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review 2014-09-06 09:48
"Personal" by Lee Child
Personal - Lee Child

I’ve one rule when it comes to reading. Never read thrillers, but as always I ended up reading the latest Jack Reacher…


Always coming back to the Jack Reacher novels reminds me why thrillers are such an engaging reading experience (maybe that’s why I keep coming back for more, Jack-Reacher-wise):


  1. The visceral pull of the plots;
  2. The lure of identification with the action hero;
  3. They persuade us that however terrible the situation, some sort of fight or flight is always available to us;
  4. Reacher’s intellectual faculties are always masterclass and they never interfere with him throwing a punch (I’m always flabbergasted by his ability to perform complex arithmetic operations while preparing to engage with the bad guys…);
  5. He gets mixed up with other people’s business because he has none of his own;
  6. It’s always a delight to hide inside the heroe's perspective for the ride;
  7. He comes out nothingness (roaming the good USofA until the action bumps into him);
  8. (feel free to add your own)  


All the Lee’s books are essentially the same book, but I've read 18 (now 19) so call me a fan. One of the books a few years ago did have a cliff-hanger ending when it appeared he may not have survived. But why should he not keep on? Going back to Sherlock Holmes but more pronounced in recent years, characters have outlasted their authors (e.g. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser). Lee has always acknowledged his debt to John D. Mcdonald and McGee but also mentions the traditions of knights errant and Ronins.


What about the 19th? It's still nonsense as the previous ones (we even have a Giant à la James Bond posing as the bad guy). When reading a Jack Reacher I always try not to over think it. Lee’s books are every bit as unimportant as Jack Reacher's toothbrushes and shirts. This one tops it all up. One’s Suspension of Disbelief must be at its best this time… Silliness is more pronounced than in the previous books, and I started picking it apart (which I won’t do here, because I don’t want to ruin your potential reading of the book).


What kept me racing from one chapter to the next? Was it because I was on tenterhooks? Was it because I was involved with the narrative? No to all the questions above. There's “something” about Child's prose that makes you rush through it to the next chapter. What happens later on? I usually put the book in the pile for the charity store because I know I’m not reading it again. 

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review 2014-09-02 10:30
"Ancillary Justice" by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie

Warning: Rant follows.


Knowledgeable responses to SF require a certain apprenticeship; it’s impossible to approach SF criticism without a certain familiarity with many SF texts. Just as a wonderfully articulate casual reader cannot simply pick up “The Divine Comedy” or “The Name of the Rose” and begin a nuanced enjoyment of both books, a SF newbie must work her or his way into the specialized narrative structures and vocabulary of SF. The gender treatment belongs to the category.


Lecki’s so-called inventive approach to the treatment of gender is simply awful. I found myself having a hard time trying to follow the personal pronouns, eg, the character of Seivarden, who is referred to as both he and she in the novel: In some parts of the novel personal pronouns can't be relied on convey to whom the narrator is referring. The text can be utterly confusing at times, and Leckie took the easy way out. When things got too complicated, personal-pronouns-wise, in many parts of the novel Leckie defaults to “she” to avoid making things too damn complicated.


If one wants to read a wonderful treatment of the gender “issue” in SF (or elsewhere), read Ursula K. Le Guin. Almost all of Le Guin’s novels have at their core the gender concern. In Le Guin’s take she basically wants to call attention to those characteristics which are associated with one’s sexual identity but which are learned rather than genetically caused. See for instance her approach to The Gethenians in “The Left Hand of Darkness”. The Gethenians don’t have gender characteristics, having instead sexual potency and identity that only lasts for a month (during a period called Kemmer). During this period a person becomes a sexually male or female, with no predisposition toward either (vide Le Guin’s essay in terms of gender experimentation in SF). Le Guin’s has always been able to fully explore this. Lecki’s approach is cartoonish because she is not able to give Seivarden the same manwoman characteristic that Estraven (in “The Left Hand of Darkness”) has. Instead what we have is a big narrative mess.

It’s a sorry state of affairs when a novel like this one is able to win the Arthur C. Clarke award. It’s detrimental to SF that this novel is getting all the praise that it seems to be getting. If this is the best SF can do at the moment, we’re in deep shit, SF-wise. This is one of reasons I’ve almost altogether stopped reading SF… still in rant mode, it’s quite incomprehensible how a novel like The Adjacent” by Cristopher Priest does not get any more notoriety. It’s a far superior SF specimen.


Let’s summarize the “problems” with Lecki’s novel:


  1. The plot is boring as hell;
  2. The characters are as interesting as an inflexible wooden board (on a side note, if the book’s characters are not interesting, then it’s certainly a complete waste of my time);
  3. The exploration of gender is cartoonish to the extreme, ie, it didn’t add anything to the story;
  4. Nothing of interest was explored in any depth:
    • Gender (it felt gimmicky);
    • The religious implications of AI;
    • The galactic-spanning theocratic empire;
    • The politics of an empire ripping apart at its seams;
    • The impact of a xenophobic society expanding through a galaxy;
    • There's not enough science behind the fiction


So. What’s the point? I’ve read it because I was curious to know why “The Adjacent” didn’t won the Arthur C. Clarke. After reading “Ancillary Justice” I still fail to understand the rationale. Why all the hype, the buzz, the talk about this book? I think it’s another successful case of a devious book publishing strategy. Or maybe Lecki has a better marketing machine than Priest.


Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent have explored gender in much more shocking, and more meaningful ways a long time ago.

Bottom-line: Should it be read? Absolutely. I’ve been reading SF for close to 40 years. In today’s SF, and with a few exceptions (eg, Greg Egan, Christopher Priest, Maureen F. McHugh, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Susanna Clarke, Joe Abercrombie, K.J. Parker, Ted Chiang, etc), SF as genre has become stagnant. For me SF (the written kind) is still the best medium best suited to explore what’s possible, what should and should not be, what our own expectations say about us and everything in-between and under the sun. The gender treatment in this novel is unnecessary, is distracting, and contributes nothing to the story. It all felt like a huge pothole.


This state-of-affairs both depresses me and pisses me off in equal measure.


NB: SF = Speculative Fiction.


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review 2014-07-25 19:14
"Rubbernecker" by Belinda Bauer
Rubbernecker - Belinda Bauer

My first Belinda Bauer and probably my last.


Gimmick: Crime-fighting sleuth (Patrick Fort) with Asperger’s syndrome.


The gimmick and some inconsistencies - eg, the inability of almost every other character, other than Patrick Fort, to understand how to cope with his behaviour, called for Suspension of Disbelief, which ruined it for me.


it was also painful to read how even his professors had not been briefed on Patrick’s inability to use sarcasm or humour; even after some months after they’d first meet him, they were still assuming that he was being sarcastic rather than honest.


On top of that, the secondary thread between Tracy and Mr. Deal seemed unnecessary. It was as if the story had started as a short-lengthened one and then some Publishing House saw the possibility to earn more money by turning it into a novel. These two characters had no real texture: they just seem made out of cardboard and were just there to fill the necessary word count quota of a novel.


These bothersome “particularities” (they were always there in the back of my mind) spoiled my enjoyment of the novel. Almost everything felt gimmicky.


NB: I’ve got nothing against the use of gimmicks in literature, cinema, theatre, etc. Just to give an obvious example of a good gimmick, see how Shakespeare had the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father appear to reveal his killer or how Kafka starts a story with a character named Gregor waking up to discover he's changed into a giant bug.


Gimmicks, per si, are not bad. When done in a literary fashion, ie, without calling for suspension of disbelief for example, gimmicks are one of the highest pay-offs in a Story.

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review 2014-01-17 10:58
S. - Doug Dorst,J.J. Abrams

I won’t give an overview of the plot, because I really think that the contents of this book should be experienced firsthand. I will only try to describe what I personally liked about this book (which is hard enough since this is not an ordinary novel).

So, be warned: rambling ahead! ;)

What I like best about this experiment in publishing is that the whole make up of this book is so beautiful and detailed. I love the postcards and letters and the napkin and the look and feel (and smell!) of the pages; I love how it is printed in so many different colours and that what is supposedly written with a pen actually looks like it has been written with a pen. And I still cannot get over the price of this work of art. It must have cost a lot to print and assemble the book and all its gimmicks; and still the book only cost 23€. Wow!

I also loved the way it gives insight into the world of literary studies. The way the two readers treat the text, analyse it and write down their theories reminded me a lot of the time I wrote my Master’s Thesis or any other time I wrote a paper. I wanted to communicate with Eric and Jen, tell them my own theories and compare notes with them.
And with that we’re right in the middle of plot territory. I really liked the two readers who left their notes in the margins of the main text. At times I was more interested in how their story was going to turn out than in the actual novel. I loved how these little notes showed their relationship progress and how through mere allusions you could actually make out two characters and even grow attached to them. In a way the same thing that happens between Eric and Jen happens to you as a reader, too. You start to like and care about these people even though all you have to back up that feeling is what they have written in the margins.

The other plot in this book is the actual novel „Ship of Theseus“ which is studied and discussed by Jen and Eric. That novel’s plot is creepy and weird and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Which is a kind of narration I really like but it can leave the reader fairly unsatisfied. However, it seems like this is actually the point of „S.“. It ends and hands the solving of the puzzle over to the reader. You have to become like Jen and Eric and start your own research, maybe reread the book. For example, there is this wheel that came with the book, and it is mentioned by Jen and Eric but never used. So there must be a code I’m missing and a quick google search showed me that the people of the internet are already on it and trying to figure it out.

The book is not only an experiment in publishing and a study of the book as a medium; it also tries to make the story intermedial. It goes on in the heads of the readers and on their blogs and on message boards. You can immerse yourself in the world of „S.“. A really great idea IF we get something like a solution in the end. I really hope we won’t be left unsatisfied.

I would love to give five stars to „S.“ but the plot lacked in complexity (which is something that can still be changed if the story does go on in another medium). The reading experience was awesome and I’m looking forward to several rereads and internet research and maybe even solving the puzzle and answering the question that remain.

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