Review: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve seen so many film versions of A Christmas Carol that I can’t help but feel like I just read Charles Dickens’s book adaptation of his own story. He did a half-decent job too. I like what he did with the visions of Jacob Marley in the hearth tiles — I don’t remember seeing that before. You know, I’ll even concede that his take on the classic tale may have been the best. It felt a little rushed and less subtle than I had expected, but the writing was rich with detail, the mechanics of Scrooge’s story were all in place, and Tiny Tim was ready with his catchphrase. What more could I have asked?

Don’t hesitate to spend some time with the original. It’s an excellent and quick read that may even stand out stronger in your mind than the countless knock-offs you’ve endured. Merry Christmas (a little belated).

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Review: The Prince

The Prince
The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not sure what this says about me, but I found a lot of useful advice in The Prince. And, while I go out of my way to avoid ruling over other humans, we’re all still subject to the governance of various princes. For that reason alone, this candid Renaissance self-help guide has value.

It’s more fun to read than you may expect. Machiavelli brings up all sorts of states and rulers I’ve never heard of, but he usually adds in a few choice words of background to make each example accessible. In some other cases, Wikipedia exists and any tangents pursued should only add to the experience.

As with any older work in another language, translations vary greatly. You might want to try a few.

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Review: ApartFrom

ApartFrom by Constance A. Dunn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Much of the language in ApartFrom is fresh and evocative. I found myself immediately drawn in by Dunn’s skilful use of less than obvious sensory details. The story opens in a Bulgarian apartment, and no location could have seemed more exotic or authentic. I felt something similar for the gaudy Spanish tourist town of the second part and for Toronto in the final third. It’s clear that the author has a gift for place and atmosphere.

But ultimately, ApartFrom pulled me in and let me go. I wasn’t a fan of the way her narrative is broken into little slices of time. There were just too many breaks, with scenes often stopping just as they were about to deliver. The choppy technique works so well in movies, but in this book it felt overused, with breaks often pushing the reader only minutes into the future where standard narrative tools could have served just as effectively.

The novel is broken into three parts. That division could have worked, but the structural similarities between the three became tedious, and I never felt that they were really meant to be tied together. Rather, they were set out in parallel, with each so much alike that just one could have sufficed. The repetition didn’t reveal more to me. Instead, I felt as if I were walking back over the same emotional and symbolic ground.

While I would have personally liked to see stronger supporting characters, more interplay between the stories, and less obfuscation in general, fans of dreamy literary fiction would likely do well to get lost in ApartFrom.

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Rating: Travels with Charley

Travels with Charley
Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Review: Ringworld

Ringworld by Larry Niven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The way some reviews of Ringworld are written, I expected some wreck of a cult classic where Terry Pratchett absurdities meander about plotless in some world building exercise. Nope. I liked it. Niven’s ideas can be silly, but they’re never stupid or pointless.

That said, I was much more interested in the characters than the world. While the setting is fantastic and perfectly well thought out, that sort of thing only matters to me because it provides a vehicle for the plot/theme and a stage upon which the characters may act.

The Ringworld itself and the myriad of concepts introduced in the novel were interesting, but I only bothered learning about them to find out what was happening to the characters. As cool as tasps and monofilaments are, I’m still getting over the fact that on our own world some trees turn bright colors in the fall. I do enjoy encountering new ideas when I read fantasy and science-fiction, but I get a little bored when that process upstages the narrative.

I do want to spend more time with the characters and Known Space, so I’m adding The Ringworld Engineers to my to-read list. I even look forward to discovering a few more of Niven’s quirky and sometimes confusing ideas.

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Review: Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was a little hesitant to pick up a collection where most of the main characters are musicians. I suppose I expected a lot of shop talk and unsatisfying descriptions. There is some of that, but the stories aren’t really about music so it never gets tiring.

Nocturnes is worth a read, even if only to meet Ishiguro’s rich and varied characters. Listen to their dialogue. That’s music right there. Some of the main characters are variations on one voice, but the author explores a new facet of the wounded, deep-feeling personality in each story. I found it’s that personality type that binds the separate narratives together more tightly than the subject of music or any mood. I didn’t mind the repetition. They’re all individual enough and never undeveloped.

And then there’s this sense of mystery moving the reader forward all the time too. Ishiguro draws the reader onward with carefully dropped hints and some outright foreshadowing. I suspect some readers might find it a bit much, but this fan of 19th century lit found it familiar and devilishly effective.

At times though you may realize the scene you’re reading is a farce delivered with a deadpan. It can be a bit unsettling, like hearing a slide whistle solo in the middle of an otherwise sophisticated concert. Still, it’s all part of a generally excellent performance that shows off the author’s range and virtuosity.

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Review: Poor Folk

Poor Folk
Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s epistolary novel Poor Folk proves how powerful natural exposition and nuance can be in moving a reader. The author lets you put the whole affair together in your own mind well before he states it outright. By that time, it’s yours. You own it, and you feel for the characters like they were your own invention. That said, he does abuse repetition a bit, proving that it’s possible to beat your reader to death with subtlety.

In any case, I am going to appreciate the sugar in my tea a good bit more tonight.

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“Poor people are subject to fancies — this is a provision of nature.”

― Fyodor DostoyevskyPoor Folk


Review: The Poison Belt: Being an Account of Another Amazing Adventure of Professor Challenger

The Poison Belt: Being an Account of Another Amazing Adventure of Professor Challenger
The Poison Belt: Being an Account of Another Amazing Adventure of Professor Challenger by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in etheric poison. Wait. Nobody says that, probably because the ether referred to by Doyle doesn’t exist. That’s okay — I can forgive bad science. What I won’t forgive is the mediocre writing.

The Poison Belt is a short book, but I’m convinced Arthur Conan Doyle could have made much better use of the space. I know there was room in there for real characterization. Instead, the most interesting chap was Professor Challenger, and he’s named Professor Challenger. Actually, that moniker is the one likeable thing about the arrogant fellow. It’s a book about an event though, not a touchy-feely exploration of some human lives. I guess I just prefer when it’s the other way around, when the plot is a vehicle for character.

I’m also sure Doyle also could have squeezed in some scenes where his characters did a bit more than sit around and wait for the world to end. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like spectating, and the events described are pretty interesting. It’s just that when the ether hit the fan, Challenger and friends lounged around a drawing room. Don’t expect some made dash to save the house staff, let alone the human race.

All that said, I did enjoy the prose and there’s quite a bit of humor. If you’re a fan of Doyle or of Challenger, the book is so short that you may as well read it and enjoy what you will.

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Review: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

To Your Scattered Bodies Go
To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t like to write negative reviews. If I didn’t like a book, why waste even more time? I’m throwing this together because I’d read a number of bad reviews for To Your Scattered Bodies Go, but they didn’t stop me. The premise sounded so good that I picked it up anyhow. So, I’m writing the review that would have turned me away. You might fall in love with the Riverworld series — I’m writing this to turn past-me away, not necessarily you.

It tickled my fancy to imagine every human that ever lived waking up at once on some alien world with their minds intact, right up to the point of their natural death. Neato. Just like the protagonists, I wondered how that could happen. What sort of technology or species could pull off that trick? What sort of philosophical back flips would the novel be doing? Unfortunately, there were no back flips. The book belly flops into a river and floats along without any resolution (I hear that comes in the fourth book). Somehow the novel becomes less complex the longer one reads, devolving into an adventure with the occasional superficial observation about human nature.

The plot doesn’t just meander; it skips and stops as Farmer abandons his best material along the way. Important characters and all sorts of packed-in tension drop away from the narrative. The pacing is odd, skipping years and months and then zeroing in for long stretches that include seemingly useless scenes. It’s as if the author had originally intended to string together a series of related short stories.

Expect also to run into well-known historical characters among all of humanity’s billions. It’s kind of like when someone recalls that they were Joan of Arc in a past life, not the peasant thrashing the wheat that went into the bread that Joan had one day for lunch. You’ll meet spiritually mobile Nazis and enjoy a heartfelt justification for the antisemitic literature once penned by the main character. Through that you’ll deal with stilted dialogue, too much telling, and every manner of unnatural exposition.

And then there’s the creep. I have no problems with sex or violence in books, but I know creepy when I see it, and there’s a lot of gratuitous creep in this book. Farmer may not be a misogynist preoccupied with predation and depilation, but he can’t help but come across as one in To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

All that said, it is an original story, and it’s not boring. I found it pointless and poorly written, but don’t confuse that with boring.

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Review: L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop)

L'Assommoir (The Dram Shop)
L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop) by Émile Zola
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An amateur writing a tragedy similar to L’Assommoir might simply build their story up to some happy point and then throw the reader down the chute. Not Émile Zola. He opens the novel in a very desperate place. That way the reader has something to fear and dread even as things ease. Like the protagonist Gervaise, you remain cognizant of former ruin and eager to secure a little comfort.

And, why shouldn’t every narrative be clear, all detail evocative, and dialogue consistently natural? I have no idea — Zola makes it look so easy. Perhaps the art of the translator added some clarity to the author’s already strong prose. I don’t know, but I am impressed. Turn of the century working class Paris opened to me in a way I had never expected.

Still, it’s not an easy read. Zola doesn’t just rip Gervaise’s hard-earned happiness to pieces, he tears through it slowly. You can hear the sound of it all through the novel. At some point I couldn’t bear it, and I wanted out. So long as Gervaise stayed strong, I could too, but after a point I went numb and looked forward to the bitter end.

I stumbled into L’Assommoir by chance, but much like its doomed patrons, I kept coming back. Expect to see more Émile Zola on my to read list.

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Review: The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prepare to wait. I suppose some call it suspense, but I was nearly always… waiting. Henry James keeps the reader waiting from one paragraph to the next, from one chapter to another. And, whenever I was one turn of the screw away from losing interest, something would crop up and pull me along.

You’re also going to be waiting from word to word for something of substance. By that I mean, the prose is consistently wordy, but oddly enough, it’s mostly all fluffy helper words necessitated by an addiction to commas. So, you see, I’ve concluded that he, Mr. James, was paid not by the word, but per each, delicately, even sensually, situated comma (I get 8 shillings for that one).

I’m not sure anyone wants to know where I fall on the question of the insane governess theory, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll spoil the novel for some reader if I blurt it out. Instead, consider these two statements: I never much care, in this work or any other, what the author intended — whether conceded or not, Melville’s chimney will always be a huge phallus. Secondly, the evidence within The Turn of the Screw is so artfully consistent that there’s only one worthy conclusion. Don’t you think? Oh, am I too ambiguous? That’s fine. It’s ambiguity that kept me turning the pages.

And, since you waited this long, I’ll just say it: I liked the book. I approached it more like a puzzle than a ghost story, and by the time it ended, I was pretty puzzled. I think that means it worked.

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