Book review: An Iliad – A Story of War by Alessandro Baricco

I seem to be reading a lot of this fella’s stuff at the moment. His writing really appeals to me. It’s thought-provoking and beautifully crafted without going overboard on metaphors.
I had high hopes for An Iliad because I’m a bit of a greek mythology buff which is why I dived straight in right after reading Silk.
And that might not have been the best idea.

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An Illiad is the story of the Trojan War told from a range of perspectives:
heroes (alive, dead or about to be killed); kings, prophets; slaves … at one point, even the river outside Troy has its say.  It’s more approachable (and shorter) than Homer’s original work, but I think the style of it wasn’t particularly to my liking. I don’t mind working a bit harder for a good read, but I’m a bit of a stickler for consistency, and the prose tended to meander between the comic-book and the poetic. The battle scenes were bloody and magnificent, but weren’t overcooked. Baricco deliberately kept the gods out of it which allows the reader to focus on the men: their fear, their loneliness; their petty jealousies; but mainly their egos. Let’s face it, the whole ten years was about one man’s ego so it’s no surprise there was plenty of it to go around.
I did enjoy the book as a whole, I think. It was originally written in Italian, so I wonder if perhaps some of the original feel of the book was lost in translation. I should probably learn Italian and find out.
Although I didn’t like it as much as Silk, I haven’t lost faith in Mr Barricco. I’m going to read Without Blood next, and in the meantime give An Iliad six out of ten.

Book review (sort of): Silk by Alessandro Baricco

I say, ‘sort of’ because I haven’t really made up my mind about this book yet. The thing is I haven’t finished reading it, and I’m already trying to decide if this is the best book I’ve ever read.
There aren’t that many books I’d review before finishing, but then there aren’t many books I’ve read in which the ending doesn’t really bother me.
Silk is literary fiction; one of those incredibly rare pieces in which the reader is expected to be so engrossed by the beauty of the prose that notions of plot and character fly out the window.

1421486530_full.jpegI’ve read a lot of books that are sold as literary fiction, but I can’t say I’ve come across one in which this holds true. If I’m honest, I’ve abandoned more literary fiction works than genre novels, simply because I get to point where I think ‘Yeah, all very arty, but why am I reading this?’

You need a solid plot; you need fabulous characters. End of.

Well, that’s what I thought until I started Silk, a simple tale of a silkworm merchant set in the 1800s.
Now don’t get me wrong, it does have a plot, though not a particularly strong one (let’s just say that plot wasn’t why this book was written). It also has characters, but they are hard to separate, and some, one could argue, are barely visible. (But then a single sentence will bring them vividly to life – it is just so weird.)
What the book does have is the most concise, rhythmic, flowing prose I have ever read. It’s not so much a book as a 100-page poem, and make no mistake, it’s fantastic. Every sentence is carefully crafted to induce an emotion, and it works without being, well . . . hard work. The author has built a world you can feel in one hundred pages.
That’s quite a knack, and in this regard it does remind me of my favourite poem, An Orange Sleeve, translated by Edward Powys Mathers:

In the fifth month,
When orange-trees
Fill all the world with scent,
I think of the sleeve
Of a girl who loved me.

Even if you don’t like this kind of  writing, you should read Silk if you ever intend to put your finger on a literary keyboard. If nothing else it’s a masterclass in prose. Not once did I think ‘Where’s this going?’
I just didn’t care.

And yes – it is the best book I’ve ever read.

Book review: Wool by Hugh Howey

Whether he intended to or not, Hugh Howey has become something of a mascot for the self-published author, and given the quality of his work then it’s not hard to see why.

Wool is the first in a dystopian trilogy following a colony of thousands living in an underground silo for hundreds of years. Why? Not sure. I assumed that it was some kind of global catastrophe, but having finished the book, I’m wondering if it’s something a little less straightforward . . .

As you can imagine, such an environment has to be rigidly controlled in terms of resource distribution and population growth, all of which is handled by the wonderfully sinister IT department, whose remit seems to extend much further than keeping the servers running. Their main function, as it turns out, is to deal with any dissent that threatens the order maintained in the silo.
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Howey does a fantastic job of building a detailed, realistic environment which appears as vast as it does claustrophobic, and he does this without sacrificing the humanity of his characters. He moves from person to person, going into a great deal of internal dialogue that builds the characters, but also slows down the plot somewhat; it’s a tricky balance, and I’m not sure he’s got it right — for me at least.
Still, what you do get is very believable characters who you can empathise with; this includes the antagonists who dispatch citizens of the silo in ever-increasing numbers in order to maintain the status quo.

Even with some fairly lengthy exposition, the book cracks on at a blistering pace, and I have to say that it was genuinely difficult to put down. It doesn’t pack a lot of surprises, but it does leave a lot of questions unanswered which, I assume, will be picked up in later novels.

There are many similar books to this (City of Ember to name one), but Wool has more of a thriller feel to it; a real whodunnit and whydidtheydoit wrapped inside a large dark space.

Nine out of ten.