Archive for book reviews

a journal of the plague year [more deconfined reviews]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2020 by xi'an

Took a copy of Room 10 by Åke Edwardson yet again on the book sharing shelves at Dauphine. And read it within a few days, with limited enthusiasm as the story proceeds quite sluggishly, every single clue is driven to its very end, e.g. detailing the examination of security recordings for pages!, the Swedish background is mostly missing, the personal stories of the policemen prove frankly boring, and the final explanations stand way beyond a mere suspension of belief. The book is back on the shelves.

Watched the beginning of the Salvation series and quickly gave up. Because I soon realised it had nothing to do with the Peter Hamilton’s trilogy. And because the story did not seem to get anywhere, despite the impending destruction of Earth by a massive asteroid, turning into an East versus West spy story. And because the scientific aspects and characters were plain ridiculous. And also because the secondary plot about whom should be saved in case of a destruction was quite distasteful in its primitive eugenism.

Read an Indriðason I had not yet read, Sons of dust [Synir duftsins], the first book he wrote, but ironically rather repetitive on the themes of missing fathers, child abuse, social consequences of the second World War allied occupation, found in the subsequent volumes. And a rather unconvincing plot, especially from a genetic engineering perspective. (The book is not currently available in English. I read it in French.)

Eventually came to watch There will be blood, the 2007 masterpiece by Paul Anderson, with Daniel Day-Lewis rendering so impressively the descent into madness of the oil tycoon and his thirst for absolute control, loosing his adopted son in the process. And unable to stop at exposing the duplicity of the preacher whom he fought the entire film. The ending is somewhat less impressive than the rest, maybe because all is finished, but it does not diminish the raw power of this tale. And the music track is perfect, with Brahms’ Violin Concerto as a leitmotiv. A journey into oily darkness…

a journal of the plague year [deconfited reviews]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Running, Wines with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2020 by xi'an

Found a copy of Humans by Donald Westlake on the book sharing shelves at Dauphine. And read it within a few hours, as it is very light reading but quite funny nonetheless. If hardly ranking as a mystery novel. Or crime novel, unless the crime is Gaiacide and the criminal God. Reminded me of the equally light Bobby Dollar series by Tad Williams. As the main character is an angel, falling for humans as he tries to steer them towards the Armageddon. The setting is the early 1990s, with the main scares being atomic disaster (Chernobyl) and the AIDS pandemic. Plus the rise of environmental worries and of Chinese autocracy. I put it back on the shelves on my next visit to Dauphine, hopefully for someone else to enjoy!

Baked radish stems with basil for making pesto, with a bit more bitterness than usual. Cooked plenty of fennel since this is fennel season. Continued making my weekly rhubarb preserve. Keeping the garden active, now watching squash vines invading new territory, hopefully with an eatable reward in the Fall. Tomatoes are growing incredibly fast as well..! Saw another fox in the Parc before official opening times, quite close if speeding away from me and barely avoiding bumping in a pair of greyhounds which fortunately sounded completely unconcerned.

Watched Children of Men after an exhausting week online for a grant panel. While a parabola for the coming collapse of civilisation under political, biological and environmental apocalypses [is there any meaning to use apocalyse in the plural tense!?] and a premonitory tale on Brexit and the buttressing of Britain [or Trump and his Big Wall mania] induced by anti-immigrant rethorics, the film is over the top in terms of plot and action, with symbolism taking over realism, even on the slightest degree, every shot being filled with references to religions and arts (like the Pink Floyd flying pig), to previous environmental disasters (with long shots of burning cows reminiscent of the mad cow crisis) and geo-political upheavals (including a Hamas type protest in the refugee camp, with a short appearance of a jeep with a French flag more reminiscent of the liberation of Paris in August 1944). Characters are charicaturesque, with a very Manichean division between very few good ones and mostly bad ones. The most ridiculous part of the scenario may well be the battle scene in the refugee camp [tanks versus pistols!]… Once again stunned by all the awards and praise piled upon that film.

Read two more volumes of the Witcher [bought during BayesComp for my son!]. One being Sword of Destiny and a series of short stories, like the first volume. The second Blood of Elves and the beginning of the novels. The first season on TV borrows mostly from the first two collections of short stories. Which are somewhat better than the novel, as the latter is very slow paced and overly sentimental. Not terrible, mind.

Completed with uttermost reluctance the Horde du Contrevent [translating as the windwalkers] by Alain Damasio (no English translation available, but an Italian version, l’Orda del Vento,  is). Book that I again picked for figuring in Le Monde 100 bes&tc list! And felt like constantly fronting a strong, icy wind when going through the pages of that unusual book. The style is unpleasant and rather pretentious, with numerous puns in French.. The story is one of a (religious? mystical?) group walking against the wind(s) for decades to reach the source of these winds and to find the last types of wind no one has ever met. Their dreary pilgrimage is described by the 23 membres of the group, called the Horde, with a heavy-handed typographical symbol at the start of each paragraph identifying who’s speaking (and a convenient page marker with all these symbols). A bit heavy handed as a polyphonic novel (appropriately composed in a Corsican retreat!) and even more in the crypt-Nietschean philosophy it carries… The background universe there is somehow eco-steam-punk, with the wind producing most of the energy. The most exciting part involves rather realistic ice climbing. However, I clearly stand in the small minority of those less than impressed by the book as it is highly popular among French readers, one of the highest printings in the Folio collection, with side products a BD (above) and a movie (in the making?). (And enough votes from fans to almost reach the 10 most favourite novels in Le Monde list. )

a journal of the plague year [deconfined reviews]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel, Wines with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2020 by xi'an

Watched two Korean films, Train to Busan and then Psychokinesis, both by Yeon Sang-Ho. The first one is a mostly traditional zombie action movie, loosing one character after another to the disease with a few funny moments. The second one is also involving supernatural features, rather poorly done, but it offers some political satire on a corrupted real estate project that make it somewhat tolerable. If barely.

Read (an old, cellar-relegated, somewhat mouldy) Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked (book #5 in the Kurt Wallander series), which was good enough to be enjoyable, albeit with a serial killer plot (always a lazy plot idea!), but it definitely made me regret the Martin Beck books of Sjowall and Wahloo which had a stronger social and political perspective (to the point of this book sounding like a pale replica). The more because Maj Sjowall passed away in early May. (Having survived Wahloo by 45 years and never revisiting the series.)

Baked more breads, including rye bread, and experimented with new dishes, like a jollof rice attempt with wild garlic, which tasted a wee too mild and took more time at the cleaning stage of the cocotte (French oven) than the cooking one. As it is one of these rice dishes like tahdig that call for a slightly burned bottom! Cooked several clafoutis with garden cherries and strawberries. Started making weekly rhubarb compote since available at the farmers’ market.

And now growing tomatoes and beans and peppers and onions and potatoes and butternut… We also found a woodcock most unusually and inexplicably stranded in the garden, feeling the worse for a cat attack as shown by a few feathers in the grass, but it was impossible to catch and hence protect from all the stray cats in the neighbourhood. After a day or two, we did not find any remain of the bird, so it presumably escaped.

Also watched A Sun (陽光普照), a psychological Taiwanese film about an “ordinary” family unraveling when the youngest son goes to jail. With an astounding Muter Courage as the central character. And a surprising sequence of characterial twists in the story that makes the movie less bleak that the first 30mn could induce, revealing layers in most characters that were carefully left hidden in the beginning of the film. (Except for the unfortunate girlfriend of A-Ho, who hardly utters a word and never seems to join the family.) With a beautiful final shot relating to the early years of A-Ho. (As one character is named A-Ho and another one A-Hao, it took me a while to spot the difference and stop thinking there were two parallel time-lines in the story!) A really strong film!

Succumbed (!) to ordering and reading the True Bastards, by Johnathan [pardon my] French. Which is the second volume in the Lot Lands trilogy and about as fun as the first volume, although the role of cursed magics is somehow over-done. But the change in this book from a male to a female viewpoint is definitely a worthwhile rarity in fantasy novels, showing how much harder the main character, Fetch, has to work to lead her troop of ½ orcs. And a constant threat of being belittled as such by other characters. (Any resemblance to real life problems being obviously coincidental!) Don’t expect real depth though, from the plot which keeps running in hogs’ circles to the point where everyone seems to be the hidden relative of everyone else (still alive!) to the underlying message, if any!

Got tricked by a Guardian article into watching The Vast of Nights. Frankly, I do not understand the praise heaped upon this academic-oh–so-academic exercise in film making! Yes, it does sound like the Twilight Zone, as the story is the usual trope on aliens being here with only the military being aware of it, trying to bank on their advanced technology, &tc. The hapless characters confuse agitation and action, while speaking, speaking, speaking all the time… It should have been a radio show. In the 1950’s. Not in the current times, already awash in conspiracy theories (although, far from it!, the film is clearly seen as an exercice de style recreating the mood of a 1960’s rural town in the South of the USA, with an endless sequence in a vintage car park).

bloggin’ nebulas [link]

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , on May 25, 2020 by xi'an

Just to point out that the SF and fantasy editor Tor Books has posted on its site a series of blog posts on all the competitors for the 2019 Nebula Novel Award, including one of Gideon the Ninth I have enjoyed very much. With the mention there that the novel could be seen as “the Mobius Strip of over-the-topness”! To be announced on May the 30th.

a journal of the plague year [confined reviews]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel, Wines with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2020 by xi'an

Watched TV series His Dark Materials produced for the BBC, which is much much better than the earlier film, as the actors are all fabulous—first and foremost Lyra, but also Ma Costa, the Gyptian Muter Courage—, the gypsy community is given a much stronger role, the characters are deep and complex, as eg Mrs and Mr Coulter, both ready to sacrifice kids for the greater “good” without appearing as absolute monsters! The special effects are a wee bit deficient as often with BBC productions but not enough to make a case. Although I sort of cringed each time a bear moved!

Read The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy by Terry Brooks, which I noticed standing on my son’s bookshelves. The original Shannara Trilogy was one of the very first fantasy books I read in English in my undergrad years (after Lord of the Rings of course and possibly The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), which did not leave me with an everlasting feeling of superlative literature, to say the least. This avatar of the original Sword of Shannara trilogy did nothing to improve my feelings as the plot is lazy at best, with super-powered villains suddenly acting, last second deus ex machina rescues, endless internal debates, heavy hints at treacheries and double-treacheries, and, worst of all!, intrusion of 20th century technology, e.g., computers, AIs and robots, that the far future characters make sense of. Only suitable for a time of lockdown and even then… I should have left it on the bookshelf! Incidentally, one fight scene against a cyborg was highly reminiscent of the black knight scene in Holy Grail!

Watched by chance Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. For the first time. And was totally un-impressed. Highly pretentious construction falling flat from being a modern reconstruction of antique dramas, endless dialogues (which could have been cut by half if removing all the occurrences of fucking from them), boring and threadbare story, and artificial characters that essentially make no sense. I cannot fathom why this film is so highly ranked..! (And even less to witness it being compared with Rashomon!)

Read [part] of Jin Yong’s Legends of the Condor Heroes (射鵰英雄傳) but, lockdown or not, I simply could not finish it. Despite its fantasy approach to Chinese martial arts, which I usually enjoy (at least in planes!), and some proximity with the Judge Dee stories by van Gulik, the story felt very contrived and somewhat out of reach, plus [not yet] Genghis Khan being depicted in a fairly positive way [at least in the part I read]. Too irrealist for my reading buds, I presume…

Cooked plenty of new dishes, thanks to the delivery of weekly farmer boxes, from radish stems & buckwheat pancakes to celery roots purées, to fregola sarda (leftovers from ISBA 2016!) con acciughe, to chard gratins, to pea pod and cauliflower core soups, to flaxseed bread and buckwheat naans (as we ran out of wheat flour). We also managed to use and survive most of the out-of-date cans and bags that had stood forgotten in the back of our cupboard… Not visiting a supermarket for two months was actually most pleasant, living very nicely from the above mentioned farmer boxes and the occasional delivery from a cheesemonger, and supplementing weekly visits to the baker with attempts at home made bread.

Read Matha Well’s Murderbot diaries, my first read on a Kindle!, for free courtesy of Tor. Starting with All Systems Red, which won the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Novella, the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella, the 2018 Locus Award, and the American Library Association‘s Alex Award. Very good if somewhat classical (Blade Runner anyone?!) trope of the rogue robot turned autonomous and human, so human! This is a sequence of novellas which means a fast-paced story and an efficient style. (Including a less exciting third novella, due to a lazy scenario.) More mind-candy à la John Scalzi than profound literature but quite enjoyable for a quick read during lunch or tea break! But which induced me to buy the first and incoming novel in the series,  Network Effect. (To be commented in a subsequent entry…)

Leading to (re)read the Interdependency trilogy by John Scalzi, the last volume in the series being just out. Very lazy buildup, in the traditional spirit of a few people driving the future of the entire Universe, with unlimited resources and unrestricted hacking abilities, but with funny dialogues, as usual with Scalzi. In this binge (re)read, I actually realised the frustrating intricacies of Kindle ordering as (i) I could not use my account and hence none of my associate gains (ii) I could not merge several accounts and (iii) prices varied a lot between using directly the Kindle and ordering from…

And even growing some salads and radishes over the two months and eating them before the end of the lockdown, as the weather in Paris was quite mild most of the time. Although it meant a daily-basis fight with slugs. The arugula did not resist that well, though…

Reading Tade Thompson’s Rosewater for more than a month, having trouble keeping my concentration as the story goes in loops and not a particularly well settled plot. With a central idea of an alien race taking over humanity a few cells at a time. Which reminded me of Greg Bear’s Blood Music I read during the first year of my PhD. The book has some appeal, from being located in Nigeria 30 years from now to America having completely vanished from the map after Trump pulled the ultimate drawbridge. It won the 2019 Arthur Clarke Award after all! But I found it too hard to complete to even consider embarking upon the next two volumes on the trilogy…