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The Villages

Date: 2008-10-07 22:06
Subject: books
Security: Public
Location:the utility room in the sky
Music:blackmore's night
Once again, it's been a while since I did this, so I'll probably be going on for a while. And, to spare you all, I'm going to do it over

First up is Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. A reread, but I do like reading this book. Now I think about it, this may be the second time I've read it this year. Anyway, those of you who've read it know what I'm talking about, and those of you who haven't really ought to give it a try. Personally, I was hooked within a couple of pages. The bit about Hiro's pizza delivery uniform stopping a bullet like a wren hitting a patio door but letting sweat through like a breeze wafting through a napalmed forest. I liked that. And the line about the batteries of his car having enough potential energy to fire a pound of bacon into the asteroid belt.

Next is London Lights, by James Hamilton. This is a survey of the scientists and artists who `lit up' London (in some cases literally) during the fifty years between Trafalgar and the Great Exhibition. It's full of detail and personality, and to a great extent that's it's problem. It's too dense, and there are just too many people. Unlike The Plot Against Pepys, which approached its period with a similar eye for detail, there's no narrative threading through it that you can hang onto. It's a little like being at a huge party and having other guests introduced to you, individually or in groups, at bewildering speed. I can't fault Hamilton's research, which is painstaking, but maybe it would be better to dip into the book now and again, rather than to read all the way through.
Actually, the most startling thing I found was that it was only fifty years between Trafalgar and the Great Exhibition, between Hornblower and the birth of the Modern Age, so to speak.

Next are The Last Temptation, A Place Of Execution, The Mermaids Singing and The Wire In The Blood, by Val McDermid. I would never have read these but I went to the press launch of the ITV adaptation of A Place Of Execution and they were giving out copies of the novel and The Wire In The Blood - the series was produced by Robson Green's production company, Coastal, which also makes the Wire In The Blood series.
ITV drama is often pretty poor, but Place Of Execution was very good, I thought, and 'nuff respect to Coastal for doing a good job.
So I read the books, and quite liked them, so I bought a couple more and liked them a little less. The Wire In The Blood is the first of the Tony Hill books, and to my mind it's the one that works the best. It's a serial killer thriller, natch, but Hill makes an intriguing and flawed central character and all the other characters and the northern setting are very well written.
The Mermaids Singing doesn't work quite as well - several of the characters work in television, and I thought that setting seemed a little unreal, but then I don't work in television, so what do I know? But yes, very well-written again.
The Last Temptation is kind of an uncomfortable book. It kind of butt-welds two plot strands - a serial killer travelling the rivers and canals of Europe killing psychologists and an undercover investigation of a Berlin-based people-trafficker - together. Taken separately, both strands work, but together they kind of make your attention wander.
A Place Of Execution, set around the disappearance of a young girl from a Northern village in the early 1960s, is a stand-alone, and I really enjoyed it. The ending came out of absolutely nowhere - didn't see it coming at all.
I like McDermid's stuff, but I think I'll give her a rest for a while.

Next is The Good German, by Joseph Kanon. Brilliant book. Its evocation of Berlin around the time of the Potsdam Conference is a masterpiece and I really like the way Kanon writes. Journalist Jake Geismer returns to Berlin - where he was stationed just before the War - for `one last story,' but also to find out what happened to his lover. And he gets drawn into a plot involving Nazis, Russians, the various Occupying Forces, rocket scientists and corrupt officers. Kanon paints a portrait not only of a destroyed capital but a destroyed people, and of the victors strip-mining Germany for everything - and everyone - that will be of use to them in the struggle that's coming. Much recommended.

Next is The Lodger, by Charles Nichol. I mentioned a few months ago Bill Bryson's book about Shakespeare, a slim volume which tells us everything that's known about the Bard. Nichol takes just one of the things we know about Shakespeare - he gave evidence in a lawsuit when he was lodging at a house in Silver Street in the City of London - and produces a somewhat thicker volume. It's not a bad book, I was just a bit `so what'? about it. Nichol doesn't have the touch of the authors of The Plot Against Pepys when it comes to evoking a time and a place, and we really don't finish the book knowing anything new about Shakespeare.

Next is Fourtold by Michael Stone. Those of you who know me will know I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about short fiction and the lack of it on bookshop shelves, so this collection of four novellas made my heart lift. Particularly as the novellas are very, very good. The first, `San Ferry Ann,' I read as a disquisition on faith and loss set in Belgium during he flu epidemic that immediately followed the First World War. `The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark' is about a young man whose mouth is on his forehead, and who visits a very rum clinic which seems to have been designed by MC Escher. `The Terracotta Warrior' would make an absolutely cracking Hammer film - 1920s setting, country house, seemingly indestructible creature. And `Lemon Man' follows two seemingly-unconnected threads, one about the unravelling of the marriage and life of a young man in the Midlands, the other about a world apparently taken over by angels.
Very occasionally, I was reminded of Clive Barker - the early good stuff - but Stone is very much his own man. The setting of `San Ferry Ann' was unusual - I don't think I've seen that before, and it says a lot for the overall strength of the book that, while I thought this was the weakest story, I still enjoyed it a lot. My favourites were `Kasper Clark' and `The Terracotta Warrior,' `Clark' because it's very funny and completely barking mad, and `Warrior' because it's a very old-fashioned English horror story of a kind I haven't seen in a long time, and because it has a brilliant gag near the end that you'll miss if you blink but which, if you think about it, the whole story has been working up to.
Much recommended. 'Nuff respect, Mike.

Next is Brasyl by Ian Mcdonald. I've been a fan of Mcdonald ever since Desolation Road and Out On Blue Six, and he just keeps on getting better. This is a story of multiple universes, quantum computing, seventeenth-century Jesuit priests, present-day reality-television producers and slightly future-day thieves, all wound together in a plot which spans the whole of Creation. It's set in Brasil, as the title implies, and in places it's overwritten to a technicolor degree. My only quibble is that sometimes it's too overwritten and that the ending sort of storms along too quickly, but otherwise it richly deserves the praise that better critics than myself have heaped upon it.

And finally The Wheel Of Darkness by Lincoln Child and Donald Preston. The Preston/Child books featuring Special Agent Pendergast have been a bit of a guilty pleasure for me for quite a while. He turned up first in Relic where he was a secondary character - and the better for it. Then again in the sequel, Reliquary, where he was more centre-stage. I thought Pendergast was an unusual and interesting creation - an FBI agent with the manners of a Southern gent and the investigative powers of Sherlock Holmes. He became the lead in A Cabinet of Curiosities, and again in Still Life With Crows, and both books were okay, but then Preston and Child began, not to jump the shark, so much as get a ladder, put it against the side of the shark, and start climbing. The next three books, detailing Pendergast's battle against his brother Diogenes - the Moriarty to his Holmes, the Fu Manchu to his Nayland Smith - started to get more and more ridiculous. And now we come to this one, which begins with a theft from a Himalayan monastery and ends on an ill-fated Atlantic cruise liner. Pendergast has become a caricature, but that's okay because that's all most of the other characters are too, the plot's just absurd and the thing's slickly but almost carelessly-written, as if Preston-Child couldn't be bothered to try harder. I'll give them one more book to pull things back together, then they're on their own, I'm afraid.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
User: hutch0
Date: 2008-10-08 22:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I thought Pendergast worked really well in the first two books, when he wasn't the central character. It's when he moved to centre stage and we started to find out about his Southern Gothic background and his mighty mental powers that he started to turn into a cartoon. Who's Gary Stu?
My comments about the lack of short fiction are usually aimed at the big chain shops rather than independents like you, but you put your finger on the problem: it doesn't sell. And I'm convinced it's because people don't appreciate the short story form any more. And I want to do something to change that.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
User: hutch0
Date: 2008-10-08 23:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for explaining that. I'm sometimes baffled by how little I know about what's going on.
You're right - in a world of twenty-four-hour channel surfing and politics-by-soundbite you'd think short stories would do better, wouldn't you? It's a mystery to me as well.
Your customers, of course, have a valid point, but dammit, I got into science fiction through reading collections and anthologies, and if it was good enough for me it should be good enough for everyone.
I mourn for your short story collection. *removes hat* *bows head*
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User: mylefteye
Date: 2008-10-08 00:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hey, that was mighty generous of you, sir!

I'm keeping a medal tally and your regard for The Terracotta Warrior means it can join San Ferry Ann on the bottom step of the rostrum. Kasper is in second place while the Lemon Man is on the top step, but there's very little in it.

I'm not familiar with the books you mentioned above, but I read Ian MacDonald's amazing Sacrifice of Fools many years ago and I can only wonder why I haven't read it again. Maybe it's because the only other MacDonald novel I've read is Necroville, which I absolutely hated.
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User: hutch0
Date: 2008-10-08 22:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I didn't mean any disrespect to `San Ferry Ann.' I enjoyed it and I really liked the setting; it's just that the other three stories are so strong.
I haven't read Sacrifice Of Fools, but I enjoyed Necroville.
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User: sarcobatus
Date: 2008-10-08 01:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
First off, let me just say I'm glad you're feeling better, Hutch.

Some interesting books you've reviewed here. I'll need to give Snow Crash a go, since it was a novel I'd started reading a few years ago but never finished.

Ian McDonald is a name I've heard a great deal about, and will give his novels a try, based on your review.

I loved Relic and Reliquary, enjoyed The Cabinet of Curiosities, then lost interest in the authors' novels with Still Life . . .. Very disappointing. Pendergast is a terrific character, too interesting and well fleshed-out for Preston and Child to abandon him to formula writing the way they have. I think both writers are focusing attention on their solo careers, rather than delivering the goods to Pendergast fans.

I love a good mystery, can't turn one down. The perfect novel for me is one that simultaneously delivers mystery, intrigue, and the supernatural or horrific. Irresistible.
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User: hutch0
Date: 2008-10-08 23:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks. I actually went to work today, which may have been a mistake but made my boss relatively happy.
Everyone should read Snow Crash. It's a terrific book. But everyone should read Stephenson's previous novel, Zodiac (sometimes known as Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller) which isn't science fiction at all but is very funny in places.
Mcdonald, too, I can recommend. I haven't read all his stuff, but I've enjoyed what I have read.
I was kind of disappointed when Pendergast was dropped from the movie of Relic; I was looking forward to seeing how the writers and director handled him, but it looks as if they simply decided to write him out. On the face of it, The Wheel Of Darkness is your perfect novel, containing as it does mystery, intrigue, and both supernatural and horrific. Sadly, it sucks the big one too. It's a shame; I thought Cabinet was an unusually rich novel, for what it was.
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User: sarcobatus
Date: 2008-10-09 00:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Cabinet was indeed a very rich book. I enjoyed reading it every bit as much as Relic, which happens to be one of my favorite "monster" stories. The producers of the movie blew it when they left Pendergast out of the film, didn't they? When I first heard the novel was adapted to screen I jumped for joy. Then I got pissed off when I started watching it. What a disappointment.

I think there have been only two occasions for me when I thought movie makers did justice to screen adaptations of novels: The Silence of the Lambs and No country for Old Men.

I haven't read Wheel yet, still need to read Book of the Dead. Did you ever read Thunderhead by Preston and Child? It's an entirely preposterous plot, sans Pendergast, but I had fun with it anyway. Smithback is the recurring character.

I'll have my son mail me his copy of Snow Crash. He loved it, recommended it to me about eight years ago.

Edited at 2008-10-09 12:07 am (UTC)
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User: hutch0
Date: 2008-10-09 23:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I didn't think Relic was a bad film as such; I think I'd have been perfectly happy with it if I hadn't read the book. As it was, I kept expecting this really pale bloke in a formal suit to walk in and start telling Tom Sizemore what to do. Yes, a disappointment.
I may have bought Thunderhead at some point around the time we started having our attic converted - I know I bought The Ice Limit. If so, it's still in a box somewhere waiting to be unpacked. I honestly can't recommend Wheel to you, or to anyone. And the Diogenes trilogy is really only for the die-hard fan; I found it rather wearing, after a promising start.

Speaking of adaptations, I haven't seen No Country yet, but I hear it's pretty faithful to the novel, which I enjoyed. Brian de Palma's adaptation of James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia isn't too shabby, either.

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