Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

Set against a backdrop of factions warring over the English throne after the death of Henry I, this novel tells the sprawling story of a fictional Kingsbridge cathedral. On the surface this is an simple adventure with heavy doses of political intrigue, but the surprisingly accurate historical backdrop anchors the story. The actors are fairly one-dimensional (villains have no redeeming qualities and heroes are steadfast and well-meaning) but having them interact with real figures such as King Stephen and Thomas Becket gives the impression of depth and character development. The plot is straightforward and predictable, with the loose ends being resolved in a satisfying manner. With thin characterization and a linear plot this sounds like a boring read, but somehow Follett manages to turn this into an excellent page turner.

The book is obviously meticulously researched, with long passages dedicated to describing how builders in the twelfth century were able to construct massive buildings or how the Catholic Church was becoming an active part of politics and everyday life. “Increasingly, people were expected to be Christians every day, not just on Sundays. They needed more than just rituals, according to the modern view: they wanted explanations, rulings, encouragement, exhortation.” Sometimes this research is used to the books detriment; for instance at one point Follett spends several pages describing a bear baiting for no seemingly other reason than to show off his hard work. More than once I found my self glossing over long passages of exposition like this, but it didn’t affect my overall opinion of the novel. For a nearly 1000 page novel Pillars of the Earth was a very fast read, and I am looking forward to reading the sequel, World Without End.

First Sentence:
In a broad valley, at the foot of a sloping hillside, beside a clear bubbling stream, Tom was building a house.

Thursday, October 16, 2008, by Tom Evslin An Historic Murder Mystery set in the Internet Bubble and Rubble, by Tom Evslin

With stock charts, email threads, chat transcripts, and police interviews mixed in with traditional storytelling techniques, the format of this novel was just as interesting as the story itself. The stories I should say; there are two main threads that weave through the book: one tells the tale of the rise and fall of a .com startup during the internet bubble and the other of the murder of the CEO of said company. The .com story was fascinating; having lived through the 90’s myself working at a variety of software startups much of this rang true. Arrogant executives, selfish salesmen, primary and secondary offerings, bitter rivals (“The [buyout] price sucks. And it is in antihack stock, which sucks. And it is from antihack, which sucks.”), and the ignorance of message boards (“Your an idiot or just getting reddy to dump your stock.”)—Evslin is clearly well acquainted with the tech craziness at the millennium. In the murder mystery, none of the characters were obvious heroes or villains, so we are kept guessing right up to the end. The conclusion is a bit of a stretch, but doesn’t distract from an otherwise enjoyable read. Truly a unique book.

First Sentence:
New York, NY—April 1, 2003—(BUSINESS WIRE) (NASDAQ:HOFC) announced today that the company’s Chairman and CEO, Larry Lazard, was found dead in his corporate office of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk

Choke: A Novel, by Chuck Palahniuk

The opening pages of this book discuss how banal the book is. “If you are going to read this, don’t bother. ... There has to be something better on television. ... What you’re getting here is a stupid story about a stupid little boy.” I thought it amusing at the time, but as the tale progressed I wish I’d taken the advice: this was a surprisingly bad book.

The main character, Victor Mancini, is a reprobate sexual addict that fakes choking in restaurants and then scams his “saviors” for money. His best friend is a simpleton that can’t hold down the simplest job; his mother has Alzheimer’s and thinks Victor is a collection of people from her past, but never Victor himself. While certainly a unique group of oddball personas, there isn’t much of a plot to speak of. Various threads loosely strung together; while this itself isn’t an issue, the problem lies in the fact that the episodes aren’t anywhere near as interesting as the characters. Palahniuk seems to be going for thought-provoking and edgy, but ended up with just plain weird. Fight Club was an excellent movie; Choke is by the same author and I had high expectations. A good friend liked it as well; clearly I’ll need to more thoroughly vet his recommendations in the future.

First Sentence:
If you are going to read this, don’t bother.

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