Category: Books

A Clash of Kings

A Week of Ice and Fire, Day Two!

Of Kings!

 

A Clash of Kings is a good book, and, while it delivers on most of the promises of A Game of Thrones’ explosive ending, it makes a point of emphasising the fantasy roots of the series and is significantly less pleasant all around in its developments.

 

Contains spoilers for A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones

A Week of Ice and Fire, Day One!

I've made a huge mistake.

 

It’s all happening for George R.R. Martin this year. With the long awaited A Dance With Dragons due next week and Game of Thrones now a hit HBO series, he’s probably selling more books than he has since 2005. I come to praise Martin, not to bury him beneath the detritus of the last fifteen years.

 

Now I’m going to take you back to ancient times: 1996. Robert Jordan was alive and good for pull-quotes, Terry Pratchett was putting out both Feet of Clay and Hogfather in the golden age of Discworld, and Neil Gaiman was finishing up Sandman and producing Neverwhere. They were good times.

Then came George R.R. Martin with Game of Thrones, first in the projected trilogy (now a septet) that comprises A Song of Ice and Fire. Without any of the baggage of the rest of the series I must say: this is a pretty damned good book. Certainly, it has some elements of the territory of genre: incest, rape, general unpleasantness, but the thing is that Martin presents these instances impartially, without eroticising them. Where another author might think that rape is the coolest thing going and will take every opportunity to insert it into their narrative, Martin uses it as what it is: a bad act committed by bad men. There are no heroes for him to debase with his fetishes … thus far.

Norwegian Wood

 

When people see that you’re reading Norwegian Wood, there are two possible responses: “What’s that?” and, of course, “Isn’t it good?”

Ah, the sixties. They were a time. I think, despite my constant exposure to Japanese film, that this is my first time reading Japanese literature. I would like to think that, while this novel is apparently part of a larger canon of sixties student reminiscences, it has been heavily influential in the field of Japan’s romantic drama film industry. That’s precisely what it is: a heavily evocative mood piece about a guy who finds it very difficult to strike any kind of mood at all.

While this is my first foray into reading Japanese literature, it is exceedingly clear that Murakami’s work has been influential in the now common cinematic genre of “sixties student romance”. While a lot of those films have more of the melodrama about them than anything else, they have been touched in some small way by Murakami’s words.

Upon hearing the Beatles tune “Norwegian Wood”, Toru Watanabe remembers his student days and the women he knew, how they affected his life. One in particular, Naoko, may well have been the woman for him … But we know from the first page that it was not to be.

Murakami’s voice, in the translation at least, comes across as strongly evocative of the era it describes. Large swathes of Japan look the same today as they did in the sixties and one could likely do a Norwegian Wood tour of Japan if they so desired, but they don’t need to; Murakami’s is skilled enough to make the reader believe that they’re remembering their own late teens, albeit at a cold remove.

For all his lyricism, Toru is undoubtedly a blank cypher of a character. Not particularly talented in any field, he’s defined by his relationships with the women around him: he is a sponge with no self-esteem, equipped to absorb stories and carry on without an idea of his own self worth. He has no stories of his own to tell people, so he either discusses The Great Gatsby (to minimal success) or his hard-done-by roommate (whose departure he mourns because he now lacks the inspiration to generate new funny stories).

So Toru is at his best when the women in his life are relating their own journeys to him. They have done things, they feel things, that Toru has never allowed himself to engage with. It is with them he is able to relax, but also with them he gets too uptight to manage. He’s not as functioning a member of society as he would have you believe.

Where the book deals sensitively with mental illness, it is merciless on the subject of narcissism. We realise that we don’t have to like Toru because, despite his self-loathing, he is completely oblivious to anything that doesn’t directly involve him. Midori, one of the book’s four women, has a different brand of self-regard that both complements and conflicts with Toru’s own.

Were it not for the constantly looming spectre of suicide, Norwegian Wood could likely represent the sixties student life of just about anywhere. There is a unique Japanese nature to the experience but, despite some very specific situations, it does feel that it contains a universality, albeit one that took 14 years to be dispersed universally. Due to Toru’s detached nature it’s difficult to have an emotional response to the material; it’s like reading through a fine gauze curtain, occasionally taking pause at a particularly impressive passage.

Murakami has ultimately produced an artfully rendered work of slightly broken humanity. Isn’t it good?

Mistborn: The Final Empire

 

When it comes to fantasy, “accessibility” is a watchword. So often, good ideas are buried so far beneath dry prose and leaden world building that they are scarcely given a chance to surface.

It’s not so much a problem of an impatient reader as it is the impenetrable density that some authors thrive on.

 

Brandon Sanderson does not believe in making the reader wrestle with his prose until the story gets interesting or until the bitter, bitter end; instead, he presents something readily palatable and understandable. I will admit that my knowledge of the fantasy canon remains minuscule, but I would suggest that Mistborn: The Final Empire, the first in a trilogy, is a good book for beginners and veterans alike.

Maybe the Moon

Maybe The Moon is Armistead Maupin’s biggest deviation from type in his career. The first non-Tales book he wrote, it’s a paean to a departed friend and gives Maupin a chance to reveal a different voice. This voice can be charming, but it eventually gives way to a second hand anger that belongs to an entirely different book. It’s hard for me to know what to make of it, even a week later.

 

Cadence Roth, at 30 years old, stands 31 inches tall and the best years of her acting career are already behind her. Maybe The Moon is presented in the form of a diary documenting her attempts to revitalise her career, find love and reconnect with old friends.

I Am Number Four (novel)

Young adults! Why do we write fiction for and about them? All they care about is pretty girls and punching bullies! Or pretty boys and standing up to bullies, possibly through punches, as the case may be.

The point stands: your average teenage boy or girl is easily the worst candidate for saviour of the universe, yet we place the burden on them all the time. When someone who isn’t a slave to their hormones could more easily save the day, children burdened with “destiny” have to take on the elements and win.

So too is the case with I Am Number Four, a cynical exercise in teen pandering and film tie-ins: the worst possible person is charged with the most important task. We identify with him because we too go to school and have overwrought feelings for girls! Dive in!

I Shall Wear Midnight

I’ve finally done it. I’ve run out of unread Discworld books. No more Discworlds until the next one. This used to be the case with me all the time from 1998 to 2006, but the flavour of “no more Discworld for now” is different in 2011.

I Shall Wear Midnight is not the final Discworld book, and nor should it be read as such. It is possibly not even the final Tiffany Aching book, but it certainly brings this part of her story to a close.

A lot of people don’t like Pratchett’s “Discworld books for Younger Readers”, because they don’t consider themselves “younger readers”. As it is a long established fact that the only people who read Discworld books are eleven year olds named Kevin (“I am an eleven year old named Kevin and so is my wife”), these people need to stop cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

Mary Ann in Autumn

Michael Tolliver lives! … Again!
A three year gap is significantly less than eighteen years. On top of that, this is the first Tales of the City book that I have read contemporaneously. Do you have any idea how strange it is to shift from Maupin speaking to people who predate me to him speaking directly to me, the world in which I’m living? It’s a stretch.

I think that Tales of the City books work best as capsules of their time, which of course means, except for Sure of You, they improve with age. That Maupin now speaks of Twitter and Facebook with varying degrees of understanding feels strange to me. Did readers thirty years ago think that D’orothea and DeDe’s involvement with Jonestown was simply bizarre (well, it was by default, but … more bizarre?)?
All this is not to say that Mary Ann in Autumn is a bad book or disappointing. For me, at least, it is essential for its service in returning Mary Ann to her figuratively ancestral home. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I tell you how badly betrayed I felt by her in Sure of You. Mary Ann is not absolved of her sins, but it seems she may well be redeemed.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

It’s hard to tell what Amy Chua was thinking when she wrote Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Is she seeking approval for her parenting methods, which she unwittingly but directly claims has successfully raised approximately 1.3 billion of her fellow “countrymen”? The fact that Chua was born in America and that her parents explicitly and repeatedly condemn multiple aspects of her parenting style as too harsh and unthinking kind of undermines this theory.
Chua tries to help us out from the start with her intro (also featured on the cover!):

This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.

But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.

What does this mean, precisely? It means that you have to read about 90% of terrible decisions and harping before Lulu, Chua’s younger daughter, snaps and tells Chua that she’s doing everything wrong, and that her overbearing nature has meant that she has taken the fun out of everything that was once loved. Chua responds to this by giving Lulu a small degree of choice, which she herself manipulates from the shadows. It takes her more than sixteen years of parenting to accept even the smallest change, and even then the thought of Lulu doing her own thing without parental intervention “pains [her] every day”.

Kill the Dead

What if they threw a zombie outbreak and nobody cared? Sure, there are people dying in the streets, but they’re just humans. They don’t even know how to do magic? Who gives a damn about them?

That seems to be the concept of Kill the Dead, a book almost wholly lacking in the human element. Every character is above the mass slaughter of the citizens of their surrounds, because they’ve got bigger problems elsewhere: Heaven and Hell are far more important than the concerns of 4 million people in danger of being eaten.

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