Tag: not a review

26Aug

Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb

AssassinsApprentice-UKI guess it isn’t too cool these days to declare appreciation for mid-1990s fantasy. I’m sure that it’s not all that cool for someone who has previously stated he likes the Miéville’s, M John Harrisons, Wolfes and Don DeLillos of the literary world, to suddenly say that there’s this wonderful non-grimdark, high fantasy book from years ago, that’s not New Weird, that’s doesn’t come with a “-punk” suffixed to it, and he was rather charmed by it all.

I’ll not bother with a plot rehash – plenty of that about. Besides, this book has been around for years so there are plenty of good reviews around. But anyway, Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice was a truly immersive read. It is also a lesson in craftsmanship. But for me, this was a lesson in letting go.

For the first time in a long while, I didn’t care about picking the book apart – something that, as an author, has been difficult to do. Within a few chapters I realised that Hobb was in complete control – her planning had been assiduous and her characters showed humanity, without judgement or merely being a mouthpiece. The descriptions of the world were thorough, but with a light touch – and the structure of the novel meant that the info-dumpy bits were side-stepped neatly. There was wonderful author trickery, and a deft-hand in plotting. For the characters, there was no need to go over-the-top with machismo – people were proved to be of strong stuff using complex, emotional methods rather than cheap physical tricks. In fact, the emotional maturity and human nuance of this text, given the relative youth of the lead character, was rather impressive.

What I mean to say is, this book really hit the spot. I was struggling to read anything thoroughly for the past few months. About ten years ago, I could really surrender myself to books. I could dive in, explore, escape, and enjoy the experience. There’s also something about reading fantasy when you’re younger – it goes beyond escapism, which is often used in derogatory terms by some people – but it has to do with provoking the imagination and bringing back a sense of wonder. Maybe that’s the same thing, but I’d say this is more on an engagement with the real world rather than fleeing from it.

So this gave me all those joyous feelings of yesteryear, without a hint of immaturity. I’d say that’s pretty cool, no?

11Dec

Recent Reads – G.I. Bones & The Twelve Caesars

Martin Limón’s G.I. Bones is an immensely enjoyable and smart novel. Set in 1970s Korea, it follows two military police investigators, Sergeants Sueño and Bascom; they’re on the trail of a deceased US soldier in order to locate his bones. This is to help a Korean fortune teller, so she will not be haunted by the dead man’s ghost any longer. It’s a pretty cool set-up to a novel, with the right amount of mumbo-jumbo versus logic. Soon enough our investigators – guided by the first person narrative of Latino soldier Sueño – are plunged into the dark and exotic world of 70s South Korea, from the local gangs to the red light district, to the US military camp and the tropical villages. The world and culture is brought to life with phenomenal eye for detail. I often think that the crime is rarely central to the success of a crime novel – it’s merely what binds the rest together. The rest comes down to location, character, narrative skill, prose and so on.

So I don’t want to linger too much on the plot – though it is indeed nicely sophisticated. But I do want to mention the what makes Sueño particularly interesting as a character: he is a lead who manages to be respectful to women, different races, local culture and so on, in a world and period (and, we’re led to believe, of a type of soldier), where this sort of thing just isn’t the norm. Sueño’s non-mysogenistic and tolerant presence is a really interesting contradiction to those detective novels for whom women are simply plot points or wet dreams for the author or detective in question. And that makes Limón a very interesting writer. For a really good review of this novel, go here. I thought this was an excellent novel, full of style, acute observations and possesses a wonderful understanding of people.

What can really be said about one of the defining books of the classical age that hasn’t been said already? For those of you who don’t know, Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars is a collection of biographies of some of the defining figures of Ancient Rome, and arguably one the most famous families in history. Beginning with the conquests of Julius Caesar and ending with Domitian, second son of Vespasian, it offers commentary on the qualities of these emperors (and dictator), their legacy, and their performance on the world stage – as well as in the bedroom.

It is, as you would expect, a lively old book, but surprisingly readable for something that was published in AD 121. It’s rather sensational at times, particularly when Suetonius discusses the antics of Caligula and Nero. It is, of course, hard to say what was real or what was gossip – and some of it does seem rather outrageous (but when you’re one of the most powerful men the world has ever known, pretty much anything goes…). Whether or not you believe much of what Suetonius writes about, it’s clear from reading other contemporary authors that his influence on our knowledge of the period is profound.

19Nov

Nightfall by David Goodis

David Goodis’ 1947 novel, Nightfall, is a surprisingly psychological noir thriller. It follows James (Jimmy) Vanning, who’s laying low in NYC, all paranoid and edgy, trying to pass as a freelance artist. It turns out people are after him – a bunch of crooks think he’s got their $300,000 dollars from a bank job across the country.

Meanwhile Detective Fraser, a detective who has recently become interested in psychology, is observing Vanning from a distance, watching his every move, following him about the city, knowing full well who the man is, but isn’t utterly convinced he’s a guilty man. He doesn’t seem the sort to kill a guy and steal hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There’s not much more to it than that. We basically have a short novel that consists entirely of chase scenes, conversations in the shadows, and flashbacks. There’s a blonde involved and a seemingly innocent/guilty guy – it could be anyone at the centre of this novel – trying to cling on to his life and his own inner reality.

But! It’s good. The dialogue is superb. The descriptions are deeply poetic without straying from the the convention of minimalist noir prose. Here we’ve got everything that seems typical of genre, yet there’s fascinating, complex psychology at the heart of it – those shadows and backstreets heighten the sense of alienation – and it is all very well orchestrated. Goodis also has a habit of making his characters have profound conversations in bars or apartments.

What makes something so rich in suspense, I think, is not the immediate situation and what might happen on the other side of the page, but what’s at stake for every character involved, and that’s what strikes me as important about Nightfall. From Fraser to Vanning, to the crooks and the blonde, we’re constantly informed of what they’re doing what they’re doing, what could transpire should all the events in the book work out in their favour: prison, life on a yacht spending money, or simply settling down with a family. They’re big life-changing events and they have significance.

And that’s why Nightfall is a great novel: everything means something.