The Invisible Man, by H. G. Wells

June 27, 2011 at 01:53 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Thriller) (, , , , )

8/10

Like others of Wells’ early novels, The Invisible Man is a story constructed carefully around a scientific construct, explored in its feasibility, moral ramifications and other high-flown theoretical angles. Fortunately, in this hypothetical, Wells pays at least as much attention to the psychological and human aspects of the story, giving centre stage to Griffin’s descent into madness, his isolation and his steady departure from human society. So extensive is this focus that any other author would be accused of an anti-scientific bias, and alarmism.

This is certainly a book in two parts, with an Agatha Christie small-town mystery at the outset, and a furious and bloody manhunt forming the second part. Peculiarly, although the first part is told almost exclusively from the eponymous invisiblee’s perspective, the reader only begins to understand who he is in the second part. The supporting characters  in the first part of the book are likewise considerably vaguer than the figures who become more solid and vivid as the invisible man is slowly run to ground.

It is hard to feel a great deal of empathy for any of the characters. Wells’ narrators are typically rather dry and pedantic, and Kemp (the hero, if any is to be found) follows this mould precisely. This creates a very bleak and tragic atmosphere, though not altogether unpleasant, and not overbearing enough to make the book depressing. More violent and graphic than most fiction of this kind, but vividly imagined and impeccably described.

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The Case for Mars, by Robert Zubrin

June 23, 2011 at 14:40 (Book Reviews, Mediocre Books, Science and Technology) (, , , , , )

 

7/10

Zubrin writes with apostolic fervour and the zeal of a true believer, swinging somewhat erratically between arguments calculated to win over the everyman reader, and compilations of scientific data and complex equations, graphs and diagrams intended for those closer to his own field. Simply from reading this book, it is difficult to tell whether Zubrin is a part of a lunatic fringe or if he is an industry insider peddling his wares. Through his careful name-dropping and occasional autobiographical references, it becomes steadily clearer that he is largely the latter, and his own podium of expertise (as well as frequent references to colleagues’ opinions) go a long way towards establishing his credibility.

His style is very informal for a scientific publication, but does little in the way of damaging his voice: indeed, it succeeds in captivating a cavalier attitude of adventurism and futurism. The dreariest part of this book is Zubrin’s tendency to exhaustively explore every potential option and every single theoretical objection. He is fighting for his case, and if it is a choice between an extra chapter of alternative means of martian exploration, or leaving an exploitable loophole for his enemies, there will be that extra chapter. This is tiresome but expected, in the same way that his apostolic zeal grows a little stale by the end of the book; not contrived, but a little wearying.

Nevertheless, if Zubrin’s goal was to convince a lay-reader that his plan (or even another plan!) is feasible, he succeeds admirably. His fundamentalism is matched by the utterly reasonable projects that he lays out, and paradoxically, the simplicity of his plan is this book’s chief selling point, even while the complexity of his reasoning is one of the weaker points. This is not the easiest book to read, but it is certainly worth the effort.

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A Special Mission, by Dan Kurzman

June 21, 2011 at 18:34 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War, War) (, , , , , )

8/10

As a piece of investigative journalism this work is almost unparalleled, with a remarkably detailed story accompanying a melodramatic and unbelievable title: Hitler’s Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII. Kurzman’s interviews with Vatican archivists and with General Wolff himself are indeed a coup for him, and this book’s premise is almost as stunning in premise as the incredible capers of Otto Skorzeny or Hanna Reitsch.

Kurzman’s disclaimer that all information is taken directly from memoirs or interviews is important, as his tale is intricately detailed and painstakingly constructed, with intimate depictions of the likes of Himmler, Hitler and the distasteful nest of Nazi diplomats, SS troopers and intriguers lurking in Rome. It is exceedingly difficult to judge the book’s authenticity, and it must be kept in mind that the history’s chief character related most of its material points. Kurzman is usually good about mentioning whether a particular part of his story has documentary evidence or corroboration, but third-party verification remains the largest problem for this book.

What Kurzman provides, true or false, is an elaborate treasury of inside conversation and confession (which is valuable in its own right). He does a marvellous job in putting it all together in a readable format that is full of opinion, but which stops short of forcing conclusions or judgements down the reader’s throat. After reading what is essentially a biography in extreme brevity, independent biographies on Pius, Zolli, Weizsäcker and others are almost essential reading as supplements to Wolff’s moment in history.

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Heretics, by G. K. Chesterton

June 19, 2011 at 17:36 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Literature, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , , , , )

9/10

Gilbert Keith Chesterton is a very funny man, which certainly comes in handy when he takes it upon himself to scathe and blister his peers. His denouncement of their heresies begins as piecemeal accusations and isolated comments on extremely idiomatic character traits and specific published works, but does come to some coherent sense by the end of the book, when it becomes apparent that neither Shaw nor Kipling nor the Yellow Press are his true targets; and the entire work coalesces into a remarkable study of humanism and the realisation that the train is blowing full steam ahead towards “progress” – without any real idea what it left behind, or what the “progress” actually is.

Chesterton offers some wonderful insights into the redeeming qualities of dogma, religion, ritual and several other dirty words that he rehabilitates so eloquently as to build a swift and beautiful case for common sense and the re-evaluation of fundamental questions of what is good and pure and true–and why.

The book does lose some of its flair and excitement towards the second half, but chiefly because Chesterton populates his examples and his case studies initially with timeless writers and thinkers, and later with figures and entities personally aggravating (or known) to him, but less significant for the rest of us. Despite this, he retains his wit and his penchant for the surprising paradoxical proverb until the end, and provides an excellent complementary volume to Orthodoxy, operating magnificently as either a stand-alone or companion piece.

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Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming

June 16, 2011 at 15:39 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Thriller) (, , , )

6/10

Fleming’s written Bond is a barbarian. There are no quips or wry grins, no debonair manners or good breeding. The technology is simple: there are razor blades and grenades, bombs in bags and pistols slipped inside jacket pockets, or one ingenious walking-cane rifle. Even when Bond rhapsodises about quitting his dirty and painful job, he is an unsympathetic tyrant, who appears quite melancholically ambivalent about grotesque physical torture and the failure of his government’s mission.

Ironically considering Bond’s fame in the matter, Ian Fleming seems to be totally hopeless at writing anything romantic: the rather brutish scenes between Bond and his love interest are easily skipped, and seem to be the exact incapsulation of how a sexually-frustrated 1950s mysoginist might imagine love to be. This leaks rather badly into the real plot of the novel, when Bond’s lucklessness in love utterly blindsides him to treachery in the field. Superbly written in parts, but ends up with Bond looking rather pathetic as a secret agent and making something of a pig’s ear of the entire mission.

In fact, it is left to the reader to wonder if Bond is Fleming’s idealised vision of a secret agent, a thinly-disguised memoir, or a disgruntled and bitter retort towards a debauched and inept secret service full of thuggish brutes with hairy palms, utterly incapable of succeeding against the organisation of foreign enemies. This book could honestly be any of the above, or even a conscious or unconscious blend of several, and this depth–sad and mangy as it is–makes this a deeply intriguing novel, if not an appealing one. Bond is extremely difficult to cheer for or empathise with, but also difficult to dislike or even pity, leaving the reader to simply watch agog the antics played out. Brutally entertaining and uncomfortably gripping to the end.

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Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett

June 14, 2011 at 15:36 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , , )

7/10

Terry Pratchett writes three types of Discworld books: those that are packed with stale, recycled jokes; original and charming work overflowing with surprising and bombastic set-piece comedy, and those that have genuinely interesting plot concepts that make thrilling novels even without the sly puns and cutting pastiches.

Thief of Time is one of the latter. It might not be the funniest thing he’s ever written, but neither is it boring, and was written before he began to run out of ideas. The plot is genuine fantasy adventure material, and feels something like a collaboration between Douglas Adams and Philip K. Dick. Thief of Time certainly ranks with Small Gods and Thud! in terms of fresh and new characters and creatures being introduced (though of course old favourites surface here and there) and equals Small Gods for making the reader sit up and think. It is deeply refreshing to find an author so keenly dedicated to dreaming up fantastic ideas, but then sticking with them and building them into autonomous creatures that grow and breed naturally and organically. All sorts of philosophical questions are raised, as well as Pratchett’s own delightful brand of pseudoscience, pseudoanatomy, pseudomathematics and such. And besides; when else have you known a writer to devote an entire book to explaining his own plot holes?

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Common Sense, by Thomas Paine

June 12, 2011 at 19:35 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Philosophy, Politics) (, , , )

9/10

Common Sense and The Rights of Man are so much two sides of the same coin that it is impossible to treat them separately. Despite the rather universal title, Thomas Paine’s chief intention is less a manumission of the human creature than it is a thorough indictment of the British Empire at the end of the Eighteenth Century. Addressed in excruciating detail are the nobility, the monarchy, Wat Tyler and the Civil War, the Republic and the Restoration, rotten boroughs and general disenfranchisement: all given their place in the sun, and none permitted to spare a single blush on Britannia’s cheek.

Paine goes on to expound in the detail of a clerk or petty accountant his redistributive plan for the abolition of hereditary wealth and a proto-socialist state, a federalist agenda for Europe, and a clearly-stated confidence that the Christian churches of Europe would henceforth unite (although he has no plan for this save bewilderment that they had not already done so). On the subject of religion, he professes dumbness, yet expounds meticulously and convincingly on the theological problems and contradictions inherent to monarchy, turning over the bones of David, Samuel and Saul, of Abraham and of Adam, and trawling through the Gospels (though not, for obvious reasons, the Pauline epistles) to form not merely an incidental, but a key pillar of his argument.

It is all too evident throughout that Paine had the mind of an economist and the heart of an optimist and a humanist, and that his political theory plays a distant second behind his instructions to his own fictional treasury; he refuses to countenance anything but altruism in any member of a democratic government (or indeed any commoner); and that his utopian vision has room for no ounce of cynicism or even unhappy accident. In all of these, his work is less thorough, and for that, less convincing, than Hobbes (albeit much easier to read).

In spite of these failings, and in spite of his myopic preoccupation with Great Britain and his unquestioning naïveté in lauding every step of the French Revolution, Paine is a passionate pamphleteer, and seems to have been an honest man and a philanthropist down to his bones. It could be very easily argued that for every claim he makes that is impractical, the world would be a more kindly place even for hearing and acknowledging it; that for every blindness he exhibits, his eyes are wider than any man’s to a dozen other issues that must be set right.

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Defending Middle Earth, by Patrick Curry

June 7, 2011 at 11:53 (Book Reviews, Literature, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , , , )

3/10

Curry makes some excellent points in this book, the chief of which are modern criticism’s tendency to arrogantly dismiss non-“literary” books, and commit itself blindly to genres which have more “grown-up” themes; the other key point he makes is the difference between reading a thing allegorically, and reading it with application. These two points aside, this book is little else than a lengthy essay, written in the essay style and about as interesting to read as can therefore be expected. He is unfortunately repetitive, and has a propensity for quoting lengthily from all manner of authors and poets, whose words only occasionally have much relevence to his subject.

His ecological agenda he defends quite ably, pleading with some merit that it was in fact Tolkien’s agenda first: but the vitriol and scorn and soft, quiet seething are all Curry’s. His railing denouncement against the critics who in their arrogance dismiss The Lord of the Rings and especially The Hobbit as childish books, and therefore unworthy of attention loses a great deal of the strength that it should rightfully have held when Curry looks down his nose time and time again at other works of fiction that he considers to have imitated Tolkien’s world (or even that he considers indicative of a general deterioration of literary standards). Altogether a interesting book, let down badly by the author’s agendas and prejudices, and by its own unwieldy length and shallow exploration of its subject.

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The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells

June 5, 2011 at 21:31 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , , , , )

10/10

The emphasis of this story is set up rather blatantly as H. G. Wells’ analysis of the human condition: our permanence, our value and importance; where we came from and where we are going. The anonymity of the entire cast of characters reflects this choice, but in and of itself is a delightful choice, and one which strangely enhanced the characters instead of obscuring them: they appeared as a group of strangers only just introduced, and turned the entire narrative into a sort of chance encounter with transient acquaintances. Very Victorian and atmospheric.

The story itself was pleasant enough not to be too onesided. Wells’ secular humanism was balanced out by his due caution and pessimism, and by his latent socialism, which took the saccharine sweet edge from his utopia, and raised some interesting questions. The willingness to flit over vast swathes of adventure, and focus only on a handful of rich and interesting encounters, as opposed to hunkering down for a dry and detailed account of every facet of the future world, was refreshing to say the least, and ensured that every paragraph was thrilling and deeply interesting. Finally, his style was clear and easy, and not over-given to musty and cumbersome prose; but possessing a dignity and earnestness all of its own. Well considered a classic, and a page-turner from beginning to end.

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The Russia House, by John LeCarre

June 2, 2011 at 13:07 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , , , )

7/10

A newcomer to LeCarre might be forgiven for expecting a Tom Clancy who didn’t talk quite so much about guns, and in The Russia House at least, that expectation might mostly be borne out. There are the same businesslike spooks; and complex, psychologically shattered “humint sources”; and everything seems to take place in an embassy or a square in Petrograd, or some exotic location like that. Very much the sort of thing that has become standard fare for the secret agent genre.

Of course, le Carre is a much more mature writer than many others of similar genres, and he seems to have much more interesting motivations for his stories. Instead of showcasing how great America is, he seems to focus on the individual characters – and although they are the same recycled stocks as one might expect – the femme fatale, the washed-up middle-class no-hoper, the cynical spymaster with the heart of gold – it is pleasant to have a story focused on what it is like to be a spy, rather than a rehashed plate of leftover geopolitical theories held up by some scenes with machine guns.

Also a pleasant surprise was le Carre’s restraint; in what was essentially a love story based on spies seducing one another, all such scenes were treated modestly and politely, and even his most lurid characters (Niki Landau, for instance) imply much and say and do little. While graphic and torrid sex scenes in novels are becoming the norm, there was nothing in this book that needed skipping, and the book certainly did not seem prudish or awkward for the omissions. His style of narrative was also quite delightful, with incredibly informal moments when it seemed more like the transcript of a pub conversation, woven seamlessly with a much clearer third person style. Whether or not this is one of le Carre’s usual traits or a brilliant experiment in this particular book, it worked very well.

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