Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

This book is awesome.

File it under the surprising books that suddenly remind you why you read, or at least what you are looking for in the best books. It came out of nowhere. Prior to this book I had near zero interest in the Tudors — I only picked up it because I was intrigued that Mantel was the first woman to ever win the Booker Prize twice and that both prizes were for two books in the same series. Now I’m hooked. I wanted to run out and grab the next book about my man Tom Cromwell, but had to force myself to go to my to-read pile instead.

The story follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith/brewer whom eventually becomes a close confidant and advisor to Henry VIII. My lack of knowledge on English history, especially of this time period does do me a disservice. I understand that Cromwell is often cast as a villain or at least not much of a hero, so the contrast of making him the sympathetic lead does not strike me as important. Though now I feel if I ever read/watch any adaptations of this story by other authors, I will be firmly on Cromwell’s side and annoyed at any negative portrayals.

It’s a slow story. Despite much happening during the decade or so the story encompasses, the narration is usually a slow, detached view of events to mirror the measured and calm demeanor of its protagonist. But this all works because the writing is excellent. It’s written in third person present tense, however, Mantel uses this weird POV quirk where most of the time she writes “He”, she means Cromwell. It’s sort of like first person with “I” replaced with “he”. It gives it the intimacy of a first person story while also giving her the freedom to narrate events that Cromwell himself is not present for.

It’s also occasionally incredibly confusing and at odds with how we normally read books in the English language. Consider the following sentence:

“Bob crossed the street. He thought about his meeting with Jane this morning.”

In Wolf Hall, the “He” could mean either Bob or Cromwell. Even when you get the hang of it, it can be confusing. I see some other reviewers have hated this, but I think it is absolutely worth the price of a new and effective take on writing point of view.

The story is largely about Cromwell becoming Dad to all England. After losing his family to the plague, he builds an amalgam of relatives, orphans, wards, and friends into a family at his ever-expanding estate. He also seems to be the father figure of all the nobility of the English court, calmly navigating their petty whims and doling out advice. Yet somehow, this is a pageturner. I read its very dense 600 pages quickly.

I’m in awe here. I need to read a lot more Mantel. Soon.

Bioshock Infinite by Irrational Games

bioshock picBioshock Infinite has received outstanding critical acclaim. Some excerpts from Metacritic (where it has a 94%):

“Whether or not you enjoy first-person shooters is irrelevant. It is whether or not you want an experience like no other; one that will be left in the back of your mind for years to come. “ – Hardcore Gamer Magazine

“This is the sort experience you don’t get every day: an easy-to-like spectacle for the masses with enormous production values, but a story right out of the art-house cinema.” Eurogamer Germany

“BioShock Infinite is a hell of a lot of fun to play. That really should be the only quality it needs to exhibit. The fact that it holds much more feels like an advancement of an art form. Just remember that nothing in BioShock Infinite is an attempt to be cute. Just let it tell you its story. “ – Guardian

These are some of the most hyperbolic, but they still represent a general trend for a game that did not receive a score lower than 8/10 across 67 critical reviews.

Anyway, here’s my blurb: Bioshock Infinite is a disappointing sequel to a great game, filled with sloppy, repetitive gameplay, a narrative that’s not particularly engaging and has terrible politics, that happens to be bookended by some pretty set pieces. Worse, its reception by “video game journalism” is embarrassing; it gives credence to the late Roger Ebert’s much maligned commentary on video games being incapable of high art.

The original Bioshock is excellent. It follows the story of an intruder to the fallen city of Rapture — an underwater objectivist dream conceived by a man whose name is a sort of Ayn Rand anagram. Okay, sure, “Objectivism is bad and wrong” is not a profound or novel theme, but in an industry that holds up storytelling like, well, Infinite’s, it is something. Libertarianism’s greatest constituent (privileged white men) is the greater part of the first person shooter audience as well.

It had interesting things to say about videogames and their audiences, even if the narrative falls apart after the big twist. Speaking of which, the twist is smart and fun unlike Infinite’s telegraphed and uninspired one (Listen guy, we’ve all seen Oldboy…). It was also weirdly and hilariously prophetic given the existence of real life plans for a libertarian ocean paradise.

Infinite’s narrative is doubly weak (general spoilers follow). It’s not thematically sound though it seems to want to be. It has been praised by actually tackling race but apparently “tackling race” just means acknowledging racism exists. Or at least did in 1912. And any points it receives for this minor feat, it immediately throws away. Then shits all over itself. The oppressed, mostly black underclass at one point in the game, arms themselves as the freedom fighting group “Vox Populi” and begins to rapidly and violently overthrow the privileged white elite led by Zachary Comstock. The narrative quickly decides that “The Vox are just as bad as Comstock”. This is formally shown by the black woman leader of the Vox attempting to execute a white child.The final climactic fight, indeed much of the second half of the game, has you fighting the newly armed underclass and murdering them by the bushel.

This is shit. No, the oppressed slave class does not become “just as bad” as their oppressors if they react just as violently. Knowing real life American history, they were victims of violence and worse for centuries. This does not excuse killing children (completely ignoring here for a moment that the first thing the black folk do when they get weapons is start murdering children…), and maybe there actually was something interesting to investigate here in regards to revolutions and oppression, but the game doesn’t try. Instead, the narrative immediately accepts their villainy and replaces the uniforms of the enemies you are fighting.

Even excusing all this, it’s not even a cool sci-fi story. The alternate world storyline is mostly squandered, especially in regards to the awkward gameplay mechanic called “tears”; you can open them during gunfights and they basically just give you more supplies or warp in AI robots to assist you. There’s vestiges of something that could have been a cool story at the very end, which feels like a different game, but the game does not deliver.

The gameplay itself is repetitive (admittedly, something the original suffered from at parts too). Endless swarms of the same enemies that only increase in how many bullets you need to shoot them. There is artificial limits — only two “tonics” (superpowers) or guns at a time — something that feels like it is there to adhere to the modern FPS model set by Halo and not for any real gameplay reason. The guns are forgettable and some of the later ones you pick up are just inferior versions of the guns you have been using and upgrading all game up to that point.

Did I mention the game is buggy as hell too? I had to restart at a previous point 3-4 times due to the game getting stuck in some fashion. Enemy stuck in terrain I could not kill to progress, storyline event just not happening, that sort of thing.

It’s not a terrible game. I did finish it. Some parts were fun. The ending was kind of cool, albeit silly. But, what a disappointment. Art-house cinema, indeed.

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Disregarding plot character etc for a moment, this book succeeds as an amazing piece of descriptive writing. The rural Canadian village and island cabin of the nameless protagonist’s youth is well realized and vivid. The air feels wet, the mosquitoes buzz. I was equal parts eager to visit, and creeped out by the place. There is a sinister bent that runs through the novel’s setting.

The plot is simple: Late 20s, unreliable narrator returns to her childhood home with her pathetic friends in search of the missing father she has not seen in many years. The setup is reminiscent of Winter’s Bone (the movie, never read the book), but the plot is secondary to the main character’s increasing confusion/disillusionment with her city life and friends and delusive reflection on her ex-husband. Also madness. A disproportionate amount of books I have read by a woman about a woman seem to involve madness.

I spent a significant chunk of this book thinking the protagonist was too smart to hang around these stupid men. The last fourth or so of the book clears this up a little, or makes it more believable as the narrator unravels, but no one is particularly sympathetic in this book and her boyfriend and the accompanying couple are terrible, to themselves and each other. It’s clever because it feels vaguely over the top yet they are still believable and useful to the societal and gender issues key to the books thematic exploration. But anyway, it’s not just thematic. Plot wise, the main character needs to be a victim before she can self-actualize and realize that purposely making herself powerless is just an excuse she uses to pretend her actions can’t hurt anyone.

That’s the key takeaway from the novel, I think; not that running away from a banal, self-and-other destructive society to a primal, unspoiled retreat would be swell, but that the latter is a pointless gesture and probably not much less (if any) harmful than the former. And as evidenced by the “stupid Americans” of the novel, the latter does not exist anyway.

This is the second Atwood novel I have read. The Handmaid’s Tale was the first, and I wasn’t blown away there. I liked Surfacing much more and thought the writing was excellent. Atwood’s detached, cold writing really shines here with her detached, cold protagonist in her detached, cold setting.

The Vorrh by B. Catling


Alan Moore loves this book. His praise is all over the front and back covers and it begins with a few page introduction where he raves about how fantastic the Vorrh is — how it is the best fantasy novel of this century thus far, how it enlivens a stale genre full of wizards and dragons, how superbly written it is, etc etc. These sort of introductions are always problematic, especially for unproven novels, as they heighten expectations and when they don’t live up to them, you feel let down rather than surprised a book you never heard of was actually pretty good. The Vorrh isn’t bad, but it’s not nearly as excellent or groundbreaking as Moore claims and fantasy hasn’t been merely about wizards and dragons in a very long time though it is frustratingly limited at times.

The Vorrh is a massive, primal forest in Africa (unfortunately described as a single monolithic entity and not a large multi-culture continent here) that apparently originates in Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa and may or may not contain the Garden of Eden amongst other things. The novel itself follows several disparate threads / characters that slowly begin to converge within the titular forest during the middle and last thirds of the novel, though they do not come fully together and some threads barely meet at all all.

I don’t mind this sort of structure, a great plot is not essential, and some of my favorite novels follow it. It does require two things however:

1. An author who is a skilled craftsperson at the prose-level. They can write.

2. Compelling and interesting characters that the reader enjoys following even if the overarching plot is sparse.

For the first requirement, Catling largely succeeds. His writing isn’t quite the caliber Alan Moore describes, but it is still better-than-genre-average and he does creeping horror very well. The best parts of the book include a side-story involving stillborn babies and the doctor who first diagnosed anorexia. The descriptions of The Vorrh itself are also stellar. Additionally, the book has that difficult to analyze page-turner quality. I read it pretty quick for a big, bulky 500 page novel.

The problem comes with number 2. None of the characters are particularly likeable. Some of this is by design. The real life photographer Edweard Muybridge is the best character, and also a total prick. But for the most part, none of them are very compelling. The cyclops, Ishmael, is the worst. He is bland as all hell, and his storyline is boring for a significant chunk of the book. The rest are largely forgettable and some of the fates they meet are sort of bewildering (not in the good way) or shrug-worthy.

On top of that, the women are all miserable characters and all the noteworthy ones have sex with the main male characters. And having sex with them is why they are important to the plot. In fact, the only real point-of-view women in the novel have sex with same male character. And the only black woman (remember this takes place in Africa…) who gets any characterization at all is both mute and like, savagely sexual.

So ultimately, it has its moments and isn’t terribly written but I’d only recommend it with major reservations. It’s part of a trilogy and I am not sure if I would read future installments.

Thanks to Green Apple Books in San Francisco for stocking this. Even if I did not love it, it was interesting and somewhat unique and it’s good to support independent presses.