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June Book Reviews

July 2, 2012 Leave a comment

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A slice of bookshelf, from Malory to Moore

Another month that seemed to be heading down a quiet path as far as book reading went was turned around by a lazy weekend at the parents’ place, which allowed me to polish off three titles. I guess there’s something to be said for having a few days where you attempt to merge with the couch through osmosis…

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Night of Knives, Ian C. Esselmont: A stand-alone story set in the world of Steven Erikson’s “Malazan” tales, this is almost as dense in terms of detail as that series, which is to be expected coming from the setting’s co-creator. Set over the course of a single night, it provides a meaningful chunk of backstory to Erikson’s opus, and as a result is probably required reading for diehard fans of the Malazan books. However, it’s not quite as wild and baroque as the series it springs from, and in the course of a single book it cannot explain all the elements of the world that it draws upon, leaving it solely for fans, perhaps.

At Swim Two Birds, Flann O’Brien: Irish myth and folklore twist together with the bluster and verbosity of Irish pub conversation in a surreal, multi-level narrative. Telling multiple stories at various levels, vaguely centered around an author trying to wrangle his recalcitrant creations, it’s filled to the brim with poetically wordy digressions and strange depictions of the wild and the weird of the tiny green island it sprang from. Deeply erudite, constantly playful and Irish in a way that few other books are, even as it launches volley after volley of affectionate digs at the cliches of Irishness, this is a book that demands a lot of the reader but packs more than enough in to reward (if not require) multiple readings.

Girlfriend in a Coma, Douglas Coupland: The title of the book is the kicking-off point for a meditation on the meaning of life, mediated through the experiences of five friends and the few others who come to share their lives as they face the banal apocalypse of adulthood. There’s a vein of weirdness running through the book that comes to overwhelm it towards the end, but the author keeps a careful eye on the point he’s making, and even amid the strangest occurrences the characters remain true to themselves, if not necessarily true to life. Some readers won’t like the overly preachy tone of the last few chapters, but this is a thoughtful book, casting a jaundiced eye over the modern world and comparing its meaningless pursuit of prosperity to a wasted maturity after the promise of childhood.

Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie: The First Law series of books comes to an end in suitably bloody, ambiguous fashion, with deaths aplenty and destiny revealed to be the inevitable result of choices made by the person affected and those who’ve treated them as pawns. Fittingly, there’s a real sense of returning to where the story began, even as all the secrets and lies laid down before are exposed, leading to results that are all the more satisfying for being unexpected. Joe Abercrombie spots the landing perfectly, even taking the time to have a dig at the fantasy genre and provide plenty of skewed humour amid the blood and gore.

Snuff, Terry Pratchett: At this stage in the author’s career and his long-running Discworld series, there’s a real comfort in revisiting a very familiar setting, but this is Pratchett, and underneath the comfort there’s the steel point of an author who still has things to say. The humour in the newest tale of Sam Vimes, policeman to the bone no matter how high he rises in society, is obvious here, cutting there, but it wouldn’t matter a damn if it weren’t as well-constructed a story as ever, populated by characters who always remain just the right side of caricature. The writing isn’t as sharp as it once was, and the Discworld series has moved far beyond its knockabout roots to warmly told tales of injustice thwarted, but so long as Pratchett keeps issuing invitations to this unique world, I for one will continue to visit.

Dry, Augusten Burroughs: The memoir of an alcoholic trying to go sober in the face of a life that seems to be doing its best to drive him to drink, this is an occasionally hilarious but mostly scouring look into the mind of an addict. An ad exec in New York, Burroughs is at his funniest before he’s forced into rehab, an experience that leads him to confront the reasons for his behaviour and learn whether or not he’s capable of going dry. The degree of self examination can be wearying at times, but there’s no self pity to be found here, just an self awareness that’s at times completely raw.

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March Book Reviews

April 9, 2012 1 comment

A decent month of reading in March, mostly populated by fantasy, with a bit of Western in there too. Also the month in which I picked up an iPhone app that allowed me to catalogue my library. Not really a good thing to do to someone who has problems keeping his obsessive-compulsive tendencies at bay at the best of times…

Tongues of Serpents, Naomi Novik: Being an even-numbered offering in Novik’s “Temeraire” series, it shouldn’t be too surprising that this book mostly concerns itself with new lands and interesting cultures, nor that it isn’t quite as gripping as the action-oriented, odd-numbered books. Stuck in Australia, far from the Napoleonic wars, Captain Will Laurence and his dragon Temeraire indulge in some personal conflicts and a long chase across the outback, ending in a brief fracas that does more to set up plot points for later stories than provide a satisfying ending in and of itself. Still eminently readable and interesting as an alternate fantasy-history, this series is in danger of becoming just a little too predictable.

The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie: Populated with broken, angry, epically flawed characters, the first book in Abercrombie’s “First Law” trilogy is gritty stuff, with hints of high fantasy and ancient powers interspersed with brutal violence and Machiavellian politics. Although very much the first third of a larger story, there’s enough here for the reader to get their teeth into, even if most of it does come by the way of characters who refuse to be as predictable as they might be in another author’s hands. Whether the rest of the trilogy lives up to this impressive start remains to be seen, but Abercrombie has done all that he needed to encourage readers to pick up book two.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt: A laconic, darkly humorous tale of the dysfunctional relationship between two hired-killer brothers in the Wild West, this is as much as anything a homage to classic Western tales. Narrated by the philosophical, fatalistic Eli Sisters, it’s packed full of incident and strangeness yet always remains within orbiting distance of reality, or at least as close as Gold Rush-era California ever got to reality. Very deserving of its critical acclaim, it retains an oddly gentle and thoughtful tone throughout, even in the face of the high level of violence and death that accompanies its protagonists.

The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson: Some classic fantasy, born from a melding of Norse and Celtic myth and folklore, telling the tale of a doomed hero, his changeling replacement and the woman caught between them. Anderson wastes no words as he sets up a layered world of gods and faerie creatures, all operating parallel to the course of history, and the passions that drive his characters and full-blooded, whether they are dark or heroic. As with any good mythic tale, there’s an undercurrent of tragedy that emerges to dominate as the tale comes to its end, with a sense of a world coming to an end as myths and legends die, but this is a rich enough offering to stand with the best of the myths that have been hallowed by the centuries.

Before They Are Hanged, Joe Abercrombie: As his “First Law” series continues, Abercrombie takes the characters he’d introduced in the first book and throws them into the deep end, whether it’s war, a siege or a journey to the end of the world. Those characters and their multifarious flaws are what gives this series its punch, though as the author opens up the myth-making behind his world, he increases the sense of real consequence to the wars and struggles he presents. If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that after two books, the story doesn’t feel like it’s two-thirds over: there’s a lot of wrapping up to be done in the pages to come.