Monday, January 30, 2012

Review: The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien

How do you review the most important fantasy trilogy of all-time, particularly the scene-setting second book?  Easily – Tolkien’s not for me.

Cover image courtesy:
I was advised by my parents, whose reading preferences often mirror my own, that I shouldn’t bother with the first two books of the Lord of the Rings and read only the praecy at the start of the third book, Return of the King.  However, after being given the trilogy as a gift by my wife, I felt I had worked up enough interest to attempt the second book (having read the first in April 2010).   

I should have listened to Mum and Dad.

Tolkien’s skills are with words and creating realistic fantasy worlds.  In theory, this should present as a well-realised work of literature but there’s just too much crap surrounding the story to make this an interesting read for me.  I don’t care much about the poetry, the ever-repeated histories of Middle Earth’s races and finally, I don’t care at all about most of the characters or their plight.

This is almost certain to be a firestarter, due to the renown of both Tolkien and his works; but I don’t care.  The Lord of the Rings has been described as the best, most groundbreaking, archetypal fantasy series of all time – leading the potential reader to expect more than just words thrown willy-nilly at the page and a believable society.  Personally, I’d like some plot.

In any work of fiction – and indeed real life – the most important aspect to creating an enjoyable diversion is pacing.  And this is where the books have severely let me down.  I haven’t seen the movies, not wanting to waste ten hours of my life watching what I perceived from publicity/previews as a slow-moving, self-aggrandizing attempt-an-epic.  After ploughing through two of the books, I’d be quite happy to watch the trilogy to get back the hours I spent reading The Two Towers.

Probably worthwhile to have read it, but it just doesn’t feel like it.  Marbles.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: Let me tell you a story - Red Auerbach & John Feinstein

John Feinstein has made a career of being a "thinking man's" sportswriter.  He shot to prominence with the oustanding 1986 Season on the Brink, which detailed a season spent with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers.  Some of his other works have been critically acclaimed as well, but have on occasion - eg. The Punch - tended to be too po-faced and serious for their own good.

Let me tell you a story, a collection of tales Feinstein could have knocked out in his sleep is the perfect antithesis to such overbearing seriousness.  It describes his invitation to lunch with Red Auerbach, the former President of the Boston Celtics and acknowledged King of Boston basketball.  What the casual fan probably fails to realise is Red's assocation with Washington D.C. hoops as well.  He was an alumni of George Washington University, his wife and children (and him, during the offseason) lived there and he maintained connections with several of the city's basketball aristocracy.

The book begins with Auerbach growing older and more aware of his mortality.  He therefore decided to invest time in his closest friends, which manifested as a regular lunch with the likes of his brother Zang, secret service agents and The Best High School hoops coach of all, Morgan Wootten.  Feinstein - who was working as a columnist for the Washington Post - smelled a story, managed to get an invitation and became a regular lunch guest.  He then proceeds to describe what the lunch became for him and his compatriots.

The book is named because even though there were upwards of a dozen regular diners, these were Red's lunches. He had the central seat, so he could hold court and opine about almost every issue - starting most of his stories with the words "Let me tell you about...".  The bill was also Red's, until the Celtics got wind of the events and insisted the team paid.  Red talks candidly (as if  he could speak any other way) about his time with the Celtics, the owners he worked for and even of his lack of malice at being replaced as Celtics President during the short-lived Rick Pitino era.

What impresses you so much is Red's reasoning - there were always completely logical reasons for every decision he made.  When he explains those reasons - even why he lit his trademark cigar when the Celtics had secured victory - he makes absolute sense.  (If you're wondering, he lit the cigars when the Celtics were up by a heap as a subconscious signal that his team was relaxed and not seeking to rub the victory in their opponents faces).  His tales stand in stark contrast to those of another Celtic great, Bill Russell.  As Auerbach became more acutely aware of his ageing, he became more congnizant of the importance of spending time with his friends; in stark contrast Russell became more and more arrogant, distant and spiky.

Throughout, you can't help liking Red.  It's obvious that Feinstein - and the entire Lunch crew - absolutely adored him.  He was fair, friendly and fun to be around, which in turn makes the book an easy read.  It is occasionally slightly stained by Feinstein's own opinions - what little he thinks of Rick Pitino is obvious, and his memorable description of Scottie Pippen as Scottie "I've got a headache when it matters most" Pippen are fine examples of unwanted editorialisation.

It's lightweight, but really enjoyable read.  Footballs.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Review: Doctor Who: City at World's End - Christopher Bulis

Since receiving my first Doctor Who novelization in 1986 (the much-misunderstood The Gunfighters), I’ve managed to collect a rather surprising amount of Who-related books; fiction and non-fiction, real-world production information and plain, simple fantasy. I don’t read them much anymore (this is the first Who book reviewed on BwB), but occasionally delve into one to really get a feel for my teen years again.

And City at World’s End is almost certainly the worst Doctor Who novel I’ve read, and I’ve read the ultimate testament to fanboy continuity-geekdom, War of the Daleks. City, by Christopher Bulis, was one of the earlier BBC Books attempts to carry on the Doctor’s adventures while the TV show was on hiatus between 1989-2005.

Who took on a life of it’s own after the ’89 cancellation, as books describing “Missing” or “New” adventures of the Time Lord were published by various enterprises. Many of these (cough, War of the Daleks, cough) came straight from fanboys and were astonishing in their ability to turn one line of dialogue from a single episode broadcast in 1973 into entire 279-page novels. (For some reason, novelizations of the original serials – two 23-minute long episodes or ten - were almost always fit into 127-page books; for the New/Missing adventures it’s 279).

It’s this kind of backstory which explains the Who dichotomy. Because of it’s wonderfully simply and unique format, Who-fiction can be purely derivative stuff, completely original – and is often both. Take for example the 2007 broadcast stories “Human Nature” and “Family of the Blood”. These stories were written by Paul Cornell, who adapted his 1995 novel “Human Nature” to suit the reimagined series’ head honcho Russell T. Davies’ story arc allowing the Doctor’s nemesis to be re-born.

It turns out that the Master appeared in a story (Utopia) very much like this one – a group of humans building a rocket to escape their world’s apocalypse, all the time under threat by hostile aliens. I hope RTD wasn’t aware of this book when plotting Utopia, because the series deserves much better. City at World’s End is an appalling piece of fiction – even if, in embryo, the idea has merit.

City is remarkably poorly put together. It’s as transparent as a glass of water and features several (alleged) subplots which are both boring, useless – thus, utterly flawed – before they all converge nowhere. Typical Whoniverse “religion is blind and corrupt” themes (cf. 1984’s Planet of Fire) aren’t so much hinted at as shouted from the mountain tops. There’s nothing wrong with a simple plot, as long as it’s paced well – a great example of this is the early Bond novels.

Pity is, we’ve covered most of our review space and haven’t even gotten to the words yet. The “adventure” is headlined by the original TARDIS crew of the Doctor (as portrayed by William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan as well as English schoolteachers Ian and Barbara. Hartnell, whose mannerisms should make writing for him a relative doddle (as compared to the real, as opposed to remembered, Tom Baker years) is characterized less as a gentleman traveler and speaks words like a bored telephone sales operative.

Bulis throws about verbs like a ham-fisted bun vendor and completely fails to apply any sense of urgency to what we’re told is a desperate situation. He even trots out that “give every clue it’s a main character, but don’t refer to them by name until the very end of the chapter” hackneyed crap. The prelude (and first half of the book) were of such stunning shoddiness that I only continued reading so as to see a) how bad it could get and b) how much I could pan it in a review.

Much of these flaws can be repaired, however, given a good editing job. Unfortunately, being able to poke so many holes is almost every aspect of the book means the editor (at that time one of Stephen Cole or Justin Richards) must have been on a horrible deadline, as the book is laughably incoherent. By now, the series (of books) was obviously being run by the fan-boys on Adamsian-style deadlines.

In short, the book doesn’t deserve even half of the column inches I’ve devoted to it. Sorry. Who fiction can be very good – try Davies’ Damaged Goods or even Terrance Dicks’ Players – but this is just awful. Don’t let it put you off, but don’t bother to read it. No balls.

For more Doctor Who reviews, visit Who. Reviewed.