peteg's blog - noise - books

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto.

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Kindle. I've read a few of hers before, and Kate reckoned this was decent. As always Patchett can write, though that doesn't always add up to a story worth reading. Structurally we're in the same space as Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow: many upper class people are detained in the home of the country's Vice President by some revolutionaries from the jungle. The South Americans are drawn the best, or perhaps the American artist embodying opera, while the Russians and French are national caricatures. The Japanese salarymen fall in the middle. There didn't seem to be much feeling for the revolutionaries beyond lip service for the morality of their cause against a brutal regime. Stockholm syndrome (of course!) yields some odd coupling via some deft artifice; the excess of (transitive!) lurv is too narrowly drawn as a physical thing that transcends linguistic and cultural barriers. The foreshadowing is excessive, with some of the setups repeated patronisingly close to the cash outs. One of her themes is that the skills people make money with are generally useless outside of our increasingly claustrophobic adult daycares. Another is the universal awesomeness of opera, which stood in need of as much justification at the end as the start, given this much dancing about architecture. The epilogue is confusing; when did all that happen?

Janet Maslin at the time. Goodreads has some thoughtful commentary.

John Brunner: Times Without Number.

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Kindle. And yet more thin Brunner. Time travel only sorta works when causality is given a wide berth. Brunner being Brunner we instead get an incoherent mess of sociological whatifery: the Spanish Armada wins, England is colonised, and time (but not space) travel devices are elementary to construct. The fashion is medieval, though the Inquisition has evolved. Structurally it's three novellas anchored by a bloke who just happens to be there; in more capable hands it may have lead to such innovations as Douglas Adams's infinite improbability drive. The ending is as pat and Planet of the Apes as it must be, but with a novel contention: any timeline that discovers time machines has no future.

John Brunner: The Astronauts Must Not Land.

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Kindle. More thin Brunner, with a very thin conceit stretched very thin over some druggy imaginings of alien physiologies. He made bank on his word count here with a lot of repetition at the macro level; the first-person sentences seem finer than usual, which is a bit of a waste. The spirit is (once again) Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End alloyed with some South American exoticism / essentialism. It ends in a damp squib. As idealisation is what I do (poorly), I don't think there's a lot to philosophise about: it's entirely instrumental.

John Brunner: The Wrong End of Time.

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Kindle. Another thin Brunner. It's basically a reworking of 2001 where instead of going to Jupiter or Saturn the characters go from one invented U.S. city to the Canadian border. There's the usual sociological preoccupations, and he's quite happy to take the U.S.S.R.'s side of the argument back in the day. It's difficult to see how he made bank with this sort of derivative crap. I similarly can't believe that anyone would spill so many words on it.

John Brunner: The World Swappers.

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Kindle. And yet still more thin Brunner. This one was briskly written with some motivations too opaque at times to grasp. Matter transmission! called the transfax of course. Oh my. A secret society (read Second Foundation) tries to broker peace with an immature alien society. As is often the case the scifi dressing is completely auxiliary; his main interest is on the sociology, and these days he'd probably be writing historical fiction.

John Brunner: The Day of the Star Cities (aka Age of Miracles).

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Kindle. And yet more thin Brunner, proving that I am now impervious to learning. This time around some aliens install transit lounges on Earth and blow up all the nukes. With that as a premise it logically follows that Mad Max is beyond Thunderdome, the mice-men are cowed but the rat-men are dreaming of the stars, and the Russkies invade. Yes that's right, the nukes were keeping the peace. The opening police procedural is a bit misleading; this is not a noir. As usual in this space the meek have superpowers, or in this case, a valuable lack of cognition. The centres themselves are psychedelic trippy trip machines, just like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Do speak up if you’ve seen any of this before.

Juan Cárdenas: Ornamental.

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Kindle. A pointer from Nathan Scott McNamara in the New York Times. A first-person Colombian drug chemist refines a substance from a flower that makes the ladies go wow; shades of State of Wonder? Realising that baldly stating this premise is not going to carry a book, we also get psychedelic prose, love triangles, and some very weak commentary on what I take to be Continental philosophy. Overall, an exercise in style mining overly familiar tropes and not for me.

John Brunner: Entry to Elsewhen.

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Kindle. More even shorter Brunner; I still haven't learnt. The drugs and conceits run thin here. I did enjoy the concluding No Other Gods But Me a bit, as a riff on Scientology perhaps, up to the butchered ending which was unusually poorly written. The first Host Age is a topical pandemic thing with a busted epistemology (we'll know how to travel in time but we'll forget most of medicine), and the second Lungfish is millennial discontent at being ejected from all they know. Not the worst of his I've read recently.

John Brunner: To Conquer Chaos.

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Kindle. More thin Brunner. You'd think I'd learn. Near as I can tell this is a mild yet wordy variant of Planet of the Apes: an artificial biological sapient goes insane and the humans regress technologically. There's little to redeem it as it goes nowhere for far too long. Brunner calls time on this fiasco before resolving many loose ends; for instance the girl does not get the boy, and the green stuff remains purely a plot device.

John Brunner: The Repairmen of Cyclops.

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Kindle. The last of what he must've hoped would be a much longer series. This is Soylent green refracted through the horror of involuntary parting out of bodies. There's a touch of USA-style coca-colonisation and the United Nation's smurfs. I just wish his characters weren't right all the time.

John Brunner: The Avengers of Carrig.

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Kindle. Goodreads told me that this was part of a series, somewhat related to the last one I read. It's mostly fantasy, a dragons-and-damsels sort of thing, and thin Brunner at its worst. A few twists (and not the paltry revelatory style) may have made it worth reading.

John Brunner: Polymath (aka Castaways' World).

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Kindle. More thin Brunner. Goodreads reckons this is more chop than the last one, and they're right. Here we're served a North Korea/South Korea setup (making me wonder if there's a plateau and a river there) that underpins a pioneering/disaster recovery superman plot. Brunner (as always) is more interested in social commentary than the scifi; the resource limitations he imposes are more for the sake of the story than plausible. For instance a star going supernova is surely not a matter of hours.

John Brunner: The Rites of Ohe.

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Kindle. More thin Brunner, and more mediocre. At best this is some thin criticism of staid cultures (Britain) and the futility of finding solutions in ancient, "god-obsessed", death-culture India (Buddhism). While there may be something in that the superficiality here grates. In other ways the converse of Asimov's Second Foundation, a failure to launch in spite of promise, is championed. The repetition does not improve things, and clearly Brunner was struggling to make bank.

Stan Parish: Love and Theft.

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Kindle. Sold by Adam Sternbergh's review in the New York Times. I don't usually read thrillers, and having finished I'd say this is solidly in the Oceans territory, including a femme crossover, where all women are beautiful and available and willing, and all men are handsome-ish and carry an MMA undertow. The writing is fine for these purposes, though he could have left out the common exotic (the finance son predictably, inevitably hooks up with the party DJ daughter) and the Spanish dialogue that adds little. We spend perhaps 80% of the story waiting for a production. The ultimate twists are disappointingly transparent. Locations are chosen seemingly at random. It did pass the time. Michael Mann to direct the movie, or maybe he already mostly did.

John Brunner: The Infinitive of Go.

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Kindle. With thin Brunner there's always the risk that the conceit or the drugs will wear out before he's made bank on the word count. This one is a discursive and partially successful take on the multiverse, larded with some crass social commentary. The spirit is Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End despoiled by 1970s disillusionment. It's a bit disjointed, with too many words spilt on more-or-less the same things.

Amir Ahmadi Arian: Then the Fish Swallowed Him.

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Kindle. Incarceration literature. A pointer from Farah Abdessamad at the Asian Review of Books. It's well written but adds nothing to a genre already strip mined by the inimitable likes of 1984; George Orwell's contribution was to show not just what can happen in a state with a totalitarian bent but why, and what its objectives might be. This one has the fist shaking and mental disintegration but no analysis. When the inevitable "confession" scene comes around I was dearly hoping that he'd pull a Gone Girl and reveal our narrator to be unreliable. Unfortunately it's played straight throughout.

I realise now that I have never got a good steer from the Asian Review of Books. Dina Nayeri at the New York Times clearly doesn't read a newspaper regularly, where the "acute observations" made here are made daily. Also it was pumped by "mentor" Carol Joyce Oates.

Ann Patchett: State of Wonder

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Kindle. Third time around with Ann Patchett; I remember enjoying Commonwealth for its sprawling family saga, and being unimpressed by the inessential The Dutch House. This one, from 2011, lies somewhere in the middle. The premise is cliche: a feminized Heart of Darkness embodied in the heavily qualified (surely overqualified) big pharma lab rat Marina Singh. Her job is to go bravely where no Minnesotan half-bred Sikh with father issues has gone before... past the rubber plantations of known Brazil/Amazonia to a magical circle of trees, revealed by her Kurtz (ob/gyn prof Dr Swenson) to solve the problems of age in Western women and disease in Eastern peoples, not to mention the face of God. As before I often enjoyed her writing, which here wears its research lightly and tourism more heavily, apart from the odd bout of excessive handwringing and impossibility; Patchett reminds us constantly of the limits of medical research (etc) in the USA while having us believe that the woefully unsuitable Marina would ever be sent on such a journey and capable of such feats as cutting up an anaconda. The other characters are again not managed well; more interesting to me were the tertiary Dr Budi and Thomas Nkomo than the Bovenders and Saturns and Swenson (etc) who get the focus. There is intercontinental lurv. It's cinematic, or at least telemovie-atic.

As always, a range of views at Goodreads. I think the baseball-bat wielders have it. A book of the decade for the ABC's Sarah L'Estrange; her summary is inaccurate. Fernanda Eberstadt at the New York Times says Lord of the Flies and "megavillainess"; we're adjacent to James Bond territory. Also at the New York Times, Janet Maslin gestures additionally to Herzog and is more appropriately skeptical.

Catherine Lacey: Certain American States

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More interiority from Catherine Lacey, this time in short form. I didn't find anything particularly memorable here. As always the odd observation or taut sentence or angle is cute and sometimes makes the ramble worthwhile. I wasn't convinced by the male voices.

A variety of opinions at Goodreads.

Elliot Ackerman: Red Dress in Black and White.

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Kindle. This is the weakest from Ackerman I've read yet. It's nothing like his earlier work, except perhaps in the prose being even more pedestrian. I guess he read a book from the first Cold War and figured that we needed an Our Man in Constantinople or The artist who didn't come in from the cold. The city and its subcultures provide only local colour; the only rounded-out character here is Murat, and that's because he's a two dimensional, non-violent Michael Corleone-esque business guy. Plot-wise Ackerman thinks he's got it figured out like Smiley would, but it wouldn't take much imagination for Cat to return home at any point to fetch her and her son's passports; she could depart for the USA while her husband is out one day, and I doubt the embassy could interfere much. The reveal at the end is entirely predictable given the concussive repetition and closededness of what comes before.

Joan Silber talks it up. Perhaps this shadowboxing is something for Americans to wring their hands over.

Robert Perisic: No-Signal Area.

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Even pointlessness looks better when it's finished.

Kindle. A pointer from Ken Kalfus. Translated Croatian. The premise — of building an obsolete turbine in a factory last functional in the days of Communism — seemed adequately kooky. The bulk however is a series of portraits of people making their way through the days after the end of history. There's a bit of everything, but nothing dug too deeply. The humour is great. The rambling inner monologues are trying. When it comes the turn away from industrialism is handled well. The problem is that it takes so long.