Book reviews

I only write reviews of things that i’ve actually read all the way through. This means i only write reviews of stuff i actually like, because if i don’t like it, i don’t finish it.

All Hail Emperor Zhark!: Something Rotten Book review

Three days ago, sunday, i went to the not really local but still independent bookstore in the neighborhood and picked up three books. One of these books was the fourth of the Thursday Next series of books which my few minions will recognize that i’m totally addicted to. I finished it last night.

Generally i don’t read that fast. I don’t want to read that fast. I’m one of those ‘savor the book in a slow feast’ type guys, having a little morsel here and there, tearing off a chunk to chew on my way to work, etc. But Fforde lays a table of candy coated feasty goodness and i turn into a kid in a candy shop – i know, unforgivable use of cliche. The strange thing about Fforde’s writing is it doesn’t leave me full – in fact it’s like a delicious feast that leaves you wanting more, and luckily for all inquisitive readers the books are like launch pads to explore other writers, other books.

Book four finds our Plucky Heroine finally reappearing out of Bookworld to do dubious battle with the great and all too powerful Goliath Corporation (now trying to convert themselves into the most popular religion), and the fictional (fictional, of course taking on an entirely different significance here) English Chancellor Yorrick Kaine. She brings with her a new son, Friday, a juvenile delinquent Dodo Bird, Alan (son of the wonderful Pickwick) a morose Danish Prince who is worried about his penchant for equivocating, and the memories of a husband who never existed.

If you are familiar at all with the style of these books you’ll soak it in quick – that feeling of a great big plot stew, everything thrown in (including bits you think probably shouldn’t) add a dash of extreme weirdness and voila – a wonderfully strange novel you think can’t possibly work but somehow does. I honestly don’t know how Fforde manages to hold the whole thing – and his head – together while writing these gleeful hodgepodges. I know, for myself, i would probably send for the guys in white coats after finishing every novel, but somehow he manages to pull it off, leaving the reader just a little dizzy.

Well last night the novel left me with a serious case of the sniffles which is a first in the series. A beloved character, whose arc i managed to figure out a while back, finally revealed herself and expired and, well, in the middle of six foot hedgehogs, talking gorillas, a displaced Dane with an affection for Mel Gibson films, and plot devices so convoluted and twisted that the forest of them is opaque with baroque twists, there i was dazzled by a moment of honest tenderness.

the down side to attempting to write a review of such a thing is that it’s basically impossible to show the moments that produced the excitement and happiness without totally revealing the plot and ruining the experience for others. I mentioned this sensation before, but i reiterate the fact that i can only say the book is a whole lot of fun, and Fforde – though reigning in the dazzling cleverness of the last two novels – still retains a panache for the absurd that is not simply praiseworthy but should be lauded across the land – particularly in a world that seems to grow increasingly dire with each passing minute.

So maybe this isn’t the book you’ll be discussing with your literary friends trying to convince them that you’re a brilliant post avant critique, but it is one that you’ll tell your other friends about – the one’s who still stand slack jawed and marvel at words, and plots and characters. The one’s who might still read Hamlet for fun will get it, and if you know of any people who have privately whispered their admiration for Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams they will thank you for the suggestion.

And of course, Emperor Zhark – bloodthirsty interstellar tyrant that he is, is a wonderful character. Just sayin.

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The Eyre Affair – A review

Fun stuff. That’s what it is. Read it. You’ll like it. Promise. Unless you’re one of those stodgy “I don’t read anything unless it has some sort of Empirical Value’ type people but I doubt that you are or you wouldn’t be here, reading this. If you are one of those people, then I don’t know what to say. Go away would be a good start. I don’t do stodgy. Or at least I try not to. Sometimes stodginess happens accidentally, as we all know, but I try to batten it down whenever it comes loose.

But seriously. I know, I know. Why read a book review if it doesn’t have any meat to it. Well, really – you shouldn’t. You should be reading books and deciding such things for yourself as I am not the arbiter of good taste. Not by a very very long shot. And speaking of shooting – if you happen to encounter that arbiter please shoot him or her. For the sake of everyone.

Usually I hate derivative literature with the sort of burning passion one tries to reserve for a column of Nazi’s walking down the street or green beans on the dinner plate but this one I happily tolerated mainly because it doesn’t have a derivative bone in its pages. Which is a good thing as bones don’t make very good bookmarks. This fun little piece of fiction follows the plucky story of Thursday Next, a thirty something detective in the SO-27 division of Special Ops. She has recently had a run in with some very distressing characters, specifically one very distressing character, Acheron Hades. Hades has stolen the original manuscript of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit and is holding it for ransom in an alternate universe patrolled by Chronoguards (who monitor infractions dealing with time) Vampire and Werewolf Cops (who are woefully underfunded and slightly insane) and of course Literary Detectives who mostly monitor knock off editions of Byron, claims of forgery, and any infractions that might deal with the printed page.

Next’s world is populated by reengineered Dodo’s (who make great pets), Reengineered Neanderthals who are more or less sadly lost in time, and speaking of time nonexistent fathers have a tendency to pop in at strange moments just to say hello while they are on the lamb from the Chronoguards. Add to that a missing manuscript, a strange invention that can drop people into the pages of fictional works, a fairly dull ending to Jane Eyre, and one diabolical master criminal and what you have is a head spinning wonder of a book that is easy on the eyes and relatively easy on the pocket and completely non-baconian in origin. Which is good. Those guys are loony. (read the book you’ll find out)
For something as fanciful as all that you might expect its author, Jasper Fforde, to be one of the flood of authors who come up with a good idea and then botch the sauce. The universe is littered with such authors, which include myself, so I know what I’m talking about. But he is quite surprisingly capable of pulling off a lovely line, a thoroughly nice paragraph, a whole page where the sentences feel like they have some sort of flow to them rather than the casserole of hot dogs and tater tots we’re used to in this sad age of letters. I’m not saying it’s always terrific but where it isn’t you probably won’t notice because it flows along at a nice brisk pace that you will probably miss any bumps in the road.

Next is a well wrought character. She’s got a bit of the edge of dangerous to her, which we all like so much, and yet her considerable displays of unbelievable bravery is tempered by her tenderness for her pet Dodo, Pickwick, her on again off again relationship with a former lover Landon, and her strained affection for her stuck in time father who has been eradicated but still shows up for birthdays and breakfast. She has a healthy relationship with violence, though you worry about it early on when she shoots an elderly woman in the back three times. But trust me. It all ends well. She’s smart and plucky and resourceful and all the things a great heroine ought to be and more so I think you’ll probably get along pretty well with her. Picture, I guess, the attractive version of your brilliant college literature teacher and then strap a gun on her hip and you’ll probably be about there. And how can anyone shake a stick at that?
Edward Rochester, well, we know all about him don’t we? And besides, I’m just teasing you. He’s a pretty minor character.

Acheron Hades is a very fun creation. Not since Edmund or Iago have we seen a villain so gleefully filled with his sense of evil. If there is one thing that Hades wants it is to move up the list from Third most violent criminal to first. Given his intense capacity for despicability you really have to worry about the other two on the list. You’ll love to hate Hades and I have to admit, in just a small way, you sort of root for him in the way you might root for… oh I don’t know someone who is really really evil but has a pretty clever scheme.

As I mentioned the dazzling permutations of this fun little novel will either leave you really annoyed or with a pleasant smile on your face. It may twist your brain around in a few knots but nothing that won’t eventually work itself out in fun little ways. It’s definitely worth the read – now stop bothering with this garbage and go get it.

Categories: Book reviews | 2 Comments

The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie

I had a conversation with a friend a few days ago regarding how to judge a book or movie and it came down to a simple practice which I will seek to employ above all others. I think this simple little ditty can replace any four or five star critique or thumbs up or thumbs down which are far too vague to do any good to anyone. I mean, let’s be brutally honest here – five stars? Everyone knows that any critic worth their salt will regularly withhold five stars for such things as The Second Coming or Michael Bay films or Titanic. (Pardon me I just choked on my own vomit.) Then there is the thumbs up and thumbs down junk. Seriously – I would be a terrible critic if I did anything of the sort because there are so many different criteria in film or literature. ‘Was the prose good, visually stunning, poetical etc? Yes? Thumbs up. BUUUUTTTT…. Were the characters stereotypical amalgams of pre packaged cultural junk? Yes? Thumbs down. So it is with this that I usher in the new criteria: ‘Will I remember it next week?’

You might think this can’t possibly work or you might think I have early Alzheimers but the fact of the matter is that I find that we are in such a culturally loaded world these days that my brain will only store so much junk before tossing it out the side windows of my ears. Between endless reboots of films and television shows from the eighties, the general lack of anything original being produced by anyone, ever, and the fact that everything is about as fresh as bread recycled into breadcrumbs and then re-pasted back into a breadish shape by the brainless gnomes of a commerce oriented cultural lego factory – I think fond remembrance is about the best that anyone can expect.

And so I bring you The Gun Seller – by Hugh Laurie. Yes. THAT Hugh Laurie.

I don’t know why but it seems I’ve been circulating amongst his works for a while now – stumbling upon them, actually. Maybe it’s because a few people have said I look like him. I doubt it. That has never motivated me before. It certainly isn’t due to his portrayal of Dr. Gregory House – I don’t watch the show regularly and I have a severe allergic reaction to Englishmen playing Americans and vice versa. (ironic considering the plot deeply involves just that) I find Laurie a very good actor playing an American part but then I just wonder why that’s necessary – you see what I mean? Like Maggie Gyllenhal playing a very good Englishwoman – I don’t understand the need for it. Aren’t there good English actors who could do just as well and couldn’t Dr. House just be English? I don’t get it – but please refer to the opening paragraph for the beginning of this diatribe where I obliquely point out the dismal state of creativity and the fiendish overlords who squirt it out in pre-generated dollops. I will continue this at length somewhere else but right now I’m overdue for a review.

The Gun Seller is a thriller about the strange paths life can take when evil corporate overlords collude with diabolical government agencies and wrap up a former English soldier in their tangled webs. Quite predictably the conclusion is that life can get downright unpleasant, not fun, a real drag. It is this ‘drag’ that we object to whenever we pick up the news, listen to the news, see the news on the street, throw a brick through the newses window or on the off and horrible chance that the News reaches out and calls us just to chat. The news sucks and the news – such as it is a semi accurate reporting of the whole crappiness of human existence – is really best to be faced head on, chin up, shoulders squared, and laughing hysterically.

The news, as far as we are forced to be aware of it, is filled with tales of evil corporations manipulating events and situations to economic advantage. It’s a familiar story that our hero becomes involved with, entirely believable in the ever jaundiced eye of our current awareness. This story, however, rolls along and around like a wonderful rollercoaster, never stalling on boring details best left to nuclear engineers or sonar operators like SOME writers might. Ahem. Ahem. For example:

”You know what a Glaser slug is, Thomas?” He spoke softly, almost dreamily.

“No Rusty” I said, “I don’t know what a Glaser slug is. Sounds like it’s a chance for you to bore me to death instead of shoot me. Off you go.”

What’s wonderful about this book, and believe me – it’s just what the doctor ordered for my current state of literary malaise – is that Americans have suitably supplanted the demonized KGB agent of past spy thrillers. What makes it even better is that everything is so thoroughly witty and tongue in cheek that it’s difficult to take any of the very realistic peril with much seriousness. This is, of course, the best way to take peril as the hero so aptly demonstrates over and over again. Americans ooze their murky moral mess throughout this daring little novel, they creep in all the appropriate corners, bristling with menace, working their cunning evil schemes. Being an American I envy their cunning which I am no longer certain we’re capable of. These days it seems we’re more the thug on patrol. Broke a window- “Yeah? So what? I did it. Whatchu gonna do about it?” Invade a nation for spurious reasons (I used SPURIOUS!!! FTW!!!): “And?, we’ll do it again if we feel like it.” I have to say, as an American, it’s really refreshing to see the demagogic tables turned.

But what makes this even better is the irrepressible humor of it. I could have expected this sort of humor from the weirdo co-creator of Fry and Laurie. I should have expected it, but somehow I just almost didn’t. Well, I sort of did because I bought the book but I have to admit I was a little surprised at just how effective he was at writing it. Laurie manages to thread his hero Thomas Lang through so many misadventures without weakening him one bit, without making him a complete buffoon, and without diminishing his resolve to the extent that this unlucky, hard boiled, accidental super spy comes through the story very heroically and yet still funny. Even at the most dire of times Lang is good for a great quip, clearly demonstrating that the best way to muddle through the evils of an evil world is with a bit of a laugh at the expense of it and yourself.

Not since Douglas Adams have I read such brilliantly topsy turvy descriptions of things and I am very much a description type of person.

“He was uglier than a car park, with a big, hairless skull that dipped and bulged like a balloon full of spanners, and his flattened, fighter’s nose, apparently drawn on his face by someone using their left hand, or perhaps even their left foot, spread out in a meandering, lopsided delta under the rough slab of his forehead.

And God Almighty, what a forehead. Bricks, knives, bottles and reasoned arguments had, in their time, bounced harmlessly off this massive frontal plane, leaving only the feeblest indentations between its deep, widely-spaced pores. They were, I think, the deepest and most widely-spaced pores I have ever seen in human skin, so that I found myself thinking back to the council putting-green in Dalbeattie, at the end of the long, dry, summer of ’76.”

I love description that can make your head spin madly, whether its poetically beautiful as in Fitzgerald or just mad as in Laurie and Adams. Nothing irritates me more, frankly, than a dimwitted writer with nothing to say about the big, wide, scary, beautiful world around them. You might as well knock me unconscious with stinky cheese. The Gun Seller hangs its many hats on these descriptions and I couldn’t be happier trying them on with glee. It’s not the story, which is twisty and turny and very good, but it’s the narrators irrepressible viewpoint on that story that makes this novel so good.

Anyway. I’ll remember this one next week and the next time I see House I will curse the fates because I would much rather Laurie be in front of his typewriter than on my TV. And now I am off to watch episode 5 or 4 of the first season of MI5. Whichever one he guest starred in.

Verdict: Memorable

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