A book review: Light Boxes

Light BoxesLight Boxes by Shane Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books are rather unusual and Light Boxes is one of them. The book is a fantasy in which anything is possible. February has come, but February has no intention of leaving and the towns people of a unnamed town are subjected to an unending spell of chilly weather dominated by snow and ice.
The towns people are late to resist, for how does one resist February? But February, now personified, kidnaps and murders children and the people, led by Thaddeus Lowe and the Solution, a group of men wearing bird-masks, plan a revolt.
But how to revolt against February?
How indeed.
Light Boxes reminded me of a dream I once had when I was feverish. Logic and reason, causality, death and any other rock solid idea are toyed with. People get killed, come to life later in the story, or make themselves even come to life. February is a man who can be killed, but his death will end the month too. But even February isn’t February, for he could be someone else. And perhaps the cause of all problems might not be February, but maybe it was the creators that should be blamed.
Shane Jones is not tied down by anything and he does not hold back on style either. Almost any kind or writing style is used and this is supported by the design of the book. Some pages just contain one word, others contain one line, some one line repeated over and over, jet others contain huge letters and some are just notes jutted down.
I personally like this kind of experimental writing and I liked the story, but I can understand that some people find it hugely annoying as it is a unusual book and writing style. I hope other books will follow.

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Bookreview: And the hippos were boiled in their tanks.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their TanksAnd the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by William S. Burroughs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading Junky I discovered this book by Burroughs among the books dubbed as crime novels in my local public library. It was probably labelled as such because there is a murder in it and I don’t think the library has a label for literature as such. So it would be the most logical choice from their viewpoint, but somehow this label doesn’t fit the book.
From the introduction and comments I gather that Burroughs and the co-writer Jack Kerouac were part of a literary movement called the Beat generation and that this book was written before they became famous. In fact the book was published after they both died because it was deliberately put off. It was the wish of one of the people involved in the murder that it would not be published in his lifetime. It ended up as being published in nobodies lifetime..
The result of the delay at publication was that the book gained a mythical state. Like many things that are unknown it peeks the interest, gains notoriety and heightens expectations.
But what were the results?
The book seems a lot like Junky, with the same down-on-their-luck types as feature in that book, but a little bit less criminal. Most of the people are poor and some are the brink of crime. The best term to define them is: a bunch of freeloaders. They live on the money others make and they get that money by borrowing and not paying back, gaining it in a half legal way or by outright crime. For example: one of the characters pawns the diamonds of a relative, pocketing the money for himself, without letting the relative know.
Most of the book describes this freeloader life from various angles and against this backdrop is set the awkward semi-gay relation between a young man and an older man that finally ends in a death. The book is however not a crime novel. There isn’t a real upbeat towards the killing, nor any investigation or anything else that is part of a crime novel. The murder itself and the aftermath actually are only a small part of the book and occur well in the end. It feels almost as and anti-climax when it does, which it probably will be for anyone attracted to crime novels. The murder isn’t what the book is about.
But what is?
The charm of the book is the writing, which is to the point and frugal. Just like in Junky there is not a word too much it this book and no beating about the bush. The story is told straight and without any moral justification from the writer. Crime happens, people steal, someone gets robbed. It all is told in the same way as the writer tells that people had a bite, took a leak or banged their girlfriend.
The characters in the book have opinions of course, but nothing is morally weighted by the writer. Everything is told as it happens, to the point. It is almost clinical.
I like the writing style as a way to learn how to write. The shortness of the book combined with a efficient writing style made it readable.
The problem I foresee for me is that much more of this will start to bore. If a bigger book would be filled with just more scenes of freeloading then such book will become a tedious read. It does make me curious about the books that made Burroughs famous. I assume there must be a lot more to them.

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Bookreview: No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old MenNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is a twist of fate.
The public library in my home town, with only three bookcases of English books, harbors a few books that have been turned into movies at one time or another.
Perhaps not too surprising considering that the preponderance of crime novels and crime novels seem to be a favorite genre of books to turn into a movie.
And one of them is ‘No Country for Old Men’.
It’s a depressing title for sure. It invokes the image of cranky oldsters reminiscing how everything used to be better: the milk, the butter, the cheese, the people and the crime.
And it is that kind of book.
It would have been boring, if the writer hadn’t employed a few things to keep your attention.
First is the MacGuffin of the story. A man, called Moss, runs into a crime scene and finds a suitcase with a few million dollars. Everyone is dead, nobody knows he is there. What would you do?
Moss takes the money and runs.
But running isn’t as easy as he might think. For one, there is family to contend with, and for another, a lot of a other people want that money as well.
One of those is the coldhearted psychopath Anton Chigurh. The man carves a path of dead bodies through humanity. The dead pile up wherever he goes.
Next to him are a lot of shady, often unnamed, types that take potshots at Moss. Most of them are more meat for the meat grinder that Chigurh is. More dead bodies.
Next to those are the authorities, represented by Sheriff Bell, the old man in the title.
The whole story then proceeds along these three lines: Moss, Chigurh and Bell and ends in a tone true to the title: sad. I leave it open how sad exactly.
There is however something problematic with this book. The whole psychopath-goes-wild-theme is somewhat too fabricated. For some reason Chigurh gets away with murdering scores of people without the FBI getting involved. McCarthy paints us a picture of a wacko massacring a lot of people, often in the open, and he doesn’t get caught or even suspected and so Bell can exclaim ‘this is no country for old men’ and ponder quitting his job. I found that a weak element in the book. It is simply unbelievable that anyone can get away with what Chigurh did without the federals getting on his case and someone gunning him down.

Now this all makes for a book that would not have gotten more than three stars from me, if it wasn’t for the writing style. McCarthy uses various styles to tell the story. There is the internal monologue of Bell. There is the third person view of Moss and Chigurh and there is the for me interesting style of dialog.
I am used to write dialog like this:
“Where are you driving to?,” Merit says.
But McCarthy writes it down like this:
Where you going?
No “”, and usually no indicating of who says what. This could become confusing if not handled properly, but McCarthy does as he pulls it off if you pay attention. Sometimes I had to read back a little, but he usually keeps it clean enough so you are sure who is saying what.

For that I am giving McCarthy some extra credits. That is why I give the book 4 stars.

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Book review: Junky by William S. Burroughs

JunkyJunky by William S. Burroughs My rating: 4 of 5 stars Junky is a horrid book. The focus of this novella is the shallow and deplorable life of the drugs addict as he ambles through life to get to his next fix. Burroughs’ book is unmitigated, the focus is the constant struggle with addiction, for an addict is torn by two opposing desires; to get his fix and to kick his habit.

If this was a movie then the camera would be constant on Burroughs, thinking of ways to get money to get a fix, trying to get a fix, suffering before and after, then trying to get rid of it, actually succeeding in getting clean up for a short while and then falling back into his old life in no time at all. In the mean time he is constantly experimenting with an ever increasing selection of drugs to find that heavenly kick on the cheap. Sometimes you wonder where he gets the money or what social life he has except for hanging out with his junky buddies or being high or strung out. At times he tells us a few things. Like he has a kind of allowance that gives him a certain yearly income. And at one time he buys a farm with a buddy that eventually earns him a profit that evaporates when he wastes it all on his addictions. Sometimes we get a glimpse of other people. He is married, for at times, especially when he is in Mexico, his wife puts in an appearance. But these are just brief excursions, for the camera gets yanked back to focus on him. It is a lurid life.

The lines between users and pushers(sellers) is blurred as users start pushing to be able to fund their addiction(s). Sometimes they turn informer for the police, when they get arrested and strike deal or for money. Or just for any other reason. Burroughs tells us, in a matter of fact voice, how these addicts degenerate morally, turning to all manners of illegal behavior such as stealing or robbing drunks. This degeneration of morals even affect certain doctors, nicknamed croakers, who write out prescriptions for them so they can get a shot of morphine knowing fully well that they actually do not need them for what morphine is meant for.

Shocking are the experiments with new drugs. In their desire for a next fix and due to the constant lack to fund their addiction they are willing to try anything that might seem to suffice. Almost anything that could be taken for a drug is tried out eventually. It is not a nice book to read and sometimes you want to put it down because the life of these people are so dreary, shallow and shockingly grotesque. But somehow you keep on reading, perhaps because you assume that their must be some kind of end. A closure. There is one and it is better not to tell much about it, just that it is not what I would have expected.

This books reminds me somewhat of A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. The latter has more story perhaps, but there is similarity in the way they describe the lives of addicts. No doubt because Dick was an addict himself and knew what he was writing about, like Burroughs. Although I do not think this is a book to ‘enjoy’ it is no doubt a book to read just to get an idea about what it must be to be an addict. And perhaps that is the major strength of this book, especially if you are an aspiring writer and want to get an glimpse of the life of a drugs addict, without going through the experience yourself.

I was hovering between a 3.5 and a 4. View all my reviews

Book review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 (Catch-22, #1)Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Some weeks ago I found that I sleep better when I read something, but I did not have any books of my own anymore. I used to have a collection of mostly science-fiction and fantasy books, a size able part of which was handed down to me by my father. Another part -the cheaper ones- I had collected myself. But I did them away. Some I gave to good causes, others to friends and others I threw away as they were in a bad shape. It felt odd to completely remove all books from my house, as they had been my companions for years, but I figured that most of them I could get digital and read them that way. As fate would have it: my digital reader broke down.
So I went to the local library and got me whatever book they had that looked interesting to read according to the cover blurb. At first I tried some Dutch books, both written in dutch or translated from other languages, but I have always read English books, so after that brief encounter with my native language I moved over to the English section of the library, which was good size smaller, which made it easier to choose.

One book that I found was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I had heard of it before, but never what it was about. So I decided to read it with some trepidation as it is considered literature and I am not much of a well-read reader, being more interested in non-fiction or fringe books. However I thought that the reading of a good book would rub off on me and I would write better for it. I write, because it is my desire to tell stories and writing is one way of doing it.
Catch-22 left me somewhat confused in whether I liked it or not. I have that more often of late, in that I do not quite know what to make of a book or a movie. It is why I have two characters doing my movie reviews. I am sometimes of two minds, or even more.
Catch-22 is the story of group of American bomber crew based on an imaginary small island of the coast of Sicily at the end of world war II. The most important MacGuffin of this book is the war or better the missions the men have to fly over Italy. When I read about that I immediately knew what that meant. The air missions in World War II were notorious for their casualty rates. At the height of the war this could even mean a loss of over 10% of the crews involved for one mission only. In the wikipedia you will find that the average rate of a Bomber Command mission was 2.2 percent throughout the war. Since a normal tour of duty was considered to be twenty missions this amounted to a 44 percent casualty rate at least if we use Bomber Commands figures to illustrate the situation. In Catch-22 the amount of missions they have to fulfill is an absurd fifty at the start of the book and that number increases during the book. Facing almost certain death makes that some of the men involved go to great lengths to get out of the war, one way or another, or die trying. This is what basically drives one of the main persons: Yossarian. One way to get out of the war would be to be declared crazy. And this is where the title comes in: Catch-22 is basically an logic fallacy: you can not get out of the war on the grounds that you are crazy, because that is the desire of a sane man.
This illogic you will find throughout the book, not only in the attempts to escape the war, but for instance in the desire of an atheist assistant of a chaplain to replace that chaplain, because he thinks he can do a better job at what the chaplain is supposed to do.
Next to this Catch-22 the whole book is a bit of a jumble of scenes and situations who only seem related because the men all belonged to the same unit. It reminded me somewhat of Mash, but more absurd and more satirical, but also less focused. Mash is of course of a later date then Catch-22 and it is probably inspired by Catch-22, but I name it because it give me a neat bridge to one of my problems with the book.
Catch-22 reads as an absurd satire and when it was released that might have been a novelty. However nowadays, over sixty years after the book was first published, we have seen a lot of absurd and satirical series and movies. Mash is one, the Monty Python series another. South Park and Red Dwarf all added their satire. The consequence is that Catch-22 is not much of an eye opener as an satirical book. There are little story lines that stuck with me, such as the guy Milo who manages to set up an expansive free trade network all over Europe and the Middle East using (bomber) airplanes of both sides to trade with anyone for a profit. Free market capitalism unites people in their thirst for greed. It sounds like a thing to wish for until Milo shows his mettle by having the American bomber crew bomb their own airfield, because he has been contracted to do so. In the mean time his greatest worry is how to get rid of the complete Egyptian cotton harvest that he acquired but nobody wants to buy from him, thus threatening him with bankruptcy. One attempt is to sell it off as cotton candy by dipping it in chocolate.
Perhaps because the satire and absurd situations are not very new or exciting there are two problems that suddenly comes to the foreground: the plot and the characters. There is hardly any plot. In fact you might cut up each chapter and see it as a separate standalone episode, just like an episode of Mash. Now Mash was at least consistent in that most of the time the same cast was used, but in Catch-22 this is not the case. Different people are central to different chapters without any apparent organization or reason. But even in this there is no consistency as there is even a chapter named after a person who hardly features in that chapter.
All of this might of course be a subtle way of telling a story with a deeper meaning, but if that was the case it is lost on me. If it was to tell that war is hell and life is absurd, then it might have been a novel way back then, by using satire and ridiculous situations, but nowadays it is hard to get more than a ‘Meh’ reaction. It has been said over and over again. And personally I somehow find Monty Python’s killer joke sketch a lot more funnier then the situations in Catch-22.
The last problem I want to mention with this book are the personalities involved. I simply could not connect to any of the people. They behaved in absurd and sometimes hurtful ways and because of the haphazard plot line the focus kept shifting from one to the other.

Catch-22 is for me an ok book, but the lack of a consistent plot and someone to identify with made it hard to keep on reading. I did therefore not finish the book but stopped two thirds in.

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Book review: Night Watch

Night Watch (Watch, #1)Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have stopped reading Night Watch around page two hundred and will return the books to the library. The writing started to annoy me so much that it was no use continuing.

Background
Night watch is not a surprising read. I say that because some people seem to say that the idea is novel. The world painted in this book is similar to Vampire the Masquerade and even more to it’s successor, the World of Darkness. Both of these world settings and their spin of books pre-date this book by half a decade.
The idea is that woven in with the ‘normal world’ there is a hidden world of non normal humans or supernatural beings that form a community consisting of diverse forces that sometimes oppose but sometimes help each other. In this world there are the forces of light and the forces of dark..but we already are introduced very early in the book to the idea that there might be independent and rogue forces. The established forces might oppose each other, but for the sake of ‘balance’ they have come to some kind of truce and agree to make sure that us normal beings are not aware of them: them being the usual staple of vampires, demons, witches, shapechangers and wizards.. nothing that I have not seen or read about before.
So the background and settings are not unusual and what transpires is hardly novel.

The main character
I have a problem with the detached writing. After fifty pages into the book I hardly knew anything about the main character, Anton, besides some superficial details. The writer feeds us a few background details and we are continuously told that he is more like this or that, but it is not shown. Anton’s personality is so flat that when first part of the book was finished I did not care one way or another for him. Indeed I cared more for the other beings like, Olga, his companion, the boy Jegor, the vampire and the woman who was inflicted with a dark dangerous spell.
They seemed to have more personality and depth than Anton.

The writing
The writing is actually a big stumbling block. The writer skips one way and another. He goes from one scene to the next, from one setting to the other and so on. He also like to use the favorite bad trick of not telling the reader about something and then suddenly pull out the rabbit: bet you did not know that one.
His skipping and hopping about makes the story unfocused and rushed while at the same time nothing seems to really happen. We drive a lot to and fro, but the story does not really develop during this driving. The writing is on par. He introduces one character after the other, briefly describes them and skips to the next.

Inconsistent story telling
The writer introduces ideas but does not follow through or explain. For instance at one point someone drives the main character to a scene in his private car.. acting like a kind of taxi. Anton remarks that the guy is rich and even offers Anton a job as a system administrator when he finds out he is a programmer(??), but there is no explanation why someone like that would drive around through the night working on the side as a cabdriver.
So much is unexplained. For instance where does Anton get his money from? And how does he stay awake since he has a additional job as ‘watchman’ next to his other job?

Cliffhangers
There are however some positive developments. One is that we see Anton develop. We get to know more about his companion Olga, a woman forced into the body of an owl. We discover the duality of light and dark. We see how Jegor reacts when he sees how both sides are using him. And the vampire that is almost killed survives..So she might come back and exact revenge(I hope she does.)
So I am giving it a try and see what the next chapter will show and report back. Otherwise I lend another book.

Update

No explanations
I stopped somewhere in part two. The beginning of part two is ominous bad : his name was maxim. And then we get several lines explaining that the name was not unusual but not usual either. Not that this piece of information is relevant to the plot.
This illustrates how unbalanced the writing is. At some moments we get long drawn out lines and next the writer rushes over things without at least given an idea of how something essential works. For one: at some point the hero of the story is sitting in a restaurant with someone else and he spots a dark magic user. How does he know? Does he know the magic user? Can he sense dark magic and discern if from good magic? Which is strange as before it is said somewhere that darkness and light seem more to be motives and methods than basically different in essence. But no explanation or even a hint at how this all works.
Another example is when he investigates the past of some of his colleagues he finds out that his direct superior was around at the time when the treaty between dark and light was made hundreds of years ago. He then goes to say that it was strange that his superior was of such a low rank considering anyone else who was there (and still alive) was now a high ranking watchman. How does he know that? Do you know if all the high ranking managers of a big company have something in common like being at a place at the same time in a distant past? Did his investigation into the alibi of a low ranking watchman give him access to the information about high ranking ones? But if so, why did he only get that information and not about his lower placed superior? For he says he knew about all the high ranking members but not about his superior. I could invent some reason he knows, but the writer does not bother to explain.
On the other the writer has a hard time to differ between himself and his ‘hero’. His hero knows things he can not know unless explained and when it is essential to the plot it requires explaining.

Obsessions
Another annoying thing is that the writer is obsessed with young women, alcohol and ranking. Almost all the women in the story are ‘young women’. The vampire, Olga, Swetlana, the two useless (narrator’s words, not mine) women who act as programmers(???). There is one exception: a woman called Polina who is described as looking older..which might as well mean that she looks to be in her late twenties or early thirties, but the writer does not explain. He in fact does not even tell us what ‘younger women’ means. It might well be they are all in their late teens or in their late twenties or maybe even in their late thirties..It all depends on what viewpoint you take. But again nothing gets explained.
Alcohol is very present.If not thinking about or drinking it, they are talking about it and if not talking about it they are using it as a weapon against vampires. Yup.. alcohol has replaced holy water in this russian novel. How ironic.
And then ranking.. Oh my god.. everyone is ranked.. his superior is a low ranking director, there are high ranking people above him and strata of lower ranking beneath him, Anton is of this rank, his fellows of that rank, and those people over there are of that rank. And poor Anton thinks he will never get beyond rank four(on what scale) but he happens to have done rank two magic as a rank three magic user (or is he rank one) which seems to be pretty impressive but I am lost. The whole world is layered in ranks of which the writer.. eh lead is specifically aware of. We have no clue how he knows all that. Has he some kind of book? Do they have, like in roleplay games, have levels that hover over their heads like a tag? Oh hey, that is a level 21 sorcerer and that is a Level 8 priest. He is so focused on ranking that his ego gets a real boost that when his superior tells him that he had done something that was believed to be beyond his power.
But nothing was so painful to read when told about the useless(the lead’s words..not mine) two young women programmers who desperately wanted to be part of the watch but had no power or skill at all.
I foamed at the mouth. My experience is that if people have a drive you can have them do something useful and if you confess someone who has a drive to be useless.. you should look in a mirror.

Characters(again)
The biggest problem is that after two hundred pages he never seems to bother us with anything that might make a person into a person. We still know next to nothing about Anton. He must have a social life, he can not live in a void. What about his parents? What about any other family, friends, colleagues, people he knows from school. His neighbors? What about his favorite soccer club(if any?)
Still there is no explanation about how he combines his daytime job with his watch time exploits. It does not have to be rubbed in, but at some point a brief mentioning of him having a lack of sleep might give an idea. But the writer does not bother with that.
And then it gets worse. At some point it becomes clear he is obsessed with a girl he hardly knows and never seems to get to know better. This girl is Olga, the woman from the first part of the book who was punished to live in the body of an owl and could redeem herself by helping Anton. In part two she has redeemed herself partly, we are told(but how she did that we are not told. Or was she redeemed as part of what happened in part one? But she hardly did anything but tagging along with Anton?), so she is now human and not an owl and yet again we get no more information, where something more might at least gives us an idea of the person she is (She is the potential love interest!)
And then Anton’s obsession becomes repulsive. Illustrative is this part: he has to stand close to Olga as part of a magic spell and he goes something like: it is strange to be close to a woman who has felt the touch of another man. Uh.. what? (Ironic: they swap bodies, not that Anton spots the irony: how strange it must feel to be in the body of a woman that has been touched by another man!)
The whole time we see Anton painting Olga in a sexual context. We never seem him joke or have a nice conversation. He never sees her as another person. We see him ponder what has been going on when Olga and his boss retreat into a room with two glasses and a flask of wine. Well, she was probably getting touched by him. Oh my god.. this centuries old woman is not a virgin! Cut down some trees, make a bridge and get over it. He is obsessed with her having sex but we never see a moment that might at least explain that there is some kind of affection developing between them.. you know that moment when you and your love laugh at the same thing and you recognize you both do?
Now you might say: this is great storytelling.. and in other cases it might be if Anton was meant to be a distorted personality but I suspect that this is meant as part of a love story that will slowly unfold. It is meant to be romantic not pathetic.

Unbalanced writing(again)
Now all of that would probably be tolerable. I have been entertained by bad stories before(Ready Player One springs to mind) but the pacing is still off balance. Long parts of Anton going from a to b, while nothing in particular happens and we get monologues on various subjects, then very brief moments of sudden action that usually result in some kind of anti-climax. The lack of exposition where it is needed and too much of it where it is irrelevant.
For instance: Anton is an analyst, so we are told, but it is never described. Instead we are told that he analyses something and then are given a conclusion. Hop scotch. There is no in between process and I suspect the writer has no knowledge of the subject or the whole thing does not really interest him. Why then make Anton an analyst?
Anton is also a small time administrator. We are told how he installs software he does not care about on people’s desktops. Specialist administrators and programmers do not install software on end user desktops for the simple reason that they are too expensive to do such work. It sometimes happens that a well paid administrator programmer cares for something very much and thus does work he or she is not supposed to do. But we are told he does not care for it, so he does not belong to that category. Or perhaps Anton works for a organization that has highly trained and capable staff doing simple jobs they do not care about? We do not get an explanation.. again.

The final scene
The final nail to the coffin was the restaurant scene. So Anton is now in the body of Olga and accompanied by Swetlana, who has to be with him so he has an alibi at all times. This because they think the dark ones want to frame Anton for the string of strange murders. So in this restaurant is dark magic user(he is mentioned above). This magic user then goes off to the toilet gets killed and Anton is just in time to be alone with the corpus delicti and without Swetlana to give him an alibi. How utterly convenient. Not only so because in a previous instance we are told that the Others are very rare. Very few people become Others. So what a coincidence that the murderer, Anton and the victim are on the same spot but without Swetlana and without Anton bumping into the murderer? While I grant any writer the right not to explain a thing, i think that at least they ought to make a story plausible. But given the track record of the writer there will be no doubt in my mind that this will not be explained.

Summary
Night Watch is probably meant to appeal to a certain audience that wants to cast themselves in the boots of the main lead Anton. Hence there is a lack of personality and background. The less we know him, the more we can be like him.
The story lacks plausibility. Things happen because they have to and the writer does not seem to care much for rhyme or reason and thus, if need be, a deus et-machina is used to resolve the issue.
I grant that the background interests me and there are ideas in this story that might have been interesting but without any developed personalities and a well developed story I am left to wonder what the appeal of this book is. For me it has non.

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