zaterdag 27 februari 2016

"Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes

“I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.”

It's not often that I re-read books. There are far too many other books that deserve to be read and besides, there's always the possibility of being disappointed the second time around. Now that would shatter all those fond memories. But "Flowers for Algernon" is a story that I have read countless times, both the original short story from 1959 and the novel which appeared a couple of years later. Both won prestigious science fiction awards. Now, before you skip this review because you normally don't like 'SF', please read on...

A new method has been developed to increase human intelligence. The technique has already been tried on the mouse Algernon, with fantastic results. Now it is to be used on a human being, and Charlie -a mentally backward 37-year-old with an IQ of only 68- is chosen as the test subject. The treatment works and soon Charlie's IQ is rocketing. But then Algernon starts to behave erratically...

The novel is built-up out of progress reports written by Charlie himself. The fact that the story is told from his point of view, makes his development very poignant. Starting with the childishly naive first entries, you can see him gradually turning smarter, into brilliance. But along with this intelligence, he also gains insight into the people around him - and this is not always a positive thing. The ending is absolutely shattering, but oh-so beautiful.

"Flowers for Algernon" isn't only my favourite science fiction story, it is in my Top-5 novels I have ever read, in any genre. This story gets to me every time. Each. And. Every. Time. The SF-aspect is only very slight. Apart from the new treatment, it reads like a contemporary psychological novel, which is just deeply, deeply moving. Read this one, please. I can guarantee that Charlie is a character you will never ever forget.

Author: Daniel Keyes
Title: Flowers for Algernon
Publisher: Gollancz, London
Year: 1994 (orig. 1966)
Number of pages: 237 p.
ISBN: 1857989384

vrijdag 26 februari 2016

"Dune" by Frank Herbert

“No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”

There's no doubt that Frank Herbert's "Dune" is one of the most popular science fiction novels ever. It is still widely read today and it is not too difficult to see how this massive work has influenced modern icons like "Star Wars" and "Game of Thrones", to name just two.

In the far future, humanity has spread throughout the galaxy. Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV assigns control of the planet Arrakis (aka 'Dune') to the Atreides family.  But the rival House Harkonnen is not very happy with this, as the planet, though barren and dry, is the only place in the galaxy where 'melange' can be found, a spice which is used to increase mental abilities. Mining this spice is a very lucrative business. The power-hungry Baron Vladimir Harkonnen has Duke Leto Atreides murdered and tries to wipe out all House Atreides. But then he hasn't counted on the survival of Paul Atreides, the son of the late Duke and the Bene Geserit witch Jessica, who is destined to become a religious prophet, the Muad'Dib, ànd a great ruler in his own right.

OK, so it isn't easy to summarize a complex book like "Dune" in just a few lines, but believe me: it absolutely deserves its legendary status. What I really enjoy about it, is the scope of the storytelling. Herbert created a living, breathing world, which is absolutely fascinating. There's politics & religion, mythology & environmentalism, love & betrayal and a cast of characters which are all captivating. And I'm not even talking about the giant sandworms.

The author wrote five sequels to "Dune" and his son Brian, along with Kevin J. Anderson, extended the series with another dozen or so novels. I might end up reading some of them. Then again, I might not, because the original novel is just perfect in its own right.

Author: Frank Herbert
Title: Dune
Publisher: Gollancz, London
Year: 2007 (orig. 1965)
Number of pages: 611
ISBN: 9780575081505

dinsdag 9 februari 2016

"Moving Pictures" by Terry Pratchett

“There’s a saying that all roads lead to Ankh-Morpork, greatest of Discworld cities. (...) And it’s wrong. All roads lead away from Ankh-Morpork, but sometimes people just walk along them the wrong way."

"Terry Pratchett was born in 1948 and is still not dead." That's the way the author is introduced in the editions of his books that I own. Typical Pratchett humour, but it does sound a bit bitter now that he is dead. Anyway, despite the sadness for his passing, if you're looking for something laugh-out-loud funny, Terry Pratchett is always a safe bet.

A new invention is changing the Discworld. The alchemists have developed the technique of making 'moving pictures' (which involves tiny demons in a box and a highly explosive substance called 'octo-cellulose'). Young wizard-in-training Victor Tugelbend is lured to the city of Holy Wood, although he doesn't quite know what he'll be doing there. What he finds is a booming new industry of movie-making, and he soon becomes a leading actor. But strange things are happening: people are acting totally out of character and animals are starting to speak. Creatures from another dimension are breaking through. Holy Wood is bending reality in the Discworld and Victor Tugelbend seems to be the only one who can stop it...

I've read about a dozen of Pratchett's Discworld novels and this one is certainly among the best. Outrageously funny and full of references to real life. In this case it's obviously a spoof of Hollywood. Yes, there are ruthless producers and smug starlets. There's aggressive merchandising and Oscars. There's popcorn and hot dogs. In between the lines, you'll recognize Marlène Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Lassie.  There are references to titles like "Singing in the Rain", "Gone with the Wind", "Conan (sorry, Cohen) the Barbarian", "Tarzan of the Apes", "King Kong" and many others, albeit most of them with a twist. Even if you miss half of the hints (which I'm sure I have) you're in for a rollicking bit of fun.

Author: Terry Pratchett
Title: Moving Pictures
Publisher: Corgi, London
Year: 1998 (orig. 1990)
Number of pages: 333 p.
ISBN: 0552134635

zondag 7 februari 2016

"Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before - more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”

I started reading this novel with quite some anticipation. Many still consider Charles Dickens to be the greatest novelist ever, and this book is widely recognized as one of his very best. Great expectations indeed.

The book's Great Expectations, of course, are the main character's. Philip Pirrip, Pip for short, is an orphan who is raised by his mean older sister. As a child, he is invited by the wealthy Miss Havisham to be a regular companion. At her place, Satis House, he meets Estelle, Miss Havisham's beautiful, but cold and rude adoptive daughter, whom he falls in love with. Her upper class life style soon becomes his ideal. He realises, though, his apprenticeship with his brother-in-law, a blacksmith, will never get him to lead the kind of life he yearns for. But then, very unexpectedly, a lawyer, Mr Jaggers, appears with the news that a mysterious benefactor is willing to invest in Pip's dreams. With quite a fortune in his hands, Pip heads to London to become a gentleman and to make his great expectations come true.

Dickens is a joy to read. His writing is inventive, incredibly witty and dramatic. His descriptions are phenomenal: Pip's meeting with an escaped convict in a graveyard, the creepy atmosphere at Satis House, where the old spinster Miss Havisham is still wearing the faded and cobweb-covered wedding gown she wore when she was abandoned at the altar,... These are all scenes and characters that are unforgettable. The story meanders quite a bit, especially in the middle section, but this was a characteristic of most Victorian novels, of course. The best novel ever? Well, maybe not, but it's easy to understand why Dickens is still held in such high regard.

Author: Charles Dickens
Title: Great Expectations
Publisher: Penguin, London
Year: 2003 (orig. 1861)
Number of pages: xxv + 514 p.
ISBN: 9780141439563