The Fourth K, by Mario Puzo

February 8, 2014 at 17:47 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , , )

FourthK

1/10

1/10

Frightful. This hyperactive and blindly fumbling mess begins by dragging its feet before proving there are other, and more painful, things to drag. A hallowed master of the crime genre demonstrates with fitful incompetence everything that is wrong with the modern political thriller. If it were not painfully obvious how out of his depth Puzo is, and how desperately he is trying to cobble a story together out of a heap of misshapen jetsam, it might be plausible to regard this utter wreck as misplaced satire: a cracked and absurd lampoon of airport adventure novels. The simple fact is, The Fourth K is worse than any pulp novel one might snatch up at random from a supermarket shelf.

“On the balcony the body of the Pope seemed to rise up off the ground, the white skullcap flew into the air, swirled in the violent winds of compressed air and then drifted down into the crowd…”

-The Fourth K

The question that must be asked is not ‘what is so bad about this book’, but ‘which straw is that fatal addition that breaks the camel’s back?’ Sadly (for nobody should glory in the public failure of a gifted man) the answer is that an autopsy would find this camel to have multiple greivous fractures, all throughout its shattered body. The man who once offered us Vito Corleone seems to have forgotten how to write a character. The titular President Kennedy is a hollow and inconsistent wreck, and it becomes plain only a short way into the book that the author himself is trying with increasing urgency to find a way into his character, glancing quickly at him through an array of different perspectives and supporting characters as if to find some point of view that makes him interesting, original, or even believable.

Two other grotesques leer above the slipshod writing, the hackneyed metaphors and the tersely uninspired dialogue to smear their foul taste across this book’s hideous carapace. The first is Puzo’s maddening habit of introducing a character marked clearly for death, and simpering on for a few pages about this nonentity’s history, or hopes and dreams, or particular foibles–before killing him or her, as any but a dullard must know he would. This is insulting to the reader. It’s a waste of time, and it’s openly manipulative. It’s a padding technique used by the very worst novice writers to inject sterile empathy into the last dying embers of a failing book. For shame, Mario. You’re better than this.

The second is the entirely gratuitous pen which Puzo uses to dribble sordid and graphic accounts of entirely insignificant characters’ intimate exploits over soiled pages. The flimsy argument that these scenes might be important for the development of certain characters  does not even hold the usual trickle of water here, as these recurring scenes are never relevant to either the twisted, ugly plot; or to the pace of the book; or to the understanding of the characters themselves. They are paltry attempts at titillation, and they succeed only in darkening and souring the tone of the book, and in derailing further the mad, mad aberrance that might by some charitable stretch of the imagination be called a storyline. This is a dreadful, sad excuse for a book.

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The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

January 14, 2013 at 07:58 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , , )

4/10

Perhaps no genre has been sullied by the feet of so many slipshod hacks as the genre of alternate history. Of all the vast morass of “genre fiction” (that is, popular fiction written around a literary trope specifically for a saturated market), it is possible to find excellent science fiction, or skilfully-written romances. Historical fiction and fantasy from masterful pens stands proud amongst the tidal waves of bad imitations. But explicitly state that a book is an alternate history, and it will almost certainly be no good at all.

Perhaps it is the tired habit of trotting out dozens of cameo appearances by characters who happened to share a time period. Maybe the temptation proves too great to bore the reader with a litany of improbable events that make “this” history distinct from what really happened: and there are few things more horrifying than an historical lecture by an amateur who thinks he knows everything. Perhaps it is an undiscovered physical constant, that an author declaring, “I think I shall write an alternate history” automatically churns out something dreadful.

“Lindbergh was the first famous living American whom I learned to hate–just as President Roosevelt was the first famous living American whom I was taught to love–and so his nomination by the Republicans to run against Roosevelt in 1940 assaulted, as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world.”

-The Plot Against America

Philip Roth is by no means a novice writer, nor is he a talentless hack. But tragically, this constant seems to apply to him as well. It really is too bad. Most of The Plot Against America is a tragic and dysfunctional narrative about a struggling working class family. There really is no reason why President Lindbergh has to put in an appearance at all. In fact for that reason alone, Roth actually succeeds in telling a very very good story. There is some excellent tension between the characters, and Roth even blindsides the reader to a degree in shuffling the cousin and the father and the elder brother in and out of the “villain” and “hero” boxes. Unreliable narrators are always fun to read, and unreliable characters even more so: the pettiness of heroes and the nobility of antiheroes is subtly depicted, and makes for excellent reading.

Here is an excellent piece of advice. Upon reading this book, when you reach page 300 (or thereabouts), stop. The final hundred pages contain a confused and incredibly bland denouement, written in much the same style as one might expect in a dull newspaper. Roth has been accused by some reviewers of pulling out a deus ex machina, but this is unfair to writers who use deus ex machinae. He pulls out at least three of them, and piles them up in a precarious and pointless mess. The whole ending reeks of a publisher’s deadline, or of a writer’s indecision. Incidentally, the whole ending is also the part where Roth plummets irretrievably into the alternate-history pitfall of dully explaining a convoluted and meaningless (in the context of the rest of his story) timeline.

Not a recommended read, and definitely not for finishing.

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The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy

November 25, 2012 at 19:41 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , , )

4/10

“The technical aspects are covered in a way which is rare in the modern novel,” reads one enthusiastic review on the dust jacket of Red October. There is a good reason for that. Clancy has made a career for himself out of knowing stuff about tanks, but it is here in his earlier work that the reputation was made–indeed, where the tail wagged the dog just a little too much. It is unsurprising that Clancy had trouble finding a publisher for this book; equally unsurprising that his eventual publisher was an arm of the US Navy. There is simply far too much jargon, far too many detailed descriptions of trivial machines and dated technology, too many parenthetical and bracketed explanations of rambling groups of acronyms–to make this a good story.

“‘We cannot shoot. Your men cannot shoot. We cannot run from him–he is faster. We cannot hide–his sonar is better. He will move east, use his speed to contain us and his sonar to locate us. By moving west, we have the best chance to escape. This he will not expect.'”

-The Hunt for Red October

Later, Clancy would realise that good books need things like characters and plots, and while he has never abandoned his roots in technical manuals and tactical theses, his writing today is worlds away from Red October. One of the book’s key problems is the misnomer contained in the title. A more apt name might be The Finding of Red October, for the secretive boat has one fatal flaw: it is a Soviet creation, and therefore is located by the plucky American heroes within a chapter of disembarking. This sets the scene for what is really alternate parts propaganda for the West in general and the USA in particular, and a crude and mostly dull litany of bungling and tomfoolery by the inept Reds.

It is difficult to feel much in the way of suspense when presented with Clancy’s ubermenschen in shining armour. Certainly it is impossible to consider for a moment that the utterly incompetent and pantomime Soviets will salvage even a pyrrhic victory. In one jarring chapter, the virtues and blessings of the magnificent world of capitalism are extolled for pages on end, with one character noting offhand that nobody who wants a job and financial security in the West can fail to find both.

This is a fantasy, but with too much technical realism to be a good fantasy. It is a technical manual, but written sarcastically and bitterly. Tom Clancy has never been lionised as a particularly brilliant author, but this is one of his harder books to engage with.

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Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank

November 18, 2012 at 17:57 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Dystopia, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books, War and Politics) (, , , )

7/10

A deeply interesting and occasionally exciting piece of speculative fiction, with some surprising and rather drastic swings between poles of optimism and pessimism. The lure of this book is the story and the hypotheses, not the quality or skill of the writing, but Frank does a better job than might be expected of him under the circumstances, and comes away with something better than the common-or-garden airport novelist. As thriller writers go, he is a good sight better than Ludlum, and might be ranked between Puzo on a bad day or Clancy at his best.

“Edgar rocked in his chair, furious. It wasn’t a reason. It was a riddle. He repeated Randy’s words. They made no sense at all, unless Mark expected some big cataclysm, like all the banks closing, and of course that was ridiculous.”

-Alas, Babylon

Considering the bleak and horrific subject of the story, the book is extremely mild, and would make an excellent choice for teenage readers, perhaps as part of a curriculum. That is to say, it is neither provocative nor grotesque, and is at least as sociological as it is geopolitical. There are more questions of small-town politics and living off the land than there are of tactical decisions or ethical dilemmas.

It ought to be asked: should a book be panned, simply because there is little sensational about it? Should a story remain unexplored, simply because the problems and crises faced by its inhabitants generally last no longer than one of the chapters? Alas, Babylon is heavier on the speculation than on the fiction, and Pat Frank is not the most imaginative of writers, but for all its mildness this is an interesting book, and one which succeeds in keeping a patient reader on his toes, and even sometimes surprised. Those left disappointed or wanting more must stop and wonder if Pat Frank has cheated out of a more meticulous story, or if he has neglected to tell the sort of story they were expecting. The choices he makes particularly in the omissions of certain details and subjects are blinders he chooses to wear out of respect for his blinkered and isolated protagonists, not necessarily because of his inability to tell a more holistic story, but because of his keen interest in his smaller scope.

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The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

July 7, 2012 at 13:24 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , )

9/10

This book was particularly difficult to rate. There are parts of it which are exciting, original and lively; expertly-written fantasy and fascinating characters with penetrating depths to their vivid personalities. However, the book does have some serious problems to it.

It is a very slow book, and much longer than it needs to be. Like other novels setting up long, multi-volume sagas, Sanderson can be excused in part for both the claudicant start and for the length, but he fails to write much more than an introduction in a thousand pages. There are two main story arcs, but neither of them are finished at all, and neither of them have nearly enough closure to justify the stilted pace of the story.

“According to legend, the Shardblades were first carried by the Knights Radiant uncounted ages ago. Gifts of their god, granted to allow them to fight horrors of rock and flame, dozens of feet tall, foes whose eyes burned with hatred. The Voidbringers.”

-The Way of Kings

Many of Sanderson’s action-oriented passages feel strongly like descriptions of the mechanics of a video game. Notable examples include his (admittedly deeply interesting) shardbinding magic, or the manner in which characters draw stormlight from spheres. The shardplate (a rare and highly-sought suit of regenerating armour, whose pieces can only be shattered by powerful weapons striking the same plates repeatedly) is one of the more awkward examples. This is a strange and distracting feature in the book. Perhaps in the future this influence from video games (and particularly game mechanics) will find its way into more books and become expected. Here it feels out of place, which is a shame, as these aspects of the story are central to the plot.

Sanderson should be commended for his fluent writing and easy style, and also for his creativity and vision in moulding a detailed and rich world without at any point reverting to dry or encyclopaedic prose. His heroes and villains alike are delightful (if not particularly complex) and he balances a clever line between being willing to make tragic sacrifices and avoiding cheap pathos at the expense of a high and unnecessary body count.

“‘Tell them,’ Kaladin continued, voice firmer, ‘that it won’t end here. Tell them I chose not to take my own life, and so there’s no way in Damnation I’m going to give it up to Sadeas.'”

-The Way of Kings

He initially has a noticeable problem with introducing his characters solely through narration: this character, he tells us, is known for being incredibly witty and intelligent. This character is brave and noble. For the reader, there is no incentive to believe him, and it takes a while before he settles down and actually demonstrates his characters’ attributes rather than explain them. He is also a master of the anticlimax: several of the painstaking reveals at the end of the book are released with a fanfare of trumpets, only to fall disappointingly flat. Several of his more intriguing mysteries are explained in an offhand way, and are considerably less exciting than he initially promises.

For readers of modern fantasy, this book is one of the freshest and most exciting in years. It compares very favourably with Patrick Rothfuss’ recent series, in length, complexity and creativity. The Way of Kings ends up with a more coherent, a more memorable, and a more vibrant plot, with a clearer sense of direction than Rothfuss. There are obvious teething problems that will hopefully be addressed in future volumes, and the book could easily have been some three hundred pages shorter without sacrificing content or depth. But it is easy to digest and an effective and exciting entry to a series that will hopefully go from strength to strength. It is difficult not to forgive its inadequacies, and readers are guaranteed satisfaction.

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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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Shades of Grey, by Michael Cargill

May 30, 2012 at 12:00 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Horror, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , )

3/10

Shades of Grey is a brief and distractingly violent collection of short stories, including one rather good but frustratingly truncated espionage story, a bland wartime correspondence and a rather ghastly horror story. It will be clear to any reader that Cargill is not an experienced writer, and as such although some of his premises and starting points hold a certain attraction, he simply is unable to keep them afloat, and they quickly begin to drag.

“There was no official state of war declared, and strictly speaking he wasn’t part of any official military or intelligence organisation. He worked for the Guv’nor.”

-Shades of Grey

The best of a beginner’s lot is the story the anthology is named for, the spy story. In it, Cargill experiments with a little stream-of-consciousness, some character development, and gratuitous violence. Speaking plainly, if something can be considered gratuitous (either in its violence, its sexuality, its language or any other content) then it is shocking for the sake of being shocking, and of no further use on that front. On the other hand, Cargill’s attempts to build his characters do not fall completely flat, and the chief criticism to be levelled here is that he is a little clumsy and heavy-handed in doing so.

A bold attempt prematurely published, and an interesting insight into the development of a young author, but it would be difficult to describe this book as entertaining, and harder still to describe it as especially meaningful. In its favour, it’s almost certainly better than the similarly-named series by E.L. James.

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Wide is the Gate, by Upton Sinclair

February 22, 2012 at 19:50 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Literature, War and Politics) (, , , )

9/10

As one six-hundred-page volume in a ten-volume series, it is unreasonable to expect this book to be either fast-paced or action-filled. One of the most instantly noticeable things about it, then, is that by around the two-hundred-page mark, the snail pace does markedly pick up, and there are several briefer adventures amidst the endless politicking and banter that might have otherwise been expanded to full book length stories in their own right (Lanny Budd’s adventure in wartime Spain is nothing short of thrilling, and equals anything Hemingway or Fleming might write about martial high-jinks).

“Look at Ramsay MacDonald, look at boondoggling and the N.R.A. and the other messes of the New Deal! Look at what happened in Spain in the last four or five years!”

-Wide is the Gate

Sinclair has a lot to say, and he takes his time over it, which is perhaps his saving grace. His capitalist characters are greedy or ignorant, his fascists are memorable monsters and his socialists are brave-hearted rogues. If he plastered these definitions all over his book in three hundred pages, it would all be very dreary and impossible to bear, but he does take time to flesh his creations out before stuffing his thoughts into their mouths. He spreads a very thick message very thinly throughout an awful lot of absolutely terrific prose, and turns a lengthy sermon into an even lengthier piece of excellent literature.

“The green was beginning to fade from the landscapes, and a soft drizzling rain veiled every scene, making it look like an old painting whose varnish had turned brown.”

-Wide is the Gate

It is easy to see Sinclair himself as the tired and jaded socialist spiritualist living vicariously through Lanny Budd. The heroes of this book are equal parts evangelist and prophet of doom. It was written, by the way, in 1943, when the future of the Nazi government and the Allied opposition to it were far from settled. This mixture of heady fanatical optimism and grim pessimism ends up creating something of a perfect storm in terms of accutely believable (if occasionally fantastical) characters, and goes a great way towards offsetting the overt political messages pinned to every page. Due to its length (maybe some five thousand pages of Lanny Budd, if the rest of the story is taken into account) this book is an intimidating commitment to make: but very worth it. A lost gem from a seminal author, and deserving of higher praises in the pantheon of great literature.

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The Kite Runner, by Kahled Hosseini

November 5, 2011 at 15:52 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , )

9/10

The Kite Runner is one of those rare things in modern literature: a good story about a human being. It does not rely upon unlikely coincidences or fantasies played off as a glamorous counter-culture existence; Hosseini does not drape a limp and flacid series of lukewarm adventures around an unlikely plot twist or a vivid but stereotyped hero. He has a very interesting and tragic story to tell about a boy and his father, and he tells it very well. He is not the cleverest author in the world, and his prose is not immune from occasional hiccups or dullness. His dialogue is sometimes a little crooked, and his habit of reverting to sudden italicised memories for a half page can be distracting: amateur, even. But through this, he manages to place his characters in an intriguing and historic setting, a stage bursting with life and dazzling colours and (for the western reader) mystery: and he does it without sacrificing or even lessening his chief goal of placing the twisted and conflicted heart of a young boy growing into guilty adulthood firmly in the centre of attention.

It is important to be clear: Khaled Hosseini is an excellent writer, and this book is incredibly good. He is not afraid of tragedy, and he seems not to feel the pressure to solve every problem he has raised throughout the book. In this sense he writes realism very well. There is closure, but only in spots; and he seems to relish his unanswered questions, even coming back to them and framing them in the mouths of new characters. He writes foreshadowing like a creative writing student–“and that was the last time that I ever saw him…again”–but works this heavyhandedness into the voice of his narrator, who dwells on such turning points and important moments broodingly.

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.”

-The Kite Runner

Philosophically, Hosseini mixes in an unpolished idea of fate and forgiveness, of the nature of God and the nature of belief, and vague kharmic principles, but readers hoping to find enlightenment in these pages will find (fittingly) only the confused thoughts of a badly wounded boy. Hosseini’s success in raising interesting questions without breaking out of the mould he has set for himself and preaching through his character is remarkable, even if it creates some frustrating moments where the narrator insists on talking nonsense.

This book clearly deserves most of the praise it has been given: if it has weaknesses, they are not fatal, and they are outnumbered by the book’s strengths; if it has unpalatable or dull or frustrating moments, these are subjective to the temperament of the reader. Not yet a masterpiece, but a rich and compelling book.

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

August 23, 2011 at 19:29 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, War and Politics) (, , , )

7/10

This book starts off fairly drearily (though not extremely dull), and for much of the first half feels unpleasantly like a lecture about “how people lived in the olden days”. Long on intricate detail, long on grubby minutiae, very short on appealing characters or anything in the way of a crisis-driven plot. Inertiatic and dour, and as grindingly static for the reader as for the poor prisoners. Of course this sort of thing has its benefits (and the historian reader will find it very informative) but it is as cold and aloof as a diorama in a musty museum.

This improves to a degree towards the early afternoon of Ivan’s day, when the Captain (and later Caesar) is provided as an interesting and vivid character: a bright spot made all the more effervescent by the staid landscape. Perhaps one way to describe this book is to compare it to a dark and brooding oil painting still-life that hangs as forbiddingly as a photograph in the corner of a gallery–with subtle additions and subversions dabbed in with a careful brush in the background, that brings the whole thing to life for the man patient enough to spend a minute or two in looking.

“Spitting the bones out on the floor was thought bad manners.”

-One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisivich

Solzhenitsyn is a careful student of the human condition, and if this book is a portrait of terrifying realism, then it is also an intricate study of the best and worst of man: and more importantly, of several shades in between: the capriciousness of Caesar that gives way suddenly to helpless weakness and panic, for instance. Or the fragile structures of power and impotence that fluctuates and changes depending on the precise arrangements of inmates in any given situation. For such a short book, this amount of depth is surprising, especially as Solzhenitsyn actually succeeds in painting a very informative (if stagnant) picture of the Gulag in the process. At this sort of length, no reader who dips into these pages will be wasting his time.

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