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Danny De Raymaeker (Leuven Belgium)

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On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears
On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears
by Stephen T. Asma
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 17.69

7 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars All over the place, 3 April 2010
Mr. Asma has written an ambitious book, as he did not simply limit his scope to mythology, medieval lore or pulp fiction, but also included chapters on a.o. Darwinism, witch hunts, Freud, serial killers and biotechnology. The result is a disappointing hodgepodge. Most aspects of this admittedly vast subject are superficially touched upon rather than explored in depth. The book fails abyssmally as a reference work. Any reader with a more than basic familiarity with the subjects broached by the author will find very little new information in this work. A waste of my time.

Pop 1280 (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
Pop 1280 (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
by Jim Thompson
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A trip through the black heart of the American south, 31 July 2004
A lazy and corrupt sheriff in a small town (population = 1280) is not getting any respect neither from the local farmers and hoodlums, his superiors nor his wife (who is cheating on him with his "brother in law"). Suddenly something snaps and he starts to clean house in a devious and vicious way.
The reason I picked up this book was because it is the basis for one of my all time favourite french movies "Coup de torchon" with Philippe Noiret in the leading role. The director (Bernard Tavernier) changed the surroundings from a sweltering southern US county to Algeria right before the outbreak of the second world war, but otherwise remains extremely close to the storyline of the novel. It was great fun to read the novel with the scenes of the movie in the back of my mind and to notice the smart adaptations that had to be made to make the story work in this different context.
The novel is great : ingenious, dark, brooding and with not a single likeable character in sight. Thompson's style is unique : cynical, twisted, tongue in cheek and dialogues that are just too good to be true. Take just this sample, it comes out of a speech the sheriff gives to an obsequious black man before he shoots him : "(...) people who go around sniffing crap with their mouth open, and acting surprised as hell when somebody kicks a turd in it."
When I had finished this novel, I went out to buy a stack of Thompson's books and I was not disappointed. Great stuff.
Be sure not too miss neither the novel nor the movie.

The Years of Rice and Salt
The Years of Rice and Salt
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars History without Europe, 27 July 2004
Robinson's novel is an exercise in hypothetical history writing : how would the world's history have looked like if the entire population of medieval Europe had been wiped out by the plague and Temur's hordes had only encountered an empty wasteland ?
Robinson sketches the answer in ten chapters that deal with a period of approximately six centuries, describing the development of predominantly Musulman and Chinese empires through the experiences of a number of central characters whose fates are intertwined during succesive reincarnations.
In Robinson's hypothetical world history two major powerhouses come into being : the Chinese through sheer numbers are set to dominate a large part of the world, whereas Islam forges a far more fractitioned counterweight. In the end both world powers exhaust themselves in a long world war, setting the scene for a flourishing of other hitherto minor powers, India and - more surprisingly - the Hodenausaunee league of North American prairie indians.
In this thematically rich novel, Robinson meditates about a large number of themes : the influence of religion on state and culture, the optimal organisation of society and government, the development of science and its relation with religion and its impact on the balance of power between nations, the degrees of freedom in historical developments, the importance of women taking their place in society as the equals of men, the importance of the development of supranational scientific and governing bodies.
Quite a mouthful. Does Robinson pull it off ? Ambitious novels like these are bound to fail : their scope is simply to wide and in this case even 772 pages can hardly suffice to provide all the required answers. The quality of the different chapters is pretty uneven. Some eras are better worked out than others. Robinsons is however clear on at least three issues.
In order to survive humankind needs to forge crossborder and crosstribe alliances or leagues that foster cooperation and understanding.
Scientific progress is inevitable. Discoveries by Western luminaries like Galileo, Newton, Einstein, e.a. would have been made in other cultures anyway, even though local circumstances can have a far ranging impact on the dissemination and practical application of these insights. What matters is if and how the international community manages to deal with the challenges offered by new scientific developments.
Religions do not have timeless answers to timeless questions. They each have their own roots and genesis, which determine in turn the nature of the answers they provide. When society however moves too far away from the origins of a specific religion, the answers provided by that religion may no longer be relevant.
As already said, all this and more is packaged in ten chapters covering 600 years and 772 pages. In order to get some continuity in his story the author chooses to re-use a number of characters in different reincarnations. This allows him to jump from one era to another, from one continent and culture to another. In the end this may not have been such a happy choice as it sidetracks us from the main storylines, it fails mainly to create a sense of unity in the novel anyway and moreover it unnecessarily alienates readers who do not believe in reincarnation, thereby undermining the credibility of the rest of the story. The author includes even a number of scenes "in bardo", the buddhist limbo where souls await reincarnation and meditate on previous lives, the unfairness of the gods (so they exist anyway ?) and the sense of reincarnation if one cannot remember past experiences in a new life. The reincarnation approach even lands a character in the body of a tiger in one chapter...
At the end I remained with mixed feelings. On the one hand one is to consider this book a tour de force that often succesfully attempts to give valuable insights in the questions raised above. On the other hand it fails as a novel through lack of unity and the fact that the stories in themselves are very uneven in quality. I dread to say it, but maybe Robinson should have refrained from cramming all his ideas in a single book and have treated is as a - aargh - trilogy...

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell
Edition: Hardcover

28 of 41 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The strong prey on the weak, 27 July 2004
This review is from: Cloud Atlas (Hardcover)
That is the author's central theme in the matryushka-like structured "Cloud Atlas". The book contains six stories, situated in different time frames but all containing references to each other. I am not going to repeat the other reviewers' résumés of these stories as they give a very fair idea of the storylines.
I could not help but feel that this novel is more an exercise in style, form and structure than anything else. The six dystopian stories are hardly satisfying in themselves as they lack the essential punch and twists you would expect from good short stories. Linking them together by a central theme and central characters that share a birthmark (but little else) does not make the stories any better and - in my opinion - fails to create added value.
The problem with the individual stories is not so much that they are weak, but they left me indifferent, not caring for their central characters, and with the impression that these stories (or parts of them) have been done before by other authors and more succesfully at that. Aldous Huxley's "Brave new world" comes to mind, but also Albrecht Rodenbach's "Bruges-la-Morte". When it comes to books about corporate greed and the kind of future that would be distilled from it, I cannot begin to enumerate the novels that have dealt more satisfyingly with that subject. The idea of having reincarnated characters (suggested by the recurring birthmarks) in loosely related stories in different time frames reminded me of "The years of rice and salt", not exactly the most enjoyable novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, but anyway... I could go on, but I think the point is made.
Moreover, the central theme "the strong prey on the weak" is layered on so thickly - and repeated times six - it becomes annoying and makes most of the stories very predictable indeed, a cardinal sin in every literary form, but maybe most of all in short stories. "Cloud Atlas" all too often reads like a pamflet and that is not a compliment.
In "Cloud Atlas" Mitchell has outgrown the obvious influence Haruki Murakami had on him in his previous novels. Stylistically he writes well - although he goes overboard with the part in pidgin english - but the artificiality of this novel's structure is rather a put-down. I did enjoy both his previous novels "Ghostwritten" and "Number9Dream" immensely more than "Cloud Atlas".

The Line of Polity
The Line of Polity
by Neal Asher
Edition: Paperback

16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Asher's universe continues to mesmerize, but..., 14 Jun 2003
This review is from: The Line of Polity (Paperback)
Asher's latest is a sequel to "Gridlinked" and has all the good and the bad qualities of the latter. It is an action-packed space opera romp. Asher excells at painting alien ecologies with horrifying creatures and never lets the pace of his novel slump below maximum overdrive. However, this manic pace does not do much good to the fleshing out of his main characters (Gant, Cormac, Thorn and Stanton) who are disturbingly similar (tougher-than-thou humans or post-humans, all excelling at various skills of war)and cardboardy shallow. This similarity amongst the main characters is so striking that it becomes confusing : keeping track of who did exactly what in the course of the story got me in trouble several times - but hey, I have never been any good at remembering names. Tough luck : Asher continues to bombard you with new names - and sometimes rather superfluous subplots - all through the novel. The fact that I read "Gridlinked" two years ago - it beats me why Asher first published "The Skinner", before coming up with this sequel - was not very helpful either : in order to enjoy this one you 'd better reread "Gridlinked", as the author often refers to events in that novel, without too much elaboration, so you are expected to have those events very fresh in your memory. I did not. The structure of the story, with its many intertwining subplots, rather lengthy description of war events on the planet Masada and then its pretty abrupt ending (a criticism that was also valid for "Gridlinked"), could have been better.
I don't want to be too harsh. Asher's imaginative universe is well worth exploring, his style is very entertaining and I'll keep buying whatever he hammers out. Of the three novels mentioned here, I personally enjoyed his second,"The Skinner", best. A fact that got my hopes for this one maybe a bit too high up.

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