Category Archives: Read, write, publish

Un Lun Dun… highly recommended

I just finished reading China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun and over all I have to say that I really liked it. Sure, at times I found it a little too childish, but then again kids are the intended audience. In fact the biggest problem I may have had to do with the fact that this book came too highly recommended. Funny how often that turns into a problem when someone recommends a book. What I mean is that I was expecting to be completely blown away so somehow that ‘I really liked it’ seems mild… and it also leaves me wondering whether or not a less enthusiastic recommendation would have led me to enjoy it more (or if it would have caused me to send it to the pile of books I intend to read ‘someday’).

So to begin with let me say that I had never read anything by China Miéville before, but I had come across a review that described Un Lun Dun as a cross between Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Seeing how those are two of my all time favorites I couldn’t resist. The thing is that while the influence of both of these works is apparent throughout the book, I find it lacking some of their depth, and it also has a far more explicit message that at times is a little too ‘in your face’ for comfort, a fact that marks a pretty stark difference.

On a more positive note, I liked the characters and some of the concepts. I loved Hemi and how Deeba grew up as the plot unfolded, I liked the concepts of the unchosen one, the utterlings and the unGun… and how can you go wrong with a book with a reference to A Wasp in a Wig? (and if you are wondering what this wasp in a wig thing happens to be, you can find it here). Anyway, while some points did come across as a little too overdrawn for my liking, I realize I am not part of the book’s target audience, so that may be a problem that has more to do with my own perspective than with the book itself.

In other words, even though this review is coming across as a little too negative for my liking, I wouldn’t hesitate to give this book a four stars rating. As I said, I definitely enjoyed it and I would most definitely recommend it, just don’t go in expecting to fall in love with it… who knows, maybe if you don’t expect to fall in love with it you actually will!

Novel, Treatise or Manifesto?

Today I finished Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon, and the first thing that comes to my mind is that this isn’t a novel, it is more of a treatise or a manifesto, though seeing how this is supposed to be science fiction those labels don’t quite fit either. Well, whatever the correct noun happens to be, this thing is way too long and wordy for my liking.

Okay, as you may have guessed by now I would rate this book as a major disappointment, especially considering that Sirius has long been one of my favorite SF books of all times, but at the same time I think I understand where the author is coming from, after all, the book was published in 1937, when the world was still struggling to move past the horrors of World War I and even a blind man could see that World War II was right around the corner. Of course, the fact that I do understand doesn’t mean I have to like it. The problem, at least as far as I am concerned, is that somewhere along the line, and before he even sat down to write this thing, the author seems to have forgotten about the need for such trifles as characters and a plot. Yes, in its own kind of way the book does offer a glimpse at how that particular period was perceived by those living in it, but its attempts at allegorizing, if they can even be called that, come across as more than a little ham-handed, not to mention that as the book progresses it grows in both arrogance and pseudo-mysticism until it becomes almost unbearable.

So does this thing have any redeeming qualities at all? Oddly enough the answer to that question is yes, and those go back to what is missing, namely characters and a plot. What can I say, writing a 272 pages ’novel’ unencumbered by either of those things seems to me like a pretty remakable achievement (that, and the fact that I feel like I should probably give it some leeway because, as I mentioned above, I can see where it is that the author is coming from, and I realize that some of my objections may have more to do with my poor understanding of what it meant to be alive in that period than with anything else).

The Sins of a Fan of Fantasy Lit

Okay, I’ve had this one written for a while, but up until now I hadn’t dared to post it. You see, I am about to confess to what amounts to a sin for a fan of fantasy literature, are you ready: I am not a big fan of The Lord of the Rings (and by that I mean the books, not the movies). Oh, I’m not denying their importance as one of the foundational works of the whole genre. In fact I freely acknowledge that it is probably the most influential work of the twentieth century. I know that without it I probably wouldn’t be here, or rather that I would not be writing the things I write, and I realize that it is very well crafted, but even though I have read it a couple of times hoping to develop a taste for it, I just can’t seem to get in the spirit of things. I enjoyed The Hobbit, but when it comes to its big brother I have a number of problems: Continue reading The Sins of a Fan of Fantasy Lit

One of the best films you’ve never heard of

Yes, I usually talk about books, but this is about one of my favorite films of all times, one chances are you have never heard of: Strings, a 2005 movie directed by Anders Rønnow Klarlund. I first saw it with no expectations whatsoever. Someone just handed me the DVD without a word (and without the box). Within five minutes I was hooked. The movie is an unusual one to say the least, and even though the ending came as a bit of a disappointment (I felt like the director had tried to force in an ending that was consistent with the story he had set out to tell without realizing that the film had soared so far above it that it no longer fit), it just took my breath away. It is beautiful, shocking and haunting. An epic tale of war, peace, love and hate that had me from the opening scene. Yes, the performances can best be described as ‘wooden’ but that is what makes them absolutely unforgettable, and in a world in which CGI plays an ever increasing role in film production this one does serve as a sort of wake up call. Five stars, and that is just because most review systems don’t allow me to give it six.

Victorians in Spaaace

Last week I read Stephen Baxter’s Anti-ice… and at times I felt like it was Professor Challenger redone (if you’ve read my previous posts on the subject of those books you are probably aware that, as far as I am concerned, that is most definitely not a good thing). Yes, the science was a little better, and –annoying as they were at times– the characters themselves were more or less consistent with what we find in the literature of the period. That was not the problem. That boiled down to the fact that there were a number of elements I just found to be unnecessary, grating and poorly handled, like the leading character’s infatuation with a mysterious woman. Over all the book felt like a concept in search of a plot. That is, at times it seemed to me like the author had had an interesting idea –what would have happened if, in the XIX century the British had come into possession of a powerful technology that would have enabled them to make a technological leap of close to a century?– but then he either didn’t know just what he was supposed to do with it, or he decided to try to force it into a pattern that didn’t quite fit.

I had been warned that this was one of Stephen Baxter’s weakest works (unfortunately I got that warning when I was reading the first chapter, and seeing how I don’t like to abandon a book once I’ve started it, I soldiered on), though in a way the fact that I wasn’t expecting much may have served to lessen the disappointment.

In short, if you are a die-hard Baxter fan, this one may be worth it (and chances are that you have already read it, so this post is likely to be redundant). If you are not, you may want to steer clear of it. No, it’s not dreadful, and it certainly doesn’t plummet to the level of The Land of Mist, but that is not much comfort.

Everything-But

I just finished reading Diana Wynne Jones’s Archer’s Goon. Over all it was a pleasant read, and the story was well told, though there is one spot in the middle that comes across as a little heavy-handed (one of those instances in which the author seems to have gone to such lengths to ensure that an unexpected twist comes as a surprise that it doesn’t quite seem to fit in the story as a whole). The one thing that stayed with me, however, was not so much the plot as the concept of the Everything-But drawer. That is one of those concepts that describe an everyday reality that is so plain and ever-present that when you come across it for the first time you find yourself wondering how come you’d never heard of it before. The everything-but drawer –of which I suspect there is at least one example in each and every house as a matter of law– is that drawer in which you can find everything… except whatever it is that you are actually looking for. Continue reading Everything-But

On Reading as a Writer

Okay, so I have been blogging about what I read under the heading of ‘reading as a writer’ for almost two months now, but up until now I haven’t really stopped to explain what I mean by that.

As I have said more than once, I am an avid reader, some times writer and full-time misfit… and the order of those statements does matter. You see, being a reader is, almost by definition a preamble to becoming a writer (being a misfit, on the other hand, is just a bonus), but one of the things I have noticed in the last few years is that there is a considerable difference in how I approach what I read nowadays. When I was a kid I used to read just for the fun of it, that was easy enough. When I was in college I was forced to look at the scholarly aspect of things, and truth be told that one pretty much squeezed all the joy out of the experience. Reading became a chore… one I didn’t particularly care for. Yes, I had one great teacher that made me appreciate whatever it was that we were studying –a cantankerous old bastard who insisted on handwritten papers and actually cared deeply about each and every one of his students– but unfortunately he was the exception, not the norm. Still, he was there, and that kept me from becoming disenchanted with literature altogether. That was stage two. Stage three kind of crept up on me and it was born out of a combination of two different factors. After stage two I had gone back to reading just for the joy of it, and I was finally free to explore my own interests, but at the same time I had already discovered fanfiction. Continue reading On Reading as a Writer

Out of the Past, Into the Future

A fair warning, this is going to be a really bizarre post that probably won’t seem to make much sense, at least not at first glance. How bizarre? Well, it deals with two series of books written by American women that depict the lives of girls around the age of sixteen. One of the series begins when the leading character is that age, the other basically ends at that point; one of these series looks forward, the other looks back; one is autobiographical (or something like it), the other one is not… and time-wise the distance between the publication date for the last book in the first of these series and the release of the first book of the second one is less than seventy years. These similarities and differences make for an interesting chance to analyze how we see ourselves, how we see the world around us, where we come from and where we are going. So what are these two series? Well, the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, of course. Continue reading Out of the Past, Into the Future

Of Annoyingly Decent Bad Guys

A few months ago I decided to sit down and read Harry Potter from beginning to end. Seeing how those books have been analyzed to death, and then some, I won’t go into too many details, but I was reminded of one thing that has been bugging me since I first came across the first book. Throughout the series we have Lord Voldermort as the ruthless supervillain, doing everything within his power to kill our noble hero… and yet in book one he squandered what was the most obvious chance he had to get rid of the brat once and for all by being, out of all things, too freaking decent. What I mean is that when Harry and Hermione come to Snape’s challenge they are confronted with a number of flasks, each containing a different potion. One of these allows you to go forward, one allows you to go back, two are harmless and three are downright deadly… so why didn’t Quirrell just rearrange the bottles so that by solving the riddle Harry and Hermione would just have ended up poisoning themselves? Any ideas?

Holy Morlocks!

I just finished Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships (1995). This semi-official sequel to H.G. Wells The Time Machine (it was authorized by Wells’s estate) makes for an interesting read, but unfortunately it also feels something like a doughnut. It begins well enough, but even though I liked the seventh –and final– book as well as the epilogue, books five and six felt somewhat tedious, out of place and out of character. And before we go any further, a fair warning: while I usually try to avoid spoilers in these reviews, in this particular instance it won’t be entirely possible for me to do that. No, I won’t be giving away the ending of the book, but I am going to be commenting on some of the specifics regarding both the characters and the events it depicts.

Now, as a sequel to a book that was written a hundred years prior, the author had the not insignificant challenge of trying to merge two styles and two moral codes into his work: Wells’s and his own. This is something that, at least for the first four books, he mostly manages to accomplish. The one place where I feel he gets into trouble is when it comes to the Morlocks. Continue reading Holy Morlocks!

A Stroll Across the Multiverse

Okay, so in these past few days I have been spending too much time reading and too little time blogging about it. In fact since my last post I finished The Long Earth (a Pratchett/Baxter collaboration) and The Homeward Bounders (by Diana Wynne Jones). Both books are worth reading and, against all odds, they make for an interesting combination since, in spite of their rather obvious differences, they do share a number of common elements, starting with the fact that both deal with the subject of parallel worlds. Sure, one deals mostly with what the sudden availability of a countless number of Earths would mean for human society as a whole while the other is a fantasy novel that deals with the adventures of a group of kids who become pawns in a sort of cosmic game that spans a multitude of worlds, but at least there is a common element that can serve as a connecting point, while painting two completely different pictures.

The problem is that while these two books do make a good ‘double feature’ analyzing them together isn’t easy. Continue reading A Stroll Across the Multiverse

Revisiting the Past

A couple of days ago I finished Michael Crichton’s The Lost World. In a way I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed Jurassic Park, though I have to say that the explanation for Ian Malcom’s miraculous survival was far from convincing.

Anyway, setting aside that particular inconsistency, I liked the way in which the author took the time to update the paleontology and correct some of the mistakes that had made it into the first book, like the T-rex’s inability to see someone standing still… in fact I would say that over all the T-rexs’ behavior felt more coherent here than it did in the first book. Other than that, while Ian still had a tendency to be annoyingly right at times, it was a little less pronounced here than it was in Jurassic Park. Finally there was also the fact that the kids were way less obnoxious. Continue reading Revisiting the Past

A little known gem

Okay, this is one I rediscovered a few days ago. It is a very short story written by Alan Nelson in 1948 called Narapoia. Even though the formatting feels a little awkward at times, it is available online. A fair warning my browser was having a hard time identifying the encoding (if you have to set it manually, it is Western (MacRoman), and at least in Firefox you can find it under View->Character Encoding->More Encodings->West European->Western (MacRoman)). Anyway, in spite of some minor technical difficulties, the story is well-worth reading, and I really appreciate the fact that it is available at all. The link is:

http://katie.rivard.org/woodv/narapoia.shtml

Jurassic Park

Yesterday I finished Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. I have to admit that I had seen the movie, but I hadn’t really bothered with the book up until now. Over all it was an enjoyable read, though somehow it seems to fall short. Yes, it is apparent that the author did his homework in an effort to lend authenticity to the scientific side of his story, and the fact that some of his depictions of the dinosaurs now seem somewhat dated is certainly not his fault, but rather a reminder of how far paleontology has come in the past couple of decades, spurred in part by the success of the movie that was based on this particular book.

Anyway, getting back to the subject at hand, there were three things that annoyed me (okay, there were more than three, but these are the big ones): Continue reading Jurassic Park

A Case of Might-Have-Been

This one is about some books I read a few weeks ago, when I decided to take a closer look at the works of Clifford D. Simak. It was an interesting experience, especially because while today he is nowhere near as well-known as either Bradbury or Asimov, there was a time when he was considered to be in the same league with them, or almost (in fact he won the Grand Master Award in 1977, long before either of the others did). I can understand the appeal, and I can also see some of the problems with his works. In a way I would say that he is more spiritual than some of his contemporaries, and his stories tend to take place in more rural settings, but the thing that caught my attention is how irregular his books seem to be. In fact that was something I found quite frustrating at times. For instance in Time Is the Simplest Thing (1961) I loved the premise and how he finished his tale, but at times the story itself seemed to drag on, whereas in Why Call Them Back from Heaven? (1967) I loved the premise and some of the things he hinted at, but the ending was a major disappointment… that and the fact that he tried to pack a few too many subplots into that one for my liking.

So what are these books about? Continue reading A Case of Might-Have-Been