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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.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Permutation City - Greg Egan (1994)

Rating: Excellent

I can't believe that it has taken me this long to read a Greg Egan novel, after all he is a fellow resident of Perth and has been writing quality science fiction for decades. Egan is notorious for never attending conventions, participating in book signings and has managed the near impossible feat of never having a picture of himself published on the web. For all I know I could have mingled with him at one of the many parties I went to in the 1990's around the University of Western Australia area (where Egan studied mathematics). Previously I have read Axiomatic (1995), Egan's collection of brilliant short stories, and Permutation City is just as amazing. The novel is conceptually brilliant; perhaps being the best depiction of what it would be like to be a self aware copied simulation of a human mind in cyberspace I have ever encountered. The novel is endlessly fascinating and inventive, including a feasible depiction of what it would take to bootstrap a self perpetuating universe out of the nebulous reality of cyberspace itself. I came close to awarding Permutation City a sublime rating, however it was only let down by some stylistically flat sections and some slightly one-dimensional characters; however these are only minor quibbles when considering the mind-bending thematic scope of Permutation City. The novel is a total must read for science fiction devotees and I'm definitely going to read another of his novels' sooner rather than later.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Warlight - Michael Ondaatje (2018)

Rating: Excellent
The first thing that comes to mind when I consider Warlight is its humanity. Ondaatje authentically portrays how humans can be deeply affected by forces outside of their control. Warlight is one of those novels in which nothing much seems to be happening, and yet it most definitely is. It is testament to Ondaatje's particular way with prose that you come away from reading the novel having been emotionally altered by its contents; the novel is beautifully subtle and yet also deeply moving and powerful. The novel's main protagonist and narrator, Nathaniel, tells the story in hindsight of how his family was affected by WWII and its aftermath, with both his parents leaving him and his sister, Rachel, in the care of such full blooded characters as 'The Darter' and 'The Moth', whilst they embark on mysterious life paths that only become clearer as the novel reaches its denouement. Ondaatje's prose is pared back, yet is full of emotional and psychological depth, and as with all great writers, it appears to be effortless. One of my favourite parts of the novel involves another book, called The Roof-Climbers Guide to Trinity by Geoffrey Winthrop Young (1899), which despite coming across as pure invention by Ondaatje, turns out to be a real book! Somehow I don't think it will turn up in one of my bibliographic hunting adventures in opportunity shops or second hand book stores, but then again, you never know. Meanwhile I thoroughly recommend Warlight for those who appreciate novels that completely take you into a world previously hidden to you - warlight indeed.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda - Michael Burleigh (2006)

Rating: Admirable

Sacred Causes took me about a month to read and whilst in some ways I'm very pleased that I read it I did spend much of that time wishing that I was reading something else entirely. It is perhaps the most detailed history book I've ever read, which is admirable, but it certainly does not make for a book that is light on its feet. Burleigh is erudite to the extreme and builds his arguments with great care, however his style lacks that certain flair that can make history books inspirational; Peter Wilson's mammoth tome Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud (2005) being just one great example. Burleigh covers from the aftermath of WWI, through to the emergence of fascism in Europe, communism in Russia, the cold war period, the troubles in Northern Ireland and finally to 9/11 and its aftermath. It certainly makes for bleak reading and ultimately served as a potent reminder that any human system, whether it be secular or religious, that purports to have the answers in terms of how humans should live and think about the world mostly end up being agents of disaster and death. Although Burleigh rightly explores just how viciously the church was treated by fascism and, in particular, communism (they basically slaughtered most of the clergy, whilst also suppressing the church in every other way...) I couldn't help but be reminded of monotheism's historical legacy of righteous death and destruction and that during this historical period it seemed that it was just their turn to be on the receiving end. Burleigh spends a great deal of the WWII section building a detailed (and I mean detailed...) argument defending Catholicism and the then Pope Pius XII and his handling of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews, a position that comes across as quite heavy-handed in the end. Burleigh also indulges in some subjective value judgements in the latter part of Sacred Causes, something that is never a good look for a historian. My advice to history buffs out there - only read this book if you are uncommonly fascinated with religion and its political discontents...or should that be the other way around?

Friday, 31 August 2018

Cloudpine Header

Many people who know me except that I do not necessarily change for change sake, but when someone makes great art inspired by your blog then it is obvious that now is the time for change. For the first time since the blog's inception I've changed the image header and I have to say it looks quite beautiful. Cloudpine is an artist from the United Kingdom who publishes images of his art on his great blog Cloudpine 451. I've been checking out his art for years now and about two weeks ago I was surprised and honored to see that he had created the above image inspired by Excelsior. Cloudpine has given me permission to use the image, so thank you! Please check out his blog here: Cloudpine 451

Meanwhile my supposed hiatus from writing book reviews hasn't quite gone to plan, as I can't seem to help myself. However writing a quick paragraph, rather than a lengthy review, seems to be working out well in terms of fitting in with my life, so I think this approach will become the new norm. So that is the end of the so called hiatus and the belated beginning of this new version of Excelsior!

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Augustown - Kei Miller (2016)

Rating: Admirable

Augustown is the first novel I've read written by a Jamaican, if you don't count Bob Marley's often brilliant lyrics (another contender for the Nobel Peace Prize in literature?). The novel's structure is one of interconnected vignettes that tell the story of how the history of slavery taints the generations that follow emancipation. The novel is quite engaging, with vivid island vernacular and enough character development to evoke a readers' sympathy. Miller explores the historical and mythical folk origins of Rastafarianism in the form of a healer called Alexander Bedward, who believed he could fly before unfortunately being incarcerated in an asylum in 1920. I mostly enjoyed the novel, however there was a part of me that just couldn't get interested enough to be totally absorbed by the narrative. Fortunately it turns out that Augustown is one of those novels that becomes more appreciated in hindsight, making it a much better novel than I first thought.