Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Busker, Brian McNeill

Title: The Busker
Author: Brian McNeill
Rating: OK

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did, and that frustrates me. You see, I've met the author. He's a widely acclaimed musician, and (I think I have this right) he's Head of the Scottish Music Department at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. I've seen him play three times in very small venues and he is a wonderful performer. Amazing.

Some time back I learned he was an author, and since I liked his music so much I thought I'd try his printed works. He's written two: The Busker and To Answer The Peacock.

The Busker is a mystery novel set in Europe before German reunification. Alex Fraser - the hero, and a busker with an unfortunate criminal record - winds up in the middle of a complex set of relationships and crimes, the genesis of which dates back to a nasty event taking place before WWII. In trying to unravel these things for an old friend, he winds up going out on a limb to save the life of a child.

For those who don't know, a busker is someone who plays music for coins and donations on the streets. Brian McNeill has spent a lot of time busking, and he knows the trade well.

As I say, I really wanted to enjoy this book, but it was hard to do. I found it jumpy - cutting away from some scenes before I was sure what was going on, and coming into others too late to let me figure things out. It's also full of historical references and locations that meant little or nothing to me as a rather poorly educated (about international history, at least) American. In sum, it was difficult to follow. So difficult, in fact, that at times when I got lost I'd just set it down and do something else for a while. Not good.

As I ponder this, I wonder if there isn't an unusual reason for my reaction. McNeill writes wonderful song lyrics for his own works, and it is possible that the skill set needed to write lyrics is different from that needed to write prose. Song lyrics are - by nature - shorter and tend towards the more evocative, even mysterious. Perhaps the tendency to write in that style made The Busker hard for me to follow. I'm not sure, but it is a thought.

Beyond that, however, I thought there were too many coincidences in Alex's work on this mystery. He winds up with a wealthy backer, for example. That would be fine on its own, but he often gets help from total strangers who should - by all rights - turn him over to the police and forget him. I found him leading a bit too charmed an existence, despite the fact that he doesn't have an easy time of it in this story.

As I have said before, however, mystery novels aren't something I read a lot, so my expectations may not be quite right for the genre. Others may find it better, though the only reference to a book review of it I could find via google was a broken link to a review that panned the book. Oh well.

If despite the above you'd like to get a copy of The Busker or To Answer The Peacock do NOT order directly from amazon.com. These books weren't released in the US as far as I can tell, so the only copies available here are rare used editions at astronomically high prices. I ordered my copies from amazon.co.uk, and that worked out to much lower prices, and one of the books - when it arrives - will be new. I suspect there is a general lesson there as well: check a lot of sources before agreeing to pay $70 for a used book.

More information about Brian McNeill himself can be found here: http://www.brianmcneill.co.uk/, and if you get the chance to see him live in concert do NOT pass it up. He's warm and funny and charming. He tells great stories about the songs he's playing, and he can play Scottish music astoundingly well.

I hope To Answer The Peacock is more to my taste.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling

Title: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows
Author: J. K. Rowling
Rating: Good

Like about 11 million other people in the US, I got my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on its release date - July 21, 2007. Mine came in the mail, so I didn't get it until the afternoon, and as my weekend was pretty booked up with other events I didn't get to spend a lot of time reading it until Monday.

So what can I say about this book without spoiling it?

I can tell you that I enjoyed it. It's 750 pages long and I read all but the first 150 pages or so in two sittings on a single day. Looked at that way, it clearly held my attention. I set aside another book I was in the middle of to read this one, and I'm not sorry I did so.

It's also a complex book. A lot is happening, and yet Harry spends a lot of time waiting for news and information. And a lot of the plot depends heavily on events in the previous book or two. I read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince back in July of 2005, which is long enough ago that a good many of the details have slipped my mind by now, so I had to go with the flow when there were obvious references to something in an earlier book that I couldn't recall. But despite that I think Rowling does a pretty good job of winding up all the loose ends. She actually provides resolution on most of the outstanding issues I can remember from the previous books. (Contrast that with the way The End didn't clear up many questions in the Lemony Snicket series.)

On the downside, I found two things in this book that I didn't quite believe. Call them questions about the story or plot that I didn't get answered. These were both new with this volume, and I'm not sure how to take them. I won't go into details as I don't want to ruin the book for those who haven't yet read it. You can send me an email if you want to know what they were.

The last major comment I have is that the book presents a lot of new background information on a major character in the series, and much of it comes (to me, at least) as a surprise. Again, I don't want to spoil anything for others, but suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time reevaluating someone while reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and that isn't something I anticipated.

Overall I think Rowling did a pretty good job of winding things up. I need to spend some time with a serious Harry Potter fanatic I know and discuss my questions with her. I'm curious about how she feels now that the series is over. It's been a lot of years waiting for the books to arrive, and I hope she feels the end is up to the level of the rest of it. I thought so.

Mind you, none of this is "Great Literature" (tm) in my mind. It's escapist fantasy, and IMHO there are some weak spots in the way Rowling writes - her choice of certain words in particular - but escapism is fine with me, and she holds the story together regardless of my reservations.

I'll have to reread the entire series at some point - back to back to back - to get a better overview of it all, and to have each book fresh in my mind when I read the next one. More of the details will stick with me then, and it may be a somewhat different experience as a result.

I wonder what Rowling will do next?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Feast For Crows, George R. R. Martin

Title: A Feast For Crows
Author: George R. R. Martin
Rating: OK

I've now digested A Feast For Crows, book four in George R. R. Martin's twelve step program to cause readers to despise fantasy literature.

Well, wait a minute. That statement may be a bit too strong. After all, there are things to like about this book. Let's see...

There are some good (as in well written) characters here. And there are some interesting plot lines as well. In fact, I think the writing here may be better than the writing in the first three books. But right about there I start to run out of complementary material.

The first problem with A Feast For Crows is Martin's desperate need for an editor, preferably a samurai with a very, very sharp sword. Martin only discusses (or even mentions) about half of the major characters from the first three books here. The rest go mute and vanish for a thousand pages. If you were interested in what happened to Tyrion, for example, you're out of luck in this volume. But that means you've got a thousand pages of what? Well, read them and find out. Don't look for spoilers here. But a strong editor that could stand up to Martin and get him to whittle things down a tad (say, 50% or more) would be welcome.

And then there is the matter of the plot. Many of the the plot lines in here - and there are a lot of them - serve no obvious purpose. I liken it to that part of a chess game where the players are positioning their pieces so they can do great things, but for some number of moves not much appears to happen from an outside perspective. Don't get me wrong, some of these plot lines might have made good stories (or even novels) on their own, but causing us all to wade through them to learn very little about the overall war and world is irritating.

And finally we hit my chief complaint: the vast number of characters. We may only be following half the main characters from the first three books, but we have a ton of new ones to full up these pages. And, of course, they all know each other. By the time Martin has finished this saga any main character he might have left alive will have to die of a brain seizure as a result of trying to remember all the names of all the knights and lords he or she has met or known during their sorry life. And that doesn't include the courtesans and bards and maesters and magi and brothers and all their various titles and relationships to him or her and each other and on and on and on. One can imagine Martin pondering on some obscure plot point as follows:

"Hmmm... Jaime needs to meet someone that he knows in this instance, and the relationship must be slightly strained. Let's see, starting from the dawn of history and tracing through two hundred and twelve generations, it can be his mother's brother's wife's sister's great-grand-mother's half-niece who married into the wrong family first and started a blood feud when she killed her first husband. He can have met her at court once, when he was three and she was nine. He will remember it because of the color of her eyes and the way she always says the words 'my lord' in a high squeaky voice. Yeah. That works."

As you can imagine, this is another place where afore mentioned samurai editor would be useful.

A vision: John Belushi in full samurai regalia, swinging his sword at a three thousand page manuscript. Pages or parts of pages fly everywhere so it looks like it is snowing, and he is screaming: "Too long! Must remove fifty main characters and twenty sub-plots by morning!"


So, in the end, what do I think?

I think these books are overrated. They aren't terrible, but they aren't on a par with the greats of fantasy literature. I'll probably muddle through the fifth volume when it appears, but I'm in no hurry, so I'll wait to get a copy from paperbackswap.com, and I'll pass it on when I am done, as I am doing now with A Feast For Crows.