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Review: The Departure, by Neal Asher [Mar. 3rd, 2014|02:04 am]
bookish - a book critique community

ed_rex

'Steaming like raw meat dropped onto a hot stove'

Image: Cover of The Departure, by Neal Asher

It's not news that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I have a soft spot for space opera; I confess, the big space base (which I initially mistook for a starship of some sort) adorning the cover of Neal Asher's novel, The Departure, helped sell me on it.

As it turned out though, The Departure hardly qualifies as space-opera and only squeaks by as science fiction pretty much the way Superman does: on technicalities only.

Though it's set in the future and some of the action takes place in orbit and on Mars, the book is really just a narrated first-person shooter dressed up in some SF tropes — a corrupt and incompetent world government, artificial intelligence, robotic weapons and a transhuman genesis.

But all that is only window-dressing. That spectacular cover is a gateway to lugubrious dialogue, sophomoric libertarian philosophy, hackneyed world-building and, especially, to one pornographic blood-bath after another.

The Departure is one of the worst books I have read in a very long time. More boring than Atlas Shrugged (which I reviewed a while back), it drips with just as much contempt for ordinary human beings. Unlike Rand's John Galt though, Asher's superman does much of his killing at first-hand.

Does this novel have any redeeming qualities? The short answer is "no". The long answer lives behind this link.

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Review: Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens [Jan. 22nd, 2013|04:28 am]
bookish - a book critique community

ed_rex

The last word on the last words of Christopher Hitchens

Mortality keeps atheism's faith, but falters in the delivery

 
The Winter 2012/2013 issue of the magazine Humanist Perspectives published my review of the late Christopher Hitchens' last book, Mortality.

Naturally, all of you who can find a copy at your local newsstand should rush right out and buy a copy of the magazine before it's gone forever.

But for those who won't (or can't), I have now posted said review on my website.

The TL/DR version is this.

Mortality's eight brief chapters are typical Hitchens. Often caustic, sometimes thoughtful, occasionally even moving, Hitchens' uncompromising look at his affliction with cancer has some lovely moments. The chapter on intercessory prayer (there were Christians praying for the recovery of the outspoken atheist, but at least as many were praying for his death and subsequent eternal torture in the Lake of Fire) is particularly strong. Even in his last days Hitchens remained an entertaining and sometimes even moving polemicist. But he was by no means a deep thinker.

Too often, Hitchens takes the easy road, scoring cheap points and relying on his delivery, rather than rigorous thinking, to make his argument. In his introduction, Vanity Fair's Editor, Graydon Carter, notes that Hitchens, awash in scotch, could bang out a serviceable column in an hour. A rather impressive feat, but one wonders what the man could have accomplished if the words hadn't come, quite, that easily to him.

Cut short by his death, Christopher Hitchens might have been better served had these final essays been left to the impermanent pages of back issues of Vanity Fair or the more permanent, but less tangible, archives of the internet.

As always, comments here or on my site are more than welcome. Was Christopher Hitchens a hero, a villain, or just another too-erudite and too-emotional Englishman who loved a good fight almost as much as he enjoyed his cigarettes and liquor?

The full review lives at ed-rex.com/reviews/books/hitchens_mortality.

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Review: Stargazer, Volume Two - by Von Allan [May. 9th, 2012|02:30 am]
bookish - a book critique community

ed_rex

The girls, the monster and the Artifact!

More than a year ago I reviewed the first half of what I thought then was a "gentle" children's adventure, Stargazer, by Ottawa indie cartoonist Von Allan. I bought the concluding sequel back in December if memory serves, but circumstances didn't see me get to it until now.

A black and white comic book featuring three pre-pubescent girls in the role of unlikely heroines, Stargazer features a Magic Doorway in the tradition of Alice's rabbit-hole and Narnia's wardrobe (and the Starship Enterprise's warp drive, for that matter).

But what seemed a "gentle adventure" in its first half, proves to be a considerably more spicy brew in its second. What seemed to be turning into an exercise of that hoary old "And then she woke up!" cliché becomes something very different — and very memorable — by the time the story is over.

A little rough-hewn, Stargazer nevertheless has considerable virtues. This story of friendship and loss just might be a gateway drug to comics for that young boy or (especially) girl in your life — but keep a kleenex handy. My full review lives on my site, ed-rex.com/reviews/books/stargazer_volume_two.

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Review: Well of Sorrows, by Benjamin Tate [Jan. 12th, 2012|01:14 am]
bookish - a book critique community

ed_rex
Cover to Well of Sorrows, by Benjamin Tate

I hate coming down hard on books by relatively unknown writers; given my 'druthers, I'd much prefer to pass over them in silence. At the same time, if a writer goes to the trouble of sending me a review copy (even an electronic copy), it seems disrespectful to ignore it.

So I've struggled with this review, and not only because I have been "friends" with the author (or rather, with his pseudonym) on Livejournal for a while, but because it became clear in the reading that Benjamin Tate's heart is very much in the right place.

Well of Sorrows tries hard to play with, and even to reverse, many of epic fantasy's tired tropes. The protagonist is more peace-maker than warrior, and in plays of scenes of glorious battle we are given the blood and the shit and the brutality of hand-to-hand combat.

Unfortunately, good intentions alone don't make for good art. Well of Sorrows suffers from shallow characterization, structural confusion and world-building that is not remotely convincing. Click here for my full review (hardly any spoilers).

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Review - Crysis: Legion, by Peter Watts [Aug. 10th, 2011|06:32 pm]
bookish - a book critique community

ed_rex

 

As you might know, I've been serially reviewing the latest Torchwood series, a work that (I presume) is as much the product of Russell T Davies' personal vision as is possible in an inherently collaborative medium.

So it is rather difficult to ignore the irony, that there is more credible social commentary, more humour and more excitement in Peter Watts' 300 page adaptation of a first-person-shooter video game, which (again, I presume) was written strictly for the money, than there has been in the first five hours of Davies' brain-child.

Watts' story, about a an accidental cybernetic soldier's brief campaign on a ruined island of Manhattan a scant 12 years in our future is also fairly rigorous science fiction, as one might expect from the "reformed marine biologist", but probably not from a novel about a super-soldier and his mysterious battle-armour.

If Crysis: Legion is not quite the follow-up to his 2006 hard-SF masterpiece, Blindsight one might have wished for, it's a better book than one has any reason to expect of a media tie-in.

Click here for "Strange bed-fellows". Some spoilers may occur.

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Review: All the Lives He Led, by Frederik Pohl [May. 28th, 2011|01:06 pm]
bookish - a book critique community

ed_rex

All the covers I ruined

I have a confession. Back in the lonely days of my early adolescence, I spent a lot of my free time haunting bookstores and there developed a peculiar and unsavoury habit. Not shop-lifting, but vandalism.

I had it in for Fred Pohl's brilliant novel of missing aliens and absent lovers, Gateway. Y'see, the Del Rey paperback (pictured at right) was, to put it bluntly, crap. Usually, simply opening the book wide enough to scan the middle pages was enough to detach the cover from the book's spine.

At a buck-ninety-five a copy I thought Del Rey owed its readers something better, and so made it my mission to open every copy in every bookstore I entered. I was, I self-justified, protecting my fellow readers from shoddy merchandise and, maybe, encouraging the publisher to try again. It must have worked, as I don't think Gateway has ever been out of print.

Little did I know that some years later circumstances would see me become friends with Pohl's former wife Judy Merril, or that she would one day introduce me to him at a conference she had been involved in organizing in Toronto.

That meeting didn't go so well. Though we huddled together in a doorway while sharing a smoke, I didn't want to bore him by telling him how much I'd enjoyed Gateway and Man Plus and Jem and The Space Merchants and that I had the advantage of him because I had also read his autobiography, The Way the Future Was. Worse, I was even worse with small-talk than I am now, and Pohl didn't seem to think it necessary either.

We grunted about the lousy weather and that was about it. But I digress.

In 1979, Pohl had been a professional for 40 years. When I met him in person he had been at it for about 50 and seemed to me, if not quite ancient, then certainly old. He was tall but stooped, his body showing signs of that inevitable surrender to entropy and gravity that faces all who live long enough to endure it.

In 2011, Pohl has been a pro for more than 70 years and is not only regularly writing a Hugo-winning blog, he is still writing fiction.

And so I recently scrounged up the coin to pick up his latest book — in hard-cover, no less. And frankly, given my recent experiences with paying good money for one lousy book or another I put down my money kind of nervously.

So I am doubly-pleased to be able to say that All the Lives He Led is one of the best SF novels — best novels — I've read in a while and with nary a rocket ship or time machine in sight.

The full review is at Edifice Rex Online, with very little in the way of spoilers.

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Review: Paying For It, by Chester Brown [May. 25th, 2011|11:27 pm]
bookish - a book critique community

ed_rex

You're a dirty whore-monger, Chester Brown

Autobiography is a risky endeavour at the best of times; not only will the memoirist's craft be scrutinized and judged, but so too will his or her character. So it is probably a good thing for Chester Brown that he is one of the best cartoonists of his generation, because he really does have sex with prostitutes.

In fact, his latest book, Paying For It, is all about his decision to give up on romantic love in favour of sex for money.

It has become almost trendy to dabble in the sex-trade. Bookshelves groan beneath mounds of tell-all memoirs and fictions, and even relatively mainstream television has gotten into act, with no less than one-time Doctor Who companion Billie Piper disrobing on a regular business as Belle du Jour. But memoirs and fictions glamorizing the life of johns?

Maybe not so much

It is one thing to admit to taking money for sex; to confess paying for sex, on the other hand, remains quite outside the bounds of polite society.

If Brown doesn't make an explicit analogy between his "coming-out" as a john and the struggles of gay men and lesbians who braved arrest and assault when they refused to any longer closet their sexual natures, Paying For It certainly implicitly invites the comparison, if only by Brown's refusal to be ashamed.

As Brown's friend (and ex-girlfriend) Kris tells him, to most people, johns are "... creeps. Who knows what they're capable of? If I had a daughter I'd be worried about what would happen if she was in the same elevator as one of those guys."

So would you want to read a comic book by and about one?

Click here for my full review, with inevitable spoilers — not safe for work.

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Review: Last Night In Twisted River, by John Irving [May. 11th, 2011|02:15 pm]
bookish - a book critique community

ed_rex

A Prayer for John Irving

The ageing writer stared out at the reader with all the intensity of an old athlete in denial. His fierce eyes and tight-lipped smile were islands of fading youth set amid the ragged 'scape of a craggy face topped by a shock of thinning grey hair brushed defiantly backwards, exposing a hairline receding like a melting glacier.

The reader was reminded of the hockey player Guy Lafleur during his last year as a Montreal Canadien, the team he had led to five Stanley Cups in the 1970s. The hockey player had been in slow decline for three years, become precipitous during the 1984-1985 season. The former 50 goal scorer managed a mere two in 19 games before hanging up his skates

There was no obvious reason for the hockey player's inability to score. To the reader, it seemed the hockey player could skate as fast, shoot the puck as hard, as he ever had; if anything, it looked like he skated faster than he once had — but maybe that was an illusion, a mirage, born of the fact that, though the old athlete's competitive spirit was as fierce as ever (or fiercer!), he had to work much harder even to almost accomplish what he had once made look easy.

But writers are not hockey players and analogies are treacherous tools. If some writers burn out early, as if they only had one or two books in them, others produce at a steady, life-long, pace without major ups or downs; still others — a minority, but not not a tiny minority — go out with a bang, leaving a masterpiece as their final legacy. Consider Joseph Heller, consider John le Carré, consider Mordechai Richler, as exemplars of the three types.

And consider John Irving's most recent novel, a long, a meandering and a very dull tome from a writer the reader is now certain ought to have retired once the first signs of auctorial impairment — a tendency to have his character give voice to the writer's political opinions — surfaced in the narrative of his last good book, A Prayer for Owen Meanie. (See A Widow for One Year for an especially egregious example.)

So let us consider Last Night In Twisted River. Full review, some spoilers, at Edifice Rex Online.

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Review: Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carré [Mar. 23rd, 2011|08:48 pm]
bookish - a book critique community

ed_rex
John le Carré, image courtesy of Wikipedia.
John le Carré in 2008
Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Some writers have but a few stories to tell — think of Joseph Heller or John Irving, whose reputations would have been far better served by a Salingeresque retreat into silence than by their painfully pointless later works.

Other manage to keep working at or near the levels at which they made their reputations. Think of Mordechai Richler, whose final novel, Barney's Version was his masterpiece. Or consider John le Carré, now in his 80th year and still producing work of a very high level indeed.

If not quite as savagely powerful as 2003's Absolute Friends, his newest novel is significantly more controlled — and so more powerful — than his previous offering, A Most Wanted Man, which suggested a writer whose moral outrage had got the better of his novelist's instincts.

If Our Kind of Traitor isn't, quite, a masterpiece, it is a solid, subtle and (yes) thrilling novel that is vintage le Carré, almost without violence or action, but still a story that finds the reader anxiously awaiting its resolution right up to its final three paragraphs.

Read the full review at Edifice Rex Online.

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Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin [Feb. 23rd, 2011|01:49 pm]
bookish - a book critique community

ed_rex

 

For the record, my copy of N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms came courtesy of a contest conducted by the writer Tricia Sullivan, whose novel, Maul, I read a few years back and which which has since stayed with me far more strongly than most. I wish I could say the same about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. (Edited to fix typos. Thanks to shanaqui for the head's up.)

Stormwinds over a cardboard world

Nebula-nominated first novel is epic failure

I opened N.K. Jemisin's (now Nebula Award nominated) first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, having occasionally read the author's blog and commentary elsewhere on the internet, and was well-aware the book had been getting a lot of positive attention since it was published last year. In other words, I was looking forward to reading at least a very good debut novel and hoping for even more than that.

Instead, I find myself obliged to discuss a first novel about which I can find almost nothing good to say whatsoever — except to note that, on page 222, the author offers a striking and (I think) original metaphor for the female orgasm.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a novel remarkable only for the lack of detail and verisimilitude of its world-building, the droning sameness of its characters (god or human — you can't tell them apart), the thoughtlessly anachronistic dialogue and banality of its prose.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not the worst novel I've ever read (there are lots of bad books out there), but it might be the worst highly-praised science fiction novel I've ever come across (I say "might" because it has been many years since I read Lord of Light).

The basics include a number of standard fantasy tropes. A world not quite our own, shared by humans and a more ancient and powerful race; a heroine with a Special Destiny; a society with a pre-industrial technology (plus magic) and a feudal political order with a cruel and corrupt extended family at the top of the heap.

There's nothing inherently wrong with re-using the familiar to tell a story, but there is a lot wrong with using those tropes so badly the reader never feels they are looking in on another world, let alone that they have actually entered into what Tolkien called a secondary creation.

For a fantasy to succeed, if must convince the reader of not only the reality of its narrative but of that narrative's background. The author must pay attention to such things as his or her world's history and culture, to its tools and technology, as much as to character and psychology.

To my ears, neither Jemisin's world-building nor her character-building convince, let alone provide cause to care. Worse, her prose is sophomoric and her dialogue painfully melodramatic.

I did not answer, and after a moment Scimina sighed.

"So," she said, "there are new alliances being formed on Darr's borders, meant to counter Darr's perceived new strength. Since Darr in fact has no new strength, that means the entire region is becoming unstable. Hard to say what will happen under circumstances like that."

My fingers itched for a sharpened stone. "Is that a threat?"

"Please, Cousin. I'm merely passing the information along. We Arameri must look out for one another."

"I appreciate your concern." I turned to leave, before my temper slipped any further ...

These are not words that sing, nor dialogue that breathes. Is there anything in this book that does? There is more on my website.

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