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The members of Ramsey’s safari have gained a story they’ll tell for the rest of their lives. It will prompt some of them, years from now, to search for each other on Google and Facebook, unable to resist the wish-fulfillment fantasy these portals offer: What ever happened to…? In a few cases, they’ll meet again to reminisce and marvel at one another’s physical transformations, which will seem to melt away with the minutes.

I have a tendency to avoid literary award nominees (and goodness, I feel sorry for anyone mentioned in Christopher Priest’s rant about the Arthur C. Clarke award!) but this Pulitzer-winner was recommended to me by no less august a figure than Joseph Reich himself. So I figured I’d give it a lash.

If you’re curious what sold me on the book, it was the mention of Egan having written a chapter as a powerpoint presentation. Turns out I’ve already reviewed a book by the author – The Keep – which I enjoyed, so I felt comfortable cracking the spine on this book.

A Visit From The Goon Squad dips into the lives of a series of interrelated characters over a non-linear sequence of time. As such we only briefly get to ‘meet’ these people, but their associations with one another bring them to life. The one constant throughout the book is music. These characters are aspiring punks, record company employees, PR gurus, failed rockstars.

The chapter by chapter hops, skips and jumps through time (Nathalie Sarraute how’re ya!) capture beautifully that sense we have of our lives passing by. Even in the moment itself, the very same moment that in years later becomes a totemic symbol for what came after – or the road not taken – it can feel as if that intangible sense of now is already slipping away.

What also works quite well is how the enthusiasm of youth versus the bitterness of weary experience is captured in Egan’s Venn diagram of lives. That same enthusiasm and disappointment lends itself to a certain pretentious turn of phrase and what I love is how pretension is touched on without the book itself being pretentious.

Yes, even the Power Point presentation chapter.

So thankfully this book did not feel like trudging through Don DeLillo‘s Underworld again. The focus on music is a clever away of providing a linking structure that neatly avoid portentousness, affording even a lightness of touch.

Unfortunately the very concluding chapter of the book lost me. I think it was because for the duration of the book there was this brilliant drawing of parallels between the different time periods linked only by music – characters aging and then suddenly whiplashed back into youth on the page – there was this sense of commonality. This was then oddly subverted by the last section of the book nominally set in what is presumably ‘now’. Here Egan suddenly introduces the idea of language itself changing. Of course the notion of text speak somehow replacing the English language is not a new idea. From those deathless office emails with the subject line ‘Cna Yuo Raed Tihs?’ all the way back to post-Enlightenment era French campaign to preserve the sanctity of the French language itself from mongrel lexical mutations, there’s been this repeated concern that language itself is somehow becoming less.

Which is of course nonsense. I wonder if what was intended was that the textspeak, like the Power Point presentation, becoming meaningful and full of emotion shows that this constancy will remain even as these characters live and die. Their experiences, so flush with significance for them personally, are but passing moments in time. The book’s title is tellingly referenced by the recurring phrase ‘Time is a goon’, cleverly summing up the intangible sense of harshness about mortality. Music is the perfect metaphor for that sense of passing. This is a brilliantly written book and Egan is to be praised for not indulging in po-faced musings on mortality. Sadness and joy ebbs and flows from page to page.

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

“There was an incident,” he said. “A series of incidents, I guess. A dead guy, another dead guy. Some drugs. It’s kind of a long story. Now we can see things. Sometimes. I have a dead cat that follows me around, wondering why I never feed it. Oh, and I had one hamburger that started mooing when I ate it.” He glanced at me. “You remember that?”

I grunted, said nothing.

It wasn’t mooing, John. It was screaming.

John Dies At The End was originally a story serialised on a website. Then it was published as a book. Now it’s about to be released as a movie, directed by Don Coscarelli who made Phantasm and is therefore a very cool person in my book. Here have a look at the trailer. My high concept for the story is William Burroughs rewrites Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It made me laugh, a lot. More impressive though is that it also managed to disturb me with the implied horrors bubbling along beneath the comic banter between our hero David Wong and his friend John.

As David is telling the story of his adventures – actually during the course of an interview with a reporter named Arnie – we learn that his name has been changed to make him harder to find, presumably by the obsessive fans who follow his adventures online given his growing reputation as a combater of supernatural threats. See one night David and his friend John – also not his real name – were at a concert in the town of Undisclosed (many of the details in the story are redacted for legal reasons) when they encountered a strange fellow pretending to be Jamaican and supplying folks with a drug called Soy sauce. It was a hallucinogen, those who took it experienced visions, heightened senses – as well as death. Overnight almost every person who met the fake Jamaican had died mysteriously, except for John.

The two friends quickly realized that Soy sauce is not just a drug. Following their exposure – David accidentally manages to inject himself – they become aware of strange creatures massing on the borders of this dimension. The end of the world is coming and its only hope is two confused video-store clerks who don’t really understand what is going on.

Much like House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, John Dies At The End cleverly embraces the capacity of the internet to spread stories. Through the course of the book we learn that David and John are becoming more famous, a neat parallel for the growing interest in the book itself online.  This is also the source of the story’s greatest strength. By rooting itself in the commonplace weirdness of the internet – every possible combination of aliens, demons, magic and superscience is just a google search way – the book apes an almost convincing plausibility. The seeming personal testimony of Wong, the pseudonym of Cracked.com contributor Jason Pargin, is also a nice gimmick.

However, the story also has a number of poignant moments surrounding death and our awareness of our mortality. It pop-nihilism, stripping away the ponderousness of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu-beasties but retaining the crushing awareness of our cosmic insignificance, is surprisingly compelling. There is a lot of laughter to be found in these pages, but also a creeping sense of dread.

Finally it must be said the ending for this book, a book which is relentless in its foreshadowing of endings, is simply perfect. I cannot wait to see the movie.

John Dies At The End by David Wong

In any event, there is one conclusive answer to “it’s only a movie.”

That answer is: You’ve already bought a book whose whole purpose is to discuss meaning and consequence in the Star Wars Universe! Everybody who contributed, from accuser to defender, believes there is something worth arguing about. We’ll do it because the topic matters, or because it’s fun to argue, or because we’re being paid to argue. Most likely, all three.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking to Alexandre O. Philippe, director of The People Vs George Lucas (interview for Filmink magazine here). The film itself is well worth checking out, as it perfectly captures the – to outsiders – seemingly inexplicable fanrage of Star Wars devotees. However, even if the rantings and ravings on camera are not something viewers can relate to, a person would be very hard-pressed to claim they had no idea what Star Wars was, or who George Lucas is, or even – what is the Force? So from that point of view, it is difficult to write off the science fiction franchise as being ‘just for kids’, although on the opposite extreme it is equally hard to insist that it is actually a twentieth century monomyth with a straight face.

Confusingly Lucas himself has made both claims. That is just a hint of how contradictory the man’s relationship with Star Wars is.

Star Wars on Trial amusingly sticks to a court-room cross examination of the franchise itself, its strengths and failings, and the effect it has had upon the various industries swallowed up by Lucas’ empire. David Brin, following on from his evisceration of The Phantom Menace in 1999 for Salon, argues for the prosecution. Matthew Woodring Stover, also a science fiction writer, is our plucky court-appointed defence lawyer.

Perhaps that is where the problem lies with this book. Brin is presenting a critique of a series of films and their subsequent spin-off materials on the understanding that this is an intellectual exercise. Stover appears to think he is in Law and Order. The banter between the two ‘opposing counsels’ starts off being amusing, but as the argument progresses, the Lucas loyalist seems worryingly earnest, becoming insulting even at times. To wit, his attempt to frame Jeanne Cavelos’ excellent piece ‘How the Rebel Princess and the Virgin Queen Became Marginalized and Powerless in George Lucas’s Fairy Tale’, as an appeal for overt onscreen cruelty towards female characters (this is in response to the complaint that the heroine Padmé dying of a broken heart is dubious at best in this technologically sophisticated universe).

The witnesses are themselves writers or cultural theorists, who present their evidence and are then questioned by Brin or Stover. Amusingly a ‘Droid Judge’ presides over these interactions. The topics argued include the political subtext of the series, its status as science fiction – Brin argues that it is fantasy literature in drag, the would-be mythic significance of Lucas’ work, alleged plot-holes, mischaracterisation of women within the franchise and finally its legacy for the film industry.

This book has one undeniable highlight for me, a moment of pure ‘gotcha’ brilliance. For years I have heard that the Force draws upon Buddhism, Taoism, y’know that whole ‘Eastern’ lark, to pad out its pseudo-religious significance. Witness for the prosecution John C. Wright disabuses Stover of that notion quite brilliantly during the cross-examination. Robert A. Metzger mounts an especially, uh, interesting defence, arguing that Lucas has actually created a work of Gnostic significance. I found that quite fun, but hardly convincing.

One point that is made, and relates particularly to Stover who has written novelizations of the films, is that this ‘Lucas empire’ has provided a lot of writers and creators starting out with excellent opportunities. However, the counter-argument is that this in turn has led to a monopolization of both film and publishing, with science fiction itself sandbagged by the imagery and concepts of Star Wars, excluding ideas and concepts too alien for a galaxy far far away.

Overall I found this to be an intriguing and entertaining dialogue on Star Wars, but also an occasionally frustrating one. Thankfully it is more thoughtful and well-reasoned than your average chatroom debate though.

Star Wars on Trial

“I’ve been trying to get through this damn book again.” Ardee slapped at a heavy volume lying open, face down, on a chair.

“The Fall of the Master Maker,” muttered Glokta. “That rubbish? All magic and valour, no? I couldn’t get through the first one.”

“I sympathise. I’m onto the third and it doesn’t get any easier. Too many damn wizards. I get them mixed up with one another. It’s all battles and endless bloody journeys, here to there and back again. If I so much as glimpse another map I swear I’ll kill myself.”

Oh Joe Abercrombie – you kidder!

This concluding chapter to the fantasy series The First Law does an excellent job of refusing to compromise the intent of its author. From the initial entry The Blade Itself Abercrombie has tweaked the noses of fantasy literature. I have been following this series from the beginning of my blog and I must admit reading back over the reviews, by the second title Before They Are Hanged, the joke was wearing a bit thin for me. However, by Last Argument of Kings the energy has definitely returned and the story comes to an ending both fulfilling and devastating.

There are no easy answers in this fantasy and this is something I really admire about the books.

Glokta remains the favourite character from the bunch, returning to his homeland now fatally compromised by the events in the siege of Dagoska. For a man whose justification for his actions in the service of his king, torturing and murdering suspects as a member of the Inquisition, rest upon a certainty that he is in the right given his suffering at the hands of the enemy Gurkish this is a maddening dilemma. If he now too is guilty of treason, how is he any different than his victims? Logen returns from a failed quest still unredeemed, desperately hoping he can become a better man. Realizing he has no choice he returns to the North, where most of his former friends believed he is long dead. In truth they had hoped The Bloody Nine had finally died, known for his propensity for killing friends and enemies in the midst of a bloodlust. Jezal returns from that same quest as Logen welcomed back as a hero. Wishing only to have the chance to live  a normal life, following a humiliating experience outside of Adua, instead the manipulative mage Bayaz is positioning him to fill a very special role in the kingdom.

War has come. The Gurkish have finally invaded the mainland. A rebellion against the lords has been stirred up. Bethod’s armies in the North are occupying Colonel West’s forces, which are desperately needed at home. Our heroes between them must beg, borrow and steal the means of winning an uncertain peace.

Where this book excels is in its frustration of the fantasy novel trope of a final conflict resolving all plot threads. Instead here Abecrombie makes it clear that these events are part of a recurring pattern. The real conflict is between those, like Bayaz, who recognize this, and those who feel that an end is something worth sacrificing for.

This is a very entertaining and clever narrative and Abercrombie deserves all the praise for fashioning an unromantic fantasy series. This is great fun.

Last Argument of Kings

Beatitude by Larry Closs

Besides all the circumstantial similarities, I thought that Jay actually looked a little like Kerouac, the Kerouac who stared from the black-and-white photographs on the covers of his various books. Same dark hair. Same strong handsome face. Some sad soulful eyes. But there was something that went beyond the physical resemblance. Something that sprang from somewhere inside, something sensed but not seen. A tenderness.

I was very flattered to be asked by Lori from TNBBC to take part in this book tour. For one it feels good to support indie writing, but also the main subject matter of Beatitude happens to concern the ‘Beat’ poets, which is a period I do have a certain fascination with. Particularly now, as the novelty and estrangement of the Beats has faded, so their reassessment in present-day is proving to be quite interesting. Already I’ve reviewed two contrasting examples of this here on the site – Huncke by Rick Mullin and Sideways: Travels With Kafka, Hunter S. and Kerouac by Patrick O’Neill

Author Larry Closs has larger ambitions beyond simply reassessing these works. His character Harry Charity is described at one point in the book as being someone who thinks too much and indeed the story of Beatitude itself charts not only his fascination with the life of Jack Kerouac – the meaning behind his writing, the people in his life, even the kinds of typewriters he used to furiously pound out his intensely personal vision – but how he allows this near-obsession to become intertwined with his own feelings for someone he loves dearly. He pores over footnotes from the biographies of his literary heroes just as avidly as he does the stolen moments he shares with the kindly Jay. The opening scene of Harry and Jay witnessing the unveiling of a preserved work of Kerouac is comparable to pilgrims visiting a shrine. If both men share this strong devotion to the writing of Kerouac, is it not possible that this passion could translate into love for one another?

Harry works as an editor for a successful New York magazine, lives in his Upper West Side apartment with his cat Flannery and in the wake of successive occasions of heartbreak refuses to socialize with colleagues and friends. Life alone is manageable. Then he meets a new member of the design team, Jay, and following an awkward promise to join him at a party – much to the surprise of the other co-workers in the office – Harry finds himself falling for his new found friend. Their shared interest in Kerouac encourages his feelings and the two fall into an easy pattern of reminiscing about the Beats, exchanging trivia and discussing their own artistic ambitions. When Jay’s relationship with his girlfriend hits a bump, Harry dares to hope that something more lies behind the couple’s problems.

The marginalization of the Beats and their descriptions of fluid sexuality in a time when discussions of sex acts themselves were taboo – cf the Howl obscenity trial – was no doubt an aspect of their notoriety. But Harry at one point advances another theory as to what made the Beats special, arguing in a clever title-drop moment that ‘beatitude’ is what Kerouac thought was the real meaning behind the word used to describe him and his peers. “To be Beat was to be in love with life, to exist in a state of beatitude, to exist in a state of unconditional bliss.” While he knows this information, applying its wisdom to his own life takes Harry much longer. His infatuation with Jay is soon paralleled with a previous doomed love affair, revealing why Harry is so emotionally wounded when we first meet him. As he slowly but surely warms to life once more, discovering the means to not only express his feelings but his thoughts in an artistic fashion, Beatitude becomes a richer and more hopeful story about moving on.

Intimate and moving, and with its 90’s setting presenting the tail-end of the Beat generation’s presence on the public stage, Larry Closs has written an intriguing fable about people can sometimes become confused by the intensity of their passions.

Please continue to the next stage of this blog tour to Mandy of Mandythebookworm’s Blog to read Larry Closs’ article Two Roads Diverged: How the Beats did and didn’t inspire Beatitude.

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“Do you like to read books, Bran?” Jojen asked him.

“Some books. I like the fighting stories. My sister Sansa likes the kissing stories, but those are stupid.”

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only once. The singers of the forest had no books. No ink, no parchment, no written language. Instead they had the trees, and the weirwoods above all. When they died, they went into the woods, into leaf and limb and root, and the trees remembered. All their songs and spells, their histories and prayers, everything they knew about this world.”

This review has been a long time coming. I complained often to friends that I could barely remember A Feast of Crows, the last book in this series which was published over six years ago. I trusted in George R.R. Martin‘s abilities as a writer to suck me back into the action, given that the plots and backdrops to A Song of Ice and Fire are so impressively constructed.

Interestingly in A Dance With Dragons Martin resolves the split he introduced in previous volumes, with successive books focusing on a specific selection of characters and then the opposing points of view of others being presented in the next. Here we follow up on Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon Snow for the initial half of the book, but afterwards we catch up with Arya Stark and Cersei Lannister among others. Having resolved his arbitrary divide between the North and South geographical locations of these characters in order to split the material, the action finally begins to move forward.

But oh this is a long, hard read.

Part of the issue for me was that while the first books had these conflicting points of view on the series of events – which was a nice approach – the latest in the series have been see-sawing back and forth along a fictional timeline. It is quite confusing. Another issue is that either I am wearing rose-tinted glasses as far as my recollection of these previous entries in A Song of Ice and Fire, or Martin’s writing is a lot more miserabilist. For starters there is the unremitting torture and humiliation of the character Theon Greyjoy, who has gone from a ward of the Stark family (in effect a well-treated hostage), to the abused catspaw of the bloodthirsty Ramsay Snow. The chapters that relate to Reek – the name Theon is forced to adopt – are very disturbing and difficult to read. Then there is our favourite anti-hero Tyrion, traumatised by having murdered his own father and on the run to the East. Mutilated and half-demented, the quick-witted dwarf is a long way from the cynical yet oddly decent character he was first introduced as. Then there is Daenerys whose efforts at running a kingdom have left her at the mercy of competing power factions and untrustworthy advisors.

It is a credit to Martin that I feel so invested in this story, but it took me quite a while to finish it. The picture being painted here of the ‘game of thrones’ that threatens to swallow whole continents in war and destruction is vast. Increasingly however I am coming to understand why historical epics so often gloss over the scope and realities of conflict, instead introducing a sometimes insipid plot involving a small selection of characters caught in the middle of these events. Martin is trying to encompass every facet of the plot that he has unraveled, but it feels overwhelming. The taste of grit from the brutal and short lives of these people never leaves, which increases the feeling of an uphill battle to get to the last page. The sequence involving the army of Stannis Baratheon, snowed under and starving, was especially grim and the book ends with their fates seemingly sealed.

It is not all misery though. I was happy to see Davos the Onion Knight return to the book and am very excited to see Liam Cunningham play him in the second season of Game of Thrones (as discussed here on my Blue Jumper podcast). It was also great to get some story progression on Cersei and Arya, two of my favourite characters in the series in fact.

Overall though this is a troublesome read. I’m enjoying Joe Abercrombie a lot more at the moment, it is sad to say.

‘Does it bother you not at all to bind ghosts?’ he asked at last. His thumb slid across the knuckles of her left hand, not quite touching the ring. ‘To enslave them? Not even spirits, but the souls of your own kind.’

‘Every ghost I’ve bound committed crimes that would see living men imprisoned or executed. You wouldn’t let a living man who tortured or murdered his family go free – why let him do such things in death?’

His lips twisted. ‘I know many torturers and murderers who walk free, and I suspect you do too. Even so, it still seems…cruel.’

Ah memories. This time last year I was still pumping out reviews every day, even during the festive season. Now I have the luxury of taking my time with my reading – too much time some of you might be thinking. Just the other week I was browsing in Kinokuniya and decided that I wanted to read a fantasy book written by a woman. Perhaps that strikes you as a strange prerequisite, but to my mind the success of Twilight and its ilk proves that there is a huge demand for fantasy literature among women, but the stereotype of the basement dwelling male fan persists. In many respects The Drowning City challenges those preconceptions of fantasy literature, a point I will return to below.

Isyllt Iskaldur is a secret agent from the kingdom of Selafai who travels openly as a necromancer to the occupied territory of Symir. Her mission is to undermine the expansionist Empire that rules the city. The Assari conquerors are resented by the native people of Symir as well as the unquiet dead and it seems all she will need to do is fund the efforts of the revolutionary movement that seeks to topple the occupiers and her task will be complete.

Complications, however, soon ensue. One of her party shortly after their arrival becomes troubled by the nature of their mission and is tempted to defect to the rebels. What’s more, there are schisms within the movement itself, with a group known as Dai Tranh favouring more extreme methods that threaten the lives of the occupiers as well as the native inhabitants of Symir. Then there is her abilities as a necromancer suddenly becoming highly in demand, as spirits are rising up out of anger at the occupation they died fighting to prevent and possessing the bodies of their descendents. Finally Isyllt encounters an imperial mage named Asheris, whom she suspects is himself a double-agent of some kind. In setting in motion the plot of her masters to cripple the Assari Empire, has Isyllt only succeeded in wiping out a city of innocents instead?

What I find fascinating about Downum‘s vision is her fusion of Sino-Arabian influences. The Assari broadly parallel the Ottoman Empire, whereas the culture of Symir is devoutly concerned with spirits and the revering of ancestors. Isyllt encounters a devouring spirit known as a ganghi, a concept similar to Chinese ‘hungry ghosts‘.

This is a welcome inversion on typical fantasy tropes founded on Anglo-European mythology and folktales. I have discussed often on this site the debt modern fantasy owes to Tolkien’s raiding of Saxon and Nordic myths. The Drowning City goes so far as to feature a climax familiar to fans of The Lord of the Rings. Of course the inversion of the X-Y axis of fantasy continues with the genders of these characters, most of whom are female as opposed to the stock standard sword-wielding male bruisers weighing down the shelves in your local store’s fantasy section with their overly detailed biceps.

If I had a complaint about The Drowning City it would be that the points of view of characters chop and change within chapters quite rapidly, with nary a telltale paragraph symbol. I suppose the crests and emblems of Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin have left me spoiled in that respect.

This remains a confident and fascinating mixture of storytelling and worldbuilding. The first book of Downum’s series The Necromancer Chronicles, I look forward to the continuing adventures of Isyllt. Betrayal, political intrigue, magic and fraught romance – Downum delivers it all.

The Drowning City by Amanda Downum

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