Month: December 2011

Book Diary: Sophia McDougall – Romanitas

Romanitas by Sophia McDougallI am a bit of two minds about this one. The setting is utterly fascinating – an alternative history where the Roman Empire never declined and fell but has continued on to the present day. I’m not sure how realistic it is that any empire would last for that long, but it certainly makes for a compelling alternative history concept. Against that background, the plot follows a group of three teenagers – two escaped slaves and the heir to the emperor on the run from assassins – as they try to bring down a conspiracy that originates from somewhere in the inner circle of power in the Empire.

This had me expect something really exciting, but unfortunately the novel fell somewhat short of  my expectations – for the most part, I just could not connect to what was happening at all, and as a consequence the novel dragged considerably during its first two thirds. I can not even quite put the finger on what the problem was, but I suspect it was a certain lack of urgency during the travelogue chapters combined with a rather diffuse sense of place, the combination of which is pretty much deadly to any kind of pursuit story. Things do pick up in the last third third of Romanitas, though, once the action moves to Rome where things culminate in what is indeed a very exciting finale.

That I lasted that long at all and kept reading through the drab chapters leading up to the climax, was mainly due to the one element where the novel really shines, and that is characterization. I’d have a hard time to think of another novel that does teenagers so convincingly (and without being a YA novel, too!) and McDougall keeps a wonderful balance between having her characters behave in a reasonable manner and having their emotions or sheer impulse get the better of their reason. It’s this aspect that kept me hooked and will likely make me get the remaining volumes of the trilogy as well.

Book Diary: Warren Ellis & Darrick Robertson: Transmetropolitan Vol. 4 – The New Scum

Transmetropolitan Vol. 4: The New Scum by…The fourth volume of Transmetropolitan continues the plotline started in volume three but raises the stakes – this time, it’s all about the actual presidential election. My favourite episode in this volume was I think Spider Jerusalem’s interview with the President – Ellis and Robertson turn that into a really great portrait of a villain: They give him the occasion to justify himself, to demonstrate that he has his reasons for doing what he’s doing – and that for all that he is not one bit less of a bastard and not fit to rule a dungheap, much less the United States. In contrast to that, the companion piece of the interview with Callahan was a big disappointment – he comes across as your average cardboard villain who does bad stuff for the sole reason that he’s so very evil. Even the drawings seem flat and uninspired in this episode, and I fully expect Callahan to grow a moustache for the next volume of the series that he can go around twirling while indulging in diabolical laughter. While this not bode well for the future of the series, the election night makes up for some of the shortcomings – in particular Robertson’s artwork is nothing short of brilliant there and captures both Spider’s frustration and his rage in dynamic, evocative panels that grip the reader by the throat and don’t let go.

Book Diary: Tanith Lee – Delusion’s Master

Delusion's Master by Tanith LeeI have had occasion to remark on my love for everything Arabian Nights related before, but even among the category Tanith Lee’s Tales from the Flat Earth has always been a particular favourite. I think at least one of the reasons is that those volumes don’t just decorate their stories with same exotic oriental trappings, but attempt a more comprehensive evocation, encompassing not just the setting but also the narrative structure with its serpentine plot twists and abundance of framing devices. And there is of course the always-gorgeous prose of Tanith Lee (which I’m actually experiencing for the first times for the Flat Earth books as I’d previously only read them in German translation) that never fails to enchant.

Delusion’s Master is Chuz and he is another of Tanith Lee’s deliciously twisted creations – it is a pity that he is mostly pulling the strings in the background in this volume and not getting a lot of on-stage time. Or it would be a pity if we did not get a lot Azhrarn instead, the Prince of Demons who I am sure nobody who ever read Night’s Master will forget about. This time, the plot is considerably more straightforward and less involved than in the two previous installments – but within its slim volume it still packs more unpredictable twists and delightful surprises than most doorstopper trilogies. It is fantastic that Norilana are making those available again, and there’s even new volumes planned, which I’m very much looking forward to.

Book Diary: Penny Watson – Sweet Inspiration

Sweet Inspiration by Penny WatsonPenny Watson is one of my favourite Romance bloggers; I was somewhat surprised to find out that she is writing Romance novels, too. As those are Christmas-themed, things normally would have stayed there, but for some reason I was in the mood for some holiday cheer, so thought I’d give it a try. With the understanding that Christmas Romances usually aren’t my glass of eggnogg, I have to say that the premise for Sweet Inspiration was somewhat silly but extremely cute, the plot involves lots of baking of yummy cookies and all of the characters (including a red-haired baker, buff Santa and his five hunky sons and several elves. No reindeers, though, as those are a myth) are very likeable.

On the downside, you really notice that this is a first novel (at least that’s what I’m assuming it is) – the writing is rather too rich in adjectives and the plot just chugs along, with most conflicts resolved almost the moment they are happening and a general lack of drama. Overall, it was still fun though, and I’ll likely pick up the second volume in the series.

What I’m Reading: Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall

It’s probably very shallow of me, but I tend to suspicious if something is too successful – if I see a book that gets lavished with critical acclaim, heaped with literary prizes and is in the bestseller lists, too… then I usually assume that it just can’t be any good. I tend to think that I’m probably right on the spot with that assumption most of the time, however there is the occasional exception, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is one of those.

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What I’m Reading: Ali Smith – There but for the

If you look really closely, this book does have a plot; it would go something like this: Man withdraws from dinner party to barricade himself in a guest room at his hosts’ house, stays for several months, then leaves without telling anyone. Which, no matter how you view it, really is not much in the way of a plot – but then plot is not what Ali Smith’s novel There but for the is about.

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Book Diary: Jennifer Crusie – Maybe This Time

Maybe This Time by Jennifer CrusieJennifer Crusie’s books are my ultimate comfort read – they are well written, intelligently constructed, very, very funny and above all, they tell heartwarming stories about credible people. This one is the first of her later ones that I’ve read, and while her early works are more or less purely Romance novels her later ones have a tendency to cross over into other genres - in this case the ghost story. The result is slightly less funny than I’m used to from her her books, but makes up for it with increased tension and general creepiness, and in general I think the mix works quite well here. Maybe This Time basically crosses His Girl Friday with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw; in fact, it stays astonishingly close to James’ basic plotline, so much so that one might almost consider it a modern-day reworking of the 19th-century tale.  It does not quite attain the literary heights of The Turn of the Screw – but then, Henry James really sucked at Romance. Also, Maybe This Time is way funnier, so I figure that makes James and Crusie about even.

Book Diary: John Brunner – Meeting at Infinity

Meeting at Infinity by John BrunnerThis is an early novel by John Brunner (first published in 1961) and it has been all but eclipsed by his later work – rather regrettably so, as this is well worth reading, not just as juvenilia that paved the way for greater things, but as an excellent novel in its own right.

Meeting at Infinity starts off very much at the deep end, with a prologue written in rhythmically accented, suggestive prose that shoots a barrage of names and concepts at the reader none of which are in the least explained. It lends the novel a very hectic, modernist feel right from the start, and things slow down only slightly when the plot proper sets in, and a plethora of viewpoint characters flick past in quick succession while the action rushes along at a fast pace, leaving the reader trying to catch up breathlessly. And once everything seems to fall into place and things finally start to make turns, it turns out that nothing is really as it seems…

While the novel never really loses steam and keeps the reader gripped until the nicely delivered twist at the end, it seems to run out of new ideas to throw around about two thirds in and ends somewhat blandly as an alien invasion story. While this a bit disappointing it is relatively minor quibble for a novel that packs an insane amount of ideas in such a small space (showing once again that a novel can be great and entertaining even under 300 pages). It reads a bit like a Philip K. Dick novel, and while it is not quite as mind-boggling as the best by Dick, it is much better written. I also could not help but wonder how much of an influence this novel might have had on later writers, namely William Gibson, Iain M. Banks and Hannu Rajaniemi came to my mind quite often while reading this. In any case, it’s great to see this made available again by the SF Gateway, and I’m rather looking forward to eventually making my way through all of Brunner’s oeuvre.

What I’m Reading: Jack Vance – The Demon Princes, Vol. 2 (The Face * The Book of Dreams)

I’m not very familiar with Vance’s biography and hence have no clue as to the reason behind it, but there is a twelve year hiatus between the publication of volumes three (1964) and four (1979) in his Demon Princes series. I might have noticed something of that gap even if I wasn’t a compulsive reader of imprints, as the writing style seems markedly smoother and more self-assured than in the three novels that were contained in the first omnibus. The final two novels in the series also appear not quite as pulpy as the first three – although I would be hard-pressed if I had to define what exactly “pulpiness” consists of, so that might be a merely subjective impression.

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Book Diary: Barbara Samuel – Bed of Spices

A Bed of Spices by Barbara SamuelBed of Spices is very much not your run-of-the-mill historical romance novel. That starts with the setting, which is not Regency England but Strassburg during the Plague, continues with the protagonists, namely a Christian daughter of a local noble and a Jewish apprentice physician, and ends with the plot, which reads not at all like a Romance story set against a historic background but more like a historical novel with a Romantic love story at its centre. So much so in fact that at times I even doubted whether heroine and hero would ever make it to their Happily Ever After or whether it would all end in tears and tragedy. I do not think it’s much of a spoiler to say that they get each other in the end (after all, this is a Romance,  even though a rather unusual – but very good – one), although many of the secondary characters do not get that lucky – anything else would have been very unlikely considering the period the novel takes place in. Samuel does not shy away from having bad things happen to her characters, and is unflinching of her depiction of anti-Judaism and pogroms, not glossing over the misery and suffering Jews had to endure.

In contrast to the harsh historical setting the love story between Fredrica and Solomon is sweet and touching - reading their wedding scene had me grab for tissues on the train. It is also shown and developed in a very plausible manner: From their initial attraction and the way they get to gradually know and appreciate each other, through their struggles against prejudice, their parents and their own conscience to the final fulfillment and consummation of their love, things never seem forced or implausible and the reader (this one, anyway) never ceases to feel with and for them.

That latter bit is certainly to no small part due to Barbara Samuel being an excellent writer – her prose, lyrical without turning purple, paints a vivid picture of medieval life and is always evocative, whether she describes the beauty of nature, the bustle of city life or the tenderness of young lovers. There are some nice structural touches as well, like the various parallels and contrasts between Rica’s and Solomon’s families, and overall it’s a wonderful, heartwarming book that has become one of my favourite Romance novels.