Millennium Falcon, by James Luceno

January 28, 2012 at 15:51 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , )

8/10

James Luceno provides a very unexpected surprise in this recent addition to the Star Wars library. Star Wars books tend to be erratically hit-and-miss at the best of times, and even sticking to tried and tested authors is no guarantee of finding a good book. A general rule is to avoid books based solely around a background figure or an inanimate object, and it is difficult to pick up Millennium Falcon with anything but a sense of foreboding.

Even more ominously, this book does not begin well. It commits the cardinal sin of switching narrative perspective no less than three times in the first eight pages, and then killing off most of the main characters that have been introduced by the end of the second chapter. Luceno’s method in tracing the history of the titular ship is to weave together a selection of short stories told by the various ne’er-do-wells who have had it slip through their greasy fingers over the years, and the weakness of the start makes this prospect look shaky at best.

“Like a school of fish discombobulated by the sudden appearance of a predator, ships were suddenly diverting from their courses, doing what they could to avoid accidents but in many cases slamming against nearby vessels and initiating chain reactions of collisions.”

-Millennium Falcon

That Luceno succeeds is exciting, and bodes well for the franchise in general. That he manages to tell a story with some real complexity and some intriguing symmetry is impressive, and that he manages to avoid the constantly looming pitfall of a palid story wrapped around a lonesome single idea is nothing short of astounding. With real skill he makes the story his own, and while the Falcon definitely figures heavily in the book, it is a book about interesting and full characters, not a book about milking the last few coins out of an increasingly irrelevant franchise.

Part of the success of this book is the air of mystery that Luceno maintains ably throughout: never giving too much away, but never dropping the ball. He is also aware of the need for subtlety, and never belabours his reader with his clues or his hints. He provides a charming and beautiful sketch of Han and Leia’s young granddaughter, proving maybe for the first time that it is not impossible for Star Wars authors to convincingly write about children. His largest technical problem seems to be his similes (several of which are hilariously stilted and awkward), but these cannot possibly detract from the relief and excitement in finding one of the best written Star Wars novels in years.

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The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare

January 25, 2012 at 19:13 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , )

6/10

On the surface, this is just another shell of a book, with no other aim in sight than to persuade its (young) reader that they will not be good people until they learn to accept other people. Good literature can have a message behind it, but good messages cannot just wrap themselves in a plot and expect to be mistaken for good literature. And yet. Although there is very little depth in the hundred or so pages, and although we learn little about characters or scenarios, and even little about the differing way of life that the writer seems so eager to expound upon, there are the edges of a good story. Perhaps what this book needed was a little consistency. A villain with some flesh on him, or a grandmother not quite so generous and quick to forgive the white man. Maybe a touch of tragedy. The unfortunate thing is, despite some very promising starts, not much actually happens. The story gets as far as its first crisis and then resolves itself very suddenly and without any fuss whatsoever. And yet.

“‘…So I says, Ben, I says, you been plannin’ on gettin’ yourself some beaver pelts. Looks like now’s the time to get moving. I aim to settle in with the redskins a bit, maybe move on north.'”

-The Sign of the Beaver

There is something about that short, short story that we do manage to glimpse that sets this book just a little higher and makes it readable–and dare it be said?–enjoyable. Perhaps due to the skill of the writer (who despite her rather cynical and propagandistic methods has a warm and alluring style), or possibly due to its brevity (for with such a bland plot, even fifty pages longer might have been an unpardonable sin), this book does end up redeeming itself. It will seldom be useful as a favourite treasure to be taken down and read to fascinated children at bedtime. It may be doomed to bore children shackled to their desks, dogeared and foxed from unloved summers in the school library. But it might have a place as a comfortable read on a camping trip or an empty weekend in between books that aim for beauty and joy and excitement, rather than simply sermonising.

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The Legend of Luke, by Brian Jacques

January 22, 2012 at 15:30 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )

5/10

This book is deservingly titled: since the publication of Martin the Warrior and Mossflower in particular, the character of the almost mystical Martin has hovered conspicuously in the background of every one of the Redwall books, and the temptation to provide exposition for this noticeable enigma plainly became too great to be ignored any longer.

The danger in writing prequels is that any light shed on tantalising and mysterious characters with dark or exciting origins usually ends up destroying everything that made those characters interesting in the first place. Martin the Warrior skated perilously close to this, turning the Tall, Dark Stranger from Mossflower into a simple escaped slave with an attitude and a rusty sword. Nobody wants to know where Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name” went to school, and nobody wants Darth Vader to be a whining eight-year-old child. Nobody wants to meet a teenage Falstaff or see Moriarty out on his first date. Nobody wants to see Big Brother as just “one of the guys” working his first job, or read about Atticus Finch’s first trials. Although Martin the Warrior was a good book, Martin’s character was unarguably damaged.

It is surprising then, that in a probably ill-advised foray into legendary beginnings and unwanted exposition, Jacques manages to create a compelling and genuinely epic genesis for Luke. The spectre of the ancient ship in the air, the revisiting of ocean tales for the first time since Mariel of Redwall, the fitting apotheosis of Luke in the final climactic chapters of his story and the introduction of a truly excellent villain all combine to make the title of this book no shallow boast.

“She was a huge sinewy creature, with unusually black shining fur that glistened in the sunlight. Though wounded and scarred in several places, she heaved and bucked against the ropes, sending vermin sprawling, baring strong white teeth at them.”

-The Legend of Luke

Legend of Luke is the last of the Redwall books published before Brian Jacques lost his brilliance; the final book before the series saw marked decline in quality. It is more than ever a transitional book when considering its own layout. The entire “legend” is told in the second section of the story, with the first and third parts taken up by an insipid, repetitive and utterly derivative quest-to-find-the-legend. The quest includes characters poached from Mossflower and Mariel of Redwall (most noticeably) as well as such foolish innovations as the invention of the sail-car. Yes, an automobile. It seems that Jacques had the germ of a good story that he was unable to sufficiently lengthen, and that he bookended with a hurriedly scrawled and painfully juvenile piece of padding. For that reason alone, this book clearly marks the end of the quality (found in the second part) and the beginning of the trite and sloppy (found in the first and third parts). For that reason also this book is difficult to recommend, and should only be explored once the earlier books have been exhausted.

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Waverly Hall: Relois, by Brian Melton

January 14, 2012 at 17:42 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Dystopia, Fantasy, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , )

5/10

Brian Melton is a strong writer with some truly moving and poetic descriptive writing. He also seems to have difficulty in deciding what sort of story he wants to tell. The basic premise of Relois appears to be a mixed homage to C. S. Lewis, with an uncertainly sketched protagonist finding her way into one of the many worlds hypothesised in The Magician’s Nephew. Melton is strong when writing originally–the Hall where the story begins is exciting and fresh, and begs deeper investigation, for instance–but the crutch he uses in adapting existing works ends up hobbling him whenever it is given too much attention.

“‘I like you,’ she said, ‘I’m sorry you’re gonna die tonight.'”

-Waverly Hall: Relois

The story changes abruptly about a quarter of the way through, and Relois becomes a gentle dystopic adventure. While his pen flows as lyrically as before, the sudden change in subject and in feeling can only be disconcerting. In the second act, the reader is hurried from one location to the next without being given a great deal of time to absorb or have any real tactile encounter with the fantastical world. Obviously a slow and gentle exploration is not mandatory in a story, but given where Melton’s strengths and weaknesses lie it feels like an opportunity has been missed here.

The chief verdict when considering this book must be that Melton is an able writer who has not yet discovered how to plan a convincing or compelling plot. There are pacing problems and wooden portrayals around every corner, and he seems to distractedly flit from one character to another without really landing on whose story he is telling. A further frustration comes in Melton’s Christian message, which is laid out without much subtlety or care, and is an exasperating obfuscation that even a Christian reader will be constantly banging his shins against. These flawed asides are misconstrued, and are some of the lowest points of the book. Melton gives the impression that his book is an opportunity for a lecture rather than an invitation to a conversation.

It is important to be clear: Melton is not a Tolkien or a Dickens. He is not a Dosteovsky or a Rushdie, and he does not seem to want to be. He is writing a relatively simple children’s story, and judged by that criterion Relois has a degree of excitement in the right places, and is an interesting venture into a competently-written world. It aims at a certain mark, and it strikes near enough to satisfy. This book will probably not interest adult readers–particularly those adept enough to pick out Melton’s manifold and unwelcome “homages” to other works–but will be a pleasing (though not necessarily groundbreaking) diversion for younger readers.

And yes: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter is, at one point, mentioned.

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King George III, by John Brooke

January 11, 2012 at 20:14 (Biography, Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics) (, , , )

8/10

It is something of a rare pleasure to read biographies by serious historians and dedicated men of letters, rather than well-meaning amateurs, celebrity talking-heads, or journalists. What John Brooke lacks in shimmering prose or scandalous new theories, he more than makes up for in levelheadedness, clarity, and perspicacity. Like so many historians, he has very little time for theories that he does not subscribe to, and some of the juiciest and most entertaining passages of this book are taken up by Brooke’s withering scorn for the pop-psychologists of the twentieth century, the sensationalists of the nineteenth century, and the jingoists from all centuries.

“In the mythology of American history King George III is the would-be tyrant whose wicked plans were foiled by the courage and resistance of the American people. He is the scapegoat for the act of rebellion.”

-George III (John Brooke)

These moments aside, Brooke is methodical without being too dry, and has an aura of The Establishment about his writing, that creates a slightly artificial awe around the subject of his work, as well as lending him a voice of authority to match. He clearly has a great deal of affection for the entire band of miscreants of the eighteenth century–North, Fox, the Pitts, the Willises, the Prince Regent, Bute–and an even stronger affection for the King. While this could be seen as detrimental to a supposedly impartial review of the monarchy, Brooke makes the calculated decision to tell a chiefly personal biography, crossing occasionally into politics when the two areas overlap. Consequently, this book is most comprehensive when the King was most active (during the 1760s through to the 1780s), and includes only the barest treatment of William Pitt the Younger, Napoleon, or America’s turbulent relationship with Britain after the Revolution. This can often be vexing; Brooke is not a consistent author, and by caprice or by design distributes his attentions rather imperfectly. There are times when his portrait of George III is badly affected by his refusal to offer a glimpse at a wider context, and there are times when he drones just a little about a favourite politician with only tenuous links to the King.

As an history of its period, this work is incomplete; as a portrait of a man, it is decidedly myopic. But for all its faults, it is a fine introductory biography, and does not delve too far from the path of received knowledge. A useful book to have in one’s library, and a valuable arrow in the quiver for defending the facts about one of history’s most misconstrued characters.

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True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey

January 8, 2012 at 20:30 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )

2/10

This fictionalised diary of outlaw Ned Kelly is a long and sprawling account of misadventure and persecution and occasional thrilling clashes with the authorities; although much too occasional to continue to hold the reader’s attention. Peter Carey deserves approbation for his brave decision to write this book entirely from Kelly’s perspective and in Kelly’s own hand: that is, sans-grammar, sans-punctuation and sans-complex phraseology. This decision might well appeal to a reader with a low threshold for the willing suspension of disbelief, or fans of William Faulkner’s similarly unreadable mishmash*, but it makes True History of the Kelly Gang deucedly difficult to read. There are times when it feels much more like a struggling middle-school student’s creative writing homework than a serious novel.

“…my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.”

-True History of the Kelly Gang

So what of its story? Interesting, but neither original enough nor clever enough to make this book worth struggling through. An untoward proportion of this book is written as monologue, and while monologue has its place, it is very difficult to follow the inner thoughts of an imbecile. Any sense of the history of Australia’s infamous gang or the majesty of setting are as lost on the reader as they are lost on the troglodyte who is monosyllabically telling the story. Certainly not worth picking up. Skimming through Ned Kelly’s Wikipedia page would reveal a more coherent, more interesting and probably more factual narrative.

*William Faulkner was a rambling chaotic windbag. No apologies will be forthcoming.

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The Chronicles of Corum (The Prince with the Silver Hand), by Michael Moorcock

January 4, 2012 at 14:40 (Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , )

10/10

It is very difficult to accurately sum up this book. On the one hand, it is the sort of Sword-and-Sorcery epic that smells like stale pizza and murky bookshops from the ’70s (and in fairness, Michael Moorcock has done his fair share in supporting that very industry). There are feasts and dwarves and lissom maidens, there are halls and knights-errant, and it seems at times that one cannot throw a brick without hitting any number of High Kings or warrior princesses. A facetious summary, perhaps, but it highlights the most noticeable weakness of this book, and a weakness exploited by a hundred other writers, and diluted by a hundred B-movies. This is a fantasy book written for people who read fantasy books.

“And this time he did see a looming shape–a gigantic figure of a man, apparently with antlered horns growing from the sides of its head, its face all misshapen, its body all warped, raising something to its lips, as if to drink.”

-The Chronicles of Corum

As a hero Corum is not believable. As a companion, Jhary struggles to come up with even two dimensions. As a quest, the tokens Corum searches for in his attempt to fight the Cold Gods are embarrassingly and unblushingly contrived: a reason to send him gallivanting across the country, and utterly without depth. But what else were Hercules’ twelve tasks? Was Achilles such a complex everyman? Were Sigurd and Brynhildr the most thrilling of companions? In The Chronicles of Corum, Michael Moorcock strives to take the old Irish epic of the Fomoire (Fhoi Myore as he transposes them) and put flesh on bones, and make a hero who is equal parts modern fantasy, and mythopoeic legend. He chooses for his style a creaky and elegant prose clearly intended to represent the voice of the Norse Sagas and the ancient legends of Greece and Rome. He pens long meandering poems that do not rhyme (but sound awfully grand), sprinkles immaculately verbose rhetorical questions throughout most conversations and bombards readers with ponderous syntaxes and an overabundance of ritualised honour and lengthy soliloquies about Fate and Paradoxes.

“Did Corum kill the Gods?”

-Blind Guardian
Imaginations From the Other Side

Ultimately, he succeeds. For readers able to put aside the slightly guilty feeling that they are reading something that is somehow “beneath them” or too juvenile to be taken seriously (the perpetual bugbear of all fantasy), a true sense of the historic epic comes to life, as rich as anything Tolkien ever wrote (if not quite as developed) and in the lofty style of epic poetry turned to prose. The Chronicles of Corum are an excellent gateway into reading real mythologies and real prehistoric legends (retold) by Monmouth and Malory or the Lebor Gabála Érenn. They are certainly not the most accessible of fantasies (nor even the easiest to find), and even a writer as fearless and avant-garde as Moorcock can now seem a little prudish, a little dated and a little bland; but they are also some of the brightest and most memorable scenes in fantasy, and some of the most deeply rooted in genuine histories. Readers will not have the chance to sit around a fire with Corum as they would with Frodo or with Ratty, and they will not stand by and remark on his progress and growth, as with Kvothe or Potter. But if ever a fictional hero deserved to feature in a Titian or Botticelli, or be cast in bronze or marble, it is Corum. And if any fantasy chronicle ought to be lionised above its fellows and praised for skill, effort and verisimilitude, this is it. More than any other author, Moorock has mastered the art of creating the modern myth.

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