Thursday 25 July 2013

Guest Post

Hello fellow book lovers. Today I'm featured on Annabel Smith's blog talking about one of my favourite books - Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives. Annabel Smith is a published author of two books - A New Map of the Universe and Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot. Check out her blog and read her books!

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Matter – Iain M. Banks (2008)

And so Mr. Banks has passed on, leaving us behind to ponder the greatness of his work. And it is great. And he was also satisfyingly prolific, apparently capable of writing a novel in three months. And he was a witty and cultured guy (pardon the pun). That’s a lot of ands. When I bought Matter from a second-hand bookstore in Bunbury nearly two years ago I never imagined that by the time I got around to picking it up again Banks would be diagnosed with incurable liver cancer and would die as I was reading it. And it made me sad.

Matter is the seventh Culture novel of nine and at the time it came after seven years of no new Culture novels. Will there be more? Does Banks have any almost complete Culture novels tucked away for posthumous release? Whatever may happen Banks’ stature as one of the great science fiction writers of the last few decades is assured. Matter is not the greatest Culture novel, but it is certainly excellent.

The premise and plot of Matter is typically complex and is not summarized easily. The novel contains one of Banks’ great inventions – a Shellworld called Sursaman. Shellwords were built by a long departed alien race called the Veil and it is one of four thousand that were initially created, with half of them destroyed by another alien race called the Iln, who are also extinct. Different alien races live on the habitable levels inside the Shellworld and each level is gigantic, with its own geography, atmosphere and astonishing wonders.

Such a premise allows Banks to indulge himself and he certainly does, but with sometimes mixed results. Matter allows Banks to bring a complete medieval humanoid civilization to life called the Sarl. There are epic battles, courtly duplicity and manipulations of the Sarl by their mentoring alien species the Oct. Prince Ferbin, Heir to the throne, flees his home level and much of the narrative follows his fortunes as he tries to avenge his father’s wrongful death. Enter Djan Seriy, his sister who long ago became part of the Culture’s covert organisation Special Circumstances. Special Circumstances appears in most of the Culture novels and as usual there is great entertainment to be had with the amazing technology possessed by the Culture, not to mention the moral ambiguities that come with such power.

With most of the usual Culture tropes in place a wild imaginative ride is guaranteed, however Matter is unevenly paced. There is a long preamble that sets up the main players and plot arcs, but does so with slightly less panache than you’d expect from Banks. It takes a while but once things get going Matter does resolve into an absorbing read. One of the many highlights comes when Djan visits an Oct space habitat, which allows Banks to let his brilliant imagination to run wild. Djan is accompanied by her sentient combat drone that is operating covertly and is therefore cunningly disguised as a dildo, revealing that Banks’ usual sly humour is fully present.

The endgame of Matter is slightly rushed and if you were taking notice of the clues earlier in the novel it is also perhaps a bit predictable. This is a minor criticism because Banks is such a quality writer that he makes up for any shortcomings with his erudite style, incredible imagination and his ability to create believable characters, even when they are machines or are totally alien. Apparently after his untimely death sniffy critics mostly talked about the literature he wrote as Iain Banks, rather than the brilliant science fiction he wrote with the added M. between his first and second name. That’s a shame because Banks is one of the greatest science fiction writers of any era and his unique sensibility has become highly influential. Only last week I was watching a rerun of the second episode of the first series of the Dr. Who reboot and during the scenes where the last human appears on the viewing platform to witness the final hours of planet Earth I realized that what I was watching was pure Iain M. Banks. And that made me smile.

Monday 1 July 2013

Canada – Richard Ford (2012)

Richard Ford is best known for his novel The Sportswriter, his 1985 story of a failed novelist turned sportswriter who is faced with the deep crisis of a dead son. Its sequel – Independence Day (1995) won the Pulitzer Prize. Ford is also a noted short story writer and has been seen as being part of the Dirty Realism school of writing along with such writers as Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers and of course the great Charles Bukowski.

Not having even read a single word of Ford’s writing previously, I came to Canada as a total Ford novice, absolutely free from any knowledge or opinion. My first impression was that Ford is a writer of nuance and craft, taking his time to build the plot and reveal his characters. At first I appreciated this and warmed to the fifteen year old Dell Parsons, who narrates the novel retrospectively from the vantage point of retirement. Dell lives with his twin sister, Berner and their parents Bev (the broad shouldered ex-airman) and the frustrated Jewish would be intellectual Neeva. It’s a sad grey world of isolation and confusion for Dell and Berner and it slowly becomes apparent that there is a deep psychological element to Canada that is perhaps more evident in hindsight. The motivations of Dell’s parents are murky at best, even to Dell himself, who comes across as a bewildered innocent.

With a narrative pace bordering on catatonic Dell recounts his dysfunctional family life and the events that lead up to his parents robbing a bank. During this long first part Ford’s measured and meticulous style becomes repetitive and Dell’s repeated ruminations about the psychology of his parents decision making leading up to the robbery becomes tedious. When the robbery occurs it’s an anticlimax and the inevitable consequences take forever to arrive; squandering any tension generated by events leading up to Dell’s parents arrest. I’m giving nothing away here due to the fact that nearly every major event in Canada is revealed well in advance (from the first line!), which turns out to be a fatal flaw.

The second part finds Dell deposited in a small town in Canada by a friend of Neeva to avoid the long reach of the authorities. Initially the shift to Canada brings the novel alive, particularly when Dell meets the louche Charley Quarters. Charley provides a much-needed presence, with his seedy manner, penchant for lipstick, rouge and poetry. Dell finds himself marginalized, living in an overflow shack away from the main hotel in a one-horse town that survives due to geese hunters visiting from America. Suddenly the reader’s interest is revived and the pathos of Dell’s situation hits home. But once again any tension generated is wasted when the dodgy character of hotelier Arthur Remlinger comes to the fore, with his oblique character traits that fascinate Dell so much and his semi-interesting back-story as a political radical. There is a climax of sorts, when Remlinger has to deal with his past catching up with him, but its execution is fumbled and it merely becomes just another event witnessed at a remove.

A strange ambivalence permeates this novel; it’s difficult to connect with the characters lives due to Ford’s ponderous style and Dell’s monochrome recollections. There are long sections that you could only describe as being dull, which is frustrating because there is a sense of something deeper lurking there, something that speaks of the dark vagaries of human existence. Dell is fascinated with chess and bee keeping, two seemingly disparate pastimes which actually represent his subconscious need for order in his life which is at the mercy of the capriciousness of wayward adults. If the prose had been more vital and there had been more interest generated by the tension of not knowing what was going to come next then such deeper aspects of Canada would have far more import. Ford can certainly write, as his reputation suggests, however the novel is a disappointment, which is a shame really.