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The two men shared a look. Finally Breeze spoke. “Lord Ruler knows, I’ve never been one to turn down a challenge. But, Kell, I do question your reasoning. Are you sure we can do this?”

“I’m positive,” Kelsier said. “Previous attempts to throw down the Lord Ruler have failed because they lacked proper organization and planning. We’re thieves, gentlemen – and we’re extraordinarily good ones. We can rob the unrobbable and fool the unfoolable. We know how to take an incredibly large task and break it down to manageable pieces, then deal with each of those pieces. We know how to get what we want. These things make us perfect for this particular task.”

I should explain how my reading speed works. Basically, I need to be interested in the book I’m reading to finish it quickly. For example, the book I have had the hardest time finishing in time for review on this site so far has been Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It bored me silly and I just managed to get my piece published in time, despite it being quite a slim book. So why am I reviewing a book that is over six hundred pages long? I am very interested in Brandon Sanderson. See this is the fellow who has been handed the unenviable task of wrapping up Robert Jordan’s overlong and unwieldy Wheel of Time series. Which I first began reading in 1992. I grew out of the books, but I just want the series to end, so I can find out what happens. So I tackled one of Sanderson’s own books, to see what kind of writer he is.

The story begins with a land shrouded in mists and covered in black ash. The Lord Ruler controls the lands of the so-called Final Empire, his reign over a thousand years old. The people his armies enslaved long ago are known as skaa and they believe him to be nothing less than a god. One night in a regional settlement the cries of a young girl are heard as the provincial lord’s men drag her away. The skaa do nothing. Tired and frightened, they accept that this is the way of things. A stranger who has recently arrived goes out into the night in pursuit. When he does not return the people assume the men who kidnap their daughters killed him as well as the girl. In the morning they awake and find the young child they thought lost returned. The castle has been burned to the ground, the soldiers defending it dead and their lord stabbed to death by the stranger. His name is Kelsier and he is what passes for a hero in these times.

The Lord Ruler’s capital is known as Luthadel and for most of Vin’s short life she has lived on its streets, stealing to survive. Her brother is gone and she is utterly alone. Until Kelsier, the man referred to by the skaa as The Survivor finds her. He invites her to join his crew of thieves, men who work together and even seem to trust one another. What makes her special? Vin, like Kelsier, is a Mistborn, capable of drawing power from diluted solutions of metals and alloys. Allomancy is an ability restricted only to the nobility who serve the Lord Ruler. Any who hide among the skaa and practice these powers are hunted down and killed by the agents of the Final Empire, known as Inquisitors. All of Kelsier’s men have some ability with alomancy and he has a plan. They’re going to pull off the biggest con of all. Collapse the Final Empire itself.

As I was reading, I had this niggling sense of familiarity. A crew of thieves with special powers? A long-con designed to financially cripple a powerful enemy? A hero with a tragic past and a precocious young women with amazing abilities….this is the fantasy version of Inception!(which you can read me kvetching about here and here).

It’s also a post-nationalist fantasy, something of a constant since the time of Tolkien. The setting is mostly urban, you have morally gray heroes and a fantastically bleak premise (the jacket reads ‘What if the Dark Lord won?’) – Sanderson has, unwittingly or not, become a torch-bearer for Moorcock’s revisionist take on the fantasy genre.

Well developed characters, interesting concepts and a climax that actually delivers (this is the first book in a series), I am impressed.

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre  one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).

My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.

Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.

The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.

When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved  that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.

He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.

This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!

Inspiring, truthful and humorous.

At times it felt as though we were playing two different codes. We saw the paddock as an ever-changing pattern of lines. The Irish, on the other hand, saw the field as a sort of steeplechase, covered with low barriers and walls which as far as they were concerned were there to smash into. They believed in luck. They were like kids taking it in turns to kick a pebble down a bumpy road.

We longed to tell them what they were doing wrong.

I have been to two football games in my life. If you think that’s bad, neither game was even the same kind of football. In 2008 I went to see a Sydney Swans game with my cousin playing at home. Years before then, when I was still a child and to be honest I cannot remember now how old I was, my dad brought me to see Ireland’s international rugby team play in Dublin. I cannot remember who the opposing team was, although I have a strong suspicion we lost. When I was a kid, Ireland seemed to lose a lot of games, regardless of the sport. Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France in 1987 was like the second coming of Christ as far as my dad was concerned, more so because the cyclist had broken our pan-sport losing streak.

What I’m getting at is that sport never really figured largely in my life. Yeah I’ve been to the pub to watch a few games, with the Duke off Grafton Street a great venue for a rugby international if you’re that way inclined, but over the years I simply did not take any interest in sport generally. So to find an historical, if poetic, account of the 1905 All Blacks Originals’ campaign not only readable, but gripping, riveting stuff, was something of a shock.

The opening of the book describes the long sea voyage taken by the New Zealand team, travelling up along the coast of South America, before making a break for the Atlantic. The men take to practicing their manoeuvres on deck. Eventually during a break on shore, they return to the vessel with pumpkins to catch and toss. The women passengers on board stick below deck in the saloon where it is nice and warm. The All Blacks can see each other’s faces freezing in the cold, drifting across a vast ocean travelling further and further away from home. Together they are farmers, civil servants, husbands, miners, bankers, factory workers and amateur sportsmen. Their manager George Dixon instructs them in a series of exercises to build up a team dynamic, such as describing the women in their lives, or if they have none, to imagine one based on the traits described by their fellow players. Throughout the book Dixon invents more and more bizarre bonding exercises, until the team becomes a cohesive whole. Finally the shores of England come into view. Many of the men are descended from immigrants who left the British Isles, some more recently than others. It is a strange homecoming, to a place far away from home.

The second half of the book describes the team’s epic series of wins against local clubs and international teams such as England, Scotland and Ireland (although they run into a spot of bother with the Welsh). As their fame grows, the men measure their fame by the numbers drawn to greet them at the train stations, the sophistication of the menus served to them at dinner, or their column inches in the newspapers. Their meteoric popularity soon eclipses other events in the world, such as massacres in Odessa and war in Japan. The men dressed entirely in black are at the centre of the world for the duration of their tour and defeat becomes a rare experience they are almost curious to experience.

Lloyd mixes history with fiction, prose and poetry, to dizzying effect. There is a telling sequence where the All Blacks team are invited to dine with Oxford scholars, who lecture them on different schools of learning (the haka, they are informed, is similar to the war cry of Achilles). Lloyd’s group-mind narrator states –

What we knew

What we understood

Had no beautiful language at its service

Lacked for artists and sculptors

What we knew was intimate

As instinct or memory

That to me is the central point of this book – to make of the game something alike to Art.

Wonderful.

Dimitri Karras and Stephanie Marroulis had dinner at the Thai Room on Connecticut and Nebraska, then went back to Stephanie’s place and watched that cop show everyone liked on TV. Karras noticed that every time they ran out of ideas, the writers would send the main character into a bar so that he could fall off the wagon again for an episode or so. But he liked the show all right. It was something to pass the time.

This book’s blurb carries a quote from Stephen King ‘Perhaps the greatest living American crime writer’. King’s a great man for book blurb quotes, but there is no hyperbole here. After all Pelecanos was one of the writers on The Wire, one of the greatest crime shows on television in recent years (leaving the types of shows described in the quote above in its dust). A show which, I am ashamed to admit, I have yet to make it through the first season. While I do love it, I found myself really caring about the well-realized characters and as I suffer from what Germans call fremdschämen, I am terrified to find out what happens to Kima Greggs after the botched sting. That’s the hallmark of quality in Pelecanos’ writing as well. He makes you care about the lives behind the crime statistics.

In downtown Washington DC, July 1995, three criminals, brothers Frank and Richard Farrow, and karaoke-loving Roman Otis, target a Pizza joint called Mays. The job immediately goes wrong. The gang kill the customers and staff and then shoot a cop alerted by the gunshots. As they speed away in their car, Frank runs over a five-year old boy. Afterwards they dispose of the car and weapons, clean up and go their separate ways. Come January 1998 the case has been declared a cold case, as no evidence pointing to the gang was uncovered. Still Frank has unfinished business in Washington. The cop who confronted them outside Mays shot and killed Richard, though the police never found his brother’s body. Frank crippled the cop that night, but he reckons he’s due more pain.

In the years since the massacre at Mays the family members and loved ones of the victims meet every week at a support group. Dimitri Karras is the father of the boy who was killed by the gang during their getaway. In the years since his marriage broke up, he gave up on his career and his only routine is waiting for the day of the support group to come round again. A family friend approaches private detective Nick Stefanos to help out the bereaved father. Turns out the Karras and Stefanos families go way back, both coming up in the immigrant neighbourhoods of Chinatown in Washington back in the ‘30s. Nick gets his childhood friend a job working in a bar back in the kitchen. Dimitri starts to find his rhythm again, enjoys making new friendships, having a routine that does not focus solely on his grief. Still he can’t forget what happened to his boy, can’t stop thinking that if the opportunity were ever to arise, he would find his son’s killers and let justice be done.

Pelecanos excels in character work and dialogue, but what I really loved about this book was the unofficial soundtrack that runs through each page. The characters joke and poke fun at one another while listening to Motown records, seventies kitsch makes the staff of Karras’ workplace groan, and the go-go music scene native to Washington is touched on. The writer captures a real sense of time and place by discussing styles of music. There is a great scene with karaoke-fan Otis trying to do justice to an Al Green number in a country bar. This murderer and career criminal is left deflated by the experience. In Pelecanos’ fiction we get to know the criminals as well as the cops. Both skirt the moral dividing line and deal in greys instead of black and white.

No lie, I read this book in one sitting. Not only is it a crime drama, this book deals with the morality of justice and the possible comforts offered by the idea of judgement after death. Pelecanos’ Washington is left high and dry by bureaucrats and out-of-state lobbyists and businessmen, with the native populations descended from immigrants left to fend for themselves. The law is not colour-blind.

This is vital, thrilling fiction. Strongly recommended.

He turned to the back of the paper, and studied the advertisements. For sale, one Lilliputian, good needleworker. For sale, two Lilliputians, a breeding couple; one hundred and fifty guineas the pair. For sale, stuffed Lilliputian bodies, arranged in poses from the classics: Shakespeare, Milton, Scott. For sale, prime specimen of the famed Intelligent Equines, late of His Majesty’s Second Cognisant Cavalry; this Beast (the lengthy advertisement went on) speaks a tolerable English, but knows mathematics and music to a high level of achievement. Of advanced years, but suitable for stud.

My first exposure to Jonathan Swift was not Gulliver’s Travels, but his satirical essay A Modest Proposal, an attack on the view held by the English that the Irish were a barbarous people. Let’s just say it spoke to me. When I saw the title of Adam Roberts’ book I was intrigued. How would he go about writing a sequel of sorts to Swift’s most famous work? As it turned out his objective was a broader one than that, touching on several authors during the course of the novel.

Abraham Bates credits himself as a moral man, moved by Christian mercy to plead the case of the Lilliputian people enslaved by the British Empire. It is over a century since Lemuel Gulliver returned from the lands of the so-called ‘Pacificans’, his tales leading to an occupation of those wondrous countries by European nations. The ‘little people’, are now reckoned to number only in the thousands across the whole world as a result of this invasion by ‘big folk’. The British Empire owes their great successes since the invasion to the technological skill of the Lilliputians, gifted with powers of invention due to their miniature size that have led to clockwork wonders. Even still Bates is dismayed by their enslavement and is contacted by an agent of France. In exchange for his assistance, he is promised the swift liberation of the Lilliputian slaves and the overthrow of the British Empire at the hands of an alliance between the French and the Church of Rome.

This is also the story of Eleanor, sold into marriage with an industrialist who business thrives on Lilliputian handiwork. Her mother made the match in order to secure her own lifestyle and Eleanor becomes resigned to her fate. She buries herself in the study of the natural sciences, with reading her sole pleasure, a retreat from the cruelties of the world outside her door. One night following her marriage to Mr. Burton, she witnesses an event that she feels might be turned to her advantage, but shortly thereafter the French invade London, with an advance force of Brobdingnagian Giants laying waste to everything in their path.

The French have yet another weapon to hand. A calculating machine, perfected by one Charles Babbage. When Eleanor and Bates meet, they learn that whoever should control this computational device, could decide the course of the war. Together they race across England, unaware that their world is being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s.

If that’s not a broad enough hint, it soon becomes apparent that Swiftly uses its relationship to Gulliver’s Travels as a skin. In reality the book is a parody of H.G. WellesWar of the Worlds. Through this comparison Roberts draws out the similarities between both writers, equal in their criticism of the British Empire and the brutal hidden histories of civilization. The Brobdingnagians marching across the Channel resemble the Martian Tripods of Welles’ book; there is also a sudden outbreak of pestilence across England.

My one complaint is while the period detail is excellent – religion and the fear of committing some social impropriety are straitjackets to each of the characters; the evolutionary theories of Lamarck are rejected as the ‘Pacificans’ are seen to be proof of God’s plan –  I am frustrated with hints of condescension towards the views of sex held by these characters. One of the pleasures of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle of books is that he made the thoughts and actions of historical figures from the 17c seem modern. Here there’s a mocking tone to Eleanor’s discovery of sexuality (she takes out a book from the library of the mating habits of pigs) and Bates’ tortured excitement at his own desires.

While that made me think less of the overall project, the book is gifted with an excellent premise. In keeping with its Anglo-Frankish conflict it swings from Swiftian to Rabelaisian satire. Fascinating.

It is so important (perhaps the most important of all the Ten Precepts of the pukka sahib) not to entangle oneself in ‘native’ quarrels. With Indians there must be no loyalty, no real friendship. Affection, even love – yes Englishmen do often love Indians – native officers, forest rangers, hunters, clerks, servants. Sepoys will weep like children when their colonel retires. Even intimacy is allowable, at the right moments. But alliance, partisanship, never! Even to know the rights and wrongs of a ‘native’ quarrel is a loss of prestige.

The introduction to this novel describes the desperate attempts by publishers to shield themselves from legal action if too close attention was paid to Orwell’s story. Unlike Animal Farm, or 1984, there was no way to pass the book off as a parable with a political subtext. Always a pragmatic man, Orwell cheerfully signed off on amendments to the text, although this led to lithographic errors that enraged him. The story features a newspaper named the Burmese Patriot. For the American edition, the author proposed it be renamed the Burmese Sinn Feiner. This speaks to the bloody-minded humour of Orwell, eagerly employing truth as a bludgeon.

The story begins with the corrupt bureaucrat U Po Kyin, a sub-divisional Magistrate of the Burmese town of Kyauktada. He has climbed up the rungs of power through deceit and a willingness to destroy the reputations of his rivals. His conniving nature is such that he is known to take bribes from both parties in a legal dispute and then resolve the matter on the facts presented. This incongruously has led to him becoming known for a curious kind of impartiality. U Po Kyin has decided the only obstacle to further advancement is his superior, the British Empire loving Dr Veraswami. The doctor is well-known and has almost become an equal to the Europeans who run the businesses in the town. Immediately the rival for the doctor’s social status begins spreading rumours and lies designed to bring the good man low.

Meanwhile the European Club of Anglo-Indian ex-patriates is thrown into dismay when their chair Mr McGregor announces that they are to vote on the matter of inviting a ‘native’, to join their select group. The most vocal opponent to the proposal is Mr. Ellis, a hateful bigot who is thrown into apoplexy at the mere thought of racial equality. Flory, a more impartial member, keeps his council, but is known by the others to be a friend to Dr. Veraswami and is accused by Ellis of being a traitor to the British Empire. Flory is also warned by his ‘native friend’, that U Po Kyin will conspire against him if he becomes too great a threat. Prepared to leave well enough alone, the self-pitying timber merchant takes no direct action, until the arrival of Elizabeth Lackersteen, a niece of one of the club members. Delighted by her apparent education and experience of the Parisian bohemian scene, Flory tries to introduce her to the sights and sounds of Kyauktada, hoping to enchant her enough that she will agree to be his wife. Much as he wishes to be free of the society of ‘pukka sahibs’, though, the broad-minded Englishman is unprepared for the danger waiting for him. Hoping to live equally in two worlds, he finds himself abandoned by both.

Anthony Burgess once proposed that Orwell’s vision of Big Brother and Ingsoc was originally meant to occur closer to the date of publication in 1949. By setting the action in the far off future of nineteen eighty four, the threat posed was lessened. In Burmese Days the threat is very much close to the heart of the British Empire.

This is a condemnation of their behavior towards the indigenous peoples of occupied lands. Flory and the doomed Dr Veraswami engage in a recurring debate as to the nature of the British regime. Flory describes it as theft conducted on a massive scale. The blinkered Veraswami assures his British friend that everything good in Burma has come from their conquerors. Both men criticize their homelands in favour of the other. Both are outsiders, belonging nowhere.

There is a blackly comic tone to the proceedings (Flory rescues Elizabeth from a docile buffalo; Orwell includes a scathing description of her bohemian past in Paris), but also a sense of anger given full force. The muted tragedy of the last sentence of the book leaves the reader feeling hollow and cold. Visceral and brilliant.

While she’s in the toilet

I check out her books,

On the shelf

thick books

fresh-smelling paper

academic stuff.

A muddle of novels

by the bed

French and South American

no thrillers, no crap.

Detective novels have a fairly set format. This is why they can be dismissed in such an offhand manner by critics on occasion. They are the definition of formulaic, and no amount of true life mysteries, vampires, sf future noir settings or even Hippo detectives can change that. The stories all begin to look the same from a certain remove. So Dorothy Porter’s solution is to write her detective tale entirely in verse!

Jill is an ex-cop who has moved into private investigation. Living out in the Blue Mountains she just barely manages to pay her bills, but she likes the quiet life. Eventually Jill’s finances force her to take on a missing person case. Nineteen year old Mickey Norris is a poetry-loving student, just another shy girl with ambitions of finding a patron and fame. Her parents are worried, but Jill reckons it will be a simple case. She travels to the college Mickey attends and questions her friends about her lifestyle. They all give the same report. Mickey was a quiet, retiring nondescript sort, who had recently discovered poetry.

Then Jill meets Mickey’s tutor Diana, who proves to be something of a distraction from the case. Married to an ambitious legal eagle Nick, she seems way out of the world weary private eye’s league, but surprisingly the two begin a torrid affair. Jill enters Diana’s more refined world of academic scandals and hobnobbing at book launches, feeling out of place and even slightly vulgar. Is this nothing more than a silly fling for Diana? Jill’s feelings continue to grow until she loses all perspective on the case. Then the police find Mickey’s body.

Detectives deal in simple, hard facts. Detective stories must contend with the dry, logical structure of deduction and the prose employed in these tales reflect that. Porter’s story opts for slippery free verse, embracing an Otherness in keeping with its lesbian protagonist to set it apart from plodding flatfoots and shamuses.

Porter also is having quite a lot of fun at the expense of ligging poets and pretentious artists. By adopting the standard plot of a detective novel, with the hero descending into a criminal world to avenge the death of an innocent, the literary scene is transformed into hellish trap for the young and beautiful, exploited by the corrupt and venal.

It is a funny little joke and Porter’s erotic content adds a frisson of excitement to the proceedings. Overall though I found the book a bit too cool, too detached. This is an assembled satire that lacks the necessary earthy punch of the best kind of mockery. Still worth a gander though.

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