The Apartment

The ApartmentThe Apartment by Greg Baxter
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The problem with writing about disaffected people is that it is difficult to win over the reader’s sympathy or trust for your characters. I can understand that the author is trying to make a statement about the disconnected nature of modern society, and the level of sociopathy we all invariably have to engage in, to some degree, in order to be able to function as a proper corporate citizen. But this does not render it palatable or even accessible.

Greg Baxter’s fairly short novel is imitation stream of consciousness: while there are no chapter or section breaks, his nameless protagonist recalls various formative events in his life, while on the hunt for a suitable apartment in a winter-shrouded, nameless city. Along the way he encounters various equally damaged people, which Baxter uses as scaffolding to write about all sorts of things from Bach’s genius to master-planning cities.

We gradually discover that the protagonist has some connection to the ‘Iraq war’ – but being unreliable as well as omniscient, the reader is always caught off-guard, and does not know what to think or whom to believe. Of course, this could be the point all along.

Needless to say there is not much plot progression or even narrative tension here; that there is no real sense of an ending is par for the course for these sorts of novels. I do not think Baxter adds anything new to this subject matter, or even addresses some of the problems that this kind of narrative invariably raises. I found this a frustrating read, with occasional glimpses of something lurking beyond the text, but overall too muddied and ineffectual to make much of an impact.

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Apocalypse then

Apocalypse Now NowApocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I started this I thought it was a much more imaginative book than Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, but it is let down by a thoroughly pedestrian superhero-movie ending that takes all the sting out of the satire and the wonder out of the set-up. The ending reminded me of The Avengers, The Puppet Masters and Transformers all rolled into one.

What a pity that Human did not make more of the break in the story when he gets both his protagonist and the reader to question their respective sanity. Yes, such po-mo techniques do tend to raise eyebrows in this age of literary realism, but I think a much darker edge would have suited the book far better than the comic book theatrics it eventually succumbs to.

I loved the bits about the Sieners and the San mythology. However, I also felt that Human does not do nearly enough with his Cape Town setting. You could simply switch the story to Egoli and it would make no different whatsoever. Still, there are some wonderful setpieces here: the Flesh Palace alone would make both Clive Barker and Quentin Tarantino proud.

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The Luminaries

The LuminariesThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winning tome has received almost universal acclaim, so I was puzzled as to why I found it so difficult to finish it. Technically, it is a work of great proficiency. But of art? I can honestly say it is a good book, but I didn’t enjoy it. I was too aware of the wheels turning behind the plot, and really didn’t connect with any of the characters, which are rather a sorry bunch, at the end of the day. It is quite a sad and bloody story as well, with a tad too much darkness, I think. The love, when it shines through the Byzantine machinations, is too brief and fleeting. I was reminded of another Booker-winning author, Alan Hollinghurst, whose The Stranger’s Child also deals with multiple characters over vast swathes of time and generations, but does so in a much more involving and humane fashion.

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Never weary of the stars

Honor Among Thieves: Star Wars (Empire and Rebellion)Honor Among Thieves: Star Wars by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Always better the devil you know: when I heard that the duo writing under the pen name of James S.A. Corey, authors of the enjoyable (but quite variable in quality) Expanse space opera novels had turned their sights to another franchise, I decided to read my first Star Wars novel ever.

And boy was I glad I did. It seems that all the qualities that critics have noted about the Expanse – the sense of retro futurism, the harking back to the genre’s Golden Age, the solid characters – have found perfect expression in Honour Among Thieves.

Set immediately after the events of A New Hope, the authors wisely focus on the most interesting character of the original triangle, Han Solo, fleshing out his persona with admirable dexterity and economy. Han has bounty hunters on his tail, and combined with trying to help out his newfound friends in the Rebellion, has his work cut out for him.

But is Han sacrificing his own independence by joining the Rebellion – which, despite its united façade, is actually a ragtag, squabbling agglomeration of diverse vested interest, criminals, hangers-on and low lives. Will the endless cycle of empire and revolution be broken irrevocably simply by replacing Palpatine? And once the Rebellion is, indeed, in power, what side of the fence will Han find himself on?

I was amazed at how much depth and subtlety the authors manage to add to the events from A New Hope, asking very pertinent questions about how government and criminality are flipsides of the same coin – it is the sort of dichotomy that Samuel R. Delany expressed so eloquently with the character of Mouse in Nova, to which Star Wars as a whole is deeply indebted.

This is not to suggest in any way that Honour Among Thieves is heavy-handed. It rattles along like the Falcon in hyperdrive, and there is a joie de vivre to the (often ridiculous) setpieces that is infectious to read. In short, reading this plastered a huge grin on my face, and a renewed belief in how special Star Wars really is.

That the magic of George Lucas’s movie has been translated so successfully and timelessly to a literary format ensures its immortality. And makes us forget the terrible travesties of the second trilogy.

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The Humans

The HumansThe Humans by Matt Haig
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The alien-in-human-form-learning-about-life-on-earth is a tricky SF sub-genre to get right, as the recent The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu proved, which deployed the concept (unsuccessfully, I thought) in a straight action thriller.

Matt Haig goes more the Starman and K-Pax route, but with equally uneven success.

The alien-in-human-form is just a gimmick for what is essentially a feel-good, quasi self-help book about the joys and pains of being human (there is even a chapter near the end which lists tips on how best to do this, like an endless string of Hallmark quotations; this is the most excruciatingly mawkish part of the novel. If it had occurred earlier, I would probably have put the book down.)

I really wanted to know more about the Vonnadorians and their culture. It would have been a neat trick if Haig had simultaneously transported his maths professor to this alien world instead of unceremoniously bumping him off.

The weakest parts of the book are when alien-in-the-professor chats to his Vonnadorian buddies; there is little context here and these brief chapters are jarring and distracting.

Needless to say there are some great comic moments here, and a lot of homespun wisdom if a tad too sugar-coated for my taste.

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