Friday, 19 September 2003

Little Dorrit

Listening to:

Beethoven, Fidelio.

Just read:

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit.

I began reading this novel under the impression that it was one of three late, great, dark novels by Dickens. The other two members of the set were supposed to be Bleak House, and Our mutual friend. Having greatly enjoyed both of those novels, I had pretty high hopes for this one too. Sadly, I don’t think it’s as good, though it’s still pretty entertaining. The big problem is that the plot doesn’t develop organically. Instead it is jerked to and fro by too many deus ex machina moments.

A related problem is that none of the characters seem to change. The hero, Clennam, is of an under-specified age, but is probably about 40, and for a long time thinks only paternal thoughts about little Dorrit, when he should be being romantic. It doesn’t help that he spends far too much time telling himself that he is too old, and generally moping about. His one change, to decide that he should be marrying LD after all, is not described at all. Little Dorrit is a typical Dickensian heroine, saintly and meek to a fault. She and her family remain unchanging through-out.

The comic characters are good: I liked both Pancks, Mrs. Flintwich and especially Flora Finching. But the usual Dickens satire of society (in this case, directed at government bureaucracy in the form of the Circumlocution Office) seems flat in comparison with Jarndyce & Jarndyce in Bleak House, and Podsnap in Our mutual friend.

There’s some good drama in the novel, particularly when the dastardly villain is around, but it’s not as good as Martin Chuzzlewit, and I see that I gave that 7½ out of 10. Therefore I give Little Dorrit a 7.

I’m just back from four weeks in Europe, during which time I steadfastly refused to update this ’log, though I had the means to do so on numerous occasions. For example, I was particularly taken with the fact that I was able to read my e-mail on an Australian machine in the ANU while sitting in a cloister that used to be attached to S. Pietro in Vincoli, not far from the Colosseum in Rome. It’s going to get easier to take such technological miracles for granted. Anyway, I have two Pratchetts and two Iain M. Banks to report on over the next few days.

Tuesday, 23 September 2003

Thief of time & evidence of real work, honest

Listening to:

Oscar Peterson plays the Harold Arlen song book.

Just read:

Terry Pratchett, Thief of time.

I read this on the plane from Sydney to Singapore and greatly enjoyed it. It features Susan, Death’s grand-daughter, and a group of monks whose responsibility it is to make sure that the Discworld’s use of Time is kept under control. The bad guys in this novel are the Auditors, who have featured in previous installments. New to this novel though, there is a very nice twist when they materialise into the Discworld, and leave the other dimensions they usually inhabit.

One of the monks of Time takes on a new apprentice, and this gives Practchett lots to play with in the Karate Kid, Zen monk dispensing wisdom line. And then, there is the fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, who left before the others became famous. And then there is the geeky clock-maker, at whose hands all of creation may be threatened, as long as he keeps taking his pills. All in all, this is a very good comic novel, with lots of amusing threads that come together very well in the dramatic finale.

To review next:

Iain M. Banks, Use of weapons.

[Me expounding] [The ICFP/Merlin venue]

Just in case you thought I was away on a four week jolly, I’d like to provide some evidence that I did do some work. If you click through to the bigger image behind the thumbnail, you should even be able to read the slide I’m showing. Incidentally, the Apple I’m using to present the slides isn’t mine. I left my laptop in London, and had just sent my slides to the conference organisers in advance.

And on the other side of the page, I hope you can see a picture of the interior of the conference’s very grand venue, Uppsala University's Universitetshuset.

Thursday, 25 September 2003

Use of weapons

Listening to:

Palestrina, Missa Aeterna Christi Munera.

Just read:

Iain M. Banks, Use of weapons.

This was another holiday book, one that I read on my flights between Sweden and Britain. It’s quite entertaining, and structured in an interesting way. The novel features two interleaved chains of chapters. In one strand, the narrative moves forward with a developing story, featuring a representative of the Culture's Special Circumstances section attempting to get an experienced hireling to do just one more job. In the other strand, the chapters are flashbacks to earlier points in the hireling’s career. Each successive flashback chapter is placed further back in time, so that the novel has two stories, one playing forwards, and the other playing backwards.

The forwards story is not as successful as it might be. The hero’s last great mission features some neat set-pieces, but what looks like the end of a successful mission is suddenly followed by a strange, and completely unheralded denouement. The hero suddenly has to lead a war on an unsophisticated planet. In the backwards direction, there are lots of little vignettes from a Culture mercenary’s life, and quite a bit of angsty soul-searching too. Our hero has a tortured past, which explains his willingness to hive off on all sorts of different directions at the Culture's bidding. The vignettes are tasty tidbits, and perhaps demonstrate a certain character development too, though this is pretty muted.

Then there’s the Twist. This comes right at the end of the novel, and doesn't make any sense whatsoever. It really sits there and begs you to read the whole book all over again. It wants you to try to make sense of the novel in the light of the Twist, but my reaction was to glare at it, and decide that it was completely insupportable.

Curiously, not long after reading UoW, I was sitting on a coach behind two sci-fi geeks, and one of them waxed lyrical about this novel to the other. He explained the neat chapter structure, said there was a twist, and that everyone who encountered it promptly turned back and read the whole book all over again. Not this sceptic, bucko, I thought cantankerously to myself. Nonetheless sufficient self-doubt remains that I will now go and sup from the wisdom of the Internet and see what it's all supposed to mean anyway. If I’m suitably impressed, I’ll report back.

To review next:

Terry Pratchett, The fifth elephant. You may be starting to recognise a certain pattern in my travel reading. The problem is that I think I travel more frequently than either of my two tried-and-trusted authors produce new stuff.

I recently found my way to a nice ’blog, via this article by Greg Costikyan, about an interesting role-playing game called My Life with Master. The other ’blog is Polytropos, and features

Finally, John Howard's blog.

Monday, 29 September 2003

The fifth elephant

Listening to:

Duke Ellington, Back to back: Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges play the blues.

Just read:

Terry Pratchett, The fifth elephant.

Another “book-on-the-plane”, this is an enjoyable Discworld novel featuring the City Watch characters, Vimes, Carrot, Angua, Detritus and Cheery. Rather than Ankh-Morpork though, most of the action happens in the distant country of Uberwald, a land of vampires, werewolves, and dwarves. There's a bit of political intrigue and a bit of detective work, but quite a bit of the story has to do with adventures in the wild, and straight-forward (i.e., violent) conflict. A good read.

To review next:

Iain M. Banks, Inversions. I realised after writing my last entry that I do have another “travel author”, and that’s Patrick O’Brian. I think I have seven more of his novels to read, but then that’s it because he’s dead.

Having spent quite a bit of time doing cryptic crosswords recently, I thought I’d share my all-time favourite clue:

Delighted by interference from Brussels (8)

I haven’t looked up Use of Weapons yet, but will, I promise.