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Masks of the Illuminati, by Robert Anton Wilson (Books 2008, 21)

If you had asked me a few months ago whether I had read this I’d have said yes. I thought that I had read most, if not all, of Wilson’s books that are in linked to the Illuminatus trilogy. But I’d have been wrong.

This one features James Joyce and Albert Einstein drinking in a bar in Zurich in 19??. They meet one Sir John Babcock, who has been studying magick (though from a Christian perspective) under the guidance of the Society of the Rose Cross, or Rosicrucians.

Maybe. Unless it’s something else.

Stuff happens. Magic and monsters ensue, or people are made to believe that they do.

It’s not the best or most momentous of his works, but he makes the characters of Einstein and Joyce surprisingly compelling, and Babcock is an affecting innocent abroad, and it all keeps you reading. Good stuff.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (Books 2008, 20)

Above all, this took me a loooong time to finish. Even when I was reading it steadily and thought I would just carry straight on through, it was slow going.

It’s not that hated it; or even that I didn’t like it. Nor, indeed. was the prose hard or complex. It just didn’t grab me; didn’t interest me that much. I didn’t, in the end, care that much about the characters or what happened to them. The character, really, since it’s mainly about the journalist and poet Ka.

In part, I think that’s because of the overall structure, and one or two narrative devices. It’s a third-person limited-omniscient narrative, focalised on Ka. Except it’s not: there’s a first-person narrator, a novelist called Pamuk, who is Ka’s friend, and is telling his story. He only appears directly in the novel twice, though.

So it starts out as Ka’s story, and eventually becomes a fragment of ‘Pamuk’s’. Along the way, though, while we are in the middle of the story of Ka’s few days in the Turkish border town of Kars, the end of his story is spoiled for us. It is literally spoilered, with a chapter in which is four years later, and ‘Pamuk’ is in Frankfurt, going through Ka’s things after the latter has been murdered.

We’re also told he doesn’t get the girl.

And then it’s back to the main story. And you expect me to care?

I’m not even sure you can call it a novel of character, for there, isn’t the character supposed to grow, develop, learn something? He certainly goes through various experiences, and probably does change; but I’m not sure that we can tell whether he has developed or grown, not least because we are robbed of any final scene with him, of anything on how he leaves Kars, of anything on his life afterwards. All that is only told to us as if second-hand, and in a very fragmentary, incomplete and unreliable form.

It’s partly a novel about Turkey, of course, about its stresses: the ‘headscarf girls’, who want to wear the Islamic garment to college, where it is banned; the epidemic of suicides of girls and young women which plagues Kars; the tension between the urges to democratic, religious and military rule. I certainly know more about (one person’s vision of) contemporary Turkey now than I did before I started.

But I can’t help but wonder: what was the point of it, really? Plot, character, great prose: two of them can sustain a novel; even any one of them, if it’s good enough. But this didn’t really have much of any of them.

Yet this guy has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so he must be doing something right.

I just wish I knew what.

The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson (books 2008, 19)

This has been the third year in which I have read a volume of The Baroque Cycle over the summer. I loved the first, despite its dip after the first book. The second was slower - in fact suffering from classic middle-volume longeurs. I thoroughly enjoyed them both, though.

This third volume is the best of the three. I enjoyed it so much that, towards the end (that is, in the last two-hundred-or-so pages) I found myself sometimes avoiding reading it, because I didn’t want it to be over.

The focus is very much back with Daniel Waterhouse, where it started, which is good from my point of view. Jack Shaftoe and Eliza (Duchess of the preposterously named Qwghlm) are in there too, of course.

And, it’s too damn long for me to write much more about it. If you’ve read the first two, you will, of course, want to read this. If you haven’t read any of them, you should.

Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson (Books 2008, 18)

Cayce Pollard has a strange kind of allergy: certain brands make her ill.

Or at least, their logos do; seeing the Michelin Man, for instance, sets her off in a particularly bad way. She has a corresponding - and possibly linked - talent, which is that she can reliably tell whether a new logo, for example, is going to work; and she can spot trends that are developing on the street. Using these abilities she is able to make a pretty good living by acting as a freelance consultant to marketing people, advertisers, and so on.

It sounds like a pretty shallow kind of life, but she’s an engaging character, and Gibson manages both to make her role seem interesting, and to enmesh her in an international plot that keeps the pages turning.

The main weakness, perhaps, is that you never get the sense that she’s in any real danger. And the mysteries that she ends up investigating find their solutions too easily.

I don’t think Gibson has written anything really startling since his debut, but this is a fun enough read.

I always tend to touch on genre here, but I make no apologies for it. The odd thing here is that, while is clearly not SF in terms of setting and content (it’s the very near future of the time it was written, which makes it our very near past, and has some already-surprising spots that feel like anachronisms, but aren’t: like connecting a new laptop to a new phone by wire, rather than Bluetooth; and the only speculative content is Cayce’s curious affliction/ability), it still feels like SF. And I’m not sure entirely why that is. Gibson’s style is no doubt part of it, and the rest must be theme: it does, after all, address the way the world is changing, and the effect those changes are having on the people that live through them.

The curious thing, really, is that such themes should trigger an SF response in the reader (or writer) What does it say about ‘mainstream’ literature if that genre doesn’t address the world today?

Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street, by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson (Books 2008, 17)

Ellis’s Spider Jerusalem is a journalist, based on Hunter S Thompson. At the start he is living in seclusion in a cabin in the mountains, but contractual difficulties drive him back to the city for the first time in five years. Shit happens, and he writes about it.

This volume comprises the first three issues of the comic, and it’s pretty good so far. Interesting characterisation, great artwork; I’m keen to see where it goes.

A poem

So on my OU Creative Writing course, we’re currently on the poetry module. After reading the chapter on imagery last night, I formed the following in my head while cycling to work this morning.

Crossing at Islington

We swarm
Fluourescent honeybees on wheels
For electric flower’s red stamen
to turn green.

Some go too soon
Red flashes out its warning.
Angry metal birds roar down
And pick them off.

Adverbs, by Daniel Handler (Books 2008, 16)

Mr Handler operating under his own name, here, rather than his Snicket nom de plume. As such, this is a novel for adults, rather than children.

Though in fact, is it even a novel at all? It is in fact more of series of short stories, or even vignettes. They are linked, or at least related to each other, but it’s not always obvious how.

The same characters recur throughout, though in different combinations. Or at least, the same character names. It’s not at all clear that, where a name recurs, it is meant to be the same person. Indeed, the author says as much in his blurb.

The main link between them all is that they are all in some way or another about love. In fact, a better title might be something like, ‘A Series of Tales About Love’, or even, ‘A Series of Loving Events’. The title comes from Handler’s assertion that, essentially, “it’s not what we do, it’s how we do it”, and the fact that each of the stories (or chapters) has an adverbal title: ‘Particularly’, ‘Briefly’, ‘Not Particularly’, and so on.

It all gets a bit meta in the middle, where Handler breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly.

And it has a soundtrack album, in two senses: throughout the book, there are references to bands and songs, so you could construct a suitable playlist from that. But given Handler’s alternative career as a musician and member of The Magnetic Fields, the album to play while reading it is undoubtedly their 69 Love Songs. You’ll find many themes in common and overlap between book and album.

All in all it’s thoroughly enjoyable, but doesn’t really go anywhere - it doesn’t have a plot, after all - and is kind of inconclusive.

American Flagg episodes 1-30 (and special 1), by Howard Chaykin and others (Books 2008, 15)

I came upon these when I was digging out some old comics for my son. These are not for eleven-year-olds, but I realised I hadn’t read them in years, and I thought I’d see how they had aged (plus, I remembered next to nothing about the story).

The story is not bad, but not that great. In a post-collapse America, corruption and gang violence are rife, and the government (perhaps all the governments of the world) have left Earth, and are still ruling (or trying to) from Mars. On Earth the law - and to some extent, the peace - is kept by the Plexus Rangers. Or rather, as you eventually realise, the PlexUS Rangers, since there are also PlexUSSR Rangers. The Plex is the overall world government. Or something.

Reuben Flagg was a video star (ie TV or movie: there’s a lot about ‘video’ here, but it’s pretty much all broadcast stuff) on Mars. He played the eponymous ‘Mark Thrust, Sexus Ranger’. But new technology has made actors unnecessary, and he has volunteered as a Plexus Ranger and been sent to Earth, to Chicago.

He is the one (relatively) good man in a corrupt environment, and with the help of a clumsy android, a talking cat, and various women in their underwear, he tries to keep things under control.

Oh yes, the underwear thing: Chaykin is unable, it seems to draw women wearing anything other than basques, stockings and suspenders. No matter what they’re doing, pretty much. There’s nothing like wearing your fetishes on your sleeve, I suppose. Or, you know, lower down.

Halting State, by Charles Stross (Books 2008, 13)

Posted out of sequence, for reasons unknown even to me.

Writing about this novel is kind of embarassing for me, because I had the chance to make it better than it is, and I, er, blew it because I read too slowly.

See, I was on quite a large list of people who saw a draft version of this, a year or two ago. I read most of it (or all of it, but it was incomplete, I can’t quite remember) and noted some mistakes and flaws.

But I didn’t get them all recorded properly and submitted to Charlie before the deadline. And now, when I read the published version, I find they’re all still there.

There’s nothing dramatic, nothing plot-shattering (although there are one or two places where things could be clearer, and where the cracks aren’t fully papered over: you can see where a section has been moved for dramatic purposes, but the knowledge of the protagonists hasn’t been adjusted to mark the events’ new location in the overall plot, for example). It’s mainly just niggles, misuses of terminology (school years called ‘primary third’, and ‘secondary two’, instead of ‘primary three’ and ‘second year’, respectively, for example). So, just some minor distractions. And the spelling of ‘dreich’ as ‘dreicht’ throughout is curious.

But no matter. Much more interesting are the questions of how well the multiple-viewpoint second person narration works; and is the story any good?

On the first point, I had no trouble with the second-person narrative at all, and it being multiple-person is effectively no different from any other book that does that. There is rarely any confusion, not least because each chapter includes the VP character’s name as part of its title.

The story is interesting, and it investigates an area - that of security in our increasingly-networked world - that is very important, and will only get more so in the near future. But I’m not, in all honesty, sure that it really works. The various parts don’t quite gel.

And yet, I enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed being on the trip, I just look back at it and think, “It wasn’t that great.”