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Archive for April, 2011

Saying goodbye to Ramana

Last year, Habiba’s dad broke his back whilst cutting down trees for his and Habiba’s mum’s new house. It was a very traumatic time for Habiba and we flew over to America to see Ramana. He was very weak and suffered a heart attack while we were there. Towards the end of the year he recovered some strength and started doing rehabilitation, but he still had serious problems to contend with: very bad bed sores, a fistula between his throat and windpipe, his kidneys threatened to fail.

Within the last week or so, these problems came to a head – the bed sores had led to blood and bone infections and Ramana’s kidneys finally gave up. His family realised that he would not be able to survive without some very painful and intrusive treatment – and even then he would not live long. So they decided to make him as comfortable as possible and not to treat his conditions.

Habiba received this news towards the end of the week and we knew that we would have to get over to the States as soon as possible. Habiba was able to get time off work and we got tickets – eventually, after trying lots of online options and having credit card problems, from a Korean travel agency (I had to go there on Friday afternoon with my and Habiba’s credit cards; we paid separately because I didn’t have enough of a credit limit to pay for two tickets, so I needed to forge Habiba’s signature for her payment).

We left on Sunday morning, getting an early and very quick airport bus from near our home. Annoyingly, we were subjected to a security interview just after we checked in. The Korean woman who quizzed us was confused by my account of not having a permanent address and currently travelling in Asia as well as living with Habiba – but she passed us.

Our first flight was at 10:40 to Tokyo Narita Airport. Getting on board was a little stressful. Habiba, while taking her bag off her shoulder for the additional pre-boarding security check, broke her necklace – beads went all over the place, and I got the honour of throwing the remainder away. I had a nearly full cup of coffee that I couldn’t take on board; I endeavoured to drink it, but Habiba was cross and impatient, so I ended up throwing half of it away, too.

Last year, when we went to America, we had to throw away three bottles of water at the same stage, so we didn’t make that mistake this time. However, boarding for the 13-hour flight to New York JFK involved no extra security, so we could have bought water for that flight. As they say hereabouts, Go figure. We took off at about 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, flew through a night (what had been Saturday night in America and would be Sunday night in Asia) and landed at about 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon.

Before each of our flights, Habiba spoke to her family on Skype and was told that her dad was still alive and seemed comfortable – so it seemed hopeful that we would be able to get there in time to see him alive. Sadly, though, when Ramana’s first wife, Carol, picked us up once again at the airport, she told Habiba that he had died. She said that we had passed him in the sky.

After a short stop at Carol’s apartment for food and showers, she took us to a Yonkers railway station to catch a train up to Albany, the closest city to Habiba’s mum, Noorunisa’s home. Noor picked us up at the station, and then we drove an hour and a half east to Springfield, Massachusetts to the rehabilitation centre, Kindred Hospital.

While Noor napped in the lobby, Habiba and I were taken to see Ramana’s body. He was on a trolley in a plain basement room with a dozen mortuary refrigeration compartments along one wall. He was wrapped up in white plastic and a white sheet; on his head was a beaded hat or skullcap. His face was damp and icy cold, but he seemed to be smiling slightly.

Habiba was in tears; I felt emotional, too – perhaps more in response to Habiba’s feelings than anything else. She spent a while stroking his face and hugging him; then she asked me to leave while she spoke quietly to him. The nurses that had prepared Ramana for our viewing were out in the hall and we waited in silence for a couple of minutes. Finally, I went back in and we took some photos for family and friends to see.

After that, it was another long drive, all the way back past Albany to Noor’s home; then bed.

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Steven Erikson’s ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen series is one of the best and most important fantasy works of recent years. Important because it takes the concept of ‘epic fantasy’ to another level, telling a story that takes place on multiple continents, involving multiple sentient species, parallel magical worlds called warrens that are the source of different varieties of magic, a convoluted pantheon of gods and god-like beings and a cast of scores, maybe hundreds of viewpoint characters. It’s so vast in its scope and ambition that it’s actually quite difficult to keep track – even vaguely – of everything that goes on; sometimes its complexity is its own worst enemy.

Night of Knives is a much simpler narrative to digest. The world of the Malazan Book of the Fallen was created by Erikson and Esslemont for the purposes of roleplaying gaming. Erikson has enjoyed great success with his books, and since then, Esslemont has also begun contributing to the published canon. Night of Knives is the first of several books by Erikson’s friend that fill out the story being told in the main sequence. In it, we see what happened on the Night of Knives, an event that is referenced several times in Erikson’s books, but that happens before the first volume, Gardens of the Moon.

Night of Knives is short compared to Erikson’s books – only 450 pages, and not much text on each page. There are also only two main viewpoint characters and the action takes place in one city – Malaz – and over a single night.

While Malaz gives its name to the huge, militaristic Malazan Empire, it’s protrayed as a backwater town that has been superseded in importance by other Malazan acquisitions. It feels authentically Malazan, however, and to whatever degree Esslemont deliberately tried to model his work on Erikson’s, he succeeded.

The characters generally work well within the context of the two series of books. Temper is an old soldier – a classic Malazan character – jaded and bored. Kiska, on the other hand is a young woman who fancies herself as a spy and who takes it upon herself to follow some mysterious characters when they turn up in Malaz. While Temper fits perfectly into the Malazan scheme – his backstory is also part of Malazan history – and his presence and importance in the Night of Knives is apt, Kiska, on the other hand, is a little contrived. She just happens to want to do what the narrative requires of her and she survives the night only by good fortune and the tolerance of various powerful characters. I didn’t dislike her, but Temper seemed the more well conceived of the two.

The quality of Esslemont’s writing wasn’t quite as good as Erikson’s, but it was still pretty good. For the most part things moved along swiftly and the descriptions were direct and effective. There were a lot of flashbacks early on, however, that held back and confused the narrative. I noticed three uses of the word ‘mulch’ that seemed unusual: twice referring to the surface of the sea – being mulched with ice, or something similar – and once to brains bursting out of someone’s head that was being crushed in the jaws of a giant hound.

I had a little problem with the format of the book. As I said, there wasn’t much text on each page; the typeface wasn’t especially big, but the column of text was quite narrow. The publishers did this because fantasy books are supposed to be fat – that’s what readers want. That narrow column, though, made me feel I was reading something dumbed-down or aimed at children.

In some ways, this was an easier, more enjoyable read than any of the main sequence books, but in other ways it was less satisfying. Firstly, it’s a prequel – and prequels are kind of pointless: by definition, you already know how it’s going to turn out. Secondly, the size and scope of Erikson’s books – the challenge of following the multi-layered story – are part of those books’ appeal; Night of Knives is a different kind of novel. Thirdly, the characterisation – while perfectly in keeping with the Malazan Book of the Fallen pattern – was a little shallow in the context of a book where there are only two protagonists.

Still, Night of Knives is a decent read and a must for any Malazan Book of the Fallen fan.

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She was first published in 1887 and is the narrative of an English gentleman, L Horace Holly, who travels to an unknown, swamp-bound land in western Africa with his adopted son, Leo Vincey. This narrative is preceded by a prologue in which the author explains how he met Holly and the circumstances of his story’s publication.

When Leo is just five years old, his dying father goes to Holly with a strange tale of his family history. It turns out that the Vinceys are the distant descendants of an Egyptian priest, Kallikrates, and a princess, Amenartas, and that Kallikrates was killed by a mysterious pale-skinned queen of a savage people. Vincey gives Holly the responsibility of raising Leo in his absence and entrusts him with items that support his story of his family’s history, to be given to Leo on his twenty-fifth birthday. When Leo comes of age, he and Holly, along with their servant Job, follow Vincey’s instruction and travel to Africa in search of the truth of the family myth.

The resulting story is part adventure, part patronising ethnological study, part twisted romance. The book is steeped in Victorian ideas of dark-skinned savages and their white superiors. The eponymous She (this is how she’s usually referred to in the text) is supposedly from Arabia, but has pale white skin. The tribe she rules are described constantly as sullen and savage. Poor uneducated Job is a parody of working class simplicity. With their Cambridge education Leo and Holly are able to deal with the mental stresses of their ordeals; Job, on the other, constantly breaks down and eventually dies of terror.

While the above are certainly valid criticisms, I think you also have discount them to a large degree. The story is a product of its time – a time when Britannia ruled much of the world and was the most advanced country in the world thanks to the Industrial Revolution and Britain’s ready supplies of coal. Indeed, the condescending attitudes of the narrative are part of its charm.

A more serious flaw in the story is that everything that is mysterious about the protagonists’ meeting and interactions with She and what we learn about her and Leo is laid out in the documents bequeathed to Leo and described in detail at the beginning of the book. This robs the latter parts of the story of a lot of its mystery and tension – we already know or can guess what’s going to happen.

Still, the book is quite entertaining. It moves along at a fair pace, contains intrigue, action and danger (although, again, the prologue tells us that both Holly and Leo have survived and have embarked on a fresh adventure in Asia). It also has a bit of humour; Holly describes himself as being very hairy and ugly: ‘Women hated the sight of me. Only a week before I had heard one call me a “monster” when she though I was out of hearing, and say that I had converted her to the monkey theory.’

Some of the most interesting part of the book are the descriptions of the practices of the Amahaggar tribe that serves She. At one point, they put on a night-time dance illuminated by the burning preserved corpses of the ancient people who inhabited the city of Kôr. The characters’ brief visit to the ruins of Kôr is also effectively done. Their journey in the bowels of the extinct volcano to find the fire of life is an early example of a classic fantasy trope reminiscent of both Moria and Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings among many other similar fantastical locations.

I enjoyed reading it, particularly, the Victorian English narrative, which was spiced up by conversations in quasi-archaic supposed Arabic, along with a few phrases that seemed very modern (when Leo is sick with a fever, Holly describes him as being ‘off his head’, for instance). Later writers – H P Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ comes to mind – may have done this kind of story better, but She is an interesting entry in the canon of early fantasy.

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Just had quite a pleasant day out with Habiba and our friend Ksan. Our original plan was to go and look at the cherry blossoms at Yeouido near the National Assembly, but in the event, we met Ksan near her home at Hongdae and walked along the Hongjecheon (cheon = stream) to the Han River. There, we had ice cream in the warm sunshine and headed to a part of the capital I’ve never been to before: the area around World Cup Stadium.

We walked up the side of Haneul Park (haneul = sky), which appears to be constructed on top of a landfill site, and across to the stadium itself, home of FC Seoul. At the stadium, we had lunch at the Homeplus food court on one of the levels beneath the stadium proper. Habiba and I had Korean food; Ksan got a pizza the size of a small table for ₩13,000 (about £7). Then we tried to figure out how to go home again.

It was great to get outside and do a bit of relaxed exercise – although we covered a lot of ground and were pretty tired by the time we went home. The weather was great, too; my new short haircut leaves my scalp a bit exposed to sunburn, though (my hiking hat has mysteriously disappeared, too).

My health continues to improve, although slowly. For a week or two, while I was a lot better than at my nadir in March, I didn’t seem to be improving much. The last few days have seen a further small recovery of normal bowel function. Still two weeks’ worth of steroids to take before I’m due back to see the doctor.

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I watched the film of this book a while ago with Habiba and didn’t much like it. In retrospect, the part that turned me off it was the sappy love story between the two sappy blondies. One of the (many) good things about books is that they can’t be ruined by cheesy acting – however one imagines the characters delivering their lines, it will be completely appropriate to one’s expectations. I would have liked to have read the book first – I couldn’t get the images of the actors out of my mind.

Anyway – the book. It’s an entertaining read, not least because of the irreverent and even subversive manner in which it’s written. The version I read (it was Habiba’s copy, in fact) included an introduction that talked about how the novel came to be filmed, as well as the first chapter of a sequel, Buttercup’s Baby. The novel itself starts with an introduction, where the author – or rather, the authorial voice – talks about how his father read S Morgenstern’s The Princess Bride to him as a child – but only read the best parts – and how as an adult he resolved to make the book accessible to his son by abridging it.

This framing device of notes on the abridgement crops up throughout and is a major source of the book’s humour. The fictional Morgenstern, author of the original text, wasn’t so much interested in the adventure and romance of the story, but was instead intent on satirising the Florinese royal family and traditions, as well as doctors. Goldman’s narrative voice interrupts Buttercup, Westley, Inigo and Fezzik constantly in italicised passages explaining that the next 50 or whatever pages of the original consist of detailed descriptions of this or that aspect of life, and that, while, according to the experts in Florinese literature, they represent a masterful satire, they don’t advance the plot at all and are pretty boring.

These notes are also full of details of Goldman’s life – his unhappy marriage to his incisive psychologist wife, his unhappy fatherhood to his unhappy fat son. All of this is completely fictional and adds an extra layer of charm to the story. And the story is undoubtedly quite charming. Buttercup, while capable of being a sappy, lovelorn beauty, can also be utterly pragmatic – once she believes Westley dead she agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck as long as it’s understood that it won’t be for love. Westley is full of understated, dry quips. Fezzik and Inigo form an endearingly inept double act.

When I said that the book was subversive, I referred to Goldman’s interruptions and memories on the topic of fairness. In stories, the good guys always triumph over the bad guys. Here, however, one of the heroes dies, and by the end of the book, the villain of the piece is thwarted but not vanquished and is hot on the trail of the desperately fleeing protagonists. A very unresolved resolution.

The story continues in the first chapter of a supposed sequel, Buttercup’s Baby – a sequel that, Goldman explains in another introduction, he was forbidden from abridging by Morgenstern’s estate. Instead, they want Stephen King to do it. When Goldman goes to visit King in Maine, King tells him his abridgment of The Princess Bride sucked – but he gives him a shot at doing the first chapter of the second book. This new chapter gives a little more of a conclusion to the foregoing story, but introduces fresh mysteries, like the imminent death of Fezzik, the history of Inigo’s one love, and the skinless-faced man who steals Westley and Buttercup’s child. No resolution to this new story is offered, and Goldman puzzles over Morgenstern’s narrative choices and strategy.

The book as a whole is confusing, frustrating – deliberately so – but also readable and humorous. Despite its disparate construction it works as a whole – although it almost doesn’t. The conceit of Goldman simply abridging an existing work rather than writing it himself is certainly not original, but is done in a charmingly unique fashion. One criticism I would offer of this aspect of the novel is that the narrative voices of the Goldman sections and the Morgenstern sections are almost identical. Goldman writes in a distinctive twentieth century American vernacular – and so does Morgenstern. One shouldn’t make too much of that, though.

All in all, a strange, idiosyncratic, but entertaining novel.

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Disciple of the Dog is about a private investigator, Disciple Manning, who is hired to look into the disappearance of a beautiful, young middle class woman by her parents. Jennifer joined a cult that believes the world is an illusion, that it is really five billion years older than it appears and that therefore the Earth is shortly to be consumed by the dying Sun. Then, one night, she disappeared.

Disciple is the first person narrator of the story – and is both blessed and cursed with eidetic memory – true total recall. He comes across as a charmingly obnoxious cynic. In his initial interview with Jennifer’s parents, he explains to the reader that, when his clients start to get upset, to cry, the best thing to do is discuss his price. He is also intensely world-weary – he remembers in perfect detail all the worst moments of his life; his phenomenal memory continually sabotages his relationships with women: he simply gets bored with them.

So, when he gets the chance to hook up with a young woman journalist hoping to get a story out of Jennifer’s disappearance, he leaps at the chance to get her into bed. And, while the premise of the case seems straightforward at first, he quickly becomes excited by the anomalies he finds. The cult leader is a jovial and charismatic ex-psychology professor who takes all of Disciple’s barbed comments with ebullient good humour. The police chief is a gentle, youngish man who seems out of his depth. The small town where the cult is based is dominated by the sinister Church of the Third Resurrection. And then Jennifer’s fingers and toes start turning up around the town.

As long as you engage with the charming part of Disciple’s persona and not the obnoxious part (and I did), then Disciple of the Dog is a very entertaining detective story. Although Disciple is pretty full of himself, he’s also engaging and a little tragic. His singular talent enables hims to dispense with taking notes and to go over people’s words, tone and body language at leisure – theoretically making him a formidable detective. On the downside, apart from his personal demons, he has few flaws as a fictional character – his military and prison experience make him hard as nails and seemingly make him impervious to physical danger. And in the end, he has little to do with the resolution of the case – the answer comes at him out of leftfield, and he simultaneously watches events climax on TV in his motel room.

This is a better book than R Scott Bakker’s previous thriller, Neuropath, which I liked a lot. Where that other book was full of rather self-indulgent infodumps about the nature of the brain and consciousness, this one is much more concise. The story moves along at a brisk pace and never gets boring. It’s also quite short – due to its abrupt ending – but I think the length works well. I highly recommend it.

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I think Iain Banks’s latest science fiction – and Culture – novel demonstrates both his mastery of the single-volume space opera and also highlights some of his deficiencies as a writer.

Surface Detail is a story about the afterlife – or afterlives. Not in any mystical religious sense, but technologically enabled post-death virtual and physical existences. There are several plot threads that explore this issue. The main character, Lededje, dies in the first chapter, but her brain state is conveniently copied and ‘revented’ in a new body. Another strand of the story sees Prin, a campaigner against hells, escaping from a mission to investigate one such hell – a mission that his wife, Chay, fails to return from. In the Culture universe, some races have chosen, based on their religious convictions to create real hells, simulated environments in which miscreants’ brain states are brought back to life after death – or sometimes before – in order that they may live an eternity of agony. (Many other, less disturbing virtual afterlives exist, too.)

Many of the galaxy’s advanced races object to these hells, so there has been a virtual war raging for some years in a specially created series of simulated battlefields to settle the issue of whether the hells should be stamped out. The war is not going well for the anti-hell side. The narrative follows another character, Vatueil, through a number of fights in this war that usually end with his own death.

As usual, Banks’s writing is crisp, intelligent, playful and a pleasure to read. Any fan of his science fiction novels will be swept up in the continuing history of the Culture – a hedonistic, pan-galactic meta-civilisation whose interactions with less advanced peoples and the machinations of its Special Circumstances branch form the bulk of Banks’s sf adventures. The novel can be read in isolation, but there are lots of references to previous narratives, and there’s an extra special little Easter egg in the epilogue.

Surface Detail is a pretty hefty volume, but it packs an awful lot into its pages. There is the War of the Hells, Lededje’s quest for revenge aided by a joyfully psychotic SC ship, the plottings of the man who killed her, Prin’s legal battle, Prin’s wife’s existence trapped in hell, the investigation of a Quietus operative, Yime Nsokyi (Quietus is another Culture branch introduced for the first time in this book). All these threads seem disparate at first, but increasingly come together into a pleasing whole. Once I’d finished the book, however, it seemed that the story of Prin and his wife, while providing a vital and gruesome context to the rest of the novel, didn’t really affect the conclusion in any way whatever.

While the writing was great, the story intriguing and the characters engaging, there never really felt like there was a huge amount at stake. Lededje has already survived death and anything she achieves afterwards can only be a bonus; the ship she travels on to get back home is a top of the line military craft that is capable of severely embarrassing the lower tech of the world it heads towards. This is one of the problems with the Culture as a dramatic setting: its technology surpasses almost all other civilisations, its main operatives are AI-controlled ships with vast capabilities; in the Culture universe, the only races that can really threaten the Culture are ones that are so advanced that they aren’t even really interested in galactic affairs. In this light, one of the best parts of the book involves the Yime and her ship nearly being destroyed by a sentient remnant of a long-gone civilisation. This is merely a detour, however, and doesn’t have much relevance to the rest of the story.

While the characters are likeable and believable, I found it difficult to really care that much about them. This is a book to savour for its grand sweep of narrative and the detail of its world-building rather than the force of its character arcs. But that’s OK, because visiting the Culture universe is an immersive and inspiring joyride, borne along by the zippy vehicle of Banks’s writing.

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