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Book Reviews

The Scribbling Man

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^^ I've got Blood Meridian on my shelf to read sometime as well. I don't think I'll dive straight in though.
 

Moe_Syzlak

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The Scribbling Man said:
^^ I've got Blood Meridian on my shelf to read sometime as well. I don't think I'll dive straight in though.

Probably wise. It’s pretty grim. It is amazing though to have prose so beautiful about scenes so horrific.
 

The Scribbling Man

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New Writings In SF 13 (1968)

One of my random charity shop finds, purchased in the hopes of discovering some forgotten gem or author.

Individual stories reviewed below:

The Divided House by John Rackham - 3.25

"Divided we both fall."

Interesting dystopian novelette touching on slavery, class divide, intellectual discrimination, "thinkers" vs. "dreamers". The prose is dry and competent, without flair. The characters are fairly flat; some plot points are a bit convenient and the dialogue can lean on the side of expository. But it's generally solid and engaging, if unremarkable.


Public Service by Sydney J. Bounds - 2.75

"Isolation our salvation."

Another dystopian nightmare and more commentary on class divide, as well as overpopulation and historical negationism. A city regularly under attack from spontaneous fires contains the ever increasing danger by flooding the flames and rebuilding on top of the remains (and the corpses of any who happen to fall victim). Buildings are made tall, with the privileged living in high-up inflammable flats and the unfortunate lower dwellers regularly at a dangerous disadvantage.

Elements of the story seem far-fetched and hard to imagine; but it's readable and the premise is interesting, if clunkily told. Sydney J. Bounds is also (and perhaps better) known for his pulp westerns.


The Ferryman On The River by David Kyle - 2.5

"Hector, the salvager, stood patiently in two places at once, waiting for the almost corpse to fall from the sky."

A decent enough premise weakly delivered. It's mysterious enough to hold your attention, but doesn't really deliver the final blow convincingly enough. The opening line certainly hooks you in though (above).


Testament by Vincent King - 4.5

"The Rule! The Rule!"

It was this story that made me pick up the collection in the first place. I hadn't read it, but I had read two novels of Vincent King's which I found to be highly enjoyable in spite of flaws. His style is unique, and I felt it would be better suited to short fiction. His output is minimal and obscure, so I've been keeping an eye out for where I might find his shorter works.

Right away this stuck out amongst the rest. Quirky, poetic prose describing desolation, isolation, galactic mystery... juxtaposed by the witty interjections of an impatient listener. It takes the form of a court hearing, with interrogation in italics and the rest of the text from our witness' perspective. It immediately draws you in with its lack of context and bizarre style, and culminates with an excellent twist.


The Macbeth Expiation by M. John Harrison - 3.5

"Guilt. That's what you said, isn't it, Poet? Guilt."

MJ Harrison is apparently one of the better known names in this collection, although I've been unfamiliar with him beyond having heard of his novel, "The Centauri Device". He is still active and writing today.

After a mysterious shootout on an alien planet, a guilt-ridden and trigger-happy soldier is seemingly haunted by a spectre. This was nicely written and mostly well told, though a significant part of the climax could have been set up better. Characters are fairly well drawn for a sci-fi short, some more than others; the tension of a small crew in an abnormal situation is well composed.


Representative by David Rome - 4

"We have already dealt with one persistent salesman."

David Rome: seemingly the most obscure of the lot, I can barely find anything on him. He's not on goodreads and he doesn't have a wiki page. I found one SF bibliography page with him on and it listed one novel and nothing else; I found some random blog post that claims he wrote several novels and short stories as well as having worked as a screenwriter for Australian TV.

Representative is a solid, tightly paced thriller in the form of a (now) familiar suburban nightmare; young couples all too perfect to be real popping up everywhere. Reminiscent of something like The Stepford Wives (although this does predate that).

It's quaint and perhaps not wholly original (I'm not 100% where this trend originated), but it's well told and I liked it enough to want to explore more from the author. Question is, who is he and where can I find his work?


The Beach by John Baxter - 3.75

"Ashes to Ashes. Sand to sand."

John Baxter is much more prolific as a non-fiction writer, having written several film books and biographies.

The prose in this is tasty, evoking a nightmarish atmosphere as a character awakes from some kind of blissful illusion. Engrossing merely by the way it is written, it conveys feelings of dread and curiosity in the reader, but leaves them mystified.


The City, Dying by Eddy C. Bertin - 2.75

"They are evil incarnations... given a horrid form of semi-life, to act from the Day on till the End of Time as disciples of the Evil Deity."

Bertin is a belgian author. He has written several novels and short stories, both for children and adults, though not many of his works have been translated into English.

The first part of this is fairly expository world building, which then moves into a rushed and clunky identity narrative. The prose is decent, but heavily derivative of Bester's fancy formatting. Bertin's writing came much too late for this to be given any more credit than being a homage; and while Bester often used such quirks to great effect, here it just feels like a distracting gimmick.


Overall, I enjoyed the collection quite a bit and breezed through it in two days. Even if all weren't corkers, all the stories were very readable and there were aspects that I enjoyed in each one. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like many of the authors I'm interested in reading more of have had much of a science fiction output beyond collections such as this.
 

Moe_Syzlak

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Being locked down here in Germany, I’ve had a lot of time to read. Since Christmas I’ve read books 2 and 3 in the Wheel of Time series and am well into book 4. I know many find Jordan’s descriptions long winded, but I really enjoy it and his attention to detail makes the world truly feel alive. Unfortunately, I don’t find him as good with character. I enjoy all the characters but there isn’t much depth. But the series really feels like it is about plotting. What started in book 1 feeling like Lord of the Rings fan fiction has really come into its own. And now it feels to me like Game of Thrones may have started as Wheel of Time fan fiction. I’ve got a long way to go with the series but I’m surely hooked now.
 

The Scribbling Man

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Finished two books recently:

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Awful cover, but not a bad read:

3.75/5

There are two separate Simak "to-read" piles that I mentally keep track of: the "I think this might be good" pile, and the "completionist pile". Destiny Doll fell into the latter. The other three books I'd read from his 70's output did not impress me, and so while I was interested in the premise, I was expecting it to be an average romp with maybe some sprinklings of goodness, and at the end of the day I would be able to cross off another title on the bibliography.

Instead, Destiny Doll was a pleasant surprise and I'm not really sure why it isn't better regarded. We get a ragtag crew; a jerk captain-for-hire, a monk, a telepathic blind man all along for the ride with a woman bent on chasing a legend on a distant planet. The scene is well set with a mysterious and seemingly malicious lost civilization, and hints of an even more ancient one before it. The world is populated with the bizarre likes of sentient rocking horses, centaurs, a single gnome and violently defensive trees, creating a vibe of nightmarish whimsy. It's not unheard of for Simak to inject fantasy elements into his science fiction, but while it typically can feel a little silly, here it's nicely contrasted with a cynical protagonist and a dark air of mystery. The part-fantasy aesthetic and mystical/spiritual nature of the story does, I feel, bring it into the realm of being more than just Science Fiction.

As far as Simak goes, and even the genre, the characters here are fairly well-drawn. They have personality, traits that make them unique, flaws that make them relatable, and I sometimes found myself physically reacting to the circumstances that befell them. Although Destiny Doll is quite a pensive work, it was still a breeze to read through and if I'd had the time I probably would have consumed it in a day. The prose is effective in conveying an atmosphere and the internal philosophising doesn't feel pretentious (unlike, say, the laborious A Choice of Gods).

There's a lot about the world that's hinted at, but not clarified, and I enjoyed the ambiguity. I only wish it had carried through to the end, which felt over-tidy. It's possible I've missed what Simak was going for, but I was expecting something a little more quiet and bittersweet. Instead, a lot of stuff seemed to be racing to wrap up in the last ten pages or so and I wasn't really sold on it.

All the same, and in spite of the ending, I think this is probably among Simak's best. It's an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, exploring spiritual themes and the nature of destiny. I would recommend it to any fan as a must-read. 

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A classic I've put off far too long:

Real horrorshow?

3.9/5

A classic that has sat on my shelf much too long, and one that I think in some ways I had built up in my mind as being something detestable and likely unpleasant to read. However, while the subject matter and goings-on are shocking, dirty deeds are not nearly as prominent as I was expecting and are in some ways lightly veiled by our "humble narrator"'s adopted whimsical language: a near futuristic-slang that derives its terms from a mix of Russian and Cockney-rhyming. Initially disorientating, it becomes considerably easier to read as you go, many phrases having light shed by context. Some are harder to "viddy" than others, but regardless it's all part of the experience and gives the book an oddly poetic charm that may not have been quite so present (or stomachable) had the gross acts of sexual violence been described with sole use of the English dictionary.

A Clockwork Orange sometimes gets dangerously close to being preachy but never dives nose deep into such territory. Its commentary on youth culture, violence and freedom of choice is relatively blatant, without being too explicit.

The fact that for two decades this remained published only in truncated form in the US (where it saw most success) is a sad thing, and the fruit of this is most interesting. The novel has 21 chapters divided into three parts with seven chapters each. The very last chapter was what was excluded, messing with the clearly intentional numeracy and providing the novella with an entirely different outlook; the difference is pessimism vs. optimism - the latter of which Burgess was shooting for, the former being what Kubrick emphasised in his film, being based on the truncated version of the book (although, even Burgess' more "positive" ending is bittersweet).

I am yet to watch the film, but I will have to now for curiosity and comparison. I am not sure whether or not I prefer a version of A Clockwork Orange with or without its original closing sentiment, but I feel it's important to preserve an author's original intent (not to discount other versions being made available). Reading the introduction to this edition, it seems Burgess got a very poor deal financially when giving the rights for Kubrick's adaptation, and it must have been a hard thing to not only receive practically nothing, but to witness an inaccurate portrayal of his vision gain such widespread acclaim (both in terms of the film's long-term success, and the lack of availability in the US of the "right" version of his novella until 1986).
 

Moe_Syzlak

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Moe_Syzlak said:
Being locked down here in Germany, I’ve had a lot of time to read. Since Christmas I’ve read books 2 and 3 in the Wheel of Time series and am well into book 4. I know many find Jordan’s descriptions long winded, but I really enjoy it and his attention to detail makes the world truly feel alive. Unfortunately, I don’t find him as good with character. I enjoy all the characters but there isn’t much depth. But the series really feels like it is about plotting. What started in book 1 feeling like Lord of the Rings fan fiction has really come into its own. And now it feels to me like Game of Thrones may have started as Wheel of Time fan fiction. I’ve got a long way to go with the series but I’m surely hooked now.

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I just finished The Shadow Rising (book 4). It’s definitely the best in series so far, in my opinion. It has also solidified my opinion that George R.R. Martin certainly drew much influence from this series. It is, at times, getting difficult to juggle the many characters and storylines, particularly as some characters are known in different ways. Though I enjoyed this one the most so far, it definitely has some lesser storylines that scream that Jordan was just trying to find something to do for some main characters from previous books. I’ll dig in to the next volume tomorrow.
 
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The Scribbling Man

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4.75

Not just a good noir, but an excellent character study. Good prose, great dialogue. It all flows and reads so well. Tight and rich.

My one minor qualm is that the ending feels just a little (little) bit rushed.

The film is also very good, and less explicit (if my memory serves me). Not a criticism of the book in any way, just an observation. It's always a credit to a book if it manages to suck me in when I've already witnessed the story on screen.
 

Moe_Syzlak

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Just finished book five of the Wheel of Time, Fires of Heaven. For me, it was definitely a step down from the previous book, though not a huge one. There were times where it felt like a chore to keep reading. But it all came together in the end. I definitely missed Perrin, Faile, Loial, and the Two Rivers folk who comprised the standout plot lines of the previous book and are totally absent from this book. I think I’m going to read the next two books before taking a break from the series.
 

Moe_Syzlak

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The pace really picks up in this book. All of our Emond’s Fielders are now a long way from their former selves. Well, almost all. Mat is still Mat to a large degree. It was nice to have all the main characters represented in this book after missing Perrin, Faile, and Loial for the last book. There are quite a few major developments as well. I’m going to knock out book seven in the next week or so and then likely take a bit of break from the series as I will have read to the halfway point in just over two months.
 

The Scribbling Man

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I've never read wheel of time. I'm not typically a fantasy guy. Having said that, I'm currently listening to Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings. I believe he also finishes off the Wheel of Time series.
 

Moe_Syzlak

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The Scribbling Man said:
I've never read wheel of time. I'm not typically a fantasy guy. Having said that, I'm currently listening to Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings. I believe he also finishes off the Wheel of Time series.

Yes, he does. Though he does it from very detailed notes and Jordan actually completed the final chapter before his death so that is intact. I was never a fantasy guy either. My first real foray into the genre was from the Fellowship of the Ring movie. I started Wheel of Time with my kids as bedtime reading. But it was too slow for them and we stopped halfway through the first book. I decided to keep reading. It’s more Game of Thrones than Lord of the Rings. And though it’s definitely fantasy it doesn’t lean in too hard on those tropes. There aren’t any dragons for example. The “Dragon” of the series is the name of prophesied leader who is reborn throughout each “turning of the wheel of time.” He is a man called Dragon, not a flying, fire breathing lizard. But so far, with Tolkien, Game of Thrones, and this series being my only real fantasy book experience, this is my favorite.
 

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In all my life I have not read a single book that I did not like. I like to read and write reviews about what I read. And also write essays about books.
 

The Scribbling Man

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1.5

While there are competent elements, because of its terrible foundation, everything built on top comes crumbling down. The result is something that starts off interesting, but morphs into frustration and boredom. There's a neat idea for a twist at the end, but ultimately it just isn't enough to pull the story out of the mess it creates.

I did do some reading on non-Aristotelianism and general semantics beforehand in the hopes of gaining some context, but it didn't really make much difference. The book is so vague that it just feels like one big white room packed with cardboard characters and empty twists.

I hoped to at least enjoy this ironically, but no. Van Vogt's reputation seems to be justified, because this really is just a bad book.
 

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After the terrific conclusion of the previous book, this one has the feel of resetting the pieces on the board. It spends the first half of the book mostly just setting things up for the next leg of the saga. It does, however, offer some great new characters and provides new opportunities for growth for our main characters. Unfortunately the conclusion that should’ve been amazing feels rushed and anticlimactic. I’m assuming there’s reasons for the choices made for the conclusion that will be revealed in future books. But it did feel like this book was robbed of its climax.
 

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4/5

This is a thematically rich and tight novella, and easily the most I've enjoyed of the Hainish Cycle. I really didn't care for The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, despite their reputation, and typically I'm much more fond of the Earthsea books. In contrast to the former two, this is much less politically charged. There's a nice balance between the fantasy and science fiction elements, and the characters are well developed. It was a good choice to bounce between three characters, all of whom have deeply contrasting outlooks on the situation.

Beautifully written, as is often the case with LeGuin, though Left Hand felt too cold and dry. This injected some much needed heart into the series.
 

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I had initially planned to take a break from this series before this book as this one—along with the two books that follow—have a reputation among fans of the series as a bit of a slog. But, after finding book seven a bit of a slog, I worried that I would never continue with the series if I didn’t push forward now. I’m glad I did as I found this book to be a slight improvement on its predecessor. If I’m not mistaken, Jordan had originally planned to wrap up the story in eight books. At some point that estimate was increased to 12 books, with 14 (plus a prequel) ending up being the final tally. So I can see that fans of the series that read these books as they were released may have wanted the story to advance more towards the conclusion. That said, I enjoyed this one due to it introducing more uncertainty—more fallibility—in the characters. For the first time, things don’t seem to be marching inexorably towards the prophecy. Sure, favorite characters like Mat (who is completely absent) and Egwene (who is given very little to do) being sidelined doesn’t help. But it’s not the first time in the series that major characters have been left out of books. All in all it was a pleasant surprise that this one wasn’t the slog I was expecting.
 
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Moe_Syzlak

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This another one that fans of the series claim is a slog to get through. I didn’t find it that bad. But we’re definitely so far into the series that there are so many different plot threads and literally thousands of characters. Sometimes a relatively minor character from several books back is suddenly front and center. It’s good that there’s a wiki for the series that has allowed me to check back easily to remind myself of characters like this. I’ve been reading this just for a few months; I can’t imagine keeping this all straight over many years let alone decades. That’s not a criticism, but rather acknowledgment of the complexity of the story. There are so many characters and plot threads yet so many characters feel important. Or rather, you feel you must consider them important because even seemingly minor characters can prove important down the line.

It’s true that there aren’t a ton of major developments until the climax and some of the few that there are are pretty cringey. Yet I found it an entertaining read. There were a few laugh out loud moments and I can’t remember any in the previous eight books. Some of the tropes have grown a little stale, but only a little. But you can’t talk about this book without talking about the climax. To me it was the most cinematic and consequential ending yet. The constantly shifting points of view could be confusing if not handled deftly. It is a momentous and cool scene and the manner in which it was written elevates it—and the book—immensely.

On to the next book, Crossroads of Twilight, pretty much universally considered the weakest of the series. I’m encouraged that I haven’t disliked the prior two books much at all. But I understand the book is supposed to be sort of housekeeping, furthering the plots for important characters during the same timeframe as the book I just read, but with less exciting stories. We will see.
 

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This is the book in the series that is pretty much universally considered the worst. And, while the previous two books also share a poor reputation, I really only agree with this one. As I ask myself about the development of the main characters, very little can be said to be different from the end of the previous book. This book also largely happens simultaneously with the events of the previous book making its lack of a true climax all the more glaring. This is definitely not a bad book, but just feels like so much padding. Though I do feel like it continues to add to the world building by adding many layers to the negotiations and politics. Perhaps reorganizing this book and the previous book would have allowed for it not to seem so ineffectual. Though that likely would’ve necessitated an epilogue hundreds of pages long.

On to Knife of Dreams. This book is notable for being the last book Jordan completed before his death.
 

Moe_Syzlak

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This is definitely an improvement on the last book and it also manages to make the last book better. Though it still has too much padding. I think Crossroads of Twilight and Knife of Dreams could’ve been combined for a single book by a skillful editor. It still may have made for the longest book of the series but it would’ve been a more satisfying read. Again, this isn’t much of an issue for me reading the series in a matter of months. But if you were reading these as released I would imagine this book ranks so much higher than its predecessor due to feeling like the second half of one book.

The next book, the Gathering Storm, was completed by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s death utilizing Jordan’s copious notes. The three remaining books were intended by Jordan to be one final novel. But it has 2,749 pages so it was broken into three novels. I should easily complete the series by the end of April.
 

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The first book after the passing of author Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson does a fantastic job of not only advancing the story, but also making it feel seamlessly a part of the larger series. If I understand correctly large sections were written by Jordan with copious notes for still more of the book. While some sections, notably anything with Perrin, are completely Sanderson. But without this knowledge it wouldn’t be apparent at all. In fact, I’d wager anyone reading the series unaware wouldn’t notice any changes at all. That said, the pace is much quicker than it has been in the series for some time. This book was a real page turner and it has left me chomping at the bit for the final two books.
 
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