All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, by Tod Wodicka

April 29, 2012 at 14:59 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )

6/10

Another reviewer has somewhere said, “I enjoyed it, but had to brush my teeth afterward.” This witty soundbyte sums up All Shall Be Well… fairly perfectly, and is a very fitting evaluation (it is tempting to say “epitaph”) for this absurdist tragicomedy. There is an interesting contrast at work here, between cutely funny and desperately melancholic, and unfortunately the latter tends to drown out the former. It bears repeating: where Wodicka aims for sweet and empathetic, he does it very well. When he aims for overwhelming depression, he perhaps does it too well.

Of the two main characters, Hecker and his wife (and the added extra of his wife’s bipolar personalities) a strong comparison can be drawn with Beckett’s Nagg and Nell: trapped in both past and present and horrified to find the future only a grim copy of their memories. They are bleak, hopeful in a very depressing way, sly and distinctly unappealing. Their troublesome lives are reflected in repeated allusions towards Hecker’s patchwork of history: he is the latest in a long parade of failures. This theme is subverted somewhat by the inclusion of a few notes of what smells suspiciously like hope towards the end of his story; Wodicka spiting Hecker’s historical incarnations and forcing the question as to whether this book is a condemnation or an affirmation of predeterminism.

“Dawn, or its German equivalent, cannot be far off.”

-All Shall Be Well…

And this is where the quote from the beginning comes in: this is an enjoyable book, and Wodicka does have a unique and fervid style. But perhaps the story is told from too close a vantage point, and Hecker’s sickly mead binges and sordid, ugly life drags on, chapter by chapter, a litany of the gross and excessive with only occasional relief. Hecker is sent on a pilgrimage to rediscover his son, his daughter, his lawyer, his sense of purpose, and all of the mixed reasons why characters in novels go on pilgrimages. It is not that his character fails; only that the pilgrimage is only barely distinguishable from his regular life. It is not this novel’s bleakness that damages it (for bleak novels can be tremendous fun and deeply moving) but its stagnancy.

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Jedi Search, by Kevin J. Anderson

April 21, 2012 at 18:16 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , )

4/10

The one constant about Kevin J. Anderson’s writing is that he is an imaginative and creative fellow. He has given the Star Wars universe some of its most interesting characters–Daala, Bevel Lemelisk, IG-88, Exar Kun–as well as providing the universe for the first time with a sense of legend and myth. It is very difficult to love the Star Wars extended universe without at least liking Kevin J. Anderson.

“Kyp wore an embarrassed expression for a moment; then he spoke quickly. ‘This is going to sound like a hokey old religion–but it works. An old woman who spent part of her sentence in the spice tunnels told me I had some sort of tremendous potential. She showed me how to use something called ‘the power’ or ‘the strength’ or something.'”

-Jedi Search

Now, it ought to be well recognised that an imaginitive man is no more a good writer than a man who can dream up fascinating storylines, or a descriptive poet. Anderson’s greatest problems do not lie with his storylines, although they tend to be broadly predictable and more than a little derivative. His problems are partly due to the fact that he has already pictured and pieced together an entire world inside his head. His imagination might well be his biggest downside. He has pictured Han Solo, for instance, not only as an exciting character, but as a complete man. When most people think of Solo, they think of his greatest and most exciting moments: shooting Greedo under the table; throwing Leia’s impassioned admission of love back at her while facing imminent execution; charging headfirst towards a Star Destroyer. It seems fairly plain that when Kevin J. Anderson thinks about Han Solo, he also thinks of the fellow having to brush his teeth, or worrying about his retirement, or refuelling the Millennium Falcon and then realising he left his credit card in another pair of trousers.

Anderson crams his book with page upon page of description and exposition. He tells readers what his characters are thinking, rather than show them. There are plenty of opportunities for this sort of thing here, with extended training scenes in which Luke and Leia think furiously about everything they’re doing; Han Solo spends a lot of time in a prison cell, thinking about things, and remembering other things; even C-3PO does his share of wordless pondering. In many ways, this book was a badly-needed recentering of the Star Wars world. A summary of what had been and what would be, and Anderson had the vision to pull it off. But this book is terminally weakened by his distraction, and his apparently earnest desire to set the History of Star Wars in stone.

Besides that, Anderson’s writing is fluent but not pretty. He uses the word “hodgepodge” seriously; there is a chapter in which one of the most frequently-used words is “blob”; he tries his level best to write meaningful dialogue between two-year-olds; he has a limited selection of verbs, all of which find their way into each and every fighting sequence. This is a case of an excellent editor and a peerless visionary writing a book that could have been successful either as a short story, or as an encyclopaedia, but not as a novel.

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Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

April 18, 2012 at 18:30 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , )

6/10

Sam Vimes is one of Pratchett’s best and most enduring characters, starring in more Discworld books than even Rincewind. He tends to embody Pratchett’s view of an ideal hero (particularly in his constant struggles against his own darkness, and his rigid adherance to the rule of law), and if ever he falls, it is not very far and not for very long. It must be acknowledged that Sam Vimes is easily Pratchett’s most likeable character. Combined, these traits make this book instantly readable, but also rather predictable. It is hardly likely that Terry Pratchett will choose to have his pristine hero watch his wife or son die, or lose his fortune or his reputation, any more than Ankh Morpork will be destroyed or Vetinari will be permanently unseated. Such are the hazards of writing a forty-book series. Eventually, suspense wanes.

There is a fair amount of dallying back-and-forth that goes on in Snuff, which might lead some to suspect that the story has been needlessly padded out. Vimes spends an unwarranted amount of time bouncing between his manorial estate, the local tavern, the goblin den and the local gaol. In any other mystery story (most of the Watch stories boil down to mysteries sooner or later) this would be time well spent in digging through the surprising secrets and scandalous miscellania of the extended cast, as well as building up the main characters. This doesn’t really happen.

“He would want Vimes to know who was killing him. Vimes, Vimes realised, knew killers too well for his own peace of mind.”

-Snuff

Vimes has been well-explored in several other books, and it would be unfair to say that his character is neglected in Snuff. But after reading this book, Discworld aficionados will not have glimpsed much more about Sybil, or Young Sam, or Vetinari, or even Lord Rust or Willikins. Instead of meaningful exposition, Pratchett serves up occasional cameo glimpses of a handful of characters who serve little purpose other than as placation for fans. These diversions are seldom necessary and always distracting, and break up the pace of this book terribly. The entire subplot in Ankh Morpork is entirely unnecessary, and is the worst example of this habit. Snuff is spread too thinly and insubstantially across too wide an area, and while it is a charming adventure story for Sam Vimes, it does not contain anywhere near the depth, the attention to detail, or the sophistication of Pratchett’s best works.

The writing is generally good, but the hazards of writing interior monologues for characters written in the third person catches up with Pratchett from time to time, resulting in some peculiar sentence structures and clumsy descriptions. It is sad to say, but an enduring epitaph to the Discworld series might be that it all began to sound the same. There is the distinct feeling of a slightly frustrated author who is not quite sure how to clearly communicate what he wants to say. Fans of Terry Pratchett will forgive this instantly, but for newer readers the verdict will be the same as it has been for the last half-dozen novels: don’t start with this one. He writes much better than this.

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Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell

April 12, 2012 at 17:56 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Literature) (, , )

7/10

A story about horses, as told by horses? Nonsense! Surely a simpering, unbearable litany of velvet-nosed, gentle noncharacters, each more awful than the last. Puritanical preaching and a hastily scribbled version of the olden days; and certainly only elbowing its way into the “classics” collection due to a disappointing number of animal lovers prepared to accept tawdry literature and cloyingly sweet stories only because of the content, and without a care for the quality.

“While I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold we had a nice warm shed near the grove.”

-Black Beauty

It is remarkably easy to judge this book extremely quickly, and write it off as a depressing relic without real substance. It is about horses, so surely it is about nothing but horses. This expectation will not easily survive past the first few chapters (where admittedly little exciting happens). But in spite of this being a slow starter, the reader is immediately plunged into such a rich landscape with characters at once exciting and powerfully captivating, both equine and human. Perhaps that is the saving grace that opens this book up so readily: it is about horses, but not only horses. It is a thick and vivid cross-section of early Victorian life, from the grim rain-lashed cobbles of Dickensian London to Austen’s world of polite genteel society. In every sketch of life is a unique blend of tragedy and triumph; and although the story makes no secret that it is a crusade for the betterment of animals everywhere, Sewell expertly joins the fates of Beauty, Ginger and the other animals to the fates and fortunes of the full and lifelike human characters.

“One day two wild-looking young men came out of a tavern close by the stand, and called Jerry.

‘Here, cabby! look sharp, we are rather late; put on the steam, will you, and take us to the Victoria in time for the one o’clock train? You shall have a shilling extra.'”

-Black Beauty

This ultimately sets Black Beauty apart from other animal stories (even high-quality authors like Jack London). She manages a dual focus on both her sympathetic horsey heroes and on the world around them, never once forgetting who it is her heroes are, but refusing to spend her novel frolicking in grassy meadows and mossy barns. There are heroes and villains in the animal world and the human world, and both sets are given the same careful attention. A gentle book, but with clearly defined peaks and troughs, and sharp moments of crisis and climax to offset the pastoral setting. Plainly, this will not appeal to every reader (even the most tolerant). But just as plainly, there is more to this book than meets the eye. If ever there were a book more susceptible to being misjudged by its cover, this is it. Readers ought to go into Black Beauty with their eyes open as to the sort of story it is, but they should not hesitate to go into Black Beauty at all.

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The Tiger Rising, by Kate DiCamillo

April 5, 2012 at 02:09 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , )

8/10

Kate DiCamillo is one of those rare breeds of contemporary authors, whose writing consistently and almost without variation turns a gentle light upon painful and tragic things and reveals hidden beauty, in such a way that it is mature enough and raw enough to appeal instantly to adult readers, but sweet enough and tender enough to be accessible to the children she is ostensibly writing for. “Ostensibly”, because it can be difficult to believe that a children’s writer would or could write stories so complex and so instantly poignant.

The Tiger Rising is one of her earlier novels, but in spite of her relative inexperience she sets out boldly and without any sign of shying away from deep tragedy and uncensored pain. If DiCamillo’s developing talent and the contrast between this and her later books can be seen anywhere, it can be seen in her choice to write less lyrically, and with less whimsical and gentle humour. It is difficult to tell if this is a hallmark of her style that has not yet asserted itself, or if the bleak nature of the setting in this book dictated the atmosphere. Nevertheless, for whichever reason, readers accustomed to her work will miss the short sentences bearing simple and matter-of-fact confessions from the hearts of beautiful characters, shocking in brevity and laudable in profundity. This world (and DiCamillo’s autobiographical description of the rural southern USA) is much less adorned and idealised than her later fairytales.

“He took a deep breath. He opened his mouth and let the words fall out. ‘I know where there’s a tiger.'”

-The Tiger Rising

This could easily be a criticism, but the fact that this book is so different and so lacking in what made some of her other books so successful, does not by any stretch of the imagination make it a bad book. It is cruelly short, without either history or even much in the way of resolution, and feels intentionally aimed towards that narrowest demographic of young readers: old enough to appreciate subtlety, young enough to love beauty. It has more of a feel of Steinbeck about it than of Harper Lee, but DiCamillo loves her characters more than Steinbeck could ever have loved his.

And after all of that, what is left? A sweet book with some truly heartfelt characters, written with flourish and undeniable skill. It will stand head and shoulders above the sort of cloying children’s literature that can only hold one idea at any given time, and it is well above the other even more putrid sort that can only draw grotesque and cruel sketches of Bad Things That Happen. A terrific book, and if it does not have quite the heart of some of this author’s other works, it is nonetheless a highly recommended read.

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Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited, by Colin Irwin

April 1, 2012 at 19:50 (Biography, Book Reviews, Mediocre Books, Music) (, , , , )

5/10

A good solid look at a classic album, although it is questionable as to whether or not this book was really necessary. There isn’t much here that one couldn’t find in a good biography of Dylan, save for a very in-depth treatment of the session musicians (who might be given their own sentence or paragraph in a full-fledged biography) and producers  (who are certainly covered in detail in most biographies) involved in the album, and maybe a little more record company politics than you’d otherwise expect to find. Colin Irwin obviously likes the album a great deal, and is a little embarrassing in the praise he slathers all over the pages of his book, but it’s not his job to make value judgements, and he tells the story he’s here to tell very well.

“Dylan once claimed he wrote ‘Desolation Row’ in the back of a cab on the way to the studio, but as the song clocks in at over 11 minutes and contains 659 words, that must have been one hell of a cab ride.”

-Highway 61 Revisited (Colin Irwin)

There is a great deal of commentary on Dylan’s lyrics, and Irwin is also smart enough to stick to the facts and not use this book as a pulpit for his own ideas. Rather than use this book to tell his own theories about what certain songs mean, he finds some excellent soundbytes from interviews with Bob, and allows himself just a little educated guesswork, more often than not ending in a shrug. The book is written like a review in a music magazine (coherently, but packed with journalese), and provides few surprises, pleasant or otherwise.

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