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Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me
Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me
by Marlon Brando
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An intentional weirdo, 17 Jan. 2014
I don't know why I wanted to read a biography of Marlon Brando. And I really don't know why wanted to read an autobiography of Marlon Brando. This is the actor, mind you, who was legendary for wasting people's time on film sets, and demanding a huge salary for it. So the obvious expectation would be an overpriced and overlong book.

I got the book from the library, so at least it wasn't overpriced for me. And the page count wasn't too heavy. So when I started reading it I was hopeful that this book would defy Mr Brando's reputation.

He says in the introduction that he isn't going to go into details about his wives or children, so this was never going to be a terribly personal book. What I was expecting, therefore, was a book full of Hollywood anecdotes and an insider's insights into the movies. It delivers on those points, and if you like a book about Hollywood, how movies are made, and the kind of things that Hollywood people get up to, then this one is fine. Not excellent, mind you, but fine.

The more personal material in this autobiography are the parts concerning Mr Brando's mother and siblings. None of it was particularly memorable, but it's in there.

Where he is most candid is in detailing his dealings with people who came into his professional orbit. He mentions one occasion in which he made an indecent proposal to an actress he had only just met, which was accepted, and which (taken together with some of the other incidents in this book) made me think of him as a bit of a degenerate. He explains his behaviour on the set of Apocalypse now, how he just messed around, put on airs, and wasted a lot of the director's time, just because he could. He tells of a few films in which, not wanting to give too much of himself, he simply walked through the roles for a big fat paycheque.

There was nothing in this book that made me warm to Brando, but it was fascinating just the same. Perhaps for all the wrong reasons. Brando's reputation is intact, albeit with a few additions. This man was a weirdo, but an intentional weirdo.

I think the only reason I wanted to read it was that I had just gone through a phase of watching Brando's films (not all, there are some I avoid like gangrene) and a documentary or two about him. He seemed loopy enough that he might write an interesting and insightful book about how one becomes such a person. He partly succeeded.

Reviewed by the author of Copout.

Digital Fortress
Digital Fortress
Price: £5.27

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Digital Fortress of Solicitude, 9 Oct. 2013
This review is from: Digital Fortress (Kindle Edition)
In a book about cryptography you would expect the cast of characters to be largely geeks, dorks, and nerds. Not so in Brown's world. Like all of his heroes they are sophisticated, attractive, well dressed, well adjusted, impossibly successful people who, if they were real, would fill the rest of us with envy. It in fact, they are so likeable as to be despisable. I see this as a problem with most of the Dan Brown's books. He doesn't seem to understand the concept of a flawed hero. They are simply too perfect. It's not what we were all told that people actually want to read in our writing classes and workshops, but his books sell like hot cakes, so go figure. But this near-perfection of his heroes is something that I personally do not like about his work. How did all these computer geeks, academic types, and overworked managers get to be so perfect in every way? I don't think that one can be explained.

So we move on to the story. It's hard to remember the details of it, since Dan Brown stories are littered with complications which arise on every page. Broadly, it concerns a cryptographic algorithm that, if the US National Security agency gets its way, can be manipulated to give them an exclusive view into all the world's digital communications. This infuriates the open source hacker community to no end, and infuriates foreign governments even more. It creates what begins as a bidding war, and ends as the life-and-death battle over their new encryption system.

The story is certainly interesting, and littered chock-full with the digressions and red herrings that are Dan Brown's trademark. He certainly doesn't make it easy for his sympathetic characters. I think it's the only reason you have to sympathise with them. Whenever they begin to make progress, they get knocked back big time. You begin to feel sorry for these people, perfect as they are, never getting a break. It is not exactly life, but sometimes we all feel like that.

Much has been made by other reviewers of the factual inaccuracies in this book. I admit many of them must have passed me by. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by the sheer implausibility of the plot that I missed the various details about mainframes, computer hardware, encryption algorithms, and whether you can destroy an entire facility by damaging the IT system's cooling mechanism, but in general I found the technological side of it to be a lot of fun and, myself having been an IT guy in the past, thought provoking.

Many people know that Dan Brown is not a great writer. But he seems to give something that people want. I don't know what that is, and if I did I would try to bottle it. But whatever my complaints about his writing, I confess I enjoyed Digital Fortress. There's a lot of cool stuff in there, albeit some overly cool people posing alongside it. At least it's free from all the pretensions to reality that Angels and Demons and The da Vinci Code specialise in. Nobody is going to read this book and think, wow, all this stuff must be true!

Reviewed by the author of Copout.

Podkayne of Mars
Podkayne of Mars
by Robert A. Heinlein
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars A pleasant interplanetary ride, 17 Sept. 2013
Podkayne, known as Poddy, is the titular character in this book. She's an opinionated teenage girl who was raised on Mars. Her opinions range across several subjects, mainly the superiority of women, the superiority of Martians, and her own ambitions to be a career space pilots. And she shares her opinions. A lot.

Her musings on femininity are pointed and interesting. She explains many different ways that women should use their feminine advantages and disadvantages to get what they want. Some reviewers say that she is a proto-feminist, while others say that she is a mouthpiece for the author's misogyny. To me, much of her advice seems very hardheaded and grounded in the real world. She doesn't deal in idealism or wishful thinking, but tells it how it is. For the kind of comments she makes, see the other reviews. Personally, I'm not so sure that she is simply Heinlein's mouthpiece. The author has created a fictional world here, and her views about Martians, Venerians, and Earth people could also be seen to be very prejudicial in the same way. But the character of Podkayne isn't meant to be so much a product of our time and place as of her time and place. If you expect an idealised version of future extra terrestrial colonisation from Mr Heinlein, you'll be disappointed. One observation of the book is that human nature doesn't change -- not today, not tomorrow, not in a few hundred years. He seems to be telling us that we can expect the same kinds of racism, nationalism, sexism, and all the other isms in the future, which is a point of view I agree with.

So Poddy is an opinionated girl. As the story progresses she is brought down to size a little bit. She finds that not all of her opinions were actually strictly correct, and she has to do some things that she didn't think she would like, such as look after babies, and finds that they're not so bad after all. In the end she also has to allow her little brother to become her protector, where until that time it had been the other way round. So she has a character arc, but it isn't one that leaves her bigger, better, and tougher, but rather one that brings her down-to-earth, so to speak.

Poddy's brother Clark enters the book as a minor character, but his importance grows until, by the end, he is driving the story. It's unexpected, and I wasn't sure I liked it since the book is titled Podkayne of Mars (not Clark of Mars). You begin it thinking it's Poddy's story, but maybe it isn't. In any case, Clark is an enigma. It's never particularly clear why he does what he does, until the end when he is driven to necessity.

Poddy's uncle is also a bit of an enigma. Through at least half of the book he appears to be just your basic nice old man, until later on he proves to be much more. In fact, it is because of him that Poddy and Clark find themselves in a life-threatening situation at the end of the book (which results in the famous double ending).

The story has to do with Poddy and Clark being taken by their uncle on a trip across the solar system, from their native Mars to Venus. Along the way they meet people, have adventures, and eventually find themselves in said life-threatening situation. It's a good story, and it's basically derived from a lot of other stories. The main attractions of this book are the characters and situations rather than plot. The background of Martian society to which Poddy is so loyal is fascinating, as well as Poddy's acceptance of the status quo and her determination to use it to her advantage. Clark and uncle are gradually revealed throughout the book, and bring a lot of surprises with them.

This book came at the end of Heinlein's career as a "safe "author. Here he ventures a little bit into controversial territory. Later on his books will delve into serious controversy, making his books as much about the speculation of future technology and science as about future morality. Many of his conclusions in those later books I find absolutely repugnant, but this book is reasonably safe reading.

I enjoyed this book. The plot didn't blow me away, but the characters, the observations, and the historical background were all enough to keep me interested not there

Just a couple more comments on this sexism employed in this book.

The observations on femininity (not necessarily recommendations) aren't even products of his time. Who knows if some of those attitudes will return in future? But the "sexist" language in Poddy's mouth often seems more a dig at men and our limitations than sexism. Poddy understands them and clinically looks for ways to work around them. I don't like to comment on the other reviews, but I've been reading a lot of them that take a feminist point of view towards this book. If the whole idea that an empowered woman might at some point in life want to step back from that and enjoy the pleasures of raising children in a traditional way offends the modern feminist, then they're not living in the real world. The same thing happens to real women frequently. The maternal instincts are roused by something or other, and they pack in careers for a life as mothers. Podkayne of Mars seems to be a story about such a person. It doesn't detract from her at all as a modern female that she backpedals on her ideas of wanting a career in favour of looking after children. It took sampling the joys of raising a child for her to see that it was a good option. Haven't you ever known women who did exactly that?

Reviewed by the author of Copout.

I, Robot (The Robot Series)
I, Robot (The Robot Series)

5.0 out of 5 stars I writer, you reader, 13 Sept. 2013
I Robot is the book that first introduced the world to the Three Laws of Robotics, which are: 1. A robot may not... yadda yadda yadda. 2. A robot must obey... etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. 3. A robot must protect... yeah, we get it already! Read 'em in the other reviews if you really need reminding.

Three better-known laws (in SF circles) one can hardly imagine. But it should be simpler, shouldn't it? They are servants, right? "Hey Robot, butter my toast!" How hard can it be? If you should order your robot to kill somebody, it's your fault, not the robot's. Much like if you order your car to run somebody down, your gun to shoot someone, or your chainsaw to chop somebody in half.

But no. Because of the Three Laws, I Robot is not a collection of stories of detectives forensically trying to find out who ordered the robot to kill (which is what the movie was). Instead it is a collection of stories in which robot mechanics try to logically work out why robots are doing seemingly illogical things given that they are governed by three logical protective laws. Like running in circles around a pool of selenium. Or telling Dr Calvin that the hunky guy down the hall secretly loves her when he doesn't. Or playing hide and seek.

The Three Laws will of course never really work in practice. We need our robots to be able and willing to kill us. What would most video games be if the 'bots couldn't shoot back at us? Boring.

Okay, I'd better say something about the stories. They're great. They're well-written in a straightforward kind of way, which is what is needed when the story is otherwise tying you into logical knots. In no case did I actually guess the solutions in advance. But I am easily confused.

And the characters. The mechanics Powell and Donovan, who turn up in all the stories, are really just tools of the author. Dr Susan Calvin, however, is a real literary character. She is larger than life, unlikeable, irritating, loveless, and a genius. She's fantastic. She's one of those characters other writers like to use. I wonder if she herself was based on another character, who was in turn based on another, and so on. Her actual inspiration might have been my great great grandmother who, I understand, was a bit of a cow.

The robots themselves deserve special mention. They are characters too, and often much more interesting than the other human characters. Which serves to confirm Dr Calvin's belief that robots are better than people, and to make one wonder if Isaac Asimov was a robot himself.

Reviewed by the author of Copout.

Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights
Price: £0.00

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The heights, they are a-Wuthering, 6 Sept. 2013
This review is from: Wuthering Heights (Kindle Edition)
The story: Mr Earnshaw adopts a young boy on the streets of Liverpool (Heathcliff) and brings him home. Son Hindley doesn't like the new addition to the family and is mean to him. Daughter Catherine and Heathcliff hit it off well -- too well. Forward a few years. Heathcliff and Catherine apparently love each other, so Catherine marries neighbour Edgar Linton. (That's how they did it in those days. No, really.) Heathcliff marries Edgar's sister Isabella to use and abuse her under the happy couple's nose. Catherine has a daughter, Cathy, and dies just to spite Heathcliff. Isabella leaves Heathcliff and has their son named Linton. Heathcliff is so mean to everybody all the time that the only way they can survive is to live somewhere elese, so most die and a few move away. The central question is, can Heathcliff keep Catherine's memory alive forever so that he can live miserably ever after just like Marvin the Paranoid Android?

The central characters --

Catherine: an irritating brat. She encourages Heathcliff to love her, and then marries the wimpy fop Edgar instead. Really. It's all there in the names. It's like Groucho Marx said, "Don't you think that even though girls go out with boys like me they always marry the other kind?" Not long after, she has the infernal nerve to die. How's that for taunting and torturing Heathcliff? Horrible woman.

Heathcliff: a very naughty boy. Way too possessive of Catherine when they were kids, practically glued at the hips. Runs away (understandably) when she announces her engagement, but then comes back three years later like the Terminator. He's going to get revenge on Catherine for marrying the wrong guy, on Edgar for marrying the wrong gal, on Hindley for being a bad brother, on Isabella for being Edgar's sister, on his son Linton for sharing a name with Edgar, and on the gardener for cutting the topiary into a pyramid rather that a dolphin. He just has no sense of humour.

It's unfortunate that none of the characters can think of original names for their children. Heathcliff was named after Mr Earnshaw's dead son. Cathy after her mother Catherine. Linton after his mum's maiden name. Maybe if Heathcliff had been named Sunshine everything would have worked out better.

As it is, everything works out miserably. It could almost be a Doctor Who story from the seventies, because almost everybody dies. The gothic story almost fools you into thinking Heathcliff is Dracula, but instead of blood he feeds on suffering. Because there's plenty of it.

If you want a depressing story about depressing people, look no further. I know I enjoyed it.

Yes, it's miserable, but it's really all down to a few unlucky chances that it all finished up so badly. The moral of the story is: Never adopt a homeless gypsy kid on the streets of Liverpool.

A review by the author of Copout.

Out of the Silent Planet (The Cosmic Trilogy)
Out of the Silent Planet (The Cosmic Trilogy)
by C. S. Lewis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mars but not as we know it, 2 Sept. 2013
For a novel written about Mars in the modern age this book shows little awareness of the scientific data that had been gathered about the red planet by the time it was written. (When Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars was written, which looks like a major inspiration for this story, far less was known about Mars.) This puts Out of the Silent Planet in the realm of fantasy rather than science fiction. But that's okay.

The story involves a character named Ransom, whose name is an obvious reference to his purpose, kidnapped by some evil space explorers from the English Home Counties to be a sacrifice get them "in" with the Martians. Understandably none too keen about this plan, Ransom escapes from them after landing on the red planet, and meets with the Martians, learning their language and immersing himself in their culture. This phase is really the meat of the book. It is also the reason that I felt the book was slow-moving, and could have cut to the chase much more briskly. Nevertheless, it was always interesting. Lewis did a great job of world building here. His Martian races, while having some wacky names, are certainly alien with reasonably alien motivations. Lewis does an excellent job of using their alien culture to comment on and sometimes make fun of ours. Their culture is mostly free of greed and vice, so when Ransom has to explain to them why his kidnappers want to kill their people and take over their planet, he has to use some pretty clever verbal dynamics to get those concepts across.

But these evil characters do want to take over the planet, and are willing to kill all the Martians to do so if they must. This story is very interesting, and would have been a very punchy and enjoyable read if the middle section hadn't been so ponderous. If you understand, though, that this is philosophical science fiction, then you'll be ready for this slowness and hopefully be able to enjoy it for what it is. But I recommend its sequels as more fast-moving and constantly developing stories.

Out of the Silent planet is an enjoyable book with vivid descriptions of things that don't exist anywhere, demonstrating the able imagination of the man who is much more famous for the Chronicles of Narnia. I do recommend it, though with reservations only for its pace.

One reason I wanted to read this book was because I am a Christian, and I wanted to enjoy the theological subtexts of this series. (Of course, I also enjoy science-fiction, or else I wouldn't have bothered with this.) However, apart from references to creatures that seem to parallel biblical angels and demons, I didn't really see any Christian subtexts. They are much more clear in the other two books in this series. I simply found this to be an enjoyable science fantasy novel with more philosophical themes than I would normally look for in my reading of fiction. It certainly kept me interested enough to read the next two books in the series.

Reviewed by the author of Copout

Suite Francaise
Suite Francaise
by Irene Nemirovsky
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars The French Collection, 2 Aug. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Suite Francaise (Hardcover)
I'm not personally keen on historical fiction. I like the idea in principle but not in practice. Somehow, despite the drama of the events, I'm not very susceptible to the charms of reading about fictional people in real times, nor about fictional accounts of real people. Suite Française is an exception, albeit one that came upon me by accident.

This book was given to me by a relative who had just read it, though the buzz around this book when it was first released was enough to make me interested. Like most novels I suppose, it was written in the present time and populated with characters who were fully contemporary. It only becomes a historical novel in consideration of the time it was first published: 2004. But the only thing that separates it from a story written in 2004 about 2004 is that this was written in 1942 about 1942, which was arguably a much more interesting and significant time. A lot of attention is given to the fact that this book is the first piece of fiction written about World War II, and that it was written when the outcome of the war was still unknown. These are the kind of interesting facts that makes one want to read this book. Add to that the fact that Némirovsky, already a successful writer, wrote this while in fear of her life, with paper and ink that she could scarcely afford to buy, and only very shortly before being sent to Auschwitz and killed like any other victims of the Holocaust. Add these element up and you've got the must-read book of 2004.

So is it really all that good, or is it an overrated beneficiary of all the well-publicised circumstances which surrounded it? While I'm not the best critic of literature (given the kind of thing I normally prefer to read) this book does have many of the trappings of literary fiction that don't interest me, like long slow passages in which very little happens apart from the progression of characters' thoughts. And the inclusion of a chapter told from the point of view of a cat is the kind of thing that I see as a bit silly and which, had the author had the chance to edit the book after the completion of the first draft, may well have been excised or changed.

But there is a lot in this book to recommend it. Némirovsky's skills in creating characters was formidable. I found them all to be just that little bit exaggerated. An Example is the seemingly ineffectual bank clerk so meek and humble that he accepts his sad circumstances as if they were the best he could have hoped for anyway. Another is the writer whose sensibilities condemn the war for artistic reasons, and who flees town with his latest in a string of muses/mistresses. There's also the Catholic priest who knows that he doesn't understand children, and that he doesn't really have much love for the parishioners under his care, and who in an effort to change this ends up falling foul of the young people he's trying to learn to love.

The way the chapters play out in the first section of the book is a bit fragmentary. The different characters share a more or less common purpose, but otherwise have little to do with one another. The chapters flit back and forth between their various stories, giving them all their own chance to shine. It's a storytelling technique that I really enjoyed, and haven't seen very often.

The second section is more cohesive, being the story of German soldiers being billeted civilian families in the French village of Bussy, and most specifically one particular German soldier who is billeted with a mother and daughter, the latter of whom finds herself having quite tender feelings for this Nazi invader. It's impressive that Némirovsky, as much a victim of the Nazis as the characters in her book, was able to see them and depict them as human beings.

There's a lot more to like in this book than I have mentioned here. There may also be more to dislike, but as I alluded to earlier the author never had the opportunity of editing her work so. It is a rarity to be able to read a first draft which is also a very strong piece of literature.

I recommend this book very highly. It's an important piece of fiction which gives an authentic window on the lives of the people who lived through these events.

I wish Némirovsky had been able to finish it. Nevertheless, it functions well as a complete work.

Reviewed by the author of Copout.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Price: £0.93

5.0 out of 5 stars Something's fishy, 30 July 2013
Today, reading a book about some people on a submarine may not evoke the startled sense of wonder that it must have in the 19th century. Nevertheless, when I read this book as a child, I loved it.

Even then I understood many of the deficiencies in the science and geography, being aware that Jules Verne didn't have access to the information we have today. It didn't bother me. I took it for what it was, an amazing story about amazing things and amazing people at an amazing time. Jules Verne was one of those amazing writers who could give you a dollop of education that you would never notice because you were so swept up in the adventure.

I have never re-read this book, so these days I'm much more familiar with the Walt Disney film. As much as I love that film, I wish they had dealt with more of the things that are in the novel. The first part of the book involves the search for whatever is destroying ships at sea. One thing I remember well is the proposed solution to the mystery of ships being destroyed. It was suspected to be a narwhal, a sort of whale with a huge unicorn-like horn, which one could imagine puttin a hole in a ship and sinking it. So it was perfectly natural that to investigate the destruction of ships at sea the authorities would send a marine biologist, Dr Arronax. But the cause of the attacks is a man-made one. Capt Nemo, a bit of a mad scientist with a view toward revenge, has somehow arranged for the construction of an amazing submarine. How could he construct such a thing without anyone in the world ever knowing anything about it? That's a question never tackled in works of this kind. (It's an especially interesting question for many of James Bond's enemies, who have built the most elaborate and amazing buildings, ships, underground lairs, and so on, without anyone ever noticing the incoming and outgoing of a huge amounts of raw materials and workers. Where do these evil geniuses get their materials from? Where do they hire their staff? Perhaps there's a recruitment agency somewhere specifically for henchmen.) Often in fiction the "how" has to be overlooked so that we can get on with the story. Captain Nemo has this power, he has this crew, and he has this ship, and he uses them too. Unlike a lot of classic villains, Capt Nemo is himself a sympathetic character. We feel his pain and sympathise with his plight. When Prof Arronax realises how evil Nemo is he decides to try and persuade him to turn back to the good side. And it seems just plausible. But it doesn't happen.

Among the things that happen in the book that the movie does not touch upon are a visit to the South Pole, a visit to Atlantis, and the Nautilus getting caught in a maelstrom.

This book is definitely the stuff that adventures are made of, and writers have been drawing on it for 150 years. (Shameless plug: it is also the inspiration for my short story, 20000 Yards Across the Frontier, which also forms a segment of my novel, Copout.) Jules Verne's masterpiece is the fuel for generations of aventurelust.

I recommend it highly. I probably should even read it again sometime soon.

A review by the author of Copout.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Price: £4.29

5.0 out of 5 stars I miss Douglas Adams, 23 July 2013
What can one say about The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy that hasn't already been said? There are a plethora of reviews for this book, so what makes it so special to me personally?

Part of it is in the way Douglas Adams never lets you think he is absolutely certain of anything. I'm a Christian, and he was an atheist. But some hints in the book made it seem to me like he wasn't truly convinced. For example, he makes fun of the way that atheists over the ages have felt the need to denounce God so strongly that it seems like they actually believe in him but don't want to. For example, in the Hitchhikers universe Oolon Colluphid is the author of the "trilogy of philosophical blockbusters" entitled Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes, Who is this God Person Anyway?, and Well, That About Wraps It Up For God. The joke seems to be that if you really don't believe in God then surely writing four books to state that claim so forcefully is just a little bit of overkill. Surely Oolon Colluphid would have better demonstrated his atheism by simply ignoring God. Richard Dawkins could take note of that. He's like a real-life Oolon Colluphid (and was a personal friend of Douglas Adams, so I'm told). I mean, if he doesn't believe in God, then why is he so angry at him? How can you be angry at someone you don't believe exists? This desperation to disprove God, repeatedly and vitriolically, suggests that Dawkins actually knows in his heart that God is there. Oolon Colluphid seems to be doing the same thing, trying repeatedly and unsuccessfully to write God away. Anyway, I digress.

Something I appreciate about Adams's humour is that it's never mean or nasty. Yes, he pokes fun at things, but as I've already pointed out he does it in a way that isn't quite ridicule. I never found myself offended while reading Douglas Adams. In the whole series I can only recall one use of an actual swear word, and that's a restraint he didn't have to show, given the tone of most other modern-era writing. His work is childish, yet sophisticated. It bridges the age ranges so well that the film of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy quickly became one of my children's favourites while they were still quite young. I thought I would let them get a bit older before encouraging them to read the books, but I probably needn't have done.

Adams often takes particularly wacky concepts to their logical conclusion. Some of his ideas, though presented with scientific plausibility, are utterly bonkers. And yet he treats them as fully reasonable story elements and uses them as part of the... should I call it drama?

That's just a couple of observations on The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I recommend it highly, as I do most of Adams's other work. Before Hitchhikers he did some excellent work for Doctor Who, much of which he reused in his Dirk Gently books. He was a well rounded writer of comedy, and the only one who could reliably make me laugh out loud while reading.

I miss Douglas Adams.

Reviewed by the author of Copout.


1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tortured psyche, 19 July 2013
Another of my favourite ever novels, Lord Foul's Bane, features a main character, Thomas Covenant, who is depressing enough to be interesting. Indeed, it is the journey through this character's tortured psyche which is perhaps the most interesting thing about this book.

Covenant is a leper, which is a subculture of which the likely readers of ʚhe book will know very little. As a leper, Covenant carries a lot of very specific psychological baggage. For example, some of his favourite catchphrases: "Don't touch me!", "Leper! Outcast, unclean!" Author Donaldson paints a picture of someone whose mental defences are absolutely essential to his survival. In addition to his leprosy, or as a consequence of it, he inhabits a world that he should have no qualms about leaving. His wife left him when his leprosy was discovered. His successful career as a writer stalled with his wife's departure. He lives in a constant state of caution against the slightest cut or bruise. No one in the town where he lives will have anything to do with him because they fear his disease.

It is this character who is accidentally or magically transported into another world. And what a world it is. It's called The Land, and when Covenant enters it the tone of the story changes immensely. His depressing worldview is challenged by people who are warm and friendly towards him, opening their hearts and homes, and offering assistance which includes a cure to his leprosy. Covenant refuses to believe in this world, assuming he is in a dream or a delusion, because it's too good and if he gets used to it is defences will be forever ruined.

The land is a world of wonders, lovingly detailed, and is itself perhaps the most sypathetic character in the story. You grow to hate those who would destroy it and love those who would preserve it. The characters might be defined as good or evil depending on their love or hate of The Land.

The evil characters are unmemorable, mostly coming in large groups. The titular Lord Foul is very interesting, mostly operating in the background similar to Sauron from Lord of the Rings, but unlike Sauron he actually makes an appearance in this story. The most visible baddie of the piece, Drool Rockworm, has a memorable name at least. The evil characters are remarkable for their sheer ruthlessness, being willing to kill anyone and destroy anything with no regard to beauty or morality, though it begs the question, how does such a lovely and good land spawn such hateful creatures?

Some of the good characters are extremely memorable, especially: Lena, the girl who acts as Covenant's guide through the land and whom he betrays; Foamfollower, a giant who befriends and loves covenant out of sheer good-heartedness; and Mhoram, a wise and compassionate Lord of Revelstone. These characters serve as a powerful counterpoint to Covenant's own demons.

A theme of this book is the mental anguish that Covenant has to deal with, which causes him to mistreat those he loves. His inner pain is communicated with aching clarity, and makes him quite the antihero -- he claims not to believe in the land, which he uses as a license to do some reprehensible things, and allows some terrible things to be done by his own inactivity. And yet over time he comes to care, both about the land and the people, and does his best to make amends.

Lord Foul's Bane is a fantasy book, set in a land where magic is part of the common experience. Nevertheless, the magic is believable because it is limited and used with restraint.

Stephen Donaldson's language is extravagant, and I would recommend keeping a dictionary to hand while reading. A large dictionary, with plenty of obscure words, would be best.

The richly emotional style of this novel is not to everyone's taste. A friend of mine started it once and couldn't finish because she said it was whiny and pretentious. Several other people level similar criticisms at it, and there is some truth there. It's not a perfect book. It is one of those books books for which I'm willing to overlook the the imperfections because it has so much to offer. The imperfections are minor and don't detract a star from its rating.

Reviewed by the author of Copout.

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