Archive | Book Review RSS feed for this section

Thoughts on Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

16 Feb


Ok, so I just finished Perdido Street Station, a book that is highly divisive with readers.   People either seem to find it a mesmerizing world to fall into, or an overlong big baggy monster of a book.   I am definitely in the former camp.   I’m not going to do a formal review on this one, because egads it’s just fricking huge.  It would take a book just to describe this book to you.   However, there’s some things I noticed:

1.  This is Mieville’s anti-Tolkien epic:  Instead of going on a fantasy world tour, our protagonists stay in one city.  Instead of pseudo medieval times, we’re set in imaginary Victorian.   The main characters do not have hearts of gold, and aren’t particularly special.   The threat is not world threatening (though serious).   The landscape is unclean, dripping with filth and garbage on every page.   The good guys don’t get rewarded and the bad guys don’t get punished.   I could go on and on but Mieville is going out of his way to show that you don’t have to get a group of people to destroy an item that can destroy the world to have a credible fantasy novel.

2.  The steampunk moniker is overrated:  I don’t see this book as being particularly steampunk.  I don’t mind that.  Steampunk to me is a style–it often has things that look cool but have  no substance behind it.  While the city of Bas-Lag does seem a product of Dickens’s worst nightmares, at the same time you don’t have any of the steampunk silliness of hirsute handlebar mustachioed men riding rocket unicycles in space.

3.  The animal/human/computer division has broken down:  Throughout this book we see humans being twisted and distorted as the remade into completely unnatural beings.  We’ve got people with bug’s heads, bird people, fish people, cactus people, hand people who use people like puppets, robots who gain consciousness and people who lose it.

4.  The theme of choice:  There’s a big bit explaining how the garuda (bird people) hold choice as sacred, and removing other people’s choices is the basis of all crime.   While we really don’t see that system in action, we do see how most of our characters through most of the book have absolutely no choices–rather they are completely manipulated by New Crobuzon, their environment.   In fact, I can see only three places where an individual has a choice and the power to follow through on it.   Isaac chooses to start work on getting Agarak flying again, Lin chooses to take a job with Mr. Motley, and Isaac chooses not to give flight to Angarak in the end due to his crime.   Even in these three choices the characters do not have the foresight to know the possible consequences to these choices.     Even the powerful are largely reacting to forces beyond their control.

5.  The Weaver:  My favorite character.  This spider trickster and his devotion to beauty (on his terms) just delights in any scene he’s in.   He cuts off peoples ears, collects scissors, plays tic-tac-toe with a dead man, dresses people up in fancy dress before dropping them off in a sewer.  He is pure raw energy, uncontrollable, and a scene stealer.

6.  The Ending:  There’s a lot of complaints about the ending.  It’s an ending that is no ending, the protagonists merely leave and nobody wins.   Yes, the slake moths are dead, but in a way, the moths’ threat of drinking people’s consciousness is not gone.  In fact you could argue that New Crobuzon does exactly the same thing, it’s just that the moths are more efficient.

On the whole a very satisfying read.  I highly recommend it.  Just know that this book is VERY dark, not a beach read at all.


Best of 2013: The Books

1 Jan



Ok, I know it’s 2014 (and happy New Year!) but I still need to wrap up 2013 before moving on, and the most important part is in books.   Now these are the most significant books I read in the last year, I don’t think any of them were actually published in 2013.  Hell, half the time I’m lucky if I’m reading a book from this decade.   So keeping that in mind, these are the best books I read in the last year.

1.  The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain:  This is a little bit cheating, because I’m not quite done with this book yet, however, I’m pretty close, and I am quite happy to have read it.  I thought it would be basically Mark Twain making fun of travelling, which he does, but really it’s joining one of the best minds on a tour of Europe.   Now, he’s firmly in 18th century politics, so there’s a bunch of stuff (particularly politically) that hasn’t aged the best, but what’s amazing is how little has changed at the same time.  You’ll recognize his fellow passengers, and while there’s many funny parts, he really is trying to have us take a virtual tour with him, so there’s sometimes that he just marvels at the beauty of it all.  Wonderful.

2.  Set This House in Order  By Matt Ruff:  MPD/DID is a very contraversial diagnosis, however, you really need to put this aside to read this book.  Ruff isn’t really writing about that anyway, and the biggest thing I love about this book is that while it has abuse victims as the main characters, he never makes it about that.   A wonderfully human book that is way better than it has any right being.

3.   The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Water Moers:  This german book is a storybook for adults.  Loosely written and wandering, it’s not the sort of thing that people who want a tight story woudl be into.  However, that’s why this is such a charming book, it’s a series of events in an imaginary land that just move from one thing and another.

4.  Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead Sara Gran:  I already reviewed this, but can I just say “breath of fresh air” for mystery?

5.   The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliot:  Dark and wonderful.   I already reviewed this one too, but if you’re looking for something that is John Irving-esque with a twist, this is it.

6.  The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie:  His whole trilogy is great, but this book is what really sucks you into it.   Dark as pitch humor laced with fantasy, without the silliness that fantasy often has.

7.  Crusoe’s Daughter   by Jane Gardam:  This is the most beautiful book I’ve read all year by a long shot.   Meloncholy, elegaic, going into the nature of story and freedom.   Why isn’t Jane Gardam more famous in the states?

8.  The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton:  De Botton looks into the meaning of work–he’s got one amazing mind, he’s like a living encyclopedia.   Read this to get smarter.

9.  How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler:  This is one of the few self-help books that lives up to its  name.  Most people don’t read very literately, this book teaches you how.   Anybody could pick this up and learn a thing or two.

10.  Embassytown by China Mieville:  Georgeous slice of sci-fi that is thoughtful and urgent.   If I could only build worlds with half the depth that Mieville does.

11.  The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs:   Never before has queer mental health issues been written down this concisely for gay men.   I don’t agree with everything he says, but I can say that I’ve never met a gay man who hasn’t had to deal with at least some of the issues  presented here.

12.   Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh:  I really got into mindfulness this year, and this is the best book I ran into.  Very simple and accessible, never preachy, and doesn’t promise stuff if you do what he says.   This is the best guide for westerners to get into meditation and mindful livng.

What a great year for reading.  I hope that 2014 is even better.

Book Review: The Trumpeter of Krakow, by Eric P. Kelly

10 Nov

trumpeter of krakow

I’ve been going through the Newbery winners, and this one was…ok. We follow a family who has the philosopher’s stone, go to the city of Krakow after being burnt out of their farm in the Ukraine. What follows is a bunch of episodic adventures, and a lot of Polish mythology. The woodcut images are really nifty, and there’s a theme of superstition vs. learning that plays through most of the book, however the characters are all very flat. The main family is extremely goody-goody and earnest and the bad guys are all mustache twiddlers.   I don’t think this is a book to seek out, but if you happen to get your hands on it, it’s a mildly diverting read.

Book Review: Shattered Glass by Dani Alexander

27 Oct

shattered glass


So I decided to check out this m/m romance because it’s a genre that’s booming lately (there’s dozens of these things out) and I never read one before.

I’m a firm believer in appreciating any work on its own terms.  I don’t want to be like the guy who was in the mood for a western and ignorantly watched Oklahoma! and starts ranting how this is the worst western ever.   It’s one thing to evaluate Oklahoma on it’s own strengths and weaknesses, however expecting it to be something it’s not is the fault of the viewer, not the work.

So with self-published works like this, no matter the genre, you need to read it like you would watch a self-made movie, or any other self made work of art.   When they’re good, they’ll be fun, charming, but also a little rough in places.   If you’re looking for flawless prose or slick writing you are in the wrong place.   Also what I look for is some sense of personality–the reason why I like reading self-published works is that you get the real sense of the person writing this, verses pulp books cranked out of a publishing house.

While I think this book is a mixed affair, one thing that shines through and really makes me forgive the flaws, is that it’s clear that Dani Alexander is creating a work from his heart.   Honestly, at finishing this book, I felt like I had a good friend that I was really proud of for finally finishing his book.   There’s definitely a sense that he really cares about his characters and this was a labor of love for him.

I’m not going into all the details of the plot, but it’s basically Law and Order mixed with Queer as Folk and romantic comedy.    Some of it works and some of it doesn’t.  Here’s my breakdown:

The Romantic Plot–The romance between Austin and Peter is ok with a few details which kind of bug me a little.   So Austin suppressed his homosexuality for years because of the suicide of his gay friend, but one day as he’s about to get married he sees Peter and his gay switch turns to on.  While I’m not expecting a book like this to be realistic, Peter’s shift from not-gay to gay seems to be a little too effortless.   At the same time, Peter–who’s been traumatized by being a gay hustler and who normally identifies as straight, is ok with being gay just for Austin.  I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that–I know that people’s sexualities are often much more fluid than society permits, but still–am I supposed to find the fact that both these men don’t normally sleep with men for pleasure attractive?   For me, it kind of leaves a bad taste.   Other than that, their relationship is about actual love so I can give them points for that.   I got a little annoyed with the Romantic Comedy cliche of bickering then making out–because THAT’S the basis for a healthy relationship.

The Crime Plot–Serviceable.  I never was on the edge of my seat, and I couldn’t keep track of which cops were which, but it did make things happen.    This book certainly keeps its characters active–my pet peeve is a book where characters do nothing but talk at each other.

Cai–Cai is a great character, and the only one that really engaged me.  The way he spoke and acted just got to my soft side.   I also really liked his mother.

The Humor–The humor will either make it or break it for you.  I liked it, though it could get grating at points.   Each part has a Frasier style heading that’s usually a bad pun.   Humor is very individual though, so if you don’t find things like that funny, you’d best look for another book.

And yes, the plots are rickety, most of the characters flat stereotypes, the dialogue wooden, but none of that particularly bothers me–it’s part of it in fact.  I read this like I’d watch some late night movie–I’m not looking for Shakespeare here.

My one major criticism is that the book was a little too long and plotty.   Between the crime drama, the romance, Peter’s back story, Austin’s back story, the wedding, there is just too much to be invested in.  Some parts were very charming–particularly anything at Austin’s home.  However I think that many of the sub-plots could have been excised or severely shortened to allow more room for the good stuff to shine.   It comes off as cluttered.  I would also suggest cutting it by half in general–Alexander does the writing equivalent in drowning his cereal in milk–a little goes a long way.

That being said–I think Alexander is a talented writer that I want to see continue.  There were some moments where I was thinking I can’t believe that I’m getting drawn into this.   He just needs to write some more and fiddle with his recipe a little to find the right balance of plot, characterization, and romance.

Also, oddly, the Glass series has a rabid fan-base, of straight women.  Huh.  Go figure.

Book Review: Trebor Healey, A Horse Named Sorrow

14 Oct

A horse named sorrow


A Horse Named Sorrow is the kind of book that I love, while at the same time being fully aware of its weaknesses.    If someone came up to me and said that they couldn’t finish it, I would completely understand.  However, I have to applaud Healey for trying for something more than the average gay novel tends to.  While this is a good (but flawed) novel, I have no doubt that Healey has a great novel in him and will be looking forward to further reading.

AHNS sets us up in San Francisco in the early 90’s.  This is not the queer wonderland that we so often see, but a worrisome wasteland filled with disease and death.  The AIDS crisis is going full swing, and the new medications haven’t come out yet, so there’s a state of unrest.   Seamus falls in love with Jimmy, who has AIDS and dies from it.   Seamus then goes on a road trip on Jimmy’s bike with the intent of leaving Jimmy’s ashes in Buffalo–where Jimmy came from.   He follows Jimmy’s map and tracks his journey backwards one stop at a time.

From Pilgrim’s Progress onward, every journey is ultimately a spiritual one.   One thing I loved about this book is its emphasis on the spiritual–Seamus is searching for meaning after his whole life has fallen apart, and this quest is the central story of AHNS.    He meets several people on the road, most notably Eugene, a mute Indian, and his uncle Louis, amidst their own journey.

Healey’s language is rich–so rich that you don’t so much read this book as dream it–sometimes a little too rich here and there.  I don’t mind heightened language when the subject deserves it, and the subject here–grief–certainly does.    The biggest theme we have here is transition, Seamus’s journey, the multiple descriptions of the BART, the blue truck, the bicycle–even the focus on the shifting landscape as Seamus heads east leads one to a sense of change and desolation all at once.  Everyone around him seems disconnected–the people who want to tell him their stories as he hitches rides, the waitresses, the people at the diners.   All are either stuck or aimlessly drifting, with little sense of direction.

The other theme here is speechlessness.  Seamus’s actions come from bearing a grief too large to utter, he cannot speak, but only can act.  Eugene doesn’t speak, he’s completely mute, but in his silence provides Seamus some direction.  We enter a world of symbols and pictures, items so much more expressive than literal words.

The thing I love about this novel is it’s greatest flaw–this novel is loose–its associative structure, its heavy reliance on flashbacks, the random details that pepper the story, they’re all evocative, but sometimes they’re a bit much.   There’s a few too many dream sequences, and Healey’s use of stock-phrases, especially “backasswards” can get a little grating as they’re repeated beyond meaning.   However the looseness fits the meaning, we are on a journey of a young man seeking direction, it’s going to be a bit loose and baggy, and odd little things will get pregnant with meaning.  Healey also gets the mindstate of grief spot-on–Seamus is in pain, but he’s not completely shut down, he can’t even begin to speak, and it’s a good way through the book before he even allows himself to really cry.

All in all I find this book a wonderful slow read, that shows the humanity in its gay characters without becoming patronizing or victimy.   It’s georgeously sad, and I highly recommend it for those who aren’t looking for a thrillride, or something naughty.   That’s the best thing about this book–it does not fall to the tropes that most gay male fiction tends to (outside the classics of course).   We have a full spectrum of emotion, and while the characters are all gay, they are rounded characters with more to them than just that.



Book Review: The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs

7 Oct

velvet rage


I don’t usually review nonfiction, but this is a book that you’ll either love or hate.  Basically it’s a self-help book for gay men, and the reactions online tend to either be “It is the most important book for gay men ever!” or “I don’t identify with these men at all, this is clearly speaking from a position of a gay man that’s out of date!”  (Actually the second group doesn’t usually say this so politely.)

I’m pretty positive on this book, however, I think it needs to be read with the right eyes.   See, straight kids get quite a lot of guidance down the road of life, often more than they really want, but there’s loads of people doling out advice to them.   Gay men typically don’t get this sort of support, even when they come from loving families, unless they’re raised by other gay people, there’s nobody around to show them the ropes, and explain to them the tricks as to how to have a happy life.

What this really is, is the advice that you never got from the gay dad you didn’t have.   To be clear, while I believe that Downs is speaking from his experience as a therapist for gay men, I don’t think of this book as a clinical guidebook.  I don’t think Downs claims this himself, but one of the biggest criticisms that I’ve seen towards this book is criticizing this like this was supposed to be a therapeutic model, which it most certainly is not.

Why I think this book is so important is that it deals with the issues of shame and validation that manifest themselves uniquely in gay men.  Even if you are a gay man who doesn’t have these issues, chances are you’ve gotten close to those who have.   This book does not claim that gay men are victims because of this–what it states is that because of shame and the need for validation, certain patterns emerge that can be broken if you are conscious of them.

What Downs emphasizes, and what I agree with wholeheartedly, is that coming out is not the end of the journey, it’s just the beginning, and gay men have to make a journey towards authentic living once they’ve taken the leap.

I have two criticisms of this book.  First I think his three stages are a bit hokey and very broad.   There’s a grain of truth–most gay men start out closeted (stage one), then they come out and overcompensate (stage two), and then balance themselves and become an individual (stage three).  However, I’m skeptical that things are always this clear cut–most personal journeys are not in straight lines.

Second, his examples are a bit stereotypish.   There’s the men who sleep around and party all the time, the ones who want the perfect house and a bunch of things, the ones who will not open up to others.  We’ve heard these stories before, about how all these things turn out empty.  However, I am not any of those men.

But, then there’s the other situations–the relationships that end abruptly with no explanation, the difficulty in getting close to others, the thin line between honesty and abrasiveness.   These are lessons we all could learn.

My suggestion is to read through this with an open mind, and pick and choose what is useful to you.  I really like how Downs speaks to gay men, as a gay man, with respect and frankness without pandering.   The last bit of the book has a bunch of suggestions for how to live more authentically, and some of them I’ve taken him up on.

All in all, I recommend this book.  Even if you disagree with every page, it makes you think, and it makes you look at yourself.

Book Review: Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

9 Sep



Hoo-Boy, I was in the mood for an intergenerational historical epic, and I got waaaaaaay more than I bargained for with Ross Poldark.   Honestly, it’s both terrible and terrific at the same time in a way I can’t quite define.

To give you some background, this series of books were started in the ’40’s by Winston Graham, the same man who would write the book for Marnie of all things.   So what this book was designed for was escapism right after WWII.  If you remember, London in particular was under near constant bombing through the war, and even right after the war there was a great deal of rebuilding to do.   Shortages still happened, and people needed stuff to distract them.

In a way, this book makes sense.  It’s set in a far away time, so there’s not a whiff of the current issues at hand, many of the characters are humorous, it’s very pro-England, while also being critical of social issues that were no longer issues.

Also the people live pretty terribly.  Maybe it was comforting to watch people dealing with desperate poverty, I don’t know, but other than the nobles, everyone is uniformly dirty, ignorant, and barely scraping to get by.   So in no way is this book nostalgic for the 1780s, never showing the world as glamorous at all.

So basically the historical pretext is that Ross Poldark is returning to Cornwall after serving some years in the American War of Independence.    It’s actually fascinating, as an American, to see things from the point of view of the other side.   England at the time, if this book is to be trusted, was in the middle of a sort of crisis of confidence, just like America had after Vietnam.

So Ross is disappointed to find that the woman he wanted to marry, Elizabeth, is going to marry his cousin.   So far, the common start to every historical romance ever made.   After this hoo-boy, the story just goes everywhere and nowhere.   The pacing is extremely odd–either staying completely still or racing ahead at a pace in such a herky-jerky way that it reminds me of a scratched DVD.

We’ve got four main plot threads.   First, we’ve got the opening-the-mine story which is by far the boringest.   It goes into excruciating detail on the funding, running, and growth of Poldark’s mine.  In fact the worst part of this book is even when something happens, instead of following up on it, we immediately have to go to Ross’s plans for a mine, or Ross raising money for the mine, or the status of the mine.  Don’t get me wrong, mining was very important to the area historically, but at the same time, it would be like reading Gone With the WInd and just after the burning of Atlanta, we have to go through the history and economics of cotton growing for 10 pages.    Heck, the mine isn’t even functional by the end of the book, and we still get to hear pages and pages about it.

The second story is more interesting–the Jim and Ginny Carter misery thread.   Jim is a miner who’s out of work because he’s got weak lungs.   Ginny is a pretty girl who’s being followed by a creeper.   Jim and Ginny get married, and then the creeper sneaks into their home and stabs Ginny and her newborn baby.  The creeper then jumps out of an upstairs window to his death.   Ginny and the baby survive, though Ginny is less happy than before.  Jim takes to poaching to feed his family.  He gets caught, and not only sentenced to two years of  hard labor, but also they find out that he is dying of tuberculosis.   From here, this story tapers off, with Jim in prison, Ginny now is the house maid, so that’s ok I guess.

Then we get into the Ross/Francis/Elizabeth love triangle.   The first half of the book is mainly about this, and it’s strictly romance novel stuff—Ross thought that he would marry Elizabeth, but Elizabeth is marrying his cousin Francis instead.   Ross had been gone so long that it was quite natural really.  So Ross and Francis get in a fight in a mine and strand themselves there over having a pissing match over Elizabeth.  Elizabeth tries to stay just good friends, but Ross pushes himself, so he gets banned.   They make up once Ross gets married, but at this point she pressures him to get Francis under control–as Francis is gambling and supposedly hanging out with other women.   At first this story is relatively uninteresting, but by the end, how Elizabeth turns out, a little cold, very unhappy, and finding only happiness in her child, shows that she’s a much different person than Ross initially imagined she was.  She’s also so dedicated to her child that she doesn’t sleep with her husband, intimating that this is tied up to the whole Francis roaming thing.   At first I was ready to damn Ross for not getting involved, but Elizabeth’s insistence does seem a bit pushy.  Also I’m reminded of the best advice my father ever gave me, which is don’t get involved in other people’s love lives–it only causes strain.

Finally, the best, and craziest bit, is Demelza.  Ross first meets Demelza when her dog (which is annoyingly cute) is being teased, Annie-style, in the city.  He takes her in, noticing that she’s abused by her drunken father.  Then he proceeds to strip her and hose her off in his backyard, and then we get pages of describing bug removal (ewwww).  Ok, so not only is this scene a bit creepy (why couldn’t he have had the lady servant do the washing), it’s kind of mean, Ross taking no mind to the girl’s nakedness and how she tries to cover herself up.   Despite this, Ross is entirely uninterested in Demelza–at first.   When she comes of age (thank god), Demelza realizes that her father intends to have her back home, so she seduces Ross while wearing his mother’s nightie.   (Yes, you heard that right).   Apparently he realized his desire at this point and they marry.

The main conflict from this point on is how Demelza will fit in with the elite since she’s come from the bottom.   She has a good deal worrying about dirty underpants.   Anyway, she goes to the Poldark’s ancestral home and is a raging success after singing a love ballad, a dirty shanty song, and getting in some drag-queen style conversation with the jealous ladies.  Also she’s pregnant and gets rousingly drunk.

Finally there’s one other small story, about Ross’s cousin Verity, who fell  in love with a sea captain, despite the fact that he threw his last wife down the stairs in a drunken rage and killed her.  Naturally, her father is against this.   Ross tries to plot around it–and it ends up in a big brawl and the Captain wanders off to lick his wounds.  Verity starts to fade.   Demelza who has grown fond of Verity starts plotting to get them together again with some of the craziest abuse-logic I have ever heard.

“I know Verity was not born to be an old maid, dryin’ up and shrivellin’  while she looks to someone else’s house an’ children. She’d rather take the risk of being wed to a man who couldn’t contain his liquor.”

Yep folks, it’s better to be married to a drunk killer than to be single.  It’s THAT BAD.   And while I can give Verity some credence, as she believes that the captain has reformed, what if he hasn’t.  According to Demelza that STILL would be better than being left alone.

And then there’s this gem:  “If you love someone, tesn’t a few bruises on the back that are going to count.  It’s whether that other one loves you in return.  If he do, then he can only hurt your body.  He can’t hurt your heart.”   This is wrong on so many levels I can’t even begin to fathom how to begin.   I know that Demelza came from an abusive home that she was so afraid of that she slept with her master instead of even chancing the return.  She also didn’t trust her father’s reformation, noting that he could go back to his old state at any time.   So how her experience informs her speech on this is beyond me.  Also, this sets her relationship with Ross (who is the “Daddy” in the relationship) in a thoroughly creepy light.  He doesn’t beat her–though he threatens to a couple of times, not very seriously–he is very much the man of the house who she has to ask permission for things and sneak behind his back if she deems it necessary.

Besides the pacing problems, the story has VERY stilted dialogue that doesn’t sound realistic at all,  the comedy bits are either cute or not very funny, and the view of the book on classes is rather opaque.  The book is clear that the poor should be treated better and is in favor of social movement.  However, it is not arguing that the division between the gentry and common folk should be any different than it is.  The poor should be husbanded better, that’s all.

Despite these issues, hell, because of these problems, this book is a surprisingly satisfying read (even if you’ll feel a little gross for it afterwards.)   I was shocked to get that post book zen state after finishing this because at the time I was mostly scratching my head and gawking at gender relations that are mercifully behind us.    If you want to read something good-bad I’d say give it a go, but I can’t go so far as to recommend it.

Book Review: How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain De Botton

21 Jul

If you couldn’t tell by now, I have a huge intelligence crush on Alain De Botton.   I am all for taking difficult/obscure ideas to the people, and De Botton is one of the best at this because not only is he super smart, he’s a capable communicator–those two traits inhabit the same person quite rarely.

Anyway, this time his target is Proust,  the writer of In Search of Lost Time, among other things, and you might ask why read a book about Proust if you have no interest in reading anything by Proust anyway?

There’s many reasons why people might not try to read In Search of Lost Timefor one thing it’s six volumes of incredibly dense reading, in fact, I would go so far to say that ISoLT is the second biggest bohemeth behind The Fairie Queene, in terms of muchness.  As for the denseness, Proust has a habit of focusing on each and every detail to such a minute degree that he simply can wear the reader out.   However, Proust is extremely influential and is one of the greatest minds of all the modernists.

This is where De Botton is handy.  He, with a great bit of humor, shows us what Proustian thought and Proustian living mean.   In Proust’s time, just like now, there was a middle class boredom about life, where everything becomes flat, safe, and predictable.   Also, just like now, there was much public handwringing about the emptiness of such a life, and generally people seemed to think that either being lower class or upper class made one have a real life, while the middle class just had things.

Proust didn’t agree.  Proust had a bunch of theories about beauty and living, and the role of art in people’s lives.   Art is there to show the beauty in things.  The problem is that the art people know is out of date–so their “beauty” is based on things and scenes long gone.   That’s why for some people a rowboat is deemed worthy of a painting while a motorboat would not be.  To Proust there would be as much beauty available at your local McDonalds as there would be in a flower garden, if you only had the trained eye for it.

De Botton explains all this, and even further, in such an entertaining manner that you’ll probably half think to at least give In Search of Lost Time a shot.  Really, pick it up, you won’t be sorry.

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

17 Jul

*******WARNING, SPOILERS BELOW***********



Ok, so we run into the second book of the First Law trilogy, Before They Are Hanged (from here on in, we’ll be calling it BTAH, which is a pleasantly Glokta-ish word.)

Anyway BTAH shows a great leap forward from The Blade Itself which in itself was a big wonderful read.   While TBI was mostly set in Adua with a claustrophobic atmosphere, BTAH is truly epic in scope, following three story threads in three different sections of the world.  We barely see Adua at all.  In fact, since all the people seemed scattered around the world I was wondering how these stories would come back together in the end.  Let me save you the tension to tell you they don’t–at least not yet, though a sharp eye can see connections between the three.

The first thread is about Glokta and how he roots out disloyalty in Dagoska–a lone city owned by The Union on the edge of the Gurkish Empire.  The Gurkish Empire wants this city back, naturally, after they had lost it in a war.  On top of that, the city counsel is completely corrupt and had the previous high inquisitioner murdered.  This is by far the best of the three tales told here (though they’re all good.)  Partially it’s because the pressure is pushed to the max here, with Glokta really being in danger through most of the book.  Actually, themes like vulnerability, being exposed, out in the open are all here throughout all the tales.  It’s fascinating watching Glokta at work.  The funny thing is the mystery is a sort of macguffin, driving the plot forward, but not really where our attention lies.   Glokta escapes just in time before the city falls.    Also we get a glimpse of the eaters and they are a thousand times more creepy than you could ever imagine.

The second thread has to do with Major West and the troops to the north fighting the northmen.  The Dogman has decided to support the Union side, and there’s a great deal of battle.  This part has the most heart wrenching scenes in the whole series yet, particularly in the battles which are short, ugly, and filled with pointless death.  In these books, wars have no real winners, and even though the fight in the north goes better than the Dagoska seige, there’s some great losses.  Major West transforms into being like the northmen when he has to join them in escape (after the prince sets up a terrible battle that was basically a suicide mission).  He murders the prince and earns the nickname “Furious.”  He bites a man’s nose off.  What’s interesting is as soon as he’s back with the troops he reverts back to his old self.  One thing about these books is that characters act according to their environment, so changes always happen, but they’re usually temporary.

The third thread is Bayez and crew going on a trek across the old empire.  Here we have the most Macguffiny of Macguffins as they go to get The Seed, and it turns out it’s not there.   Logan and Ferro get in a very uncomfortable love affair.  Jezal learns humility, at least for the time being.  This was the weakest of the three stories, though all the characters develop interestingly.   The weakness comes from Bayez’s fondness of telling the old stories, and I could not keep track of all his lore and who was who in is tales of olden times.  Not to mention that Bayez is very clearly not to be trusted, so I’m not sure how much of his storytelling is real in the first place.

I ate this book up–the gloves off feel of the storytelling really makes the risks palpable.  I have to continue my warning though, if you like your good people good and your bad people bad, this is not the book for you.  The “heroes” here are all deeply flawed, and nobody, and I mean nobody, wins.  Sound depressing?  It’s not–because what makes these books touching are the little ways that all the characters cope in such a rough cruel world.

Highly recommended, but read the first book.

Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

30 Jun

the blade itself



Ok now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I’m going to give you a big earful about a great little Fantasy series by Joe Abercrombie–the first three books are The First Law trilogy, and then he has three further standalone books set in the same universe.   The universe is vaguely medievalish, but that’s where the similarity between traditional fantasy and Abercrombie’s novels end.

Generally fantasy can be split between two broad categories–there’s the traditional sword and sorcery epic that’s usually strongly pulling from Tolkien, and the more fashionable Machiavellian gritty fantasy written by the likes of George R.R. Martin.  These books don’t comfortably fit into either trope, so if you want something that fits into either one comfortably you’re going to be disappointed.  Most criticisms of The First Law series I’ve noticed were because of wanting the books to be something they’re not.

Ok, so let’s start with the traditional fantasy side.   In those multi-volume epics what you’ve generally got is very clear lines between good and evil where the good is on a quest to save the world (or at least the world as they knew it) from destruction.   The Blade Itself does not draw its lines so neatly between sides in fact I’d go so far as to say he mostly doesn’t draw lines at all–all the characters are mostly amoral, and even those who have some sense of honor end up being very close to being hypocrites.   Also, the world that Abercrombie presents is relatively small, you’ll find no maps with multiple countries here–he’s got only four areas:  The Union (aka Europe in the Middle Ages), The Gurkish Empire (ancient Middle East), the North (warrior era Scandinavia), and the Old Empire which is just shy of total anarchy.   Even with this sized world, we spend time in The Blade Itself in very little of it, other than a little wandering in the North and one side-plot in the Gurkish Empire the entire story takes place in the Union’s capital city of Adua.

“Oh well then!” You might say, “Dark characters plotting?  This sounds like a Martin style book!”  Hold up there, sport.  Martin’s books (and the books like them) are largely concerned with powerful families plotting for power.   There’s a lot of scheming, some battles, but it’s more like a game of chess where you’ve got the people on top determining the best moves to get what they want.  While there are some similarities, particularly in the character development range, the big difference is that the scheming is not to get some great aim, the characters are (mostly) plotting to meet their own personal aims and nothing more.  We’re in a world where the people in power are largely inept, and very few people have any clue about what’s going on.  What’s more, the characters, are all from positions of low to middling influence.  Even if they wanted to gain power, none of them are really in a position to do it (other than–perhaps–Bayaz.)

What we have instead is a picaresque book, along the likes of CandideDon Quixote, or Tom Jones.  What we have is a loose bundle of ne’er-do-wells wandering about a very corrupt world moving from one circumstance to the next.  The action is episodic, full of black humor, and incredibly violent. My favorite thing about this book is that Abercrombie has a knack for making complex characters that react differently when different circumstances are presented to them. 

So who we follow are Glokta, a crippled ex-soldier now working as an inquisitor.  Rather than his torture experiences making him more empathetic, it simply makes him do his job more efficiently.   Logan Ninefingers, AKA the bloody-nine,  is a barbarian who is weary of killing and war, but remains stuck in it.  Jezel dan Luthar is a spoiled nobleman who thinks everyone is beneath him.  Collem West is a low-born Union officer with a nasty temper.   Bayaz, is a scheming enchanter who claims to be connected to the god-like founders.   Finally we have Ferro Maljinn, a Gurkish ex-slave bent on revenging herself on the empire, who hates everybody.

The world presented is brutal and cruel, we constantly see sights where the powerful abuse the less-powerful with shocking consistently.  Battles nearly always end with significant losses on both sides and very little gained.  Life is cheap, Abercrombie makes no bones about killing significant characters, often the very ones who manage to have something of a noble cause about them.  Also, there’s a general sense of the powerful not listening to advice from their underlings especially when that advice should be heeded.

Magic here is not a super-power, but rather a mysterious force that is very sinister.  Other than Bayaz, anybody who uses magic gets corrupted and turns outright evil.   Even Bayaz has very shadowy motivations, and when he takes the seed (which we know nothing about other than it’s incredibly powerful) I’m left wondering whether taking anything powerful out and placing it into that world is a good idea at all, considering there’s not one individual who can responsibly use the little power they have.

Sounds like a downer, right?  Well, the one thing that saves this book from total bleakness is the humor–Glokta in particular has many wry observations that made me chuckle.   Where this book entertains is the ways all these characters make due in this cruel universe, and the general idiocy every character has.

I would advise you not to expect any character to get rewarded at the end of The Blade Itself which basically leaves everyone starting where they begun.  Glokta had finished a series of assignments and is given a larger new one with bigger threats and bigger risks.  Logan, who left the North to escape fighting ends up with more fighting, Ferro is farther away from the Gurkish Empire than ever, Luthar wins his fencing match but doesn’t move up on the political ladder because of it, West beats his sister in a rage and then goes off to war.

The rewards are much smaller than that–a surprisingly touching scene is Glokta and West making up towards the end having cut ties due to a series of misunderstandings.  It’s the tiny things that matter, just like life.

My only quibbles are that there’s a little character crowding so some of them don’t get the time needed to make them interesting.  Ferro, in particular, comes off as a raging psycho and little else, also the Dogman and his crew show up rather late in the book, and I couldn’t really tell the characters apart. However those are the short side-plots in this book, and they’re passable, just not quite as dazzling as the action in Adua.

I’ve already started the next book, and will review it in due course, but for now if you want something a little different, a little clever, I’d strongly recommend picking up The Blade Itself.  You’ll either love it or hate it, but you’ll be left with an unforgettable experience either way.  I think it’s the best fantasy book I’ve read in a good ten years at least, perhaps the best book period.