Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

The problem with reading a Great Classic these days is trying to say something interesting about it afterwards.  I've read it before, but at least I never had to do it at school (who can ever re-read a book they've been forced to study as a teenager?)

So I suppose it's best to just press on as normal, tell you what it's about and what I did and didn't like.  The narrator's called Nick, who's trying to make his way in the New York business world in the 20s.  He rents a place somewhere on Long Island (I think - it's called West or East Egg) next to a millionaire called Jay Gatsby.  You don't meet him at first, but you do meet Nick's cousin Daisy, who's married to a rich buffoon called Tom.  He's especially unpleasant, dressing up his instinctive racism with pseudoscience, but Daisy's not a hell of a lot more likeable.  I much preferred another woman Nick meets at Tom and Daisy's - Jordan Baker, a cheating golf pro flapper who sounds like a lot of fun.

The book really kicks in when you meet Gatsby himself.  He's pretty unassuming, but holds huge parties every night at his mansion for the elite of New York.  Everybody assumes he's some sort of gangster, but the most dangerous weapon you see him use is his smile.  He's a sort of charming, melancholy ghost.  I don't suppose it's much of a SPOILER to say his only goal is to win back his ex-girlfriend Daisy, who lives across the bay.  It's a great image - a lonely man at the centre of a whirl of endless parties, who's simply trying to get a girl to notice him.  Less romantic saps than me may consider him a complete idiot.

The other character I really liked was Nick himself.  He reminds me of a Brett Easton Ellis narrator in his numb, semi-detached approach to everything, but at least he tries to do the right thing at the end when tragedy inevitably strikes.  The plot, though, was the weakest aspect for me.  I liked the set-up and I liked the ending, but the way it got there was clunky as hell - totally reliant on accident and co-incidence.

It's also worth mentioning the writing - there's some great imagery and turns of phrase which make you sit back and ponder before moving on.  Despite that it's an easy read, and fairly short.  Suppose that's why they make kids read it.

I haven't seen any movie version of this, but Robert Redford I could totally buy as Gatsby - he's got an air of sadness and a million dollar smile.  De Caprio in the new version though?  Well, he's usually pretty good in everything.  The new Luhrman movie looks from the trailer like it really goes to town on Gatsby's parties, which I suspect is the right approach.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks

I'm still trying to figure out of this is even better than Player of Games...

It's certainly very different - a lot more complicated structurally, and more of a character study than the straight up classic plot of the other novel.  The main character's Zakalwe, a mercenary working for the Culture's Special Circumstances division.  This means he gets his hands dirty changing the history of lesser civilisations while the Culture can stay squeaky clean.  Two things become quickly apparent - Zakalwe's a military genius, and a sick, sick puppy.  He's terrified of chairs, for one thing.  And he has a recurrent vision of a boat, but he won't let himself think about that either.  A great portrayal of a very damaged individual.

There are two strands to this book followed in alternate chapters.  One details him being brought out of semi-retirement by his handler Sma for a new mission; the other works backwards through Zakalwe's life until you learn what the hell's wrong with him.  You get little snapshots of his life - falling in love, discovering the Culture for the first time, going on a drug-fuelled dream-quest, bleeding to death on a desolate island, being decapitated by natives etc.  Very episodic, of course, but it works very well at telling you more about this guy's warped psychology as you follow him through the more straightforward "present day" plotline.  But all the time you're being drawn back into Zakalwe's past, and the demons you know lurk there.  Nice little red herrings along the way, and the denoument doesn't disappoint.

For much of this book, it has a pleasing John Le Carre/Graham Greene feel to it.  Secret agents, exotic locales, moral ambiguity, and damaged heroes who know they're not always fighting for the right side.  My one - small - criticism is that the "present day" plotline looses a little steam and direction towards the end, although it soon picks up again.  The rest of the pretty small cast of characters are also fun - Diziet Sma: a woman very comfortable with her sexuality, if not with the violence sometimes necessary in her line of work.  And the requisite drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw, who's typically sarky, badass and enjoyable.

This is the perfect Iain M Banks book to read after Player of Games I reckon - a sneak peek at the ugliness behind the utopian veil of the Culture.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Great North Road by Peter F Hamilton

Okay this is the point I really get into Peter F Hamilton.  It's another whopper - well over a thousand pages if you're unwise enough to read a print copy - but this time it's a standalone novel.  No encyclopedic backstory I'm missing out on, and a proper, satisfying ending, instead of a rushed set up for part two.

Even better - it's largely set in Newcastle 2142.  And you'll be glad to know the clubbers are still wearing t-shirts and miniskirts, despite climate change turning the winters sub-arctic.  This half of the story's a very nicely done police procedural, not unlike The Demon Trap.  A member of the ultra-powerful North family's been murdered but no-one knows exactly who.  That's the problem with clones - they tend to be a bit samey.  The second problem with the investigation is it appears to be the same killer of another North clone twenty years ago and eight and a half life years away.   And they already caught that killer - a young woman called Angela who's been rotting in prison for the past two decades, with some unconvincing story about an alien killing machine.

Now that's giving very little away, because there's so much great stuff going on in this book.  The female badass is a very well worn sci-fi trope, but the character of Angela Tramelo is in a different league to most, both as a woman and a heroine.  I also loved the police stuff in Newcastle - well drawn officers using advanced but limited technology to solve an almost impossible case, while also dealing with office politics and their personal lives.

Then you've got the second major setting - the jungle planet of St Libra in the Sirius system, which is connected via the North family wormhole to Newcastle.  A military expedition is sent there and, of course, things go wrong, but in a really unexpected and interesting way.

The North family are also brilliant.  Three branches of the clan - one based in Newcastle, the other on St Libra and the third doing god knows what in a space station off Jupiter.

And finally you've got the Xanth - some mysterious out of control and unstoppable hyperspace nanovirus which everyone's terrified of.

Amazingly Peter F pulls it all together and pulls it off.  Maybe not everyone will like the ending, but it's proper science fiction and I loved it.