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Reading Present [Feb. 13th, 2010|02:19 pm]
Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish
Unforeseen positive side effect of becoming a parent: I've become a reader of books again. In fact I've probably read more novels in the past three weeks than I did in quite a few of the years of my late-twenties-early-thirties (a somewhat shameful statistic). Here's some reviews, in easy-to-swallow capsule form.

Mistress Masham's Repose, by TH White. Billed as something of a "lost classic" because everyone still remembers The Sword in the Stone, but not so much this; I suspect this is because (a) it never got the Disney treatment, and (b) the title is spectacularly undescriptive of the content. This is in fact a neat little sequel to Gulliver's Travels, with Lilliputians living in hiding in the grounds of a run-down British stately home. Their discoverer, the 10-year-old Maria, must also survive the machinations of two vile, Dahl-esque adults, her governess and the marvellously named reverend, Mr Hater. The writing style is frequently superb, especially in some of the comic portraits; it does veer off into a few odd philosophical essays about people of one size lording it over people of another, which I suppose to be authentically Swiftian, but might be too hard for modern 10 year olds. Much like Gulliver's Travels itself, probably. 7/10

The Mind Parasites, by Colin Wilson. An allegedly Lovecraftian work, in practice a few early references to the canon, as the archaeologist narrator discovers evidence of an impossibly ancient city buried far below the surface, are red herrings, and Wilson gets on with expounding his own personal ideas. Which are quite interesting: that there is much unexplored space inside the human mind as there is out of it, and that humanity's massive potential has been systematically blocked by alien "mind parasites" for the past few centuries, explaining why in recent centuries human genius seems to have gone hand-in-hand with a propensity for depression, self-destructive behaviour and suicide. Unfortunately the author very quickly drops the pretence of writing an interesting novel around these ideas: there are many named characters, but zero characterisation beyond being one of the 5% of humanity with the mental potential to be more than a sheep; only one of these "outsiders" is a woman, other females mentioned only in terms of their usefulness in satisying geniuses' sexual needs; and there's no plot or action to speak of beyond lazy, token gestures. Strangely finishable, but I haven't felt this much contempt for a science fiction "novel of ideas" since Asimov's Foundation, and I was very young back then. 4/10

Outside The Dog Museum, by Jonathan Carroll. For about the first third of this book, I thought it might be the most amazing thing ever. Harry Radcliffe, wunderkind architect, suffers a mental breakdown and enlists the help of a guru who does things like make him lie on the bottom of a swimming pool and watch the patterns formed by swirls of multi-coloured M&Ms bobbing on the surface. More Douglas Coupland than Douglas Coupland, in other words. But as the story wore on, I found the constant explosions of whimsy ever more irritating. While Harry sets about building a dog museum in Vienna for a magical Middle Eastern Sultan, everyone he meets may or may not be an angel or a jinn, every bizarre encounter may be coincidence or it may be God working in mysterious ways, he may be building a new Tower of Babel or I guess he may just be completely crazy. We are somehow meant to care which of two quirky women this smug genius ends up with, but neither is very interestingly drawn. The leader of the violent Islamic fundamentalist faction is called Cthulu, for no apparent reason. Nothing really gels or comes together by the end, so it must be hoped that the combined effect of all the charming mystic experiences and cryptic, partial revelations are more than the sum of the parts. For me they weren't, really. 6/10

Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman. The shocking thing about this book is not that it's a bit like Alan Moore's From Hell mixed with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but that it basically already has EVERY element that we will subsequently see in those graphic novels of Moore's. I'm willing to give Moore a pass for From Hell, as that was broadly contemporary to Anno Dracula, but I don't see how he can claim League as any kind of an original work. We shouldn't forget that Halo Jones Book 3 was a straight rip-off of Haldeman's "Forever War" and Skizz was just the plot of ET rewritten in 2000AD house style: now I'm wondering if he's ever done anything original, or if he thinks the role of a comics writer is just to reenact other people's work in a new medium, and the things that seem original to me are just the ones I haven't cottoned onto the source of yet. ANYWAY! Anno Dracula might not be deep or meaningful literature, but it's a hell of a yarn. This is a parallel universe where Van Helsing's head is on a spike outside Buckingham Palace: the vampire count has become Victoria's new Prince Consort, and the population of Great Britain is now split between the "warm" and newborn bloodsuckers, in uneasy coexistence. Meanwhile Jack the Ripper is none other than Jack Seward, hunting down and killing vampire prostitutes. Every major contemporary fictional or historical character seems to make a cameo appearance, just as in League; one of the main protagonists is the noble vampire Genevieve Dieudonne, from the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay novels I ate up in my youth; but what really sold me on Anno Dracula was an extensive showdown with the ridiculous, hopping Mr Vampire from the absurd and brilliant kung-fu movie of the same name. Then again this is a vampire novel that seemingly manages to namecheck every other vampire bloodline in all of fiction, to the extent of a reference to Blacula. Newman writes in a rollicking, page-turning style and I thought it was all absolutely superb. 9/10

The Languages of Pao, by Jack Vance. Vance is almost always a pleasure to read, just because he's such a distinctive fantasy writer, with his ornate sense of language and his unremittingly vain, self-important characters being humiliated in a variety of ways. This book is I suppose SF, but it reads like fantasy, being firmly in the "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" sphere of things. There are some very good SF ideas at its heart though: nicking some ideas from Plato's Republic, the leader of a populous planet of passive, stoic people resolves to increase his race's fortunes by creating enclosed population enclaves where the children will be brought up speaking new languages individually tailored to make of them warriors, engineers or thinkers. There are various alien races who are distinguished, and I think this is a key to good SF aliens, not by their physiology but by their different conceptual apparatuses, manifested in their languages. It never gets too heavy, though, because there are always characters with awesome names like Bustamonte, Palafox, or Buzbek of the Brumbos inflicting elaborate torments on one another. The resolution wasn't quite as neat as I was hoping, but still, this was a quick and fabulous read. 8/10

Other things on the go at the moment: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, which I am reading aloud on a chapterly basis to my new family, and which is quite beautifully written; The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, which has quite a reputation, and does seem possessed of a robust sense of humour, but whose English translation reads insufficiently well for me to think I'll get farther than about p100; and Zelazny's Jack of Shadows, my current bathroom reader, which is so pathetically sub-Vancian that I fail to understand its high reputation - my old compadre Jack Harris spoke of its Lord of Bats and Colonel Who Never Died in reverent tones, and it was nominated for a Hugo, for a start. My research indicates that it was written "in one take", never edited: maybe I'm the only person who really thinks it shows? I never did get Zelazny, though I know many who do.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: lathany
2010-02-14 10:31 am (UTC)
I agreed with you on Outside the Dog Museum (from what I now remember). Quirky, interesting, good start but didn't live up to expectations. (I haven't read the others).
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[User Picture]From: verlaine
2010-02-14 06:44 pm (UTC)
I think I might have been intending to read The Land of Laughs, since that is in various people's "top 100 fantasy novels" lists and also has a dog on the cover. I want to give Carroll more of a spin, but I'm slightly put off now.
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[User Picture]From: lathany
2010-02-14 07:55 pm (UTC)
I bought The Land of Laughs for bateleur and I reckon it's his best and worth a try on that basis. It's not error-free or anything, but if you don't like that, then I suggest giving Carroll a miss (although, OK, that's after you've invested in two books).
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[User Picture]From: undyingking
2010-02-15 11:17 am (UTC)
Carroll is better at short length I think. The Panic Hand is a good collection to look out for.
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[User Picture]From: barrysarll
2010-02-14 01:08 pm (UTC)
I dimly recall Cthulhu being an Islamic name for Satan, which might make sense of that as a nom de guerre. That was in a Call of Cthulhu sourcebook so might not actually be true, but who knows, maybe the author read it too?

I love Zelazny's SF, but his fantasy really winds me up.

The difference between Moore and Newman is that the Dracula books get ever less rewarding as they go on, while LoEGhas moved from a first volume whose entire pleasure was in the concept, to become something increasingly powerful and substantial.
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[User Picture]From: verlaine
2010-02-14 06:52 pm (UTC)
I didn't realise there were sequels to Anno Dracula! Hmm, I don't know where it would be worth taking it from the first one. I can sadly imagine Newman writing more just for the cheques.

I suppose the initial fun of LoEG was creating a 19th century superteam - the Justice League of Victoriana. If he does manage to extend the scope backwards and forwards through all history and create a Unified Theory of Pulp Fiction I suppose that will be a major accomplishment...
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[User Picture]From: barrysarll
2010-02-15 10:58 am (UTC)
It's not just the pulps - we've already had a Shakespeare character make an appearance, after all.

Part of the problem with the Newmans is that they never quite explain how from a given period, massively derailed by the real existence of all its fictional characters, we nonetheless manage to get to the next era in a recognisable form. I think this is something Moore has a much better handle on, whereas Newman just gets carried away (though I think by fun more than cash). Probably the best of the others I've read is the shorter 'Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula', which I can't really explain any further without spoiling, but is more a self-contained spin on one glorious concept.
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[User Picture]From: undyingking
2010-02-15 11:24 am (UTC)
IIRC The Mind Parasites was written in response to a challenge from August Derleth, after Wilson had slagged Lovecraft off as a rubbish writer. So the book (which I haven't read) may have been intended as a further dismissal rather than any kind of tribute.

Wilson was a rather strange and interesting phenomenon of literary lionization when he first came to notice with The Outsider. The mainstream world worked out fairly quickly that he was actually a loon, but SF was less unkind.
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[User Picture]From: annasilverlight
2010-02-14 03:24 pm (UTC)
Oh, persevere with The Master and Margarita. It will draw you in if you do...
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[User Picture]From: verlaine
2010-02-14 06:55 pm (UTC)
Damn it, I was worried someone might say that, now I might have to!

I discovered Victoria Library's online reserve function the other week so now I have about 10 books out at any given time... how am I going to read all of them before due date? <panics>
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[User Picture]From: serizawa3000
2010-02-14 09:59 pm (UTC)
If memory serves (and I feel like I've mentioned this before), Anno Dracula owes much to the late Philip jose Farmer's concept of the Wold Newton Universe, wherein the numerous characters of adventure and mystery fiction et al (Tarzan, Doc Savage, G-8 and his Battle Aces, Sherlock) coexist at once due to some sort of cosmic event, and some of them are related to each other. Newman and Moore took this concept and ran with it, tossing aside the science-fictiony explanation in favor of a simple "they just coexist!" kind of reason.

The Bloody Red Baron is probably my favorite of the Anno Dracula novels, but the third one (Judgment of Tears aka Dracula Cha Cha Cha) is fun...
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[User Picture]From: verlaine
2010-02-15 12:37 am (UTC)
Victoria Public Library has The Bloody Red Baron and Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke, so I've put a hold on both of those. (Tarzan Alive is apparently in their non-fiction biography section, which made me laugh.)

The Wold Newton Universe seems to be rather extensive and difficult to pin down to a few key texts - can you suggest a strategy for investigating it further?
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[User Picture]From: serizawa3000
2010-02-15 03:29 am (UTC)

Wold Newton

This website has some extensive info about it:

http://www.pjfarmer.com/woldnewton/Pulp.htm
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[User Picture]From: onebyone
2010-03-03 03:03 pm (UTC)
Every major contemporary fictional or historical character seems to make a cameo appearance, just as in League; one of the main protagonists is the noble vampire Genevieve Dieudonne, from the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay novels I ate up in my youth

Hmm. If an author's going to shove the same character into everything he writes, irrespective of genre, then I think I prefer Jerry Cornelius.
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[User Picture]From: verlaine
2010-03-03 04:32 pm (UTC)
In fairness Anno Dracula does have every vampire ever in it; it would have shown remarkable restraint for Newman to omit the heroine of his own vampire fiction. He seems to have phased her out of the second book in the series, which is sad because I have a crush on her.
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[User Picture]From: onebyone
2010-03-03 04:36 pm (UTC)
I have a crush on her

I'm not sure it's physically possible to finish a Jack Yeovil novel if you don't.
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[User Picture]From: verlaine
2010-03-03 06:05 pm (UTC)
Admittedly I haven't achieved that feat since my teens, but I do now own a 750-page Warhammer-Fantasy Genevieve collection, so wish me luck!
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[User Picture]From: onebyone
2010-03-03 06:14 pm (UTC)
Indeed, good luck or if not then a speedy recovery.
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