‘DARK MATTER’ – ‘THE DOOR’ – BRUEGEL – BERCKMANS

After the jump: 5 new reviews, as announced in a new format.

First up is Dark Matter, the 2016 scifi bestseller by Blake Crouch. After that, I write a bit on The Door by Magda Szabó, which floored me. Really, get that. Two books about Pieter Bruegel follow. I’ve been reading up on him in preparation of a possible visit to the once in a lifetime Bruegel exhibition in Vienna. Catch that if you can, it runs until January 13, 2019, and it’s incredible how many of his surviving paintings they managed to get on loan. One of those Bruegel books, a biography, is in Dutch, as is the review. This post ends with another recent biography, in Dutch as well, on the Flemish writer J.M.H. Berckmans, who died 10 years ago.

Next time I hope to tackle Blindsight and H is For Hawk. Happy reading!

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SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT

Dear readers

I won’t be writing as many lengthy reviews as I used to. Instead, I will focus on writing short reviews. To avoid clogging your WordPress readers or mailboxes with short posts, I’ll each time combine a few reviews in one post. I’m aiming at 1 post a month, featuring two to four books, depending – just as the first short reviews I posted in August.

Should you wish to get updates quicker: I’ll generally post a review on Goodreads and LibraryThing after I’ve finished a book, so you can always friend me there.

Those of you that have been reading my reviews for some time know my tastes, and hopefully these shorter reviews will still be useful, even without a high word count.

Thank you, and best regards to you and yours.

KEITH ROWE: THE ROOM EXTENDED – Brian Olewnick (2018)

Keith Rowe The Room Extended

I’ve started this review three times, and always deleted what I had. This is version number 4. Not that this will be much better, but the only approach left to me is to start with stating how difficult this review is to write.

There’s two reasons for that. The first is that most regular readers of this blog are totally unfamiliar with Keith Rowe and his kind of experimental music, and I don’t really feel like writing a few paragraphs explaining it. Including links to YouTube videos might be an option – but Rowe’s is generally delicate music that doesn’t translate well via laptop or smartphone speakers, so I’m not sure that would convince anyone who’s not already into the fold. I will post a list of my 5 favorite Rowe albums after the review, should you be interested. While for some this might seem extreme music – both in its harshness and its silent, subdued nature – for me these albums resonate emotionally in the most profound way possible.

The second reason is a gratitude towards both Keith Rowe and Brian Olewnick I simply don’t feel for any other subject or writer I’ve reviewed on this blog. Rowe is one of the very few musicians that changed the way I think about music, and the one that changed it in the most fundamental way possible. Dark Rags, his duo recording with saxophonist Evan Parker, truly was a gateway album that took me from jazz and free improvisation to another world entirely, a world I am still exploring more than 15 years later. Most of my other musical fads have faded long since – it’s only very occasionally I put on an album by Anthony Braxton, let alone one by Frank Zappa.

Olewnick has been a guide into that world as well, as he pointed me in the direction of a myriad of other musical gems, via reviews on his Just Outside blog, and in the online community that once existed on the I Hate Music forum – in the days before Facebook and smartphones destroyed message boards.

The importance of music in my life can hardly be overstated, and both Rowe and Olewnick have been key figures – so there’s the reason for a certain kind of diffidence, a trepidation that led me to delete 3 earlier versions of this text.

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4 SHORT REVIEWS

After I finished the fantastic Version Control, I read the excellent Keith Rowe biography by Brian Olewnick. I might still review that, but it’s a hard review to write for an audience unfamiliar with Rowe’s particular branch of experimental music.

Sadly, after those 2 great books, I’ve hit three I did not even finish. That and the relentless summer heat didn’t really urge me to start writing the reviews. Fortunately, that streak of bad reading luck came to an end, as I’ve also read a great, recent SF novella by Peter Watts, and finished yet another book on Rembrandt.

As the summer drought is still not over, I’ve decided I simply won’t bother trying to write longer, in-depth reviews for these books. I won’t even try to write up Hard To Be A God, the 1964 political allegory by the Strugatsky brothers, and the first book in that row of DNFs. I stopped after only 40 pages, not enough to write something meaningful, except that it was all too obviously allegorical for my tastes. Anyhow, without further ado, here’s those 4 mini-reviews…

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VERSION CONTROL – Dexter Palmer (2016)

Version Control

“History lives in the gap between information and the truth.”

Let me get this out of the way: Version Control – Dexter Palmer’s second novel – is BRILLIANT. Recurrent readers know that I don’t often slap on such high praise.

It might just be the best 2016 book I’ve read, and it might just be the best book I’ve read so far this year. It’s either this or Zero K for both questions – I’m having a hard time deciding. It doesn’t really matter anyway. Then again, maybe Version Control might have one thing speaking against it that Zero K has less of. More on that later, especially as this one thing doesn’t really matter right now.

The book didn’t get a lot of attention from the online sci-fi community, so maybe a few introductory remarks are at hand. Version Control is a near-future novel, set in about 10 to 15 years from now. Rebecca Wright is the main character. She works in customer support for an Internet dating site, the same site where she met her husband, Philip Steiner. Philip is a physicist working on a “causality violation device” – a kind of low-key time machine one could say. His work has stalled his career and the physics community doesn’t really take him serious anymore. The couple has lost their son a few years ago.

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THE SIRENS OF TITAN – Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

The Sirens Of Titan

I generally read up on book before I review them, and it doesn’t happen a lot I come across a good, thorough scholarly essay that’s available online. The fact that I did find one about The Sirens Of Titan attests to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s status as an author embraced by the literary establishment.

A big part of that is the fact that Vonnegut did not write clearcut science fiction, but something that seems more important to the uninitiated. His voice is critical, satirical, grotesque. The question of genre is exactly the subject of said essay. It’s written by Herbert G. Klein, and in doing so he tackles a lot of other aspects about this novel. It’s here.


The Sirens Of Titan is Vonnegut’s second novel. Slaughterhouse-Five, one of my all-time favorite books, was published 10 years later. The general consensus is that SH5 is Vonnegut’s masterpiece, so I did not expect Sirens to top it, just as I didn’t expect Cat’s Cradle to top it. To be clear: it didn’t. If I have to believe what I’ve read, it is only in Sirens that Vonnegut really found his voice, and it indeed reads as what I’ve come to expect from him: similar in themes & method. But, it does not feel as invested and personal as SH5. Just below all the satire of his most known book is a thick layer of emotion, and that’s lacking here. As a result, I didn’t feel as invested in the characters & the storyline.

Still, Vonnegut had had his share of bad luck by 1959, and one would imagine that to be an emotional reservoir for any writer. Power reader, music historian and jazz critic Ted Gioia points out how the biographical does seep into this book, in yet another excellent text on Sirens, to be found on Conceptual Fiction.

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RAVEN STRATAGEM – Yoon Ha Lee (2017)

Raven Stratagem

While I don’t really feel like it, I can’t but start this review with an opinion on a minor event in the blogosphere some time ago. If you have no interest in a discussion of ethics in SF, and just want my opinion on Raven Stratagem, scroll down to the actual review at the very end. The first part of the text might also be of interest to those who haven’t read any of Yoon Ha Lee’s books, as the discussion is much, much wider than that.

About a year ago, 3 people in the so-called Arthur C. Clarke Shadow Jury posted reviews about Ninefox Gambit, the first book of The Machineries Of Empire.

Contrary to popular opinion – 9FG won the Locus for Best First Novel – those reviews were essentially negative, on what are essentially moral grounds.

These three individuals are not marginal voices in SF fandom. Before most activity on her blog stopped – as she overdosed on commercially-hyped SF – Megan AM of From Couch To Moon was one the most respected and influential online reviewers of SF. Nina Allan is a speculative author herself: her most recent novel The Rift won the BSFA and the Red Tentacle. Jonathan McCalmont was shortlisted twice for the BSFA for best non-fiction writer, and writes for Strange Horizons and Interzone.

For starters, here are four quotes that capture the essence of the argument, with links to the original texts. Clicking the links is worth your while, as the original pieces are extremely well written, differ in their opinions on the book in crucial respects, and all have a number of valid, lucid insights. I have no intention to go into all arguments, and do not claim these quotes represent the texts in full. They do however show a convergence over at least one point of criticism, a point I do want to examine thoroughly.

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