Mike's Reviews

I'm a refugee from the doomed Shelfari who didn't like the look of Goodreads. I now use Leafmarks to keep track of all my reading data, and BookLikes to host my reviews.

 

It may take a while for me to upload all my reviews.

 

Leafmarks profile at: http://www.leafmarks.com/MikeF

Last.fm music profile at: http://www.last.fm/user/UberWeiner

'A Clash of Kings' by George R. R. Martin (1998)

A Clash of Kings  - George R.R. Martin

George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings: Book Two of A Song of Ice and Fire (London: Harper Voyager, 2011), 911pp

 

"... war everywhere... each man against his neighbour, and winter coming... such folly, such black mad folly..." (pg. 872)

Whilst the Song of Ice and Fire books of course have their own pre-existing following, I imagine that many people now deciding to read this book will do so due to the success of the television series Game of Thrones, as I did. Therefore, I will not provide an ordinary review but try to give my impressions of the book as someone who had already been exposed to the television adaptation. Consequently, there may be spoilers for those who haven't seen the show.

A Clash of Kings is a similar beast to the first book, A Game of Thrones. Despite its length, it is easy to read, even if sometimes you do get confused about some of the numerous characters. (However, this tends to be the minor characters who only serve to drive the plot, rather than anyone you actually care about.) Like A Game of Thrones, the second book adds more depth to the story than has been (or could possibly be) presented on screen. In the book, for example, we witness Ser Alliser Thorne's journey to King's Landing to present the severed hand of the white walker to Joffrey's court, something which was only briefly mentioned in the show. Some of the plotlines continuing from A Game of Thrones are also given more attention than in the show, including the intriguing plotlines regarding Daenerys' brother, Littlefinger's knife which was used in the assassination attempt on Bran, and the batches of wildfire buried beneath King's Landing (which ties into Jaime Lannister's backstory). On pages 631-2, when Daenerys braves the House of the Undying, there is also an interesting apparent foreshadowing of the most significant event in A Storm of Swords/Season 3 (you know what I'm referring to...).

One other thing worthy of mention is that whereas A Game of Thrones was very closely adapted for season one of the HBO series, it became apparent to me in reading A Clash of Kings that season two made a number of narrative tweaks, changing character arcs and eliminating/consolidating minor characters to streamline the story. As someone who came to the books as a fan of the television series, I admit to preferring the changes made for television, though I respect George R. R. Martin's original vision. The only difference that really disappointed me is that the scenes between Arya Stark and Lord Tywin Lannister at Harrenhal (one of the best things about season 2) are not present in the book. Instead, the book's version of Arya keeps her head down when Tywin is at Harrenhal, and becomes cup-bearer to Roose Bolton later on. Jojen and Meera Reed also make their entrance fairly early on in the book, whereas in the television series they are saved for season three.

For books which are adapted to film or television, I often enjoy noting the differences, the narrative changes and improvements. I couldn't really do this with A Game of Thrones due to its almost mirror-image in season one of the series, but the second book allows me to return to one of my favourite indulgences. Readers should not go into A Clash of Kings expecting it to as closely resemble the series as the first book did, but the differences shouldn't disappoint readers - it is still a cracking read.

'The Wishing Well' by Michael Futcher and Helen Howard (2009)

Wishing Well - Michael Futcher, Helen Howard

Michael Futcher and Helen Howard, The Wishing Well (Sydney: Currency Press, 2009), 115pp

 

The Wishing Well is another capable offering from the Australian playwrights Michael Futcher and Helen Howard, though of the three of their plays published by Currency Press, I liked this the least. A Beautiful Life was an uneven first outing but held the reader's interest through its intriguing and relevant subject matter (terrorism, and the struggles of immigrants to assimilate into a new culture). The Drowning Bride bowled me over, an emotionally powerful piece of art which improved on all the promise of A Beautiful Life with a fascinating family drama revolving around the past sins of a former Nazi collaborator. The Wishing Well retains many of the tropes and trappings which characterised those earlier plays, which are executed ably, but the story itself was less interesting. The previous two plays extracted their drama from the slow-reveal of various skeletons-in-the-closet, with our understanding of the characters constantly evolving throughout the plays as more details about their pasts emerged. In The Wishing Well, we already know what anguish is plaguing Edith (the loss of her terminally-ill son Tim) and the things that we don't know from the outset are only small details, rather than large bombshells (like, for example, who Tim's father is, though it is predictably clear who it is as soon as the character is first introduced). Consequently, we don't invest in the characters as much as we did in the previous plays, even though Futcher and Howard still put them through the emotional wringer.

There are a number of things to praise in The Wishing Well - a major one being that it has more humour than its predecessors - but it lacks some of the focus that the previous two possessed. Perhaps this is because whilst A Beautiful Life and The Drowning Bride were based on true life stories of the couple's close friends, The Wishing Well is a composite work which, Futcher and Howard admit, "although inspired by true events, is primarily a work of the imagination." (pg. xi). The major strength of the previous two works was their faithful and respectful chronicling of true life stories, adapted with necessary dramatic changes for the stage. This is not to say that The Wishing Well is a bad play, for it is not, but in moving away from what made their previous plays so engrossing, they have not really played to their strengths here.

'The People's Music' by Ian MacDonald (2003)

The People's Music - Ian Macdonald

Ian MacDonald, The People's Music (London: Pimlico, 2003), 262pp

 

The People's Music is a fluent collection of the music critic Ian MacDonald's writings. The sources of some of these writings are more obvious than others, as they are short, journalistic pieces reviewing certain albums - obviously collected from music magazines. Others are extensive essays which show just how academically some rock critics take their craft. But MacDonald never bores the reader; his academic arguments are insightful and are lightened by phrasings which neatly summarise his standpoints. For example, his argument that the music of the 1960s must be evaluated in its socio-political context is set up by the justificatory phrasing that such music was "the sonic colouration of a social scene" more than anything before or since (pg. 156). Similarly, his argument that The Band's 1968 Music from Big Pink is the most influential album of all time is helped by his suggestion that its back-to-basics roots rock was a sort of "cultural detox" for the psychedelic excesses of the previous two years (pg. 83). Essentially, MacDonald's writing gifts dilute the showiness of his academic pretensions (which, to be fair, seem to be held by all music critics) and make his work more accessible to the ordinary reader.

MacDonald's main argument is in the article which lends itself to the book's title: 'The People's Music'. He contends that, post-1963, there was a power shift in the music industry away from the professionals (producers, publishers, record executives, etc.) towards the audience. The gifted amateur performers, self-taught and writing their own songs (e.g. the Beatles, Bob Dylan), changed the rulebook and, as they themselves were fans of the music that came before (i.e. 50s rock 'n' roll), were essentially the "audience cast in proto-professional form" (pg. 192). He notes the positives of this sea-change, such as the emergence of the album as an art form and the artistic freedom of musicians in a environment conducive to defying convention, resulting in fresher and more inspired songs. He also notes the negatives, such as the general decline in the quality of popular music over the last few decades, "something which is still taboo to recognise" (pg. 196). In furthering this argument, he perceptively speculates on the "increasing dilution of character" and personality in celebrities in contemporary popular culture (pg. 199) - where, he argues, are today's musicians who can rival a Dylan or a Lennon in terms of sheer force of personality? This is not the ramblings of an old curmudgeon lamenting how 'it was better back in my day' - MacDonald's arguments are coherent, perceptive and uncomfortable to hear.

Like every piece of rock criticism I've come across, there are some strange opinions. For example, he enthuses about Dylan's universally-derided 'born-again' period - "the music is electrifying - as great as gospel gets" - yet trashes his critically-acclaimed 1997 album Time Out of Mind as "a dispiriting... exercise in life-loathing misanthropy overgenerously welcomed as a rallying late masterpiece" (pp 35, 36). He also, for all his perceptive commentary on rock music, fundamentally fails to understand the arguments of the atheist Richard Dawkins in his final essay, wrongly equating atheism with shallow materialism. (This is a minor point, and I was willing to overlook it the first time he mentioned it, but then he brought it up a second time... This is always an infuriating argument for me, and is the second time in a month that I've come across it in otherwise decent books). There is also a lack of coherence about some of the articles selected here; an article on the late-70s/early-80s disco band Chic, for example, is out of place in a book which primarily argues about the emergence of 'the people's music' in the 60s and early 70s, and is shoehorned in between essays on the Beatles and Rolling Stones on one side, and Cream, the Beach Boys and Jimi Hendrix on the other. Some of the articles are rather dull ('Pulse of the Machine' and 'Minimalism and the Corporate Age' come to mind) but many are well-argued and have caused me to re-evaluate the artists covered (the articles on Dylan, Hendrix, Bob Marley, Cream and Simon & Garfunkel, in particular). Having started the book with a great essay on Dylan entitled 'Wild Mercury', MacDonald ends it on a high with his final chapter 'Exiled from Heaven', which discusses the music of Nick Drake. These two bookends are a fine example of why MacDonald was one of the most respected rock critics of his day. 'Exiled in Heaven' is particularly poignant as he expertly deconstructs Drake's music and depicts the musician's struggles with depression, a disorder which also affected MacDonald and would lead him to take his own life just weeks after The People's Music's publication.

'The Many Moods of Bill Bailey' by Bill Bailey (2007)

The Many Moods Of Bill Bailey: Songs 1995   2005 - Bill Bailey

Bill Bailey, The Many Moods of Bill Bailey: Songs 1995-2005 (Edinburgh: BBm Ltd., 2007), first edition, 62pp

 

The songs which Bill Bailey composes and performs for his stand-up comedy shows are not only immensely funny but also insanely catchy and occasionally anthemic, and they are done justice in this modest book. I should point out that I had the songs playing on YouTube as I read it, which no doubt informs my review. The Many Moods is a collection of sheet music (which I cannot read) and lyrics (which I can) with some comments from Bill on their genesis and a few anecdotes (John Entwistle from The Who liked 'Insect Nation', don't you know). The songs themselves are all gems, from the early prog-rock pastiche 'Leg of Time' with its Cockney middle-eight right through to the 'Death Metal Lullaby (Nemesis of the Vole)', a hard-rocking song about an owl. 'Insect Nation' is undoubtedly the best, with its epic 'ah-ahh-ah-a-ahh' hook (though the version performed in Cosmic Jam is longer than the book version, with an extra verse). 'Hats Off to the Zebras' is my personal favourite, and 'Midnight in Parliament Square' is a endearingly silly audience-participation song. 'Unisex Chip Shop' has a funny little ending, and 'Beautiful Ladies' has that hilarious 'kill the trolls' bit. 'Redneck Redemption' (better known as 'I Will Not Look at Titties for a Year') is an amusing country-and-western song, whilst 'Love Song' stands alongside 'Insect Nation' as the finest testament to Bill's musical complexity and lyrical imagination. Overall, a short, sweet read that provided me with an always-welcome excuse to revisit and laugh along with some of Bill's fine songs.

'Bring Up the Bodies' by Hilary Mantel (2012)

Bring Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell, #2) - Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (London: Fourth Estate, 2013), 485pp

 

"The order goes to the Tower, 'Bring up the bodies.' Deliver, that is, the accused men..." (pg. 432).

Bring Up the Bodies sees Hilary Mantel continue her fine work from Wolf Hall with another instalment of peerless historical fiction set in the court of King Henry VIII. Whereas Wolf Hall dealt with Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, bringing about a break with the Catholic church, Bring Up the Bodies deals with Anne's dramatic fall and Henry's infatuation with Jane Seymour, who would eventually grant his infamous desire for a male heir. Seeing how the winds are changing, Thomas Cromwell facilitates the fall of Anne/rise of Jane with the same ruthless opportunism and formidable political scheming that characterised his dramatic rise chronicled in Wolf Hall. The fall of Anne does not prove easy to facilitate, however; to paraphrase Thomas Wyatt on page 421, considering how much trouble Henry caused to get Anne in the first place, what must it cost to be rid? Though Cromwell ends Bring Up the Bodies at his peak in terms of money, power and influence, one can see (and one can know, if one knows Tudor history) that he may have overplayed his hand and that there are new and powerful political enemies he has made. The events surrounding Anne's fall will no doubt come home to roost for Cromwell in the eagerly awaited final book of Mantel's trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.

Essentially, all the elements of Wolf Hall that I praised in my review of that novel are also evident here in Bring Up the Bodies: this is historical fiction at its very best. I continue to be amazed at how tangibly authentic Mantel's Tudor world feels and sounds; it is better than just about any other piece of historical fiction I have read. A great strength of Bring Up the Bodies, and of Wolf Hall before it, is that the story you thought you knew so well is much richer than you were ever aware. Henry is not a totalitarian tyrant going through wives on a whim; as Cromwell discovers, it is not so easy to behead a queen. The politics are more complex, the loyalties more obscure, than many factual history books convey. Though I recognise this as a work of fiction, I feel I have learned more about the Tudors from Mantel than I have from anyone else.

In one small respect, Bring Up the Bodies is better than the first book, as although Mantel persists in using 'he' to refer to Cromwell (readers of Wolf Hall will know what I mean), it is less irritating and confusing here. Or perhaps I'm just used to it by now. But upon finishing the book, I found that I preferred Wolf Hall. You see, Wolf Hall, as I mentioned in my review of that novel, balances the 'soap opera' of the Tudor court with the big picture, i.e. the English Reformation (the break from Rome and the dissolution of the monarchies). It was this balance which made the first book such an exhilarating read for me. Bring Up the Bodies lacks such a balance, focusing almost exclusively on the fall of Anne Boleyn. As engrossing as that story is, I was also looking forward to a continuation of Cromwell's political reforms, and Bring Up the Bodies did not provide. No doubt they will resurface in the not-yet-released third book (if my knowledge of Tudor history is up to scratch), but their absence here means that, in my opinion, Wolf Hall is the better book.

Story-wise, I was surprised by how meekly Anne submitted to her fate; she does not seem to counter Cromwell's (or anyone else's) schemes at all, despite frequently warning early on in Bring Up the Bodies - and in Wolf Hall - that she will not go down easily. As Cromwell notes on page 444, he was once told "how a dying lioness can maul you, flash out with her claw and scar you for life. But he feels no threat, no tension, nothing at all." Mantel must, of course, adhere broadly to historical fact, but I was expecting more from her Anne, who was a formidable political player in the first book. But Anne is rather passive; the battle of wills between Cromwell and the queen we were promised does not occur. Despite this, Bring Up the Bodies was a very worthy successor to Wolf Hall, and I shall count down the (many, many) days until the third and final instalment.

'The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break' by Steven Sherrill (2000)

The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill (29-Mar-2004) Paperback - Steven Sherrill

Steven Sherrill, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2004), 312pp

 

In The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, Steven Sherrill has created an intriguing, if uneven, character study. Sherrill's aim is to use the Minotaur - known as 'M' - as a vehicle for a study of humanity; his logic, as outlined on page 310, being that mankind creates monsters out of its own psychological needs. The problems, and the central conflict of the story, "arise when the monster is humanized." If there is anything remarkable about this novel, it is that you truly forget, at times, that 'M' is actually a minotaur. The absurdity of the title is soon lost; as one review that I read put it, it is a surreal piece of realism. Sherrill's 'M' is indeed more man than bull; his conflicted physical nature serving as a nice manifestation of his feelings of isolation and social anxiety. The supporting characters are also all believably human - conflicted, irrational and yet hopeful. One certainly empathises with all of the emotions described throughout the novel, many of which may strike very close to home.

However, despite my respect for the novel and the emotions it evokes, I failed to truly bond with it. Despite being essentially a thought experiment on the nature of humanity, Sherrill does not seem to have any identifiable themes on the subject running consistently throughout the novel. He does not seem to want to provide any sort of lesson or moral for the reader, or really provide an opinion on any of the human emotions he describes. Rather, he just presents them to the reader largely without comment. This is not, to my mind, helped by the occasional over-elaboration when describing the minutiae of M's everyday life, which is almost uniformly dull. It is only the presence of a minotaur which stops this book being a very ordinary 'A day in the life of...' story. I liked the realistic characters and the strong emotions evoked by their experiences, but their character arcs are rather uneventful and I had lost interest in them within minutes of closing the book.

'In God We Doubt' by John Humphrys (2007)

In God We Doubt - John Humphrys

John Humphrys, In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008), 356pp

 

In writing this review, I feel compelled to point out that I am an atheist. Sort of. I don't hold onto my atheistic opinions quite as belligerently as some others do, and occasionally I think I might be more of a pantheist. Other times I think I am an agnostic with a soft spot for atheism. So I thought I would be able to identify with John Humphrys' confusion and doubt about where to pitch my tent on the ideological battlefield. I didn't expect answers, but I did expect coherence. Instead, I found a muddled, wishy-washy book that doesn't really say anything of interest or value.

Aside from the dishonest woolly-mindedness of the argument Humphrys presents (which I'll get on to later), the book as a piece of writing was also underwhelming. I didn't hate the book. At certain points, I thought I might actually like it. But I realised that the moments at which I enjoyed it were largely because I like reading about this topic in general (atheism vs. religion/faith vs. reason); the bits I liked were not the points Humphrys was making but my own thoughts that were running parallel in my head as I was reading, quite different from what was on the page. The arguments that Humphrys presents are largely insipid and his examples poorly chosen, which seems strange for such a well-respected journalist. At points, he seems to be giving an example or telling an anecdote simply because he found it interesting or because it was there, rather than to back up any idea. When he isn't quoting the arguments of others and prepares to provide his own opinions on a certain point, his summation is always along the line of "maybe they're right, maybe they're wrong, who knows?" Books advocating a certain view (here, agnosticism) need to have the courage of their convictions, but Humphrys at times does not convince that he even knows what he is saying, let alone believes it.

His overall argument, at least as far as I could scrabble one together from the various ramblings, is poor. He says he is on the side of the ordinary people who believe in a higher power, but do not follow a religion. Well, first of all, this is more akin to pantheism than agnosticism, but semantics aside, the claim that faith is good because it "feels" right is rather childish. Humphrys compares faith at one point to a small child's comfort blanket. Others have made this comparison before, but where Humphrys differs is that, astonishingly, he does not see this as a bad thing. In contrast to all other arguments that I've heard use this analogy, for Humphrys the comparison is a favourable one. Believing in a god because it is comforting does not mean that God is real, any more than wanting to believe in Santa Claus or in unicorns makes them real. You can't will them into existence because you want them to be there. Sure, it would be nice if there really was a jolly fat magic man who gives out presents to children every year, but that doesn't mean that there is one. Making the connection between a warm, fuzzy feeling in your gut and the existence of a supreme universal power is fatuous to say the least.

My second biggest problem with Humphrys' argument is that he believes faith to be a benign influence for the most part, and that it is the aggressive advocacy of atheism that we should watch out for. He suggests atheism is a 'belief', the same as religion; at one point he asks us: "What if, instead of 'cosmologists and physicists' we substituted 'priests and theologians' and instead of 'multiverse' we substituted 'God'? Beginning to sound a bit like religion, isn't it?" (pg. 51). Well, no, it's not, because the comparison is dishonest. He is right to point out that both religion and science are trying to provide an explanation of the world around us and how it came into being, but that's as far as the comparison can go. Religion holds onto a single worldview for thousands of years, with some minor variations of the theological dogma, and holds a single 'holy' book written thousands of years ago by unknown men as its foundation, its 'proof'. Atheism, advocating the scientific method, is constantly creating new theories and opinions, and revising or discarding old ones. An atheist's worldview is based on objective evidence and observations, not a subjective book of poetry and prose. Each atheistic argument or scientific theory has its advocates, of course, but if the evidence points elsewhere, you move on. If the evidence pointed towards a god, atheists might acknowledge that. But it doesn't. Not even close. The difference between atheism and religion is that my atheist views are my own, reached through rational contemplation and study. There are other atheists who have different views from myself. There is no atheist guild or church instructing me to hold a certain theory to heart.

Beyond this, Humphrys doesn't seem to have an understanding of what atheism really is, or atheists really are. As I mentioned above, he says he is on the side of the ordinary people who believe in a higher power, but do not follow a religion. But he doesn't condemn the god-botherers who want to convert them, who want to make them sheep and bring them into the fold. Rather, he resents the atheists, wants them to stop being so beastly to believers and agnostics, thank you very much, and says that they don't understand the real world "outside the walls of their intellectual ivory towers" (pg. 352). Well, I'm an atheist. (I think. See my first paragraph above.) I consider myself intelligent, but not intelligent enough to lay claim to an 'ivory tower'. I live in a modest semi-detached house in Manchester; it's pissing down with rain as I'm writing at this very moment. Yes, some of the more prominent atheist advocates can appear smug and academic, but many, like myself, aren't and are genuinely concerned and alarmed by the ease with which our fellow human beings are lured by mystics and charlatans and bigots (along with a few well-meaning but unimaginative conformists). They aren't atheists so they can lord it over their fellow human beings and mock their beliefs; they're as honest and decent as the agnostics and doubtful believers that Humphrys lionises.

Most unforgivably, Humphrys equates atheism with materialism and consumerism; that a world without the spirituality of religion and driven by atheism would turn "vacuity into virtue" (pg. 352). Aside from the fact that, prior to this baffling assertion in the book's final pages, he had not even attempted to make such a link between atheism and materialism, it is also erroneous that atheists champion such shallowness. Most, even the "militant" atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens that Humphrys denigrates, instead ally atheism with humanism, coherently argue how altruism fits neatly into Darwinian theory, and profess that the wonder of science and the natural world is more remarkable and awe-inspiring than any malevolent god conjured up by the sick minds of Iron Age tribes. Hardly vacuity. The truth is, Humphrys really wants to be a believer; In God We Doubt is a longing for faith. He says, on page 147, that he would like to believe in God but, to his dismay, cannot bring himself to accept any of the religions or their 'proofs'. This is not the same as an agnostic who sits on the fence and, with sound mind, accepts doubt as the only rational response to the Big Question. Rather, Humphrys is sat on the fence but gazes adoringly and enviously at the believers' side of the field. He freely admits that atheists "have the best arguments" (pg. 311), but he longs for that warm, fuzzy feeling inside provided by faith, longs for the peace of mind provided by not having to think for oneself. He wants to let go, to surrender: he wants that exhilaration of stepping off the ledge. In the end, I just felt rather sorry for him.

'Betting on the Muse' by Charles Bukowski (1996)

Betting on the Muse - Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski, Betting on the Muse: Poems & Stories (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1998), 402pp

 

"the word / raw on the page, / the similarities of / our hells."
-- 'The Luck of the Word'

Betting on the Muse is the first collection of Charles Bukowski's poetry I have read, but I was immediately relieved that it was the same, familiar voice I'd heard in Post Office and Ham on Rye. Although I should point out that it is not just poetry but also peppered with short stories, and even some of the earlier poems read more like short stories. Both the poems and the short stories are well worth a read, and there are many outstanding pieces. That said, like any collection or anthology, there are some duds that would have been better left on the editing floor. But Bukowski always writes well, even in the duds, and so you never feel frustrated if you come across a dud because it's over before you know it.

In picking up some Bukowski poetry I have, in effect, started at the end, as this is a posthumous collection of his final writings. There is a somewhat paradoxical sense of uplifting melancholy about many of the pieces, particularly towards the end of the book. Here, Bukowski becomes less cynical, focusing less on the hardships and bullshit of life and more on the poetic, eternal rest promised by encroaching death. As he says in 'Betting on Now', "I've reached the pause before the full stop." These final pages contain such bittersweet pieces as the magisterial 'Let it Enfold You', 'The 13th Month' and the peerless 'The Laughing Heart' (the presence of this latter poem being the only reason I chose Betting on the Muse as my first Bukowski poetry book). Maybe it was the editor's decision to reorganise the poems into such a sequence, but I like to think Bukowski wished for such a suitable thematic coda to his work. After 'The Laughing Heart', we are treated to a final confrontational, defiant-to-the-last 'A Challenge to the Dark' before concluding with a touching piece of ubi sunt, 'So Now?', which ends with "Oh, I was once young, Oh, I was once unbelievably young!" It is a writer's fine sign-off to a body of work that I have only just begun to explore.

Personal favourites include: 'Me Against the World', 'The World War One Movies', 'This Dirty, Valiant Game', 'The Luck of the Word', 'The Suicide', 'Let it Enfold You', 'The 13th Month', 'So Now?' and 'The Laughing Heart'. (There is a great video of Tom Waits reciting 'The Laughing Heart' here).

'Pronto' by Elmore Leonard (1993)

Pronto  - Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard, Pronto (New York: William Morrow, 2012), 386pp

 

Pronto is a nice, easy read that unfortunately never seems to reach a higher gear. Fans of the television series Justified might like this, but be aware Raylan Givens is a different character here to what he is on the screen (here, for example, he has two children and his father is dead). Fans will also be able to identify parts of Pronto which have influenced Justified, including the ultimatum for Tommy Bucks to leave town within twenty-four hours (the first episode) and various elements of episode four (the fugitive dentist episode). Leaving aside the Justified comparisons, I found it hard to picture the scenes set in Italy (it didn't feel like Italy to me) and none of the characters really jumped out (apart from Raylan, obviously). The crime plot is routine but redeemed by Elmore Leonard's dialogue. This is not a bad novel but it's not really a substantial one either, though it is quick and easy to read and so doesn't outstay its welcome.

'The Odyssey' by Homer (circa 750 B.C.)

The Odyssey - Homer, E.V. Rieu, Peter Jones, D.C.H. Rieu

Homer, The Odyssey (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 348pp. Translated by E. V. Rieu and revised by D. C. H. Rieu.

 

"Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful man who was driven to wander far and wide after he had sacked the holy citadel of Troy."

What surprised me the most about reading The Odyssey of Homer, the second oldest surviving piece of Western literature (after Homer's The Iliad), was how well it has held up. Its style is by no means modern, but it reads surprisingly well for an oral epic written in a 2,500-year-old dead language. Credit must go, of course, to the translation that I read: the standard 1948 Penguin Classics translation by E. V. Rieu. Not only does Rieu make the prose come alive, but his Introduction (along with those by his son D. C. H. Rieu and Peter Jones in my revised Penguin Classics edition) significantly enhance one's enjoyment of the story, which is not always something one can say about scholarly introductions. Jones and the Rieus provide context and sympathetic navigation for the story; I would recommend this translation to readers who want an authentic Homeric experience without being alienated by archaisms or, conversely, over-simplistic modern re-tellings.

As for the story itself, it is rightfully considered a classic; the original adventure story. The most famous elements, such as the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the Cyclopes, Circe the witch, etc., are all great feats of imagination and genesis for many modern myths and fantasy stories. But there are some things which did jar with me; I would perhaps suggest that it is impossible for such an ancient story to chime one-hundred-percent with any modern reader given it was written for a completely different audience. I am not talking about the things that would seem morally questionable today, such as slave ownership, aristocracies and the killing of unarmed people, as one must of course be aware of the novel's historical context. Rather, it is the Ancient Greek obsession with deities involved in human affairs which, if this novel were written today, would have levelled at it the crime of deus ex machina. (I remember unapologetically tearing a strip off Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist for faulty narrative mechanics and dei ex machina that pale to those present here.) Many things only happen because a god willed it, and little explanation is given as to why; it is particularly annoying when the action didn't even require a god to intervene, and events might have progressed along similar lines if the gods had just stayed at home on Mount Olympus and tucked into some ambrosia. Some (read: many) of the various gods' actions are baffling, counter-productive or out-of-character (though the lame god Hephaestus calling his adulterous wife Aphrodite a 'brazen bitch' was rather amusing), and the narrative inconsistencies with which The Odyssey is abruptly ended are often noted and lamented by readers.

But my main criticism of The Odyssey is the apparent lack of focus. It is not quite a bona fide adventure story; most of the famous elements of the story (the Cyclopes, Circe, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, etc.) are dealt with only in the second quarter of the book (Books/Chapters 9 to 12 of a total of 24 Books). You do wonder about Homer's priorities: he devotes more time to mixing bowls and courtesies than he does to the Sirens, say, or the lotus-eaters. Both the Sirens and the lotus-eaters are dealt with in perhaps a page or two each. It reminded me a bit of The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien would devote just a short chapter to the epic Battle of Helm's Deep but entire swathes of prose to describing the intricacies of a language, landscape or suchlike. A mere perusal of the chapter names is instructive in this regard; the second half of the book is dominated by such less-than-thrilling titles as 'In Eumaeus' Hut', 'Telemachus Returns', 'Odysseus Goes to the Town' and 'Eurycleia Recognizes Odysseus'. Odysseus spends more time toasting the health of courteous hosts than he does impaling dread sea monsters on his bronzed spear.

That said, The Odyssey is a true epic. If not a straight-up adventure story, it does nevertheless have a consistent theme, which is hospitality and the correct treatment of guests, a concept known as xenia to the Ancient Greeks. Most of the events of the novel, not just the obvious story of Odysseus against the Suitors but also Odysseus' encounters with the Cyclopes, Circe, Calypso, the Phaeacians, and so on, are driven by the use or abuse of this concept of xenia, which is held sacred. One can entertain oneself identifying relevant instances of xenia and how they drive the story throughout.

The characters are also interesting; straightforward enough to be readable but also complex. I found it particularly interesting that Odysseus relies as much on guile as he does on strength (he was the one who came up with the Trojan Horse gambit, after all), even though he is fêted as an honourable man and considered 'godlike' in his strength. There is scholarly debate as to whether Odysseus is in fact an anti-hero, predating our modern pop-culture obsession with such morally-ambiguous characters by a couple of millennia. (The non-linear storytelling is also impressively ahead of its time). The major female characters are also well-developed (Odysseus' wife Penelope, above all, proves to be cunning enough to hold her own against the Suitors' attentions), even though there is perhaps a misogynistic, belittling mentality occasionally apparent where the misdeeds of one woman is said to bring a curse down on all womankind, whereas individual men have different fates from one another. But, as I said above, one must judge The Odyssey in its historical context and not let our modern ways of thinking hinder our enjoyment of the story. (Though I did find it funny when, in Book 18, Odysseus, a fine orator when he wants to be, puts down a handmaid's lengthy eloquent mockery of his rags - he is disguised as a beggar - with a short, sharp retort: "You bitch!").

Above all, the language is gorgeous. There are evocative references to the 'wine-dark sea' and Dawn appearing 'fresh and rosy-fingered', which sweeten the reader's mind no matter how often they are repeated (and, as The Odyssey was originally an oral poem, they are repeated a lot). The goddess Athene is often referred to as the 'goddess of the flashing eyes' or the 'gleaming eyes', conveying both her beauty and her cunning. And even the smallest actions are made to sound epic; consider, for example, this passage in Book 4 which describes Menelaus merely getting ready one morning:

"As soon as Dawn appeared, fresh and rosy-fingered, Menelaus of the loud war-cry rose from his bed and put on his clothes. He slung a sharp sword from his shoulder, bound a fine pair of sandals on his glistening feet and strode from his bedroom looking like a god."

For my indulgence, the 'ambrosial night', the arrow flying with its 'burden of bronze' (i.e. its arrowhead), a battered ship in a storm as the 'sport of the furious winds' and a deep sleep described as 'the very counterfeit of death' are all achingly beautiful phrases. I particularly liked that when a character is speaking animatedly or passionately or angrily, they are described as speaking with 'winged words' or being addressed with 'words that flew'. Readers should be aware that I am also speaking with winged words when I recommend The Odyssey for these little gems of prose alone. Failing that, it should be read as a classic of adventure fiction and mythic fantasy, an eloquent epic undiminished by the passage of time.

'Post Office' by Charles Bukowski (1971)

Post Office - Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski, Post Office (London: Virgin Books, 2009), 160pp

 

"I met an old drunk on the street one afternoon. I used to know him from the days with Betty when we made the rounds of the bars. He told me that he was now a postal clerk and that there was nothing to the job. It was one of the biggest fattest lies of the century. I've been looking for that guy for years but I'm afraid somebody else has gotten to him first." (pg. 50).

Charles Bukowski entertains in this signature rambling confessional novel about his eleven years working in menial jobs at the post office. Reading Bukowski is almost cathartic, as he gives voice to your darker everyday thoughts about life. Many will find themselves relating to the emotions and cynicisms he describes, and it is rather pleasing to see such thoughts laid out in print rather than just swimming around in your head. His observations on the people around him are all on the money, particularly the pedants and jobsworths, the supervisors who all "had a look on their faces... they must practice it in front of mirrors... they looked at you as if you were a hunk of human shit." (pg. 52).

But more notable are his observations on the ordinary people, the wage-slaves - those people who have just given up on trying to make something of their life, and exist just to punch in and out each day and do menial labour. At one point, Bukowski poignantly chronicles the breakdown of 'G.G', an unremarkable old employee who "was neither liked nor disliked. He was just there." (pg. 30) and was heartlessly cast aside when he had nothing left to give (his supervisor's first response, when told of G.G.'s mental collapse, is "Who's manning his route?... I gotta get somebody to man his route!" (pg. 33)). The general theme of Post Office is that such work, particularly when run by those jobsworth types that every reader will have their own less-than-fond memories of, is soul-destroying, with your whole life geared towards servitude to the company. "Damn, they won't let a man live at all, will they?" Chinaski, Bukowski's alter ego, remarks on page 75. "They always want him at the wheel." What Bukowski did, in his constant non-conformity and eventual resignation and subsequent novel-writing, was to place both hands on the wheel and choose to veer wildly all over the road. Some of Chinaski's actions may seem petty (and if you had to work alongside Bukowski in such a job you would probably think he was a bit of a piss-ant) but you have to admire someone who is so intolerant of workplace servility that he could only suffer through it himself with an unstable mixture of stubbornness, indifference and outright contempt.

'Necessary Evil' by Ian Tregillis (2013)

Necessary Evil: The Milkweed Triptych: Book Three - Ian Tregillis

Ian Tregillis, Necessary Evil: The Milkweed Triptych, Book Three (London: Orbit, 2013), 472pp

 

"You deserve to die screaming." (pg. 87).

Necessary Evil sees Ian Tregillis finish his Milkweed Triptych on a high. After the world-building debut Bitter Seeds and the improvement and intensity evident in The Coldest War, this third and final book in the trilogy sees all the events brought to a head with a remarkable confidence from the author. He navigates the time-travel plot line - always tricky - with intelligence, avoiding potential plot holes and steering well clear of absurdity. Tregillis wraps up his trilogy by bringing together all the various strands of the plot with a manipulative dexterity that would make Gretel proud.

If Bitter Seeds built up this fascinating alternate-history world, and The Coldest War brought things to a head, then Necessary Evil is the emotional finale that codifies my love for the trilogy. The resolutions of all the various character arcs are all appropriate; considering the darkness of the trilogy, it shouldn't come as a surprise that some end in violence and death, but even more affecting are the endings for those who survive. Tregillis allows the characters' resolutions space to breathe amidst all the action, from minor players like the Twins, through the likes of Reinhardt and Klaus, to major characters like Gretel and Marsh (x2). It shows his respect for his readers, who have invested in these characters over three remarkable books (though perhaps Klaus deserved more attention throughout the book considering the growth of his role in The Coldest War - here he is disappointingly a bit-part player). Gretel's finale in particular was a fine way to bring her story to a close, though, as with all things Gretel, she is unnerving right to the last. The final line of the book (before the Epilogue) also strikes a note of unreserved hope, perhaps the first and only one in the entirety of this bleak, dark trilogy. And the epilogue itself was endearingly bittersweet, a perfect end to a perfect trilogy.

This review may be shorter than the ones I wrote for the first two books; in order to avoid spoilers I have restrained myself from going into too much depth. But as potential readers of this book will be picking it up after reading the first two in the trilogy, I should perhaps only say that it fulfils the potential of Bitter Seeds and does not renege on the promises of The Coldest War. I cannot choose between the three books as to which is the best, but the Milkweed Triptych as a whole is among a select group right at the very top of my favourite books.

'The Drowning Bride' by Michael Futcher and Helen Howard (2005)

The Drowning Bride (Currency Plays) - Helen Howard, Michael Futcher

Michael Futcher and Helen Howard, The Drowning Bride (Sydney: Currency Press, 2005), 91pp

 

Though The Drowning Bride is a short, two-act play, Michael Futcher and Helen Howard nevertheless have crafted a piece of work possessing of real emotional punch and complex characters. As with their previous effort A Beautiful Life, interest in the story is retained by the slow reveal of various skeletons-in-the-closet, not only from the aging former Nazi collaborator Valdis but also from the ghost of old Sarmitte. Like Ellen, the couple's granddaughter, the reader wants to know what drove these two people apart in the past; the emotional impact comes from the gradual realisation that both of them made mistakes, that both hurt each other. The play deals with a rather gray morality which fits the general mood and the spooky artwork cover (which plays a thematic role in the plot, and a neat way to wrap up the ending), as Valdis and Sarmitte are haunted by the things they felt compelled to do to survive in Nazi-occupied Latvia in World War Two.

There is also a nice contrast to the Valdis/Sarmitte relationship with the modern-day Ellen and Matt, who seem destined to repeat the same sort of mistakes that Ellen's grandparents made, making decisions that drive each other away rather than closer together. The general message of the play seems to be that one should not ignore the mistakes of the past (as Valdis initially seems to do) and let them eat away at you; rather, you should confront them, let them overpower you temporarily if needs be, so long as you emerge with forgiveness on the other side. The metaphor of the 'drowning bride' is instructive here, as Ellen hints: "People who've nearly drowned say it's peaceful. If you let the water take you. Sometimes you hear voices from the shore calling you back. If you can still fight it, if you want to, you can return. But you always remember the peace of that moment... after you let the water in." (pp72-3).

Futcher and Howard keep the two parallel stories (Valdis/Sarmitte in the 1940s, Ellen/Matt in the present day) both in hand, continuing and improving on their skill in juxtaposition that was also present in parts of A Beautiful Life. As with that earlier play, they also seem to have an intuitive understanding of the mindset of immigrants who are unable to escape their troubled past, and deal with the emotionally-raw issues (both The Drowning Bride and A Beautiful Life are based on true life stories of the pair's close friends) with sensitivity. Short in length, emotionally powerful and thematically rich - can you ever really ask for more?

'A Game of Thrones' by George R. R. Martin (1996)

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones: Book One of A Song of Ice and Fire (London: Harper Voyager, 2011), 801pp

 

Whilst the Song of Ice and Fire books of course have their own pre-existing following, I imagine that many people now deciding to read this book will do so due to the success of the television series Game of Thrones, as I did. Therefore, I will not provide an ordinary review but try to give my impressions of the book as someone who had already been exposed to the television adaptation. Consequently, there may be spoilers for those who haven't seen the show.

It is inevitable that, having been exposed to the series, it would inform my experiences here. I found the book rather quick to read (considering its sizeable length) as I already knew how the plot would progress, so I never lost my way. The interpretations provided in the series (how characters and locations look, for example) also served as a crutch in my reading. I do not consider this a negative point, as whilst the book is its own monster, it does closely resemble the series, in both plot direction and dialogue (George R. R. Martin is heavily involved in the show's production). As a fan of the series, I did find a few minor details in the book jarring. Most notably, many characters are much younger in the book, for example Jon Snow (here fourteen years of age), Sansa (here eleven) and Joffrey (here twelve). I found their often-mature actions and dialogue to be rather dissonant to their ages; the show is an improvement in that regard. It is even more disconcerting than in the series that Daenerys is married to Drogo at just thirteen years of age, and it is harder to accept Robb Stark as a new Alexander when in the book he is a mere fifteen year old.

Where the book has a clear advantage is that it can go into more depth than is capable in a television series. The lore of the Seven Kingdoms is fleshed out in the book (but doesn't bore you with it for pages and pages as, for example, some of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien do) and you find out more about why certain things mentioned in the series - the First Men, the Andals, the children of the forest, how House Targaryen fell, etc. - are important. The battle scenes are also are longer and more in-depth than in the series, where budgetary constraints limited the ability to stage large set-piece battles. With the written word, there are no such constraints, and consequently the large battle scenes are meatier than their on-screen counterparts. For example, remember the 'battle' in season one where Tyrion Lannister is knocked out and we cut to the aftermath of the battlefield when he regains consciousness, without seeing any actual fighting? In the book, it is a fully-described battle; the same goes for the lifting of the siege of Riverrun and the capture of Jaime Lannister.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to say whether the book or the television series is better, as they are both so alike as to be almost twins. The book came first, of course, and rightly takes credit for building such a rich fantasy world, and for creating such intriguing characters and plotting. But the television series was a useful crutch for me and has done an excellent job of recreating the book. I would say, however, that the show is very faithful to the events of the book, so don't pick this up expecting a substantially different story to what is presented in the show. Some adaptations only loosely interpret the story (have you seen World War Z? What happened there?) and consequently, you can have fun noting the differences between book and film/television. This is not one of those books, but it is immensely entertaining nonetheless. It is the best fantasy work since Tolkien, perhaps even surpassing him. Whereas Tolkien dealt in black-and-white, good-and-evil, George R. R. Martin chooses to delve into the morally gray area. Indeed, if not for the talk of dragons and the strange place names, one could easily see this as historical fiction, set in the age of kings and emperors from ancient Rome or the rise and fall of various European monarchies. Martin has taken the best of these historical flavours and infused them into his own carefully-crafted world; it makes for a deliciously satisfying read.

'A Pocket Guide to the Empire' by Bethesda Softworks (2006)

A Pocket Guide to the Empire and its Environs - Bethesda Softworks

A Pocket Guide to the Empire and its Environs, Being a Description of the Lands and the Chief Features of Their Histories (Bethesda Softworks, 2006), 112pp

 

A neat little book tying in to the Elder Scrolls universe, a series of fantasy video games. This short work provides (in broad sweeps) an outline of the history of Tamriel, the world where the games take place. It is clear and concise, with lyrical language when necessary and is well-presented with good illustrations. It only recounts up to the year before the events of Oblivion, the fourth game of the series, but is nevertheless a nice little curio for fans of the series, if you can get your hands on it.

'A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Read' by William Rabkin (2009)

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Read - William Rabkin

William Rabkin, A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Read (New York: Obsidian, 2009), 274pp

 

Tie-in books are usually inferior to the thing they are based on, and A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Read, the first book to be based on the television show Psych, is no exception. This is not to say that it is a bad book - it is not. It is a very easy read and, as I'm sure anyone picking it up will already be familiar with the characters and the set-up, the reader can just dive straight in. The plot is interesting enough to retain the reader's interest, but is nothing exceptional. Some of the comedic timing is a bit off, though the book does have plenty of moments of humour. But, in my opinion, the book's main flaw is that the essence of Psych is difficult to translate into book form. The bromance between Shawn and Gus depends as much on the interplay between the two actors James Roday and Dulé Hill as it does on the script, and the characters Jules and Lassie (both criminally underutilised here, especially Jules) are reduced to roles as extras, whereas in the show they are important characters who provide a nice foil to the antics of Shawn and Gus. I think that the only relationship that really rang one-hundred percent true in this book was the one between Shawn and his curmudgeonly father, Henry. In addition, the characters introduced solely for this book - Veronica Mason, Dallas Steele, Tara Larison, Bert Coules, etc. - are rather one-dimensional. But no-one's expecting a great piece of literature here, and the book is an enjoyable quick read. Dedicated fans of Psych, having exhausted their series' box sets (and with rumours that the show's next season will be its last), will be grateful for any competent addition to the franchise. Importantly, whilst A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Read doesn't really add anything unique or special to the franchise, it doesn't embarrass it either, so Psych fans should give it a go.