )

9/10

It is refreshing to find a journalist who can write intelligently and grippingly about the past; it is incredibly rare to find one who can write a book about contemporary events without overhyping the silliest events to prove all sorts of absurd private obsessions. Misha Glenny’s unparalleled studies in Eastern Europe ably prove his abilities, but McMafia (despite its rather tabloidesque title) proves his focus and his ability as an investigative contemporary historian, his bravery as a researcher and his excellence as a writer.

Glenny clearly holds some very defined opinions about globalisation, and the correct course of action governments ought to take in stemming corruption and staunching cash hemmorhages, but this is not an opinionated book. This is chiefly an explanation as to how these things work, why they happen and how they relate to twenty first century politics, trade and crime. It is remarkable how well Glenny keeps his own pontificating and his private beliefs to himself, and how objectively he writes–despite the occasional proof that he does care very deeply about certain issues above others.

Like all contemporary historians, there are the ubiquitous “this-really-happened” stories, and the attempts to engage the reader by providing detailed anecdotal accounts of events that happened to touch the author personally–things that he might be uniquely qualified to answer or explain–and in McMafia, these stories are recollected soberly and without the melodrama usually associated with such incidental inclusions. In a rare yet pleasing phenomenon, these additions complement the edifice that Glenny sets his sights to build, and provide relevant background to his research, rather than momentary relief for bored readers adrift in a deluge of dreary facts and figures.

As far as the focus of this book, it seems very probable that it will age slowly. Predictions of the next few decades of the century are level-headed and conservative rather than sensational, and a great deal of time and effort goes towards explanation rather than shaky interpretation. Glenny has written a first rate contemporary history, and a very valuable – and readable – insight into the dark side of globalisation.

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Into the Storm, by General Fred Franks, Jr. (ret.) and Tom Clancy

January 25, 2011 at 18:34 (Biography, Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , , , )

6/10

Fred Franks is truly an American patriot. He is bombastic, stern, and utterly convinced that America is the greatest thing ever, and that American soldiers will always overcome anybody else, especially communists. That is not terribly fair to him, but it is certainly an impression that one could easily come away with after reading what is essentially his memoirs. He (ghost)writes much like a caricature of a sergeant major might: brusque and snappy. You can almost feel his moustache bristling fiercely as he tells you in no uncertain terms how the world works, and why.

The book was much more technical than might have been expected with Tom Clancy’s name on its cover, and for that reason its pages are to be entered with trepidation. There is an enormous amount of jargon, and even more acronyms. It is a slog, and this drags it down several pegs. On the surface, Franks is a perfect gentleman, honest and earnest in everything, and humble enough to praise the army, his soldiers, his subordinate officers and just about everybody else. Throughout, he makes several very subtle comments about General Norman Schwarzkopf and one or two other characters, peers and superiors, which suggest that perhaps this account of the Gulf War is not entirely altruistic. It seems rather clear from his point of view that his criticisms are justified, but they are one-sided and seem a little cheeky, nonetheless.

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The Vile Village, by Lemony Snicket

January 24, 2011 at 12:08 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )

10/10

Up until this point, the characters in the Series of Unfortunate Events have been rather flat.  Likeable (or monstrous villains), but without either depth or motivation.  There are disposable paper villains, who support Olaf’s nefarious schemes unquestioningly and without apparent motive or personality of their own; there are the ubiquitous “adults” after the mold of Mr. Poe, who are lofty and incompetent, and have nothing to say, except that children should be seen and not heard.

In the Vile Village, we meet our first villain who has a motive—and an adulterous and romantic motive—as well as a caretaker who reprises the crippling fears of Aunt Josephine, but in a much more traumatic and believable way.  Hector is the first adult who displays weakness (rather than pig-headed ignorance), and in this he begins to mirror the invulnerable and immutable Count Olaf himself, who we find has a sudden and inexplicable Achilles Heel, and an open heart to another character.  His personality suddenly explodes past the paltry hope of financial gain, and in his philandering we see that he miraculously has more than just one side.  The author even opens up the possibility (although it is swiftly slammed shut) that the villain might even be mortal.  Perhaps even vulnerable.

Woven into the middle of this is a poetic mystery, and if it is a simple puzzle that will not even tax the faculties of the book’s intended audience, it is at least pleasing to see an effort to engage the reader’s creativity, and draw us into the adventure alongside the Baudelaires.  Combined with a conclusion that suddenly alters the formula that the Series has henceforth taken and even includes a feeble ray of sunshine to an admittedly dreary and depressing landscape, and The Vile Village manages to be by far the most interesting book in the Series yet.

Related reviews:
The Miserable Mill
The Ersatz Elevator
 

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Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell

January 23, 2011 at 19:36 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , , )

3/10

Oh, Pocahontas, Boudicca, Tarzan, Mowgli, Queequeg; and all you noble savages who must welcome Karana into your ranks! How you tickle the fancy and make the Great White Hunter feel so good about himself. Island of the Blue Dolphins is, of course, a variation on that proud and stiff-legged old theme, and one which displays the aboriginal girl in a way at once sympathetic, vaguely pantheistic and utterly interesting as a specimen of study. Perhaps the most enduring nineteenth century novel to emerge out of place and out of time and hang on by its fingernails to the shelves of the modern library! There is something objectionable about O’Dell’s portrayal about Karana and her island, in the air of a scientist studying something infinitely beneath him, and yet also the air of a tourist hoping to slum for a while in something purer and closer to the earth.

Unfortunately, this is the area in which Scott O’Dell’s efforts are chiefly located, and this is the main holding point of the book. Besides the character study of “how the natives manage things, being all savage and stuff,” and the terribly dry (but of course very important) explanation of the hunting and gathering practices of said natives – there is very little space left for a story. As the educational tool it undoubtedly was intended for, this book manages quite well. Young readers will walk away with a thorough knowledge of how to tame wild dogs and catch fish on desolate reefs. Heaven help those wrangled into studying it seriously. It is aimed at young readers who might not pick up on its patronising and cynical air, and yet it contains absolutely nothing that a younger reader might find appealing. Daring swordfights, cruel villains and stimulating adventure play second fiddle to creating textiles and learning the social dynamics of pack animals. As a story or a piece of literature, it is prosaic, egotistical and naught but a poor man’s Call of the Wild.

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Specter (sic) of the Past, by Timothy Zahn

January 22, 2011 at 11:28 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , )

10/10

The release of this book cannot have been anything but good news for the Star Wars library: the long-overdue return of one of the only genuinely great storytellers in the Lucas fold, and the coup de grace to a half-dozen scattered and timid storylines that went nowhere, and expected to go nowhere. In his fêted duology, Zahn singlehandedly sideswipes the legs out from under the paltry teenage romances other writers had started with both Lando Calrissian and Luke Skywalker, firmly making up his own mind about them both. He dismisses almost everything written about a handful of petty villains (such as Isard and Daala) and gathers his readers expertly together: “Come,” you can hear him saying, “enough of this foolishness. Let me tell you what really happens in Star Wars.”

His choice to base the duology around his most successful villain was as ingenious only as his decision to leave Thrawn in the grave, and forego any resurrection attempts. Thankfully, Zahn is not so attached to his Spectre as all that, and instead of convoluted plot devices relying on unexplained and unnecessary “technology”, he comes up with a convincing and exciting plot, that spreads its focus pleasantly between his own excellent original characters, while still giving the celebrity favourites (the Skywalkers and Solos) something plausible with which to occupy themselves.

Pellaeon is the most mature character in this book, and in his musings and asides we catch a glimpse of Thrawn without the mystique and without the supercilious aloofness that limited the depth of that Admiral. It would have been so easy for Timothy Zahn to simply provide us with a facsimile of his successful creation; it would have been interesting for him to depart the formula entirely (and he does so ably, with Disra, Tierce, et al), but for him to take a detailed look at another, more human and believable version of Thrawn is a brave choice, and one that works brilliantly.

Zahn’s treatment of clones, as usual, verges on the brink of the same light horror that he explored in Dark Force Rising; sinister, but not outright evil. His throwaway quest for Luke, Lando and Karrde cannot distract from the most intelligent and realistic crisis that has ever surfaced in any Star Wars novel to date. Gone are the superweapons and the invasion fleets, the supernatural McGuffins and galaxy-threatening plagues. Instead, he offers a fresh plate of xenophobia, political unrest and agents provocateur. The fact that much of this book might easily be transposed by a Ludlum or a Le Carre and still make a great deal of sense speaks volumes for Zahn’s ability, but mostly for his integrity.

Related reviews:
Heir to the Empire

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The Visions and Prophecies of Zechariah, by David Baron

January 21, 2011 at 17:39 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Theology) (, , , , , )

8/10

An altogether terrific commentary, in spite of its rather dispensationalist bias throughout. Notwithstanding his prejudices, Baron manages to present an eschatology that ought to be palatable to any literal reader of the Old Testament. His own prophetic insight is considerable, and his dogmatically literalist viewpoint is justified by his futurist application of Zechariah’s apocalypse, and his vindication, nearly half a century after some parts of his book was written. His unswerving determination to see contemporary Israel as significant to this prophetic book is surprising, considering the date of publication–although it is impossible to read this without detecting just a little bit of wishful thinking, rather than honest exegesis.

Weak points would include a very occasional tendency to wax vitriolic when dealing with admittedly self-contradictory works of his contemporaries, as well as very little presentation of views that are at variance to his particular reading. This is an excellent book for those who already agree with Baron’s perspectives, or for those who have a general understanding of amillennial or other preterist readings of the text, but not for those looking for a neutral presentation of the facts. This is of course partly due to the absolute lack of consensus as to how to read the book of Zechariah with a rationalist-symbolic paradigm (or indeed any prophetic scripture); and yet it would be nice to be able to see Baron’s exposition on some of the other extant readings of Zechariah. In the few instances where he does briefly explore another’s hypothesis, his exposition is clear and precise.

Other failings could be Baron’s writing style, which is decidedly brusque, and as terse as the prophet himself! This is compensated for by his charming eloquence, and while the book’s precise and scholarly style leaves it a little prickly, the drier parts of his book are offset by their origin as speeches, which forced Baron to clarity verging on redundancy, and of course excuses brevity on some subjects which might have otherwise been elaborated.

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Out of the Silent Planet, by C. S. Lewis

January 20, 2011 at 16:04 (Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , , , )

8/10

Out of the Silent Planet begins very slowly, and even at the end it might best be described as “like Lewis, but not quite like Lewis” – much grittier and more grim than his Chronicles, and much less cozy than his theological books – which are delightfully friendly and warm. His excursion into science fiction has a hard and bitter edge, and the first several chapters (and some of the later ones) read more like supernatural-mystery-thrillers, or even like horror.

Ransom is hardly typical hero material, but Devine and Weston more than make up for this, being very typical villains who help to bring a slightly lofty story onto a more relatable level. They are characters we all know: the villainous scheming doctor (avec cape), his sneering sidekick (avec dental problem) and a monstrous scheme (avec space travel). Throwing in a venerable professor of literature might be an odd choice, but it appears to have been the right choice.

This book begins with almost no impression that any sort of allegory might be coming–and it actually keeps that promise. We do not have allegory, but rather a slick and clever rewriting of the entire Christian cosmology; an exercise in hyoptheses rather than a gentle explanation of a theological structure. The moral message and the elaborate and ambitious architecture of gods (and God) rather than alien civilisations or any other hackneyed 1950s science fiction trope drew the book out of tedium, and also drew it out of competition with a thousand other titles just like it. Anyone can write science fiction, but perhaps not theology fiction. There is only so much that can be said (and has been said) about men living on Mars, but to have them woven into a theme of how our own planet and race was created, amidst speculation of extradimensional and supernatural servants of this nebulous creator – that is a subject that can become interesting. When viewed through Ransom’s eyes (and especially Weston’s), and for the reader to see them puzzling over what these supernatural creatures could naturally be explained as – well, it’s frankly delicious.

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Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

January 20, 2011 at 03:05 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Theatrical Plays) (, , , , , , )

10/10

Tom Stoppard is far too clever for his own good. This is an iceberg of a play, with a monumental cusp jutting into full view, and the plain and obvious truth that there is much more beneath the surface, daring readers to dash their ships against it in vain effort to decode the layers of meaning. Quite simply, it is certainly not necessary to completely understand what exactly is happening in this play, in order to thoroughly enjoy it. MIT students of thermodynamics might find an additional half dozen layers of meaning, and scientific postulating in these pages; and perhaps they are there. But quite apart from Tom Stoppard’s genius, and the nine tenths that lurk beneath the surface ready to shred the hulls of readers sailing too close, this play is beautiful.

The link between 1809 and 1993 is immaculately laid out, with revelations doled out in small enough quantities to titilate and delight readers, instead of shock or surprise. There is an air of familiarity in characters we have only just met, and a cloak of mystery over names we know, with the 1809-1812 scenes having above all the feeling of a half-remembered dream. Stoppard is in no hurry to enlighten his readers, and handles his creations lovingly and with gentle humour. Even with those he destroys or ruins, there is nothing jarring or sudden; only a sense of melancholy nostalgia, and a lingering desire to reread the play immediately.

Septimus Hodge is a delightful Oscar Wilde character; the drawling, untouchable, debonair and dapper young gentleman: he is chillingly re-rendered as the Genius of the Place, with the implied atrophy of everything dashing and polite about his character, and the clear impression that his gradual changes and development are absolutely genuine and true to life. If an intelligent, witty and handsome philosopher ever came apart at the seams and turned into a haunted hermit, it would surely look exactly like this. Thomasina admirably fills the emptiness of Hannah’s character, and seems to speak with Stoppard’s own voice, providing direction for the narrative, and a central core for the story, all the while remaining blind to her own fate and at least half blind to the various infidelities and submerged ploys and plots of those around her; a delightful and appealing combination. Altogether flawless, and a truly beautiful and symmetric read.

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Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett

January 18, 2011 at 16:20 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )

8/10

The best thing about this book is the relieving fact that Terry Pratchett has sorted out his writing to the point that he once again has some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. The stream of rehashed, reheated, repetitive books with milquetoast characters who bumble through mindless plots has been broken rather decisively by a book that feels like it was written ten years ago, when Terry Pratchett sat alone and unchallenged on the throne of comedy writing.

Unseen Academicals is rather heavy-handed in its moralising and its constant pronouncements that everyone is valuable and everyone has a chance to make something out of his or her or itself; but since when has Terry Pratchett shied away from pasting his opinions all over his books? The ending of this book is pretty clear from the first sixty or eighty pages in, but the writing remains entertaining – and that is what Pratchett’s books are all about.

Thankfully, there are absolutely no scenes in the book with anything to do with football (until the final forty pages), although when we do finally get around to the Big Game, it is handled rather badly, with a cameo appearance by William deWorde stammering a very poorly-imagined commentary that doesn’t seem to have been edited since the first draft was scrawled on a napkin. He was never the most successful of characters, and writing about sports is probably the least interesting thing any writer could do, but thankfully this part is over quickly.

A sour note to end with, but a relief that a great writer has returned to form at long last.

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