The Club of Queer Trades, by G.K. Chesterton

June 30, 2012 at 08:46 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Mystery) (, , , )

5/10

Every so often there comes a book whose premise is particularly fantastic, but for whatever reason scarcely lives up to its potential. Unfortunately, The Club of Queer Trades is as plain an example of such a book as ever there was. G.K. Chesterton has the mastery over the mundane and the metaphysical, the trivial and the grave, and over every kind of mystery. His voice is carefully developed and as solid as a rock, and if nothing else, this book does make for delightfully fun reading. After all, even if it fails on some fronts, it is hardly possible to conceive that Chesterton might write untidily.

The loosely-binding centre of this book is the idea that several more rogueish of the inhabitants of Edwardian London have taken it upon themselves to develop unusual means of earning their living, each peculiar to himself. The Sherlockian protagonist goes about calmly unravelling the maze of paradoxes and contradictions that these queer trades by their nature produce, much to the bamboozlement of his friend the narrator. A winsome trope, but one that Chesterton inverts at the end of his book, in a twist that has the unfortunate side-effect of doing significant damage to the preceding story.

“It’s true he didn’t want to talk about his house business in front of us; no man would. It’s true that he carries a sword-stick; any man might. It’s true he drew it in the shock of a street fight; any man would. But there’s nothing really dubious in all this.”

-The Club of Queer Trades

Quite besides that, although the brief mysteries are charmingly told and well laid-out, they are not nearly as clever as they perhaps have promised in the introduction. The eponymous trades are not quite as exotic or exciting as all that, and occasionally readers might well find themselves wishing that the red-herrings Chesterton lays out with all the dilligence of the veteran mystery writer, had in fact been the true slant of the puzzle.

This is a sweet and expertly-written collection, but from G.K. Chesterton more ought to be expected, and this book is well in the shadows of his others.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

June 27, 2012 at 17:12 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Literature, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )

9/10

The worst thing that can be said about this book is that it is ridiculously sentimental. It is at least as much of a romance as it is an adventure of incredible proportions, but it is the sort of romance in which every single chapter has the swooning heroine declaring to herself that her bosom yearns for the sweet embrace of death, if only she can catch but one glimpse of her beloved; even a cruel word would be sweet, and even a bitter meeting would be as paradise.

“‘And you have let them escape,’ shouts the captain furiously. ‘You’ll go to the guillotine for this, citoyen sergeant! That cart held concealed the ci-devant Duc de Chalis and all his family!’

‘What!’ thunders Grospierre, aghast.

‘Aye! and the driver was none other than that cursed Englishman, the Scarlet Pimpernel.'”

-The Scarlet Pimpernel

It is difficult to have patience with this level of melodrama, and so it is all the more impressive that Baroness Orczy manages to match her incredibly wet romantic plot, not only with a level of adventure to exceed it (for this would not be a masterful achievement), but with some genuine moments of pathos, and a believable relationship between the star-crossed lovers that is deeper than swooning and soliloquising.

It ought to be made clear: this is not a work to be judged on complex multifaceted characters, or even on serious development or growth. The plot that grows up in the midst of the romance is one of desperate and dastardly deeds by cruel flinty-eyed despots; of dashing and debonair heroes festooned with capes and cutlasses; a thing of death-or-glory last chances and low cunning. The personalities are all rather simple, and are some rather perfect examples of what it is to be a stock character.

But the reader will be along for the ride, and forgive every trope and each predictable scenario that comes trotting by. The surprises are scarcely surprising, but then who ever thought that Long John Silver would slay Hawkins and inherit the treasure? Who ever imagined that Edmond Dantès would rot in his chateau, or that Phileas Fogg would be not be vindicated? The success of The Scarlet Pimpernel is not its novelty or its subtlety, but its heart and its bombast, and the constantly excellent recasting of the age old battle between good and evil, where the foul mask of evil is as immutable as the solid foundation of good.

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Anthem, by Ayn Rand

June 23, 2012 at 21:09 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Dystopia, Fiction, Philosophy, Poorly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , )

3/10

It is important to not mince words. Ayn Rand was a hack, a shuddering and grating alarm blaring a single-noted siren with a stygian monotony. She never knew Dante, but if she had, she would surely have figured in his magnum opus as one of the particularly graceless staff of his infernal establishment. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she represents the absolute bottom rung of the tiresome ladder of the written word, pasting up antisocial complaints and hideously self-satisfied whining and expecting it to be hailed as literature.

But let the philosophers judge her defunct philosophies for what they are! It is for the students of literature to pick over the carcass they have left, and see if there remains an actual story beneath the epistle of this raving prophet. In Atlas Shrugged, the clear answer is no. In Anthem, the answer might be a little more complicated.

“I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of the spirit. I guard my treasures, my thought, my will, my freedom; and the greatest of these is freedom.”

-Anthem

In her favour, there is a story to be found: a light dystopia such as Lois Lowry might have penned for children; a simple parable with an equally simple message behind it. Never mind that the message in Rand’s case is abhorent. At least it is a story, and told in a consistent if petulant voice. She aspires to Orwell and ends up with a juvenile pulp novelette, but although the product is trite, rushed and muddled, it is at least not nauseating.

A great deal of this changes in the penultimate chapter, which is the light version of John Galt’s speech in her more famous book. There are no apologies, no warnings, and if ever there were a distilled version of Rand’s own ten verbose commandments, they would be found starkly inscribed here. A tedious chapter and a predictable and shabby end for a book, but the fact that this one chapter is so noticeably worse than the others, is a pyrrhic point in favour for Anthem.

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Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

June 14, 2012 at 09:32 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )

8/10

Nobody writes like this any more, and more is the pity. Had Herman Melville handed in this 200,000 word monstrosity today, he would surely have been laughed out of his publisher’s office. A more kindly-disposed editor would have brought up a few of the obvious problems with the book, and would surely have slashed the lengthy encyclopaedic descriptions of whales and their relations in the first edit.

Undoubtedly these encyclopaedia sections are one of the most difficult characteristics of the book to trawl through, and it is impossible to help wondering whether they were strictly necessary, even if one is otherwise captivated by Melville’s thick and heavy pen. After all, the pesudo-scientific asides spaced with deadening regularity through the story are either unnecessary peripheral fluff, or else ham-fisted exposition.

“The opposite wall of this entry was hung all over with a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears. Some were thickly set with glittering teeth resembling ivory saws; others were tufted with knots of human hair; and one was sickle-shaped, with a vast handle sweeping round like the segment made in the new-mown grass by a long-armed mower…Mixed with these were rusty old whaling lances and harpoons all brokem and deformed. Some were storied weapons. With this once long lance did Nathan Swain kill fifteen whales between a sunrise and a sunset.”

-Moby Dick

Take but a moment to linger in one of these parenthetical partitions, however, and subtler flavours begin to leach out. Arrogance and starry-eyed wonder, bitter racism and pompous buffoonery, tender joy tempered with excitement; all these are available in spades, within the driest explanation of prehistoric aquatic mammals, and while they do not make these sections exciting, they do smooth the edges marvellously, and ensure that the asides are not gratingly different from the pace of the book. They are written in a different voice and different style, and yet are clearly the thoughts and earnestness of Ishmael.

An apologetic for one of the hardest things about this book, then. But Melville does not shine in the sections that must be explained: he shines in the thick and visceral settings of scene. Writers today are warned against spending an entire chapter describing the inside of a tavern, let alone the countenance of a gloomy man. But Melville proves that this is because writers today seldom possess the skill to do so lyrically and imposingly, capturing the attention and the imagination of a reader and refusing to let go. He proves it can be done, if done well.

Any writer desiring to improve his prose would do well to study Melville: borrow from him if necessary. He strikes a perfect balance between shifting the attention of his gaze, and drawing attention to a particular detail and there holding it implacable.

“Call me Ishmael.”

-Moby Dick

Everything about this book is as bold and stubborn and unreasonable as its iconic captain, and even the searing slowness and lack of fulfillment, the cry for meaningful action, places the reader in the shoes of wicked old Ahab, so that reader and character alike will be crying, “just give me one glimpse of that accursed whale!” This is not a modern novel, and is missing so many of those things that have come to be staples and expectations. There is no romance and precious little adventure, for all that it is so clearly a mammoth of an adventure novel. Ishmael serves as an impartial observer for the most, and there is very little change or growth in Ahab himself. The entire thing is a journey towards inevitability, and whenever character or plot waver slightly, it is only to emphasise the inexorable path of the fates, or the demon will shared by Ahab and the whale alike. Again, this is the sort of plot that will lead quickly towards impatience in the reader (and perhaps rightfully so). But it is masterfully told, expertly written, and a finished work of stunning beauty.

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Tales of the Bounty Hunters, by Kevin J. Anderson (ed.)

June 9, 2012 at 21:49 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , )

8/10

It is to be expected when reading anthologies that there will be worthless dross amongst the entries. This expectation is almost shattered in Tales of the Bounty Hunters, which marks a surprising halfway point in the Star Wars universe. Earlier authors had more freedom in what they wrote, which led to Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy and Stackpole’s X-Wing series, but also to bizarre sidetracks like The Crystal Star and the Corellian trilogy. Later authors were kept on a tighter leash by Lucasfilm, and it shows.

“Her head was shaven completely bald and glistened with perspiration under harsh white recording lights that gave her lantern-jawed face a cadaverous look. Her teeth were spaced with broad gaps, and she spoke by opening her mouth wide and clicking down on the words, gnashing her teeth on every consonant.”

-Tales of the Bounty Hunters

In Tales of the Bounty Hunters, there is clear evidence that the authors had a larger storyline in mind, and were not just writing for the sake of good stories.  This is not necessarily a bad thing: Dengar’s story, for instance, held the germ of the occasionally exciting Bounty Hunters trilogy. As standalone stories, none of these are especially poor. Dave Wolverton’s entry with Dengar suffers from clunky and ugly writing. Anderson’s own story about IG-88 is well told and exhibits some of his best writing, but is unoriginal and shallow. Daniel Keys Moran submits one of the most mature and thoughtful Star Wars stories in the franchise, daring to question the credentials of Han Solo as a hero, exploring varying and conflicting motivations in his story’s heroes and villains alike, and bringing up issues including war crimes, trafficking and the death penalty, of all things.

This anthology is a relic, and fits rather badly with the books it fits between. It contains some bland and some poor writing, but also some of the most speculative Star Wars literature in the franchise. If any book in the Star Wars series is worth reading, this one is.

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Great Apes, by Will Self

June 6, 2012 at 06:51 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Poorly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , )

3/10

Will Self is a frighteningly intelligent man who takes a perverse delight in doing disgusting things to beautiful words. Great Apes is one of those books that begins with a clever or original idea (although honestly, not all that original) and works behind it as under a mask to make the initial premise the unwilling slave of a certain conceit of style, or flavour. This book is all atmosphere and very little substance, and all commentary and very little story. It is difficult to tell whether Will Self is unutterably pleased with himself for being so blamed clever all the time, or if he is adopting such a persona in order to laugh at it. It is not really very important which.

The central idea is that human beings are as noble and arrogant as any batch of greasy apes happen to be; and again and again this is piled on with a trowel in much the same way as Orson Scott Card in Lovelock. There is not much more than this, and what might have been an excellent display of Self’s ample wit and silver tongue is instead contorted into a tiresome sneer at humanity.

“Then their tongues slid over and under, pink shrews blindly questing.”

-Great Apes

As might be expected, Will Self writes with a deucedly elegant pen, and weighs and portions his words like an apothecary, or a lover, dosing the reader meticulously with impeccably crafted language, placing each jot and tittle with immaculate care: and using them to paint an ugly and cheap picture of cartoonish horror. There lies the greatest disappointment with this book. It might have been excellent. Instead, it is like the genius in the class who insists on clowning around in every lesson, turning in every assignment late, and with more of an eye towards upsetting the teacher than proving his worth.

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To Own a Dragon, by Donald Miller

June 3, 2012 at 18:46 (Biography, Book Reviews, Comedy, Highly Rated Books, Theology) (, , , , )

7/10

Is…that a moustache? It looks like a wheat field, but…no, that’s definitely a moustache. As uncomfortably close as anyone might wish to get to a stranger’s moustache, but a moustache nonetheless. A soul patch, maybe, but certainly a subset of the moustache species.

Putting aside (with difficulty) the brazen cover art, To Own a Dragon might be the first book Donald Miller has written as a grown-up. This could be a good thing or a bad thing. One of the reasons his previous books (Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What, etc.) were so brilliant, so re-readable and heartfelt, was because they had an unquenchable air of rebellion about them. They were emphatically not written by a stodgy old know-it-all. They were not preachy because it was impossible to imagine a preacher scrabbling around beneath a hippy van in a sunbleached corner of Arizona. They were written by a fellow who listened to Ani DiFranco.

“In the end, women are really attracted to guys who have their crap together. I doubt there are many women enamored (sic) by the idea of living in a box under a bridge, sucking on a bouillon cube while her man reads Emerson. This is probably not what the old ovaries are pining for.”

-To Own a Dragon

In To Own a Dragon Miller has noticeably matured, and seems to have shed some of the rambling artist along the way. His voice and his authority are clearer, and for perhaps the first time he writes with the weight of experience (rather than the rather novel concept of emphasising his weight of inexperience that so characterised his earlier books).

This makes To Own a Dragon a little less funny than it might have been, but does not necessarily make it more profound. It is simply a different tone for a different subject, and while it can be compared just a little less favourably than its predacessors, it is a valuable book with some excellent theology and wise principles to live by laid out in a gentle and very appealing way.

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