Friday, January 4, 2013

Book review roundup

1.  Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: The weakness of Game of Thrones is that Martin creates suspense by telling most chapters from the point of view of the dumbest and most lethargic character (usually a Stark, or Theon, an honorary Stark).  The more interesting, energetic character (Tywin, the Boltons, Littlefinger, Walder, whoever was running circles around Daenerys in the last book) is off getting things done while the POV character is just trying not to get stabbed.  The exception is the Tyrion and Arya chapters.

Hilary Mantel's tremendous Wolf Hall is Game of Thrones if every chapter was told from Tyrion's point of view.  Tyrion in this case being Henry VIII's adviser Thomas Cromwell.  I can't recommend it highly enough.  The 600-page book is $7 at Amazon.

2.  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: The creator of an incredibly popular Matrix-like MMO dies and declares that whoever solves the ARG he hid throughout the game will inherit his fortune and control of the MMO.  The ensuing adventure is a very fun, albeit simplistic page-turner, and I definitely recommend it.

But I was not a fan of the constant mention of real world pop culture.  I think this was meant to be a selling point, but the gimmick was actually my least favorite part of the book.  See, winning the MMO requires mastery of 70's and 80's pop culture, such as knowing by heart the dialog to the movie War Games, and being a brilliant Joust player.  Far from being appealing, those parts of the book just came across as boring (I don't want to play Joust, and I certainly don't want to read about someone else playing it) and pathetic (it's just sad to think of someone spending their life memorizing the worst sitcoms of the 80's).  If the book is ever turned into a movie, they should definitely abandon the references to real life tv and movie and characters, and create new ones.  $10 at Amazon.

3.  Web of the City by Harlan Ellison: Another page turner, this time a pulpy thriller about a young gang member out for revenge.  I was struck by the vivid power of Ellison's writing:

The gun exploded with a slam and the bullet took the Cherokee high in his right arm.  A hole as big as a crater opened and bloody cartilage sprayed back, filthying Rusty's shirt and tie.  The boy screamed at the pain, dropped the chain and limped back into the mob.
$6 at Amazon.

4.  The Mongoliad by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and more: A small squad  of Christian warriors sets off to assassinate a Mongol leader.  Those chapters alternate with the story of a simple Mongol warrior trying to adapt to political intrigue in a Mongol warlord's court.  The European characters are given almost no identity other than the type of weapon they use and the name of the countries they come from.  Indeed, it's ironic that the book was born out of Stephenson's fascination with medieval fighting styles, because that's the worst part of the book.  About halfway through is a ludicrously tedious description of a swordfight.  It's like reading someone describe to you in great detail every move in a Soul Calibur fight.   Or maybe it's like reading a strategy guide about Soul Calibur.  I actually stopped reading, and only went to back to the book after a long pause.

I recommend it if it goes on sale again, but not for the current $5 it's selling for at Amazon.