Book review thread

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Thread: Book review thread

  1. #1

    Book review thread

    A place to give a small review for something you've recently read. I guess I'll start.

    Perks of Being a Wallflower 9/10: Short but very well written and effective. Funny and heartbreaking. The movie was awful though. That only gets a 4 lol.
    "I like working with first time directors because they don't really know the rules yet. And therefore don't know any limits."
    -Sir Ben Kingsley

  2. #2 buk..10/10
    The only one who can heal you is you.

  3. #3
    I've got a few from my blog, so I'll paste one in here:

    City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff Vandermeer, has been labelled ‘avant-garde fantasy’. It is. The city is the star; Ambergris is a violent and gothic-romantic ecosystem, the inhabitants of which live in a fearful symbiosis with the deeply mysterious ‘Greycaps’. These underground dwellers were initially displaced by the founders of Ambergris from the much older city that it grew out of.

    The Greycaps give a Lovecraftian edge to the tales of the city, silently malign landlords living in a world beneath the city’s people, the balance of power shifted emphatically after their initial genocide at the hands of Ambergris’s founders, with an event known as ‘The Silence’, that shattered the collective psyche of the city’s denizens, leaving behind a fragile society with a black hole where its heart and soul should be. This book feels like Lovecraft-meets-literary fiction, and while not quite as dark as the master, its emotional canvas is broader, a playful black humour mixing with the horror in its veins.

    Throughout this collection of stories the Greycaps and the fungi that they have such a mysterious relationship with leave the whole book tinged with mold, the city itself almost permanently rotted with rain and mist. The author has done for mushrooms what Spielberg did for sharks, their almost sentient presence ominous, the citizens living in fear of them and the Greycaps that cultivate them.

    I say ‘book’ because Vandermeer doesn’t give us a novel, even a purely episodic one. This is a literary encyclopedia of Ambergris; stories, essays both historical and critical and even a story to be decrypted by the reader from a number sequence. He breaks a fourth wall or two along the way, just for good measure. From a charming and funny essay by a self-proclaimed ‘authority’ on freshwater squids ending in a conspiracy theory that could have come from Spike Milligan, to a pure slice of gothic horror, ‘The Cage’, by way of psychiatric reports of the author trapped in an asylum, the book disregards a single narrative in order to provide a handful of perspectives from the various lives of those who founded and then lived in Ambergris. (I know that parts of the book were previously published in journals, but I don’t know if the format of this book was Vandermeer’s intention all along.)

    Anyone writing a ‘second world’/'crossover’/'plain old fantasy’ book, because god knows what I’m meant to call fantasy fiction these days, would be keenly aware and staggered by the behind-the-scenes work that has gone into imagining this city. Vandermeer’s choice of form, and the quality of the work in particular, could only be executed to this standard because of how meticulously imagined and deeply nuanced Ambergris is to him. I am reminded of Gormenghast (meets Ankh-Morpork!), but moreso London or Rome. The former fictional cities were backdrops, the only others that go close to this, while the latter I think can only be understood in the way that Vandermeer has chosen to help us understand Ambergris, through fragments that illuminate how, like them, it was founded and then grew with sacrifice, blood and money, each transfusing the city, maturing it.

    With barely an off-note (I thought the imprisoned writer and the actor Belacqua were the least confident aspects of the book, if only because they were about the author’s reflection on his art), Vandermeer has written one of the genre’s masterpieces, pushing its form and forcing all of us that like writing this stuff to think again about what the genre is capable of. His execution is exquisite, my favourite and most exemplary piece being ‘In The Hours After Death’, a dream of a dead man that has become fungus, becoming a man (again?), Vandermeer deepening the mythos of the Greycaps and leaving us at the verge of knowing, like Hoegbotton confronting ‘the Cage’, their divine and splendorous truths.

  4. #4
    Another one from my blog:

    The Dying Earth trilogy – Jack Vance
    It’s rather late in the day for me to get to Jack Vance in terms of my enjoyment of the fantasy genre, given this is held up as part of its canon.

    And lo, within twenty pages I could see where so many would-be fantasy writers I’ve come across on writing forums over the years were getting their inspiration from, when they weren’t getting it from Tolkien or Robert E. Howard!

    Vance has a lot to answer for, but imitation etc. etc. and heck, I’m not immune, I used to hand write passages of Paul Morel’s despair from Sons and Lovers to put up alongside my Pink Floyd posters back when I was seventeen.

    Vance has an old-fashioned writing style and I was reminded of Dickens; the characters themselves, both major and minor, that are scattered throughout these books are as vivid and as occasionally cartoonish and tragic as many of Dickens’s own, both in terms of their names and their static, overtly simple natures. Unlike Dickens however, he does lack, out of choice or ability I don’t know, a truly deep protagonist. At first I thought the writing was a little overblown and florid, but as I warmed to the stories, it was a perfect, gothic sort of fit.

    Cugel, a reprehensible charlatan; deceitful, lazy, lustful, opportunistic and selfish, takes centre stage in this suite of stories that describe life on earth as earth itself winds down, the world no longer full of raging seas and the violence of its life, a calm twilight home to societies as fragmented as they were during the Dark Ages.

    He is an anti-hero for the ages. A cross between Basil Fawlty and Machiavelli, his hilarious travails on his journey across the dying Earth illustrate how his attempts to bend an impervious world to his own ends frequently blows up in his face. Yet a wrong has been done to him, of a sort, and Vance’s mastery is such that this quite awful man elicits the kind of grudging sympathy a distinctly un-Christian spectator might give to the Christian thrown into a Roman arena with a few lions.

    This is a world beyond magic and science, the intimation being that the powerful, such as Rhialto the Marvellous, the titular protagonist of the final part of the trilogy, wield an understanding of mathematics beyond our current perception of either. What lifts the books up to a standing on a par with the very best of the genre is an incredibly fertile imagination, not just in terms of his vividly realised and nuanced ‘world-building’ but in terms of his acute understanding of people and motivation, when placed in the riot of sub-cultures that he’s devised. There are numerous subtle messages in the text, probably more than I picked up on, that Vance has no doubt used to portray his own views on the world he lived in; again, a very Dickensian obsession, albeit a step removed in this genre.

    I recommend this to anyone who hasn’t got around to it in their reading of fantasy (though it’s the equivalent of admitting you haven’t yet seen Star Wars), because it works brilliantly as a rather tragic vision of our future shot through with a bleakly comic and vivid cast.

  5. #5
    Creative Area Specialist (Fiction) Blade's Avatar
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    Oct 2012
    Kitchener, Ontario.
    I just posted this on the "What are you reading?" thread having not noticed this one.

    I have happened across a rather odd item, Duluth: A Novel by Gore Vidal. I do not read a lot of novels but this one seems to me to be a mockery or satire of the genre more than anything else. There does not seem to be any main character or plot with the description involving many rather eccentric characters described it what appear to be unrelated scenes. The location is nominally Duluth MN (as per the title) but pieces of LA, New Orleans, Lake Erie and a stretch of desert containing an alien spacecraft also figure in the terrain. The chapters are ridiculously short with a total of 89 contained in 214 pages.

    I had heard of the author but was not familiar with any of his work, which was a reason to have a look at it, though I am at a loss as to why anyone would write this sort of stuff. The chapters are bite sized short though so once you begin reading you can always pick it up for a short chew.

    The "About the author" blurb in the back of the book indicates that he has published a variety of different materials so this might be an attempt to integrate them. The piece ends in 1981 mentioning a 1981 work as his best novel though i am not sure what that has to do with this.
    I was fighting with temptation but I didn't want to win.
    A man like me don't like to see temptation caving in.
    Leonard Cohen

  6. #6
    Every Day by David Levithan. I didn't know what to expect reading the first chapter, but needless to say its interesting so far. Will post a full review when I'm done with it in a few days.
    Hidden Content & Hidden Content
    Hidden Content & Hidden Content
    Hidden Content First Novel & Hidden Content
    Hidden Content
    "Read with hunger, write with joy, and live with passion."

  7. #7
    Just posted this to my blog, so thought I'd add it here as it is a kind of book review...

    Wolf Hall,
    by Hilary Mantel, is a masterpiece. It is one of the best books I will ever read.

    I know this because I’ve lost count of the times I’ve paused over a page, muttered ‘**** off’ at the sheer and dazzling quality and control of the form and the narrative, and then carried on reading, a little bit sick at the work I still have to do, learning how to tell a story.

    It charts the rise of its protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, in the court of Henry VIII; a rise that parallels that of Anne Boleyn’s. His role in her ascent is presented as instrumental in both their fortunes.

    The book’s principle achievement for me is its intimacy with Cromwell, and this is made brilliant only partly by the fact that Mantel has effortlessly gotten inside a man’s head (OK, OK, so it’s not that difficult to understand men…). The achievement resides also in the subtle and consistent feat of the narrator’s eye being subjective and thus unreliable, while in the third person. The third person voice presents views on events and imaginative leaps beyond them in a warm, almost conversational way. Yet to read it, they could easily be Cromwell’s own thoughts, though they are never directly attributed to him. That his thoughts are also directly presented suggests a distinction, but that’s all it does. Thus we have a quite original mechanism by which wider musings on the characters and world are presented as (probably) coming from Cromwell or an intimately knowledgeable contemporaneous biographer/confidante.

    The unreliability is apparent in the way that throughout the novel there is a clear dissonance between everyone’s fear of Cromwell, at one telling point even the King’s, and Cromwell’s own repeated acts of clemency, charity and loyalty. He comes across as a hard working and decent man who, with casual and rather glossed over asides, keeps a personal ledger of those that have wronged him, or are indebted to him and those who owe him favours. He takes on wards and sees them set up well for their lives, while feeding those waiting around at the gates to his house. He strives to be a mediator in the various conflicts around the court, particularly with the ousted Mary and Katherine, various heretics and the wider Catholic Church, but there is very little sense of a chip on the shoulder at their attitude to the ‘blacksmith’s boy’ from Putney. Even in his triumph, he alludes only to little more than a chuckle at how Henry’s displays of affection before Norfolk, Suffolk and others, renders them so angry. Yet his loyalty to Wolsey earned such opprobrium and the threat of ruin, that a stronger retribution would have seemed more honest. Clearly we have a faux-objective viewpoint coloured by his own perception, and, interestingly, how our narrator chooses to cultivate that with us, the readers.

    Yet this third person narrator, perhaps because of the intimacy, gets into the heart of him on occasion. One such moment is beautifully rendered, as he contemplates a large gilded star and angel’s wings that would be brought out at Christmas when his children were around:

    “This year no one has the heart to hang up the star, but he visits it in its lightless store room. He slides off the canvas leaves that protect its rays, and checks that they are unchipped and unfaded…from a peg hangs angel’s wings. He touches them. His finger comes away dusty. He shifts his candle out of danger, then lifts them from the peg and gently shakes them. They make a soft sound of hissing, and a faint amber perfume washes into the air.”

    I loved the above particularly for the play on rays of light being sheathed or having the potential to be chipped. The narrator has found Cromwell at Christmas, in a dark room he keeps locked, mourning days gone by, the discarded nativity costumes and decorations. It reinforces him as a family man, and the opposite of his own father, who beat him mercilessly (the opening line, as he is being beaten, is as memorable as Moby Dick’s).

    Mantel at times playfully exploits, as in the quote below, this indistinct narrator. Here she weaves in a dream of the future which reminded me of Alan Moore’s From Hell, where the Ripper imagines himself in a twentieth century office that he of course doesn’t recognise as such. Is Mantel here giving Cromwell to muse on a digital future?

    “Suppose within every book there is another book, and within every letter on every page another volume constantly unfolding; but these volumes take no space on the desk. Suppose knowledge could be reduced to a quintessence, held within a picture, a sign, held within a place which is no place.”

    These thoughts aren’t attributed to him, and there are many such asides that Mantel uses because they appear to unfold for us perspectives about Cromwell or perhaps by him.

    There are far too many examples of how strong Mantel’s prose is to list here, barring a last one below. The prose of course is in service to the story and the intimate events between the main characters that shape the wider events. It’s something Mantel specifically points out at one point later in the book; how, among other things, the sigh of skin on skin in the bedchamber may rule the fortunes of kingdoms and whether or not they go to war. Cromwell’s ascent, the moment of his upward spiral, comes when the King calls him and Gardiner to his quarters after an appalling nightmare. Cromwell’s quick thinking interprets the dream inversely to the King’s frightened vision of his downfall, remaking it a vision of his authority to rule, a call to be bold. It is a pivotal moment, a single conversation out of the blue in a bedchamber, that changes everything for him.

    I am sure that every other serious writer of historical fiction has to work incredibly hard on their research. This post may betray my lack of such reading before Wolf Hall, but Mantel’s command of the research, the nuanced ways in which it is referenced in these conversations and thoughts of Cromwell embeds the reader solidly in the houses and streets and crowds of this novel. The command she has of the place, the milieu of the story is expressed easily, again, as though she is a contemporary, an effect that reinforces my view of the narration. These are hard yards for any writer. The outcome can rarely be so exquisite.
    I’ll leave this post with the most perfect description of England, then or now, I’ve ever read. It can **** off and all…

    “Who will swear the hobs and boggarts who live in the hedges and the hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of the uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar that feed on living England and suck the substance from the future.”

  8. #8
    Just posted another review to my blog. So unless anybody minds, I'll post it here too

    Replay, by Ken Grimwood, tackles the classic 'What if...' scenario: "What if I could live my life over again?"

    It treads a path between the classic Star Trek episode 'The Inner Light' and Groundhog Day. Jeff, the book's protagonist, is going to 'replay' his life more than once, unlike Picard; but unlike Phil Connors, he's repeating decades rather than a day.

    Grimwood has executed the premise spectacularly well. The prose is economical, and does a fair bit more 'tell' than 'show', but the scale of the story, and the depth of his exploration of the premise in my view require that. This is a book that is really all about the plot and Jeff's exploration of his situation.

    It starts with Jeff in a weary argument with his wife over the phone, in the middle of which he has a heart attack and dies, aged forty three. He wakes up as an eighteen year old back in college, and gets to do it all again, this time knowing who wins various Kentucky Derbys and World Series. The book really starts to motor when he dies again, aged forty three.

    The strength of the novel is how good a handle Grimwood has on his main character. As the events unfold, complete with some twists, one of which provides a pivotal emotional thread, we're on a journey with Jeff that feels right. There are no false notes in his reaction to the lives he's given and the relationships he has. But it was only in a conversation he has later on in the novel that I began to see a deeper metaphor unfold from Grimwood, a parallel between Jeff's lives and our one life, which I can't give away for spoilers. Suffice to say: 'Youth is wasted on the young'. It's beautifully done.

    Inevitably, Replay is the kind of novel that constantly holds a mirror up to us, wrestling with the question of how we should live and what's important. Through Jeff and his story, Grimwood, remarkably, covers all the ground you could think of with those questions.

    The fact that 'the meaning of life' is a problem or a goal undiminished regardless of the number of lives you're given is one of the more interesting outcomes of Jeff's situation.

    If the book falls a little short anywhere it's in the way Grimwood tackles the cause of Jeff's recurring life, something that Jeff is obsessed with. An attempt to save John F Kennedy's life in '63 gives a strand that could have been plucked to more effect, and later in the novel there is a further and much larger opportunity given that never really resolves, at least for me.

    The climax of the novel is nevertheless interesting, and is given substance by the strength of what goes before. Resolving Replay's causality question might have been as big an ask as it was for Stephen King to give us a suitable climax with the monster in It, or Pizzolatto's challenge to provide a fitting climax to True Detective, but the journey all of these writers takes us on is both powerful and moving.

    Replay is much richer than Groundhog Day of course, it has the space to be. But given how brilliant the latter is, this is more than sufficient recommendation from me to go read the former.

  9. #9
    ^sounds interesting. Might have to check that one out.
    "I like working with first time directors because they don't really know the rules yet. And therefore don't know any limits."
    -Sir Ben Kingsley

  10. #10
    Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 8/10- Pretty well written, suspenseful, well thought out. My only complaint is the writter had a tendency to ramble early in the book and you forget where you were before. Good book.
    "I like working with first time directors because they don't really know the rules yet. And therefore don't know any limits."
    -Sir Ben Kingsley

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