Friday, April 30, 2010

The Month in review and of Things to Come

Productivity; that's the word of the month, and a good word at that. I've learned so much new on guitar my calluses have blisters, I've read more than any other single month out-put, I've taken pen to paper (or fingers to keys, if you will) and gotten more writing done than usual, and I've been beating down doors with such vigor that I'm daring to be optimistic about find a new job.

I didn't buy a single book this month which is a first for me in a long time. My reading out-put test from last month yielded odd, yet expected results: I do in fact read more when I tell myself all I'm going to read in a month as opposed to picking up a book here and there. I was most surprised that I didn't feel any pressure to get through what I had set aside for the month. My to-be-read stack has diminished by six.

Claudius the God by Robert Graves was as good as it's predecessor but without Livia a good deal of the conflict didn't feel as intense. It's still one of the finest historical fiction and first person narratives I've come across. I surprised myself by picking up and putting down The Graveyard Book in all of two days. The powerful adventure and exploration themes are as good as Neil Gaiman can be and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I had a little bit to say about Quin's Shanghai Circus, Ysabel, and The Sun Over Breda. I even added that nifty list in the right hand column so I don't have to point out in my monthly wrap ups what books I've commented on. Isn't that nifty? See how hard I work for my readers? Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, is so good that I'm tempted to rescind my, 'I don't talk about dead authors of the classics' policy. Perhaps I'll start another blog and do precisely that as this is a book I not only want to share, but seems to demand discussion.

In May I'm gonna tackle The Count of Monte Cristo and in doing so polish off my list of books that were Christmas gifts. I never read it in high school. ( I don't think I had to read anything in high school. ) I've gotten a bit of a head start and it seems to read quickly, however it's still a thousand plus pages. I'm being modest in my reading estimation; if I can finish The Count, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, and The King's Gold by Arturo Pérez-Reverte I'll feel good about things.

I'm feeling very good about a few other projects that I can't yet mention, but I hope come to full fruition in places other than my blog.

To end things on a bit of a downer, May maybe the last month of my rum reviews. I was able to do them this long as I was sitting on about ten of those reviews before I put the first one up. I may reload and try again in the future but the truth is, I'm very close to exhausting the local variety of rums available. There are a few I'm intentionally staying away from and some others, I plain old can't afford. Nonetheless, I feel good about my contribution to the rum drinking community. I've done my part, and as that segment passes it may give rise to something new.

To tie together Guy Gavriel Kay and rum and I read of his introduction to spiking ginger beer with rum. I'd always used vodka, which only dilutes the ginger beer. He's an intelligent guy and I can see how rum would actually add some character to a drink already over flowing with personality. Plus, it's summer--ginger beer season--so why not?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay

I don't usually talk about plot or story elements in my commentary because you can get that about anywhere, but I'm gonna digress this once. I'll get to what I found interesting in the actual writing in a moment so bear with me.

We've got a love triangle in Ysabel; two guys, both implied badasses, and a supremely hot chick. The three are continually reborn. The men compete for the lady's favor and to a degree all three are eternally miserable. A game of hide-and-seek is what keeps a potentially happy couple apart while the loser dies and gets to wait to be reborn and try again. Seriously; that's the plot. I'm not gonna hate, and the reason is because Kay has used this mechanic before. This story is set in the same history (perhaps, that's the correct word) as The Fionavar Tapestry, Kay's three-volume epic fantasy. The difference in love triangle story mechanic is that in The Fionavar Tapestry the players were all from the Arthurian Legend. In Ysabel the players are all original to Kay (kinda--it is historical fiction after all).

With the Arthurian Legend I didn't need explanation or background info. But Ysable doesn't focus of the love triangle characters. We are given only the merest glimpse of their past and why we should care about them now or most importantly, how they came to be. Characters harp about the story of the love triangle (more on the harping forthcoming) but the book ended and I still didn't know anything about any of the three that truly made me care, who will win this game of hide and seek, what losing will mean to the loser.

I am usually turned off with a quickness to any adult fiction which cast a teenage protagonist as I can't help but roll my eyes at the thought of a kid saving the world, or overcoming a supremely powerful evil, or doing much of anything but going to school. But we must remember that Kay is, in fact, awesome. The stakes aren't so grand, but perhaps equally cliched; a human life is what's at stake. In trying to save this life our two teenagers, Ned and Kate, develop a romance and engage in some of the most insanely intelligent, witty, and completely unbelievable repartee ever captured on paper.

This is a very chatty book, and before I go further with that remark I am going to acknowledged that the coming criticism is completely ridiculous: Kay's dialogue is nothing short of absolute perfection.


In the real world, perfection doesn't exist; so too should it not exist in literature. Both Ned and Kate are far too mature to be believable considering their age. The phenomenal dialogue distracts from what could have been a better story. Not only Ned and Kate but all character frequently engage in brilliant dialogue. I would say, with no set back to the book at all, three to four characters could have been omitted, thus freeing up a good bit of the page count for development of our insubstantial love triangle characters. I could go on, but I'd come across as whinny that I can't write dialogue anywhere near as Kay can. (He's so good it never felt real; people don't talk like that. We don't always say exactly the right thing, and have a witty reply to every asinine remark. The perfection hurts credibility.) Okay, so I did go on…

Kay's pacing is almost as good as his dialogue. He's a huge tease, he only gives you enough to keep you interested and then he'll finish a chapter demanding that you keep reading. It's a dirty trick and one he does well. I compare his control over the pacing to Elizabeth's Kostova's The Historian, a comparison I don't make lightly. While there is nothing in the plot as compelling as the latter's, "My dear and unfortunate successor," this is a book you will finish it in short order. I don't read fast or often, and it only took me three days.

If you can accept the fact that everyone in the book is a more amazing orator than any Roman politician of antiquity, MLK, or Bill Clinton then Kay's writing is beautiful. I haven't even read a quarter of his output but I'd bet good money that everything he writes is beautiful. I can't think of another word, and I've been trying. The book stands alone, although it's fun to see characters from the tapestry creep into it. It didn't so much feel like there were loose ends at the novel conclusion, rather some undeveloped issues, but Kay writes with such amazing forward motion and captivation that it may be a few days before you realize anything that I perceived to be a fault.

It's shallow, flawed and makes you regret all that could have been, but it's also a helluva lot of fun. Everyone should read Ysabel.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Sun over Breda by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

The third book in the Captain Alatriste series is every bit as gripping and compelling as the first two with one small difference: it's not a book about the adventures of Captain Alatriste.

This is the first story in the series to take place outside of Spain, and while I did miss the TLC given to the Spanish setting, it was a welcome change. Pérez-Reverte has a great story about the Spanish siege and victory at Breda and he then proceeded to drop his pre established characters into a setting in which they didn't belong. It was a very inorganic reading experience. There's nothing that binds this book to the Alatriste series. As previously said, it doesn't take place in Spain, previous key characters--Angélica, Bocanegra, Malatesta--don't make an appearance and all that has been built upon for the past two books is set aside. So if we don't get a Captain Alatriste book, when what is in between the covers?

An excellent story.

The book deals with military life of the most basic Spanish infantrymen; the best soldiers in Europe at the time. If you've ever read an action adventure book about soldiers in seventeenth-century the only thing new The Sun over Breda will offer is Pérez-Reverte's beautiful prose. He is florid as hell without feeling affected and equally maintains a gritty realism of events while making even the most terrible things sound so damn pretty. The man can flat out write. His language is as impressive as ever and his artistic flair for this time period is so good that I want to read some of his contemporary fiction to see if it holds up as well.

There are more military and historical digressions than any anecdote that hinges upon the characters. The central conflict is robbed of some of it's power as the presentation of the entire series is written as Îñigo's memoir. We know not only the outcome of the siege as it's been hinted at in previous entries, but we also know Alatriste nor Îñigo dies here. The conflict in The Sun over Breda isn't as personal as we are used to seeing Alatriste involoved in rather, all he is doing in this book is for King and country. (A fact that further distances this entry from the rest of the series as Alatriste's actions are usually very mercenary.) While characters are fighting for their lives, they are indifferent if not apathetic to the cause, (at least as much apathy one can express while fighting to stay alive) which to a degree trickles down to the reader.

The appendix with it's small bit of faux scholarship concerning Diego Valåzquez's painting of the same name was my favorite part. I wouldn't be surprised if Pérez-Reverte wrote a story about an inconsequential character in a painting he liked and the result was this book, if not the whole series.

While it strikes me as a poor Alatriste book, Pérez-Reverte craftsmanship in storytelling and words-man-ship are as good as ever. His prose is beautiful and his command of a scene is outright visual. Some books in a series feel like place holders, and drag insufferably; that's not the case here. All the Alatriste books are self-contained, but The Sun over Breda certainly didn't contribute to the established narrative. To say the book drags (drug?) would be a terrible falsehood. It's an excellent book, I only wish it wasn't shoehorned into the Captain Alatriste arc.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Quin's Shanghai Circus By Edward Whittemore

There could no more appropriate word in the title than 'circus.' In this nearly forgotten novel we are given a parade of colorful (to say the least) characters, acts of wonder and horror, and ultimately enough confusion to be entertaining; even if we are left scratching our heads at the conclusion.

Quin is having a drink when he is approached by someone claiming to know the story of his parents lives. The plot is a straight forward 'fantasy/quest;' outside of this, very few things are clear.

Quin is, perhaps, not the novel's main character, but it is his shoes that the reader is placed. An odd accomplishment is that there are no secondary characters; some are integral to a higher degree than others, but all are imperative to the story. Through Quin's travels, we are introduced to a mystical clown with a nasal horseradish addition that helps him block out the world's stench; a possibly pederastic Noh actor/priest who feels he has been the Emperor of Japan for the past seven-hundred years; a whore who not only has slept with ten-thousand men before she was thirty, but also found the time to have her whole body tattooed, and Forrest Gump, who likes to inflict pain upon himself in an effort to block out past bad memories; these are the most tame of the large cast. The novel is told with the story within a story mechanic. We meet characters, learn of their life, make small connections (you may wanna take notes; seriously) and hope to retain what we are shown as to piece together one tangible story.

Whittemore was a writer who definitely believed in making his readers work; getting through this book with even minimal enjoyment--to say nothing of comprehension--will take active involvement on the reader's part. It's a not a bad thing by any stretch, but as many clues and pieces as we are given I was left feeling like it never amounted to a whole: until the end. I couldn't help but feel cheated; that things were intentionally difficult in hypocritical fashion as we are outright 'told' exactly what happened at the books end in a nice ten-page recapitulation of prior three-hundred pages. So why bother teasing out the mystery? Yeah, that made me angry…

The story didn't resonate as strongly with me as I felt it could have as none of the characters felt real. No one seemed grounded. It's not because they all have unbelievable lives, or that there is no one to sympathize with, rather I blame Quin. He is taking the reader on a journey to discover his lineage. What we know of him up to this point is nothing, therefore it is hard to make his past--which is what's uncovered in the story--have the impact it could've had as we are never given a starting point of reference.

Whittemore deemed himself too cool for punctuation. You won't find anything other than a period, a comma, and an occasional question mark. It's not as infuriating as Cormac McCarthy or ee cummings, but I don't find it stylistic or endearing. Added to which the author has a penchant for two-page paragraphs. All of which equals massive blocks of text with no punctuation and an occasional eye sore. It gets old very fast, but to his credit I never got confused as to who was speaking and the material is just as clear as if he were using standard punctuation.

It is a very complex narrative, made more difficult by the having to tease out the what-the-hell-is-going-on nature of the story within a story framework. It's not the intentional confusion some first time novelist cast in an effort that they think heightens suspense, rather there is just a whole lot going on. The wandering character digressions that always comprise of the past events make for an very disjunct narrative and hard to figure out current events. The reader tries to uncover the unifying thread for the host of characters and in doing so the plot, but until this happens we are left with substantial confusion, and yes--I'll say it--intrigue. Piecing the puzzle together is as highly infuriating as the character anecdotes are interesting; only I can't kick the feeling that I wasn't given all the pieces...

For me, there was an undeniable spark that ensured I wasn't putting this book down. The stories that comprise the narrative are highly entertaining on their own in addition to trying to work the pieces into a whole. The novel's presentation felt like a Guy Ritchie movie, only directed by someone who is all around better. Whittemore's not a substantial prose stylist nor a writer whose plot machinations are so intense as to have you turning pages at a record pace. I would liken the book to a circus (Surely you saw that coming, right?). It's bizarre; full of things you would never see in an ordinary day: actors that can't seemingly exist in the real word, and circumstances don't always make a great deal of sense, but nonetheless hold your interest until the show is over. This book will stay with you, and you'll be giving it great thought long after putting it down.

A phenomenal accomplishment that Whittemore achieves is to progresses the plot by way of character description. As I said before, you gotta think on your feet to get all of what he's offering. Pick a genre and Quin's Shanghai Circus will fit: mystery, suspense, espionage, fantasy, the catch all, 'literary fiction.' There are occasional moments of inspired prose, but this is not a book whose words you will fall in love with; it's about the characters and the way their lives interact. It's not for everyone. It's dark, appallingly graphic in places, and as far from an easy book to read on the beach as you can get, but as always with my longer, grumbling, rambling commentaries this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed, and one I plan to revisit. Whittemore eludes to the difference in perception of a circus with the passing of time; I'm gonna hold him to that whenever I get around to reading this one again.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Rum Reviews: The Fourth Installment

Welcome to the fourth entry in my continuing series where I will give you the skinny on the good, the wretched, and the divine concerning what you should be drinking: rum.

It was currency in the Caribbean in the old days, George Washington demanded it be served at his inauguration, Ernest Hemingway lived off a diet of rum and shark flesh during his stint in Cuba, and now I'm here to help you navigate the top, the bottom, and all shelves in between concerning one of the world's greatest treasures.

Nothing fruity here, no flavored spirits to hide terrible production, or inept craftsmanship, just the booze. Feel free to suggest what you will for future installments and liquor representatives are more than welcome to provide me with your product concerning tasting and review.

Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum

Without doubt, this is the most innocuous rum ever. That is not to say it is without character, merely that this one blends so well as to not even know that it's there. You could almost trick people with this offering from Cruzan. Make someone you know doesn't like rum a Cuba Libre with the Cruzan Single Barrel Estate and they may just think it's a coke with some lime juice in it.

It's sweet, rich, and lingers on the palette. It is also heavy. Not what I would call thick--it has a very smooth texture--but it's so intense that drinking it straight makes me think it needs to be turned down a notch. Something about it's character is so dominate that you only really want a little bit at a time.

Verdict: Top shelf mixing rum… Yeah, I don't really know what that means either. It's really, really well made, but a little less barrel aging may be in it's favor when it comes to drinking it alone, that, or the strongest element in the blend needs to be removed. If you're mixing drinks and have the top shelf funds (which is just plain incongruous to me) this is probably your finest option.

Old Mount Gay Eclipse

This is easily the hardest rum of all I've had to talk about. As I said for Bacardi, “It’s rum.” Nothing more nothing less. It is a little easier to take straight than Bacardi as it is in my opinion a little better made, but it has even less character. It’s something better than a standard rum yet not enough so to justify the price of a 750ml bottle for what you could get you a handle of something else. Talking about this one makes me think of the many well made Vodka’s out there. The better the quality, the less personality the Vodka; so when Hangar and Square One max out at about $40, why would you pay more for some of the designer crap out there? Granted, Mount Gay Eclipse won’t run you that much but you’re gonna mix this one. You might as well use something that cost less. Even if whatever else you use isn't as well made; after all... you're mixing.

Verdict: A victim of it’s own quality. The absolute best, standard, nothing-special-about-it rum on the market.

Myere's Rum Original Dark

It's good.

They aren't joking about the dark part, but the color doesn't really lead to and equally intense flavor. This one is hard to talk about. There are a lot of flavors; no one is stronger than another as to dominate. This is rum for a those who enjoying the age old sport of drinking for nothing more than the sake of drinking. (I have no doubt so many of my literary archetypes would love this rum.) You can't hide it's taste in a drink and the color is gonna come through and tint anything you mix it with a dark brown. I've been trying to write this one off as nothing special from the first sip but something about it stays with me.

I don't want to drink it straight as the flavors are too unfocused, and I'd never ask for it in a mixed drink because it's too pronounced. Yet I like it. I just wish I could tell you why.

It's good...

Verdict: Worthy of a sample. I'd understand if someone said they didn't like it, but I bet they'd have a hard time saying what it was they didn't like.

You'll want to check out previous highlights if you missed them (January,February,March ) and be sure to check back next month as I will bring you more of the best, worst, and the in between. All things concerning rum: what you should be drinking.