Sunday, 22 September 2013

This Is How Review

By MJ Hyland.

Let me start with an aside.  My copy of the book has a quote from Hilary Mantel on the front cover and it says this: "Aims straight at the truth and the heart."  What does that even mean?  Did Hilary just hit 'click' on a random word generator?  It's not even praise!  If I was Hyland I'd be swapping that with something like, "This is a terrific book" - Salman Rushdie.  Or something.  But I digress.

This is a book in two parts about a man who wants a hug.  Part One is 147 of the best pages of a book I've read in yonks.  Our asperger-y anti-hero, Oxtoby, rocks up in a seaside town after a relationship breakdown and tries to make new friends and start a new job.  He says, does and thinks everything wrong.  I got tense reading it, knowing he was continually fucking everything up and I wanted him to get it right, but he's some sort of mild-mannered psychopath who can't pull it together.  I knew it was leading to some sort of horrible climax, but unfortunately for me that horrible climax came at the end of Part One.  Part Two is 230 pages of finishing scenes and it goes all Breakback Mountain and shit.  If the book was just Part One I'd be lauding it as one of the finest short novels written in years, but it's not.  There's a Part Two that is kinda glued on.  If it was a movie, every chapter of Part Two would feel like the movie is winding up and the credits are about to roll, and I'd be making sure I've picked up my rubbish and I have my phone with me, but then thinking, "Oh, wait, there's another scene..."  It did have a terrific last chapter but.  In fact, fuck Rushdie, she can put this quote on front cover of the next print run:  "Great Part One and terrific last chapter" - Perseus Q.

I give it a B-minus.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Things That Are Review

By Amy Leach

I don't like the taste of pumpkin and as such I don't like pumpkin soup (or any other pumpkin-based dishes).  I am not saying pumpkin is intrinsically bad, or that people who like pumpkin are my inferiors; I'm just saying I don't like it.

This book is pumpkin.  If you liked it, good on you.  You are my equal (unlike people who liked The Kite Runner or Memoirs Of A Geisha: you are my inferior).

I didn't get past page 12.  Others may love it though.  She can certainly write, but I had no taste for her writing style or subject matter.  It's a book of, umm, creative essays? Anecdotes? Vignettes?  Observations?  

Here are three of my own observations of page 11 and 12 (which has something to do with salmon).

She verbed a noun: "..the music starts to dance the people passing by."
That was ominous.

She is adjective heavy: " are the music's toy, juggled into its furious torrents, jostled into its foamy jokes, assuming its sparklyblue or greenweedy or brownmuddy tinges, being driven down to the dirgy bottom where rumble-clacking stones are lit by waterlogged and melancholy sunlight..."

Allow me to re-write that extract:  " are a musical toy juggled into torrents, assuming its muddy tinges, being driven down to the dirgy bottom where stones are lit by a melancholy sunlight..."

I prefer my version, but I didn't write the book, Amy Leach did, and she is free to write it how she sees fit. 

I had no idea what she was talking about:  "...even if you have built masterful Aspen castles in your mind, have toppled whole forests to throttle the writhing elements into a liveably serene personal pond; if you have longtime sculled your ingenious fins to withstand the tumble-crazy currents, there is music that will dissolve your anchors..."

Even if I what? I'm not a salmon anyway so maybe it doesn't apply to me.  But even if I appropriate salmon-brain, I'm still not interested or happy with the adjectives and metaphors.  It all reminds me of new poems by 19 year olds at a Creative Writing night course.

Still, many people love this, so, you know, I'm sorry I didn't finish it, but the thing is, I like stories.  

Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Left Hand Of Darkness Review

by Ursula Le Guin

This was the second of two sci-fi books I chose to read because some geezer in The Guardian said non sci-fi fans might like them.  The first one I read, The Sparrow (reviewed below) was fucking shithouse. This one was fucking great!A cracker of a read.

Written in 1969 but set way in the future, Earth is one of 80 or so human-species' dwelling planets that belong to 'The Ekumen' which is similar to Star Trek's federation, and this Ekumen has sent a sole envoy to the cold and icy planet of Gethen to invite them to be the next planet on the team.  Though all Ekumen planets, including Earth, have evolved from human ancestors on some planet called Haim, they have all evolved slightly differently on their own worlds.  In the case of Gethen, they're ambisexual.  A gender only surfaces when they screw and it can go either way, so a Gethenian could be a mother to one child and a father to another.

My friend AC Fanta expressed a fear that it would be some post-modern feminist rant about gender, but it wasn't at all.  'Gender' was of course discussed, but the discussion was never preachy, academic, political or feminist.  It was just a thing (the best bits was when the King of one of the nations heard that all the other planets had gendered humans and referred to all of them as 'perverts', and most brilliantly, though we sort of approximated all the Gethens as men (because they were Kings and Prime-Ministers and so on) there was sexual tension between the (male) envoy and the main Gethenian character).  But all of this gender stuff never once interfered with the excitement of the story itself.  There was political intrigue as to which nation of Gethen would be the first to accept the fanciful notion of beings from another planet, there was a great trek, some escapes, some torture... it had all the excitement of a classic yarn and the gender stuff was just icing on the cake.

I give it a B-plus.

Friday, 30 August 2013

The Sparrow Review

By Mary Doria Russell

A few weeks ago in The Guardian someone wrote an article recommending five sci-fi novels for those who don't normally dig sci-fi novels.  That's me.  I picked two based on their synopsis (synopsises? synopsi?) and this was the first one I read.

All the exciting stuff (that I had a vague interest in) happened in the last two chapters but the 300 or so pages getting there was a drag.

20% of the book is a bit-interesting story of the first humans to travel to another planet (Rakhat, which I pronounced in my head as 'rack-hat' but could've been 'ra-kart') and make first contact with a sentient and advanced species.  The humans who go there are a mix of Jesuit Priests and their science-y mates.  They safely land on Rakhat and things don't go very well.  All but one of them die (that's not a spoiler by the way - we find that out in Chapter One).

35% of the book is ruminations on whether God is still with you if you travel to another planet, does God condone evil, at what point does service to God become counter-productive, what is the role of God in a priest and what is the role of God in a lay-person, and what does God want from us, generally.  Being an atheist with a total absence of belief in God this all meant nothing to me, and more to the point, being an anti-theist (opposed to anyone believing in God in the first place) meant that I did not give one holy flying fuck of a shit about any of this.  I wanted to punch them all.

35% of the book is set back on Earth where the Jesuits beg the one survivor to tell them all what really happened on Rakhat, but he doesn't want to talk about it.  "Oh please tell us," they say, and he says, "No, I don't want to," for about 150 arduous pages.  Fuck it drags.

10% of the book is non-witty 'witty' discussions between the main characters as they eat and drink.  I hated them all and was gladdened as each of them died horribly.  That's not a good sign.

Oh, there was also some 'sexual tension' meant to be happening, but it was the most chaste sexual tension one could conjure.  Desire was absent.  There were no erections. All sexuality was discussed within the framework of morality, functionality, religion, biology and love.  Not once was there a "hanging for a root".

Religious-driven science fiction is like putting raspberry jelly on a pizza.

I give it an E.  Fail!

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Dangling Man Review

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow, Nobel Laureate, is best known for his masterpieces The Adventures Of Augie March and Herzog.  Of course, I've read neither of those.  Not just because I'm a wanker who prefers the lesser known works of respected authors, but because I only had $3 on me when I wandered into Fowlers' Second-Hand Books, Lorne, and this book, at $2.50, was the only Bellow I could afford.  I did in fact read Bellow's The Victim several years ago and I recall none of it; oh, there was a scene on a subway I think, or at a train station, but that's it.  But I do remember I thought it was an okay book, and that Bellow was worth another shot.  He was certainly worth a $2.50 shot. 

Dangling Man is about a Canadian-American called Joseph.  He has enlisted in the US Army (WWII) but due to some red-tape about his Canadian citizenship there's a hold up and he is forced to wait indefinitely for the call up.  It could be tomorrow, it could be never.  He doesn't know.  Thing is but, he'd quit his job, and they couldn't take him back even as a casual, and he can hardly apply for other jobs because he could be called up the next day, and so he's just stuck at home, waiting, waiting.  His missus has a job, and she's become the bread winner.  They live in a small rooming house (Chicago).

With nothing to do, and little money, he gets a kind of cabin fever.  He reads Goethe, among other whacko things to wile away the time.  Goethe recounts the tale of an Englishman so overwhelmed with the ennui of having to get dressed and undressed every day that he kills himself.  Joseph understands this.  That's where he's at.  He's edgy.  So edgy, that in social situations, with no provocation, he becomes a cantankerous cunt.  Like an un-funny George Costanza, he ruins every social engagement (for everyone), every party, every small catch-up with friends, every interaction with neighbours - he ruins them all by being hopelessly argumentative and anti-social. 

I know people like this.  The type for who the question "How are you going?" can be answered with "What do you mean by that?"

Those with smarts, but no job, little money, no school to go to, no real reason to even get up in the morning... and weirdly lacking the drive to dig themselves out of the hole.  Idle hands make ... With so much time to spare, they tend to over-think everything, see conspiracies where there are none, feel pressed, pressured, stressed, obsess over innocuous tasks that a busy person would take in their stride.  I think it was in the movie Casablanca there was some line that ran:  If you want something important done, ask someone who is already busy.  I have found that to be anecdotally true.  And the thing is, I dislike people who are both idle and cantankerous.  I can take one or the other but not both.  They bug me.  And now I got stuck for 140 pages with one of them. 

As for why he keeps causing scenes...

"It may be that I am tired of having to identify a day as 'the day I asked for a second cup of coffee', or 'the day the waitress refused to take back the burned toast', and so want to blaze it more sharply, regardless of the consequences..."

There have been many novels written by fictional social misfits in a kind of diary-form.  It's almost like a rite of passage for white morose male authors.  Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground is the best of them (because at least he does something, eventually), and I guess Kafka's The Trial is another that works.  The very worst of them is Hell by Henri Barbusse which I read a couple of months ago (here's my rating: F.  F for Fucking Shithouse.)  Bellow's book is somewhere in the middle.  He captured the spirit of an idle man very well, but he failed to elicit any sympathy from me.  I just wanted Joseph to go to the fucking war.  Oh, and on that, I wondered why he would even want to go to a war.  He seemed too cynically erudite.  But he worded it beautifully (in a way that sums up my feelings about US aggression towards, say, Taliban): " between their imperialism and ours, if a full choice were possible, I would take ours." 

Also, in the end, he just wanted the regimentation.  A reason to get up in the morning.  Don't we all?

I give it a C.

Sunday, 21 July 2013


Hurry up, Fatty.

Yeah yeah, I haven't done any reviews for fucking years but because the 6,000 or so pages of George RR Martin's 'Song of Ice and Fire' (commonly known as Game of Thrones) took over my life for a few weeks I felt compelled to address it in this (now empty) forum. To get through 6000 pages I must've liked it. The start of that sentence infers the end of it. It's not like I was paid to read it. I lost sleep, obsessively checked things on Wiki so I was sure I had things right, had strong opinions on what happened and what should happen, and I became attached to characters that I loved, and loved to hate. So why do I feel so annoyed? Here's why.

* "Truth be told". If one more character said 'truth be told' just one more time I was going to hurt something. There's options. "To be honest..." is one such example. Even if he halved his usage of "truth be told" by giving equal weight to the just as banal "to be honest" it would have been a more enjoyable read. And you can't suggest it was just Westerosi idiom, because Free Cities and Wildling characters also said it. And yes, I argue I used the right word then when I called it idiom, because neither 'truth' (necessarily) nor 'telling' was at play. Also, saying 'idiom' makes me sound smarter than if I said 'figure of speech'. Fuck you. It's been a while since I've expressed myself with words. I have a baby, and I watch 'Giggle & Hoot' every day of my life.

* Did not give one flying fuck of a shit about anything that happened to Daenerys or anyone Daenerys met or where she went after Book One. Didn't care. I vagued out. By Book Five she was in some place called Meereen, and I forgot how she got there, and everyone's name had a 'Zh' in it, and there were sell-sword companies that were politically manoeuvring in and around her and I kept forgetting which was which and couldn't work out who I was supposed to be supporting. I wanted her and her dragons to just fuck off, and leave Westeros alone to have a good old fashioned war betwixt Lannisters, Starks, Greyjoys, Baratheons and young Griff (no spoilers here people), and some Others just for the lark of it. Daenerys and her fucking stupid dragons smell of deux ex machina. And she's a brat. "I want my kingdom!" And running around the desert begging strangers for armies like a junkie begs for heroin on Smith Street. She's as bad as her brother, despite the characters insisting she's not. But at least I hated her brother - that gave him dimension. Daenerys is a zero. Every time I ended a chapter I became excited about the next chapter... would it be Tyrion? Davos? Theon? Arya? Will Ramsay Bolton make an appearance? Like a kid on Christmas Day I would be overwhelmed with hope and happiness, then I'd see the name 'Daenerys' and my heart would sink. They'd start like this: "Seven Ejaculating Cows stormed into the palace wearing golden tassals above their shining armour.  Each were branded with the mark of the Zhodshxschena. Zhodrea no Fzho was breaking his fast. Truth be told, he was expecting them earlier..." and I'd think, "Who are the ejaculating cows again? Are they good guys or bad guys? Which one was Zhodrea no Fzho again? Oh fuck it, I'm going to bed..."

Both of you, FUCK OFF.

* I love books about power, sex, death, love and religion. Every book should be about those things. But no, writers insist on peddling introspective crap about ageing, or family, or longing, or duty, or 'passivity' (yes, you, David Foster Wallace - lucky I wasn't writing reviews when I read Infinte Jest because you would have been fucked. Up. (I'm sorry you're dead though - 'A Supposedly Fun Thing...' was brilliant)) or worse:  'feelings'. So finally I get a popular 6000 page epic on the very themes I demand in a book, but it's written by a guy who says 'truth be told' all the time, and he's making us wait an eternity for the next book (hurry the fuck up!) and his (arguably) main character is so boring I wish she came to life so I could have her killed. Some people were trying to kill her. Quarthians. Or Yunka'ianese. Or Ejaculating Cows. I can't remember, it was confusing, but I do remember thinking, "Oh please do it."

* I wish someone else wrote it.

** ***

But what the fuck. I loved it. I hated to love it, but I loved it. A-minus.