Archive for December, 2014

Daniel Polansky – She Who Waits

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

She Who Waits (2013) is the third standalone novel in the Low Town series by Daniel Polansky. I call it a standalone series but every novel uses the same cast of central characters. The stories are however only loosely connected so one can read them without needing to read the others. The series is a crime noir fantasy albeit with the twist that the main protagonist is a crime boss with an odd background and peculiar working habits. He has no real organization and often gets himself dirty in several different ways. That does not prevent him from being a key player who lets his opponents think little of him while he manipulates all around him with blunt skill. The element of magic in the series is rather low but it does plays its role in certain points.

The first novel in the series was very strong and ignited the desire to read more. The follow-up was, in my opinion, rather mediocre. It was not so bad that I wanted to drop the series because I hoped Polansky would recover in the next book. As each had a standalone story this was certainly a possibility. In She Who Waits Polansky does manage to provide a better story, but it is still quite away from the level of The Straight Razor Cure. The novel suffers from two issues.

The first is similar to the second novel which main problem was that much of the real excitement happened only at the beginning and the end. Polansky manages to even out the excitement better in She Who Waits but that is mainly because there is rather less excitement at the beginning and the end so that the contrast is less. Even so this is rather secondary to the actual problem which is that the main protagonist already pretty much knows the game he plays early on and the only thing he has to do is prepare for the final play. This means that the majority of the middle part of the novel is occupied by politicking and manipulating. This may be entertaining but the issue is that it feels like filler story to give the book some body and set up some pieces for the finale. You could say that it is not that uncommon in a novel but in this case you could remove 100-200 pages and it would not really affect the plot that much. I do have to say that it is not as bad as it was in the second novel which also had many flashbacks added as well.

The second issue is not so much a flaw but a weakness. All three novels of the series are setup following the same procedure. In essence you could call them police procedurals as the main protagonist has a mystery or crime to solve and his approach in doing so is fairly similar each time. As in the previous issue one could say that the theme or subject of the plot feels rather interchangeable. Polansky tells his stories in the same way, everytime. In police procedurals this is okay because that is part of the concept of solving crimes. In this case such things can easily be avoided as there is no requirement to do so. Polansky can tell his story in many different ways. Falling back to the same approach for the setup of your story every time is a serious weakness here.

One thing that remains great about the novel are the characters. Polansky’s central cast remains well developed which you can easily connect to. As they are familiar from the earlier novels he has plenty of space for the new characters in this story although they do not get much time to shine overall. Nevertheless they are always interesting and well created. Good characters certainly make a novel and it is one of the reasons why I kept reading this series. There may be some flaws but perfect novels are rare so you take all the things you can enjoy.

She Who Waits is far from the best in the series. It is a good improvement after the second novel and provides a decent amount of satisfaction although the novel ends with mixed feelings. This is not that it is bad as it is in line with the nature of the settings. Low Town is a bad place and everyone plays the survival game until the end. Despite my complaints Polansky does deliver where it counts and when you want to read a novel that is where it matters first.

David Gemmell – Morningstar

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

Morningstar (1992) is one of the few standalone novels by David Gemmell, although that term is not exactly correct as each novel of his series (at least those that I read) contain a complete story and can be read without having read the other. Morningstar is not part of series although it could have fit in with some other series as the setting follows Gemmell’s favorite mold: Rough highlanders with a Celtic flavour against more civilized invaders from the lowlands, which can be defined as and England verses Scotland analogy. Of course Gemmell does not take it that far and his details remain vague enough so that the reader can make of it what he wants.

The plot is also standard Gemmell-fare. Its a sword and sorcery fantasy in which a group of anti-heroes face impossible odds while they receive mysterious aid. This may seem a negative attitude it is not. Gemmell writes what he loves and what he is also good at. Jack Vance did the same thing, albeit with more creativity and variety, and there are more authors who stuck at what they were good at. Gemmell always manages to put in some different twists and approaches. The plots may feel familiar but the story has enough fresh elements to make it something to enjoy. I do have to add here that I have never read too many Gemmell novels in a row. He does always manage to create a sufficiently different cast of main characters and give each of them their due.

Gemmell adds in some new themes and new approaches. The story is told from a first person perspective and by a companion of the central character. There is a bit of a mocking theme in which myth is set against reality and how this can influence events. Gemmells further throws in an odd twister in the middle of the story. Although it is hard to notice as it spices up a reasonable straightforward it does pull the plot a little out of balance as the focus gets moved away from the first plot to the second and the second plot is not as sophisticated as the first. It is a little simplistic in its nature.

Like Gemmell’s other novels Morningstar is written for pure entertainment. The plot has some complexities but refrains from taking it too far. It has some light fantastical flavor while most events remain on a certain level of realism although the heroic character of the story is strongly there. There is joy and a bit of sadness and the end, but Gemmell always manages to provide a satisfying end that will leave the reader happy.

A bunch of books

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

It has been a while since I last wrote something about the books I’ve bought. It is not that I did not buy anything since then. If I want to write about my purchases it should be about a couple of books and I have to have the time free to write something about them. And that is mostly what it has been. No batch purchases and if I had some I did not find the time to write something up. Writing down a review is more important and I have been trailing on my reviews-to-do list for some time as I’ve been too busy or preferred reading to posting.

Things have calmed down a bit and today managed to get a bunch of books, although most credit goes to the bookstore which put them up for 1 euro a piece. Even then I remained picky. I can buy any book but will I be motivated to read each of them? I have a fair number of books on my shelves that have been lying there for one or more years. Some I do intend to read when I am in the mood, some others I purchased cheaply and I was willing to give them a go at the time. Times however change and often when I do a viewing of my bookshelves I keep saying to myself that I am not the mood to read that kind of story. Maybe some other time. And so to prevent that category of books to grow I need to be picky. Usually I stick with my gut feeling, which is often right, after reading the back of the book or by reading some sentences in some random pages to get an idea of the style.

My pickiness lead to the selection of three books, all fantasy and all written by female authors. First is Arrows Of The Sun (1993) by Judith Tarr, second is The Gates Of Twilight (1996) by Paula Volsky and third is Feast Of Souls (2007) by C.S. Friedman. The last one is the first of series, the Magister Trilogy and I have read novels by Friedman before. That I haven’t picked up more of by her already discloses that they make me enthusiast, although my reviews are fairly positive in nature. The ideas for the new novels simply did not entice me. I am thus least sure on picking up this novel. It was cheap enough to give it a try, but I probably won’t read it anytime soon. Perhaps on my next vacation.

I picked up a fourth novel, new and all and also fantasy, by John Gwynne. It is the second novel of The Faithful And The Fallen series, which is called Valour (2014). I have to admit that I was not sure about buying it. My review of the first novel, Malice, was mixed. It had some good stuff but it also had weaknesses. This instalment will probably decide if I will drop the series or not. Even so, I am not in a hurry to read it. Maybe during the Christmas holidays.

 

Ammianus Marcellinus – The Later Roman Empire

Friday, December 12th, 2014

With the end of the (undivided) Roman Empire the tradition of the classic historians also came to an end. Ammianus Marcellinus is regarded as the last of them. In so far that his work is the most recent to survive. After him history was mostly written by churchmen who had a very different perspective or historians who presented their work in their own way. What defines the classic historian is that he does research on events, at times he questions his sources and events, he adds long speeches to historical persons at important moments and he adds plenty of digressions to provide background information on a variety of topics.

The translation that is widely available is called The Later Roman Empire (c. 390). It covers the history of the Roman Empire from the years 354 to 375.  Not much else has survived but this can be considered the most important part as it covers a period Marcellinus lived in himself. Even more important is that Marcellinus was present during certain events so certain sections can be considered autobiographic. Many of his other sources he knew or he could ask people from the region by traveling there. He thus did not have to rely much on the works of other historians for this part of his history. Of course this does not guarantee the truth as memories deteriorate over time and opinions on events can change.

This edition is an abridged version in which most of the digressions have been left out to provide a more coherent reading of the history. Some digressions have been left in to give an example and to be honest I don’t really rue their absence.

The period covered is interesting because it is a transition period. First it describes a time when the Roman Empire has gone through a period of recovery and relative stability, mostly markedly by the reign of Constantine the Great. The history starts with his descendants and there is much fighting to keep the empire secure. The second part contains events that herald in a new decline, one that will lead to a final division of the Roman Empire. Second is another transition. Christianity is on the rise, but paganism is still widely spread. Marcellinus himself is a pagan and he is more interested in prophetic events than the activities of the early Christian church. Religion is not very important in history for him. Something that will change very much in the next centuries where the religion factor will play a major role in politics and history.

What about the history itself? The coverage of events depends much on the sources available. Two events in which Marcellinus himself was present hold the most detail and largest coverage. A large part of the history is about the emperor Julian, who reigned for only 2 years (361-363). There are 3 reasons why. The first is that Marcellinus saw in Julian much good, especially compared to most of the other emperors whose rule was often cruel and random. The second is that Julian wrote memoires and these provide one of the few written sources Marcellinus has available. And third is that Julian did not really rule the empire. Most of his reign he spent on a long campaign attacking the Persian Empire, which ended in his death. Marcellinus was a lower officer in that army.

As a historian Marcellinus frequently voices his opinion. He is critical on corruption and injustice. Frequently he describes the brutal and cruel behavior of the emperors and a number of his governors, who despite their deeds rarely are punished. They only fall when an emperor dies and new ambitious men try to replace them. All these kinds of misrule seem a sign of the decline of the empire, certainly if you compare them to the early centuries when there the incidental bad ruler still had some restraint and could be brought to justice.

The Later Roman Empire is a very interesting history. With a historian describing events of his own time there is no distance to what he is writing about. Here and there he makes choices on what to provide more detailed information on and these cases give a great view on events, life and behavior. As the writer holds strong opinions he does not hesitate to voice them, which can be considered refreshing compared to other classic historians. It also gives the reader insight to the historians mind and views.

Michael Chabon – Telegraph Avenue

Monday, December 1st, 2014

In literature there a different ways to approach the presentation of your novel. One can choose content over style. A message is to be conveyed to the reader and the style has to support this as effectively as possible. An other option is to let style be the driving force. The content is thus set up in such a way that it supports and strengthens the style and allows it to be used to its strongest effect. In the latter case the difficulty lies in finding the right balance. The style should not dominate the story but take it to a higher level.

In Telegraph Avenue (2012) by Michael Chabon goes all the way with the second approach. It takes place about 10 years ago but its content covers more than 50 years of popular culture. And not just a bit. The novel is a continuous barrage of cultural references. Almost every sentence counts. It is impossible to avoid. It is almost overwhelming and most impressive is that Chabon never goes over the top. All he puts in every sentence matters to the atmosphere and the scenes within the story, describing them within the reference frame of the narrator’s point of view. They live by these. They have grown up with these cultural phenomena and Chabon makes them very much part of it.

It is indeed style over content. It is so powerful that while reading your brain is hit with so many impressions and associations that I had trouble keeping up. I simply had to take many breaks and eventually I decided to read the novel more slowly by taking it along on my daily commute back and forth from work so that I could not read it for more than 10 to 15 minutes at once. It was the only way I could read it in a good way.

So effectively Chabon did not keep the balance as mentioned before. The style was too dominating. With so many extensive references every scene got expanded to large clouds of refined prose. Eventually this started to hamper the story. Chabon normally manages to create strong plots in which you can connect well with the characters. He has always had an excellent style that supported the story without it being to much there. That is not the case with Telegraph Avenue. Once you take away the style the plot lacks sufficient substance. It drives on several storylines which only have a limited extent. Chabon does not go as deep as usually and this affected the impact of the story, which in my opinion is the core of any novel. You can do much with style but without balance it will not reach its mark.

Telegraph Avenue is not just about style and popular culture references. Chabon creates several wonderful pairings with his characters. There are six main points of view although only two of them from the more dominant main protagonists. Each of these six are connected to several of the others in different ways. Chabon uses this to great effect and develops their relationships in a powerful way. The novels contains a large cast and many of the side characters are fleshed out in their own unique ways. Chabon creates a wide palet of the diversity of American society. While others prefer to use more average characters, Chabon goes for the slightly odd ones. They feel very familiar and none feel out of place.

Chabon also hits on many different themes. Different from his usual fare is that the Jewish element is pretty much absent. Telegraph Avenue is mostly about African American culture and he shows there is much variety to be found there as well. There are so many smaller and greater themes that it almost seems hard to give them sufficient attention but Chabon manages it all well.

Telegraph Avenue is an incredibly rich novel, a tour de force by an author who has already made his mark and who continuous to write in an easy going way, providing humorous and dramatic moments within the same scene although it never goes dark or overboard. The only point where it failed for me that the style dominated over the story. I did not connect much with it and unlike previous novels it took me longer to finish the novel. With the others it was harder to put them down. The story, while deeply layered and rich with details, could not make as much impact on me as other novels that were driven by the story and in which style stayed in the shadows. Because of this I rate Telegraph Avenue among my least favorite Chabon novels. The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union outshine it easily. I have to admit here that I like his work a lot so being low on the list is still quite above the average contemporary novel. I still recommend this novel because in many ways it is an impressive work of literature.