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Sat, 3 Jul 2010

June 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In June 2010 I read the following books:

1. The Star Fraction, by Ken MacLeod

While this is the first installment in a trilogy, it still works well as a stand-alone novel, and, unlike many other first installments, it actually has a proper end to match its beginning and middle. The world of the story is not entirely explained, which leads to some of the politics that forms a major part of it being rather perplexing, which troubled me the first time I read it (and stopped half-way through as Real Life intruded and ate all my time) but this time, I worked through it, and came away satisfied despite that. Normally I slate books which spend as much time as this does on the characters' politics. But in this case, it's leavened with a constant stream of stuff happening and the politics of micro-states and collectives is intimately tied with the characters' backgrounds and personalities, so it serves not to obfuscate but to shed light - notwithstanding the sometimes perplexing ideologies.

The only significant nit I can pick is that the end, the last thirty or so pages, feel somewhat rushed, while still tieing up most (but not all) of the loose ends. Where the vast bulk of the book covers only a handful of days, those pages cover several months. I can only assume that that will turn out to have been necessary in one of the sequels.

Worth buying.

2. Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod

While the setting is really rather implausible, having two species with such similar social structures, this does make it easier for the author to create sympathetic, believable characters on both sides - and he does this well. Both refer to themselves as human, and both are human. The slow build-up to the final climactic meeting, told largely from the point of view of unimportant people, makes the book a compulsive page-turner, and highly recommended.

3. Replay, by Ken Grimwood

I suppose it's very naughty of me to immediately think of Groundhog Day when reading this story of a man repeating part of his life over and over again. Naughty because Groundhog Day was really not very good. "Replay" has so much more depth, the characters are given enough time to experience and grow and change. It's marketed (wrongly in my opinion) as fantasy, and some reviewers instead think (also wrongly) that it's science fiction. I suppose that they think that because the main characters' repeating lives are beyond the realms of modern experience and aren't explained, but the mechanism that lets them repeat their lives is utterly unimportant. Other writers, over a period of hundreds of years dating back to the early mediaeval period have used dreams for similar purposes: to impart knowledge and wisdom to their characters so that at the end of the dream they are changed and improved. We don't call The Dream Of The Rood science fiction, or Pearl fantasy*, so why attempt to shoe-horn "Replay" into one of those litle boxes?

This is that rare beast - both splendid literature, beautifully written and constructed; and a great story, accessible and entertaining. You should read it.

* it's a fantasy, as are all fictions, but it does not fit in the modern genre of that name

4. Comrade Rockstar, by Reggie Nadelson

Dean Reed was a late fifties / early sixties rock n' roll singer and guitarist who, after a very brief career in the US became wildly popular in Chile. Always something of a leftie, he became involved in political activism in Chile around the time of the Pinochet coup, and ended up emigrating to East Germany where he spent most of the rest of his life. In the GDR and the rest of the Soviet bloc, he was wildly popular, both as a musician (the people loved rock n' roll, the party loved him for his genuine support of the great Marxist experiment) and as an actor. He also appeared in some Spaghetti Westerns.

In 1986 he died in rather suspicious circumstances near his home in Berlin. This book, while being to a certain extent a biography, is subtitled "the search for Dean Reed" and is really the tale of the author's attempt between roughly 1986 and 1988 (a very small amount of material was added after the wall came down) to figure out who the hell was this American rock n' roller who was so big in the East and how he died. Unfortunately, the author has really just collected lots of facts (some of dubious veracity, which she is quite open about), spun some stories around them about how she learned them (some of which are interesting in themselves), but has not done a particularly good job of integrating them into a coherent whole. It is, no doubt, a fairly accurate retelling of the search for information about Reed, but suffers from that - the end product of research should not just be a detailed account of how you did the research, where, and when. It should also be a synthesis of what was found during the research. In this, it comes soooo close, but isn't quite there.

I do recommend this book, despite it really needing an editor. The subject matter is fascinating and does eventually paint a believable and somewhat sympathetic picture of its subject. Yes, sympathetic, despite the author obviously disagreeing with Reed's politics, despite his loyalty to the East German state. Reed comes across as being naive, lonely, and somewhat self-obsessed. He is a flawed individual, not just a cardboard-cutout Evil Commie.

5. Who Goes There, by John W. Campbell

Last month I reviewed The Things by Peter Watts, which riffs off the excellent John Carpenter film "The Thing". Carpenter's film is in turn based on this short story. And, I'm afraid to say, this is one of those few cases where the film is better than the book. The suspense, the lurking horror, is well done. But Campbell's descriptions are stupid and overblown - one of the main characters, for example, is always described as being "bronze". And worse by far is that the end is far too clean. All the monsters are found and killed, job done, the crew then expect to just carry on as normal. Carpenter's film version has a much more convincing finale where you can't be sure everything's fine and there's certainly no happy ending. Not worth reading.

6. The Execution Channel, by ken MacLeod

Set in a near-future near-totalitarian dystopia, this spy caper is nasty, grimy, grim, almost plausible, and most enjoyable. It does have a flaw that I also noticed in The Star Fraction earlier this month - namely that people are rather too predictably manipulable, as if MacLeod has read rather too much Asimov and thinks psychohistory should apply to individuals. In the earlier book, this was taken to the extreme, with individuals' actions and reactions to stimuli predicted a long way in advance, which is obviously laughable. Of course, MacLeod is something of a Marxist, and the parallels between Asimov's psychohistory and Marx's "historical materialism" are striking.

But this flaw really doesn't detract from the story at all, and I unreservedly recommend this book.

7. Angels and Spaceships, by Fredric Brown

This short collection of short stories (some of them very short, only 400-ish words) includes one of my favourites by any author, "Answer". All of them fizz with humour and inventiveness, most have a devious twist at the end. The only thing keeping this from getting top marks is that some stories main plot elements and closure are rather dated. That doesn't detract much from the story though, so I recommend this book. I also recommend (without having read it) Best Short Stories, another collection of Brown's.

8. Eve, by Aurelio O'Brien

In the far future of this novel, mankind has engineered biological "perfection", but, of course, this perfection isn't really that perfect. With every whim catered for by engineered bio-mass - everything from their homes to their sex toys - humanity is bored, and is desperate for something better, but most are too hide-bound and they outwardly conform to the norm that everyone else (did they but know it) loathes. Our hero breaks the rules, and eventually (due to the scheming of the narrator) gets caught. But all live happily ever after anyway when, in a rather unbelievable and weak court scene, it is made clear that the norm is, well, far from being the norm.

It's a nice, rather uplifting story. However, there's little depth and some glaring inconsistencies. It would get four stars, just about, because it is fun, but the typesetting and the feel of the cover and the pages (it's a self-published novel) pulls it down to three. This seems like such a little thing, I know, but there it is. I'd say this is worth reading if you can find it cheap or in the library, but not worth paying the sort of prices it normally goes for. It's available fairly cheaply in electronic form, but unfortunately only in PDF format, which is really not suitable for e-books, as it doesn't re-format well to fit typical readers' small screens.

9. Last Orders at Harrods, by Michael Holman

By turns a farce, a satire, and a polemic, this book is bursting with lively, real-seeming people. The author is clearly angry about the foreign aid industry, and provides a scathing critique of how pointless most of it is and how naive so many of its champions and its employees are, while still managing to entertain and delight. Whole-heartedly recommended.

10. One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, by Clive Woodall

The cover blurb says that this is "an epic tale in the tradition of 'Watership Down' and 'Lord of the Rings'. That was clearly written by someone who has read neither book. Perhaps who hasn't read Woodall's story either. I remember that several years ago when this first came out, it got quite a lot of media attention (well done to the publisher's Hype department) much of which centred on the fact that the author worked in a supermarket. Well, Clive - don't give up the day job.

The book isn't awful - the writing is unimaginative but is clear and simple; the characters are rather flat but are easily distinguishable; the plot is nothing special but the setting is vaguely interesting. It would make quite a good book for children, I think.

What really lets it down is the structure. There's a clear beginning, middle and end. And then another middle and an inconclusive second ending. If I were the editor, I'd have truncated the book just before the end of the first ending, leaving out the few pages that set up the second middle section, and would also cut out one minor character who only exists to feature inconclusively in the second middle section. That would make it an even better book for children, and it might even be worth 4 stars out of five like that.

Posted at 13:40 by David Cantrell
keywords: books
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