Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Swan Song

I meant to read The Stand.

Stephen King’s magnum opus had been on the reading pile for some time, and at 1200 pages, it seemed like the perfect thing for the long and inevitably dull plane ride I was about to take. I added the book to my Amazon cart and was about to proceed to checkout when I got distracted and a series of clicks led me to this book called Swan Song by Robert McCammon. I’d never heard of it, but if the reviews were to be believed, it was something to swear by: a well-imagined post-apocalyptic epic with a terrific cast of characters, clocking in at over 850 pages. One guy compared the writing to that of Richard Matheson.

“Once upon a time, man had a love affair with fire.”
“Once upon a time, man had a love affair with fire.”

I bought Swan Song instead The Stand.

I started reading it on the plane. An hour zipped by and I was nearly a hundred pages in. It was good. Disarmingly good. Some cynical part of me waited for McCammon to run out of steam, or tricks, or whatever the hell he was using to power this magnificent show, but it never happened. The further I read, the better it got, and the more annoyed I’d be at having to stop for other things (like dinner). It was some of the finest escapism I’d ever experienced.

Escapism is a four-letter word to many people, which is regrettable and exasperating in equal measure. I addressed this attitude at some length a few years ago, but for the purposes of this review it should suffice to say I think escapism can be a very good and healthy thing, and that it should be encouraged, particularly where children are concerned. It is a way of better understanding reality. In A Slip of the Keyboard, Terry Pratchett argues that “fantasy should present the familiar in a new light… It’s a way of looking at the here and now, not the there and then.

Fantasy is the Ur-literature, from which everything else sprang – which is why my knuckles go white when toe-sucking literary critics dismiss it as ‘genre trash.’ And, at its best, it is truly escapist. But the point about escaping is that you should escape to, as well as from. You should go somewhere worthwhile, and come back the better for the experience. Too much alleged ‘fantasy’ is just empty sugar, life with the crusts cut off. (p. 100)

Swan Song isn’t fantasy, not in the typical sense of the word, but it gets “the point about escaping” right at just about every turn. McCammon’s world achieves an otherness that is alien yet familiar – a frame over which he stretches a canvas streaked with fairytale hues and flecked with western, sci-fi, horror, allegory, and old-fashioned romance. It’s a story of good and evil, of beauty and hope in the midst of terrible violence, peopled with characters who will haunt your heart long after you’ve moved on to other things.

To go into greater detail would be to spoil the experience, which would make me a terrible person. That’s not a copout, either. It’s just the truth. If I haven’t already convinced you to read Swan Song, I never will. But I hope I have.

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Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth, the dark swollen currants in the spotted dick were tangy in the cake-thick chewy blandness of the pudding, and perhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock.”

o-OCEAN-AT-THE-END-OF-THE-LANE-facebookOne of the first novels I read this year was Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Wonderful, wonderful book. The day I finished it, I wrote, “I know it’s only January, but I can’t imagine reading another novel this year that’s half as magical as this one.”

We now approach the end of March and I stand by my prediction. Like N.D. Wilson and the late Sir Terry Pratchett, Gaiman is one of a handful of contemporary fiction writers I feel it my solemn duty to recommend to everyone I meet.  (On that note, if you’re looking for somewhere to start, pick up Coraline. You can’t go wrong with it.)

And while it’s a popular style of compliment among reviewers to call this or that novel “like nothing I’ve ever read before,” I can’t say this of Ocean. It would be untrue, and further, it would be damning it with faint praise. It is because I have read something like it before that Ocean is such a formidable bit of storytelling.

Gaiman is no hack – the very idea is farcical. But he is carrying on a tradition, and the mantle of writers like C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander looks rather splendid draped across his shoulders. I can’t help but think they would be chuffed to see it worn so well.

In Ocean‘s opening pages, our protagonist (nameless throughout the story) declares his affection for the myths of old: “They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.”

How fitting that Gaiman’s own story should achieve this very quality. Did you ever stand in your pajamas under a full moon, no shoes, just your naked feet touching the ground? Ocean is like that: a perfect marriage of the tangible and the transcendent. In a word, timeless.

Thank God, the fairy tale lives.

Book Review: Boys of Blur

18209370“When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame…”

Every now and again you get your hands on a book that feels older than it really is.  The pages are appley crisp, the publishing date not long past, but you’d swear there’s an old soul humming inside the polished dust jacket. I felt that way about N.D. Wilson’s first novel, Leepike Ridge, and I feel that way about his latest, Boys of Blur.

It takes a special kind of nerve to mix football, Beowulf, panthers, and grave-robbing into any kind of coherent narrative, let alone one with emotional tonnage, but NDW – like his father, never lacking in the Chutzpah Dept. – does both in Boys of Blur. It’s a parable and a romp. I do wish the Gren were allotted more “screen time”, and a few of the plot points could’ve used more time in the oven. Despite these faults, I liked the story enormously, and it grows on me even now, a week after finishing it. There’s something Wilson has always had going for him: staying power.

His writing, too. There are scenes rendered with such magic and perfection – boys gone rabbit-hunting through fiery cane fields, Charlie chasing a panther across a crowded football stadium – that they seem immediately aged, enduring as Tom Sawyer and whitewashing and fences.

I mentioned Beowulf. Wilson tips his helm more than once to that ancient saga, especially near the end. Boy, was that delicious.  “Thanks to my pops,” Wilson writes in the acknowledgements, “for first introducing me to Beowulf and the growling rhythms of Anglo-Saxon, and for his own brilliant verse rendering.”

I’ll drink to that. Pass the mead.

Book Review: Foucault’s Pendulum

foucaultspendulumLast week I did the unthinkable and put down a book I’d only half finished. Put it down, I say, with no intention of picking it back up again – a sign of readerly metamorphosis if there was one. Get Kafka on the phone pronto.

Foucault’s Pendulum is the book I could not bring myself to finish, and while I do regret having to shelve it, I’m happy to be rid of the thing. Eco’s writing is terrific, but he’s a smothersome storyteller with a fetish for excruciating detail – a tolerable idolatry so long as the story is going, you know, somewhere. Forty five chapters and three hundred pages in, the pendulum had hardly budged, and all the Templars and conspiracy theories in the world can’t save you then.

A few months ago, dropping any book halfway through would have been unconscionable, so what gives? Between work, planning, and other writing commitments, my reading time now is significantly less than it used to be. (This isn’t a complaint, just a bald fact.) I’m more jealous of that time as a result: less forgiving of books that seem to be wasting it, and unwilling to invest energy into that which is not enjoyable, or enlightening, or at the very least, interesting. Three strikes, and Foucault’s Pendulum was thrown out on its ear.

It’s not that I don’t like a good challenge. It’s not that my tastes beg for blazing guns, mad scientists, and rubber-melting car chases. When I read a story, however, I do expect to enjoy myself. Enjoyment isn’t everything, but it is something, particularly where a novel is concerned.

You know that feeling you get when you’re stranded in the middle of the ocean in a crappy inflatable with no rations left? No? Well, try to imagine it. No land in sight, no breeze, and a whole lotta sun. You start to go mad. You see things. You sink your teeth into a juicy chicken drumstick, and then realize it’s your arm.  You need to be rescued. Soon. Preferably before the sharks come or you dine on your own flesh.

Can you picture it? Feel it? Good. That was me reading Foucault’s Pendulum. That was me trying to cope with the stodgy characters, the Byzantine plot lines, the seemingly everlasting descriptions of occult rituals. It all seems like super important stuff, until you realize that what you mistook for intellectual sophistication is really just an elegant, overindulgent mind-fart.

There. I’ve said my piece.

Here I stand. I can do no other.

Carry on, Jeeves.