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Sunday, 13 January 2019

Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie (2013)

Rating: Admirable

Ancillary Justice has the reputation of being one of the best science fiction novels of the last decade. It won the Hugo Award, Nebula Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, among others. Leckie has also been compared to the late, great Iain M. Banks. These are certainly high accolades, however the novel left me feeling slightly disappointed. The plot was good enough, as were the characterizations and the various settings. The problem was with the novel's pacing coupled with Leckie's particular writing style. Perhaps this is because the principle protagonist, Breq, is in fact a remaining fragment of a vast spaceship's A.I. consciousness; giving the writing style a sense of coldness or distance that then results in difficultly fully engaging with the story (at least it did for me). In terms of the novel's pacing, narrative tension lags during the parts of the story where there is a great deal of talking, often whilst the characters are in one location. This does work well in terms of establishing characters and further plot extrapolation, however because this happens quite often the novel sometimes flirts with dullness.

Despite these criticisms Ancillary Justice is quite a good science fiction novel. It is appropriate that Leckie is compared to Banks, as he is my yardstick for great modern science fiction. Leckie, like Banks, has created a far future human galactic civilization, the Radch, which like Banks' Culture civilization has highly advanced technology, including A.I. spacecraft, but also coupled with the same moral failings we've always contended with. However where Banks' writing sparks with ideas and verve, Leckie is a bit more pedestrian in comparison. Despite this I still recommend Ancillary Justice (I nearly gave it an excellent rating, and besides, Banks is a hard act to follow, even he struggled in the end...) and I will read the other two books in the trilogy,  Ancillary Sword (2014) and Ancillary Mercy (2015).

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Best and Worst of the Year - 2018

When I did my last post I realised that it had been a great year of reading. In the eight years of Excelsior I have only awarded the sublime rating thirteen times. This year I rated four books as sublime. I choose to believe that my critical faculties have not deserted me and that these books were genuinely brilliant. Two were collections of short stories: Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges and Store of the Worlds by Robert Sheckley, and two were novels: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem and Runaway Horses by Yukio Mishima. Truth be told I cannot separate them and collectively they were the best literature I read this year and indeed, for many years.

None of the above were book club books, but the best of those was definitely Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, read way back in January. The book club was responsible for the worst book of the year, which was by far and away The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason, which was one of the dullest novels I have ever read, although the writing was technically proficient, which ultimately saved it from the rare occurrence of a reprehensible rating.

This year also saw the adoption of a new method of choosing books to read. I realised that many of my unread books were never really considered because they were stored in parts of the house that I didn't really go to when choosing something new to read; so I began selecting one book from the six main areas where I store books in a systematic fashion. Books that I've had sitting there unread for years are now getting a look in and I even suspect that this is why I've had a cluster of sublime ratings; the gold has been sitting there and I haven't been digging it up! Now - ever upwards into 2019....

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Runaway Horses - Yukio Mishima (1970; English translation 1973)

Rating: Sublime

Yukio Mishima has been lodged in my imagination for some time, mostly due to David Bowie's admiration for his writing, something I was aware of from a few decades ago. Mishima is an absolutely fascinating character and after reading Runaway Horses it occurred to me that he must go down as one of the most intense novelists in history. Mishima was born into a samurai family and positioned himself as a nationalist in post-war Japan, believing in total loyalty to the Emperor and resisting western influence in Japanese culture. Researching his life and work it would be fair to say that his novels explore the ramifications of his world view and values. The manner of his death makes for intense reading as well.

Runaway Horses is the second novel of Mishima's The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. Although I have not read the first novel, Spring Snow (1969), it did not present any difficulties when reading Runaway Horses. The novel is almost perfect, featuring an absorbing plot, beautifully lyrical prose, psychological intensity and finely tuned characterizations. Runaway Horses is satisfying in every way and I deliberately read the novel with care, resulting in the curious phenomenon of its world bleeding into my own, imbuing me with a sense of discipline and clarity with my own moral outlook. Runaway Horses represents literature at its most powerful and I thoroughly recommend the novel for those seeking something tangible from their reading experience. As Bowie sung in his 1977 song Blackout, 'I'm under Japanese influence and my honor's at stake!'

Bowie with his painting of Mishima circa 1977

Yukio Mishima

Monday, 26 November 2018

The Shadow District - Arnaldur Indridason (2013/2017 in translation)

Rating: Mediocre

The Shadow District is the second crime novel I've read in fairly quick succession, due to the crime genre theme we are exploring in the Subiaco Library book club. Once again, I am reasonably unfamiliar with crime fiction, however I know a great novel when I read one and unfortunately Indridason's novel is not one of them. Technically the novel is much better written than Belinda Bauer's Snap (2018), however unlike Bauer's novel The Shadow District is just plain dull. I'm not sure if it is a problem with the translation but the writing style has absolutely no dynamism, no shifts in tone and for a crime novel, almost no tension. The cold case mystery is intriguing enough, but due to the previously mentioned problems when all is revealed there is no excitement or satisfaction generated at all. It reads like how I'd imagine a police report would be presented, just the bare bones of what happened with no stylistic finesse at all. 

The narrative is set in Iceland both during WWII and in modern times, although really it could have been set anywhere. The characters too are uniformly dull; the two inspectors in the WWII sections, Flovent and Thorson are serviceable, and a little better is retired cop Konrad, who solves the mystery of the cold case during the modern era, however they are all mostly forgettable. It's a shame really, I did want to enjoy The Shadow District, but it merely served to pass the time, read out of duty until the next book on the reading list comes along, which is Yukio Mishima's Runaway Horses (1969). I'm hoping for better things from one of Japan's greatest writers and I'm certain I'll be rewarded.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Helliconia Spring - Brian Aldiss (1982)

Rating: Excellent

Finally after decades of vague intentions I've begun reading the Helliconia trilogy. I picked up all three volumes, featuring the superb cover artwork from the late 1980's, dirt cheap when WA's Mostly Books was closing down. Firstly the novel was not as I imagined it to be, the storytelling style is kind of old fashioned, blending realism and science with some fantasy elements. Aldiss had written some pretty wild novels in the sixties and seventies, but Helliconia Spring is fairly tame in comparison. Having said that the storytelling is enriched with mostly splendid world-building, including a 122 page prelude called Yuli, which was one of the most enjoyable sections of the novel. For the most part Helliconia Spring reads like an exploration of Neolithic life, but set on an alien planet in orbit around a star called Batalix, which is in orbit around a much larger star called Freyr. The lengthy elliptical orbit means that seasons last many centuries and life on Helliconia has to adapt in fascinating ways. Aldiss' depiction of Helliconia is extremely detailed, taking in the life cycles of non-humanoid life both large and small. But it is the struggle between the human-like aliens and the inhuman Phagors (large Yeti like creatures with horns) that drives the novel's narrative and provides the most interest. 

The novel is certainly flawed, with long periods spent establishing the culture and politics of the humanoids which borders on the tedious, yet overall the narrative is absorbing and rewards the dedication needed to get through its epic length. I'm not sure when I'll get to Helliconia Summer (1983), which is even longer, and Helliconia Winter (1985), but I will definitely be reading them due to Aldiss' skill in creating an epic narrative. Also of interest is the fact that humans are watching the planet from a space station and are broadcasting everything back to Earth, where it is watched by humanity as 'reality TV', a concept that, as unwelcome as it turned out to be, was ahead of its time.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Snap - Belinda Bauer (2018)

Rating: Admirable

The fact that I am not an experienced reader of crime novels saw me through the first third of Snap, during which I gasped and groaned about the mediocre writing. During the multitude of cliches, frequently bad similes and irritating characters I kept on thinking that maybe I was judging too harshly because of my inexperience with the crime genre. However by about the half way mark I actually realised that I was beginning to enjoy the novel. The narrative threads began to converge nicely and I started to want to know what was going to happen. Snap has some typical crime tropes (even I know what they are...) such as a disappearance, a murder, abandoned children, burglaries, hapless provincial police and a grizzled hard-ass detective called, of all things - Marvel, looking to restart his career. The principal protagonist, fourteen year-old Jack, is a sympathetic character, who believes that he has found the knife that killed his mother and just needs to convince the police of that fact whilst avoiding being prosecuted for his multitude of petty crimes as a semi-mythical character known as 'Goldilocks'.  

Snap is reasonably paced and keeps you interested enough to see it through to the denouement, which manages to be both satisfying and disappointing at the same time (the very end of the novel is just terrible!). I had to think carefully about what rating I was going to give Snap, but decided that the fact that Bauer managed to win me over in the end and on the whole it was an enjoyable read it would be rewarded with my equivalence of three stars (admirable), although really it is a two and a half star novel, if I used that rating system. Read Snap if you want something quick and entertaining to get you through the week, otherwise best to read the late Australian crime novelist Peter Temple, who had some style at least...

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Solaris - Stanislaw Lem (1961)

Rating: Sublime

A year or so ago a close friend gifted me a copy of Solaris, telling me that it was among the greatest novels he'd ever read. His words were certainly true, Solaris is a brilliant science fiction novel, and is up there with the great novels from any literary genre. Lem's prose style is beautifully precise and absolutely compelling. It is certainly one of the most psychologically intense novels I have read, with the protagonists life aboard the station hovering above the theoretically sentient 'sea' on the planet of Solaris portrayed in claustrophobic detail. Lem presents a highly believable premise in which humanity grapples with the possibility of first contact and yet struggles pathetically to comprehend the 'sea' of Solaris and the 'visitors' that are generated from their own minds. 

Lem managed to both expose humanity's hubris and also create a presence that is truly alien. The 'sea' broils with creative intent, whilst the visitors torture the crew with their cruelly demanding presence. Solaris has inspired two feature films, one by the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky and more recently by Steven Soderbergh, both of which are satisfying in their own ways, but in my opinion neither came close to capturing the brilliance of Lem's novel.