Book Reviews (2)

The Illustrated Man – Ray Bradbury

The book opens with a vividly described prologue about a carnival worker covered in moving tattoos, one of which will, after a while, show the viewer’s life and death. Unfortunately not much is done with that concept. It’s used as a framing device for the short stories, feeling a bit tacked on to either side.

The stories, though, are polished classic sci-fi, with dark undertones and crafted lyricism. Recurring themes are technology as it relates to human life, and our tendency to screw things up – whether simply not making the most of our lives, starting a nuclear war, or instigating Jim Crow or censorship. This misanthropic tendency is offset with a sincere, but not saccharine, appreciation for glimmers of simple goodness. Mars often features as the potential ‘fresh start’.

I’m not sure what to make of Bradbury’s view on children here. ‘The Veld’, with those weird kids, and ‘The Playground’, with the children attracted to an anarchic battle-royale playground, felt weaker than the rest of this collection. I most liked ‘No Particular Night or Morning’, about a man’s growing extreme solipsism on a long space voyage, and ‘The City’, about a wonderfully personified mechanical city waiting for visitors so it can fulfil its dark purpose.

Forces of Nature – Prof Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen

I’ve seen most of his TV work, but this is the first time I’ve read Brian Cox. The book has the same feel as his documentaries – asking basic questions like ‘why is the sky blue?’, and following that thread down to the point where nobody knows the next bit yet, a palpable excitement for human curiosity and the continual improvements in our understanding of the universe.

One difference is that there’s less dumbing down, with times where he says things like ‘allow me one paragraph of postgrad physics’ or ‘if you’re not a maths person, feel free to skip this bit…’. So some of the book went a light-year over my head – but most of it was explained in more ordinary language, and the picture that emerges is fascinating.

It was great how many times FoN says things are currently unknown. After starting off with a question about the shape of snowflakes or why hot things glow, the reader gets led through increasingly advanced frameworks of physics/chemistry/biology; and the original question is basically solved but we run up against a deep issue in our current understanding of the universe. Cox’s enthusiasm is infectious, though the pages showing quotes in block capitals sometimes felt a bit random and cheesy.

Conspiracy – S.J. Parris

Paris, 1585. Heretic-turned-spy Giordano Bruno is charged with solving the murder of a priest, leading him into the midst of conflicts between the King, the hard-line Catholic League, Protestant spies, and trouble among the court. The threat of a sectarian massacre looms overhead, and finding the truth may be dangerous.

I haven’t read any of Parris’s previous Bruno books, but the essential bits of backstory are re-introduced seamlessly. She’s constructed a convincing setting steeped in religious and political tension, populated with vibrant characters: chiefly the protagonist, an entertaining narrator. The plot is intricate but not too dense, though I did occasionally find it overly reliant on Bruno messing up.

Last First Snow – Max Gladstone

Continuing on with the Craft Sequence, this is the first chronologically. A younger Elayne Kevarian works on a property dispute in the city of Dresediel Lex, where the deprived Skittersill district is protected – and restricted – by the wards of gods slain by the ruling King in Red.

At first I wasn’t so into this as Three Parts Dead. Debates about the contract for redevelopment of the Skittersill, while very real – a community organiser makes the memorable point that forced ‘development’ from on high could be like someone trying to make a spider’s web better by constructing it ‘efficiently’ out of wire, ruining it – were a big change of pace from TPD’s driving action. However, the situation takes a turn, and by the end I was very much won over.

Craft continues to be a brilliant magic system, integral to this world’s economics, politics, and history. The theological competitor to Craft in Dresediel Lex has a distinct Mayan flavour, with a range of half-sleeping gods and godlings providing slivers of power to the priest Temoc, while clamouring to be properly fed as in the old days.

Complete Stories – Flannery O’Connor

I picked this up because I vaguely remembered O’Connor being a big name. Judging by this, that’s very much deserved. She was a master of constructing strange, irritating, deeply compelling characters. While I didn’t always fully pick up on – or agree with – the strong Catholic themes in these stories, O’Connor uses symbols, irony, and humour to great effect, articulating her convictions without ever feeling like a sermon.

A common figure is the self-righteous supposed ‘intellectual’, coming back to the small Southern town they look down on and being shown up for the fool they really are. At the same time, the other characters aren’t held up as icons either. It’s brilliantly nuanced, and despite the cutting irony on both parties it doesn’t feel like O’Connor is merely dunking on both sides, sneering from the fence.

Some of the earlier stories, while worth reading, lack something when compared with the latter ones. I didn’t get what ‘Wildcat’ was on about. The top three for me were ‘The Enduring Chill’, ‘The Partridge Festival’, and ‘Parker’s Back’, although there are many must-reads in here. Very powerful, and unmistakeable for anyone else.

The Green Mile – Stephen King

The book is prison guard Paul Edgecombe’s recollection of the time during the Depression when John Coffey, a gentle giant convicted of the rape and murder of two young girls, was on death row. John Coffey has mysterious abilities, his initials are J.C. – *thinking emoji*.

It’s really good. The conversational tone of voice is immersive, the setting and characters are memorable, the action is gripping. Lots of intense feels. Any lit snobs deriding King have obviously not read this. Even the mouse Mr Jingles has buckets of personality – despite, naturally, having no dialogue.

And if you’re not a book person try a different blog the film is well worth seeing too.

 

6 thoughts on “Book Reviews (2)

      1. A book you might enjoy is Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost – a murder mystery set in the England of Charles II and told by unreliable narrators.

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