The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike, by Philip K. Dick

May 29, 2011 at 15:57 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )

5/10

Bizarrely for such a cryptically-titled book, The Man is an absurdly normal and myopic look at small-town life, and the farces and contradictions that drive humanity. Most of Philip K. Dick’s books are subversively and secretly about exactly this subject: the absurity of humanity. The most important thing to be gleaned by reading this particular story is a glimpse inside his chief purpose in writing, and an understanding that above all, Dick was not successful because he was brilliantly creative or more imaginative than other writers, but because he deeply cared about people, and the sort of things they get up to.

There is mystery in The Man, and there are a handful of pages where his pen disturbs the waters of prehistoric anthropology, sinister ghost towns and the question of the meaning of humanity; there are a few moments where the reader is reminded just who is writing the story, and things become chilling and exciting. Mostly, however, this book is only a moderate success as an interesting story, and more useful as a flowery essay on the strangeness of the human condition. It is not badly written (nobody could accuse Dick of that, even in his dreariest works!) but neither is it thrilling, or even at a more basic level, challenging. It is a bleak portrait that seems to be waiting to have some element of supernature draped over its stolid frame to complete its purpose; interesting for what it is, but certainly not entertaining or thought-provoking.

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The New Rebellion, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

May 28, 2011 at 16:56 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , )

5/10

Most of the authors in the Star Wars expanded universe tend to play by the rules. They have at least a rudimentary grounding in the sort of things (such as technologies), people (the various aliens) and myths (the Force and the universe’s basic philosophies) that ought to be included, and thankfully shy away from other science fiction and fantasy plots: such as magic, mad gods and dragons. On the one hand, this keeps the universe free from the sort of claptrap that invades so much modern science fiction–and also relatively clean, as well. It admittedly leads to a rather inbred and repetitive universe, and a predictable set of characters.

Rusch departs quite radically from this formula; thankfully not in the direction taken by Roger Macbride Allen, who seems to be utterly unfamiliar not only with the Star Wars universe, but science fiction in general. Instead, she introduces some strikingly realistic themes that the naïf New Republic has not yet had to deal with: terrorism, separatism, genocide and political infighting. This leads to some dry patches, and her politics seem at several places that they have been sketched out for five-year-old readers, but she deserves some recognition for the attempt. She opens up some excellent rhetorical and ethical questions, and seems close at times to writing one of the most adult Star Wars novel yet seen.

“‘Did you know,’ he said to Eve in a husky, satisfied voice, ‘that you have your claws wrapped around my pleasure centers?'”-The New Rebellion

Unfortunately, her decision to narrate so much of the action through the hilarious antics of the droids (and a phenomenally unlikeable teenaged mechanic), not to mention a risible side plot where Luke Skywalker takes time off from his adventure to teach a furry dinosaur how to love, do a great deal of harm to the serious and insightful thematic elements of the book. Solo and Lando are thrown in for an utterly banal side plot that might have proved interesting had it not felt like a cynical attempt to shoehorn them into an adventure they had no place in; and while this book makes a brave attempt to fling its readers into a few dazzling space battles, it is clear that in these areas Rusch is out of her depth.

One of the more interesting Star Wars books as a risky experiment goes, and with some truly terrific moments; but unbalanced and schizophrenic in its wild veerings from political thriller to cartoon hour.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

May 26, 2011 at 19:14 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )

8/10

It is difficult to pick up a theme in this book, and hold onto it long enough to feel truly at home with it. Hurston slings her readers back and forth between four different stories–the dim Eatonville of the present, and each of her protagonist’s wildly different marriages–without mercy and without hesitation, and the book ends abruptly before any of these have really hit home.

Their Eyes Were Watching God could either be described as bleak, or as forlorn and wistful; Hurston does not really go deep enough into the story, and does not seem committed enough to tracing the lives of her creations, for either description to seem entirely appropriate.

Her great success, if it is not necessarily found in the harrowing pain or in the dazzling glory of her narration, is in her startling way with words, and her almost careless ability to command the English language to stand up and dance for her. Hurston’s prose is poetic without appearing florid and deeply metaphorical without becoming melodramatic; she slips in the most intricate phrases, shocking in their simplicity and fragility; and then forgotten and left, set gently aside for the rustic speech of her characters. This framework of linguistic beauty is what this book ought chiefly to be read for, and its tragedy and history secondarily.

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Children of Men, by P. D. James

May 24, 2011 at 13:31 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Science Fiction) (, , , )

6/10

James writes a very imaginative premise, and carries it out very competently. Her ideas and her science are, unfortunately, significantly better than her writing, and the most immediate of her irritating habits emerges almost at once, and must be mentioned in any serious review of this book: her pathalogical need to draw detailed, grotesquely clinical and entirely unnecessary portraits of each and every character. Heaven preserve us when her sulky protagonist enters a room full of people.

It means without exception that each one of them will in turn be given the James treatment. Wide mouths, freckled olive skin, pixie ears, classical necks, or even just like that fellow from that movie in the ’30s. Remember him? No? Well, this character looks just like him. James needs to learn that readers don’t want this. Even readers who think they do, do not. Even without the entirely deviant adaptation of the book (with all its colouring and shaping of the characters it portrayed), these bizarre diversions into fotofit description are entirely unnecessary, and will drive the most patient reader to distraction.

Beneath this distracting obsession, there is a distinct absence of cheap science fiction props in the story. James seems to have made the decision to focus on the moods and attitudes of people in a post-apocalyptic world rather than the types of scooters they use, and even the strange tribal divisions of society play a clear second fiddle to the questions of the semi-voluntary euthanasia, the depression and anxiety, the boredom and the nihilism that is starkly opposed to the Christianity of Luke and Julian (not that their faith really means a great deal in the larger context of the story).

While this choice does go some way to boost and enhance the story, James’ vain attempt to make this a story of two men is as unfortunate as it is clumsy. Theo and his estranged cousin Xan (who is not, all evidence to the contrary, a klingon–apparently it’s an old English name) are written from the start as eternal rivals. Theo is a rich protagonist, although we have more backstory and time spent in his head than we really need to understand him. Xan, on the other hand, is nothing more nor less than another faceless dictator, and every link between the two is strained and unlikely. Despite the brave effort to show Xan’s motivations and his ruthless adherance to his unknown and unmentioned “principles”, he is simply too much of a nonentity for either his plight or his wickedness to really strike home. The lacklustre duel at the climax of the book is the final nail in the coffin of that second, cheaper story of two brothers in conflict, leaving readers mourning the stagnation of an otherwise cleverly written and much more cleverly imagined novel.

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Passion for Jesus, by Mike Bickle

May 22, 2011 at 11:56 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Theology) (, , , , )

9/10

Part autobiography and partly a treatise based on Psalm 27:4, this updated version of Bickle’s best-known book is occasionally repetitive, frequently digressive, but almost constantly simple, provocative and honest. Readers will find Bickle’s compulsive list-making distracting, but valuable for later reference. There are frequent and ready allusions to other books Bickle has written, and a rote-like regularity with which he belabours a hand full of key phrases. This book is written more than anything for regular and bite-sized reminders of key gospel doctrines, and while it does form a largely coherent train of thought, its foremost purpose is neither systematic nor comprehensive, but foundational and zealous.

Theologically Bickle remains orthodox throughout, although some of his more florid language does justify his regular asides, in which he is forced to repeatedly clarify some more esoteric passages. The chapters are thick with biblical citations and even the occasional third-party scholar or teacher, although this book is certainly a devotional rather than a scholarly tract. This book is essential for understanding Bickle’s general understanding of theology (and christology in particular), and an absolute prerequisite to reading his other writings.

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Rogue Squadron, by Michael A. Stackpole

May 21, 2011 at 16:52 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , )

9/10

Almost certainly the strongest of the X-Wing series of books, and probably because as the introductory novel, it did not rely on either an implausibly complex quest (as the Wraith Squadron sequels typically did), nor did the author have time to grow tired and wrench his pilots from their cockpits to explore different and foreign landscapes. This latter option was successfully carried out with the Rogues’ journeys to Coruscant and Thyferra, and even to some degree in Isard’s Revenge and Starfighters of Adumar; but quite simply, this novel is a success because its formula has not yet had a chance to foment or grow stale.

Quite apart from pasting generic character templates over Wedge and a few extras from the films themselves, Stackpole comes up with an impressively large and detailed ensemble cast, creating for the roles some of the most enduring and deep characters the expanded universe has yet seen, as well as poaching delicately and deliberately from the creations of other authors. The story itself suffers a little from having only weak and cartoonish antagonists, but remains gripping throughout due to Stackpole’s development of some enduring themes and characters, some of which were later either rushed or prematurely ended in his (and other) later books. Nevertheless, this is certainly the best of the X-Wing series, and can hold its head up high as a contender for one of the best Star Wars books yet published.

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The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom

May 19, 2011 at 12:43 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War) (, , )

8/10

The lives of saints can make for difficult reading. They are better than their readers, humbler and kinder in every way. What would they do with a negative response? Smile and bless their critic. It is easy to come out of those pages feeling angrier and more hopeless than before, knowing that there is no way to live up to each particular glowing account. How fortunate then, that Corrie remains charming and honest throughout the entirety of this book. When she is furious with the stupidity (and yet grudgingly impressed by the faith) of her sister, she admits to it. When she makes mistakes she owns them, and is never one to straddle a high horse; when she preaches it is from a place of profound humility and shyness.

Moreover, the resounding theme throughout this book is that nothing good–not patience or forgiveness or strength or wisdom, or even love–can be conjured up from some hidden place within. All are given to the Lord, and all are ascribed to his mercy. If anything could drag a painted saint down to the level of the despairing reader and impart comfort and grace, this simple axiom is that. As an historical account the book is flawless, written without reserve or without demonising either man or machine. The impression of unimpeachable honesty stands throughout, and while it is perhaps a shame that the biography of the ten Boom family is so abruptly truncated, there is ample and delightful digression into the distant past of the Beje and Casper’s grandfather to satisfy the transfixed, though not enough to drown the light reader.

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The Sixteenth Round, by Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

May 17, 2011 at 14:06 (Biography, Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )

6/10

It is surprising how an admitted semi-literate boxer from the slums can write so coherently and expressively. What might be interesting on its autobiographical and historical merits alone turns out to be a thrillingly written and skilfully told story, and Rubin Carter pulls no punches in indicting the New Jersey judicial system that hounded him from childhood. Small wonder that this powerful book was so significant in the subsequent drama of his release from prison.

“…because to this critically injured man teetering there on the brink of death, all black people would look the same, especially those the cops had brought in.”

-The Sixteenth Round

The most unfortunate feature in the book is the language. It might be supposed that someone told Carter that to make the reader feel how authentic it was, he should rub their noses in the language of the streets, or the cells, or whatever it might be. At times his fluid descriptions and excellent rhetoric are outright quashed by impressive but unwelcome streams of frothing abuse. Some readers might be glad of this passionate outpouring, but Carter’s fury frequently and destructively gets in the way of the story he is telling. He is an innocent man, but he is still a violent and frightening man, and making his reader fear him is probably the most counter-productive part of this otherwise splendid prison autobiography.

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The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

May 15, 2011 at 12:10 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , , , , )

10/10

This might stand as one of the best examples of children’s literature yet written. Quite beside the elegant beauty and whimsical purity of  Grahame’s writing style, and quite besides his incomparable ability in weaving a truly brilliant adventure story together. E. H. Shepard’s magical illustrations are, of course, as much a part of the book as any character, and any edition which omits them is by definition an incomplete creation.

One of Grahame’s most resounding triumphs is his careful treatment of his four key characters, and the versatility and depth with which he imbues them. Badger is the wise sage; but he has his crotchety moments, and is often dozy or dull. Mole is Grahame’s young and uncultured innocent; but he has moments of brilliant courage and wit. Ratty is the pragmatic and infallible dynamo around which the story and aura of immutable comfort is wound; but he considers leaving both story and comfort entirely to head off on an entirely toadlike adventure: and the Toad himself is the mad and immature charlatan, romantic and cad; who nevertheless shows real courage and nobility, especially in the book’s closing scene.

“He saw clearly how plain and simple–how narrow, even–it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence.”

-The Wind in the Willows

The four of them together coalesce as Grahame’s everyman, but nowhere do we find the Utter Tyrant, or the Pure Innocent, or the Immortal Hero. Therein lies the breathtaking humanity of the story, and its success. One can fall in love with the Rat in either the chapter Dulce Domum or in Wayfarers All, and find two different animals described; or with Mole in The River Bank and the final pages of Wayfarers, again finding an incredible breadth of expression. The magnificent mixture of the heroic and the cowardly, the lofty and the comfortable, the leader and the follower, combine to form a story of growth and maturity the likes of which is seldom seen. Any childhood that does not include this book is the poorer for having missed a true and almost faultless classic.

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Jedi Knight, by William C. Dietz

May 14, 2011 at 20:06 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , , )

2/10

The last part of a series that was so rich in source material and so weak in its development and realisation, Jedi Knight is neither the least disappointing piece of the disaster, nor is it a significant departure from the generally turgid trilogy. In the final installment, Dietz appears to be somewhat overwhelmed by the enormous task of tracing Katarn’s confrontations with no fewer than seven antagonists, and tends to flit from one to the other with very little attempt to trace Katarn’s mission, or indeed any attempt to provide more than cursory glimpses at the motley collection of Sith.

Obviously, this provides plenty of problems for any serious reader–more depth might be expected trawling through a Wikipedia entry on these characters–and yet when Dietz attempts to sketch deeper portraits of his characters, the result in this book is perhaps even more disastrous than his earlier attempts: crude, childish caricatures painful to read, and best skipped entirely. Sadly, this installment is better than its predacessors not because of its contents, but because of its lack thereof.

Related reviews:
Soldier for the Empire
Rebel Agent

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