Brightly Woven

I am once again left awed and humbled by Guy Gavriel Kay. The Lions of Al-Rassan, which I read last year, left me very impressed, maybe to the point where I was a little afraid to read more of his work, afraid that Al-Rassan was the exception rather than the rule. I finished reading The Fionavar Tapestry last night and it really wasn’t as good… it was better.

The story seems unpromising at first, more the stuff of fan fiction and of fourth-grade essay-writing than of a fantasy epic: five university students from Toronto get transported to Fionavar, the first of the Weaver’s worlds. Loren Silvercloak, a mage, is the one who brings them from one world to the other. He says he has been tasked to bring these strangers to celebrate his King’s fiftieth year of rulership – and although that is not untrue, there is so much more for which Kimberley, Kevin, Jennifer, Dave and Paul are needed in Fionavar.

And that is as far as I want to go in terms of describing the plot. While I don’t have any qualms about spoiling the plot of a bad novel, I don’t want to say too much about something this excellent. Read it yourselves, I say.

A few things can be said, though, without delving too deeply into the plot. Kay is a master storyteller. Back when I wrote my review of The Lions of Al-Rassan I mostly emphasized how lovable the characters are, and the same goes for Fionavar. The only difference is that where Al-Rassan is very detailed and takes it slow, The Fionavar Tapestry soon plunges headlong into the story, a mad rush of settings and events and characters. The three books of the trilogy have, if you add everything up, just barely over a thousand pages. That doesn’t sound short, true, but the trilogy is in every sense a fantasy epic. I’m not saying that the books are too short, not at all, but the writing is incredibly compressed… and still very brilliant, page after page. While the first book, The Summer Tree, seems more like an introduction to Fionavar and its rich history and wealth of characters, the second and third books, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road respectively, deal more intimately with the five protagonists and their motivations. And Kay pulls off an amazing feat in that respect. The characters never fall back into cliché; even (or maybe especially) when you think that you got one of them figured out, he or she will usually do something that goes against all those worn-out storytelling conventions that make most other fantasy “epics” so unreadable.

There is one other thing that makes these books so special, though. Pessimism has become very hip today. Just look at Patrick Rothfuss or Joe Abercrombie or any other of the new fantasy superstars. Not so with Kay and The Fionavar Tapestry. If there is one thing that permeates the entire series it is how good its characters are. Not just well-written, but good to the core of their beings. They love the Light, as Kimberly would say. And she’s right. Just like in Sunshine or Battle for Terra, you just feel for the characters, love them and hope that nothing bad will befall them, because they believe in the good in everyone, and so by extension do you while reading about them.

These are three very special books. I don’t know if I will ever re-read them, because the first time around was a very intense experience and I often find it hard to submit myself to such experiences a second time. But I really, really advise you to give these books a chance. They are well worth it.

Advertisements

The Twilight Experiment: Day 1

I slide the book over the counter, cover down, and look at the cashier. A middle-aged woman – very short red hair, glasses, and the distinct air of a book-snob about her – looks back at me. My ruse hasn’t worked. She knows immediately what I’m buying. My mind is racing, imagining that the only thing that’s keeping her from saying something is the fact that the copy of Twilight that I’m about to buy is in English while she is German. I want to blurt out that I’m buying this thing, this literary abomination, for the sake of an experiment. For the sake of science, so to speak. Really quite self-sacrificial of me. But in the end I don’t say anything, not even hello/thank you/goodbye. Better to let her think I don’t speak German.

Outside of the bookstore I don’t have much time to look at the slim paperback that I just bought. I need to meet someone and I’m in a hurry. Also I’m not that keen on actually starting this little experiment of mine. Someone could get hurt.

My brain, for example.

Rewind… I’d seen Twilight: New Moon a while ago and thought that it had possibly set a new record for storyline-atrocity. But only just possibly, there’s always Bloom. Looked good though, can’t deny that. And then there was the thing with the other readers, sane people one and all, people whose judgement I trust, people who seem to have taste (you know who you are). And they had read Twilight. And New Moon. And the rest. Not only had they survived the experience, they had also said things like “reads well” or “it’s sort of fun, in a guilty pleasure kind of way”. And that planted the seed of doubt. Twilight, scourge of high fantasy, read by millions upon millions of teenagers. Was it really that bad? Did I have a right to participate in the ongoing Twilight discussion trashing without having read a single word of it? Does Bella Swan have a single redeeming feature? I don’t believe in guilty pleasure, at least not very much. If someone says something is a guilty pleasure he or she usually means that it is good, but doesn’t want to admit to thinking that in the company of others. Here in Germany Harry Potter is a guilty pleasure, see?

We have a saying in Germany which roughly translates as “eat shit, millions of flies can’t be wrong”. It doesn’t translate very well, but still serves to illustrate what is at the core of this little experiment: What if millions of flies aren’t wrong?

Back to Day 1: I meet the person I was going to meet and get a very disapproving frown when I mention what I have just done. Twilight, well actually fantasy literature as a whole, has a bad standing in Germany. Escapism, nonsense, childishness, these words are spoken much quicker and with less kindness here in the country of sheep. Intellectual people read suspense novels, because when the gardener kills Lord Adolfstein by shoving him into the paper shredder that’s, like, real, you know.

I’ve heard all of it before and gotten inured to the attacks of the literary elite by now. Still I try to explain. “It’s because I finally want to have an informed opinion. I don’t want to be talking out of my arse all the time.” Only three days later I will be ready to launch into a well-rehearsed speech on the subject of why reading Twilight was such a spiffing idea.

In the train on the way home, I open the book for the first time. I keep it on my lap, bending over in order to still be able to read. The cover of the German edition is identical to the English one; if I hold the book up like I normally would, people might notice what I’m reading.

I only skim the acknowledgements. Usually not my style, I tend to assume that authors have put some thought into whom they thank, but Stephenie Meyers’ acknowledgements are longer than some books I’ve read. It takes Jonas to point out that she thanks her “online family” at fansofrealitytv.com. That explains so much.

“I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.”

It’s not the first sentence of the book, that honour goes to something bland and incredibly convoluted, but if it were it would easily win the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, probably for several years in a row. It’s just that kind of sentence. I can’t even begin to describe what is wrong with it, there’s just too much, although the part about “pleasantly looking back” certainly makes up a good deal of the overall horribleness.

Two paragraphs down, 434 pages to go. Suddenly I’m not sure if I can do this. Yet I turn the page and read on. Once I’m in the flow it isn’t too bad. The atrocities keep coming, but they somehow get drowned out by all the filler. And there’s a lot of that. Mostly descriptions of how Bella hates the world in general and human beings specifically. Such a charming, vivacious personality! I already want to adopt her. Still, the filler isn’t thick enough to submerge the very, very frequent descriptions of Edward’s attractive voice. And his attractive skin. And attractive hair. He probably also has attractive shoelaces, but before I get to that part I need to stop reading in order to get off the train. I’m glad to stop – this book is so full of attractiveness that it makes my brain ache.

I have done my scientific duty for today. It doesn’t make me feel great, but at least I don’t feel too dirty.

The Book. The Book!

I finished my novel yesterday. This is the main reason for the lack of updates to this blog, for which I apologize, but I really needed to take the time to sit down and do this.

Still not sending it to the agents, but that will come… soon.

For now just a short update on the technical specifications of Mind the Gap:

Chapters: 49 + Prologue

Total Word Count: 133694

We celebrated by ordering pizza with everything and I am still riding on a high of adrenaline and euphoria. I can not put into words how good it feels to be done with that part of the work. We both got a really good feeling about this book.

Anyway: I promise to keep you posted on the progress from now on. Expect to hear more soon.

Juliet, Naked

Nick Hornby is one of my favourite authors. That’s mostly due to his 2005 novel A Long Way Down, which should be compulsory reading for everyone who’s ever considered suicide, even as the remotest of all possible possibilities. And his other books aren’t too shabby either. (With the exception of Fever Pitch, which is non-fiction anyway and of which I never managed to read more than two pages. Football… what more need I say?)

Now: Juliet, Naked.

The story revolves around three characters: Duncan, a teacher in his early forties obsessed with Tucker Crowe, an 80’s singer/songwriter; Annie, Duncan’s girlfriend of fifteen years; and finally Tucker Crowe himself, now no longer a musician but a recluse and father of five. Fairly in the beginning of the book we realize that Duncan knows more about Tucker than is good for him and that, mostly because of the Tucker issue, his relationship with Annie had a definite expiry date. I’m not spoiling much when I say that the two will break up fairly early in the book and that Annie will get to know Tucker Crowe. And that’s all I’ll say about the plot, for despite all the criticism that I’ll heap upon the book in just a minute, it’s still a very good book and you might do well to consider giving it a read.

Now. If Juliet, Naked is such a jolly good read, why do I speak of criticism?

For one thing, because of bad marketing. Just like Shyamalan’s The Village got sold as an all-out horror movie (which it isn’t), this book gets sold as … ehm… something that it is not. Okay, maybe I’m being a bit too hard on Hornby and the marketing department of Penguin/Viking here. I thought, from the jacket text, that the book would be about Tucker and Annie, not necessarily in a romantic sense, but in a talking-with-each-other sense. And it is, but only on the last hundred pages or so. Before that, it’s mostly either Annie or Duncan or Tucker sitting in a corner and being miserable. Erm… I’m being unfair again, they’re not miserable, which seems to me to imply postmodern yack about how incomprehensible and unfair the world is. The protagonists are sarcastic, doubtful, often witty as they wonder about their lives and where they would be today if things had gone a little differently for them.

This is not a bad thing, per se. If I could change only one thing about the book I would tone Annie’s incessant whining about her state of childlessness down a bit. That’s about it.

If I could change two things I’d have her meet Tucker sooner. Because Tucker is the most fun character in the book, but he needs a conversational counterpart to realise his true potential for awesomeness. The clashing of rock-star and museum curator, of British middle-class and American wash-out, that’s where the book gets really brilliant. And there’s not enough of that.

I read Juliet, Naked in two sittings and after finishing the first at page 154 I wasn’t sure if I liked the book. Then I read the second part and I loved it. That’s just a warning. Give it some time.

One review I read basically said that the book was okay, only Tucker wasn’t a very interesting character and why didn’t Nick Hornby try to be a bit more mysterious and twisty. I think that woman needs her head examined.

Lately I’m reading and hearing a lot of reviews that essentially demand that every book read like an episode of Lost. Now, twists are all good and fine in their right place. I’m sure crime fiction would be poorer if every novel told you who dunnit in the very first paragraph. (Some do, and are better for it. The attraction of rare things, I assume.) But the attraction in novels like Juliet, Naked doesn’t lie in the answer to the question of who will sleep with whom because of what. Novels like this one are beautiful because we get to examine the motivations behind what the characters do, in seeing their journey, their evolution. And that is made all the sweeter if you can see all the elements from the very start. This is not a flaw, Miss Myerson, it’s perfection.

The Blade Itself

Three days of being miserably sick – three books. The first of which was The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie.

The book follows three principal point of view characters, plus a slew of minor characters in the second half. Let’s get the important part out of the way first: None of them are likeable.

There’s Captain Jezal dan Luthar, an egocentric little prick whose only reason for falling in love seems to be that the lady in question is “damn fine looking” – it certainly isn’t her personality, take that from me. There’s Inquisitor Sand Glokta, a cripple who hates everybody and their mum and, judging by his name, seems to be the child of Portuguese and Dutch immigrants (kidding, but: the names in the book enraged me with their wanton inconsistency). And then there’s Logen Ninefingers, the only one of the sorry lot that seems to be even remotely likeable, although he is thick as a brick, which doesn’t go far towards endearing him to me.

Supporting characters include Ferro Maljin, an escaped slave woman whose only goal in life is killing and spitting in the face of every other living being on this planet, including her allies. Major Colleem West, who will trick you into thinking that he’s likeable until you find out that he is just as uncaring and egocentric as his buddy Jezal. And Dogman, who doesn’t seem to have a proper name and enjoys pissing himself…

In short, an endearing lot.

The book isn’t helped by being the first part of a trilogy, the part where everything gets rolling. It consists of long, detailed (I’m not using that as a compliment here) descriptions of how our characters become part of the team and what they have to endure to get to the eventual starting point of their mission. One very brief scene tells us a little bit about the larger picture, but since that scene is (no doubt deliberately) written as a conversation between two high mages that already know everything, it might as well be written in Swahili. The rest is mediocre jokes, unending fight scenes and a love story so horrible that you want to tear your eyes out.

Don’t. Read. Trust me.

A Book A Day Keeps The Doctor Away

Well, sort of. My flu is gone and I managed to get a whole lot of books read while lying on the couch and getting pampered. I can think of worse ways to spend the time. Okay, I could have done without the blinding headaches, but apart from that…

Two of the books I read were Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, both by Tom Sharpe.

Like Wilt, by the same author, I had read both of them a while ago, back in the regrettable time when I still thought that reading translated books was a good idea.

So?

Yeah. Good. Both of them. Although reading the books back to back makes you realize that they have been written fourteen years apart. The author’s style has changed ever so slightly and a few things don’t quite fit. Nothing major, nothing that would ruin the books, but enough to notice. But don’t let that distract you from the fact that together these books represent 700 pages of the finest, wittiest writing to come out of Britain in a long time.

All in all, Tom Sharpe’s books are just outrageously hilarious. Exhumed sex dolls, exploding ostriches, penile injections, elephant guns, old ladies with rubber fetishes. If it’s lewd and strange, it’s in there. And that is a good thing. I have never, ever in my life read books that are more crazy, and I find that I like it.

So get yourself to a bookshop or internet retailer of your choice and buy some Tom Sharpe. You won’t regret it.

P.S.: And you gotta love the dedication:

For all those members of the South African Police Force whose lives are dedicated to the preservation of Western Civilization in Southern Africa

Wilt

A while ago I finished reading Wilt by Tom Sharpe. (Yeah, this review has been in the pipeline for a while, and for no good reason at that. Grrrr.)

My first experiences with the writings of Mr. Sharpe lie about fifteen years in the past, give or take a few. Thus it is understandable that I wasn’t sure if I would like them nowadays. That I had read those books in German doesn’t make my memories of them more trustworthy.

But the memories kept resurfacing. Unfortunately I have read quite a few books in German before switching to English somewhen around my fifteenth birthday, and I am trying to get my hands on original-language versions of all the ones that I liked. I feel I owe it to the books; you wouldn’t believe what incompetent translators have done to some of them. Trust me, it’s not pretty. Anyway, back then I read Wilt as well as Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, and during another, recent attack of Sharpe nostalgia I ordered those books in English.

The other day month, at two in the morning and dead tired, I decided to read one of them. Since I couldn’t be bothered to figure out the reading order for the other two, I decided to start with Wilt. And I almost didn’t put the book down until I finished it.

At first I was a little disappointed. I had remembered the book to be more on the bellyache side of laugh out loud, and sadly this seemed not to be the case, but after sixty or seventy pages that quickly changed. The book takes a while to get going, but when it does, oh man is it funny. (Personally I wouldn’t mind some sort of distilled version of Wilt that only features the conversations between Wilt and Inspector Flint.)

Oh yes, and the scene where the blow-up doll is exhumed. Mustn’t forget that. A scene so epically funny that I dare say I have seldomly read three more entertaining consecutive pages in my life.

So. Wilt is good. And a lot more graphic than the German version. I wonder if the censor-fairy had her part in that. Maybe I just misremember things. (On the other hand, my parents did give me the book when I was fourteen or fifteen. Mhm…) I did wonder whether lesbian sex and rubber dolls might have been shocking in Britain in 1976, but have come to the conclusion that they probably weren’t. It was the 70s after all. And in any case, that’s not what this book is about. It is about a downtrodden community college teacher who finds the one thing in his life that he is certain about. That he drives the staff of the local police station potty in the process is only a pleasant side-effect of that.

There are more Wilt books out there and I think that that makes the world a brighter place somehow. Right now I have other stuff to read. Work stuff, research for my next novel, but after that I can’t wait to read more of Tom Sharpe’s delightful writing.