Archive for April, 2012

Queen’s Day Bargains 2

Monday, April 30th, 2012

Like the year before Queen’s Day in the Netherlands is ideal for getting cheap book bargains as people are free to put the stuff they don’t want anymore for sale on the street. This year I picked up three books. The first two are a Science Fiction duology by Dan Simmons: Ilium (2003) and Olympus (2005). I’m a fan of Simmons’ Hyperion Saga, although I haven’t tried his other works, so now is the chance to do so. The third is the historical novel The Quincunx, The Heritage Of John Huffam (1989), by Charles Palliser. On the last novel I had heard some praises by friends in the past but for some reason I hadn’t picked it up yet.

Glenda Larke – Stormlord Rising

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Starting in the second book of a trilogy is not always the wisest thing to do as they often suffer from the middle book syndrome: the beginning is less developed and continuing on from previous events while there is no ending as it has too many open storylines which are only completed in the last volume. On the other side I do like not having a beginning in which all the characters are introduced (really in that sense) before anything interesting happens. It means I have to read with greater attention to understand the situation.

It has been a while since I started in a later book than the first in a series. Stormlord Rising (2009) is the second book of the Watergivers Trilogy by Glenda Larke. It is a non-mainstream fantasy series, which is already a good thing as I don’t like mainstream because, as the name implies, it’s all too similar. Just finding a series that does not contain any tropes makes me happy. The next question that arises is if, even when it avoids the tropes, manages to create something new that is worth reading.

This is not an epic fantasy which means the scope of the setting and the story is limited. The limited setting means that Larke does not have to spend too much time on world-building or traveling as it is all within hand-reach and related to each other. It is also a more simple world as the environment is harsh. This means Larke does not require to create much complexity or pretend otherwise. There are some weaknesses. During the reading I did not really notice them. It was when I wasn’t reading and had some time to think that I had some questions. In that sense it is well done. If it bothers during the reading it will dampen the reading pleasure. At least it does so for me.

What can I write about the plot, development and characterization? What struck me was that it was all so solid. Not exceptional, exciting or powerful. Not long-winded, dull or poor. I could find no real weakness and no things that stood out. The last author I had this feeling with was Daniel Abraham. There is sufficient attention to the development of the different characters. The plot development keeps a steady pace and does not drag down or rush too much. It is all well balanced. I coined it ‘writing by the book’ as if they are following the rules. Now that I think of it, Abraham also only had weaknesses in his world-building, which is the part for which there are no rules as they are defined by your story. When writing something non-mainstream without known elements you cannot determine what is required or should be avoided. Either way, solid writing is no bad thing. It provides an enjoyable read, especially as there is little to get annoyed about.

If there is a downside to solid writing is that the characters are also balanced out. Now that I am comparing Larke and Abraham it is striking that they both use characters either with strong morals or with flawed morals. I say flawed, because they are not weak, just imperfect. There intentions are understandable and not really bad. You just know it will not lead to the right results. On the other side the good characters are certainly not perfect either. This is of course normal. The thing is the presentation by the author. I simply don’t really like the main good characters. I don’t care much about them. There is a lack of connection. The main good characters are too similar in setup. They seem too formulaic. They may be build with different stones and material, but their structure is much the same.

Before I started writing this review I didn’t think I could find weaknesses for this book. It is one of my best talents as it is easier for me to find what is wrong and explain why then spend a lot of time on praising what is good. I have to say first that I do recommend this novel. It is a fairly refreshing non-mainstream fantasy novel. It is an enjoyable read without weak parts and always entertaining. There is magic, but it is limited and while not described in detail this is not required. Magic does not always require an explanation or system as it is also something that cannot be easily explained and a mysterious ability.

Another good thing about this second book is that it pretty much avoids the middle book syndrome. One does fall into the story from the start. Larke does provide sufficient references to earlier events so the reader is up to date. The downside is that she does it a bit too much. I got a pretty good image of the events and plot of the first book. Well, these things happen, so I will just have to wait a longer time before reading the first book so I will have forgotten most of it.

The plot of Stormlord Rising is also not just a sequence of events that have no beginning or end. Most of the main characters get a new storyline (withing the main plot) that also ends at the end of the book. The second book could easily have been the end of the trilogy. Nevertheless there are still a number of open strands that have to be resolved, which will no doubt happen in the third book.

So my ultimate conclusion is that I want to read more books by Glenda Larke. Certainly the third book and I will also look out for her earlier works.

Cheap gains

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Discounts are always nice, especially when books are still almost new, although lightly damaged. So I picked up two fantasy novels, both from 2009. The first one is First Lord’s Fury, the sixth and final book of the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher. I still miss book 5, but the offer was too good to let it go. I will just have to wait until I find a cheap copy of that one. It’s not a series I’m that enthusiast about. Nevertheless I just like to finish the series after reading the first four books and it it’s not that bad.

The second one is Stormlord Rising, the second book of the The Watergivers trilogy by Glenda Larke. It’s not ideal that it’s not the first book. Chances are that it spoils too much about what happened before. That is always a gamble. Either way, it is something new, so I will give it a try. At least I won’t have wasted much money.

Virginia Woolf – The Waves

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

For this particular novel I cannot write a review like I usually do. This is because The Waves (1931) by Virginia Woolf can be classified as an experimental novel. I can only compare it to James Joyce‘s Ulysses. The Waves might have found some inspiration from that novel because it is a representation of inner thoughts. The difference is that there are six main characters from whom their thought are described. ‘Described’ is the best word for it. In my view Woolf does not really want to present realistic and actual thoughts. If she would have done it the same way as Joyce that might have made The Waves a tough book to read. This is not the case. Woolf interprets the inner thoughts of her main characters in her own way and transforms it into a lyrical prose that follows a certain kind of rhythm. This lyrical prose is quite similar for all main characters. So what distinguishes them are their topics which, like inner thoughts, are not extremely coherent and follow a variety of patterns. By regularly switching between characters she prevents getting longwinded and providing a certain progression in the story. This as the six main characters are close friends and thus their different thoughts complement each other as the thoughts are not just inward focused but also outward. They tell what they see and how they experience it. So most of these thoughts are actually unsubconcious thoughts. Woolf writes what the thoughts would be during the behavior of the character. So at times it seems like a first person narrative with the exception that there is no dialogue. It actually feels like a collection of inner monologues, a combination of narrative, inner and unsubconcious thoughts.

It is hard to describe how this book is written so I have this gives some idea. Earlier I wrote that the prose is written to a certain rhythm. I discovered this while playing music while reading. At a certain point I found the right kind of music that fit with the rhythm of the prose. Suddenly the words became livelier and reading easier. Not that Woolf’s prose is hard. Her writing style is quite beautiful. Lyrical prose does have the risk that it is not easy to read as the author often falls into the trap of using too many obscure or over-stylized words. Woolf manages to keep it sufficiently in check. Anyways, what kind of music would fit I think is a personal thing, so I won’t tell what worked for me.

There is pretty much nothing to say about plot or characterization. The Waves is about a group of friends and follows them during a long period of years. Woolf selected a number of moments, mostly when the were together. This means that their thoughts are mainly focused on each other and not on their personal background. We learn some about each character based on their thoughts of themselves and on their thoughts or narratives on the other characters. As such I did feel a certain attachment to each character. What it exactly was I cannot tell. Woolf didn’t go deep. Instead she gave her own impression of what they were. The best way to describe this book is that it is a collection of paintings with the same central characters. She used her words to pain the canvas. The painting also follow a grand theme which is the title of the novel. Waves and its derivatives form a theme in the prose and thoughts of the novel. It is done in a very natural way and created a greater harmony, just like a theme is supposed to work.

The Waves provides a remarkable reading experience. I think Woolf’s intent worked really well. As the first author attempting to write a novel this way she put the bar really high. For another writer trying to write a story in a similar way it would easily feel like a copy. It could only work if he made it his own. Nevertheless I do not think that novels should be written like this more often. It is an experiment. Authors should explorer formats and styles and see what possibilities can lead to great and unique works. I would recommend The Waves to those readers who enjoy lyrical prose and challenging novels.

Ian Fleming – Quantum Of Solace

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

In my series of reviews of James Bond novels by Ian Fleming there is only one book left. This is the collection of short stories. A complete edition was published in 2008 under the title Quantum Of Solace, obviously so because of the movie that came out that year.

Quantum Of Solace contains 9 short stories which are mostly 30 to 40 pages long. The stories can basically be divided into two groups.

The first group consists of miniature action events, lighting out a certain circumstance or minor case in which Bond gets involved. Because of the short length the plot is often straightforward. What makes it an interesting read is the situation or background of the story. Fleming created a vivid picture of the time and surrounding that felt very genuine to me, which is something that has been a great strength throughout the Bond novels that I’ve read. Next to that he looks into different aspects of the spy job. Where the usual novel conforms to certain rules of behavior, Fleming shows sides of Bond we haven’t seen before. Some of the action events are quite thrilling and it is obvious why they have been used for movie adaptations. The stories For Your Eyes Only and Risico were even combined together and form the core of one of the James Bond movie. Most of the character names survived although many changes were made to create a larger and more coherent plot. Many of the important elements are however easily recognizable. The Property Of A Lady and The Living Daylights would only become minor events in different Bond movies with far less impact. The only story of this group that I don’t remember having seen in a movie is From A View To A Kill. Its events are simply not that exciting and it’s the weakest of five.

The four other stories I call character studies. They contain little action and actually hardly focus on Bond himself. The only difference is the story The Hildebrand Rarity in which Bond does play his part, but in a more passive way. He observes but is no knight. It is a grey world. As a spy he has to stay in the shadows which leads him to make unsuspected choices. This story was certainly the best of the character studies. Two other stories, Quantum Of Solace and Octopussy, are more or less stories withing stories. Nice and interesting reads and little more. The last story, 007 In New York, is very short and not much of a story at all. It was added for completeness of the collection. There is little to say about it as it is not much worthwhile either.

Overall I enjoyed the stories a lot, even the character studies. The form a varying mixture of settings and events with some nice characterizations. If one has enjoyed the novels, this is certainly a great addition, not just to complete the collection. Much recommended.