Saturday, February 6, 2016

system of the world

The System of the World is the third and final volume of The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson, and baroque is right. I've never read a story so ornamented, festooned, and gilded as this trilogy. Stephenson seems to have gotten lost in the research of the period, and then in the minutiae of his storyline and its characters. There are letters, secret messages, stories taken from broadsheets, and the text of entire pamphlets and libels, discovered under the feet of the characters as they walked about London in the early 1700s; garlands, embellishments, ornaments, and flourishes, all, to the main story. Stephenson doesn't tell the story, so much as take us there. With all of the stink, coal soot, pockmarks, and horse dung hanging on to us as we wander with him, and learn the details of this story with him. The sub-plots all have sub-sub-plots, and Stephenson juggles them all masterfully.
 
And the cast of characters is enormous; I may have mentioned in my review of the first book that it included a Cast of Characters in the frontmatter. If I hadn't borrowed that volume from the library, I may have gone back to it a few times, as nearly everyone has a title, or two. Just keeping track of the Natural Philosophers alone is difficult enough, never mind the lords and ladies, French, English, German, and other wise, soldiers, pirates, vagabonds, and thieves, clock-makers, counterfeiters, jailers, and executioners. No character is so minor, that we don't learn a little bit about him or her, and perhaps their family.

I was reminded of Herman Melville in some of the detail Stephenson provided, altho I'm happy to report there are few whole chapters dedicated to the history, construction and use of harpoons. Stephenson himself honors two novelists in his acknowledgements--a multi-page affair in the backmatter-- Alexandre Dumas, and Dorothy Dunnett. I don't know Dorothy Dunnett, but I'm going to look her up based on this mention alone.

Not everyone is up for a 3000 page novel, so you need to in it for the long haul. This is a novel form that seems to be designed to entertain, night after night, in the years and centuries before television and movies. I can imagine dark, candle-lit nights, coal fires and quiet reading for an hour or two before bedtime. If you are that type of reader I'm looking at you Chuck then read this book. All three of them.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

confusion

I'm happy to report that the second volume in The Baroque Cycle trilogy wasn't just a wavy line connecting the beginning and the end of the story arc. In fact Stephenson "con-fused" two books together to make up this middle volume. If I remember correctly the first volume was made up of three books so The Confusion is made up of books 4 and 5. Contrast this technique to that of The Two Towers for example which follows on the end of the The Fellowship of the Ring by following some members of the fellowship for an entire book before we ever get to find out the fate of the other members of the fellowship in the second half (book four) of that volume. Not so in this case. More or less instant gratification! no lines, no waiting

Stephenson has woven a complex tale that continues to span years, even decades, dogging the varied and often crossing paths of this enormous cast of characters as they move even further afield. This volume truly spans the early world; at a time when circumnavigating the world was still a new, rare thing.

This installment brings us some answers to questions raised in the first volume. Always a preference to endless teasing in a trilogy. But it also makes new connections and raises new questions, so has me looking forward to the last volume, which I've just taken out from my library.

Stephenson knows what a reader needs and moves the storyline forward at a steady rate. The beginnings of the first volume seemed slow but with a story this epic, it's like an ocean tanker, it takes a while to get it going. This is a fun take on historical fiction, and has some of that snarky inserting of modern slang into the mouths of Enlightenment Era characters. But it doesn't seem like Stephenson uses this technique to ignore the history, it feels like he's done the research and there are strong bones holding up this epic farce.

And Baroque indeed! Festoon away, my depilated penman!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

quicksilver

I've read a bunch of Neal Stephenson's books, and if there's one thing I know, its that I'll never know what I'm going to get. 

I happened to pick up a copy of The Confusion at the on-going book sale at my library; I've picked up a bunch of books this way, and because they're so cheap (pay what you can afford) I don't spend a whole lot of time pre-reading, or even poring over the dust jacket in most cases. So I guess it makes sense that when I got this book home, and then finally pulled it out to read it, I discovered when reading the frontmatter that it is indeed the second book in a trilogy The Baroque Cycle. Cut to a year or so later (or about a month ago, depending on your perspective) and I finally decide to take book one, Quicksilver, out of the library.

So, is this book SciFi? Information technology based fiction? Pseudo-historical, other-worldly, soft SF? No, its historical fiction, with some scientific leanings.

The story focuses on Europe in the time of Louis XIV, for the most part. The story spans quite a few  decades, from about 1680 to 1730, or so. So far. And there is a fair amount of recounting the historical background of the present era as well. The focus, as far as I can tell, seems to revolve around the smaller characters, who may have done their parts to move the larger geo-political forces around them, and the storyline is followed through their divers viewpoints. see what I did there, with the old-timey spelling of diverse, yeah Stephenson does crap like that throughout. not a big fan of the technique myself So, the scientific bent--even a little code breaking, with nods to the 'original' Cryptonomicon, supposedly written by John Wilkins, an Anglican clergyman and natural philosopher from the period, and the basis for Stephenson's SF novel of the same name--mainly revolves around the members of the Royal Society and their scientific pursuits during the period.

So, there's a lot going on in this story. If I had any negative comment, it would be that its took a little while to get rolling. Now that I'm well into the second book, its pretty clear that the slow build-up is a function of how complex the story is. There are a lot of players, and the names can be as difficult to keep track of as The Silmarillion or The Count of Monte Cristo. Two of my favorites, by the way.

This looks like its going to be a good one. Good so far, and more to come.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

absence of light

An Absence of Light is a mid-nineties crime novel that I picked up at my library's ongoing book sale. I haven't read anything by this author before but the story telling is tight. Almost too tight. David Lindsey seems too careful about what he tells you. This seems especially true about the female characters. If I had to guess I'd say author has a high regard for some women and not as much for others; and they seem to be split by type. They may be frumpy or plain or elegant. They may be sexy or the girl next door. But he always describes their small habits and tics; what they wear and how the move; the looks on their faces and the fall of their hair.

The men? Yeah, not so much.

So how was it? Well, if you get past the distinctly male POV it was pretty good. The ending was a little weak and reminded me a few movies I've seen, that kind of withered away at the end. Lindsey does throw us a bone after all, but a share of the meat would been good too.

After all the bones are for the dogs, right?


Am I looking back at 1995 with the eyes of 2015? Sure. Is that fair? Maybe not, but it is a reality that books do last longer than the era in which they are written. I think that gives a window to look into the past and react as we see fit.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

jonathan strange and mr. norrell

This book is a big boy. And I'm happy to say that Susanna Clarke was able to close this story on a big upswing in action. I was a little worried; I thought the first half was a little slow. According to the book's website, Neil Gaiman wrote "... after 800 pages my only regret was that it wasn't twice the length."Well, I'm not sure I agree with that. Overall, I thought it was pretty good, but 200 pages could have been cut and it still would have been a good read.

Its seems to be a trend, which I assume follows on the heels of Game of Thrones, to turn books into TV shows rather than movies. The same is true for Strange and Norrell who have recently brought their powdered wigs to a BBC program. I assume it can be found here in the States. I bet its entertaining; there is plenty of room for period costumes, old-timely English accents, and magical special effect on the telly. What, what?

The second half of the book is reasonably well populated with intrigue, romance, magic, anger and spite, mystery, and madness. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, get some! Its been around long enough that its pretty easy to find at the liberry.

Friday, October 16, 2015

strange and norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been around for a few years but I haven't read it until now. I'm sure I've seen it, especially when it came out; its distinctive white-on-black book jacket, formidable size, and intriguing title. I saw it again just recently while browsing the titles in a tiny library in western Massachusetts, and I took a look through. Seems like my kind of book, so the next time I visited my own library, I picked it up.

Formidable is right! This beast is 782 pages and I'm about half way through it at this point. Susanna Clarke has taken it upon herself to write a 'historic' novel about the re-invigoration of English magic at the time of the Napoleonic wars, in the style of the era. What this means is that each of the chapters is titled, the story is carefully conceived, and told in that slow, deliberative style the seems well suited to you people of comfortable means, who may sit in a parlour and read to one another for a few hours each day to pass the time between tea and dinner whilst the servants busy about, out of sight

Think serial, a la The Count of Monte Cristo.

Just not as exciting.

I'm hopeful that second part of this tome has some action. It's been a little thin thus far, but I can see the chess pieces being set about the board, so there is plenty of opportunity for it. Let's bring it home Susanna!

More to come.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

love you more

Love You More is a suspense novel written by Lisa Gardener, whom I've never read before. My wife gave me this one and told me it was good. Love You More is ruthless in its suspense, having given away some of the background on this crime mystery in the prologue, we follow along as the police try to piece together the crime and the motive without the benefit we have of that critical prologian* information. And the closer the cops get to the truth, the more we realize that we don't have all the information needed to solve this crime after all.

It's a tightly woven and compelling story, told by a writer who clearly knows a fair amount about police procedures and believes in a strong female lead. In fact, the lead quickly takes on the role of the reluctant hero, and even makes us wonder at times if we're routing for the wrong team. As I said, there's a lot going on here and Gardener does a good job of meting out the info, switching back and forth from third person narrative to first person in the case of the protagonist. Nicely done.


* Yeah, I made that word up.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

chindi

It been a while since I've read science fiction, it used to be the bulk of my reading when I was a teen, so I was in the library thinking of what to get and I came across the SciFi section and decided to pick something up. I don't know Jack McDevitt, and frankly I was a little worried that this would turn out to be a horror story, but I was pleasantly surprised. chindi is what I would call old school SciFi, tracking a space adventure with a group of explorers in a kind of Odyssey retelling. Jason and his Argonauts are replaced by Priscilla 'Hutch' Hutchins and a group of amateur adventurers who are set on making first contact with intelligent alien life and have hired Hutch to captain their ship.

Hutch is similar to Jason, in that Jason leads, or captains, the Argonauts on their adventures, but the Argonauts are not just a crew. They aren't the invisible minions of say, the crew of the Nautilus, the Argonauts are somebodys. They have their own histories, and they make their own adventures. Hutch is in a similar position, she's the captain, but also the hired help, so her role as leader is tenuous at best, and when the crew wants to answer the Siren call, the best she can do is advise against it. don't. stop. danger.

This is where the tension lies in the story. As a good person, you can only help those who'll help themselves. And when they don't... you do your best to rescue their asses.

chindi is a great odyssey story, and a fantastic 'wouldn't-it -be-great-if' story. Well written, easy and fun to read. And you can't help smiling a little (in your horror) when you say, Oo, that's gonna leave a mark.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

assassination bureau

The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. is an unfinished Jack London novel, completed by Robert Fish, using London's notes. In the hard cover I read, London completed 122 pages of the 179 page total. London's notes about the conclusion of the story are located in the end matter of the book. Its interesting to see them after reading Fish's ending, I have a feeling that Fish did a better job than to simply follow London's notes to closely. I get the feeling that London didn't finish this story because he wasn't real clear on how to end it. Fish basically iginores most of what London jotted down and created a pretty good ending on his own for the most part.

The Assassination Bureau was made into an English movie in 1969 starring Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg, and Telly Savalas. Don't think I've ever seen that, but I found it while looking for a James McAvoy/Angelina Jolie movie with a similar theme that I thought might have been inspired by this book. Wanted isn't inspired by this book however, rather its based on a Mark Millar comics series of the same name. But who knows, maybe Millar was inspired by London?

The story follows the story of the founder of the Assassination Bureau, his niece, and her lover. These three make an odd triangle and the high-jinks soon ensues. The story revolves around whether or not the idea behind the Assassination Bureau is a net good or net bad for the world and society. The discussion becomes pretty philisophical, and I think that's really to point. Once London got to the point where he had established his view in teh dialog, I'm not sure he knew where to go from there.

An interesting literary bit of history, but little more than that in the end.