Book Reviews: Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night and Slapstick

December 9, 2009

I’ll admit I’ve been intimidated at the thought of reviewing Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Literature with a capital L is something I enjoy without feeling like I have all the tools to really take it apart and see how it works. Even then, with most Literature, I can talk about what I appreciate. Kurt Vonnegut, though, is a breed apart. Kurt Vonnegut’s work takes the notion of the Great American Novel and makes it feel foolish about itself. You can have high art without pretense. In fact, quite often Vonnegut tweaks the nose of Establishment Literature by delivering more social commentary through satire, black humour, the study of absurdity, and what can only be called science fictional elements than Fitzgerald managed to do with a hundred garden parties.

I read Slaughterhouse Five in the Fifth Grade, and I remember very little about it except that it was good in an unexpected way. I didn’t pursue him any further, because I was getting into Tom Clancy, Ralph Peters and Larry Bond in a big way at the time. Forgive me: I was ten, and techno-thrillers were at the high water mark of their awesomeness. One day I will go back and re-read Slaughterhouse, I’m sure. In the meantime, a good friend of mine has taken to educating me about Vonnegut one book at a time. Put any fourteen Vonnegut fans in a room, and they’ll each have a favourite novel that I should have read first. That’s one of the powers of the man: His work is all engaging, but each is highly individualized and eccentric, engaging readers’ own idiosyncrasies in the course of the narrative.

Whatever I ‘should have read’ first (whatever that means), I was handed a copy of Mother Night to start, and when I was done that I was given Slapstick. I’ve wrestled with how to talk about my experience with them for some time now, but I think I’ve got that squared away. I can’t promise there won’t be spoilers, but I can promise nothing I will say should in any way take away from your enjoyment of what are, in all truth, fascinatingly unusual works of fiction.
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Book Review: Bernard Cornwell’s The Burning Land

November 4, 2009

BernardCornwellBernard Cornwell is another one of my favourite authors. He writes smart, adventurous historical fiction in both stand-alone novels and long-running series, and he does so at a prolific rate: He has put out at least a book a year every year from 1981 up to the present; more often than not he’s written a couple, and in 1995, 2002 and 2003 he published three books inside of twelve months! Can you imagine if every author had this kind of work ethic? I can’t speak with great authority about Danielle Steel, but I suspect Cornwell has to be within an order of magnitude of her prodigious output, and that’s really saying something.

It’s easy to get hooked on Bernard Cornwell, and it’s even easier to get your fix. Even if you can shoot through one of his novels in a single long day in an arm chair, his current book total stands at fifty. He also does a nice job of jumping between his several series and single passion projects. No matter what you’re reading of his, though, you can sense the author’s enthusiasm, intelligence, and general good humour. There are an awful lot of authors whose work I admire, but who I doubt very much I’d like as a person. I’d love to buy Bernard Cornwell whatever he’s drinking. Let’s call it a standing invitation, shall we?
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Book Review: Sharon Kay Penman’s Henry II Trilogy

October 26, 2009

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Sharon Kay Penman has recently cemented her place in my pantheon of favourite authors. I love historical fiction, and she is one of the shining lights of the genre today. Her specialty is the Middle Ages of Great Britain and France, and her attention to detail in that time period is every bit as impressive as Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. She write hard historical fiction: The history always comes first, and the fiction is sprinkled in just enough to make the real events and people of that time period into a novel.

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