Book Reviews & Essays on Literature

Goodbye, Sir Roger – My Word Is My Bond, by Roger Moore

My Word Is My Bond – The Autobiography, by Roger Moore (Paperback: 416 pages; publisher: Michael O’Mara, Nov. 1, 2009)

You could be tempted to dismiss Roger Moore’s autobiography, My Word Is My Bond, as a bit of a joke, as light as his portrayal of “James Bond”. After he died, on May 23, 2017, at his home in Crans-Montana, Montana, Switzerland, I ordered his autobiography because so many people took the trouble to comment that he was a really decent human being. Others commented that he was the embodiment of the particular version of “James Bond” that he portrayed in seven James Bond films. I thought that was rather a contradiction and wondered what it meant. I am a die-hard James Bond fan, and of all the James Bond actors, I like the early Sean Connery films best, followed by Daniel Craig’s interpretation.  Continue reading

Six rules for writing about AI set out at Worldcon 75

Quote from the film, Ex Machina.

AI, Artificial Intelligence, is the one element that many SF writers like to work into their stories, particularly robot-human interactions. The bad news is that this particular element is probably the hardest to get right and the furthest away from becoming reality. On the third day of Worldcon 75, which ended last week, authors Anthony Eichenlaub and S.B Divya, and research scientist and software engineer Greg Hullender, formerly of Amazon and Microsoft, poured icy cold water on the notion that human-like robots will populate the world any time soon. Continue reading

Readers set the critics right at Worldcon 75

On day 2 of Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, I finally got to have a word with one of the “insider” attendees, which provided me with more of an eye-opener than the presenter himself had done. As part of a session on Chinese Science Fiction (SF), Eero Suoranta (University of Helsinki, Finland) presented his Ph.D. Study, The Inadequacy of Enlightenment Rationality in Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. This was just after Prof. Mingwei Song had put forth his compelling arguments about making “the invisible” part of the real world. Continue reading

How Chinese SF writers deal with “the invisible” – Worldcon 75

One of Prof. Song’s slides. He ignores the conventions for Powerpoint presentations but his ideas are very interesting.

Day 2 of Worldcon 75 delivered an Academic Track session that was on par, at least in terms of content, if not presentation, with the latest ideas and findings in Chinese Science Fiction (SF), one of the sub-genres of SF that I find particularly interesting and puzzling. Mingwei Song (Wellesley College, USA) presented on Poetics and the Politics of “the Invisible” –  Science, Science Fiction, and Realism in China, 1890s-1920s. The one idea that he conveyed clearly is that in China, SF is a “marginalized, hidden genre”, which, despitue its lowly status, has become “a vehicle for conveying messages that are beyond popular interpretations”, particularly about subjects that are contrary to, or not part of, the Chinese government’s prevalent “Chinese Dream” of prosperity, stability and happiness. Continue reading

Poor presentations detract from the messages at Worldcon 75

Messukeskus Conference Centre, Helsinki, venue of Worldcon 75.

The first Academic Track session on the first day of Worldcon 75 (the 75th World Science Fiction Conference), on the 9th of August in Helsinki, Finland,  promised to showcase the finest minds and the most sophisticated analyses that academics working in Science Fiction (either the science part, or the fiction part, or both) have to offer. The subject was “Uses of Fantasy: The Book, The Film, and Audience Responses – Results of the Finnish Sub-Project of the World Hobbit Project”. The presentations by three academics were, unfortunately, examples of “Do as I say, not as I do”. Continue reading

Splashes in a suikinkutsu – Experiential content on the Internet

See me, hear me and walk with me – that’s what many websites try to achieve; in other words, connect people by creating some kind of online sensory experience. The people factor is a two-edged sword: on the one hand demographics are often unreliable and wildly variable, on the other hand, the Internet’s particular appeal is that it allows people to break physical, geographical and even time barriers to access information. For the individual, it is a mostly win-win situation. Continue reading

Mental-floss on a grand scale – Death’s End by Cixin Liu

It has been said that many authors seems to be unable to grasp or describe how big outer space is. So it takes a bold and visionary Science Fiction (SF) writer – and I mean “visionary” in the sense of being able to come up with a vision of a setting in outer space – to describe space in both scientifically acceptable and literarily pleasing ways. Some writers gloss over the whole thing – it’s just “big”, “enormous”, or “there”. Others try to think beyond the usual ways of describing it. So, how big is it? And does LIU Cixin get it right in his sweeping epic of a space opera novel, Death’s End? Continue reading

Weird and funny – The Rapture of the Nerds by Doctorow & Stross

Sci-Fi and Fantasy writers often present original concepts in their novels, but Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross not only invented new ideas for The Rapture of the Nerds, but an entire new lexicon. It is missing a glossary, but if you’re not the kind of reader who immediately needs to make sense of a book, then you can just let all those un-English words and speculative notions roll over you, and eventually something will come out in the wash. I had to read it three times to get the gist of it, but a couple of new words stuck in my head. One was “meatsuit” – the bodies that humans are in: as much as one would like information and even personalities to be in code and uploaded to the Cloud somewhere, we all live in meatsuits and if we leave the meatsuit we die. At least, that is what one would suppose. Continue reading

Depicted like a painting – The One-Eyed Man by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

You know the colour “octarine”? It’s the colour of magic, visible only to magicians and cats, a sparkly, glowing combination of yellowy-green and purple. I thought of octarine and the way it became a stand-out feature of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Fantasy novels when I was visualizing the strange brown-purple-grey world, “Stittara”, that L.E. Modesitt, Jr., invented for his novel The One-Eyed Man.

Continue reading

The magic didn’t work for me – All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, originally published: January 26, 2016,
publisher: Tor Books, 320 pp. hardcover

If I can use one term to describe All the Birds in the Sky it would be “uneven”: uneven in tone – sometimes terse, sometimes gaspingly emotional; uneven in language use – careless, even jocular, in places, verbose or poetic in others; uneven in characterization – sometimes complex, sometimes flat, and uneven in the settings – like a mashup of the villages of Midsummer Murders, “Hogwarts” in Harry Potter and the house of the “Pied Piper” team in the TV series Silicon Valley. This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. In preparation for attending the event I am working through the shortlisted works to rank them. So this was No. 2.  Continue reading

Why we think that fictional characters are real

The reboot of the TV series Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: The Return premiered on the 21st of May, to a huge response from fans. What was interesting is how they responded, criticizing the producers if any of the characters deviated from their previous incarnations by so much as a word or gesture. They were commenting as if the people of “Twin Peaks”, “Detective Dale Cooper”, “The Log Lady”, “Laura Palmer”, etc., were real. What interests me, is why we identify with fictional characters and think they are real – or want to believe they are real. There has to be a psychological or neurological basis for this. In the linked pages of this post I discuss one reason at a time, from our ability to fantasize to the way our brains work. Continue reading

What makes an AI human? – A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, published by Hodder & Stoughton, an Hachette UK company, 2016, 378 pp. e-book. Kindle edition – Oct. 20, 2016. Hardcover edition: Hardcover – Jan 31, 2017

This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. I hope to be amongst the attendees at the conference, which is the oldest and biggest in the world for Science Fiction (SF). In preparation for that I am working through the shortlisted works in the categories of novels, novelettes, novellas and short stories. Reading the nominated novels has been an adventure so far since I do not know any of the authors, other than China Miéville. The first novel I tackled, A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, has been like a breath of fresh air. It seemed different from the established and well-regarded types of classical SF writing. It did one thing I have never experienced when reading a SF novel: it brought a lump to my throat. I almost cried. I actually, for once, felt for the characters. That is quite an achievement, considering that the characters are all AI machines, re-engineered humans or species of non-human sapient life forms.  Continue reading

The trolls Ūgh and Bõögâr are getting their own perfume

In the previous post I discussed Ūgh and Bõögâr, the creations of Berlin-based Icelandic artist Egill Sæbjörnsson. The two trolls are huge, ugly, temperamental, artistic, and very fond of Egill, coffee, and eating tourists. They are also smelly. At 36 metres tall, they need a lot of deodorant and perfume. In the interests of cleaning up the trolls before they stink out all the tourists whom they haven’t eaten at the Venice Biennale 2017, the trolls are getting their own perfume called Noise. Continue reading

Mythology Meets Art in Venice – Trolls and Gods

Sometimes artists use themes or characters from Mythology, and currently, two artists have done this in Venice, Italy, in exhibitions running concurrently. In one case, Iceland-born artist Egill Sæbjörnsson has created two enormous and ugly trolls, which are a staple of Nordic Mythology, and in another, British artist Damien Hirst has created sculptures that depict many well-known Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Nautical myths. In this post I take a look at the references in the exhibitions of both artists and hazard a guess at what they may be trying to say. Opposing arguments are to be expected at important art exhibitions but these two have caused a particularly high level of puzzlement and publicity. In the case of the trolls – the hullabaloo is, well…because they are trolls. And in the case of the classical myths, it is because it is a huge exhibition by a very famous artist. Continue reading

Poetry that mixes mother tongues – and my poem about my Grandma

My very dearly loved Grandma, Martha Magdalena Schreuder, long passed on.

It is very hard to make two different languages rhyme. This struck me again when I was researching the phonetic symbol for a “J” with two lines through its stem, for the review of Howard Jacobson’s novel J. Some sounds and letters exist only in certain phonetic alphabets. The guttural uvular fricative “g” (for instance /χ/ /χut/ as in “goed”), which is a frequent sound in Afrikaans, does not occur in English. The closest is the “ch” sound like in the Scottish Gaelic word “loch”. But it does occur in a handful of other languages including Spanish, Dutch (of course), Persian and Kurdish. (But having said that, below is one of my poems, in English and Afrikaans, about my Grandma. It features this particular uvular fricative “g”.) I have recently been listening to the band Orange Blossom, particularly the song Ommaty from their 2014 album Under the Shade of Violets. The lyrics are sung in Arabic and I must say I find the repetitive /χ/ very pleasant to listen to even though I only have a vague idea what the words mean.  Continue reading

Flummoxed by a “J” – J – A Novel, by Howard Jacobson

J by Howard Jacobson (Originally published: August 14, 2014, 326 pp., publisher: Jonathan Cape)

Sometimes a novel just flummoxes me. I have tried my best to get to grips with “J” by Howard Jacobson, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but the novel made me feel vaguely worried and confused while I was reading it. That was probably the author’s intention, since those sort of feelings drove him to write it. It is set in a Britain of the near future, at a time after a calamitous global event. This event is called “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED” or “Twitternacht” (with reference to “Kristallnacht” and Twitter.) As a result of this event, many people got killed, or were forced to move to other countries or back where they came from; everybody got given random, different names (oddly spelled), social media was banned and art was reduced to inoffensive, pleasing aesthetics so as not to arouse any extreme emotions ever again. The protagonists are “Kevern”, a carver of  Welsh love spoons, and his lover, “Ailinn”.  Continue reading

Not much of a mirror – You Don’t Look Your Age, by Sheila Nevins

Hardcover, publisher: Flatiron Books, a division of US Macmillan Publishers, New York, US, 2 May 2017, 255 pages. ebook: Flatiron Books, 250 pp.

With reference to the title of her new biography, Sheila Nevins does not look her age, which is 78 years. When I saw her interview with Charlie Rose last Friday on PBS, I was struck by how beautiful she is, in the same class of timeless good looks as Elon Musk’s mother, Maye Musk (69), and Carmen Dell’Orefice (85) who are both (still) models. She was also funny, self-deprecating, and sharp as a blade, so I immediately ordered her new book, You Don’t Look Your Age…And Other Fairy Tales, published two days ago. It is a very short, slight production and, contrary to Nevins’ stated intent, reveals only the well-disguised, carefully curated thoughts and back-stories that Nevins, who has spent her career behind the scenes as a producer of documentaries for HBO, wants to reveal. Continue reading

Twists on famous opening lines

(Above: Spot the possum details on these re-imagined book covers. Graphics by M. Bijman)

I wondered what would happen if I added the random sentence, “But one day they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand” – to the most famous opening lines ever written. The Poke, a website that gathers in one place all the foolishness on the internet, recently reposted a thread that said: If you’re looking for a new way to improve classic works of literature, then the internet is here to help – all you need to do is add “and then the murders began” as the second sentence. The idea, by Science Fiction and horror writer Marc Laidlaw, caught on,  and I was hugely entertained by the examples from readers. Continue reading

Book reviews in published magazines, vs review aggregator sites

Dum-dah-dah…Another one bites the dust…♬ (Sorry, Queen.)

A few months ago I announced that my reviews will be published in the South African women’s magazine, FairLady. The relationship did not last as long as the previous four-year stint. After having had three reviews published, I was informed that as of May 2017, the “Books” section of the magazine will be used for publicity for a local bookseller, The Book Lounge. The Books section of the April issue of FairLady was the last featuring write-ups by individual reviewers, whose opinions were published with their bylines. So, it’s ¡Adiós, FairLady, from me. Why? Let me explain. The argument is long but the story is bigger than me and my obsession with reviewing books. Continue reading

A questionable method of child-rearing – Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson

Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson, Publisher: Ecco; 1st edition (January 24, 2017); hardcover: 352 pages.

I imagine a woman must’ve sat Kevin Wilson down and explained to him in excruciating detail what pregnancy, childbirth, breast-feeding and the mothering instinct feel like – the pain, the physical sensations, the associations, memories and convoluted reasoning. These descriptions in his latest novel, Perfect Little World, are not the descriptions you’d read in a medical handbook. They seem to be intensely personal and individualistic, even a bit voyeuristic. Reading how “Isabel (Izzy) Poole”, the main character, feels during those moments is like feeling it yourself, and it is really not pleasant. However, Perfect Little World is a near-perfect depiction of what happens to people when they have children, the good and the bad. Continue reading

This guy knows food – Appetites, by Anthony Bourdain

Appetites – A cookbook, by Anthony Bourdain, with Laurie Woolever. Publisher: Ecco, HarperCollins Imprint, Oct. 25 2016, 304 pages, photography by Bobby Fisher, cover design by world-famous illustrator and artist Ralph Steadman, illustration “Bourdain Perfect Burger” by Theo van den Bogaard.

Sometimes you have to admit you don’t know enough to give an opinion. For Appetites – A Cookbook, I asked food and wine critic, Andreas Rompel, for his review. In the past I’ve judged Anthony Bourdain’s memoirs from a literary point of view, no problem, and I’ve admired and enjoyed his writing, “…a poetic, stream-of-consciousness food-rap.” But this time, it’s about food and recipes – about which I know just about enough to not ruin scrambled eggs completely. It’s Bourdain’s first cookbook in ten years, and it’s a demonstration of his expertise. The man knows food – no doubt about that. Continue reading

Nice but Light-Weight – Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman, translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch, published by Sceptre, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, UK, May 3, 2016, 336 pp., paperback.

I did not like Backman’s previous novel, A Man Called Ove, but was spurred on to buy book no.3, Britt-Marie Was Here, by a very insistent salesperson in the Chapters bookstore, who had been so entranced by it that she was practically hugging her own copy. I bought it against my better judgment and I was underwhelmed all over again, despite trying my best to be objective. When Backman writes, he repeats certain words and phrases over and over, and makes each chapter and paragraph follow the same basic pattern, so that it sounds almost like a children’s rhyme, a medieval poem, or a traditional fairytale. The novel is nice but light-weight, like a pretty balloon. Because I do not agree with people categorizing a frothy piece of writing like this one as a literary masterpiece, I will, below, debunk the myth. In any case, when I see the words “international bestseller”, particularly “New York Times International Bestseller”, on a book’s cover I am immediately suspicious.  Continue reading

A masterful depiction of boredom – The Evenings by Gerard Reve

The Evenings, by Gerard Reve, translated from the Dutch, De Avonden, by Sam Garrett, published by Pushkin Press, London, Jan. 31 2017, 352 pages, hard cover.

The book published under Reve’s original pen-name, Simon van het Reve. It was first released on 1 November 1947.

This is the first English translation, published in January 2017, of the famous Dutch novel. It is a novel about boredom – tedium – monotony – ennui. You’d think that with such a subject the book would be, well, boring. It isn’t. Remember the TV series Seinfeld? Pretty much nothing happened in each episode, yet, it was entertaining. Seinfeld is often described as being “a show about nothing”, since many of the episodes written by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are about the minutiae, the small humdrum matters, of daily life. It’s same in this book. As author Tom McCarthy explains in an article about his favourite books in which nothing happens, the lack of an exciting plot, “creates the perfect blind spot in which a hundred events can take place, and everything can be said.” Continue reading

Hard-hitting Alt-history novel – Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters, published by Mulholland Books, Little, Brown and Company, New York, U.S., July 2016 (1st ed.), 327 pp., hard cover.

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters, published by Mulholland Books, Little, Brown and Company, New York, U.S., July 2016 (1st ed.), 327 pp., hard cover. (Classified as alternative history, thriller, detective fiction, and suspense fiction.)

Ben H. Winters wrote the acclaimed, award-winning Science Fiction series, The Last Policeman. I called the hero of the series, “Detective Hank Palace”, “the Thinking Woman’s Crumpet” –  and the detective in his latest novel Underground Airlines is another yummy crumpet. Like No. 3 in The Last Policeman trilogy, World of Trouble, Underground Airlines was also shortlisted for the Goodreads Choice Awards in the Science Fiction category, amongst other kudos. So one can safely say he knows how to write a hit and create really appealing, admirable protagonists. I was expecting something good, and was not disappointed; a polished, refined, sharp piece of alternative history writing which, due to its premise, is also a bugle call for the defence of democracy, freedom and the U.S. Constitution. Continue reading

Finnish Weird at its best – Troll, by Johanna Sinisalo


Troll – A Love Story, by Johanna Sinisalo; Copyright 2000 by Johanna Sinisalo; English translation copyright by Herbert Lomas, 2003; 278 pp., paperback

ABOUT TROLLS –There is a whole body of memes about trolls. There are cute troll dolls, like in the 2016 animated movie, Trolls, and the more “realistic” trolls, hairy, ferocious, living in forests, and confined by the emissions of electricity pylons, that feature in the 2010 Norwegian “found footage” film Trollhunter. For the Trollhunter film’s final scene, a clip of former Norwegian Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg speaking about an oil field outside Norway called the “Troll Field”, was edited to create the appearance of him admitting to the existence of trolls.”

Madam, I’m afraid he’s come down with a bad case of Trolls

If you’ve never imagined that trolls are an actual “thing” to people in Scandinavian countries, read this. Honest to Pete, you will come to believe this troll is as real as your dog or, more disconcertingly, your husband or wife. It is haunting, marvellous, and really refreshingly different, and confronts the reader with questions about the nature of love and alienation. It is no fairy-tale, nor is it a fantasy, though it is about a troll. A troll is a class of being in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore, classified somewhere between a smart animal and a cave-dwelling humanoid. Despite today’s globalized world of connected technologies and electronic media, there are ancient folkloric beliefs that are alive and well in Iceland, for instance. Surveys show that more than half the nation believes in elves and “hidden people”, elf-like “Huldufólk” who live amongst the lava rocks, or at least don’t deny their existence since it is considered bad luck to do so.

Similarly, there are people in Finland who believe that trolls are real – or just want to believe trolls are real. Every country in the world has its mythical beings, and so long as people have story-telling and imagination, that will continue, helped along by mass communication and imaging methods. The Finns, in particular, have trolls. Continue reading

“The Little Prince” – The tricky business of fan fiction versus copyright, Part 4 of 4

The Return of the Young Prince, by A.G. Roemmers

The Return of the Young Prince, by A.G. Roemmers

Here is the last part in a series of four posts on the subject of fan fiction versus copyright rules. Now it’s the turn of the famous children’s book, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which is still copyrighted but has nevertheless been a frequent subject for fan fiction, adaptations, sequels and parodies. Argentine poet Alejandro Roemmers has written a fan fiction sequel to it, called The Return of the Young Prince, which will be published in English in hard cover later this year. I suggest you think of it as Roemmers’ gift to the world, say thank you kindly, and leave it at that. If you want to know how it compares to the original, read on. Continue reading

The header for this and other posts contain images from both original and fan fiction/sequels by other authors. In this case, Tintin and Snowy (left) come from Rodier’s version, the Little Prince (adapted, centre) comes from the original by De Saint-Exupéry, and the Young Prince (right) comes from A.G. Roemmers’ version. All three images have been used under the terms of “fair use”: “In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work.” (Rich Stim, Stanford University Libraries). The main image, of Paris, France, is by M.F. O’Brien, used with permission.

The Unfinished “Tintin” – The tricky business of fan fiction versus copyright, Part 3 of 4

Tintin and the Alph-Art, by Hergé (Georges Remi)

Tintin and Alph-Art, by Hergé (real name: Georges Prosper Remi)

On the subject of fan fiction versus copyright rules, I am discussing examples of three cases of what seems to be copyright infringement of famous books, starting with the case of the two “Alephs” – Jorge Luis Borges vs. Pablo Katchadjian. Now it is the turn of Tintin and Alph-Art, a Tintin comic book which was incomplete at the time of author and artist Hergé’s death, and which was completed and recreated by Canadian Yves Rodier in an impressive feat of fan fiction.  Continue reading

The header for this and other posts contain images from both original and fan fiction/sequels by other authors. In this case, Tintin and Snowy (left) come from Rodier’s version, the Little Prince (adapted, centre) comes from the original by De Saint-Exupéry, and the Young Prince (right) comes from A.G. Roemmers’ version. All three images have been used under the terms of “fair use”: “In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work.” (Rich Stim, Stanford University Libraries). The main image, of Paris, France, is by M.F. O’Brien, used with permission.

“The Aleph” – The tricky business of fan fiction versus copyright, Part 2 of 4

To continue the discussion on fan fiction versus copyright, here follows the case of the two “Alephs”, one by Jorge Luis Borges and the other by Pablo Katchadjian. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, writer Pablo Katchadjian is currently being sued for plagiarism, or the re-use without permission of copyrighted work, because he “fattened”, padded, added to or otherwise re-used the novel The Aleph, written in 1945, by the famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Katchadjian says, in his defence, that his version of the novel, called The Fattened Aleph, is a “lengthened” version of Borges’s short story and is not plagiarism because it is “an experiment” and “open about its source”. An open-and-shut case this is not. Continue reading

The header for this and other posts contain images from both original and fan fiction/sequels by other authors. In this case, Tintin and Snowy (left) come from Rodier’s version, the Little Prince (adapted, centre) comes from the original by De Saint-Exupéry, and the Young Prince (right) comes from A.G. Roemmers’ version. All three images have been used under the terms of “fair use”: “In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work.” (Rich Stim, Stanford University Libraries). The main image, of Paris, France, is by M.F. O’Brien, used with permission.

The tricky business of fan fiction versus copyright, Part 1 of 4


The header for this and other posts contain images from both original and fan fiction/sequels by other authors. In this case, Tintin and Snowy (left) come from Rodier’s version, the Little Prince (adapted, centre) comes from the original by De Saint-Exupéry, and the Young Prince (right) comes from A.G. Roemmers’ version. All three images have been used under the terms of “fair use”: “In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work.” (Rich Stim, Stanford University Libraries). The main photo, of Paris, France, is by M.F. O’Brien, used with permission.

The Era of the Reboot and Sequel

Whenever an author adds a new book on to a successful novel or series of novels, comparisons are inevitable and fans are not always kind – like with To Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s final and second only novel after To Kill a Mockingbird. Comparisons can get particularly odious when another author takes over a book “franchise” or a particular novel’s subjects, characters or writing style. It takes enormous skill to write a follow-up or sequel to a successful novel or film, especially if you are not the original author. There is a very thin line between copying the original writer’s style and writing it in your own style while maintaining the “magic” or success factor of the original work.  Apart from skill, it is also about copyright. And copyright is complicated.  Continue reading

Printed books are not only for old fogeys like me

Comic artist and illustrator Lucas Levitan’s particular talent is to superimpose his bulbous-nosed cartoon figures onto actual photos he has found, mostly on Instagram. I think his illustrations and videos are charming and playful, but occasionally one might cause me to wonder “What was THAT?! Ooooh yuck. In this video he explains convincingly why he prefers printed books to electronic format books and why he needs funding to collect his illustrations in a book. I agree with Levitan. I still prefer to buy books made of paper, even if I order them online. My reasons: 1) You can read all day without being tied to a cable for charging the battery. 2) You can weigh it in your hand to get an idea of how far you still have to go to the end. 3) You can read it in the rain, in the cold, outside, upside down, etc. 4) You can use it for other things – to sit on, or throw at someone, for instance. And, lastly, like Hong Kong artist Movana Chen has done, you can KNIT something from a shredded book once you’re done with it.

Everyone, on this Friday the 13th, relieve your superstitious blues with Levitan’s delightful video. The book, called Photo Invasion, was published in 2015.

Other illustrators I like:

  • David  Firth, creator of many awesome things, particularly Salad Fingers.
  • Hugleikur Dagsson, an Icelandic cartoonist/writer/comedian with a pretty dark sense of humour.

From the inside looking out – A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, New York, Sept. 6 2016, 480 pp., hard cover.

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, New York, Sept. 6 2016, 480 pp., hard cover.

This is a stylized, studied novel, about a stylish gentleman, written in elegant style. It has a fin-de-siècle feel to it, of events passing and times moving on, and of the struggle to adapt to changes or stay in the previous era. Towles conjures up a romantic and fascinatingly intricate pre-WWII-era hotel in Moscow, the “Metropol Hotel”, in which the main character, “Count Alexander Rostov”, lives. The Count is a surprising character – he is a gentleman and a gentle man, yet he can handle a gun and is not afraid to use it (which is a hugely enjoyable moment!), nor is he afraid to pull strings and do a bit of theft and smuggling on the side. He is as intriguing and multi-faceted as the rest of the gallery of charming rogues working in the hotel. Readers will find this novel very entertaining and suspenseful – and the best bit, I can assure you, is the ending, and in order to understand it, you will have to remember what you read right at the start of the novel.  Continue reading

GoodReads 2016 – A Year in Books

Your Year in Books Report from GoodReads, 2016

Your Year in Books Report from GoodReads, 2016

This is the report of my year on, where I repost short versions of my reviews. Goodreads still has the “star” system of ratings which I’m not crazy about, simply because it lacks subtlety. You can “not like” a book while having found it excellent. It might have been masterfully written but left a bad aftertaste – or recurring nightmares. Or you can say you “really liked it” but have to confess that you don’t know why, or that you didn’t understand it, or that it is forgettable. It’s a flawed system, but nou ja, as we say with a shrug in Afrikaans, it is what it is. I note with interest that Science Fiction, as a genre, is simply not as popular as any other, and that Paul Auster, though brilliant, is still an acquired taste, especially his latest novel. It reminds me that I gave Sjón a rare five-star-rating – Icelandic authors was a delightful discovery in 2016. Unsurprisingly, the very-hot-right-now Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien has been highly rated on GoodReads. Most people I’ve spoken to say it was hard to read, and even harder to make sense of, but they nevertheless were moved and thought it was worthwhile. Funny that – it’s almost on the edge of  being unreadable. But there is a thin line between genius and madness, and a thin line between daringly brilliant and plain old confused, isn’t there. And this one teeters on the tightrope. Continue reading

2016 Review – A Year in Books, by the numbers

Another year has passed on the Seven Circumstances book blog. Here are the site stats, courtesy of WordPress’s StatsMonkeys who did the calculations. Last year they sent me a pretty report. This year they didn’t so I did my own, in the video below. The numbers are small, but that’s not what I’m after. Considering I do barely anything with this stuff, it is amazing that anyone ever visits the site.

So, a nod to to all the lovers of literature who follow, read and like my reviews and share my love of books. (It has to be said that many of them are self-published novelists and poets who may be hoping to redirect visitors back to their own book sites to read their writing online and boost their numbers. Well, without readers you don’t have a book. So I get why they do it.) Non-commercial review sites, written, like this one, by just one person, are not very common. Here is a well-written site, called The Whole Brevity Thing, that has intelligent critique on films, television, games and such. “The Dude” who writes it, explains himself like this:

“I love film and television. Love it. So much so that I put a lot of years and a silly amount of money into studying it. My main area of interest was screenwriting, and I studied and practiced and I learnt a lot, but it wasn’t paying the bills. So I put it to one side. This website is me refocusing my energies back on to the things I love. It is for me. If people visit the site, and like what they read, then great, join in the conversation, we’ll have a lot to talk about. But if no one reads a word, well, that’s fine. It’s just something I’ve got to do.”

Amen. Ditto. Same here. Well, Dude, as you like to be called, I enjoy reading your stuff. You really nailed the whole Harry Potter phenomenon in a recent post.

Here’s to another year of good books. Prost!
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“Kǔ lé”, a state of both joy and sorrow in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Published by Knopf, Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., and Granta (U.K.), May 31 2016, 475 pp., hard cover.

Published by Knopf, Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., and Granta (U.K.), May 31 2016, 480 pp., hard cover.

This important novel about two families of brilliant musicians in China during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958 – 1961), the “Cultural Revolution” (1966 – 1976) and the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, will have you crying buckets, get into a deep funk, and nurse an aching heart for days afterwards. Reading it creates a feeling of “both joy and sorrow”, which Thien, in the novel, calls “kǔ lé” (or “bitterness in the music”, or “joy in sorrow”). The story is not entirely dark, but rather bitter-sweet, and amidst the tragedies there are happy moments and hopeful glimpses of a better future. But while I read it I often wondered in exasperation: Just how could people put up with this relentless repression? How could they put up with such massive insults to their dignity, how can they have such cowed acceptance of the bullying and betrayal by their own neighbours, peers, friends, and colleagues? How could they stand the mindless repetition of idiotic slogans? The novel illuminates the darkest, and most censored, years of the 20th century in China, and after I read it, I felt relief that I had the dodged the bullet of being born Chinese in those times.  Continue reading

Doesn’t work, bestseller or not – 300 Days Of Sun, by Deborah Lawrenson

Published by Harper, New Work, 2016

Published by Harper, New Work, 2016

Some magazines don’t publish negative reviews because they want to review books that people will buy. The problem with that argument is that sometimes badly written books sell well, Fifty Shades of Grey, for example. An example of this is a “popular” book, 300 Days of Sun, which has glowing blurbs all over its covers, and was on the “best sellers” table at my local book shop. Frankly, I was bored out of my tree with it. I’m sorry I didn’t like it and cannot praise it, but not every book is loved by every reader, and authors, putting themselves out there, should know that. It’s just the way we are all wired differently. So the reason you should read this review is so you know why it isn’t very bad, but why it isn’t very good either. It’s not so simple as just being about sales or media hype.  Continue reading

Who’s up for some Surrealist warfare? The Last Days of New Paris, by China Miéville

China Miéville’s novels lend themselves to illustration, as his legions of fans have demonstrated. This excellent collage is by the (nameless) author of the French Sci-Fi blog, avant-critique. The artist did not think that the graphics in the novel were adequate to reflect the tone.

China Miéville’s novels lend themselves to illustration, as his legions of fans have demonstrated. This imaginative collage is by the (nameless) author of the French Sci-Fi blog, avant-critique. The artist did not think that the graphics in the novel were adequate to reflect the tone.

To give some background on this peculiar novella, The Last Days of New Paris, consider this: No adult, dedicated Science Fiction (SF) novel has ever won the Man Booker prize for literature. It has been vehemently debated that the Man Booker Prize judges, like the judges of other high-profile, establishment literary awards, shy away from submissions from SF writers, because, firstly, SF is viewed as “low-brow” youth culture writing, being frequently confused with Fantasy writing. Secondly, SF is seen as too obscure or leading-edge, and thirdly, they presuppose that in order to understand SF, readers have to have read a lot of it or have specialized knowledge of technology or science, limiting its appeal.

Practically speaking, SF is often hard to read and appreciate because of futuristic subjects and the introduction of new concepts that authors have to create new words or languages for. (For instance Klingon and Na’vi.) Both authors and readers need tremendous powers of imagination. China Miéville has invented new words and languages for many of his mind-boggling SF works, and in The Last Days of New Paris, he does it again. Reading it made me realize that I simply do not know enough about the SF genre. It was impossible for me to judge it one way or another. A thumbs up or down was out of the question. Why? Because, apart from producing a doozy of an SF adventure, he turns many SF conventions on their heads in this book. It isn’t a Man Booker contender, for the reasons listed above, but is sure is a candidate for every SF literature award out there. Continue reading

Into the mind of a dead composer: The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

Hardcover, Random House Canada, May 10 2016, 201 pp.

Hardcover, Random House Canada, May 10 2016, 201 pp. Cover image is a portrait of the composer Dmitry Shostakovich, by artist Iosif Serebryany, now in the Tretyakov State Gallery, Moscow.

Julian Barnes is a writer who does not waste words. While his subjects are often difficult and his novels contain references to specialized subjects, his writing is  accessible to all readers through his clear ideas, deep understanding, and well-considered use of language. He has a very, very fine turn of phrase, no doubt about that. While always approaching his novels with a sense of trepidation, hoping I could “get” them, I now think of them as treasure boxes – foreboding when closed but glorious once unlocked. That is what The Noise of Time is like. For me, it was a completely serendipitous discovery of the marvel that is Dmitri Shostakovich, and his music. Continue reading

Avoiding the reviewer’s fate of “praising trash”

Luzinterruptus have brought their light-based street art from Madrid to NYC; this is 800 books, each with a light attached, with the intention of replacing traffic with literature. Read more:

This is a light-based street art installation in New York, by Luzinterruptus. Here they have 800 books, all the same, but each with a different light in it. This is what the book market is like: millions of books, and millions of readers, each reader with a different take on each book.

As of this month, I’m going to be contributing book reviews to Fairlady magazine. For those who don’t know, it’s an English language South African women’s monthly magazine, started in 1965, with a readership of about 695,000. This is largely because, through luck or persistence, I got to write about 75 book reviews for them from 2008 to 2011. And now I’ll be doing it again. Why did I want to go back to the magazine? I couldn’t quite put my finger on a reason, until now, and it was quite an epiphany! Continue reading

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Suffering and sublime beauty – The Famished Road, by Ben Okri

The Famished Road, by Ben Okri, Kindle format e-book Anniversary Edition, 25 Oct. 2016, by Open Road Integrated Media, New York, USA.

The Famished Road, by Ben Okri, Kindle format Anniversary Edition, Publisher: Open Road Media, New York, USA, October 25, 2016

This novel, first published 1991, won Ben Okri the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. You might wonder what relevance a 1991 novel has today. Being a Booker Prize winner, it is still important, but is it still good? Does it still have meaning in today’s world, and, moreover, will there still be any connection with today’s readers? The answer is yes. Why? Because it is still so different that it is not possible to pigeonhole it into a genre, and because its subject is both depressing and relevant; desperately poor Nigerians living in a slum, with a spirit-being as a child. It is both astoundingly creative and deeply sobering.  Continue reading

A perfect world you’d kill to escape from – The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., A Penguin Random House Company, September 24, 2015. Emblem paperback edition (depicted), Aug 09, 2016, 400 pp.

Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., A Penguin Random House Company, September 24, 2015. Emblem paperback edition (depicted), Aug. 09, 2016, 400 pp.

The Heart Goes Last held no surprises for me. Dystopia set somewhere in the future? Check. All doomed to implode due to typical human weaknesses? Check. Clever advertising references and initially interesting, futuristic products? Check. Ordinary people up against the machines, that brings out the worst in them? Ditto. People stuck in a type of bubble or petri dish situation, every move recorded by Big Brother? Ditto again. Atwood’s latest vision of the future has been overtaken somewhat by developments in technology and many individual aspects have already been depicted in earlier novels and films. However, all the combined features of the dystopian world she has created make for an entertaining creation. I can definitely see this book being filmed, scene by scene. Atwood introduces the gated community, “Consilience”, and the associated prison, “Positron”, which are combined into a massive social experiment and into which a down-and-out couple wins access. This man-made, ostensibly pastoral “enclosed world” brings to mind WestWorld (the 1973 film and 2016 HBO series), and The Truman Show (1998). It’s definitely been done, and with more panache, but there are a few clever ideas in the novel too, like those creepy, blue, knitted teddy-bears. Other familiar sci-fi “tropes” in the novel include:

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With love and fatigue from writer and reader – Report from the interior, by Paul Auster

Published November 19, 2013, hard cover, by Henry Holt and Company, New York, USA.

No, this is not a second-hand copy with an old, ripped cover. It is how the cover has been designed to look. Published November 19, 2013, hard cover, by Henry Holt and Company, New York, USA.

Paul Auster has been one of my favourite authors for many years, but not one whose name would come directly to mind if I were asked to name an author whose books I “liked”. “Liking” is not an emotion that I associate with Auster’s books.  It is too friendly and mild a term. Bafflement and fascination, as well as irritation and great admiration, would come closer to the mark. I suspect he is something of an acquired taste and once you have gotten into Paul Auster, you are as devoted as a slavering but somewhat puzzled dog. Whatever his motivation for producing Report from the interior, a very strange bit of self-analysis, I would not recommend it unless you are an absolute Auster fan. Read everything else he has written, yes, do! Absolutely! But this one – I do not know whether I am crazy about it or hated it. It is an oddity that you cannot easily fit into a genre, but it is also an impressive demonstration that humans are, sadly, “on one level, no more than meat; and on the other, no more than fiction.”  Continue reading

Read to your children – they will thank you for it

This is the Information Age and the Social Age. Whether on a tablet, PC, ipad or smart phone, people wade through masses of information every day. The better you can read, faster and with more comprehension, the better you will cope with the information deluge and the constant social connectedness. So, how do you, as a parent, “grow a reader”? You read, and you read to your children. I still remember the words from some of the books I read as a child. Today there was a man being interviewed on TV, Tony Blinken by name, and into my head popped an old children’s poem, Wynken, Blynken and Nod, by Eugene Field. It was written in 1889 (!!) and my parents gave it to me in a gorgeously illustrated book, Hilda Boswell’s Treasury of Poetry (Collins, 1968). I never knew who wrote it, I just knew the words. And like an actor’s lines, they would sneak into my head in the moments before I drifted off to sleep. And of course, I would hear my mother’s voice as she read it to me. Here is the first verse: Continue reading

“Moonstone” and other books, by Sjón – Prepare to have your head messed with, brilliantly

Moonstone -The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjón. Translated by Victoria Cribb. First American edition published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2016. Originally published as “Mánasteinn – drengurinn sem aldrei var til” by JPV/Forlagið, 2013.

Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjón. Translated by Victoria Cribb. First American edition published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2016. Originally published as Mánasteinn – drengurinn sem aldrei var til by JPV/Forlagið, 2013.

Sjón: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Reader of Sjón. Her current mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no Reader has gone before. Apologies to the writers of Star Trek, in this, its 50th anniversary year, but this is what reading the novels of Icelandic author Sjón is like. The first American edition of Sjón’s novel Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was, was published earlier this year. While I read it, I often wondered just how it is possible for someone to express so precisely, in such visually compelling language, such foreignness, not only to readers not from Iceland, but also probably for readers from Iceland. It is in English, capably and truthfully translated by Victoria Cribb, but at the same time it is a journey into places, minds, characters, mores  and subjects that I had never before encountered in a novel.

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A sexy idea that moves you – The Gods of Tango, by Carolina de Robertis

eBook published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, New York, USA, 2015, 864 pages.

eBook published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, New York, USA, 2015, 864 pages. (Paperback 384 pages)

There is a lot of tango-ing in this novel, The Gods of Tango, as well as an eyebrow-raising amount of erotica. I bought it because I had enjoyed the sweeping family drama of De Robertis’s previous novel, The Invisible Mountain. I have learned to do the Argentine Tango, so I expected a novel about the dance. What I did not expect in this novel was the theme of drag artists in the history of the tango. Yet, despite the shock to the reader’s system, De Robertis succeeds in this novel by stimulating the reader’s mind though her descriptions of the development of the tango as an art form, the dancers and performers of the tango, the history of drag artists’ involvement in the tango, and the history of Buenos Aires. And she reaches the reader’s emotions though her impassioned descriptions of music, loneliness, courage, desire, lust and love. Music as a lover, dancing as lovemaking, the tango as the immemorial representation of tragic love? Oh, yes, De Robertis does it with aplomb, all 860-plus ebook pages of it. Continue reading

The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin

ViceroyOfQuidahWhile I was reading The High Mountains of Portugalwhich I reviewed in my previous post, I was also re-reading The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin, which, like The High Mountains of Portugal, paints a harrowing picture of slavery in the Portuguese and Brazilian colonies in Africa. The Viceroy of Ouidah is probably the most unforgettable depiction of white men losing their minds when trying to deal with “Darkest Africa”, centuries ago, that has ever been written. Let’s just say, Africa wins out. Think Apocalyse Now’s jungles, despair and death, Africa-style. The Viceroy of Ouidah, published in 1980, tells the story of a Brazilian who tries to run an outpost for slave trading in 1812 in Dahomey, what is now Benin, on the west coast of Africa. It is more contentious than many others in the same genre, including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, for its negative depiction of African culture. But then, Chatwin, who died in 1989, aged 48, also depicted Brazil, the slave traders, the European colonizers in Dahomey and the Viceroy of Ouidah himself as pretty horrible.    Continue reading

They don’t exist: The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel

Hard cover, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2016 (originally published February 2, 2016)

Hard cover, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2016

Let’s just get one thing out of the way: the title of the book and the setting: First, there are mountains in Portugal, but they’re not that high. I’m sure Yann Martel’s novel The High Mountains of Portugal has by now caused the northern parts of Portugal to be overrun with readers clutching copies of his book, desperately searching not for Pokémon but for a little village and a little church with an odd altarpiece in the far northern mountain ranges, such as they are. But Portugal is pretty flat compared to, let’s say, Spain, its neighbour in southern Europe. The highest mountain peak is on an island in the Azores, southeast of mainland Portugal, called Mount Pico, at 2,351 metres. The actual highest mountain on Portuguese soil is Serra da Estrela (the Estrella or Star Mountains) at Mount Torre. But Serra da Estrela is in the north-centre part of the country, and is not a distinct mountain summit, but rather the highest point in a mountain range, and it’s only 1,993 m high. And while it has rocky outcrops, snow, even cliffs, Serra da Estrala certainly has none of the icy Alpine peaks and ravines of Europe. So, if you are looking for a high mountain range in northern Portugal, to where the luckless character in the first story in this book drives in his Peugeot in 1904, the most likely spot would be the Montesinho Natural Park, in northeastern Portugal.  Continue reading

Too many “glittery encrustations” – Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights, by Salman Rushdie

Random House, September 8, 2015, 1st Edition

Random House, September 8, 2015, 1st Edition

Not worth the effort, frankly

This is part two of the essay about “readability” that I published yesterday. This time I’m taking a hard look at a novel by the famous Salman Rushdie, called Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights. Dared I say what I really think? Yep, I did.…
The essay is on novels that are hard to read and to finish because of one thing or another. One is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Waowhich eventually turned out to be excellent despite the fact that it is written in a mix of English and Spanish. The other is Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights – a title that feels as long as it takes to get through the book. This novel is typical Rushdie, a modernization of the fairytales of One Thousand and One Nights which was told by Scheherazade /ʃəˌhɛrəˈzɑːdᵊ/, or Shahrazad (Persian: ‫شهرازاد‬‎‎ Šahrāzād), a legendary queen and storyteller. The impediment here is not the language but that it is an incomprehensible muddle of elements and ideas – very elegantly portrayed – which nonetheless makes it both pedantic and boring. It is not a direct modernization of the fairytales. You are not going to get Sinbad in there, or Aladdin or Ali Baba. You are going to get male (jinn) and female (jinnia), and good and evil jinns (or djinns or genies), sex (a lot of it – did you know jinns have high libidos?), magic, a lamp holding a genie, wishes coming true, good battling evil forces, global warfare, regicide, and parallel worlds. Continue reading

Almost incomprehensible English – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Penguin Random House, 2007 (1st ed.)

Penguin Random House, 2007 (1st ed.)

Hard to read but worthwhile reading

Some books are hard to read and hard to finish. It could be because of obscure references, bad editing, bad translation, weird printing, etc. But I’ve recently got through two novels that were hard to read and to finish because of the style in which they were written. One is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in which it is literally the language that is the problem – it might as well have been partially written in Klingon for all I understood of it when I read it the first time. Another problem was the subject – it is about immigrants and the persistence of their culture even in their new life, like invisible hands pulling them back to their homeland. The specifics, that of the Dominican Republic, were completely foreign to me until I read this. However, by the time I got it, three, four readings later, the poetry of Junot Díaz’s English/Spanish had completely infused my mind.

Tomorrow’s review: the flipside of this argument; Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights by Salman Rushdie. Watch this space. Continue reading

The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka – Review: How does artistic consciousness connect with the world?

The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka (McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., 2015)

The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka (McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., 2015)

The Piano Maker could have been so much less, and in that way, been so much more. I thought that the author, who has written five novels before this one, would have been experienced enough to have realized the benefits of a simple structure focused on a primary theme. But in stead, there are too many themes that do not seem properly integrated, resulting in a melodramatic tone. The title, The Piano Maker, seems to be an afterthought rather than a sustained theme, while in actual fact, the history of pianos and their makers is fascinating – as I found out when I researched the provenance of my own piano. There are parallel themes of art theft and smuggling, war, workplace safety, even palaeontology, French Indochina, France at the end of the 19th century, the French in Africa, and quite a lot of religion (religious music, liturgy, priesthood, etc.) The main idea is probably “survival” or “closure” or the redeeming value of confession, and the fact that I cannot pinpoint exactly what the point is, is the problem. Continue reading