The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

September 29, 2012 at 14:31 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature, Magic Realism, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )

6/10

An infuriating and disjointed recasting of the Arthur legend, yet one that has its own wisdom and its own profundity. The four books that make up The Once and Future King are strikingly different from each other, and narrative threads are picked up and dropped without any regard for the sanity of the reader. T.H. White has a habit of telling a character’s story avidly and with deep interest for a hundred pages, and then offhandedly remarking that so-and-so was killed in such-and-such an indistinguished manner. He jarringly veers between whimsical lyricism and darkly savage tragicomedy without warning, and he has a habit of inserting lengthy lists and parades of commas quite purposefully and utterly shamelessly into his prose, obfuscating honest attempts to snuggle into his story.

“It is generally the trusting and optimistic people who can afford to retreat. The loveless and faithless ones are compelled by their pessimism to attack.

-The Once and Future King

This is one of those books whose excellence is found principally in single-line quotations in which White demonstrates his keen intellect and fascinating insight, and also in the grand scope of tragedy as a whole. It is not a book that is enjoyable to read as a story, nor is it easy. Irrelevant tangents abound, crucial characters slip in and out of view, and White seems much more interested in slipping in philosophic observations than in structuring a novel.

Readers of fantasy looking for a comfortable world of sugarspun hamlets and parochial squires had better look elsewhere. Likewise, fantasy readers searching for dragons and wizards and knightly quests will not find satisfaction here. This is a grown-up fantasy book, which is to say it is bleak and merciless, and contains jewels of cleverness (though not always wisdom) sprinkled sparingly throughout. There are passages which show off T.H. White as a master writer, and passages which show him off as needlessly convoluted, or stylistically hamstrung. Appreciate it for its merits, and by all means underline passages; but to devote oneself to this book–to absolutely fall in love with it–seems to be a difficult task indeed.

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A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

September 9, 2012 at 11:53 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Thriller) (, , , )

8/10

It might be difficult to assign this book to a genre, had not Philip K. Dick done the world the service of establishing himself so thoroughly as one of the world’s most skilful writers of science fiction. And so there it is, and after briefly pausing to note that this book is indeed set in a dystopian future with technology foreign to true life, it can be determined. Another pulp sci-fi paperback, by another pulp sci-fi author. Easy, quick, and almost entirely wrong.

“Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs out of his hair.”

-A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick strayed occasionally from “his” genre, it is true. But what he excelled at was writing engrossing and detailed stories with occasional science fiction dressings draped over them. The Man in the High Castle is more of a spiritual and religious quest than it is either historical or science-fictional; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep might have been written in 1950s America or in the distant future; and A Scanner Darkly, as its title suggests, is a hard and gritty crime-noir with plaintive and deep questions about the human experience, long before it could ever be called a science-fiction story.

This, then, is a science fiction novel for those who are not immediately attracted by science fiction. It is intelligent and exciting, if a little anticlimactic. The story is clever, but this is mostly a semi-autobiographical reimagining of Philip K. Dick’s own experiences with drugs, and lacks closure and occasionally some coherence. Among the best that Philip K. Dick has to offer, and maybe the most representative of his style and revealing of his view on life.

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Peter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

September 2, 2012 at 13:37 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , )

8/10

Sometimes, large shoes can be filled. This is a difficult thing to do, and even authors with famous names or literary renown fall spectacularly and catastrophically short of the mark, when trying to pick up the pen of a more gifted man or woman. Neither Barry nor Pearson are novice authors, but nor could it be said that either of them are burdened with a tremendous amount of experience in children’s literature (which is harder to write than many people expect, and all the more awful when it is done badly). In Peter and the Starcatchers the authors choose an especially difficult subject, being as it is a story that has been recast and reimagined countless times by dozens of storytellers throughout the course of a century. The prospect of borrowing from other adaptations or traditions, or the wilder temptation to take the story in a totally unexpected and erratic direction, must have been frightfully difficult to resist.

“‘What’s Never Land?’ said a boynamed Prentiss, who was fairly new to the orphanage and thus did not see the fist until it hit his ear.”

-Peter and the Starcatchers

As it is, this first book has some rough edges. Barry and Pearson aim staunchly for the centre of the old adventuring tradition, and if they do not score a perfect bull’s eye, then at least they score close enough to conjure up the magic of the classics they seek to emulate. Their writing is not beautiful, and they do not demonstrate the ability to clutch a reader’s heartstrings, to cause hands to slip nerveless on pages, or a wistful sigh to punctuate the turning of the final page. But if the reader remembers that this is a tribute and an addendum to the original story and not a displacement, if the reader begins this book in a spirit of adventure and a willingness to be thrilled, then it is a very rewarding experience indeed.

There are some characters who will grow tiresome, and there are a few damp squibs, where the story builds up to a rollicking climax only to back off half apologetically and try again, but for a reader willing to forgive occasional lapses, and who is willing to become as excited by the story as the authors clearly are, then this is a book to stay up all night reading.

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