Confessions of a Digital Novelist

Archive for April, 2012

Spook Country Book Review

by on Apr.20, 2012, under Books

Spook Country by William Gibson

Among other activities, one of the great things about my recent vacation was the opportunity to sit down on a summer afternoon and catch up on one of the many e-books that I had bought but never finished. Spook Country was one of those novels. I had bought it about a year and made a valiant attempt to read it, but I lost interest in its constantly changing perspectives and gave up.

Have finally read it a year later, which necessitated re-reading the earlier chapters, I am finally ready to render a verdict:

Skip it.

William Gibson is an excellent writer. His work preceded and predicted many of the elements of the information age. He has this unique ability to look into the future and see where we as a species are going. Spook Country is no different. We are introduced to concepts such as augmented reality, which is only now coming to effect in the real world, five years after the publication of Gibson’s novel.

That said, the look into the now present is not enough to save the story from its own lack of momentum. For the most part, the story is a mystery that when revealed is a little anti-climatic. There’s a lot of build-up but not a strong climax, rather a petering out.

Gibson uses a unique tactic of switching the narrative voice between several characters but it fails here because none of the characters are really that interesting. The most interesting character is Tito due to his religious beliefs that combine spirituality and physicality in a way that I’ve never seen before. But the perspective switching doesn’t really build momentum in the story as you don’t really get too interested in what happens to these people. For a better example of how to use multiple perspectives, I would recommend A Game of Thrones. I’m only 25% through the novel, but I can’t wait to see what happens to at least five or six of its characters. But I’ll save that for another review.

Even though this is a negative review, I can’t help but point an amazing sequence in the middle of book. Tito is tasked to meet with one of his associates while expecting to be chased down by the authorities. His goal is to make sure that the authorities capture a usb stick without capturing him. Over a sequence of several chapters, we watch Tito and one of his adversaries prepare for this confrontation. It is nothing short of exhilarating. The preparations build a real sense of excitement and bring momentum to the story. When the confrontation carries itself out, you know what the plan so it’s easy to get caught up in the chase. The whole sequence works really well and is a fine example of how to build up to an action set piece.

Even though that sequence was amazing, Gibson is not able to maintain the momentum. The story slows down until we are left with a very quiet anti-climax and a rather un-satisfying conclusion to each of the character’s individual story arcs.

In short, I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead you should read Neuromancer. It’s a little difficult to read and understand but you’ll be surprised by the words that Gibson creates (in the early 80’s) that we still use today.

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The Hunger Games Book Review – SPOILERS

by on Apr.02, 2012, under Books

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games before I went on vacation but didn’t have time to write a book review before I left. Considering that the film adaptation has just made a gazillion dollars, it seems as good a time as ready to give my thoughts on the book.

First, a short summary. The Hunger Games follows a young protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to represent her district in the annual deathmatch/reality show known as the Hunger Games in order to save her sister, who had been drawn at random. There she fits for survival against 23 other competitors from all 12 districts, including Peeta, the baker’s son from her district who she is pretending/actually falling in love with. I know that there’s a lot more details such as the pageantry, social-political commentary, and palace intrigue, but that’s the basic story. Simple, straight-forward, easy-to-understand. Good stuff.This ground has been well-trodden before with Arnold Swartzeneggar’s The Running Man (which I love) and the Japanese  Battle Royale (which I’ve never seen). It’s not the most original material but it hasn’t yet been done to death.

So, aside from the unoriginal premise, how was the book?

Pretty good in fact.

While Suzanne Collins is not going to be confused with J.K. Rowling (who I can’t read without staying up all night), she does keep the story interesting and the pace brisk. The language is kept simple and easy-to-understand, allowing you to concentrate on the story and not the prose. The characters, while somewhat stock, are likeable and draw you into rooting for them (especially Rue). The only real problems that I had with the story was that romance between Peet and Katniss seemed a bit forced (maybe intentional considering that they also pretending to be in love) and drags on too long in the third act of the novel. Near the end, we are greeted with around 50 pages of the finally re-united pair resting in the woods and mending their wounds while they grow more and more twitterpated. Given the good pace that Collins had maintained throughout the rest of the novel, this break really breaks the tension just when it should be rising to a crescendo. But it ends strong and sets up some interesting conflicts for the next book.

So should you read it?

Yeah sure. It’s not Lord of the Rings but it is fun and enjoyable because it is well-executive. Give it a shot.

However, that does not say that it’s perfect. There is a couple of things that bugged me as I was reading.

The first, is that Katniss does really kill too many people. If my math is correct, she only kills two people directly. The rest are killed by others or inadvertently by actions that Katniss takes. If you include her dropping the tracker jackers on the other tributes, then that makes four. It’s an interesting choice in that it helps preserve her innocence (she kills only when necessary and only the “bad” characters) but it also makes her a bit of a spectator for most of the games. I would have loved to see her hunt the other tributes more directly (the “bad” ones of course) in order to show off her superior archery and tracking skills.

The second thing that bugs me is the tracker jacker incident. It seems a bit too Deus ex machima for me. Poor Katniss gets treed by the allied tributes and then is saved by a tracker jacket nest that just happens to be there. To this point, we had never heard about tracker jackets (unless I missed something, comments please) until they are needed. It would have been better had we been introduced to them much earlier, say when Gale and Katniss are hunting. This would have given Gale an opportunity to explain what they are to Katniss (and by extension the reader) while setting it up for use later on in the Hunger Games.

But those quibbles are relatively minor in the broader context. The Hunger Games is a good read that won’t take you long. Go out and enjoy it.

PS – Rue is by far my favourite character.

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