Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “novels”

Too much sword, not enough sorcery

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, #2)A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven’t reached the end yet, and doubt that I ever will.

About a quarter of the way in I stopped reading every chapter, and read only those relating to the characters I was most interested in, which did not include Daenerys, Theon and Davos. I suppose it would be possible to have different reading schemes for this series, rather like the Bible. And one such scheme would be to just read the chapters relating to one character, right through the whole series,. and then go back to the beginning again and follow another character.

*** Possible spoiler follows ***

The character who interested me most was Arya, and I thought I’d read on to see if she ever got safely back to Winterfell, but when it turned out that Winterfell wasn’t safe to go back to anyway, I decided to give up. I may still try to follow Jon north of the Ice Wall to see if any interesting creatures appear, but so far there has just been some vague shadow of menace.

But this is only the second book, and it’s longer than the first, and I think there are better things to do with the rest of my life; read The Lord of the Rings again, for example.

The book isn’t bad, and I don’t think it’s badly written. It’s just that, apart from the setting, it isn’t all that different from everyday life, and if I wanted to concern myself with such issues it would be more profitable to watch the proceedings of the Zondo Commission on TV. Trying to influence the course of events in South Africa might be just as hopeless as it would be in Westeros, but you don’t know that for certain, in advance.

In my review of the first book of the series, A Game of Thrones, i suggested that the genre was “sword and sorcery”, though some have disputed that, but in both there seems to be.too much sword and not enough sorcery. The South African equivalent to the Iron Throne, is, of course, the ANC presidency, with all the patronage and crony capitalism that goes with it. And though there may be sorcery and magical creatures behind the scenes, with rare exceptions the media don’t report such things.

But at least when I see the names of the characters mentioned on Twitter, I’ll know what they are talking about.

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A Game of Thrones: sword & sorcery at its best

I’m not particularly fond of “sword and sorcery” novels, but this is one of the better examples, which I would recommend to fans of the genre, and even to those who aren’t fans, but would like to read something just to see what it’s about. It has all the appeal of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe but with a much more realistic view of practical politics.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Take current politics, any current politics, remove it to a fictional country in a fictional world, and turn it into a parable, and you have basic plot of A Game of Thrones.

It’s all there: ambition, power seeking, spying, back-stabbing, manipulation, greed and all other staples of practical politics, ancient and modern.

It’s symbolism, not allegory.

If it were allegory it would apply to one particular set of politicians in one particular period, but it doesn’t do that. You can see whatever you want here.

The land of Westeros has seven kingdoms that were unified some four centuries earlier by a conqueror whose dynasty has now been overthrown. You can read that in many ways — seven kingdoms could stand for seven SOEs. Or seven independent homelands. Or seven successor states of the USSR.

The heir apparent to the current reigning monarch, Robert Baratheon, is 12-year-old Joffrey. In the film version he looks like Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, and in both the book and film versions of A Game of Thrones his character matches. And some might say that he similarly resembles Donald Trump, both physically and in character,

I suppose that the genre of this book is best described as “sword and sorcery”, though in this first book of the series there seems to be more sword than sorcery, at least in the beginning. And I would say it is one of the better examples of the genre. I’ve tried reading others, like The Sword of Shannara, and was not tempted to read any further in that series. Likewise with A Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings.

But in this case I have started reading the second volume of the series A Clash of Kings, mainly to find out what happened to some of the more sympathetically-drawn characters, of whom my favourite was Arya Stark, the nine-year-old daughter of one of the more honest and honourable men in the cauldron of political intrigue, Lord Eddard Stark. But even he finds himself trapped into lying for reasons of state, and it costs him dearly.

I came to read the book by a strange chance, when Twitter showed a list of tweets that were trending in South Africa, and I did not recognise a single word in the list. I asked about it here Being out of touch with pop culture | Notes from underground and discovered that all the unfamiliar words were the names of characters from A Game of Thrones, which was then showing on TV. My son had the first series on DVD, which we started watching, but it made little sense until I found the book in the library and began reading it. I’d heard of the TV series, of course, but had never watched it, and assumed that it was a kind of extended version of Braveheart.

I was rather pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t, and that it was actually worth reading.  I doubt that I’ll read the whole series, though. The first volume is over 700 pages, and there are still another six volumes to go.

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Darkness suspended, a novel by Jurie Schoeman

Darkness SuspendedDarkness Suspended by Jurie Schoeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was an absorbing read, at least for me.

Perhaps one of the reasons I found it so absorbing is that it was in a familiar setting. It is set in Pretoria about 15 years ago, 2004-2005, and so a lot of the scenes are familiar. I’ve had coffee and been to the bookshop in Brooklyn Mall, and also at Greenfields in Hatfield (alas, no more!). We’ve many times taken visitors sightseeing on the road past Fort Klapperkop and looked across to the Union Buildings and then gone there.

Was it just its familiarity that made it interesting?

No, I think it’s more than that. The characters are interesting too, and so one sympathises with them in their ups and downs. It’s a crime novel and a romance novel, a love story. And the crime is true to life. It’s not a whodunit. You know who did it, but you see how crime affects the perpetrators and the victims.

The protagonist is the Revd Nigel Jones, the youth pastor of a Baptist Church in the well-to-do eastern suburbs of Pretoria. His closest friends are a fairly wealthy doctor and the manager of a security company — the latter is his running partner, and they take their running seriously, entering marathons and the like.

The things that happen to them test Nigel’s faith, and that of his friends. And that is perhaps the most realistic part of the book. I’ve read many crime novels, but the crimes that take place in them are remote. I don’t know anyone who has experienced anything like that. The crimes and passions and temptations and sins and setbacks experienced in this novel come much closer to home.

So the picture the book draws of life in the “rainbow nation”, or at least the middle-class part of it, in 2005, is absolutely authentic. And that makes it worth a read.

The book has some flaws, too.

It is self-published, and was obviously prepared for publication with a word processor designed for business reports, and it is formatted more like a business report than a novel. The prose could have been tightened up with more editing, and some of the word choices could have been improved — “staunch”, for example, is not a good description of a facial expression.

But those errors were minor and did not get in the way of a good story.

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One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been aware of Ken Kesey for a long time, since I’ve read books by or about people he associated with, like Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. I’ve also been aware of this book for a long time, and knew it was set in a lunatic asylum, but had never read it before.

But though I have known about it for a long time, it was not long enough. I should have read it in my late teens or early twenties, which was when I was most concerned about the boundaries between sanity and madness. That was when I most appreciated Ginsberg’s poem Howl, written for his friend Carl Solomon, who had the electric shock therapy that was then a fashionable treatment for certain kinds of mental illness.

Most of the action in the book takes place in a ward of a mental hospital, presided over by a tyrannical nurse, whose measure of her patients’ progress is how amenable and cooperative they are with her arbitrary rules. Her rule is threatened by a new patient, McMurphy, who questions the rules and the values behind them, and keeps demanding changes, while the nurse keeps threatening him with electric shock therapy.

The book was written in 1960 and published in 1962, and that is when I should have read it. Like Ken Kesey, I was too late for the Beat Generation and too early for the hippies. Americans seem to have names or letters for all sorts of generations, but no one mentions ours, the Beat-Hip Generation.

In 1960 I was studying Sociology I at Wits University. The Sociology Department was presided over by Professor G.K. Engelbrecht, a disciple of the functionalist school, whose mantra was “youth must adjust”. The function of social institutions, like schools, churches, universities, families and all the rest was to facilitate the adjustment process.  Those who failed to adjust were dysfunctional members of society, and, in extreme cases, were labelled as mentally ill, and that is what the book is about. Mental illness carried a stigma, the stigma of failure to adjust.

It is no longer mental illness, but mental health that carries a stigma

All that has changed. Psychology in the 1960s was all about -phrenias and -pathys, which have all but disappeared. Today it is no longer mental illness, but mental health that carries a stigma.

Halfway through my year of Sociology I with Prof G.K. Engelbrecht I went to a student conference where an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, read a paper on Pilgrims of the Absolute, which pointed out how countercultural Christianity really was, and characterised “adjustment” as the selling of one’s heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world. As for one’s mental balance, the devil take it, and indeed he took it long ago. What happened at the Fall? The whole world lost its balance; why should I be concerned about keeping mine?

So in the book McMurphy is a disruptive influence in the ward, at least in the eyes of the nurse, but he manages to secure a brief respite for some of the patients when he organises a deep-sea fishing trip away from the hospital, and they have to cope with all kinds of obstacles that threaten to scupper it. Are the loonies managing to function in a sane society, or are they in fact the only sane ones in a mad society where everyone seems out to get them and make their lives miserable?

In some ways McMurphy is a secular version of the Fool for Christ. He plays the part of the silly fool, and the English word “silly” is derived from the Greek saloi, which means blessed.

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Urban fantasy, mediocrity, and the male torso

I’ve become interested in literary genres recently, mainly because I’ve been reading several books that are difficult to classify. I’ve been looking for books that are similar to those of Charles Williams, and someone said that they belonged in the urban fantasy genre.

I would definitely include two of Charles Williams’s novels in the urban fantasy genre — All Hallows Eve and Descent into Hell. They are not my favourite Williams novels, but they are certainly urban fantasy, so I added them to the urban fantasy list on GoodReads, where Descent into Hell is rated 2657th along with Sign of Chaos by Roger Zelazny, and The Rakam by Karpov Kinrade.

It seems that I was the only person who voted for it, so if you think it deserves better company, please go there and vote for it too.

I’m not sure, though, that moving it further up the list would put it into better company,. because at the top of the list, with 2631 votes, is City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, the reviews of which do not inspire much confidence.

And it’s not just the reviews. It’s the cover, which features a faceless male torso.

The faceless male torso seems to be a meme, or trope, or whatever you call it, that is featured on about one in ten books nowadays. I recently entered my latest book, The Year of the Dragon, in a book cover competition, and in those competitions there is almost always at least one cover with a faceless male torso.

It seems a rather odd thing to have on a book cover, and it makes me think of the the title, though not of the content, of a book by C.S. Lewis, Till we have Faces.

I checked to see what lists Till we have Faces was on, and it was only on one — Novels for grown-ups by authors better known for their children’s books. I added it to The Best of Mythic Fiction list, and one other. Again, go there and vote for it if you think it deserves to be found by more people.

Dropping back down from the face to the torso again for a moment, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams did once publish a book about the Arthurian torso. It might have been better known if it had been published with an illustration, like one of these.

That should keep us going till we have faces.

Now, back to literary genres, and especially urban fantasy.

Another book that I thought belonged in the urban fantasy genre, and I think it is the best urban fantasy novel I have ever read, is Elidor by Alan Garner. Yet it is 1727th in the urban fantasy list, and it seems that I was the only person who voted for it. If you’ve read it and think it deserves better, please go and vote for it here. If you haven’t read it and like urban fantasy, or think you do, please add it to your to-read list right now.

 

Literary Coffee Klatsch: Books Mentioned

Here are some of the books mentioned at our literary coffee klatsch in April 2019:

David Levey said he enjoyed poems by Theodore Roethke, who writes poetry about ordinary things, but very good poems.

At a book club he belonged to they had been reading Educated, by Tara Westover, a memoir about growing up up a survivalist family with parents who did not believe in education, especially for daughters. This was also linked to works by Octavia Butler.

I have been reading books by John Connolly, and a memoir of Zakes Mda, in a strange order, described here. The John Connolly books I have finished reading and reviewed are The Wrath of Angels and Dark Hollow. These both feature private detective Charlie “Bird” Parker, but if you are going to read any of that series I strongly recommend beginning with the first one, Every Dead Thing, which I am reading now. There is so much in the later books in the series that refers back to events in this one that it really is important to begin at the beginning.

Also, to get a different idea of John Connolly I read The Book of Lost Things, which is a stand alone fantasy book that does not feature detective Charlie Parker. This one belongs to a sub-genre, which one could call “the boy with sick mother who finds himself in another world” genre. Other books in this genre are The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, and The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis.In my view The Book of Lost Things is better than the former but not as good as the latter.

I mentioned in one of my earlier reviews that I thought that John Connolly had seemed to be developing in the opposite direction to Phil Rickman, whose books started off spooky, like The Wine of Angels and Candlenight and gradually seem to be becoming mundane whodunits in the vein of Miss Marple. Connolly seemed to be going the other way, from mundane whodunits to spooky, but in reading Every Dead Thing I see that the spooky stuff was there from the start.

Another thing about Phil Rickman’s books is that they say quite a lot about the current ethos of the Church of England and the Church of Wales, and we mentioned other authors who had written in a similar vein — the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope, some novels by Ernest Raymond in the early to mid-20th century such as The Chalice and the Sword, novels of Susan Howatch such as Glittering Images, and, for a South African flavour, Expiring Frog by Elizabeth Webster.

For the most horrific and horrible horror novel we voted for The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams. And for books that would have been better off without sequels, Duncton Wood by William Horwood (in the same genre as Watership Bown by Richard Adams), To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller.

That’s about it for April 2019.

 

 

The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost ThingsThe Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading a couple of whodunits by John Connolly I thought I would see what he wrote in another genre, and this one is fantasy of the “child entering another world” kind, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Unlike those other books, however, I think this one, though it has a child protagonist, is not really for child readers. I find it rather difficult to put my finger on why I think that. On the surface, at least, it looks as though it should be good for children to read. Twelve-year-old David, mourning his dead mother, resentful of his father for remarrying, and jealous of his younger half-brother, by the end of the story has learned to cope with those things in his life. It should surely be instructive for children who face similar conditions in their lives, which many do. But somehow this one isn’t that kind of book.

The Book of Lost Things seems more violent and cruel than the other books mentioned. In the other books there is violence or bloodshed, or the threat of it (“off with his head!”), and there is cruelty (“intercision” in His Dark Materials) but here it somehow seems to be told with more relish, and seems harsher and more cruel.

In this respect it is more like The Talisman by Peter Straub and Stephen King. That book also has a twelve-year-old protagonist with a sick mother, but this one, I think, is better told, and has a much more convincing fantasy world (see my review of The Talisman here). So why did I give them both four stars? On a ten-star scale I would have given The Talisman seven stars, and this one eight.

So if you liked The Talisman I think you might like this one more, but just because it is a book about a child, don’t think it is a book for children. I suppose I might have enjoyed reading it as a child from about the age of 11 onwards, but it’s still not as children’s book.

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Dark Hollow

Dark Hollow (Charlie Parker, #2)Dark Hollow by John Connolly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently read The Wrath of Angels by John Connolly, and realised that I had forgotten much of the plot of this one,which was on our shelves, and which I had read 18 years earlier. So I reread it to get an idea of where it had started. Both books feature Connolly’s private detective character, Charlie “Bird” Parker but the books are very different.

What struck me on re-reading this one is that Connolly seems to be going in the opposite direction to Phil Rickman. Rickman started writing spooky supernatural stories, but his exorcist character, Merrily Watkins, is gradually reinventing herself as an amateur detective. Connolly’s Charlie Parker seems to be going the other way, from private detective to exorcist, but the weapons of his warfare are very carnal indeed, doing his exorcisms with a Smith & Wesson rather than with holy water. I’m not sure that it works too well.

But there is little of that in Dark Hollow, which is a straightforward whodunit in which the police and a crime syndicate are looking for the same man, Billy Purdue, Purdue is a suspect in the murder of his wife and son, and the mob believe he stole their money, so both the police and the crime bosses are after him..Only Charlie Parker thinks that there could be someone else, but more and more people who are connected with Billy Purdue are getting killed.

There is barely a hint of the spooky stuff that features so prominently in The Wrath of Angels however, so I’m left wondering where it started to come in to the Charlie Parker series. In the library I found a book midway between the two I have now read, The Black Angel. Perhaps that will give me a clue to the change.

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The Wrath of Angels (book review)

The Wrath of Angels (Charlie Parker, #11)The Wrath of Angels by John Connolly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not quite sure what to make of this book. I read a previous book, Dark Hollow by the same author, featuring the same protagonist, private detective Charlie “Bird” Parker, but that was 19 years ago, and 9 books in the series ago. There seems to be a lot to catch up, and a lot that is unexplained, though I’m not sure I want to read all the intervening nine novels in order to catch up.

In this one it seems that everyone is wanting to get hold of a list of names from a crashed plane, but who compiled the list, and what the significance of the names is, is not disclosed. There are also other lists of names circulating and it seems that people are prepared to kill to get hold of these lists or to stop others from getting hold of them. It seems that there are several rival parties in competition for the lists, some of them demonised and others who are not, but who suspect each other of being demonised. So the good guys go around with armed bodyguards, which seems a bit too physical for facing spiritual threats.

For a while I thought it might develop into the “supernatural thriller” genre represented by the works of Charles Williams, but it tended to be a bit too physical for that. There were some nice touches of a mysterious historical legend, but nothing much seemed to come of it. Perhaps it will be developed in the next in the series, perhaps not. But too much in this one seemed to depend on knowledge of the backstory.

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Judging a book by its cover

For the week 10-17 March 2019 my book The Year of the Dragon is participating in a competition to see which of 10 books has the best cover. I’m inviting you to go to this site — Cover Wars — and vote for it every day during this week.

Of course, if you think that one of the other covers is better, you can vote for that, but I think the cover of The Year of the Dragon is the best, so I hope you will vote for it seven times over the next week.

Because the image of the cover on the Cover Wars site is rather small, I’m posting a bigger version here to make it easier to judge it. And remember, you are being asked to judge the cover, not the whole book, so even if you think it’s a crummy book, you can still vote for the cover.

The cover was designed my son Simon Hayes, who is a freelance computer illustrator and animator. You can see more of his work and his current projects here.

Some people have asked about where they can get a copy of the book itself.  It is an ebook, and you can click on the icon of the book on the Cover Wars site, or click here to get to the Smashwords site where you can order it. It is also available from other ebook retailers. If you’d like to know more about the book and how it came to be written, see here: The Year of the Dragon.

As the graphic on the right says, one of the ways in which you can support artists is to share it with friends, and one of the ways you can do that is to share this post on social media. You can do that quite easily by clicking on one or more of the sharing buttons at the bottom of this post. If you see this on Facebook, you can both “share” and “like” it. If you got an email message about this, please forward it to friends or family members.

And we also have another artist in our family; our daughter Julia Bridget Hayes is an ikonographer living in Athens, Greece, and you can see her work here.

 

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