My review of ‘The Truth’ by Stanisław Lem

The Truth and Other StoriesThe Truth and Other Stories by Stanisław Lem
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished the title short story, The Truth, with tremendous thanks to a Polish friend of mine, who recommended it to me.

Humbly and with embarrassment for my Anglo-centricity, I am forced to admit I would otherwise never have read Lem, nor was I even truly aware of his existence as a writer – despite his having written the book behind the classic sci-fi film Solaris.

Yet The Truth, in its execution and in the concepts it evokes, is as deserving of a place among the great works of 20th Century sci-fi as anything written by Bradbury, Asimov or Clarke.

Nor does the genius of the story repose entirely on the strength of its ideas. The writing is more than competent – some passages touch on the beautiful. But what I really liked was how Lem uses the common narrative device of an unreliable narrator to reflect on a personal level the story’s (eponymous) philosophical question. In this way, he creates a perfect mirror between the metaphysical and the psychosocial.

Of course, in the end, it is the ideas that are the lasting mark of this story’s greatness. Here we come back to humility – in under ten thousand words, Lem manages to construct a plausible hypothesis that challenges our most basic assumptions about the universe and our place in it. That is enough to humble even the most widely read sci-fi enthusiast.

The Truth deserves more than just five stars. It deserves all of them.

View all my reviews

My review of Philip K. Dick’s “Ubik”

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The promotional quote on the cover my copy of Ubik is from Terry Gilliam. It reminds the would-be reader that “Philip K. Dick got there first.”

I took this as a warning more than a commendation. So often, we find the pioneers of great art lacking, when seen in the rear view mirror of progress. They have been copied, improved upon, and remain only as curiosities, historical artefacts who can better help us appreciate their predecessors.

Such will not be the fate of Philip K. Dick. His work remains timeless and inspiring today, even after all the copycats. One can barely imagine what it must have been like to read him in his heyday, the late 1960s, when even the whiff of such ideas had not yet been breathed into existence.

To be sure, there are weaknesses in the writing of Ubik. The prose is typical of mid-20th Century America, naive and blunt, almost to the point of disrespect for the English language. As if the very conventions of writing were a hindrance to Dick and the ideas that were dear to him. If Dick had had some other means of conveying those ideas – perhaps via the very instruments of telepathy he describes in the story – he would likely have made recourse to them.

But the ideas remain timeless, uncompromising in their complexity. Inspiring stories like The Matrix, but going further and deeper into the metaphysical. Asking questions of the reader, instead of providing the comfortable, Hollywood answers to which we have since grown accustomed.

I take the fact that Dick has yet to be outclassed by those who follow in his wake as a testament to his greatness. His apostles should take it as a challenge.




View all my reviews

My review of Andre Gide’s “Straight is the Gate”

Straight Is the GateStraight Is the Gate by André Gide
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It so often happens that I read 19th Century fiction and marvel at how much better the writers of the day were at controlling the mechanics of their craft. Characters are richer, the vocabulary is wielded with greater ease and the plots flow with the confidence of certain conclusion. Is it the Great Filter of History in action? Or is it simply that our ancestors spent more time reading and writing than we do, therefore became better at it?

Whatever the reason, Andre Gide’s “Straight is the Gate”, a masterful novella, is further evidence that older is sometimes better. Even in translation, it easily surpasses most, if not all, of the digitally processed fast food that streams across the cyberbookshops of the digital age. And as is often the case, it does so without the aid of gimmickry: no bodies on page two, and a simplicity of narrative style (first person, referencing the letters of a second person) at which most modern writers would balk – I am including myself here.

The story is nonetheless interesting, in the very complexity of its eventlessness. A young couple, in love, yet unable to come together as a result of twisted piety and self-imposed restraint; one which belies a deeper psychological illness. I have often reflected how the current state of COVID-hysteria has a religious dimension to it, and in reading ‘Straight is the Gate’, I found eerie parallels. The female protagonist, Alissa, uses her religion as a cloak for her mental illness, in the same way our mentally ill society is using COVID as an excuse to collapse into itself.

Great novels may yet be written about our time, which explore a similar theme – how COVID is being used by the mask-wearing masses to shield themselves against the emotional void created by this godless, consumerist society in which they feel so lost. I just hope that, buried in the ashheap of digital junkies, there are enough real writers out there with the craft to do such a theme justice.

View all my reviews

My Review of Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth”

The Pillars of the Earth (Kingsbridge, #1)The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Imagine an apple that has been drawn two different ways. The first is a mere illustration, an outline in black and white, one which lacks detail. Simple, yes. Yet it perfectly expresses the essence of the fruit – like the logo of a certain computer company.

The second drawing attempts to render the apple as true to life as possible, with colour, texture and background: all the details the human eye supplies to the brain when confronted with the real thing. But imagine the artist lacks the high degree of skill to deliver on this photographic promise. Let’s say the colour is wrong, the hue of the light rings false, the texture is not sufficiently apple-y.

When we put these two pictures side by side, we ‘see’ a better apple in the illustration. By providing us only with an idea, it allows our imagination to fill in the other details. The second, on the other hand, jars in our brains. It bothers us, despite the effort that might have gone into its crafting. Less is sometimes more.

In ‘The Pillars of the Earth’, Ken Follett has tried for more. A lot more. His portrayal of medieval life in the south west of England is very detailed. We eat, sleep, travel and even copulate with the stonemasons, monks and earls who populate his pages. It is obvious to the reader that he has meticulously researched his subject. But that is precisely the problem – the reader is too aware of the research. At times it feels like we are reading his notes and not his fiction. It is too studied, and therefore rings false.

There are also a number of structural problems, again due to the high level of ambition. It’s damn nigh impossible to sustain over three generations and as many cathedrals the strong plot dynamics for which Follett is known. There are lulls and the conclusion to one of the central plot threads is both contrived and unsatisfying. Follett also seems unsure whether to write Aliena, one of the central characters, as a fierce female protagonist, or as a weeping damsel in distress. In the end, he tries a bit of both, and for me it simply doesn’t work. This I found particularly disappointing, given how well he rendered the characters in the other novel of his I read (“Night Over Water”).

That said, the opening is strong enough; the protagonists likeable enough and the villains loathsome enough to keep the reader hooked.

It’s just a pity he didn’t stick to mere illustration.

My review of George du Maurier’s Trilby

TrilbyTrilby by George du Maurier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It happened the other day, while I was reading George du Maurier’s Trilby, that a young man asked me whether I read mainly fiction or non-fiction – his preference clearly being for the latter. I answered the former, and had to supress within me a slight sense of shame. Does the fiction reader not, after all, sunbathe in supercillious fantasy while lazing on the beach; whereas the non-fiction reader applies his mind to the ‘hard facts’?

Maybe it is engrained in us to think so. But the distinction is shallow and meaningless when you dig a little deeper. For one thing, if 2020 has anything to teach us, it is that the ‘hard facts’, even those that are as hard as rock, are so numerous and tiny that they give way to the cudgel of dogma and zealotry, like grains of sand on that very same beach. One eye-catching event, propelled by the right algorithms, can trump an entire discipline of rigorous empiricism.

Non-fiction can easily fall into the trap of pretending the ‘castle of truth’ which the author has built up is structurally sound. Fiction, as written from the perspective of the narrator, or better still, the third persons who inhabit the narration, harbours no such pretense of architectural stability. The reader knows that the truth on which a novel is based is a shifty one; changing with the tide and giving way to the footprints left by the author’s own biases, those of his characters and those of the reader.

In this respect, a book like ‘Trilby’ helps us gain perspective on the ‘truthiness’ of our own age. It places fantastical events in a historical and subjective context, and in doing so removes us from the fantastical context of our own time, allowing us to regard these as no less subjective and ephemeral.

At the time of its publication, ‘Trilby’ was a sensation – the ‘Da Vinci Code’ of its day. Upon reading it, it’s easy to see why. Borrowing with self-effacing openness from Thackery, Dickens and Dumas, this festival of vanity, a tale set in Two Cities, chronicles the adventures of three very British ‘musketeers of the brush’ (artists) and their acquaintance with the Anglo-Irish Parisian washerwoman of the title. The narrative is light and fun, rich in the tradition of turn-of-the-Century satirists like Wilde or Saki. The plot is compelling, though perhaps somewhat too linear for modern tastes.

Mostly though, I read it as an antidote to the irrationality and illiberalism of the dominant ‘Liberal’ world view. If we must inhabit sand castles in order to have a coherent frame of reference, let’s at least decorate them with the colourful seashells of funny, well-written Victorian prose.

View all my reviews

My review of Gary Paulsen’s ‘Hatchet’

Hatchet (Brian's Saga, #1)Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some books smack of polish. The prose is heavy with the weight of old creative writing classes or mimickry of past literary idols.

Sometimes the polish even drips and coagulates into globs at the bottom of the page. It’s as if we can smell the coffee from the Starbucks where the author sat, back in February of 1998, when she first read Hemingway and, looking out the window at the drab Seattle rain, dreamt of one day living in New York City and ‘being an author’. Or else we hear the writer’s impatient fingers upon the keyboard at his office in the community college’s English department, desperately trying to ‘find his voice’ the way he tells his students to, rather than just telling a story.

Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet is certainly not one of these books. The prose has no polish whatsoever. As a result, the writing is crude, almost to the point of distraction. Choppy. Fragments of sentences, running on. An attempt. An attempt to convey the protagonist’s panicked state of mind. A heavy-handed abuse of language. At least in my opinion.

But what Paulsen lacks in literary finesse, he more than makes up for with the quality of his story. The tale is a simple one – a teenage boy named Brian survives the crash of a single engine plane and must learn to live in the Canadian wilderness, with only the eponymous hatchet and the clothes on his back.

Like all great stories, Paulsen has no need to mimic other writers, or to worry about finding a voice. He simply tells Brian’s story, and that is more than enough for the reader to suspend disbelief; to join Brian in the woods, rejoicing with him over every little comfort, salivating at the taste of berries and fish in the starving boy’s mouth.

I understand completely why this book has become a favourite of high school English teachers. And as is the case with all good young adult fiction, it reads just as well, even if you are much older.

View all my reviews

My review of ‘I Am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes

I Am PilgrimI Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It takes special skill to write a book with over 850 pages – all of which are torturously overwritten and peppered with cheap hyperbole – and yet still retain the attention of people accustomed to better. Terry Hayes possesses this rare talent.

I am a slow reader, with diminishing patience for crappy writing as I get older and crankier. In the months it took me to get through ‘I Am Pilgrim’, there were moments when I literally winced at the bad writing. There were times I thought, that’s it, I’m done with this cliche-ridden piece of trash.

Yet I kept coming back for more. Partly this was an act of loyalty to the man who wrote the screenplay for one of the great, childhood-defining movies of the 1980s: ‘Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome’. But it was also because I Am Pilgrim has something seriously good to offer.

What Hayes lacks in classical writing talent, he as good as makes up for through the books two principle strengths: first, his attention to detail and second, the muscle behind his storytelling. For the first, the secret agent protagonist (whose name I have, tellingly, already forgotten) is given a severe credibility handicap by Hayes’ inability to imbue him with any real depth of character. And yet the detailed descriptions of how he approaches his work, the tricks of his trade, make you share in his world. Some are deliciously simple, such as when he points out that the way to break into someone’s house is not to creep around the dark with a flashlight (which neighbours tend to notice), but simply to switch the light on and move through the house normally.

But it is the second strength, the storytelling, that is the real reason I kept swerving around every unnecessarily unnecessary adverb and past every pastiche minor character. Hayes wrote ‘I Am Pilgrim’ not because he wanted to write a book and needed a story to fill it. He wrote it because he had a story to tell and a book was a way of getting that story out into the world.

The plot is perfectly paced. It builds suspense as it needs to and juggles competing story lines via a narrative voice with multiple layers stretched just to the limits of credibility. There are not many writers who will dare to depart on a chapters-long diversion to narrate the backstory of a villain whose crime has not even been hinted at. But Hayes gets away with it, precisely because the reader is left in the certain knowledge that the storyteller knows exactly where all this is going.

I won’t say too much about the conclusion, for two reasons. First, I hate spoilers. But second, if you’ve managed to forgive Terry Hayes all the sins against literature he committed in the preceding 849 pages, what happens from page 850 can no longer harm you.

So if you want a good read, look elsewhere. But if you want a good story, this is a Pilgrimage worth embarking on.

View all my reviews

My Review of Jo Nesbo’s ‘Nemesis’

Nemesis (Harry Hole, #4)Nemesis by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the parcours of every reading adult, books will be encountered that challenge his perception on a deeper level. Books that connect the loose, live wires of his mind and satisfy an aching in his heart. These are the rare books that manage to do what mere human interaction cannot: They transcend the vacuum divide of isolation that separates all of us – teacher from student, husband from wife, brother from brother. Through such books, the writer creates a deep communion with the reader.

Nemesis, by Jo Nesbo, is not one of these books.

It is a book you read to avoid connections, not to make them. It is a book you read when work is hard, and you want something other than a Tuesday evening glass of wine to clean your brain of the meetings and spreadsheets which pay for the rent and the wine alike. It is a book you read on the train, because the alternative is looking out the rain speckled window, and in the four and a half years you have commuted through South Morley and Wenton Village, the scenery has not changed by even one semi-detached house.

Nothing about the protagonist, Harry Hole, seems real to me. I don’t believe the story in the Nemesis could ever remotely happen.

Nor am I meant to. Scandi-crime novels are comforting precisely because they not only have nothing to do with our lives, they also have nothing to do with the lives of actual Nordic police officers.

They are comforting because I know every tired cliche that will befall Hole before I break the paperback’s spine. I know it before his new partner – a young female cadet with the best marks in the policy academy – makes her first appearance on page 50. I know it before his relationship fails; before he breaks down and pours his first whiskey; before he arrests the obvious yet ultimately innocent suspect, then is forced to release him under severe reprimand from the police chief, twenty pages later.

And that’s just as we, the readers of Scandi-crime novels, want it. Because spreadsheets and management meetings are a pain in the ass. And so are commuter trains.

For this, we show our thanks in the only way Jo Nesbo – artist that he is – truly appreciates:

We buy the next one.

View all my reviews

My review of John Buchan’s ‘The 39 Steps’

The 39 Steps (Richard Hannay, #1)The 39 Steps by John Buchan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What is the ultimate homage one can pay to an author?

Surely it is to say that his or her work, when viewed through the lens of time, has lost some of its impact on the modern audience because it has become a genre-defining cliche – done and redone by copycats, some very talented, until the novelty fades. This kind of ‘victimhood of one’s own success’ can be said of the great Alfred Hitchcock. It can be said of the classic hip hop group Public Enemy.

And it can be said of John Buchan’s ‘The 39 Steps’. For the contemporary reader whose appetite for vicarious thrills has been fattened on the fast food of Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer – not to mention James Bond, the antics of Richard Hannay come across as a little hammy.

For one thing, his protagonist (Richard Hannay) has a first name which doesn’t begin with J. And then, many of the plot devices – the just-in-time escapes, the ‘ordinary man antihero’, the ratcheting up of the stakes as the plot reveals – all seem rather tired. That is, until you remember that Buchan’s character was penned in 1915, at a time when writing of this kind was largely non-existant. Richard Hannay was escaping from exploding buildings long before John McClane was even Born Hard, never mind the ‘Die’ bit.

Regarding the plot of this book itself, I won’t say too much, except to note the extent to which it is pregnant with the zeitgeist of a powerful Britain, caught in the midst of the Great War. The villification of the Germans and the rabid jingoism of the Empire are anacharonisms, which, when viewed in the tail lights of the muddy, blood-soaked trenches and sour colonial legacy of racist Western powers, retain appeal only insofar as they provide us with historical context.

Buchan called his books ‘shockers’, which in itself sounds silly and antiquated, until you think a little on the word ‘thriller’ and realise it’s actually no less silly-sounding. As a politician and a well-known biographer, he considered his shockers among the least important of his accomplishments. And yet even in his own lifetime it was clear that this is what he would be remembered for.

I give ‘The 39 Steps’ three stars for the story in its own right, and an additional star in recognition of the many Johns, Jacks, James’ and Jasons who followed in Richard Hannay’s wake.

View all my reviews