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Half a King (Shattered Sea, Book 1)
Half a King (Shattered Sea, Book 1)
by Joe Abercrombie
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £5.00

11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not half bad, 3 July 2014
"Whatever your questions my answer is steel."

Joe Abercrombie is one of the biggest names in modern fantasy. His first First Law trilogy more than filled the void left by that other titan in the genre George RR Martin whilst the 'Song of Ice and Fire' creator wrestled with his "Merenese knot" between 2001 and 2011. The First Law was a grim and gritty series, that was also darkly funny, and it cleverly subverted many of the tropes that had once upon a time made fantasy seem such a stale realm of writing.

However, since his original trilogy Abercrombie has seemed somewhat lost, unable to decide what next. 'Best Served Cold', arguably his most well written work (at least in terms of prose), seemed to point at a way forward, hinting we might see the other side of the conflict we had witnessed in the First Law books - the Gurkish perspective. But what followed next in 'The Heroes' was instead a retread of a conflict we had already witnessed before: a Union versus The North battle devoid of the emotional context provided by the campaign that unfolded in the First Law.

If 'The Heroes' already felt derivative then 'Red Country' seemed to hint that Abercrombie was well and truly running on fumes by 2012. The squalor, the grim nature of the setting and his characters, the terse verbal barbs - all hallmarks of the author - were now turned up to 11 in a novel that felt like Joe Abercrombie trying his damndest to write a Joe Abercrombie book, with the inevitable result that the book felt tired and forced (and full far too much of the author's love of 'Deadwood', 'Red Dead Redemption', and Westerns in general).

Because of the above, I wasn't disheartened when the author stated he was taking a break from the First Law world to write a new young adult trilogy. If anything it seemed the best thing possible. It would allow Abercrombie time to recharge his batteries regarding his original series and spend time considering where he wanted to take it - something essential given how old his main characters had become, and the curious proto-industrial state he left the world in come the end of 'Red Country'. Furthermore, the YA setting would also allow for a convenient reining in of his trademark 'grimdark' elements; elements that no how much they had come to define his early writing seemed increasingly cliché and a weight around his neck.

So, finally, how fares this brave new book by Joe Abercrombie?

I'd say it's possibly his most enjoyable book since the original First Law books; at the least it's his best since 'Best Served Cold'. If I thought `Red Country' rather a turgid mess, 'The Heroes', despite being well written, didn't strike me as original or a particularly enjoyable read either. By comparison 'Half a King' is written with a lightness of touch that has been lacking in the author's prose of late. And it's good to see that Abercrombie's line that "I don't feel that I've compromised on the way I've written [regarding this being a YA novel]", isn't just spin and a PR exercise. Whilst it was stunning (in a Abercrombie book) to hear mention of elves, those sorts of moments are fleeting and the same sort of questions that dominated the First Law books, such as "Are our good guys really all that good?", remain; as do other concepts familiar to readers of Abercrombie's previous work, which I won't go into detail about and spoil.

What's nice though is that these themes and questions feel less in your face, less sharp and edgy. Rather they're put on to the page and left there, instead of being constantly drawn to your attention. Again, it's done in much the same way as the First Law books where Abercrombie seemed more willing to trust the reader to pick up on the subversion, hypocrisy and moral ambiguity, rather than constantly point out just how dark and grim everything was.

Whilst I'm aware not everyone shares my criticism of Abercrombie's latest books, I personally consider this a return to form. The bleak morass of 'The Heroes' and the weak effort that was `Red Country' had cooled my enthusiasm for Abercrombie's fiction, but 'Half a King' has restored a lot of faith and has me once again eagerly looking forward to his next work. I'm not saying it captures the terrific highs of the First Law trilogy, but it's an excellent book and I don't think the author could have done much more within the confines of a single book and the YA genre. Here's to hoping that 'Half a World' is half as good.

Oblivion: Stories
Oblivion: Stories
by David Foster Wallace
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Olivion - DFW, 26 Aug 2013
This review is from: Oblivion: Stories (Paperback)
I don't particularly rate Wallace's first two short story collections, 'Girl With Curious Hair' and 'Brief Interviews With Hideous Men'. As the author himself commented on BIWHM: "There isn't really an agenda with this book, except for a certain amount of technical, formal stuff that I don't know if I want to talk about and I don't think people really want to hear about."

That was always my problem with both aforementioned collections of short fiction: they were overtly technical exercises for Wallace to show off his skillset and remind everyone just how smart a writer he was. The problem was there was no payoff for the hardwork involved, something that Wallace *knew* was required and explains why his novels feature as many hilarious sections as they do intricate technical passages. The point being, Wallace's short fiction often doesn't have the space to be both technical and engaging.

'Oblivion' is certainly the best stab at this combination in the short form that Wallace made, with "The Suffering Channel" being exactly what I wish more of his short stories were like: readable, true to his style, but dealing with heavyweight themes in a manner that interested, rather than alienated the reader. Even better is "Good Old Neon", which is without doubt the best short he wrote (much better than "The Depressed Person" to which it is, understandably, frequently linked). It makes for grim reading in retrospect of Wallace's death, but even had I read it before that event it still would have registered as a brilliant piece of writing. Its insight and conveyance of a particular mind is almost unmatched. "Mister Squishy" is interesting in its portrayal of boring business matters in America, somehow remaining interesting in spite of tedious subject matter; a talent more fully developed in 'The Pale King'.

The other stories in this collection whilst not such standout efforts certainly didn't bore me in the way that certain stories from both GWCH and BIWHM did. With a few exceptions Wallace does away with the footnotes and endnotes that characterised his earlier work and were in danger of becoming a cliche. 'Oblivion' is definitely a more mature work than his other short story collections and the best of the bunch. Overall, it still doesn't scale the heights that Wallace's novels reached - given his maximalist style Wallace needed the breathing space that novels permit - but there are gems here that are an essential part of Wallace's output and not to be missed.

by Thomas Pynchon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

3.0 out of 5 stars Safe Pynchon, 13 Jun 2013
This review is from: Vineland (Paperback)
I'm not really big on post-modern writers, so I'm not likely to be Pynchon's target audience or a natural loyal fan. I dipped my toe in (as many do) with the short, but still rather baffling, "The Crying of Lot 49". Despite a playfulness to that text I didn't get much out of it or feel compelled to keep going with Pynchon. However, recently I've been dabbling in later authors fond of / influenced by Pynchon, so thought the time was right to give him another go and to check out another of the "safer" options from his bibliography.

The result? A mixed bag. There's some wonderful characterization in "Vineland" that is especially touching, moments both big and small, that makes a real impression. Then there are gaping holes in the story - like why Frenesi acts in quite the way she does. Pynchon makes no bones about the fact she's a cold character, but it feels a little weak to be told Frenesi acted how she did because she doesn't *really* care that much and she has a thing for authority figures.

Probably the best thing in "Vineland" is the sense of loss that exudes from the novel. There's a palpable feeling that events took a wrong turn in American history starting in the Nixon era, and there's no way back at all. The events that unfold in Frenesi's past are really quite bleak to read as the optimism and good intentions of the 60s are blasted away by a ruthless government machine and undermined from within - a purge that continued in to the 80s and the Reagan years. Reading all this from another era, 2013, debilitated by the excesses of neo-liberalism made for quite depressing reading (at least for someone like me, left of centre).

Of course, there are the wacky elements to this story that mustn't be forgotten. The ninjas, the Godzilla monster, the Star Trek references, the man who has sex with his car... These are all quite funny, and there is a lot of humour in the book, but it's all very post-modern and not all of it hangs together well. The ending with Brock is particularly "WTF-inducing" and feels a bit like a cop-out.

Still, if there are ropy sections to this novel, I'm willing to forgive them for the general heartfelt feeling the novel is written with and it's many other amusing sections. "Vineland" hasn't exactly made me a convert, but it has at least convinced me it might not be such a bad thing to go read "Inherent Vice", though "Gravity's Rainbow" may have to wait a little longer before I pick it off the shelves.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
by David Lipsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Although Unfortunately It's Not That Good, 22 Jan 2013
A book that's good in parts. "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself" is best when Wallace talks about his then just published novel, "Infinite Jest". Anyone wanting some authorial insight to what the author hoped to achieve with that novel can find plenty of information here. Wallace discuss the why's of "Infinite Jest"'s non-linear narrative, the endnotes, the cuts, the motivations behind the novel and more. There're also very interesting sections where Wallace talks about the nature of literary fiction, what he likes and dislikes, and where he expected it to go in the future.

Those are the goods bits, which are unfortunately balanced out by long sections that much weaker. The personal history that Wallace talks about is interesting but it's presented in a much more coherent manner in Max's biography, "Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story". I realise this was published two years before Max's book but the fact remains that, as of 2012, if someone wants a good account of Wallace's life they're better served reading the aforementioned biography rather than this.

That brings us on to the point of why this book is probably only for Wallace aficionados - Lipsky is just on bad form throughout. To call him "the author" when all he has done (or someone else has done) is transcribe these tapes seems to me to be quite generous. If Lipsky had taken time to write around all the conversation and be more descriptive of the mood, the locations, Wallace's attitude and behaviour, instead of just inserting random asides that seem designed to make himself appear perceptive, then this could have been a very good piece of non-fiction. As it is there are numerous odd cuts and jumps in conversation that Lipsky does nothing to bridge and there are those annoying bracketed inserts that add little to Wallace's words. All Lipsky *does* seem to add is a feeble attempt to appear on Wallace's level by being full of quotes from films or books, something Wallace remarks about with faint praise.

This did make me wonder whether Lipsky was in awe of Wallace, this author who was being so heralded. Lipsky certainly seems in awe of Wallace now. Another grating aspect of the book is "the author"'s hagiographic attitude towards Wallace. There are constant remarks in the introduction, preface and afterword (why Lipsky felt the need to write these three separate sections I don't know - more indulgence on his part?) is how nice Wallace was, how smart he was, and wasn't he just the best damn author and most sensitive and in-tune person who ever lived. Wallace was not a bad person but I was hopeful that something published two years after his death would be a little less reverential and slightly more probing about the lies Wallace told or the evasive answers he gave. After all, I'm pretty sure that by 2010, following Wallace's suicide, it was more commonly known that he had had electroshock therapy and been in AA - things Wallace strenuously denies and which Lipsky fails to comment on amidst all his useless asides despite having the benefit of hindsight.

Would it be too cynical of me to say that this was nothing but a cash-in on Wallace's memory by Lipsky or his agent or publisher? There's good material in this book, though you have to sift through some dross to find it, and with a little more effort on Lipsky's part this could have been something very worthwhile. As it is it's pretty average. As I said earlier, apart from the bits specifically about Infinite Jest you can find all the useful information in this book in D.T. Max's much more readable biography. Max's book isn't perfect either but it's a much better place to start if you want to know about Wallace the person.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
by D. T. Max
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.00

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Decent First Look, 2 Dec 2012
Not having read many biographies I can't say whether this is a particularly good one. Sure, there were parts of Wallace's life that seemed to receive only brief attention (most notably for me the two periods that bookmark his sadly short life) and other elements that were missing (significant comment from Wallace's family for instance) but I don't know whether any biography can be exhaustive without being titanic in size.

Max's book certainly is a pleasant read, even if its style is conventional (a thematic approach might have brought more impressive results). Every Love Story is a Ghost Story won't throw up too many surprises for those who have done their background reading prior to this book but there's still plenty of day to day information that is nice detail to know. Though later on this seems to come at the expense of commenting on Wallace's fiction writing - the stories for "Brief Interviews" and "Oblivion" seem to pop out of almost nowhere. Even if the author doesn't illuminate much new critical information he is good when he comments on Wallace's work. Max ties Wallace's work together nicely and offers sharp insights into some of the meaning behind the stories. Crucially, Max avoids writing a hagiography of Wallace and perhaps that is his greatest achievement in a world that has almost uniformly canonised the author since his suicide. Not that Max is especially vocal in judging Wallace (I think Bustillos was much more forthright in her lengthy online article), he simply reports the facts that he knows and lets the reader judge. Anyone expecting a work that spectacularly praises or damns Wallace will be disappointed.

This is a good book though and a worthy first attempt at writing the life of David Foster Wallace. It didn't wow me or make me re-think my impressions of Wallace and didn't answer my central question about Wallace either (mainly, why a man who professed so dearly to wanting a new sincerity could often be so phoney) but it was an enjoyable read and hopefully it will lead to further examination of this brilliant author's troubled life.

Four Stories Till the End
Four Stories Till the End
by Zoran Zivkovic
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.48

1.0 out of 5 stars Dud, 18 Nov 2012
Much like with Zivkovic's "The Bridge" this book left me wondering what the point was. Something to do with death or purgatory maybe? The meaning aside, this book was written in an incredibly boring manner. The repetitions, not uncommon for the author, were extremely tedious this time round. You knew *every time* the narrator would be disturbed. You knew how many times. You knew an item would be left behind. You knew the visitors would waffle on about things the narrator didn't want, agree with or care about. You knew he would only make terse or minor polite statements in response to his visitors. And this happened every. Single. Time.

The entire book was just so repetitious and uninteresting to read. This is the first time I can say that about a Zivkovic book because I must have read half a dozen other books by him and I usually really enjoy his work. But I've been left pretty disappointed by "Four Stories to the End". Definitely one I won't be coming back to or recommending to others.

Red Country (First Law World 3)
Red Country (First Law World 3)
by Joe Abercrombie BA
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.79

14 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wrong Direction, 22 Oct 2012
Joe Abercrombie's melding of the fantasy genre with Wild West tropes is an effort to be applauded but, ultimately, it's the first book he's written to leave me disappointed.

Pacing is one major issue the book suffers from. After a fairly explosive start the journey across the Far Country, a land filled with next to nothing, as we're repeatedly told, is an extended lull. There ARE threats but they're not substantial and they're dealt with quickly. Arrival in Crease brings serious threats and the novel picks up once more. However, later on, after what I would describe as the climax of the novel, there's still another hundred pages to go (if the final chapter contains a final dramatic high point it is dealt with in very anti-climatic fashion). It's not that those last 100 pages aren't filled with adventure and their own twists and turns, but the book feels ever more dragged out since it lacks a new goal.

"Red Country" also lacks an emotional core. There's not Murcatto's fierce craving for revenge, as in "Best Served Cold", nor, from "The Heroes", Van Gorst's desperate desire for redemption. Abercrombie's lead characters certainly have obvious motivations for trekking after the missing children but the characters soon feel like they're going through the motions, chasing after the children just because.

The lack of a properly developed intimate core is perhaps compounded by the novel seemingly lacking anything in the grand scheme of Abercrombie's world. It means nothing to forces developing in the Union or Styria, between which, one assumes, future conflict lies. Nothing big rides on the conclusion of this book and the little things that do depend on its outcome aren't made enough of.

In his defence on this matter, it's possible Abercrombie has sown seeds in "Red Country" the importance of which won't be obvious until future books are written. What does the nascent economic industrialisation mean for the world of the First Law? What of those rebels? Or Zacharus and the Empire? These aren't questions Abercombie leaves hanging and perhaps with the benefit of hindsight "Red Country" will turn out to mark the start of something new and significant in this world.

Abercrombie's famously grim tone is at its darkest here too. I thought it couldn't get any more black than "The Heroes" but this is a book chock full of senseless murder and repeated treachery. Then there's the fact that the best of this bad bunch of characters get thoroughly beaten (when they're not making themselves sick with drink) and that they're inhabiting conditions that are as vile as the people that live there. Abercrombie's middle finger to white knights and benign wizards, and grey morality are things that set him apart in the genre, and there's still the plenty of black humour, yet this time even the locales were debased and the relentlessly grim tone was a bit exhausting by the time I finished the book. There's a real absence of things to love in this story.

At the end of this litany of complaints it has to be said that this is still a decent novel. The prose is good, it's great to see familiar characters again and the in-story world expanded further. But Abercrombie has set himself tremendously high standards and, much as I love his previous works, I can't say this one matches up. Even more so than "The Heroes" this book feels like a story keeping the First Law universe in a holding pattern, as we wait for the next big thing to happen. "Red Country" hasn't dented my enthusiasm for Abercrombie's work but I do think he's gone slightly off track with this one.
Comment Comments (12) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 5, 2012 10:43 PM GMT

Distrust that Particular Flavor
Distrust that Particular Flavor
by William Gibson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Distrust This Book, 9 Mar 2012
A grab-bag of William Gibson's non-fiction that demonstrates why he's probably not better known for this sort of work.

The pieces themselves are, overall, quite well written but there are times, as Gibson admits, when he is plainly uncomfortable with the format. On occasions there are paragraphs where one wonders quite what exactly Gibson is talking about as he indulges himself and drops in some technobabble that only serves to sound vaguely futuristic (an expectation I believe he feels a need to live up to) and to obscure whatever point he's trying to make.

Probably the biggest issue with this book is the fact that many pieces divorced from their original context and lacking any sort of copy are bereft of an anchor in the reader's mind. On some pieces this is fine: for "Disneyland With The Death Penalty" we all have some idea of Singapore in our heads; but when faced with an introduction to the photographs of Greg Girard or the work of Stelarc I, personally, am lost and such pieces are rather devoid of meaning as a result.

There are certainly positives - Gibson can be insightful and it's fun to see where his predictions have turned out right or wrong. That's not enough though to recommend anyone read this book except for the Gibson enthusiasts.

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (New Directions Paperbook)
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (New Directions Paperbook)
by César Aira
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, 2 Feb 2012
For better or for worse a more straightforward read than that other Aira novella I have read, "The Literary Conference." Still... it just doesn't quite add up to much. The writing is quite nice, the ideas nice but at the end of the day it doesn't move me and it doesn't even really stir me to think either. I can see the thoughts and themes but I'm not excited by them. Perhaps this is a work that would benefit from being much longer, where these ideas could play out properly and develop into something more meaningful.

As it is, "An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter" is just an interesting, minor curiosity. Sure, Aira is contemporary and that lends him an edge and a bit of kudos but I can't quite buy into the hype off of that alone.

The Doll (New York Review Books Classics)
The Doll (New York Review Books Classics)
by Boleslaw Prus
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Doll, 1 Feb 2012
A truly wonderful 19th century epic that holds its own against other titans of the time such as "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina".

If anything, I'd venture to say I prefer "The Doll" to both of those comparable novels. Setting aside the weaknesses I perceive in those two books, "The Doll" features a more penetrating, scathing attack on the aristocracy of the time and that is what sets it apart for me. Prus is as insightful about love and perceives his characters as sharply as did Tolstoy, but it's his focus on the double standards of the nobility that adds another layer to this story. One excellent excerpt is as follows:

"What am I saying? Any foreign vagabond could get into your drawing rooms, which I had to conquer with fifteen per cent interest on capital entrusted to me. It is these people, not I who had your respect. Bah! They even had far wider-reaching privileges... Although each of these respected men is worth less than the doorman in my store, for he does something, and at least doesn't infect the community."

Prus's writing style is wonderful too - clear and easy to read. For a book this long there is, surprisingly, no filler. Every chapter is truly revealing about the novel's characters and moves along the overall plot. So many books of this era are padded out unnecessarily but, thankfully, "The Doll" is not one of them.

If there's to be one criticism of the novel it is perhaps an event near the end that, given what has come before, seems a little sudden. Perhaps I should dock half-a-star for that but it's not far out in the realms of human behaviour and I so enjoyed everything else in the book that I can't find it in my heart to do so. Suffice to say that perhaps not everyone will be totally convinced by the final chapters but I doubt they will spoil the enjoyment of the rest of the story.

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