Friday, August 23, 2013

All Cry Chaos

All Cry Chaos should have been a natural book for me to love.  A thriller based around the mathematics of chaos theory is right up my alley.  And, indeed, I liked it, but it had some nagging issues that kept me from really loving it.

Author Jonathon Rosen has a nice breezy style when explaining the basics of fractals (though it's a bit rough around the edges).  Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, he loses the fact that chaos means that you can't arbitrarily predict things, even with the right equations, because you're limited by the accuracy of your starting point.  It's a somewhat academic point, but it means that his characters shouldn't be able to game the stock market as much as they do, even granting an equation which could predict prices.

Another issue that bothered me was the American-centric nature of the writing.  The main character French, but he thinks, for example, that a person has "eyes like Charles Manson," or hair like Ronald Reagan's.  It's pretty jarring, though it probably wouldn't work to put in the French equivalent of Manson -- I and most of the audience wouldn't know who that person is.  Instead, a simile without reference to a person would've been a better bet.

On the other hand, the plot moves reasonably well.  Rosen tries to bring some philosophical depth to the story with musings on the nature of math, society, and God, although it didn't feel integral to the story.


Horns is Joe Hill's sophomore effort, after Heart Shaped Box, which I enjoyed very much.  Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy Horns nearly as much.  Although individual parts are well-written, the whole didn't hang together for me.

One of Hill's strengths is his characters.  The major characters feel alive, especially /Merrin, the love interest of the piece.  Through the course of the novel, she seems to grow from an idealized image to a fully fleshed-out person.  On the other hand, he doesn't give nearly as much attention to his minor characters.  They're there to give protagonist Ig something to react against, and aren't much more than props.  (This includes Ig's father and mother, who should by rights have been ore important characters).

My bigger problem with the novel, though, is structural.  Ig wakes up one morning with horns growing out of his head, and finds himself gradually adopting the powers of the devil.  But it's pretty random -- why does it happen?  Why does Merrin's crucifix block his power, but others don't?  Why do people start telling him what they think of him -- that's not really a power associated with the devil?  I get that fantasy novels don't always have a good rationale behind them, and horror novels even less so, but even Ig wonders about some of these questions, foregrounding the fact that they make no sense.  Yet this also isn't presented as some kind of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, where you'll never understand what's going on because your brain is just too limited.

Individual sections work pretty well in isolation.  Hill knows how to write a compelling scene.  But, unlike Heart Shaped Box, which felt satisfying on every level, Horns didn't really deliver for me.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1

I was going to post regularly about The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but life has a habit of getting in the way.  But I just want to mark that I finished vol. 1.  In this volume, Gibbon lays out at least some of his thesis on the decline and fall.  In his view, Rome didn't have the civil apparatus for an orderly transfer of power, and so all too often, the Empire ended up in some sort of strife as rival claimants to the throne tried to grab it.  Even when that wasn't the case, the rivals would try to bribe the army, leading to an overweening armed force that was difficult to control.

He views the monarchy as an antidote to this problem.  You may not always have a good ruler, but at least there's an orderly succession in place, and everyone knows what it is.  (Although he glosses over things like, say, the fight between Mary and Elizabeth I).  He doesn't believe in popular government, because rival claimants will try to hold on to the throne by appealing to the mob or the army -- Gibbon can't seem to envision a popular election system where there's also an orderly transfer of power.

He also begins the process of working out his other great theme, the harmful effect Christianity had on the Empire.  His famous 16th chapter is savage on the subject of Christianity's claims to truth, but he doesn't really yet enter into the larger effect of Christianity on the Empire.  I eagerly look forward to reading vol. 2.

The Sun's Bride

Gillian Bradshaw's first few novels were historical fantasy, which I enjoyed very much back in my mis-spent youth.  But then she pretty much dropped off my radar, and it turns out she's switched to straight historical fiction, no fantasy involved.  Out of nostalgia as much as anything, I picked up The Sun's Bride, a novel set in and around Rhodes in 246 BCE, although I'm not much of a historical fiction buff.

I had mixed feelings about this novel.  I'm still not a huge fan of historical novels, but Bradshaw avoids most of the pitfalls that bug me.  One of the biggies is characters with modern attitudes in historical times -- Bradshaw avoids this one completely.  Her characters are steeped in a culture where slavery is the norm, and even the hero doesn't particularly object to it.

My other problem with historical novels is that they tend to throw in all the major actors of the time -- a Civil War novel will find a reason to introduce Lincoln; a Roman novel will throw in Caesar, Cicero, and a host of others.  Here, Bradshaw falls a bit into this trap.  We end up encountering both Laodike, who triggered the Laodicean War between Egypt and Syria, and the King of Mycenae (although mostly in passing).  Bradshaw makes it believable, but still...

On the other hand, Bradshaw is a good story-teller, and has a gift for making ancient Rhodes feel alive.  I'd probably read more of her novels, but I'm also not in a huge rush to do so.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Mansfield Park

Up until a couple of weeks ago, Mansfield Park was the only Jane Austen book I hadn't read through to the end, and I decided to rectify that situation.  Fanny Price, the heroine, is pretty mousy, and her cousin Edward, the love interest, is a fairly dry character, so Austen has handicapped herself right out of the gate.  (Elizabeth Bennett is most of the attraction of Pride and Prejudice, as Emma Woodhouse is in Emma.)

But, this time, I knew those facts going in, which made a difference -- I knew that the main characters are not at all witty, so I could stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Instead, it's easier to focus on the secondary characters, who are as well-drawn as any in the Austen oeuvre.  Their arcs are also the least predictable of any -- one is constantly kept guessing as to whether Mr. Crawford will redeem himself; whether Mary Crawford will be a good friend to Fanny Price; and so on.

Mansfield Park is still, I think, a hard novel to recommend.  Its earnestness is less appealing than the play of her more famous novels, or even of Northanger Abbey, which I enjoyed more than Mansfield Park.

Riders of the Purple Sage, War of the Worlds

Riders of the Purple Sage and War of the Worlds are each books that helped define a genre, Westerns and science fiction respectively.  But the former has dated very badly in the intervening century, while the latter is still one of the best books of its kind.

I don't know whether Riders was published as a pulp novel, but it certainly embodies the worst sins of the pulps -- cardboard characters, purple prose, racist (or anti-Mormon in the case).  I couldn't finish the novel, so maybe it has sterling qualities in the last 2/3, but it's hard for me to see why this novel is still read today.

War of the Worlds doesn't have memorable characters, either, although at less than half the length of Riders we don't feel the lack so much.  But the novel is memorable for its description of the quick descent in chaos, as the area surrounding London is ravaged by the Martians.  The novel is notable for its pitilessness.  Wells seems to say, "Just as humans had no mercy on the dodo, why should they expect any from others?"

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wives and Daughters

Elizabeth Gaskell's final novel, Wives and Daughters, reminded me more than a little of George Elliot's writing, particularly Middlemarch.  It's set some time before her present, unlike her more contemporary novels (such as North and South), which tend to focus on the effects of industrialization.  Also like Middlemarch, Wives and Daughters follows the intertwined fortunes of three families within a small area.  Since I loved Middlemarch, this resemblance is not a bad thing.

Gaskell's hand is a little heavier than Elliot's, particularly with Mrs. Gibson, the least sympathetic character of the piece.  But, on the whole, the novel has a lot of solid characters, all well-delineated.  I think Cynthia the most interesting character, always on the verge of disgrace yet still sympathetic.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Windup Bird Chronicle

2/3 of the way through volume 2!  We get the second part of Crete Kano's story, in which Wataya somehow "defiled" her.  Even by Murakami's standards, this is pretty obscure.  It seems that, if anything, Wataya saved her from herself.  It'll be interesting to see how the defilement idea plays out over the rest of the novel.

Also obscure is the mark on the narrator's face.  It's clearly got a symbolic function, but I'm at a loss right now to know what it is.

Monday, August 5, 2013

This Side of Paradise

This Side of Paradise was F. Scott Fitzgerald's most successful book during his lifetime, more so than The Great Gatsby, so I was curious to see what it was like.  The answer is, it's beautifully written, but also a bit of a mess.

This autobiographical novel follows the adventures of a rather feckless youth as he grows up and becomes a pretty callow young man.  I must say that, to the extent the novel is autobiographical, Fitzgerald seems to have had a bitingly merciless self-awareness.  Amory Blaine, the protagonist, is a total poseur, constantly trying to decide how he should stand, sit, talk, etc, based on how others might see him doing those things.  Amory is also pretentious and self-absorbed, and Fitzgerald's skewering is spot-on there, too.  Unfortunately, I felt like Amory is not strong enough to bear the whole weight of a novel -- after all, it's not too hard to make fun of a 17-year-old for being pretentious.  (Or even a 19-year-old Princeton student).

I should mention Fitzgerald's formal experiments in this novel.  I've read a couple of his other novels and short stories, and this, his first, is far & away the most formally innovative.  Fitzgerald switches into screenplay mode at one point, poetry at others, and so on.  The novel was published in 1920, which means it was written while Ulysses was still being serialized.  Seen in that light, the young Fitzgerald was definitely an experimenter.  It's too bad that the novel's contents are less interesting than its form.


Dis-enchanted starts out like a Terry Pratchett kind of fantasy, silly footnotes and all. But, after a while, author Robert Kroese manages to find his own voice.  Unfortunately, it's not a particularly interesting one.  It's not bad or anything like that, I just didn't find the novel particularly compelling.

The various twists at the end, instead of being surprising, feel arbitrary.  This novel began life as a serial novel, and it feels like Kroese got to a certain point and realized that it wasn't really working for him.  In particular, the driving force of the story turns out to be an accident that could have been easily overcome at any point in the story.  In short, I'd say that Dis-Enchanted is successful on the micro level (the jokes are pretty consistently chuckle-worthy), but not so much on the macro plot level.