Archive for February, 2012

Ian Fleming – You Only Live Twice

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

The last completed novel Ian Fleming wrote about his famous character James Bond is You Only Live Twice (1964), in a time when the movie franchise was starting to sky-rocket into world-wide fame. Nevertheless, Fleming proves to be an independent mind. While his novels stick to a general, well-known, format he has played in several occasions with the story and approach. One major difference with the movie adaptations is the more personal touch. The reader experiences a Bond outside his missions, in his off-mission work at the office, and some of his views and feelings which provide a sometimes strange depth and picture of the times and nature of spy work. Another difference is that the movies make the stories far more adventurous and often change the plot considerably. Bond’s missions in the novels are at times more straightforward and singular.

The novel You Only Live Twice contains a very different plot than the movie which is far more exhilarating and action-packed.These are however extensions to the essence of the story of the novel. Bond is taken to a completely different surrounding, Japan, and experiences several elements of Japanese society and culture. Many of the experiences from the book are also there in the movie adaptation. The great difference is that the movie remains somewhat superficial. The viewer gets a rather fast picture of many different things and has little time to contemplate or get a good feeling for it. The novel really goes into depth of Japanese culture, society and history. Perhaps I am biased by my own interest in Japanese culture and history of many years, but I was really taken by Fleming’s impressive and (to my opinion) accurate description of Japan in the early sixties. This is in contrast to other stories taking place in foreign countries where Fleming only adds some general flavor to the scene. Only his first descriptions of Jamaica in his early novels come close. Fleming is a master of detail, certainly considering the short average length of his novels (200 pages). The range of detail concerning Japan goes far beyond his earlier writing. While Fleming at times added the details in the form of info-dumping, this time it is done very naturally during the course of the story in an engaging way.

In stark contrast to the movie adaptation and less so with the other novels, You Only Live Twice contains very few action-scenes. It is not just as story about Japan, it is also very much a character-story with Bond in the center. Throughout most of the novel Bond is paired with another character and no other characters take part in their interaction. The dialogues are very strong and insightful. To me it felt that they lifted the novel to a literary quality. These days such elements are quite common in thrillers. The Bond-novels always were something quite more than the average pulp thriller, but the focus was still on sex, gambling, smoking and drinking, and violence. Character interaction was always part of the suspense. While these elements are not absent in You Only Live Twice, they are more an element than a focus. Fleming has given Bond a mission of a different nature. Bond approaches it in the way he always does but with very different effects. To me it was great to read. A new experience.

Looking at the series as a whole Fleming managed to cover a wide spectrum of ideas. The Bond-novels have common elements, but many have their own unique character and flavors. It’s not always the same deal. The reader gets much more and Fleming also takes up challenges of his own.

You Only Live Twice is a great book. Not the best concerning actions scenes or plot complexity, but certainly the best in characterization and dialogue. Knowing the series coming to an end, the reader is treated with more Bond. You know him and you will know him more. The story itself has its typical peculiarities and Bond-feel, and to me it was quite satisfactory, even with the lack of action scenes. Highly recommended.

Michael J. Sullivan – Avempartha

Monday, February 27th, 2012

The second book of the Riyria Revelations, a fantasy series in the tradition of Raymond E. Feist, by Michael J. Sullivan, is Avempartha (2009). Albeit some minor flaws I enjoyed the first book pretty much, although the series has a more Young Adult audience, making various elements more simplistic. Compared to other Young Adult series like Harry Potter and Abhorsen (by Garth Nix), which I enjoyed a lot, real deeper layers are few or only lightly touched, and the level of complexity, especially compared to those other series, is very low in scope. So it all boils down to the story and characters. In the first book Sullivan managed those quite well, but unfortunately continuing into another story they start to lack originality and complexity.

Avempartha is a rather more straightforward story. There are some minor twists, but they are not much out of the ordinary. It is a bit too light-hearted and easy going, although it could be I read too much darker and grittier fantasy that I am simply not used to it anymore. It is this what makes me classify it as Young Adult, this novel much more than the previous one. The good guys are supposed to be criminals, but they often act too kind, caring and honorable. This character set is put out of place compared to the first novel and it is not for the good.

Although Sullivan didn’t show great skill in his dialogues I noticed it to be worse compared to the still quite decent first novel. They seem too forced or clumsy at times and lack a natural flow. Worse is that the characters are simply too talkative. They don’t simply say things they shouldn’t, they even try to tell more than necessary and everyone bares with it. It also doesn’t seem to matter who they are talking to, a noble man, a knight or a farmer. The behavior is a quite the same everywhere. This is certainly the case for the bad guys. They seem rather stupid and like to talk about there plans too openly, even when there are bystanders in the same room who are not into the secrets. Secrecy seems a big problem. I am quite accustomed to characters hardly saying something useful, only leaving hints that leave you guessing about what the real story is. No, these characters simply like to tell you as much as possible, just in case you couldn’t have guessed it.

So now my review of Avempartha seems to be pretty bad. To be honest it wasn’t always that awful. The parts with less dialogue (and few bad guys) and more action worked out quite well, although I have to add that there is not that much serious action. It is still a fairly easy read, but being targeting a Young Adult audience this should be the case for accessibility. A friendly fantasy with some decent moments is all I can make of it. Not really my kind of novel. Unfortunately I did buy the next two-novel omnibus, so I will continue anyways. A weaker second novel doesn’t mean the third one can’t be more like the first. An author usually grows and develops. My enthusiasm does have slackened somewhat. The right audience will probably enjoy it much, so I can understand the many positive reviews, although I consider them to be somewhat misleading and certainly overrated.

Michael J. Sullivan – A Crown Conspiracy

Monday, February 20th, 2012

A new phenomenon in the past few years are authors who gain a contract after they have obtained succes selling their novels online through self-publication. Michael J. Sullivan is an author like that whose popularity earned him a book deal. In these cases the question remains if they have rightfully ignored originally by the publishers or not. I had some doubts about starting with this series, but after having read several positive reviews I decided to give it a go, although my instinct is rarely wrong.

The first novel of the fantasy series the Riyria Revelations is A Crown Conspiracy (2007). To quickly sum it up, it is a mainstream fantasy in the tradition of Eddings and Feist, although it is more Feistian in its world-building and setup with familiar names from the real world mixed with elves, dwarves and some magic. So on the side of originality there is not much new to find although Sullivan does manage to add some ideas of his own. There is however no real different twist or take on the typical fantasy tropes.

Were it note for the lack of young characters one could classify the novel as Young Adult. It is not dark or scary, events remain more adventurous than dangerous, the plot complexity is of a low level and fairly straightforward. Most of all the atmosphere is very light-hearted and easy-going. The main characters are good-minded and usually honorable criminals. The characters themselves don’t seem to be very bright. The way they are portrayed and how they act seem to fit more in a Young Adult setting as the approach simplifies things and if the reader doesn’t get it they get the chance to explain things just to make sure. This way there is a lack of complexity to the characters as the author presents the necessary facts a bit too easily.

Sullivan tries to avoid info-dumping by adding natural circumstances in a dialogue. Unfortunately the chosen characters seem to be too well informed, providing a bit too exact or complete information as if they are giving a lecture, which again seems to be out of place for their character.

So depending on the audience there is still quite some space for improvement. It may seem I’m quite critical, but this is simply typical for mainstream fantasy. To be honest, fans of Feist and Eddings will enjoy this novel very much, because it contains a lot of the “fantasy tropes” they love.

On a positive note, I did enjoy the story. Especially the first part I consider to be, generally speaking, quite good and engaging. After that it sagged a bit with the above noted weak elements, but it never fell flat and there were several good moments too which were quite inventive. As I consider the story to be an important component of my judgment it was a good first novel overall. Enough to make me want to continue with the next installment. Then again, my expectations for mainstream fantasy aren’t that high. I knew what I was getting into and my instinct told me right, although I hoped for more.

So to answer my earlier question, based on this first book, I can say it is a safe bet for a publisher aiming at the mainstream fantasy reader. There are some weaknesses, but the story is good enough to hold up, and to be honest, I’ve read far worse fantasy novels. So nothing outstanding and not bad either. A fine read for someone in need of some easy reading.

Agatha Christie – And Then There Were None

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Agatha Christie‘s most popular mystery is a standalone novel that has none of her famous detectives, like Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, in it. And Then There Were None (1939), originally titled Ten Little Niggers, is most of all her most daring mystery. Christie took up a challenge and wrote her most astounding murder plot. As it is her most popular novel it is enough to say she succeeded in completing her challenge to write an incredibly compelling murder mystery.

Telling much about the plot without giving much away is difficult. Comparing it to the Agatha Christie novels I’ve read in the past it is quite different in structure. Usually she starts off to set the stage, introducing the different characters (or possible suspects), following a murder investigation. This time there is hardly an introduction before the murders start as she has a lot of ground to cover to meet her challenge. Because of this the characterization is done during the events of the novel. The advantage of this, due to the required plot development, is that the events allow Christie to give the characters a greater substance than usual when they are just the possible suspects or victims.

The whole compelling plot creates an unique atmosphere. It’s not even that detailed and actually quite compact. Christie doesn’t use more words than necessary and doesn’t stretch out the developments. The pace is rather high and in combination with Christie’s easy writing style it makes a fast read. That said, I finish her books very quickly, which is one reason why I like to watch TV and movie adaptations because they are slower and give me more time to appreciate the mystery.

As this is a book in the top 10 of most sold novels I don’t really need to recommend it. If you like mystery it is simply a must-read. I am happy I finally did as for some reason I never picked it up. Better late than never.

Hidden treasure coves

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

I went to the city center today and decided to walk into a part I hadn’t been to yet as it was on the other side of the main road dividing the center and most stores were on the main side. It was just one extra street with some stores as I noticed an American Book Store of which I hadn’t been aware there was one in my city. As they tend to have some other stuff than usual I decided to take a look. From the front it looked rather small, but as I entered it saw it went further back considerably. At the very end I noticed the SF & Fantasy section, my favorite genre, so I looked at the shelves. While browsing through the titles I noticed there was another wall, and I continued, and found another wall, and another. Yes, it curved in and out so at first glance I hadn’t noticed they actually had a large collection. So unexpectedly I had found a hidden treasure cove of books in my own city, while I had thought the available works were rather average in their selection. The only downside is that American mass paperback editions often look cheaper, or less nice, than the European ones, so it’s they don’t always have an edition I would like to have.

So in the end I’ve bought several fantasy books, in fact two omnibi of two novels by Michael J. Sullivan. I had noticed the titles before, but I hadn’t been sure if they were interesting enough for me to buy. As I have been reading several reviews the past months that were all quite positive, I decided to give them a try. The first omnibus is called Theft Of Swords, containing the novels A Crown Conspiracy (2007) and Avempartha (2009), the second is called Rise Of Empire, with the novels Nyphron Rising (2009) and Emerald Storm (2010). They seem easy reads to me, so expect reviews soon.

Strange mysteries

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Another two novels arrived this week, both by a female author and both in sense a tale of mystery. The first is the Gothic novel The Mysteries Of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe. With almost 700 pages quite the heavy tome for the time. Second is And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie. Its original title is Ten Little Niggers, but of course such titles aren’t seen as politically correct anymore these days. I’m quite the Agatha Christie fan and love the movie and TV adaptations of her Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot stories. I’ve read a fair number of her books, but only a limited amount of her many publications. Although I knew the original title of the novel and never realized I had never read the actual novel before while it is considered to be one of her best. So on that acclamation I decided to buy it as I would else not have turned upon it by chance.

Horace Walpole – The Castle Of Otranto

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

The Castle Of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is considered to be the first Gothic novel. It was Walpole who coined the name in fact and he set a number of Gothic story elements that have since then been copied extensively: romance, gloomy locations and atmosphere, tragedy and supernatural occurrences. Walpole also lets the story take place in mediaeval times so it has some minor historical elements as well.

The novel is not long. The edition I had was only 80 pages, so one could call it a novella, were it not for the somewhat small letters and the lack of paragraphs and a lack of punctuation, especially in dialogues. It is all crammed together, no matter who’s talking, which makes it troublesome to follow who’s speaking. I should call it a kind of laziness on the side of the editor. Can it be that hard to add some hard enters? If done so it would not have surprised me the number of pages would have doubled.

Either way, it was fortunate that the prose of Walpole is overall very accessible and easily readable. He manages to keep a good pace in his plot with plenty of twists and drama. As a Gothic tale it is a strange story at times, although one could compare it these days to typical soap elements. The difference of course is that it is written in the 18th century and certain plot elements were more common while they are categorized more typically these days. Such is what one can expect if one takes up old novels.

While the story does manage to entertain the plot is not very coherent. I had some trouble keeping the whole picture, although the lack of punctuation and paragraphs could have influenced my view. It is mainly a weird story that does leave an impression because of the twists and the heavy drama. So as the first Gothic novel it is an interesting read, but not that good. What of course doesn’t help is that nowadays we are quite familiar with his at the time original plot elements which would now be seen as somewhat clich√©.

Ivan Turgenev – The Three Portraits

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

I don’t read many short story collections. The main reason is that the format is too limited. Often either the story is unsatisfactory or it is so interesting that it is wasted on not having been extended (although I know examples of a sequence of short stories that were closely related). One could say it is too good or more a fragment of a greater whole. Only at times the story provides satisfaction and closure at the same time. Any way, I do still try at times. Some years ago I bough a box set of (mainly 19th century) Russian writers which contained several story collection sets. One of those was The Three Portraits (2006) by Ivan Turgenev. As the collection is a specific Dutch translation there is no other language equivalent to it and although the stories were written in the 19th century this specific publication isn’t, hence the difference in date, which I only add for reference. So for this review I will focus on the more general style and elements used by Turgenev and not go much into detail about the stories themselves as finding them together in an edition of your own will be complicated.

Most of the stories are around 20 pages long except Torrents Of Spring, which is over 100 pages long, and thus is more of a novella than a short story. It is at the same time also different from the other stories so I will give some separate comments on it.

As the other stories are quite short they fall into two categories. Either they contain a lot of events or focus more on characterization, usually in giving background stories for the characters. What I felt was that they were of an anecdotal nature. In several cases someone was relating to past events to others or really telling about it. So one could call it a story withing a story, of which the encompassing story is only the framework to tell the main story. Because of that setting Turgenev uses a simple, uncomplicated and straightforward style, which can be seen a fitting as a regular person is telling it, not the writer himself. The prose itself give an almost neutral atmosphere while reading it, so it is all to the story. Most of the stories are somewhat peculiar. In every story I had a strange feeling about something, while it should not have been so. So that is something one has to like to appreciate it. Also typical is the rural setting, which is different from an urban one, where life is more complicated.

The main story is Torrents Of Spring. It formed quite a bottleneck for me to complete the novel. It is quite different from the other stories, being set in cities and outside Russia. It is also not anecdotal in style and the prose thus more stylized. In essence it is a romance. Here it also seems that Turgenev likes to use somewhat weak and timid male protagonists. He does manage to portray them quite well, but in this case it somewhat irritated me. I also am not much a fan of romantic stories (being male), although (like most people) I don’t mind them if they are part of a greater story. Alas there was not much else to this story so I got stuck in it, just not finding the motivation to continue. Perhaps others will love this story, but not me.

So to me Turgenev is not a writer I enjoyed. The short stories were doable, but left not much of an impression, and the main large story was no to my taste at all. I do can see that other types of readers can enjoy these more mundane 19th century stories a lot, just count me out. Well, quitting the book I don’t like. It must be really horrible for me to do so. Still, it has stood a long while on my Currently reading list. Almost too long for a not that long collection. At least I managed to make it.