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Sun, 2 Oct 2011

September 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In September 2011 I read the following books:

1. A Feast For Crows, by George R. R. Martin

Predictably, the quality is still dropping. Yet again, the number of people and factions is confusing, but this time the confusion is compounded by confusion over what they're all doing. Some key characters' personalities have changed drastically - for, perhaps, understandable reasons, but it's still a bit jarring when a previously amoral character "finds god", so to speak, or goes batshit-insane. Actions and events are confused too, as the war in the previous volumes has mostly fizzled out and the victors are mopping up the few remaining hold-outs and the land is crawling with displaced bands of soldiers from both sides, who have taken up a life of banditry. It's still worth reading if you've stuck with the series so far, but there's no way that you can read this without having read the previous three volumes.

I don't mind long series of books, but I am somewhat surprised by the number of authors who write them without leaving any way for new readers to jump in half way through and to actually understand what's going on. It seems that in modern sci-fi and fantasy it is almost required that authors make their second and subsequent volumes in a series completely unapproachable for new readers! This isn't the case elsewhere. Consider, for example, the Poirot or Flashman stories, or for a series with more concrete links between them instead of merely sharing a character or two, Wilbur Smith's sequence of books set in ancient Egypt, or older sci-fi such as Asimov's Foundation series.

2. Glory Lane, by Alan Dean Foster

First impressions of this book - from the cover art and the blurb on the back cover - are not good. The cover art by Jim Gurney is similar to that of Josh Kirby on Pratchett's covers, only not as good, and the blurb makes it sound like just a bad comedy of one-dimensional automatons. So it's a good thing that the book was free froma fellow Bookmooch and user I didn't see it before requesting it.

Right from the start, there are at least two Real Characters, plus a couple who are, if a bit stereotyped, are at least three dimensional. Incidental characters who pop up later are also reasonably well-drawn. The plot is, of course, absurd. We knew that from the cover art, and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but that doesn't really matter. The comedy is primarily in observing the characters, and I recommend it as a bit of light reading. Don't expect actual quality, but it is at least a quick and entertaining read.

3. The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby, translated by Jeremy Leggatt

According to the front cover, this is "one of the great books of the [20th] century". Seeing that it was published in 1997, that means that it is supposedly up there with Churchill's "History of the English-Speaking Peoples", Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", Kafka's "Metamorphosis", Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath", and, because I have to get a great French book into the list, Camus' "L'Etranger". No, this is not one of the great books of the 20th century. Nor is it "now a major motion picture", as is also claimed on the cover. The French make some excellent films, but the only ones which come close to being "major" are "Les Visiteurs" and "Léon". On the other hand, it is, perhaps, as some of the back-cover blurb says, "the most remarkable memoir of our time", because of the method in which it was written. The author, who was completely paralysed apart from his head, dictated it by blinking. I'm kinda surprised that he did it by having his secretary go through the entire alphabet (in letter-frequency order) for each letter and he would blink at the appropriate place, instead of using Morse code.

You won't be surprised to learn, given the method of writing, that it's very short - just 140 widely-spaced semi-large-print pages, with a blank page before each of the three or four-page chapters. There's very little here. But what there is is beautiful. I read an English translation, and it's clear that the beautiful language is at least in part the work of Jeremy Leggatt, the translator. The beautiful content, however, is all Bauby. There's no connecting narrative, certainly no story - just a few of his thoughts, reminiscences from before the accident which crippled him, and observations of his life in hospital, but despite that, I recommend it.

4. The Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne

This book unfortunately exists in many different editions, with various cuts and abridgements from the French original. The edition I read is the Project Gutenberg edition, originally published as a serial in the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph in 1876. You should be careful which edition you choose to read, as many editions are abridged from the French original, and British editions in particular were often quite heavily cut because of anti-Imperial sentiment in the book.

It is the tale of a handful of men (all square-jawed and highly competent, of course) who escape from a besieged city by balloon during the American civil war, and are blown by a storm to an unknown island in the south Pacific. There they set to building and acquiring all the necessities of civilised Victorian life, having occasional adventures with bad weather and pirates. At a few moments, there are helpful interventions by a mysterious outside force - and hence the name of the book.

But three things are far more mysterious. First of all, how they got there. Even in Verne's time, it was known that hurricanes and other storms cycle around the northern and southern oceans, never crossing the equator and never crossing significant land-masses. How, then, does a balloon get blown in a single storm from Virginia to somewhere roughly a quarter of the way from New Zealand to Chile, across land and across the doldrums? Second, the geology of the island. Again, it was well-known in Verne's time that you don't find sedimentary and igneous rock together in the way that he shows. It is ridiculous to find a seam of coal in the side of an active volcano! Finally, the island has some very odd flora and fauna, seemingly picked from lots of different places all over the world. Particularly odd are the species of rabbits which can be trapped by baiting snares with flesh. I'm quite sure that Verne knew that rabbits are vegetarians!

Those aside, which will offend modern readers but perhaps are allowable because Verne's original readers were barely literate nineteenth century savages and so they let him hang a story off them, if you can suspend your disbelief, there's a half-decent story here. It's very much in the "Boys' Own Paper" mould, with little thought for the consequences of projects such as re-directing rivers or exterminating species. There is, of course, nothing wrong with either of these things, but it must be done carefully - which our Victorian heroes do not. Never mind, they don't suffer for it.

After many adventures, a climax is reached where the island's volcano comes back to life, their protector is found and then dies, and the island is finally destroyed in a cataclysmic eruption. The dénouement is I'm afraid rather disappointing and positively reeks of Deus Ex Machina. They all survive the massive explosion, just happening to end up on the only bit of rock left above water; there's no food or fresh water but a ship arrives just in the nick of time; and despite losing everything else, including the ship that they were building, the colonists manage to keep hold of the vast hoard of diamonds that the Protector had given them.

Overall, I liked this story a lot. Because this translation was done for serialisation in a newspaper, it breaks down conveniently into small chunks, ideal for dipping in and out of. I would probably have awarded it four stars, but I knocked one off for the hurried ending.

Posted at 11:30 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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