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June 27, 2008

The Bat Tattoo - Russell Hoban

The Bat Tattoo - Russell Hoban

Amazon link to The Bat Tattoo - Russell Hoban

Book 27 in my 52 books in 52 weeks

I do quite enjoy the writing style of Russell Hoban, though I'm sometimes not quite sure any more what else it is that leads me back to reading his fiction. This is a fairly slight love story, about a pair of late middle aged people meeting and gradually connecting. The story has most of the Hoban trademarks; art appreciation and art history, sex, religion, and pleasingly it takes place around the streets of London, many of which I know well.

Rosewell Clark and Sarah Varley are the two main characters. Both are suffering from losses, and through a chance meeting at the V&A museum, along with a few other unlikely coincidences, they start to get to know each other. Clark is an estranged American earning a living making increasingly bizarre wooden sex toys for a mysterious patron. Sarah sells antiques at a market stall in Covent Garden. Some fun is made of the oddities of modern art at a competition in which Rosewell plans to enter a piece of his own.

I guess there is an intelligence here that is lacking in a lot of the books that you'll find in the top ten lists at the local bookstore. Hoban doesn't play with your emotions, he tells thoughtful but honest stories, and never gives easy answers to the philosophocal questions of life, love and death that he asks. The books are easy, and challenging, at the same time. His is a unique voice which I continue to enjoy.

[Note: I found a much better review on the Guardian website here. They like it a lot too.

Posted by se71 at 10:11 AM | Comments (0)

June 20, 2008

The Prefect - Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect - Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect - Alastair Reynolds

Book 25 in my 52 books in 52 weeks.

Another competent and entertaining science fiction book from Reynolds. Unfortunately, it's not that much more than that. There are not any great concepts in here and no compelling mysteries (well, a little one). It is set in the same universe that a lot of his previous novels have been. This time that action is centered near a planet which has thousands of orbiting habitats. The prefect in the title is a future lawman; part policeman, part judge, not unlike Judge Dredd. He is investigating a crime, where an explosion destroyed one of the habitats. But it's not that simple, of course, with conspiracies going back twenty years that threaten the future of the whole system.

I enjoyed it, but was unconvinced by some of the elements. The prefects are not allowed guns, but do have a weapon called a whiphound which is almost as deadly. A junior prefect makes a change to some computer code, and it is distributed, unchecked, to live systems. This is highly unlikely to take place, but is required by the plot, and so a major story element is nonsense, which annoyed me.

I think the focus on this small area of space was a mistake, and I'm looking forward to the next novel much more ("House Of Suns") as it promises a much larger canvas.

Posted by se71 at 04:14 PM | Comments (0)

June 11, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Michael Chabon

Book 24 in my 52 books in 2008

I am a science fiction fan, this is pretty obvious from my book choices. This recent novel won the Nebula Award, and has been nominated for the Hugo award - the top two awards in science fiction. In an attempt to explore new authors, I thought that would be a pretty good recommendation. I was wrong.

Chabon has written a detective story, one which leads from a simple murder, to an international conspiracy, not unlike Dan Brown's Da Vinci code. It's written in the Sam Spade gumshoe tradition, with a detective who drinks too much, smokes too much, has issues with women - you know the scene. He is Jewish, and I should have guessed from the title, but this isn't just a part of his character, it permeates the whole book. Every character is Jewish, the whole plot revolves around Jews, and their religion. Chabon uses a lot of Jewish words without explanation, and also makes up a few new Jewish sounding words, so that I spend a lot of time in the dark about what the hell was going on.

Oh, I did mention is has been classed as science fiction - didn't I?

This is not science fiction. Did Robert Harris's 'Fatherland' get onto the science fiction shelves - No? Like that novel, this is an alternate history book. In Fatherland, also a detective story, Germany wins World War II, and a detective in Germany some years later has to solve a crime. Here, the historical difference is that in 1940 many of the Jews in Europe are relocated to a remote island called Sitka in Alaska, and the Holocaust, though not averted, is reduced. World history is altered in other ways, some quite interesting, but never really explored, only mentioned in passing. In a way, this is a blessing, as the politics of the Israel/Arab/Palestinian situation is complicated enough, so if you don't understand that deeply, then the subtle changes that make it different will not help.

This 'What If' exercise is a device to explore the Jewish condition, to see how Jews would live if they'd been allowed to, and it's just plain boring unless you have some interest in that area. I feel cheated by this book, it was a complete waste of my time.

It is however a clever book, and there is a good detective story trying to get out. Chabon is no fool, he writes well and has interesting characters and relationships. Sometimes his detective hero Landsman gets into some unbelievable scrapes, and even more unbelievably gets out of them again, but that's forgivable in a detective story. I could have liked this a straight detective novel.

But I was sold something else completely, there is no science in this at all. The all pervasive religiousness of the story annoyed me immensely. I know I'm coming across here as anti-Jewish, but I'd feel exactly the same way about any other religion (I read a book by Russell Hoban last year called 'Pilgermann' which had way too much Christianity in it for example). A lot of praise has been given to the book by the SF community as it's a mainstream author who is straying into genre territory. I disagree with this; we have enough good SF authors and books out there; we don't need Chabon, and McCarthy ("The Road") and their like to raise the profile with their brand of SF-Lite.

Posted by se71 at 11:55 AM | Comments (0)

Jonathan Livingstone Seagull - Richard Bach

Jonathan Livingstone Seagull - Richard Bach

Book 23 in my 52 books in 2008

This is cheating somewhat, it's a very short book indeed, and I've read it before (though a very long time ago). I seem to remember quite liking it, and I was looking for something undemanding to read in bed while suffering from an annoying cold, and I saw it on the shelf.

[Spoilers below]

I didn't like it as much this time. I'm older and much more cynical. It seems to be some kind of fable or parable, with heavy religious overtones. The narrative is about a seagull, a special bird, who wants to learn to fly as fast as possible. Spoiling the story totally now, He abandons his flock, and is ourtcast by them, but keeps trying. Eventually he attains a skill so advanced, he visits heaven, and can transcend space and time. He becomes a teacher of other gulls (disciples) who go on to become teachers themselves spreading his word (gospel) to unbelievers (me!)

Actually, not only did I not think it good, I was insulted by it's simplicity. Not only is there all this heaven stuff, but something that annoyed me was that the gull always knew exactly how fast he was flying in MPH - that's a bit of a stretch of the imagination. Maybe not as much as believing in different levels of heaven and moving through the space/time continuum like Doctor Who, but enough to niggle.

I have no idea why this sold over 1 million copies, or why it was made into a film with a concept album/soundtrack by Neil Diamond (which I haven't heard). It's not worth it. But as a piece of 1970s pop culture, and a less than 30 minute read, I guess it has some historical interest.

Posted by se71 at 11:26 AM | Comments (0)

The Steep Approach to Garbadale - Iain Banks

The Steep Approach to Garbadale - Iain Banks

Book 22 in my 52 books in 2008

Another fiction, as opposed to science fiction, novel from Banks. Slowly but surely I'm nearing completing the full set (the SF I'm bang up to date, with just the recent hardback, 'Matter' outstanding).

The beginning is a bit disconcerting, as you try to work out who the book is going to be about, but it quickly settles down and we get the story of a man called Alban, born to priviledge, in a rich family successful through the business of selling a game that is not unlike monopoly.

There are several themes here; Alban's mother's death, the proposal by an American company to take over the family firm, and Alban's lovelife, especially his relationship with his first cousin Sophie. They are all handled interestingly, you feel as if a conclusion will be reached, you enjoy the journey. In short, you feel throughout as if you are in a safe pair of hands, and won't be disappointed. Nor are you. However, I wasn't quite interested enough a lot of the time. Alban didn't seem to ever make his mind up about anything, or have any clear plan, and so it was difficult to get behind him.

His family were a quite a bunch of eccentrics, quite amusingly described, and one scene with Sophie was so well crafted, and had such a deliciously filthy punchline, I got a few looks on the train as I tried and totally failed to suppress my schoolboy sniggers. The whole book was saved by that page in my opinion.

Sometimes I feel as if there ought to be a section in the bookshop for mainstream novels that contain enough sex to be reclassified onto the erotic shelves. Sometimes I think the authors go a bit further than we really needed for the plot. Banks has done it again, here. In fact, it seems to me to be an increasing trend. I think it's lazy writing, and annoying, as I'm not likely to recommend books containing detailed sex to my mum, or my children to read. My 10 year old asked me the other day why books don't have certificates, like films do, U, PG, 12, 15, 18. I had to guess at an answer, which I think is that they are in a way self certificated - the barriers of entry are higher and a child is unlikely to pick up an adult book filled with violence and sex. Even if they start to read it, if they are mature enough to do that, perhaps they are already mature enough for the content. A film has no such barrier - if it's on screen, anyone can see it. This subject is a particular bugbear of mine, one day I'll try and rationalise it all out.

'The Steep Approach to Garbadale' is a fairly traditional novel, well written, slightly flat in a way, but enjoyable and with a few great trademark Banks scenes.

Posted by se71 at 10:20 AM | Comments (0)

June 01, 2008

52 Books in 52 Weeks - May 2008

A much better month in terms of numbers, though very mixed in quality.

I finally finished off "The Neutronium Alchemist", which I thought was great. I'm really looking forward to the 1300 odd pages of the final volume, which I promise to read in the next year.

For a complete change in pace, I went to cowboy stories set in Wyoming, which was also great, in a different way.

I wouldn't actually recommend any of the other three books, they were OK, and I always try to finish what I start, but for 'A quite Belief in Angels", I really struggled with that rule. Watchmen is a science fiction graphic novel, which I also found disappointing, and the Banks novel was just an accomplished though unstartling effort from a great novelist (in a way, similar to how I felt about 'Saturday' from Ian McEwan last year)

19 The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F Hamilton
20 Close Range by Annie Proulx
21 A Quiet Belief In Angels by RJ Ellory
22 Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
23 The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

Posted by se71 at 11:07 AM | Comments (0)