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...Something I Could Quit (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 26 May 2012 19:00

The wordy name for this book is I wish there was something that I could quit. What drew me to it (on the CD shop bookshelf) was the old drawing of a railroadman leaning out of a tower, pocket watch in hand, watching a set of 1950's diesels blur past.

The 50's are great fodder nowadays; full of irony.

So the story is about four young folks, Laura (a gloomy rock-throwing-at-military-trains nutcase), Aaron (the nutty-yet-earnest fellow living in his dead tour van in her driveway), Susan (the bartender seeking a strong man and...) Jemuel (her boyfriend, baby-weak yet organized to a fault). It's the usual 20's-something-lifestyle-noir deal, dead-end McJobs, no future, no strong relationships, no hope.

I'll go with my personal take on this (since it's a personal blog and I'm over 50) - hope and success is something you need to push for until you bleed. Happiness doesn't just fall on you - you've got to go out and earn it. Sorry, kids.

So let's look at that cover again. Railroads were organized in the 50s, run on timetables and synchronized clocks (standard time was displayed at all stations). And so this is actually two-sided irony - the first is the classic irony of the fifties and its tightly-wound company-man clockwatchers. But the ironical backlash of the cover is there - the people of the fifties know their place in the cosmos. The young people in this book lack any sort of structure or worth. They live trashy lives in trashy dumps, in a dispirited little town where the trains roll through night and day.

Okay, I'm done with the grumpy moralizer mode.

On the upside, the writing is pretty crisp and the author (Aaron Cometbus) makes a number of tight literisms. That's where off-shelf writing such as this shines - it isn't written for the masses, it's written for a more vibrant (yet smaller) market. Unlike suburban pap, writing like this brings certain truths up, certain observations that are worth considering

On my first read, I was surprised to suddenly find myself, full stop, looking at the back cover. The story seemed to aimlessly just end in the middle of pointless dialog. But on second glance, I heard the echoes of what the author might have been saying, a faint whisper of hope in all this. Perhaps. Can't tell you.

So I'll say that it's a strange book, a troubled book, and perhaps a second pass will help me to understand it better. Tight and strange and urban.

Good luck.


Last Updated on Sunday, 27 May 2012 14:00
Pandemonium: Smoke (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 20 May 2012 07:22

I'll remind you that while I was in London a few months ago, we visited the Tate Modern with its display of John Martin Paintings. I also picked up a hard back from the gift shop, Pandemonium, a series of short stories based on the paintings reviewed. I loved the paintings and really loved the book (limited edition - I snagged number 7 out of 100). I reviewed it HERE.

With great expectations, I ordered Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke, a book purportedly focused on London, mostly Dickens' London, but London all the same. Got it and read it in about three days.

The prognosis?

Meh. (and I hate to say it)

See, I love the idea of a publishing house pulling in all sorts of talent for a high-grade publication of interesting, out-there story-telling. In these days of Nook and Kindle, having a limited edition hardback is something I can savor, the primary reason that books will always be books, and Ireaders will always be the end-of-the-fucking-literary-world-as-we-know-it toys.

But the stories didn't quite live up to the first edition.

It started, not on a bang, but a nuclear explosion. "Inspector Bucket Investigates" really hit me between the eyes. Disney has built a replica of Dickens' London, one staffed with clones of the characters (based on DNA extracted from the graves of those Dickens based his characters on). It was nasty, slimy, disturbing, and great.

And there were still stories in the vein I enjoy. "Aye, there's the rub" had a great premises and a fantastic twist. "City of the Absent" was a moody Dickens' piece, a study of churchyard and city nooks observed on quiet Sundays - this is about as close to time travel as we shall ever get (Mason Trellis aside). But most of the stories failed to make the hit of the original Pandemonium premise, that of humanity facing the finite, of end of self and world, of the chilling look at what-is-to-come. No, this was more mainstream - one or two of the stories were so predictably come-uppance tales, I was surprised to not see them on Spielberg's old Amazing Stories

Review aside, what you might not understand, Dear Reader, is the horrible chance I run at posting this. See, the Pandemonium folks are coming up with a new anthology, one set in the American West. To that, I have submitted. As to the wisdom of giving a tepid review to the same folks you are hoping for inclusion, well, I was never the smartest sibling in our family.

Actually, I'm the writer. How stupid is that?

Anyway, the series held me because I have an interest in such things, but let's home the next set will be darker, edgier, and far more concentrated.


Last Updated on Sunday, 20 May 2012 08:06
Quicksilver (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 13 May 2012 14:58

Quicksilver - what can I possibly say about this thing?

Well, it's massive (916 pages). And it's historical (spanning various settings between 1655 to 1689). And it's confusing. Reading this book was like a car chase through history, with Neal Stephenson leading us through dark historic alleys, down temporal streets the wrong way, back-tracking, and often stopping to discharge characters and pick up a few more. In the end, I'm confused, exhausted, and frustrated.

Yeah, it was that good!

The thing is, even though I didn't catch everything the book had to offer, even though I didn't understand several of the plots (I did like his trick of having something strange happen, and a chapter or two later, suddenly the reason became clear), I enjoyed it. I didn't get a lot of it. But what I did was magnificent.

There are several storylines that weave and twist in that Stephenson way (as he did before, in that old favorite of mine, Snow Crash (reviewed HERE)). There is Daniel Waterhouse, a ineffectual member of the Royal Society (with two storylines, the primary in his life growing up and surviving in his random, rudderless way, and the latter, of escaping from a pirate attack off the coast of the Colonies (after meeting a young Ben Franklin, hinted at). And after we finally get settled with this Once and Future plot, then we drastically switch to mudflat boys in East London, who graduate from stealing cargos off vessels in The Pool to running an enterprise of accepting money (in advance) to yank smartly on the legs of those just-hung, to speed them on their way. And then we're with a soldier fighting some theatrical play-siege under a mad ruler in Central Europe, but wait, its one of the mudflat boys, all grown up, and suddenly Stephenson's taillights have whipped around another corner and we're fishtailing after him, trying to keep up.

Like Snow Crash, there are cute moments where modern language is inserted, or even modern concepts, as referred in this letter from a character in Venice...

As I write these words I am seated near a window that looks out over a canal, and two gondoliers who nearly collided a minute ago, are screaming murderous threats at each other. This sort of thing happens all the time here. The Venetians have even given it a name: "Canal Rage". Some say that it is a new phenomenon - they insist that gondoliers never used to scream at each other in this way. To them it is a symptom of the excessively rapid pace of change in the modern world, and they make an analogy to poisoning by quicksilver, which has turned so many alchemists into shaky, irritable lunatics.

If anything would make me an irritable lunatic, it is the fact that after suffering through confusion in reading this, I discovered 50 pages from the end that there is a full character list in the back. Just great. I could have used it some 700 pages earlier, when new names were hitting me like raindrops.

It isn't a book for anyone - this is a reader's book. And a great book. I really enjoyed it. And after a little break though some other covers, I'll pick up in the second book of the Baroque Cycle.

2000 pages to go...


Last Updated on Sunday, 13 May 2012 15:29
The Wrecker (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 06 May 2012 08:33

Cussler is a lot like Pizza - very tasty, very fun, very casual, but not much in the way of substance.

Now that I've gotten my high-brow snarkiness out of the way, lets get down to brass tacks - The Wrecker is a thriller set in 1907 or so by a writer from Cussler's stable, an effort to export the high-level, fast-paced political-action thriller back into a world we think of as kinder and gentler (don't be fooled - a decade later, men hung up on barbed wire would be machined-gunned). Interestingly, many of the causal reviewers were impressed with the historical accuracy of the novel. This is where it fell flat for me.

I've mentioned HERE my experiences with the La Mesa club, running trains under a control system used across a hundred years of railroad operations, 'Time Table & Train Order'. I know how railroads worked and how trains were moved. This simple fact killed the book for me - it was clear the author didn't know anything about this (at one point, desperados try to sabotage the railroad by interfering with the telegraph, which is stated as used for moving trains from town to town - wrong, wrong, wrong). This might seem like a minor fact, but I would expect a more modern novel (say, involving submarines) to have a basic understanding of submarine operating principles and not figure that the captain just aimed for the channel mouth when leaving port.

There was also the transposing of our modern attitude of meetings and conferences in this far-away time. There was no net-meetings, no conference calls, no flying over for three days to discuss things and then redeye home. Offices and businesses back then had more independence. Yet in the book, every time the heroes needed to get together to plot strategies, they had to commission private trains to whisk them (and airline speeds) across the country for their meetings. Again, I know how trains ran, and elevating a single train over all others in the time-tabled pecking order would cause time- and cash-intensive disruptions. This whole idea that such an effort was routine in any way broke the novel for me.

Think I'm off-base here? In Captains Courageous, the railroad-owning father, upon finding out that his son is back from the dead and in an eastern fishing port, calls all his railroad rivals to put aside their economic wars and give him such a privilege. In this, his journey is an epic with the trains of hostile railroads standing on every siding as his white-flagged extra screams eastward. In this, it is an amazing race of a desperate father willing to grant his rivals power over him, just for a few hours of critical time. The same point was made in the old flick Danger Flag, where the entire railroad is put on the siding so that one man can be raced to a top-flight brain surgeon.

What I'm saying is that critical things like special trains are rare and amazing, not just some sort of steam-powered Leer jet, permitting a man to put his ass in a seat on the other side of the country.

There were other things - I remember feeling annoyed that the villain, when thwarted once, had an extensive and expensive backup plan in place, one that he could whip out at a critical moment. I remember thinking, "Oh, come on!" when suddenly it is revealed that, per chance, the blackguard had other men, other plans, a web of evil yadda yad. Sure, sure.

I suppose the writer was hampered in that, unlike today's stories, dynamite fuses don't have a digital count-down for added suspense.

No, I'm sorry, but this book didn't cut it for me. As a historic writer, I understand that we must guess at history, filling in the gaps with the caulk of conjecture. Further, we must make a leap between our concepts and beliefs of 2012 into earlier, distant, and often alien cultures. In my view, The Wreckers did neither of these. They should have just made it anther Dirk Pitt novel and left it at that.


Last Updated on Sunday, 06 May 2012 09:15

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