Tales Before Narnia, by Douglas A. Anderson (ed.)

February 28, 2011 at 13:47 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )

6/10

This was a little misleading in its title. Tales Before Narnia is not strictly Tales That Inspired CS Lewis To Write The Chronicles – some of the stories included were similar to his work, but never read by him. Others were works that inspired him greatly, but of vastly different genres and occupied with subject matter quite unlike anything Lewis himself worked on. The editorial introductions were helpful and of just the right length, and it was very pleasant to find so many stories either unpublished or else published in old and out of print anthologies. For this resurrection of forgotten short stories this is a very precious book. As for the stories themselves they range from dull and dreary (The Dream Dust Factory, by Lewis’ wife’s ex-husband) to the sublime (Tolkien’s and Dickens’ entries fit this category well). The extracts are short, which mingles the blessing of having only to suffer briefly with poorer entries with the unsatiated whetting of the appetite for the full catalogues of the wonderful authors who provided the bedrock of C. S. Lewis’ literary upbringing. Unfortunately, besides a handful of brilliant entires and a handful of the usual dreadful, this anthology contains a great deal of filler material that is utterly useless in drawing a sketch of Lewis and only of passing interest on its own merits.

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The Real War, by Richard Nixon

February 27, 2011 at 22:38 (Biography, Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )

6/10

In some respects, this book is exactly what one expects of a vehement anti-communist desperate to prop up his own discredited record in the face of disgrace. Nixon blows the trumpet for massive nuclear rearmament, a belligerently firm line with the USSR and tells America to hunker down for generations of struggle against an implacable and inhumanly evil enemy. The surprising thing is, even to a sceptic this book and Nixon’s vitriolic yammering holds some weight. His analysis of the US policy in Vietnam is honest and grave, and astonishingly relevant in the light of thirty years of history. His questionable philosophy of seeing apartheid as a lesser evil (and even an acceptable evil) as compared to communism (his logic runs that in the first some are free, whereas in the second none are free) strikes instantly as cynical and cruel, but certainly gives poignant insight into the policies of the US government through the 1960s and 1970s – and on through the present. Nixon is unapologetic in his repeated calls for stronger and harsher lines in international policy, and oddly prophetic in many of his suggestions. His startling predictions clash noisily in his failed guesses (such as the manner in which Communism would fail in Eastern Europe) – and yet even in his mistakes he shows a cunning understanding of the political balance of the world and the way governments work. This book is an arrogant monument to Nixon’s massive ego, but it is also an invaluable resource, and its politics (cynical as they are) make a frightening amount of sense even thirty years later.

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Soldier for the Empire, by William C. Dietz

February 26, 2011 at 23:15 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , )

5/10

It might not have been wise to treat a novella-length recasting of a decades-old video game with much optimism. Dietz has moments where he writes like an average Star Wars author (that is, with confusing explosions of action where every shot and death is described in intricate detail, because that’s what’s interesting) and he has his moments where he seems frustrated by the tight scope of the game’s storyline. The peripheral characters are described only in the most superficial detail (even important ones, like Jerec) while we spend entirely more time in Kyle Katarn’s head than is comfortable.

Dietz had the choice between comprehensively explaining and delving into all kinds of backstory, and leaving Katarn’s origins half-mentioned and mostly guessed-at. The latter was probably not an acceptable choice for the publisher, and he tries to walk a kind of middle ground, offering barely enough information about Kyle and Mon Mothma, Morgan Katarn, Jerec and Sulon to satisfy the curious, but just enough to effectively kill any air of mystery.

This is a shame, because for what it is and considering the incredible brevity of the book, Dietz wafts into the Star Wars franchise like a breath of fresh air. His prose is not the best, but it is mostly believable and not self-indulgent at all. He displays patience in his storytelling (except when he is forced to expedite Kyle’s entrance into the Alliance) and honestly attempts to write a story about a character, not a story about Star Wars that happens to have a character in it. He is balanced in his depictions of flawed heroes and three-dimensional villains, and seems like a promising author.

Related Review:
Rebel Agent
Jedi Knight

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Sword at Sunset, by Rosemary Sutcliff

February 25, 2011 at 13:20 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , )

8/10

Rosemary Sutcliff is one of the finest novelists ever to approach historical fiction, and on its own merits this is a marvellous book. Her departure from children’s literature in Sword at Sunset is marked, though the more graphic and adult depictions in this book are tasteful and sensitively portrayed. Nonetheless, a certain charm is missing, especially when she touches on characters already explored in the excellent prequel, The Lantern Bearers. It feels, in fact, as though an unknown author has touched and somewhat sullied things that are precious. No more than the progression of Aquila and Ambrosius and the rest of them out from heady youth and into a much grittier and harsher world, but it snags at the reader nonetheless.

With that said, this is after all a Rosemary Sutcliff novel. The love triangle between Arthur and Guinevere and the head of his company is marginally portrayed, with Sutcliff’s preference for concentrating on her male protagonists to the exclusion of everyone else, quite alive and well. The little dark people are described in greater detail and more vivid colour than any time since The Mark of the Horse Lord, and she manages superbly to write a hefty novel (at least twice as long as her usual works) that remains interesting and exciting without dwelling unduly on the mundane subject of war campaigns and bloody clashes on the field of battle. Not her best work, and not by a long shot; but an excellent story nonetheless.

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The Magician’s Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo

February 22, 2011 at 14:40 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , )

10/10

What if Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm had shaped stories where the villains were sadder, and where the misbegotten and lost were hopeful, and where the heroes were broken? What if Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince had possessed a gentle and loving heart instead of one of gold? What if Hans Christian Andersen had been more occupied with forgiveness than retribution? The result might be something like this: a story told with all the passion, the skill and the delicate wonder of a classic fairy tale, but told with a singsong lilt and a warmth and softness that simply doesn’t care for pointed fingers of satire or the harshness of pyrrhic victories.

The use of the fortune-teller as the story’s catalyst was perhaps a little uncomfortable, and skirted alongside the sort of loud, clanging story about carnivals and dark things in dark places that this story rose clearly above. This theme (and the magical theme that ran throughout) were not carried as far as the sort of dark conclusions at which they hinted. Indeed, DiCamillo’s touching willingness to marry her pseudo-villain to a toothless crone who loves him, or leave the Duchess crippled and Lutz both nursed lovingly and yet feverish and delirious showed a tendency to buck against convention.

A story like this might stand wide open accusations of being a cloying and crass ugly thing, suitable only for the very young. It might well have become that, if not for DiCamillo’s considerable skill, and ability to croon her story so that her prose becomes almost poetic, soft and sympathetic, matter-of-fact in its sadness and consoling in tragedy, never crowing in exultation, but speaking with constancy and kindness. It is very fitting that this story has a happy ending. It was heartbreaking even so.

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Never Odd or Even, by O. V. Michaelsen (ed.)

February 21, 2011 at 12:14 (Book Reviews, English Language, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , , )

2/10

Unfortunately, this book was rather poorly edited. It promised so much! Perhaps a compendium of palindromes and anagrams. Maybe the history of such words, or a history of word puzzles. Could it be significant ways in which the English language has developed, or notable ways in which language puzzles have affected global events? Well, sort of. Because this book does not really stick at any of the above. There are lists, of course, if you like that sort of thing. But they’re incomplete and rather scattered, random lists. There are tidbits of information sprinkled liberally throughout, with useful facts and amusing statistics. The problem is, none of these are arranged in a well-indexed fashion. They are mixed up together in a bedlam of half-finished did-you-knows. Just as you might find a meaty paragraph to get into, you’ll have a five-page list thrown your way. In fact, it’s not even a good coffee table book, because it manages to be just about wordy enough to scare off the casual page flipper. One for the bookshelf, then, but it’ll gather dust.

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The Return of Christian Humanism, by Lee Oser

February 20, 2011 at 19:39 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , , , , , , )

7/10

An excellent book, though very academic. The authors mentioned in the subtitle (Tolkien, Chesterton and Eliot) are the initial selling point of this book, and it might have been nice to see more textual analysis on their relevant works, rather than an endless debate on the validity of certain critical schools, and the sometimes shallow and pedantic opinionated claims of some adherants (according to Oser’s combative summaries).

Oser certainly does his research, and quotes some extremely diverse publications; it seems like Eliot is his main focus (perhaps to the detriment of the other writers), but perhaps he simply acknowledges that Eliot needs the greatest advocacy (he seems to admit as much, when wondering aside if Tolkien will, in the future, face the same revised criticisms as Eliot has).

Oser’s conservatism is welcome in what is such a conserative topic, and his strong support of theological orthodoxy alongside romanticism in literature is like a breath of fresh air. Perhaps he assumes his audience needs no introduction, but his criticism of absurdism and his praise of Christian humanism as a viable alternative is, though scattered and difficult to follow throughout scattered critical references, extremely useful.

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The Courtship of Princess Leia, by Dave Wolverton

February 19, 2011 at 16:11 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , )

1/10

The most offensive thing about this book is its decision to forget the fact that this is not Star Hang Out, but Star Wars. Apparently, despite Wolverton’s hurried recognition that the Empire is hardly over and done with, his heroes still have little better to do than swan around the galaxy, kick back in seedy cantinas and generally make a royal mess of any sort of Star Wars chronology, subsequent books bending over backwards to explain why the backwater world of Dathomir and its slovenly “Force Witches” are significant enough to draw the undivided attention of both the Republic and the Empire.

Put simply, this book is a selfish hijack of the Star Wars franchise, because Dave Wolverton believes that we’d rather read about Dathomir and Hapes than Star Wars. This is not a surprise, for anyone who has read his contributions to the short story anthologies. He is a fluent (if priggish) writer, and some of his non-genre work might be worth a cursory investigation, but he has neither respect for the Star Wars universe, nor apparently the ability to adjust his style. If his additions to the chronology had been at all interesting, he might have been excused somewhat for his intrusion. After all, there have been more disruptive and more important abrasions than the Hapans (the Yuuzhan Vong or the Emperor Reborn, to name but two). Unfortunately, Wolverton’s original characters are inspid, unlikely and boring, and his bold new worlds and “invincible foes” are plastic recreations of the sort of fairy tales we all hate. This book is a colossal waste of time.

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Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez

February 18, 2011 at 15:58 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , )

10/10

A truly beautiful book, with a tragic flavour and a strong undercurrent of ruin. It is difficult to empathise much or at all with the drunken, philandering hero, and his lifelong obsession with his very own version of Petrarch’s Laura. It is not despite his failings, but because of them that the cretinous hero is such a heartbreakingly beautiful character, placed on display beneath a charming canopy of youthful love, trampled utterly with every kind of impossibility and self-imposed foulness, with something lovely still surviving even in the midst of his murder of young America Vicuna, and his most evil indiscretions.

The supporting characters (to which category Fermina Daza can certainly aspire no higher) are marvellously written, both as intricate studies painted in the most brilliant shades, and as capital pillars of Ariza’s much more central story. Urbino’s life as told in the first fifty pages might be an award-winning novelette in itself, and the poignancy of his death sets a tone of sweet agony that is the novel’s most true legacy, and most noticeable strain. As even this paragon of excellence is brought to failure, the unimpeachable Fermina Daza is splendidly portrayed, as all around her sink into various degrees of depravity, and resemble the sad and ruinous rather than evil malevolence.

One can applaud shamelessly the decision by the author to end the book as he did, blending sentimentality that Ariza himself might have written with an undeniable grittiness and acceptance that through the imperfection and downright cesspit of suicide and depression and ruined men and women, something pure has survived. A page-turner that was difficult to put down, and that leaves a scent like the prologue’s gold cyanide: bittersweet like the scent of almonds, inescapable and beautiful, yet draped in tragedy.

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The Outline of History, by H. G. Wells

February 17, 2011 at 20:48 (Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , )

6/10

HG Wells did not write a history as much as he wrote a manifesto and a worldview. Every event covered, every omission and each jot of praise or revilement is saturated in Wells’ fervent belief in a universal federation of all mankind, and his earnest desire to classify religion as a state of human infancy, out of which men must evolve. His tone is often condescending and frequently foolish; he is unable to countenance any other view of the world than his own, and his own view is often narrow and prejudiced, though he does make bold efforts towards pulling down old strongholds of racist ethnology, pseudohistory and icons of nationalist legend.

Almost every section includes self-satisfied explanations that men in the olden days were no more intelligent than infants, and that we ought not expect them to have grand or beautiful ideas. This goes some way in supporting his social evolution and even his cosmology, as he protests that early man could not be expected to understand that the sky was not a solid dome just above the trees, or that rain came to him naturally. In fact, as Chesterton points out, one of Wells’ most glaring flaws is his bizarre familiarity with his subjects. He professes to know the intimate secrets of the Roman mind, or the early Hebrew mind, the Dravidian mind, the Cro-Magnon mind. He tells us how they saw the world as a sublime contrast with how he himself sees it, and thereby exalts his vision.

Especially when considering this style of writing, the Outline of History is not a book that anyone will come to as a standard textbook. It is too partisan, too Wellsian and above all too concerned with minutiae and obsessed with dates and nonentities for that. It is a book that will always reflect back to 1929 and the mindset of the scientific historian in that era. Therein lies its value, and its value is lessened by Postgate’s “completion” of its days up to the 1960s. One might as well “complete” Carlyle’s French Revolution into the 1990s! For a dyed-in-the-wool rationalist reader, this will be a gospel for the choir, but it will not be better history for all that.

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