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Books - John C. Kirk

Aug. 1st, 2007

01:21 am - Books

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Despite the impression you may sometimes get from my LJ, I don't spend all my time watching TV programs and films: I do in fact crack open a book now and then. Recently I went along to Croydon library, and I was impressed by how much of a selection they have. I was also impressed that I'm allowed to borrow 9 items at a time; it used to be a limit of 3 or 4 when I was a kid.

There are three novels in particular that I borrowed from there:

The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde)

I'd heard that this would be about meta-fiction, which has appealed to me in the past (as per my previous comments on Last Action Hero and Planetary/Pinocchio.) However, that's a relatively small part of the novel, which is really setting up various weird aspects of this alternate world, e.g. people having genetically engineered dodos as pets and a police unit dedicated to dealing with vampires and werewolves.

There's an odd switch from 1st to 3rd person at the end of one chapter, which doesn't really make sense. This reminded me uncomfortably of Juliet McKenna's first novel, which alternated back and forth between the two narration styles; I assumed that there would be an explanation for this at the end, but there wasn't, and I later discovered that she'd literally been told to pad the book out by adding in an unrelated story.

Lots of the characters have unusual names, which are linked to their personalities or jobs. Dickens and Rowling have done that in the past, and it can work quite well if it's subtle. In this case, one of the characters was called "Jack Schitt" (i.e. "Jack Shit"): this was mildly amusing the first time I read it, but the joke wore a bit thin after several repetitions.

There's an unfortunate typo at one point, where the writer mixed up "their" and "there". This is a minor point, but I did find it quite jarring, and it knocked me out of the narrative in the same way that a ringing telephone would. So, the book would have benefitted from better editing.

I haven't read Jane Eyre, although I probably ought to; in any case, you don't need to have read it in order to follow the plot here, because one of the characters provides a helpful synopsis part-way through.

Anyway, all in all I'd say that it's a decent first novel. I don't think all of it quite works, but it's good enough to pique my interest in the series, so I'll look for the next one when I go back to the library.

My Legendary Girlfriend (Mike Gayle)

I saw this one in the rack, and picked it up on a whim. It's basically the type of trashy novel that you'd find in airport bookshops, aimed at the same audience as Ben Elton novels but without the satire. It's sort of a romantic comedy for blokes, I suppose. Anyway, it kept my attention, it has some funny bits, and it whiled away a few train journeys. It's set near Archway (N1), which is where I used to work, so the surroundings were familiar. Ultimately, though, it is just trash, with nothing of any lasting significance, so I certainly won't read it again.

Schild's Ladder (Greg Egan)

I've read a few of Egan's books (as I mentioned here), and they do a good job of being mind-bending without resorting to gibberish. Essentially they're "hard" SF: in other words, rather than taking the Star Trek approach ("we have to re-calibrate the tachyon emitters to compensate for the increased neutrino flow!"), these are more closely based on real physics. Of course, he does still extrapolate beyond what we currently know for the purposes of his stories.

In this case, I recognise a few of his favourite concepts but he still finds new ways to use them. However, I also think that you need a pretty good grasp of physics to understand this one properly; I wouldn't recommend that you even attempt it if you haven't taken the subject to A level, and I've been a bit hazy on some of the references. For instance, I recognise the word "Hamiltonian" (in the context of quantum physics), and I'm aware of Lagrange points (for planetary orbits), but I couldn't explain either of them in detail. So, as with his short story "The Planck Dive", a lot of this has gone over my head, and I haven't enjoyed it as much as his other novels. Still, if I do some more studying and then re-read this book in a couple of years, I may get more out of it.

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From:susannahf
Date:August 1st, 2007 08:44 am (UTC)
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I've only just realised how lucky I've been in the past with public libraries. Where I grew up, there was a large library with a good range of books, even though it was a (predominantly) rural area, and Croydon library is fantastic.
Oxford, however, gets a big booby prize. There's a large building in the centre of town, which has a decent-looking kids section and a fair amount of reference, but less fiction than my old school library. I accept that non-university people don't have access to the university libraries, but I'd have thought there was a demand for more than an alcove of fiction. There's actually more floor and shelf space devoted to DVDs and computer games for rent that to fiction. And the one thing that the university lending libraries can be guaranteed not to have is fiction.
Sigh.
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From:johnckirk
Date:August 1st, 2007 10:28 am (UTC)
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That's a shame, and it does surprise me. When I was in Durham, the university library only had classic works of literature, but the college had a small fiction library (a suitcase kept under someone's bed). However, the town library was pretty good, and I was able to get most of the Discworld novels there, as well as various Asimov stories. Imperial has ICSF: are there any equivalent societies in Oxford that could maintain their own library?
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From:susannahf
Date:August 1st, 2007 10:37 am (UTC)
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Catz library had a small fiction section (like, a shelf), but Keble only has highbrow Edifying Litrichure as far as I can tell.
I guess they assume we can all afford to avail ourselves of the fine selection of retail outlets at our disposal. In fact, the Oxfam bookshop can probably give the central library a run for it's money - and certainly on the SF front.
It's possible that all the fiction stuff is out at the other libraries, which are closer where most non-university people live.
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From:gaspodog
Date:August 1st, 2007 12:16 pm (UTC)
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Hurrah for Croydon library and its fantasticness!
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From:shuripentu
Date:August 1st, 2007 12:18 pm (UTC)
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The narration can add flavour to a novel, if used correctly, so a change in narrator isn't entirely unknown. IIRC, Toni Morrison's Beloved included train-of-thought chapters from characters, switching the narration from 3rd to 1st person, and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (is there any literary discussion out there that doesn't end up mentioning HoD?) is notable for having a narrator that's narrating a narration, giving a sense of distance. Or something.
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