Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke

I wanted to like this book.

(I'm very tempted to stop and leave it at that, but that would be lazy.)

Set in London, in the early 1800s, with Napoleon skirting around the edges; a period and area I'm rather fond of. And magicians. This should have been my sort of book.


I do not believe that a book should be a test of endurance, either of my mental stamina or the strength of my wrists. 782 pages is a long time, for both of these things. It could just be that the book didn't gel with me, but before it even came into my possession I'd been told by multiple people whose opinions I trust that 'the first 500 pages are a bit slow but then it picks up'. 500 pages of slow is a lot of slow.

By the time I'd waded my way through that 500, I no longer cared, not about the characters or the outcome of the story. Not caring is probably the worst reaction I can have to a book. There are plenty of terrible books I've read that I've cared about, in a rabid frantic frustrated sort of way, which worlds more love than this received. I reached the end, and thought "hoo-bloody-rah".

Which isn't to say it had this affect all the way through. I was enjoying myself at the beginning. Clarke has good control over her voice, and it is consistent throughout the entire book. Norrell, despite being one of the most annoying characters I have ever come across, is incredibly well drawn, and has more depth than all the other characters combined. (I felt a particular empathy to his concerns about his books, and the fact that people might touch them. I'm also now more aware of how ridiculous such concern looks from the outside, not that this will change my attitudes.)

I was also fond of Strange's adventures in Spain, if only because he was protaging.

(I'd almost go as far to say that Clarke didn't write a book set in the 1800s, but wrote an 1800s book. But, not having read many books from that period, it's entirely possible that that statement is a load of horse shit.)

(Still, she did work hard at it, but I do wonder at the wisdom of it. It's quite an accomplishment to write a book from another century, but it is THIS century's audience which will read it. The mindset is...different now.)

Having had a couple of days distance from the book, I'm left wondering exactly what the point was. The ending didn't satisfy me. There were loose ends, large ones, messy ones. It didn't end, it just stopped. Was there a point? I'm not sure of the message. Given that a prophecy was involved, one that had some sort of purpose behind it...I still can't see what was actually achieved. This, more than anything else, makes me resent 782 pages.

Doors have been opened, however. I will read her again.

Verdict: Make up your own mind.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Thud! - Terry Pratchett

This will be another short musing, as I generally feel with someone as popular as Pratchett, everyone knows already anyway. They already have and have read the book, and my opinion is worth bleargh.

For me, this book was largely miss. There were a few very lovely instances where he hit the spot, but overall, it was miss. This was surprising considering his last few books have, for me, been very hit. I felt that the themes didn't resonate, including weirdly enough, prejudice. It was there, it was clear, but I didn't feel it. The Summoning Dark didn't hit a nerve, and I wondered through the length of the book what it's actual purpose was.

Regardless, it's still a well written book, as Pratchett seems incapable of writing a bad book. I daresay I'll go back and read it at some stage, and wonder why it didn't work for me the first time around.

Verdict: It's Pratchett. You've already made up your mind.

And now, I am caught up on verdicts. Go me. (Which was why I chose to read Johnathon Strange & Mr Norrell as I knew it would take me a while to get through.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Midshipwizard Halcyon Blithe - James M. Ward

I didn't intent to buy this book. In fact, before I saw it in a bookshop, I'd never even heard of it. There are hundreds of books I've been meaning to buy for a very long time, but when I saw this, and that it combined His Majesty's Royal Navy and dragons, I couldn't very well not buy it. One of those Sir Tessa's dream come true books.

I'd like to say it is well written, but it's hit and miss. The first page made me cringe significantly, and I wondered if I hadn't made a rather large mistake. It comes from trying, and not quite suceeding, to affect a narrating voice reflective of the time. Formal, full of 'quite' and 'splendid'. Sometimes, Ward succeeds with this, other times it wobbles quite drastically. Having attempted to write a story with a strong and unfamiliar vernacular myself, I fully understand how hard it is, and even more the importance of maintaining it consistantly throughout the book.

Aside from that, he is also guilty of sentences that are wrong. Just wrong. He and possibly his editor need a smake for basic sentence structure.

In terms of overall structure, the story is quite simple. It is Midshipwizard Fifth Class Halcyon's Blithe first assignment to a naval ship, none other than on of the great dragonships, the Sanguine. He arrives, makes friends, makes enemies, learns the ropes, and inevitably saves the entire ship from certain destruction, because he's special. Yes, he's from a family famous for its accomplishments in the royal navy, a family with demon blood, he's the seventh son of a seventh son, a rope speaker, a dragon speaker, knows the articles of war inside out, good with a sword, etc etc etc. Everything he does, he does brilliantly. Every now and then, it got a little sickening.

This isn't Ward's first book, as I'd assumed. He has previously written for TSR, which explains why his world building is pretty damn good. Although the enemy, a race of evil shapeshifters, were fairly generic, the dragonships were truly magnificent. A lot of though has gone into their creation and utility (and ultimate destruction, which is a red herring that never comes about), and I probably took more joy in reading about the ship than anything else. Ships have souls, this I do believe, and to see one personified as a dragon that looked after the crew as the crew looked after it was wonderful, and struck a very true note.

Yes, red herrings. There are a great many of those. All sorts of things are hinted at, not at all subtly, only to never, ever, be mentioned again, let alone actually happen. This I found entirely vexing, as I waited to be surprised, all anticipation, for things that never occurred. Instead, all my expectations (which weren't high) were filled. I'm never fond of books which, while refusing to state outright who the antagonist is, will make absolutely no effort to hide their identity. If it's so obvious to me, the reader, it should be obvious to the characters as well.

Despite all this, I had an absolutely brilliant time in the book. I know most writers have a hard time turning off the inner editor while reading, which isn't a problem I seem to have. This book is incredibly rough, but at its core it is something author had a great deal of fun writing, and that comes through. For a book that isn't trying to revolutionise the industry, giving the reader a good time is all you can ask for, and in this, Ward succeeded wonderfully. I hope he will continue to write stories about Halcyon Blithe and the world he lives in, because I will continue to read them.

Verdict: will grate on your inner editor, and delight your inner sailor. Yar. I know ships aren't everyone's cup of tea, but if you have the sea bug, it's well worth it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

Is there anything to say about this book that hasn't already been said a thousand time before?

It's a good book. Well-written, and Gaiman does absurdist comedy quite well. I was very fond of the lime in particular. But I don't think he stretched his story-creating muscle much, and I didn't feel like I was reading anything new.

The 'special features' at the back startled me. As Peek said, it's not a DVD. With DVDs, just having the movie isn't enough, there needs to be extras as well. Books are there for the sake of having a story. From a writer's point of view, I quite enjoyed the cut scene, and the notebook, as it provided insight into Gaiman's writing process...but reader discussion questions? I dug my hooves in there. It's enough that I read the book and enjoyed it. I don't need to be told what I should be analysing about it, thank you very much.

And then, the dedication. I thought it was lovely. I also thought he asks for every shark-woman groupie he gets, from here on it.

Verdict: Yeah, I know. Short innit? But as I said, it's all been said before. It's a good book, well worth your time and money, but I don't know that it will open new doors in your mind.

Friday, November 04, 2005

I'd Forgotten That Colour

I had a moment of insecurity the other day. It came poncing up out of nowhere, sat down, made itself real comfortable, and didn't budge. Took me by surprise. Partly due to the extremely non-existent sleep I've been getting, partly due to the monthly rag time, and mostly completely uninvited.

Tiredness makes me crabby. This is generally inflicted upon other people.

Hormones make me glum. This is generally inflicted upon myself.

But insecurity? I can't remember when I last felt insecure. Hopeless, useless, apathetic and full of despair, but not insecure.

I'd forgotten quite how crippling it was. One of my main supports is that I know I'm a strong person, and the price of being strong is to be strong. My two feet are all I stand on and other such prideful sayings. To have that foundation up and disappear left me a bit shaken.

(But of course, the price of being strong is that I can never be weak, not to others nor myself, so I will not call friends at midnight for the sole purpose of reassuring myself that I'm not a waste of meat.)

It left quickly. It had no reason to stay. And it brought to my attention that I'm not an insecure person, not inside or out.

Chalk that up to one of the year's sucesses.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The ninjas have given up on bees, and they're resorting to summer instead.

The end is nigh. Doom is at hand. Etc.
The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

Here is a case where marketing actually worked on me. An excerpt of the book was sent in the mail with a newsletter, and because it was there, I read it, and was completely suckered in. How could I not be, when it ends on such words "Vlad Tepes is still alive." The fact that it was beautifully written didn't hurt at all, as I've been known to pick up excerpts for the sole purpose of reading out the horrid bits to annoy mum.

This is not a vampire book. It contains vampires, just as some foods may contain nuts, but don't taste like nuts at all. The vampires are a subtle menace, thwarting the protagonists, but not poncing around as stories tend to make vampires do. They remain unreachable, a mystery, and as such work incredibly well.

The protagonists themselves aren't tough, macho vampire hunters, or heros of any description. They're scholars, all of them, and aside from a remarkable intelligence, they're ordinary people, and remain ordinary people. This is, I think, one of the key succeses of the book.

I'm very guilty of pitting my characters against monsters that are unlikely to afflict anyone walking this earth, and I'm also guilty of having those characters become heros. Of being able to cope with it all, not necessarily well, but being able to come out the end in one piece, on top. I'm guilty, in my head, of being a hero. Ordinary people aren't. Ordinary people don't have armies, swords, BFG's, etc at their disposal, and ordinary people don't wound, let alone kill. That Kostova pitted her characters against some of the greatest monsters of time, and had them remain ordinary people, is a marvellous feat. It gives the book a grounding and an air of validity that drew me in much deeper than I would have otherwise gone.

As well as not being a vampire story, it isn't really a family story either. It's more of a travel book than anything else. As various characters travel to various cities in Europe and the Middle-East, each destination is a marvellous treasure that the character falls in love with, and I had no choice but to do so as well. Everything was wonderful, beautiful, a perfect individual day that would never be replicated. Food was magnificent. People were blessed. Everything had a history I can't even begin to imagine. If you're given to itchy feet, as I am, be warned; this book will make them itchier. I rue the current situation of the Middle East, as I now have a strong desire to see Istanbul, among other things. Kostova is incredibly evocative, and all her settings become characters themselves.

But...she gets a bit carried away with the story. To begin with, I don't know that she can cope with anything but first person. There are multiple POVs within, from the daughter, to the father, to the professor, to her mother, to monks who died in centuries ago - and they're all written in first person. This wouldn't be so bad if there were distinct voices between them, but for the most part, there aren't. The same measured, educated and refined voice dominates all, and so for a book that contains several POV characters, it reads as only one character. There were several times when I forgot exactly whose eyes I was reading through, and what year it was.

Then, her supposedly intelligent characters make assumptions that appear to be there for the sole purpose of the writer being able to pull back the curtain and shock them later. I'm not fond of situations in which the reader has information that the character needs, as it makes me impatient with the character and the story, as there's nothing left to reveal. That the characters don't possess this information for no very good reason at all makes it worse.

Ah, and then we come to the miraculous coincidences. There's nothing else to call the meeting of Turgut and James but out of the blue 'oh what luck!' to get the story moving along. Once I can handle, twice is far too often and smacks of laziness.

The reason for Helen's disappearance, and her continued disappearance, didn't work for me at all. At all.

Finally, the book is too long for the story. I don't usually say that, but with 100 pages to go, I was heartily sick and tired of them digging up one supposedly pointless clue after another, jumping from one dusty library to another, which is what they were doing for the majority of the book. It was interesting for the first part, then it got repetative, then boring. I just wanted them to hurry up and find Vlad's tomb, and get it over and done with. I shouldn't come to the end of the book with relief that it is finally over, I should approach it quickly, to know what happens, and sadly, knowing that I'll never be able to read it for the first time ever again.

It is still, however, a beautifully written book, and refreshingly different. It's full of love and mystery, with just the right amount of menace.

Verdict: Well worth the time, just remember about the last few pages.