Book Reviews (19)

May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Homes

After Nixon scholar Harry has an adulterous kiss with the wife of his TV exec brother George at Thanksgiving, a chain of unexpected events hurls them into new lives.

At first this felt like it might be the sort of thing people make fun of litfic for: a struggling academic, an affair, everyone’s a bit unpleasant, etc. But then – everything kept ramping up. The drama. The dark, farcical comedy. The character growth. Bizarre twists and diversions combine with pathos and an extraordinary depth of character. The nephew, Nate, felt particularly real, with insight and conviction but also, well, 13 and trying to deal with a lot.

It’s hard to critique. Sometimes dialogue switches line in a way that threw me for a moment. Some of Harry’s romantic endeavours seemed a bit forced to me. Occasional lax forward momentum. These are minor quibbles, because it succeeds in depicting a tumultuous year in people’s lives – affecting, deeply perceptive, and often very funny.

Covenant – Dean Crawford

Take a thriller where an archaeologist is abducted in an Israeli desert, add some Ancient Aliens stuff, and… eh… The idea could be good, but neither component gets past cliché here – unless things improve after I gave up on page 67.

The sci-fi side is somewhat interesting, but relies on laboured exposition and didn’t really add a fresh angle to the well-worn idea that aliens helped kickstart civilisation. Sometimes a character will rattle through polysyllables, other times they’ll be idiotic as required.

The thriller side is painfully clichéd. The stony-faced agents, the nihilistic and good-at-punching guy, the evangelist preacher who wouldn’t pass a Turing test, the arms company bigshot ‘in this for the money’. I didn’t go in expecting a sophisticated take on Israel/Palestine, but the lazy centrism of Crawford’s ‘brutal military occupation bad, but on the other side rOckEtS’ still grates.

The writing is passable but not good: a big guy ‘swept through the crowds like a tornado through an olive grove’; Troubled Tough Dude becomes a dog who ‘reveled’ in the breeze though a car window; the Jordan Rift Valley is ‘an ancient seismic scar slashed by the tributaries of long-extinct rivers that snaked their way into the endless deserts’.

The Last Wish – Andrzej Sapkowski trans. Danusia Stok

The opening set of stories, prior to the main narrative of The Witcher, introduces an intriguing world drawing on folklore and fairy tales with twists and bite.

Geralt of Rivia stars as the mutant monster-slayer, alongside a few others. His character leans more to the mercenary side than I’d thought, particularly in the first story, which opens with him cutting down a few people for not much reason. Discussions around money are entertaining and sharp, with Nenneke’s comment on exchanging Temerian orens for gems (cheap due to a dwarven mine near Wyzim) and gems for Novigrad crowns highlighting the guy has really made this place. Combat is gritty and dynamically written.

I’ve heard of translation concerns. While some Polish idioms and references are inevitably missed out on, I found the prose perfectly clear and fairly stylish, aside from very few minor points where I couldn’t grasp what it was getting at. But irony lost in translation could explain some of the times where Geralt comes across misogynistic. In any case, he’s a flawed character and better for it.

The Lesser Evil particularly works together various fairytale allusions, questions of morality addressed by flawed characters in a messy world, dramatic combat, and holds the tension of its framing – how Geralt came to be ‘the butcher of Blaviken’.

The weakest parts are a section of the frame narrative where Geralt expositions at a priestess who’s following a vow of silence, and the title story – which at points I found a little vague, a bit too fanservicey over Yennefer, and didn’t do enough to justify the extent of their infatuation (previously hinted in the frame narrative). Maybe I’m missing something there. But both these parts are still definitely good.

Book Reviews (18)

The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson

(Mistborn #1)

I got round to reading some Sanderson – and, yeah, it’s good folks. A dynamic, pacey story about a group of thieves, led by the enigmatic Kelsier, working to topple the dictatorship of the immortal Lord Ruler. Vin, a new recruit with burgeoning powers, comes from a traumatic background which has made her expect treachery at every turn. Meanwhile, glimpses into the Lord Ruler’s past hint at a larger story behind his rise to power and fabled defeat of the mysterious Deepness.

At first Kelsier’s smiling and Vin’s frowning were a little much (yeah, I get it…), but all the cast quickly become interesting, complex figures. Allomancy – the magic system based on using various metals – is very clever and works great in action scenes, particularly the pair of steel and iron, which allows for pushing and pulling metals. The way characters fling themselves or objects around is described so clearly and follows a strong logic. However, the categories of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ and ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ are less intuitive for other metals – but don’t worry about it.

Worldbuilding, character, and action with a powerful climax leading to the next book, although some of the last section felt a little bit rushed.

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

Not everyone will like this. I loved it, but this is a book without easy answers, the epigraph warning, ‘This is not for you.’

On the face of it, it’s about a Lovecraftian house developing dark empty rooms and shifting corridors, possibly infinite on the inside. Photojournalist Will Navidson documented the horror his family and others experienced in The Navidson Record. Most of the book is an academic manuscript about the film and its events, dictated by an unstable blind man, Zampanò. After Zampanò’s death the documents are discovered and put into some order by Johnny Truant, a tattoo shop employee.

The story in the film, told straight by itself, would be a good creepy novel with engaging characters. But the experimental approach House of Leaves takes is more complex, challenging, and interesting. Zampanò’s analysis of The Navidson Record leads off in many directions, engaging with psychology, mythology, science and literature. His and Johnny Truant’s footnotes relate subplots and lead to materials in the Appendices, like Truant’s mother’s letters to him from an insane asylum. One of her letters needs to be decoded – it’s not hard, but it forces you to slow down and makes the emerging story so much more impactful as you find what’s coming (but is it true?).

Chapter 9 is particularly incredible. While discussing labyrinths, it is itself one. The footnotes lead to dead ends and endless loops. The pages have various segments read in different directions, even parts that need a mirror. It’s not just gimmicky. In this chapter, as in others, formatting quirks reflect the content – accentuating story, playing jokes, reflecting themes.

Truant’s story can be a little tiresome at points – yeah I get it, the guy lays pipe, enough dude – but his developing mental collapse and questionable relationship with the manuscript add so many layers to the book.

The film, and the many other academic treatments of it which Zampanò references, don’t actually exist. But if the whole thing is merely Zampanò having a mental break, why does the manuscript affect Truant? And where did those claw marks come from? Does the minotaur represent a eldritch Nothingness (‘There is nothing there. Beware.’) which erases the house and film behind it, then becoming the manuscript – then, perhaps, erasing Truant as it becomes House of Leaves, then on to erase its readers? 😮 Perhaps Johnny Truant was that dead baby all along, and the whole damn thing is his mother processing trauma in the asylum? Is there a real house and minotaur? Or is it all symbolic?

Truly mind-bending.

The Bees – Laline Paull

A thriller following a bee in the totalitarian society of the hive through religious purges, wasp invasions, and the trials of winter. The life of the hive balances fact and artistic license to make an alien society centred around the Queen, beset by internal and external threats.

The idea is great. The writing is mostly solid – many scenes breathtaking, other points a little awkward. References to ‘data’ passed through antennae and encoded in scent can make the bees sound strangely computerised, and once when Flora sneaks into an area her attempt to slowly turn a door handle is like – since when are there door handles in the hive?

Mostly, the tricky balance between actual bees, and the humanised version Paull needed to tell a story that made sense to humans and is this good, works well. Occasional confusion and awkwardness is worth it to get the unique, action-packed theocracy.

Selective Accuracy in Fantasy

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Some guy on the Daily Wire reviewing Netflix’s The Witcher: ‘No woman can fight with a sword. Zero women can fight with a sword.’

His complaint is, by the way, inaccurate. Many people have brought up Julie d’Aubigny, a bi opera singer/swordswoman who – among other adventures – attended a ball dressed as a man, kissed a woman, got challenged to a duel over it by three men, beat them all in succession, then went back to the ball.

Everybody knows that, on average, men have a strength advantage. But that’s an average, and besides skill in weaponry is supposed to make it possible to defeat someone who may be stronger than you. His reference to a ‘5 to 10-pound sword’ is also a joke, considering even claymores were around 5.5lb, with most swords much lighter.

More importantly, fantasy isn’t real. That’s sort of the point. Why is this fairly mundane area the point where his suspended disbelief snaps?

In Taking Artistic License I considered times when strict accuracy may or may not be convincing or entertaining. But there seems to be a particular trend for selective demands for accuracy in fantasy, based in reinforcing certain social attitudes. This can be at the expense of actual accuracy, or represent an arbitrary block on imagination:

‘But this historical period…’ Are you absolutely sure? Really, no foreign traders or anything? Nobody’s in the closet? You might be right, in which case fair enough. But if your version of Ancient Greece is completely straight, your research slipped up somewhere.

‘Ah, but in my fictional world of…’ So your worldbuilding has the full details of a steampunk society powered by burning the blubber of sky-whales – daily life, ecology, politics, history, five paragraphs about perfumes made using sky-whale bile. But you can’t (or didn’t choose to) imagine [multiple demographics or alternative social attitudes]

Samantha Shannon pins this down in her essay:

[E]ven in fictional worlds, the oppressed must remain oppressed. Any attempt to do otherwise is evidence of liberal fragility, box ticking, the sanitization of history or the shoehorning of unwelcome “politics” into entertainment. […]

It is typical that the same critics often base “historical accuracy”—both in historical and fantastical stories—on the fiction of a white and heteronormative past. In their minds, people of color, queer people and powerful women only had the nerve to exist in the last couple of centuries. […]

Creators can and have used fantasy to highlight both modern and historical inequalities to great effect, and they must always have the opportunity and space to do that—but, lest we forget, fantasy is not history, and is therefore not beholden to it. It can be exhausting to read about the same racist, homophobic and sexist worlds over and over again.

Fantasy as a genre is rooted in being able to picture radically different realities, where not only history and geography, but the laws of reality itself, can be reshaped from the ground up. So to me there’s something very petty about insisting that issues such as gender have to match with the comparable real-world place and time.

I’m of course not saying that every work of fiction has to be actively progressive, or that there aren’t ham-fisted ways of trying to be that can detract from entertainment or believability. But I can’t relate to the mindset where things like a medieval society being cool with gay people are less believable, and need more justification, than the dragon flying overhead or the dead raised from their graves.

Book Reviews (15)

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Steering the Craft – Ursula Le Guin

‘I want to say up front, it is not a book for beginners. It’s meant for people who have already worked hard at their writing.’

The contents page might suggest this is rather dry and technical – a chapter on sentence length and syntax; another on adjectives and adverbs. But Le Guin writes with clarity, enthusiasm, and dry humour, illustrating points with extracts from varied works and providing plenty of exercises to work with.

We’ve all seen Adverb DiscourseTM, but Le Guin’s statement is better expressed than most: ‘When the quality that the adverb indicates can be put in the verb itself (they ran quickly = they raced) or the quality the adjective indicates can be put in the noun itself (a growling voice = a growl), the prose will be cleaner, more intense, more vivid.’

I wrote a post about her take on conflict.

And look how big-brain this is: ‘I see the big difference between the past and present tenses not as immediacy but as complexity and size of field. […] Use of the past tense(s) allows continual referring back and forth in time and space.’

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Ugh. I gave up just under halfway through.

There was a promising start – glimmers of humour and gorgeous, thoughtful passages suggested smooth sailing ahead. Throughout what I read, there were sections that showed exactly why this might be considered a great classic. These kept me going as long as I did. But there’s just far too much bloat.

Melville loves his semi-colons. Potential neat ideas are stretched and dragged out to hundreds of obsessively expanded words, action is drained of urgency, and long nautical digressions lead nowhere.

With some ruthless editing the early promise would pay off well. As it is, it’s a tiring slog.

Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo

h e l l  y e s

Going from Moby Dick to this is like going from Ambien to crack. Alex Stern, the only survivor and ex-suspect of a bloody crime, is granted a Yale scholarship despite her lacking education due to a traumatic past of truancy and addiction. But she is tasked with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies – users of dark ritual magic for the elite – as a murder on campus threatens to unravel a tenuous balance.

The characters are fantastic: dark, sassy Alex (‘you want seconds?’ Lmao!); dandyish Darlington; scholarly Dawes… The magic and societies are varied, gritty, and lavish, with the power and its dynamics explored to its daunting implications, the ritual scenes written with cinematic flair. The action drives a twisted, breakneck plot.

There’s some intense stuff, so be warned if that’s not for you. Otherwise, highly recommended.

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

This is a lot of fun. Peter Grant, probationary constable, gets a witness statement to a murder from a ghost. From there the case spirals through bizarre violent incidents across London, while a feud brews between the spirits of the Thames and their nymphs from London’s lost rivers, and Grant studies magic under wizard Inspector Nightingale.

The sense of setting is powerful, the magic lessons based on Newton’s systematic development of the field are enjoyable, the diverse cast’s dialogue vivid.

Some sentences felt a little awkward, some small points a bit off – I thought Grant’s scientific, experimental mind didn’t match with C grades. Small quibbles aside, it’s a good blend of adult Harry Potter and CSI with an imaginative, compelling view of London, magic, and crime.

Book Reviews (11)

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Four Roads Cross – Max Gladstone

Back to the Craft Sequence with the sequel to Three Parts Dead. In the wake of what happened there, Kos’s shareholders attempt a hostile takeover while protests, zombie traffickers and demonic incursions rock the city.

Great stuff. Tara develops further in the odd position of Craftswoman for a god in a world where they don’t tend to mix well, while aware that staying in the firm would’ve paid much better. Cat and Raz have fun interactions, and the whole vampirism thing was inspired – really fresh sides to the idea. The farmer’s market subplot and characters were okay, but not quite as interesting.

Gladstone’s fusion of the bizarre and realistic – contracts as magical structures, student debts laying claims on one’s soul, market fluctuations in a fire god’s church threatening global economics – forms an insightful fun-house mirror reflection of reality.

There were little points where I found things weird for the sake of weird, but, as usual, the wildly unique ideas and plot notes tie up into an overall logic with an action-packed conclusion.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

The Allies lost WW2, with the US divided between Japan and Germany. In a neutral buffer zone lives the writer of an underground bestseller, telling a story where the Allies won. The characters deal with everyday life in occupied territory, take part in risky plots, and witness a power vacuum open at the top of the Reich.

The story takes place mainly in the Japanese-run Pacific States of America. The way power relations work in ordinary life here is masterful. The natives hate or fear the ruling Japanese, while adopting their customs and coming to view them as subtly superior. As lives interconnect, reflecting recurring Taoist themes, relatively benign Japanese rule is contrasted with the spectre of Nazism. The Fascist regime is presented as a nihilistic madness which has swept genocide through Europe and Africa, papering over the cracks in its instability with technological grandstanding.

The only character I couldn’t connect with much is Juliana – she seems quite vague, blown about passively by events and the I Ching. Why did she join Joe on that trip, exactly? Maybe I’m missing something, but some of those segments were the few areas where an otherwise deeply considered world and psychological nuance slipped.

The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

Very t h i c c and very good. It’s hard to summarise the plot: a Queendom without an heir, dragons, international ideological conflict, an ancient enemy rising.

Ead has a fantastic arc, sent from the mages of the Priory to secretly protect the initially cold-seeming Queen Sabran. Both of them grow substantially through the novel, while far in the east the dragonrider Tané pursues her ambition, at great risk, through some of the most intriguing and emotive parts of the book. Loth felt like he should have been interesting, but didn’t quite click for me – though the gruff but complicated alchemist Niclays was a strong character.

The core ‘ancient enemy rising’ plot thread tying all this together was the weakest aspect for me. That threat felt distant and amorphous much of the time, coming in rapidly near the end. I liked the mythology, drawing on St George and other lore, and the tension springing from different regions’ perspective on it clashing. But this involved a fair amount of exposition and exposition disguised as dialogue.

The court intrigue, character arcs, and personal and political conflicts are where Priory shines. Those aspects are richly crafted, forming the real heart of the book. Well-developed characters, rivalries, friendships and relationships more than make up for the flaws, with enough compelling drama and fantasy for novels in their own right.

In the Miso Soup – Ryu Murakami (trans. Ralph McCarthy)

Frank, an American tourist, hires Kenji for a guided tour of Tokyo’s seedy nightlife. Kenji swiftly finds himself swept along with Frank’s real murderous desires, in a novel described on the cover as ‘American Psycho – the Holiday Abroad.’

I was expecting a bit of 3edgy5me escapism, but this isn’t gritty so much as grotty. The atmosphere is mainly… empty. Yeah, there are some shocking gory scenes, and some nicely executed tension as Kenji attempts to keep his unpredictable client placated. The overwhelming mood, though, is loneliness and materialism and cultural void.

Sometimes that atmosphere feels thoughtful, as when Kenji muses on the ‘matchmaking pub’ cruddy furniture, the blank face of the man running it, the lonely and desperate characters trying vainly to assert themselves or connect with others. Other times it comes off as bland nihilism, not backed up by deeper engagement with setting or culture or character. I don’t know much about Japan, but this doesn’t feel like a convincing, disturbing portrayal of anywhere. It feels more like Murakami needs to get some sun and lighten up.

I can appreciate certain scenes. But as a whole, this doesn’t feel real enough to be creepy. Frank’s violence doesn’t mean much unless it’s somewhat explicable – rather than a cheap, ‘oh, he’s just insane’. Without more of a human counterpoint – which Kenji’s girlfriend, Jun, was supposed to be, though why is he dating a 16-year-old? – for a contrasting element of substance, the empty mood detracts from the threat.

Bookish Pet Peeves

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I see a lot of ‘pet peeves’ posts complaining about things like insta-love, people letting out breaths they didn’t know they were holding, love triangles, etc. These bug me too when they happen, but they’re not the things I notice most and that get on my nerves most often.

After some thinking, here are five things in books that get my goat but I don’t see mentioned that much.

Bad Fictional Language

This mainly comes up in fantasy – maybe it’s a spell, a character name, a country, a line of dialogue in a fictional language. But it’s just… not constructed right somehow.

I loved Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle when I was younger, but if I skim through the prologue of Eragon again now this is one of the things that pops out at me. ‘The Shade jumped out from behind the tree, raised his right hand, and shouted, “Garjzla!”’

Garjzla? What the hell is that?

OK, the Ancient Language isn’t English and doesn’t have to follow the exact same pronunciation style, granted. But ‘brisingr’ is another word in it, and it just works better.

Difficulty for the sake of it

I can take some difficulty in form and language for the sake of a good effect. Jon McGregor does some cool stuff, Infinite Jest is my jam, I liked Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, that sort of thing.

Sometimes, though, they’re just taking the piss.

Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller was super meta and the concept was great, but it didn’t have to be so thorny and pretentious. I gave up on Henry James’s What Maisie Knew because the bloke forgot how to use full stops properly: every sentence was a whole bunch of clauses, impossible to keep the train of thought together until you get to the end – anyone in that class who finished the thing deserves a medal. Even with Infinite Jest – why did he use ‘aleatory’ when ‘random’ is a perfectly fine word that means literally the same thing?

I can take a bit of a challenge when it pays off, but come on! There’s nothing inherently good about being difficult. If your book has to come with complimentary aspirin and a reader’s guide, that’s a bad thing, you numskull! It doesn’t make you clever!

Weird creepy sex stuff

I’m not opposed at all to books dealing with this side of life. Plenty handle it well and are better for it; and if you like reading romance, that’s not my cuppa but all power to you. But sometimes it’s just the author being unexpectedly weird and creepy out of nowhere. Sometimes books honestly make me worry if their authors are okay, y’know? Like, if I shook their hand I’d have to wash mine.

This was something I complained about in B. Catling’s The Vorrh – I don’t need to know all about a woman made of Bakelite’s kelp-lined vagina, thank you. Move on from that and back to the story.

It comes up most in ‘literary’ books. Ian McEwans Black Dogs is great, but who asks their mother in law about what their late father in law was packing below the belt? That’s not a normal question. I didn’t sign up for this cringe.

I found the ‘TNP’ (don’t ask) stuff in Julian Barnes’s England, England okay, because although it was really weird it actually fit in with the plot and the satirical mood of the book. The brief histories of the MCs sex lives were comparatively more normal, but felt a lot creepier to me with the way it was handled and there for no reason.

J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Factory was the peak of this: pretty much all about a chap jacking it all over a village, literally. And when I looked at the blurb of another book by him in a shop recently, it seemed to be the same thing again. That’s a yikes from me.

Description dumps

We all love to hate infodumps. But its annoying cousin is the description dump, stopping a plot in its tracks to drone on about every detail in the layout of a house, to wax purple prose about how the cold winds coming down from the mountains rustle leaves in front of the house, to describe what a character is wearing in so much detail that I forget what colour their shoes are by the time it’s got up to the species of bird that provided the feather in their hat.

Sometimes extended description can genuinely add something. But a lot of the time, nobody cares. Paint the scene and move on.

Something getting overused

mentioned the constant references to Kerri’s supposedly inconceivably amazing hair in Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids. It’s just hair! Lots of people are ginger, get over it mate!

Or in Jo Walton’s Among Others, a decent book, but hey, what’s the narrator doing now? Oh yeah, she’s reading another book, somehow finding time to devour the entire SFF canon while attending school and dealing with the magic stuff. And now she’s joined a book club!

Or, as in another series I liked when I was younger, Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. What’s the inciting incident in this one? Oh, it’s Wolf missing/in trouble again. Of course it is.

Maybe it’s a phrase the author really likes, maybe it’s a gimmick overstaying its welcome, maybe it’s a weird preoccupation, maybe it’s not trusting the reader to remember something. Gah.

So, five pet peeves. Do these annoy you too?