The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

October 29, 2011 at 22:07 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )

8/10

Kazuo Ishiguro’s great success in this little novel is his ability to move his story onwards at a lively pace without once losing the consistency of the voice he has chosen to use. This success is all the more notable when it becomes apparent that he has not only the abilty to build the character of Stevens upon a skeleton of reminiscences to a fully fleshed portrait of a deeply interesting man, but also the skill to weave the most important parts of his story through implication and inference.

The Remains of the Day is a slow story, but far from the slowness of a painfully-dragged weight it has the pace of a lazy river, and Ishiguro has the patience to allow it to develop organically: a brave choice that does not even allow the reader a clear glimpse of his chosen subject or message until at least a quarter of the book has passed. It is a delicate character study, but it is the character study of a nation and an epoch, without ever being grandiose or gaudy enough to become its own pastiche.

“Democracy is something for a bygone era. The world’s far too complicated a place now for universal suffrage and such like. For endless members of parliament debating things to a standstill. All fine a few years ago perhaps, but in today’s world?”

-The Remains of the Day

Never is Ishiguro’s reluctance to allow climax and denouement reach the forefront more evident than his casual avoidance of almost every key sequence of action: from mild mishaps to tragic disasters through to the final meeting between his two chief characters, all is constantly shuffled into the past tense, creating both a poignant sense of things past, as well as building upon his ever-present sense of narrative slowness. This is not the easiest book to read, and neither is it the most satisfying. It is hardly anticlimactic, but it could be easily described as disappointing, for characters and reader alike. But for an interesting and beautifully-written novel to read on a rainy day, there really are few better.

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A Little History of the World, by E. H. Gombrich

October 26, 2011 at 20:21 (Book Reviews, Historical, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )

4/10

The most attractive thing about this little history is the evident enthusiasm that Gombrich has for his subject. He is a dedicated teacher and his stated goal to create a history at once accessible to children but with real and significant accounts that go beyond dry textbooks and trivial stories is a noble one indeed. The most disappointing thing about this book is that he does not succeed in this goal.

The chief objection to any historian must of course be Gombrich’s inaccuracies and mistakes. Many are products of his time (particularly his treatment of the World Wars, or his account of the Dark Ages as an essentially dismal period, and a step backwards) but this is not an excuse, and it does not make his book into an objectively good history. Others are bewildering errors, such as his claim that the Holy Roman Empire was disbanded immediately after the death of Charlemagne, his incompetent summation of the foundation of various religions, and his vindictive and unwarranted pillorying of Charles I.

Quite besides the manifold errors in the book, Gombrich sets out to write a simple and engaging history (and to judge by his chapter headings, initially a history without a western bias). Some of his chapters are indeed very simple and straightforward, and even exciting to read. More of his chapters, unfortunately, are dusty litanies of kings, acts, wars, treaties, dates, begetting and begatting, political squabbling and facts denuded of any context that would make them relevant to an unlearned reader. He wastes an enormous amount of time in pursuing minutiae utterly meaningless to his general historical scope, apparently out of some misplaced loyalty to a few of history’s more flamboyant characters. The result is unwieldy and often difficult to read.

“Once upon a time the world really was full of colour and adventure, and people joyfully took part in that strange and wonderful game called chivalry…”

-A Little History of the World

The greatest criticism that ought to be levelled at Gombrich however, is the generally flacid and milquetoast attitude he takes in discussing his history. To borrow a phrase, the men and events that Gombrich describes are not bad, and they are not good. They are just…nice. Bloodthirsty warriors are not denounced, murderous kings and savage wars are shrugged off, great reformers and martyrs, writers and artists, inventors and explorers, barbarians and patriarchs are all included in his lukewarm medley with the same inarticulate passivity and unwillingness to either celebrate heartily or denounce vigorously. This rather unfortunately turns a generally well-researched and kindly-written book into an overbalanced compendium of waffle.

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Heirs of the Force, by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta

October 22, 2011 at 13:13 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , , )

1/10

It was a bad idea to spin off the Star Wars adventures onto the shoulders of Han and Leia’s offspring. It was also evidently a bad idea to give this task to Kevin J. Anderson and his wife: together they slavishly follow the formula of the original movies (a dynamic and witty brother and sister with a lumbering Wookie friend and a slightly shady and occasionally violent companion) without any of the charm or excitement that even the worst forays into the Star Wars universe have managed.

“Determind to start a real conversation with the new trainee, Jacen cast about in his mind for a good question. So, Lowie, how much stuff do you need to move in? Naw, that was a stupid question.”-Heirs of the Force

The plot of this book is pathetically weak, revolving around the discovery of an Imperial pilot castaway around the corner from the Jedi School (with suspicious similarities and outcomes to the children’s classic The Machine Gunners, by Robert Westall). But apart from this unlikely array of coincidences, Heirs of the Force devolves incredibly quickly into a snail-paced journal of how Jacen, Jaina, their pet Wookie and horrifyingly awful droid, manage their lives and friendships. It is no secret that the Young Jedi Knights series is a cheap and tawdry school story; and this goes no further than the first meeting in the dormitory, where friendships are made and we learn a little more about these characters.

This might be tedious but acceptable if there were actually anything to learn about the characters. Instead, on almost every one of those two hundred pages we are barraged with reminders that Jaina’s “thing” is her mechanical abilities, or that Tenal Ka’s “thing” is that she’s angry and sort-of gothy. Nobody progresses any further, although this book does handily incapsulate everything that is wrong with Star Wars books, besides helpfully warning any prospective readers well away from the equally appalling Young Jedi Knights series.

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One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez

October 18, 2011 at 15:01 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Literature, Magic Realism, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )

10/10

The worst news for writers in the world everywhere is that they almost certainly will never write a book as good as this one. One of the most marvellous things about One Hundred Years of Solitude is that after reading it, the world seems slightly grey and pale, like waking up from the most vivid of dreams. This is the sort of book that readers will stay up all night reading. This is the sort of book that will give readers the same dreams that the characters dream. This is the sort of book that readers will sit silently and think about after finishing. This is the sort of book that readers will begin all over again because of the wistfulness and the delight in memory and the staggering sense of a full and rich chronicle. This is the sort of book that readers will feel they have lived, and it will be a surprise to look up from the pages and realise that a hundred and twenty years have not, in fact, gone by since starting it.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

-One Hundred Years of Solitude

It would be immature and churlish to say that this is the best book ever written, and certainly there are parts of it that are dimmer by comparison than the others. The story of Remedios the Beauty is somewhat palid compared to (for instance) the stories of Amaranta or Aureliano Buendia, and Gabriel García Márquez relies on sensuality a little too much (particularly with the story of José Arcadio), which is one of his enduring faults. The politics of the book are rather lofty, but readers do not need intimate familiarity with the Liberals and Conservatives and their bloody ravening of South America in order to enjoy this book.

García Márquez betrays himself as a mystic more in this story than in many of his other classic works, and it is this sense of a century- (or centuries-) long dream drifting past and ebbing and flowing back and forth in time itself that emerges as a principal flavour. He fixes upon certain words and motifs so regularly that they gradually become redefined according to his story (the eponymous “solitude”, for instance, or the cruel rains). His ability to subvert even the simple meaning of words, to take them and make them so intractably a part of his narrative, is astonishing. His characters are at once believable and multifaceted, even when they take the most fantastical and grotesque forms. Truly a master of the ensemble writing, there are at least a dozen characters who might be said to be the chief focus of this book, and two dozen more who will surely win fans, who will fight for them as personal favourites. As in the later work, Love in the Time of Cholera, his creations are shown aging and loving, dying and hating, evolving from young children to decaying patriarchs and matriarchs with a kind of graciousness and sweetness fascinating to behold. The author has utterly mastered the art of making a sad or even an unpleasant or devastating thing beautiful, and of making a lovely thing bittersweet.

This book ought to be recommended reading everywhere.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

October 15, 2011 at 16:06 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Mystery, Thriller) (, , , )

5/10

This book is chiefly a murder mystery, and can only really cling to the label of “Thriller” by its fingertips. It is a very stylish, sensual, alternative-culture murder mystery, with a very awkward mixture of some sort of postmodern approximation of romance, but despite the constant hints that there is something greater and more deadly involved, this book is really about tracking down clues and crossing off suspects. It unfortunately fits into that ever-so-frustrating subgenre of mystery stories: mysteries where the reader is not given the information to solve the crime until the characters solve it.

It is difficult at first to understand why exactly this unprepossessing little novel caused such a stir upon its release. Whodunnits are a dime a dozen, and although the author manages to drag in Nazis, the mafia and the good-old “puzzle from the dusty pages of history”, it seems that this is simply a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon, with neither staying power nor anything else unique about it.

“You’re not a person who encourages friendship…”

-The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Strangely, the most interesting feature is Larsson’s seemingly-misplaced  and contextually bare warnings throughout the book about human trafficking and violence against women. This crusade does not only appear in the chapter headings, either; characters will all-but break the fourth wall and launch into diatribes, listing evidence and statistics exhaustively–and then return to their conversations. This is handled a little clumsily at first, but as Larsson begins to link it in with the main thrust of his story, it makes a little more sense. He is graphic and terrifying in quite a few of his examples, and there is plenty of material in this book that warrants skipping, but his one man crusade does gain altitude after a while, and turns a rather prosaic mystery-thriller into a thoughtful and provocative read.

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The Mark of the Horse Lord, by Rosemary Sutcliff

October 12, 2011 at 16:05 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , , , , )

10/10

This is a strong contender for Rosemary Sutcliff’s best work. Red Phaedrus is one of her typical male leads, a lone wolf character with a tragic past and a stirring quest ahead of him. Her blend of Roman Britain and the Pictish wilds is up to her usual standards, and is vividly imagined.  The relationship between the two key characters, Phaedrus and Midir, is where this story finds a life of its own, and departs the fringe Roman life already depicted in The Silver Branch and Eagle of the Ninth. Sutcliff always writes best when she is writing angry and sarcastic men, and as she forces these two together in the opening chapters of the book she creates the most reluctant of heroes, and the gruffest of all her characters (Aquila included).

“Hold on! Hold up, lad! If you go down now I swear I’ll get the Mercuries with the hot irons to you!”

-The Mark of the Horse Lord

As in Sword at Sunset, Sutcliff chooses to give her readers an even closer and more intimate glimpse at the tribes arrayed against Rome at the Empire’s zenith. The book would not be complete without a look at her famous “little dark people”, but here they are given a generously open stage, and both sympathy and flesh for the fleeting bones sketched out in other books. Echoes of Aquila will again be apparent in Phaedrus’ relationships with men and particularly the women he encounters. This is also one of Sutcliff’s more thematically sound books, in which she introduces subtler foreshadows and weaknesses, recurrent motifs and substantial structure to both the characters and the plot. This makes it one of her more darkly brooding stories and one of her more adult books, but also one of her best.

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And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

October 9, 2011 at 01:53 (Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Mystery) (, , , )

9/10

Also published as Ten Little Indians (among other titles), the suspense in this book was magnified for me personally when I was told the wrong ending in advance. In spite of that, And Then There Were None is one of Christie’s more uncanny and otherworldly mysteries; the tension is masterfully built, and the extensive cast of characters are shepherded and presented in an orderly and clear manner. In developing her characters Christie focuses on Vera, the Judge and the Doctor just a little more and a little vigorously than on the rest of the ensemble, which gives the reader just one more clue to figuring out the plot, in addition to the “three clues” she rather vaingloriously parades at the very end.

Although the novel manner of the murder, the assembly of the guests and the motif of the children’s rhyme take centre stage, and despite the complexity of the plot, this is one of Christie’s few mysteries where the crime and its detection underlie a harder question: the nature of guilt and criminality, culpability and justice. Christie’s subversion of even odious characters like the multiple killer, the shameless Lombard, into dashing and heroic centrepieces is astonishing. Her success at recruiting the reader’s sympathy against the vigilante justice rather than on the side of rectitude is startling and impressive.

“Heavenly visitants, eh? No, I don’t believe in the supernatural. This business is human enough.”

-And Then There Were None

The first few chapters of this book are, in fact, the only seriously weak part of the whole. Christie stumbles noticeably in her introduction of such a large and detailed cast, which leads even an attentive reader to much page flapping and doublechecking for several chapters more; an even graver sin is a baffling weakness of dialogue that is extremely obvious in the first chapter or two, and which she never totally recovers from. Even when the pacing and excellent plot begin to seize the reader’s attention, the dialogue is a background problem throughout. For that reason it is impossible to rate this book as one of Agatha Christie’s absolute best, although it is definitely an imaginative and confident thriller and a corking good read by any standard.

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A Most Wanted Man, by John le Carré

October 1, 2011 at 21:53 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller) (, , , , )

3/10

Since the ending of the Cold War, le Carré has seemed to feel a need to keep up with the times, and shift his novels to the modern world. On the one hand, there is a real dearth of excellent espionage writers working today. On the other hand, his particular brand of writing does not necessarily transfer perfectly. Despite the grittiness and shabby realism that has always been his hallmark, there is something bafflingly alluring and even attractive about his balding, depressed, divorced and alcoholic denizens of The Circus. A lot of that disappears in his New World, in which gruff anti-terror police hound shifty bankers and moan about the CIA. It seems more like a better-written Tom Clancy than anything else, and the closest le Carré comes to his former style (not to say his former brilliance) is in the character of the harried and deeply flawed lawyer, Richter. She has all of the emotional traffic and some of the depth that some of his earlier creations posessed, and shines because of it. Though she is, of course, ultimately stymied by the faceless bastions of power that she comes up against, her defeat rings out defiantly in the manner of the eponymous spy who came in from the cold, Leamas.

“They’re not Osama’s sleepers, or his talent spotters, or his couriers or his quartermasters or paymasters…They’re just nice dinner guests.”

-A Most Wanted Man

The plot of this book is fairly simple and predictable, which is not quite so objectionable as the message behind it. Rather unfortunately, A Most Wanted Man is firstly and foremostly a diatribe against Them, and the new breed of super-spy-government-run-committee-led-men-in-black organisations who haunt the background of the story. One expects this from run-of-the-mill thriller authors; but le Carré won his success by turning a spotlight on the glamorous world of James Bond and revealing plump men in tired suits who drank too much and retired to mortgaged homes in the suburbs. His inexplicable adoption of an outsider’s perspective of a monolithic well-oiled government machine grinding nameless and faceless victims underfoot does not only seem trite, it seems lazy. A big disappointment from a great writer.

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