Peter the Great, by Jacob Abbott

September 15, 2013 at 19:39 (Biography, Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics) (, , )

6/10

There are few reasons to elevate this book above any other historical biography. In fact, it might be expected that a book about so colourful a character as Peter ought to make thrilling reading from start to finish. There are, therefore, two things that must be granted to Abbott before commencing. The first is the admission that in spite of such a colourful subject, he seldom succumbed to the temptation to indulge in creative writing, or really any sort of sensationalism whatsoever. Rather than seeking to either panegyrise or demonise Peter with a magniloquent pen, he does his level best to judge him as a seventeenth century monarch, and to give the dull but important scenes from his life at least equal footing with the rambunctious but trivial.

“The sending of a grand embassage like this from one royal or imperial potentate to another was a very common occurrence in those times. The pomp and parade with which they were accompanied were intended equally for the purpose of illustrating the magnificence of the government that sent them, and of offering a splendid token of respect to the one to which they were sent.”

-Peter the Great (Abbott)

Abbott’s second success lies in his crucial effort to offer his suggestions on the significance of Peter’s reign and life, both on Russia and on European history. He strikes a patient and pleasant balance between investigating the long-term effects of Peter’s reign, without overstepping his bounds as a reporter and analyst of a particular era.

With these bright spots acknowledged, it must be said that this book is neither groundbreaking nor controversial. It is a bread-and-butter history text, and while useful or even necessary for a student of Russian history, has little unique to recommend it, either in its facts or in its style. Again: it should be impressed upon the prospective reader that these two points in favour of Abbott’s history are issues that many, many other historians trip upon, and trip upon badly. Peter the Great is extremely useful, and it is even quite interesting. It isn’t thrilling, and if the author cannot really be faulted for this then he cannot either be lionised for a rather prosaic work. It is in many ways like reading a school textbook. Some very memorable hours can be whiled away in reading school textbooks, but when in school, even poetry textbooks are never poetic.

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The Ordinary Knight and The Invisible Princess, by H.L. Burke

September 8, 2013 at 15:58 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , , )

OrdinaryKnight

7/10

7/10

The damnable thing about the publishing industry is that it is so terribly big. An unassailable bulwark against the flotsam and jetsam spewed up by the infinite depths of would-be writers, with the carefully-patrolled floodgates channelling the cream that has risen to the top of this morass into the grateful lap of the discerning reader. Of course, it goes without saying that dreadful nonsense and tiresome rubbish end up slipping past to join the real literature; but it is a truth seldom acknowledged that the faceless might of the publishing industry really has no ready way to capture the work of truly excellent authors who find themselves without established names or careers.

The Ordinary Knight is a self-published fantasy romance; a description liable to turn absolutely no heads and several stomachs. Surprisingly, it is absolutely terrific. Competently written and finely paced, it is a fairytale adventure whose only fault is its brevity, and a sweetly imagined fantasy world that is impressionistic and pristine. There is little in the story that is subtle or particularly subversive: no neckbreaking plot twists or philosophical challenges. Only a fine old-fashioned adventure tale, with echoes of the inimitable Kate DiCamillo, and a timeless quality such as only the best fantasy authors can manage, whose work appeals both to its intended childhood demographic, and also to adults grown wistful.

“‘Percy, I can’t go back. The fairies know how to get through the doors now. The tower isn’t safe anymore…I barely escaped.'”

-The Ordinary Knight

The story is driven far more by its characters than by exposition or a detailed description of the fantastic world in which they dwell, but there are tantalising glimpses of a sugarplum world that begs to be explored in further depth. Burke can be lavish in her set-pieces and is as obvious as a Roald Dahl in where her sympathies lie: the heroes are without exception paragons of virtue, yet manage the trick of being likeable at the same time. The dialogue is clear and occasionally witty, and the conclusion manages to be truly epic without losing the childlike atmosphere so carefully cultivated throughout.

The glowing reception that The Ordinary Knight so richly deserves is offset and dimmed slightly by the second loosely-related story, The Invisible Princess. Much of the magic is lost in the sequel, and the pathos is laid on with a trowel, as moonstruck lovers bemoan in dreadful melodrama how utterly and hopelessly they yearn for each other. There is little fantastical, and almost no development, and the least said about it the better. It might be a perfectly acceptable straight romance novel, but it is emphatically not on the same level as its prequel, either in genre or in professionalism.

Nevertheless, this lapse is scarcely an excuse to smear the first of the two books. Read the first by all means, and proceed with the second only if you like that sort of thing. But for The Ordinary Knight to while away its days as just another unread vanity publication would be a travesty. An excellent book, a surprise success, and hopefully indicative of the sort of thing to come from this marvellously talented writer.

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Dune Messiah, by Frank Herbert

August 18, 2013 at 10:38 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , )

DuneMessiah

7/10

7/10

A clear victim of Second Album Syndrome, Dune Messiah is a difficult but ultimately interesting book that suffers from its over-indulgence, and manages only to be ‘good’ where its prequel was good and enjoyable.

There is something truly damaging about stories that endeavour to look beneath the myth and beneath the magic and begin to question how things work. There is bound to be a disappointment in any story that seeks to explain what happens next. This is particularly the case with adventure stories. A narrative about the middle age of Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay would have been tiresome; the story of Frodo’s journey to the Undying Lands would have been unreadable; Jim Hawkins’ search for the elusive Long John Silver might have been of interest, but everything of worth that it brought to the table would have removed something else from the majesty of the original story. Even the apocryphal books of the Maccabees are considerably less exciting and thrilling than the canonical Bible.

Dune left the reader with a towering fait accompli and a magical sense of high destiny and immaculate purpose. There was hardly an implied “happily ever after”, but there certainly was a sense of “magically ever after”. Frank Herbert actually did an excellent job of transcribing an ending that was positively thrumming with impending and implied mysticism and adventure into an excellent sequel, but it was emphatically a summing up and a postscript conclusion, not a new adventure. The surprise is not found in the discovery that Dune Messiah is not as good as Dune; it is found in the fact that it is better than it might have been. Although that is good news, it is not the best verdict that might be offered of any book.

“He reeked of memories that had glimpsed eternity. To see eternity was to be exposed to eternity’s whims, oppressed by endless dimensions. The oracle’s false immortality demanded retribution. Past and future became simultaneous.”

-Dune Messiah

Messiah stands the strongest when it attempts to rebuild the sense of grand universal myth that vibrated so wonderfully in its prequel. While it does great damage to the picture of the Muad’Dib presented in Dune by dismantling every skeleton and attempting to painstakingly rebuild each with flesh and skin, there is a tantalising glimpse into a wider universe that allows the book to stand at least with its head held high. Its success, in other words, is not in its exposition and revelations, but in the creation of new skeletons: new unanswered questions and veiled mysteries.

Its cast of main characters is not quite bungled, but also demonstrates none of the expertise that Herbert showed in his earlier book. In spite of having far fewer important figures, the only ones who really shine are those imported from the prequel, and readers will feel that a great opportunity was missed to introduce a new vein of richness into the series. A notable exception is the introduction of the Tleilaxu, who provide a nebulous and intriguing set of antagonists almost fit to equal the Harkonnen.

This book is certainly worth reading, but is perhaps best read with reservations and with lower expectations. It is certainly science fiction at its best, but it is emphatically not Frank Herbert at his best.

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Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

August 3, 2013 at 19:00 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Literature, Magic Realism) (, , , , )

HeartOfDarkness

8/10

8/10

This is as difficult a book to review as it is to read. It has been mentioned elsewhere on this weblog what a rare pleasure it is to finish reading a book, and only recollect afterwards that one has been forced to overlook no clumsy grammar or contrived plotline, and forgive the author for no grave errors. We can talk about a willing suspension of disbelief: perhaps the time has come to talk about a willing suspension of criticism. Conrad is another of these talented authors for whom this willing suspension of criticism is unnecessary. His novel is brisk and rich in language and in detail. Heart of Darkness reads like a stone plunged into a calm pool: sudden, abrupt, harsh, and without apology. It is delightful to read, simply for the eloquent lavishness of the author’s pen. On that account, it is a very good book indeed.

“‘And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the darkest places of the earth.'”

-Heart of Darkness

The structural conceit of the unlikely narrator regaling a boat full of dozy sailors with his tale is an uncertain prospect, and can seem like a vague annoyance when it crops up for a sentence or two at rare intervals; nothing else in the manner in which the book is laid out can possibly cause dismay. It is the story itself that seems a little unsatisfying, after a while. There is a heavy atmosphere of leaden inevitability, borne out stolidly and without much in the way of relief. Almost everything in this short story happens as if it were predestined, and happens very quickly at that.

“The horror! The horror!”

-Heart of Darkness

If the darkness is in a hurry to gobble the narrator and all his accomplices up, then it is in a greater hurry to belch them all up at the end. While there is a certain amount of dramatic tension, it all takes place so rapidly that there is really no time for the reader to either digest what has happened, or adapt to it. This is an important book, and deserving of its place in literary history. It is a pleasure to read, but not necessarily a pleasure to reflect upon.

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News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel García Márquez

July 27, 2013 at 14:58 (Biography, Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )

NewsOfAKidnapping

7/10

7/10

There are many peculiar things about this book. It is not like Márquez’s fiction. It is too straightforward, too politely arranged and linear. There are too many straight lines and sober summaries. But then, it is unlike so many nonfiction books, as well. Garcia Márquez has no need to trumpet his own particular style or voice over the events he describes (his style has plenty of outlets), and so the narrative is unnervingly raw, without the bluster of a newspaper or the bustling self-importance of a professional writer.

“Maruja and Beatriz stood motionless in front of the closed door, not knowing how to take up their lives again, until they heard the engines in the garage and then the sound fading away in the distance. Only then did they realize that the television and radio had been taken away to keep them from knowing how the night would end.”

-News of a Kidnapping

The author’s attraction towards the macabre and the tragic are one point of resonance in his choice of this particular story to tell. In a sense, this book demonstrates a single side of the magic realism genre that Márquez helped to create: the harrowing story of the kidnapping, with all of its unsavoury boors and capricious thugs, is told with a sense of reverent wonder at the majesty of the hallowed normal. There are no casual treatments of supernatural happenings, but in spite of the real setting there is a subtle and underlying sense that something quite extraordinary might be taking place.

Ultimately, the weakest part of this story is simply the fact that it is not the most interesting of events to read about. A decades-old kidnapping that dominated the headlines of a distant corner of the globe for a matter of months, before coming to a generally unremarkable end will struggle to find a place on a bookshelf crammed with mystical kingdoms and daring exploits. It will even struggle to find a place on a shelf containing only books by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. But there is an appeal in the honesty of the writing. It is a shame that more great writers do not follow this example, and humble themselves into writing stories that neither shake the earth nor shake the reader, but which are worth telling anyway.

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Dune, by Frank Herbert

July 13, 2013 at 15:58 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , , , )

10/10

10/10

DuneThe 200,000-word bulk of Dune is an intimidating mountain to tackle, but the reward is palpable in only the first few pages. An excellent example of the fairytale set  in space, and remarkable in its pacing and its rich attention to detail. Frank Herbert does not allow himself to luxuriate in his own cleverness, the way some writers do when they become enamoured of their creations (even justifiably). He moves lightly and patiently through the immense landscape of Arrakis, and is willing to plant seeds and allow them to grow to maturity in his readers before bringing them to fruition tens of chapters later.

“They were staring out across the sand, the realization in their expressions: there was no returning to Caladan for them…”

-Dune

There are clear moments where it becomes noticeable that he is deliberately hanging Chekhov’s proverbial gun over a mantelpiece; slowly and painstakingly sketching out a scenario and storing it for a hundred pages hence. There are times when Frank Herbert errs on the heavier side of exposition (although generally carried in dialogue which is a delight to read). These moments remind his reader that they are on the cusp of delving into something at once massive and intricate. They are distractions, but are neither heavy enough nor frequent enough to become a constant annoyance. Rather, there are times when the reader will see them as a friendly helping hand halfway up an otherwise forbidding cliff.

“Muad’Dib! Muad’Dib!”

-Dune

Unsurprisingly for a fairytale, Herbert’s characters are familiar things, from the noble father to the rogueish sidekicks; from the prodigious youth to the demoniacal and grotesque villain. Thankfully Herbert is an able enough storyteller to mould real flesh onto these well-used skeletons, and even add some unexpected depth to some. There is some real pleasure in revisiting an old trope in literature, and finding it expertly polished and cleverly deployed. Herbert shines, therefore, not in coming up with something so startlingly original, but in retelling an old story of long ago and far away in a manner so skilled that the reader forgets he knows exactly what is coming; forgets he knows to expect neither treason from the heroes nor contrition from the villains; forgets he is reading hundreds of thousands of words, and a monstrous amount of geographical and historical backstory. Forgets everything, in fact, but Dune.

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Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig

June 30, 2013 at 15:01 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Literature, Mediocre Books, Music, Philosophy, Science and Technology) (, , )

FreeCulture

6/10

6/10

There is a sort of schizophrenic veering between Lessig’s historical contextualising of the evolution and development of copyright law, and his impassioned denouncement of so-called ‘Big Media’. His attempts to draw a straight line between the two are not always entirely successful, and hostile readers might well suspect him of permitting his motives to lead him on an unwarranted crusade. Where he is successful, he is often convincing and guileless, and speaks with a great deal of conviction. His forays into historical documentation are amateur sketches of dogeared case-studies that have held his own attention for years, but are nevertheless interesting with only a few exceptions. His contemporary hectoring tends to be a lot more vibrant, and the autobiographical sections detailing his own Supreme Court case manages to be at the same time exciting and frustrating, bearing the fault that it has been trimmed down to a bare summary of the facts.

“The hard question is therefore not whether a culture is free. All cultures are free to some degree. The hard question instead is “How free is this culture?” How much, and how broadly, is the culture free for others to take and build upon? Is that freedom limited to party members? To members of the royal family? …To artists generally, whether affiliated with the Met or not? To musicians generally, whether white or not? To filmmakers generally, whether affiliated with a studio or not?”

-Free Culture

Lessig has the flaw of being needlessly paternalistic and pedagogical, particularly when describing the absolute worst-case scenarios that he anticipates. In spite of his flaws he is deeply passionate about his subject, and although it is this passion which often leads him astray it also breaks up the monotony of his drier material and lays his biases and motives fairly plainly out for all to see.

This is neither great literature nor a particularly cunning or sophisticated piece of work, but it is the work of a true believer with a strong argument to make. Doubtless there are more informative texts on the battle for copyright protection; also doubtless there are books written by men and women whose expertise on copyright history is a little more solidly defined. This is therefore a difficult book to recommend. It is a good book, but not a great book. It is a good entry-level text, but has faults that might deter further inquiry into the subject. It is easy to read, but it might have been both easier to read and less repetitive, with a more comprehensive exposition.

Read it, enjoy it, but don’t expect it to be the best or most scholarly piece of work available.

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Candide, by Voltaire

June 8, 2013 at 08:01 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Comedy, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Philosophy) (, , , )

Candide

6/10

6/10

Voltaire’s controversial masterpiece is an impressive chunk of book; none the less considering it is still able to provoke strong reactions two and a half centuries after its initial publication. That alone does not make it worthwhile or amazing: strong emotions can be conjured by simple things. But there is no denying its cleverness. Cursed cleverness sometimes, and seldom in the service of anything clearly noble or even clear. Voltaire’s mockery of altruism is as plain as the nose on one’s face, but his derision for any who might dare to read his tragicomedy so straightforwardly shows through in many places, leading astute readers to suspect that he is equally contemptuous of pessimists, who might nod sagely at his farcical series of mishaps while he laughs behind the backs of both.

“‘It is demonstrable,’ said he, ‘that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles—therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best.'”

-Candide

It is the great trick of snide writers to be able to sneer at any strong belief their readers hold, regardless of what that belief is. An excellent review (for which this review is at least partly an apologetic) makes the very salient point that Candide paints so black a picture of the worldview it seeks to emasculate that it becomes useless, and distorts everything into a caricature. But Voltaire’s clumsy straw man is a pastiche not only of altruism, but a cruel sketch of those who would themselves construct such straw men.

It is very unpleasant to be laughed at, and for that reason it is tempting to adopt the same distant aloofness and join Voltaire in his ivory tower. He is a misanthrope, and it is very difficult to see things from a misanthrope’s point of view without also joining him in his pathology. This can cause problems for readers unwilling to enter into conspiracy with the author. Several writers both modern and classic exhibit this same disagreeable trait of being unbearably clever (and sometimes even witty) without being at all likeable or honest: Joseph Heller, for instance; or Will Self.

There is a great deal of parable in Candide, and a hallmark of a parable is its licence to dispense with logical storyline (“and then, because it suits my purposes, an Ogre appeared in Grimsby”), dispense with a willing suspension of disbelief (“and just as her pursuers caught up to her, she grew great wings and took to the sky”), and dispense with solid characters (“once upon a time there was a wicked witch”). Because of this, if one is unwilling to enter into conspiracy against the public with Voltaire, there is very little in this book that will be at all interesting. Because of this, the author clearly expects shortcomings in his story to be forgiven at the behest of his message. One’s willingness to do this (or at least to feign it) will be directly proportional to one’s enjoyment (or at least tolerance) of this book.

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Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

June 1, 2013 at 09:19 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Horror, Literature) (, , )

Frankenstein

7/10

7/10

The chief and noticeable feature in Frankenstein is the peculiarly direct route that Shelley takes from the beginning to the end. With the possible exception of the brief Shetland adventure, both the eponymous doctor and his creation turn neither to the left nor to the right on their individual paths; but pursue each other without hindrance or pause from one fixed point to the next.

The monster, therefore, sets its mind upon one thing, which is sought until it is achieved or until it is forever out of reach. The doctor, likewise. This straight highway of a narrative leads to very few surprises for the reader, and the impending doom of tragedy is lessened by its visibility–and simultaneously heightened by its inevitability. For this reason above others, the book has a tendency to drag its feet. Any attempt by Shelley to create suspense is largely futile–and she seems to recognise this, and aims at pathos rather than tension.

” I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy, and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm.”

-Frankenstein

Stylistically, Frankenstein is not a displeasing work. For all its gothic legacy, it reads generally like any of its contemporary works of literature, with the only distinction being that the tragedies mourned and the victories celebrated have a supernatural patina to them. It is not a very atmospheric book, nor is the monstrous horror of the grinning demoniac particularly prominent. A lengthy monologue by the creature is presented in much the same way it would have been had its narrator been a normal human, and besides a few physical descriptions of his diabolical aspect, the creature is remarkably unremarkable.

This is a book with a very strong concept, whose author under no circumstances allows the story to get in the way of that concept. It is not possible to find any grave flaws with the writing, but it is almost as difficult to find a great deal of beauty in it. The book is unlikely to conjure up any very strong emotions in its readers, and must rely instead on its competency and its novelty. This might well be a classic book, but it perhaps deserves to be called good literature, not great.

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The Children of Hurin, by J.R.R. Tolkien

May 5, 2013 at 17:51 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , )

ChildrenOfHurin

9/10

9/10

In examining The Children of Hurin, the first question will be, “Is it any good?” while the second question will be, “Is there anything new or unique here?”

The answer to both of these questions is not all that simple. The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion from which this story is assembled are both notorious for being difficult and labyrinthine tomes reserved exclusively for people who don’t get invited to parties. They are both very, very good, which answers the first question somewhat. Any reader who has gone through either one of those books will not find anything particularly surprising in The Children of Hurin, which answers the second question.

But there is something very valuable and very new in these pages. Christopher Tolkien (who edited together these fragments) has long been a target of scornful dismissal by many fans of his father’s work, but it is remarkable how seamlessly he has managed to collate the pieces of Hurin’s tragedy from the disparate sources available to him, and come out with something very much approximating literature.

The grandiose style that has been mistaken for unwieldiness by many readers of Tolkien’s miscellaney has been sanded and polished, and in the process of cutting Hurin’s family out from their tangled web of thousands of years of history there is much that has been either abbreviated or removed entirely. In fact, the peculiar thing about this book is that the very act of making it ‘more readable’ and ‘more accessible’ has in fact denuded it of helpful context for many readers unaware of the arcane details of Tolkien’s legends. Those deeply intimate with the history of the Noldor and Thangorodrim will find a clear and thrilling edition of a familiar story; those who have only read The Lord of the Rings will still be faced with the constant stumbling blocks of how this story fits in with the world they know. It is therefore interesting that the simplification of the books has consequently made the story more inviting for those who are already comfortable with the original versions.

“‘The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda, and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will. But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair.'”

-The Children of Hurin

The most noticeable artefact from The Silmarillion stylistically speaking, is the rather grim absence of levity or mirth. This is a much harder story than Tolkien’s more famous works, and while that does not make it worse at all, it does make it different, and it will doubtless unsettle many readers. This setting also allowed Tolkien to explore more adult themes, and his characters here are much more driven by fear and by jealousy, by pride and by vengeance and by honour. Turin and Morwen, Beleg and Glaurung, are much more human and much less fantastical than the array of hobbits and men seen elsewhere; which is again a comment, and neither criticism nor praise. There is some difficulty in finding the focus of the story–for the grand millennial struggle against Morgoth is a background theme, and incidental to the plot. But in that, the smaller details and choices assume a wider significance than in the original editions, and a warmth which is difficult to set upon initially is brought out.

It is incredibly difficult to consider this book apart from the other forms in which it has already been published. Most readers who come across it will come across it because of their admiration for these other works. But those others who will have to painstakingly arrange the context (or do away with it entirely) will find a bitter but enticing fantasy story, expertly written and without any of the baggy and painful luggage that so much modern fantasy is encumbered with. Surprisingly satisfying to read, and one that even committed Tolkien-devotees might find themselves reaching for more often than they think.

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