The Crystal Star, by Vonda N. McIntyre

December 31, 2011 at 13:54 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , )

2/10

Famous for holding the title of “Worst Star Wars book ever”, it is tempting to argue that The Crystal Star unjustly steals this dubious honour from other books: books that have worse plots, shabbier writing, stupider characters, or a more selfish disregard for the Star Wars universe. Some of these monstrosities even manage multiple mortal sins in a single book.

At the very least, Vonda McIntyre can be partially exonerated of bad and sloppy writing. Her story might be fundamentally flawed and vapidly two-dimensional, but at the very least readers should not need to stumble through clichéd  sentences and grammatical atrocities, or dreadful monologues that stare listlessly from the page begging for a mercy-killing. McIntyre might be a bad architect, but she can at least lay bricks, as it were.

Star Wars author Abel G. Peña suggests hesitantly that it might not be “‘Star Warsy’ enough…there are not enough fantasy elements in the novel.” An absence of fantasy is clearly not the problem here. McIntyre writes like the cringingly-awful Angela Philips in Tales From the Empire, churning out some sort of juvenile fantasy mash-up with golden transdimensional gods, villains steering planets through the galaxy, the anachronistic “wyrwulf” with its “great limpid liquid blue eyes.” We should be grateful McIntyre did not describe any “willowy, lissom-limbed” aliens (she does fixate on that one word, though, describing the ‘limpid flank’ of a spaceship and the ‘limpid gold scales’ of said transdimensional god), but her very tone and creative descriptions are simply wrong for science fiction, and wrong for Star Wars in general.

“The enormous first dome of Crseih Station spread out like a carnival around him. Bands and jugglers, acrobats and merchants demonstrated their abilities or displayed their wares.”

-The Crystal Star

And where else can this book go? It is badly hurt by McIntyre’s decision to revisit that quagmire of so many other Star Wars authors: children. Writing realistically and interestingly about children is a veritable minefield in any literary field, and it is an awkward and fumbling attempt here. Much of the book is taken up with a poor facsimile of Oliver Twist’s workhouse (Hethrir’s schoolyard prison where he keeps the children). McIntyre’s villains (not including the bizarre spectacle of Waru) are unimaginative and pedantic nonentities and her heroes are infuriating and irrational idiots. In spite of the dramatic promises of the book’s blurb, there is no sense of crisis or universal peril looming in the story; merely a steady plod towards inevitable showdown and anticlimax. If McIntyre succeeds in one thing, she succeeds in bringing fans close to actually disliking the star cast of Han, Luke and Leia, and growing tired enough of their bickering and petty squabbling, and their bald-faced idiocy, to actually secretly cheer for the cardboard villains and the androgynous and inadvertantly comedic Waru.

A bad book all around, and while it might not quite deserve its reputation, it doesn’t really deserve rehabilitation, either.

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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis

December 28, 2011 at 23:11 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Classic Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )

10/10

That C. S. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a private story for a young child is a fact that should impress itself on affectionate fans and cool critics alike. This was not intended to be high literature, or a clear and polished allegorical theological work, or even in the usual sense of things, a children’s book. It is important to know what to expect from this book, and equally important to realise that as an informal story, there are plenty of asides that serve little purpose to a serious story . All of the coming-and-going between our world and Narnia in the first several chapters for instance, might have been summed up elegantly and precisely by a more professional author in only a chapter or two. The time wasted chatting with Tumnus or with Father Christmas, or even the lengthy supper with the Beavers, might have been much more economically processed, leaving time for side-plots that would significantly advance the story rather than serve as waystations on an otherwise straightforward route.

“And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her–not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.”

-The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

But Lewis was writing for a small girl, for whom the fantasy and the excitement of taking tea with a real faun was an end and a goal in itself. One need not fight ogres with a unicorn to know that a unicorn is a magical and fantastical beast. Lewis clearly decided early on in the process of writing this book that his was a story simple enough and with enough free space to gladly accomodate long and lazy asides; for him to feel comfortable in stopping the story altogether and exploring (with some deserved self-satisfaction) the world he had wrought. Any writer might see the wisdom for pausing the pace of an adventure to delve a little deeper into certain important characters (and indeed, this might be what is going on in the earlier chapters, in Professor Kirke’s home) but to have the confidence to dally–not just to provide exposition (which the Beavers admittedly do in spades)–but to go fishing, to cook a luxurious meal, to tour the Beavers’ home, or to spend an entire chapter breakfasting with a minor and very much uninvolved character such as Father Christmas; these lengthy pauses in the storyline demonstrate quite clearly that this book’s chief concern is the author’s (and the reader’s) glee and delight in a new world to explore, even more than the adventurous plot.

It is interesting also to see where Lewis’ attention goes, even when he remains on-track. The omission of most of the climactic battle in favour of a tender and tragic, and then ecstatic observation of Aslan’s death and resurrection, seems to speak volumes about what this book is really about: the air of indescribable mystery, of ancient and veiled power suddenly brought to bear dynamically and with apocalyptic results, the sudden and swiftly changing savours of tragedy and celebration, the impish joy and the solemn sadness and the grim satisfaction. And through it all, Lewis never loses track of his two most crucial characters: Lucy and Edmund, both richly symbolic and at the same time utterly believable as children; both sidelined and passed over by their fellow characters, but doggedly gripped by the author’s attention. That Lewis was able to tell his story so clearly, in spite of his deliberate pauses and his intentionally wayward focus, and yet keep his two most important and representative characters so firmly in the centre of the reader’s attention, continues to be marvellous.

Looking at The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the context of the rest of the Narnia series (or even in the context of the quick and shiny world of contemporary children’s fantasy), it is easy to criticise the book’s dullness and lack of diversity. The kids arrive, they meet the Lion and the Witch, the Witch loses. End of story. Oh, there is growth and there are moments of beautiful sweetness and Lewis’ consistently excellent dialogue, but the story is generally a straight line. But the question might be asked, whether that makes it weaker than a more complex story. Certainly The Magician’s Nephew, for instance, combines a vaster array of incredible locations, a much larger cast of vividly coloured characters and a half-dozen competing storylines, each of which any fantasy author might give his right hand to have come up with. But in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Lewis makes simplicity an art, and through a straightforward and barely adorned storyline manages to convey complex truths and deeply mystical ideas in an unassuming and unparalleled way. He manages to write timeless villains and heroes with enough depth to captivate and enough left unsaid to be easily caught up around the central thrust of the story without hijacking it for their own purposes. And he has managed to create a book that can stand with its head held high above the clamour of criticism and the petty arguments that seek to assail it, and that will be a deserving classic for the next hundred years.

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N or M? by Agatha Christie

December 21, 2011 at 11:34 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Mystery) (, , , , )

8/10

Agatha Christie’s enormous library of mystery stories has left the world with several enduring classics. N or M? is not necessarily considered one of them, and its protagonists, Tommy and Tuppence, generally take back seat to her more famous detectives, Poirot and Miss Marple. Despite being one of the less-celebrated of her mysteries, this is undoubtedly one of the best.

There is something alluringly vulnerable about the middle-aged detective duo that is never found in Poirot; nor even in the clairvoyancy of the unflappable Miss Marple or the confidence of Superintendent Battle. They’re the heroes, and obviously heroes in books like this don’t die…but N or M? is introduced with such rare violence that it is very easy to believe that this is the ageing pair’s final puzzle. Most of Agatha Christie’s books have some kind of urgency or tension to them, but usually because a new victim is in danger, not necessarily the detective himself. Contrasted between the couple’s frank discussions about the dangers of their job, their forced optimism and their touching affection for each other, it is very easy for them to win a reader’s heart.

“Suggestive words? Yes, but capable of any number of harmless interpretations.
Unobtrusively she turned and again passed the two. Again words floated to her.
‘Smug, detestable English…'”

-N or M?

Besides the ominous feel of the book, this is a skillful mating of a wartime thriller in all its counter-espionage glory with a good old classic detective novel. There are aspects of the story that are rather easy to winkle out, and parts that demonstrate Christie’s genius: in other words, the mystery is there to be solved by any casual reader, but if a casual reader expects to figure out every twist to come, then he will be sorely disappointed.

The quiet seaside town (that might be Lyme Regis, or 1940s Newquay) is sketched immaculately, and the cast of characters ranges from the utterly believable to the endearingly caricatured to the implausibly colourful. In short, just what one ought to expect from Agatha Christie at her prime. This book should at least rank among her best works, and is a pleasure and a tense and thrilling mystery to read.

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The Documentary Hypothesis, by Umberto Cassuto

December 18, 2011 at 17:20 (Book Reviews, Bronze Age, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Theology) (, , , )

7/10

There is very little in The Documentary Hypothesis that is particularly groundbreaking. Cassuto does not really present any unique research, but takes a very simple and deliberate approach. His setting forth of the Hypothesis as a metaphorical “structure” held up by certain pillars could certainly be seen as overly simplistic or even childish, but despite his crustiness his earnest desire does seem to be for plain-speaking, and a dislike for over-convolution. For the layman reader, the pillar approach is very helpful, and although this book is probably not the final word on the composition of the Old Testament, it sets out a convincing case.

“This is a case not of inconsistency, but of a general statement followed by a detailed account, which is a customary literary device of the Torah.”

-The Documentary Hypothesis

Although written (obviously) from a Jewish perspective, Cassuto is floridly literate when it comes to explaining the purposes behind the divergences in the biblical text. He is very aware of the poetry in the biblical narrative, and presents several extremely convincing possible explanations for the various names of God used, or for the existence of overlapping narratives. It is very important to realise while reading Cassuto’s lectures that he is writing conjecturally; that there cannot be empirical proof in his support or against him; but that where there is corroboration, he will display it proudly. Likewise, where proponents of the Hypothesis have offered up corroboration, he will not prove that it cannot have been (for that is impossible); only that there is no reason to insist upon it.

Finally, although there are probably better books that give a more balanced view of the cases for and against the Documentary Hypothesis (for this is most definitely a refutation) as a prerequisite to more general books on biblical hermeneutics (for instance, The New Testament and the People of God), this book is excellent and useful.

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Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

December 14, 2011 at 15:16 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , , )

8/10

From the outset it is rather clear that for Ishiguro, the most important aspect of this work is its atmosphere; even before the decidedly dystopian plot, and even ahead of his devotion to sculpting intricate and interesting characters. In what is certainly a character-driven work, the most important character is Hailsham, the 1950s-styled boarding school, transplanted effortlessly forty years into the future and overlaid with dark secrets that are only darker for being so carelessly discussed and so frivolously and blithely made peripheral. Hailsham, with its grey and peeling facade and its feeling of being overcast even when sunny; like a half-remembered memory even when described in the present. It is this atmosphere, with its overtones of a long-past childhood memory of innocence, suddenly sullied, that pervades the book and remains throughout.

Speaking of innocence sullied, it is also worth noting that as this book dips into romance and, more properly, becomes a coming-of-age story, and although it deals with all sorts of sexual encounters between various characters, Ishiguro is gracious enough to do so at a distance, and without the sticky and graphic depictions that have become so fashionable of late. His focus, of course, is one of development, not of gratuitous sensuality.

“In any case he soon stopped and stood there, glaring after them, his face scarlet. Then he began to scream and shout, a nonsensical jumble of swear words and insults.”

-Never Let Me Go

It is admittedly difficult to find a niche in which to place this book, or a genre to define it. It is obviously deeply offensive to lovers of all literature when critics stand aghast and wonder why a “real” writer would dare to write in an unworthy genre (Sarah Kerr of the New York Times pedantically suggests Ishiguro is attempting to “upend [science fiction’s] banal conventions”). As if there were topics that “real” writers were unable to explore–or worse, that they were above exploring. But in what is quite clearly a science fiction masterpiece, Ishiguro remains rather distant from any of the tropes common to his chosen genre. He remains, in fact, stubbornly quiet on any real detail of his clone-filled dystopia, staying so far inside the heads of his characters as to offer only the vaguest hints: and then to offer only what they might have discovered.

It is once again that air of a guilty family secret that nobody–not even the author–dares talk about, and that nobody–not even the reader–wants to know the details of. That is the true measure of the success in this novel, and one of the key ways in which Ishiguro so successfully builds his atmosphere. It is real and frightening not only because of its verisimilitude, it is engaging not only because of Ishiguro’s melodious and poetic writing; but because the reader and writer partake of the same conspiracy as the characters and the world created in the book. An excellent novel, and well worth reading.

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The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage, by Enid Blyton

December 10, 2011 at 15:07 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Mystery) (, , , , , )

5/10

The Five Find-Outers mystery series was published and written over the course of some twenty years of Enid Blyton’s career, and so it makes a great deal of sense that they would differ so greatly from each other. The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage faces many of the problems of a debut book in a lengthy series, and it is unsurprising that some of the characters in this first installment are so different as to be unrecognisable from their later incarnations. And so it is that we find a pompous and generally idiotic Fatty, a cruel and abrasive Larry and a much more aggressive Goon than he later became.

The mystery itself is generally simple in its principle, if not in its details. Any reader (including young children) will correctly determine that the criminal is the meanest and most evil character introduced: every clue to the contrary must be a red herring, and the most sweet and selfless characters will surely be the most vigorously accused and also the most plainly innocent.

“‘Oh, a find-outer,’ said Bets. ‘I’d love to be that. I’m sure I would make a very good find-outer.’
‘No, you’re too little,’ said Pip. Bets looked ready to cry.”

-The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage

There are clues given throughout the book that a careful observer might notice, but although the culprit might be obvious his actual scheme is rather complex and difficult, and so the suspense of denouement is at least preserved in part. Oddly enough this chronologically first book is neither representative of the rest of the series, nor should it be recommended as a starting point. Although this is one of Blyton’s more satisfying and cleverer mysteries, the characters are still half-baked, and some of them are either a little duller or a little more unpleasant than they would eventually become.

The verdict is this: of the fifteen books in the series, about a third of them are outstanding, about a third are dully repetitive and unimaginative, and about a third are fun mysteries with apparent flaws. This book is a perfect representative of the last set, and therefore a fun read, but one to be ventured into once the reader is confident that the series is worth the effort.

Related reviews:
The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters
The Mystery of Holly Lane
 
 

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God Knows, by Joseph Heller

December 7, 2011 at 18:50 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )

9/10

Joseph Heller is one of the finest writers of the last century, and it is almost certain that he would enjoy a vastly higher reputation, had he but written a few more books. He enters historical fiction in the same cavalier way that he approaches the subject of war in Catch-22; with a brash and arrogant disdain for either the facts of the matter, or indeed the details. David converses as readily about Agamemnon, Shakespeare and the United States as he does the Philistines and the Exodus. The utter glee with which Heller plunges into these anachronisms is thrilling to behold, and the brazen confidence he shows is offset only by the amazing success he has in making it all work.

Heller’s David is very much like the young men in Catch-22, and would not appear out of place in the 256th Squadron. He is blasé and world-weary, snide and sarcastic, insightful and bitter, wise and yet a buffoon, and utterly obsessed with sex. At first it seems that Heller is simply snarling at God through the character’s mouth, and scrawling over a biblical character in angry crayon. For the first several chapters, that is all this book is, and all that it offers. Later on, Heller himself gets a little bogged down with the sheer amount of history, and some of the chapters end up as rather desperate paraphrases of the Bible, without much elaboration on his part. But in between these two extremes, there is a great deal of thinking going on. A great deal of sadness and introspection, and a great deal of despair and desperation. “The danger in being a king is that after a while you begin to think you really are one,” he soliloquises, in one of the more poignant reflections on the shabbiness of his life. Or his character’s life.

“God knows what I mean. I feel nearer to God when I am deepest in anguish. That’s when I know He is closing in again, and I yearn to call out to Him now what I have longed to say to Him before, to address my Almighty God with those words of Ahab to Elijah in the vineyard of Naboth, ‘Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?'”

-God Knows

And that is one of the more noticeable things here. Such is Heller’s genius that it is very difficult to know when he is being honest. It is very easy to wonder if he is laughing up his sleeve at David’s existential crises; if he is snorting dismissively at David’s lustful fantasies, or sharing them; if he shares David’s odd and fascinating mixture of furious pride and desperate entreaty to God, or if he is utterly detached from it. Behind the gratuitous and filthy language, the sardonic and trenchant humour and the near-nihilistic monologues, there are moments of real profundity. Joseph Heller might not know what God is, but he knows with a startling clarity what man is, and his portrait of the human arrogance and tragedy is picture perfect. It is very possible that in the moments of quiet and thoughtful introspection Heller is laughing up his sleeve. But if he is, then his sleeve has some genuine thoughtfulness and pain in it, and he lays it all out on the pages of his book with the masterful and genius talent that is his trademark.

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A Journey, by Tony Blair

December 4, 2011 at 13:33 (Biography, Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )

7/10

One of the first things that everyone in the world either loved or utterly loathed about Tony Blair was his hokey, jokey, everyman persona: which was either just that, a carefully and cynically constructed persona; or else a genuine dislike for the airs of power and tradition, and a refreshing and frank openness hitherto unseen in politics. Whether genuine or not, this book is written in a voice that matches Blair’s manner immaculately. Presumably, this has garnered it praise and poison in equal amounts; but that is the first thing any reader will notice. Stiff and awkward, like an older person talking to a teenager about the fashions and bands of five years ago; inoffensive and dreadful jokes that will be laughed at for their daring in being told at all; the confident aside whispered knowingly after any particularly salient point; ready and good-natured self-effacement throughout. Whether Blair penned this biography entirely on his own (he is certainly a capable enough communicator) or worked with a ghostwriter, the very essence of his personality was captured acutely. Whatever else that means, it suggests that this book is written much better than it seems at first glance. It is difficult to write (or act, or paint) well; it is considerably harder to do so–not badly–but just noticeably worse than you are capable of.

“Hadn’t we fought a great campaign? Hadn’t we impaled our enemies on our bayonet, like ripe fruit? Hadn’t our strategies, like something derived from destiny, scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts?”

-A Journey

Weighing in at nearly 700 pages, it is remarkable that Blair covered only his career as leader of the Labour party. There are a few scanty passages about his early life, a handful of reminiscences of his legal career (when germane to the political story) and a little about the ’80s under Neil Kinnock; otherwise almost the entire tome is strictly business, and strictly focused on his tenure as (brief) leader of the Opposition, and of the country. This allows a rare comment to be made. Rare to be said about any biography or history. Blair covers his material comprehensively, and without any area of omission. It is honestly difficult to conceive what of his political career might have been unfairly or unnaturally truncated. Some of his comments are brief (terse, even); but even with these he cannot be said to have left anything out.

His treatment of colleagues and competitors, enemies and acquaintances, and all manner of human beings in between, was always going to be a key talking point about this book. One can almost imagine feverish teams of newspaper hacks hunched up outside Waterstones in the early hours of release day, taking a chapter each and scraping each last ounce of nuance from Blair’s every word, his every pronouncement and judgement of every character, searching for scandalous rivalry or sour grapes. He is a gentleman throughout–although sometimes a snide gentleman with a great deal of subtext. When the time comes to censure someone, he employs like clockwork a patronising, “so-and-so is an excellent and peerless MP, but has an unfortunate tendency to shortsightedness, and doesn’t understand the way the Civil Service works.” Or some variation of the formula. Rupert Murdoch and Ed Balls in particular come in for a regular savaging, but Blair always attempts to justify himself, and never in this book is there an unpleasant taste of bitterness or bile. Seldom, anyway.

“Ed Balls was and is immensely capable intellectually, and also has some of the essential prerequisites for leadership: he has guts, and he can take decisions. But he suffers from the bane of all left-leaning intellectuals. As I have remarked elsewhere, these guys never ‘get’ aspiration…truly muddled and ultimately damaging…”

-A Journey

As far as his honesty goes, an odd curiosity is his clear and conscious attempt to prove that, while he is certainly a master of persuasion, and incredibly good with words, there is more to it than that. A great deal of the effort in this book is given to bolstering his verisimilitude as a politician, and therefore as a writer. If his chief intention is to be believable, then he works like a Trojan, and puts every argument to work in his favour. He parries countless thrusts at his personal and political integrity, and does so with masterful flourish and disarming frankness. While this does not, of course, prove his character or nature (the devil can quote scripture to suit his purpose), it does at the very least provide a challenge to the reader. Listen to what he has to say, and weigh his words with an open mind. His strong insistence that he relies on more than just showmanship and “spin” is powerfully backed up by his record, and together his facts and his rhetoric make for a heady mixture.

This was not altogether a particularly pleasant book to read (the depth with which Blair deals with every shade of issue, from foreign policy to economics, education to the media) makes that a foregone conclusion. And despite how genuine his charming everyman persona might or might not be, it grows tiresome after a while (his parenthetical, “Blimey, I thought to myself,” coming off as particularly cloying). Nevertheless, this is a powerful and persuasive book, and if not a pleasure to begin then certainly a pleasure to reflect on and digest.

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