Friday, May 28, 2004

Booking It!

As some of you may have noticed (although perhaps not all that many of you), it's been a long, long while since I last updated my book review pages. There are a lot of reasons for that: I'm reading far fewer books lately (alas), so I have far fewer books to review. The website has long since become rather large and unwieldy, and really, really needs a major redesign that I have neither the time nor the interest (and, OK, possibly not the HTML skills, although those can be faked) to do. And, perhaps most significantly, my tastes and standards have changed so much over the years since I first started doing the book reviews that it seems ludicrous to keep using the same rating system now. A book I can't bring myself to give more than a D today might well be a better book than something I gave a C+ five years ago, and how the hell do I reconcile that in any kind of consistent way?

So I may or may not return to "Betty's Book Reviews." But I still like to talk about books once in a while, doggone it, and I'm seized with a sudden desire to post some mini-reviews here.

Thus, the books I've read this month:

Starfarers by Poul Anderson: A deeply mediocre SF novel. Has some good science-fictional ideas scattered through its ~500 pages, but that's about the best thing I can say about it. Anderson is clearly conversant with the idea that his characters ought to be 3-dimensional, but he's so obviously trying to force a faked-up semblance of 3-dimensionality onto boring cardboard cutouts that it's painful to watch. It's badly-paced. And it's written in an odd style that might be interesting in a different context, but utterly fails to work for this particular story. Anderson's written better stuff. I might recommend Tau Zero or The Boat of a Million Years, both of which do some of the same thing he's trying to do in this one (namely capture something broad and sweeping in scope), but do it considerably better.

The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr: I talked about this one before, but to reiterate: The first handful of stories are reasonably competent pastiche, but generally very weak as stories. But the much stronger ones later in the collection go quite a long way towards making up for them.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury: A collection of essays on writing in general and Bradbury's own writing in particular, gathered from a fairly wide period over the course of his career. I think books on writing should come with a great big disclaimer, because I've heard many writers talking about their own individual writing processes, and have done a bit of writing myself, and it's very clear to me that the process of creative writing is a deeply individualized thing, and that trying to force oneself into a writing pattern that isn't what's natural and best for you is a certain recipe for frustration and disaster. And yet, when a writer finds a method that works for him, it's almost impossible for him to resist trumpeting about how great it is and how it's obviously right for everybody... and Bradbury isn't an exception. Still, Bradbury's own method clearly does work brilliantly for him, because he's an absolutely amazing writer. He says many true and insightful things in these essays, and says them beautifully. And the glimpses he gives into his writing and life experiences -- the two things being quite inseparable for him -- are fascinating.

The Ersatz Elevator by Lemony Snicket: This is Book 6 of the "Series of Unfortunate Events," which I'm finding to be an utterly delightful, wonderfully fun read. I'm really sorry these weren't around when I was a kid. Adult-me enjoys them, but I suspect kid-me would have loved them. That having been said, Ersatz Elevator struck me as possibly the weakest of what I've read of the series so far, though my disappointment may be in large part due to the fact that The Austere Academy, which may well be my favorite of the series so far, is kind of a tough act to follow. But it really seemed to be reaching for the satire in a way that Academy and the previous books didn't. Maybe yuppies are just harder to satirize with any subtlety than schools...

The Ancestor Cell by Peter Anghelides and Stephen Cole: This is a Doctor Who novel, one of the "Eighth Doctor" adventures, a series that I'm making my way through very, very slowly. It resolves (I think) the "Faction Paradox" plot that had been a continuing thread through the previous several books, and is in many ways a conclusion to the story arc introduced in Lawrence Miles' two-part novel Interference. Which is a shame, really, because Interference was bloody brilliant: wildly inventive, perfectly plotted, and just generally a damned good read. Whereas Ancestor Cell is a dull, muddled mess of a book. It features so many ridiculous or confusing plot elements that I eventually just sort of gave up attempting to make any sense out of them. (This may be attributable in part to the fact that it relies very heavily on knowing the events of previous books, which I had read long enough in the past to no longer remember terribly well. But I think that accounts for only a small fraction of my difficulty. Most of it, I think, was the writing.) I had a few problems with some aspects of the characterization, most notably finding it nearly impossible to suspend my disbelief as one particular character suddenly did an emotional 180-degree turn for no good reason. With the exception of a few interesting, but sadly wasted details, Gallifrey did not feel like Gallifrey. And, perhaps worst of all, Faction Paradox, who started out with the potential to be incredibly interesting bad guys, unique, complicated, and creepy, are reduced to little more than moustache-twirling, "mwahahahaha"ing cardboard villains. Sigh. I gather the ending was really controversial among Who fans and upset a lot of people. Me, I didn't have a problem with it. Indeed, in a different context, it could have been wonderfully shocking and deeply, thought-provokingly exciting. As it is, I'm just sorry that such major, important events (both for the characters and for the universe at large) came wrapped up in such an apathy-inducing package.

And, currently, I'm reading Blue Latitudes by Tony Horowitz, about the voyages of Captain Cook. Apparently the author sailed for a while on a modern replica of Cook's ship, the Endeavour, which certainly sounds interesting. Can't really comment on the book at all, since I'm only about 12 pages in, but Horowitz has definitely earned my approbation already with his extended comparison between the voyages of Cook and those of Kirk:
Like most Americans I grew up knowing almost nothing of Captain Cook, except what I learned in fifth-grade geography class. Though I didn't realize it at the time, I also absorbed his adventures through episodes of Star Trek. A suburban kid, growing up in a decade when even the moon had been conquered, I never ceased to feel a thrill at the TV show's opening words: "These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before!"

It wasn't until years later that I realized how much Star Trek echoed a true story. Captain James Cook; Captain James Kirk. The Endeavour, the Enterprise. Cook, the Yorkshire farm boy, writing in his journal that he'd sailed "farther than any other man has been before." Kirk, the Iowa farm boy, keeping his own log about boldly going "where no man has gone before!" Cook rowed jolly boats ashore, accompanied by his naturalist, his surgeon, and musket-toting, red-jacketed marines. Kirk "beamed down" to planets with the science officer Mr. Spock, Dr, McCoy, and phaser-wielding, red-jerseyed "expendables." Both captains also set out -- at least in theory -- to discover and describe new lands, rather than to conquer or convert.

OK, yeah, I admit it. I'm just unfairly biased towards books written by Trekkies...

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