The Shack: more of a Shambles

A Christian friend of mine lent me a copy of The Shack a few months ago and I figured that I’d read it. I might be a bit of a heathen but I have quite an interest in theological things.

This book has an enormous following around the world with well over a million copies of this 248 page book in circulation and glowing tributes printed all over the cover, front and back.

I have no idea why this is so. I thought it was a rather badly written book with dubious ideas.

Don’t get me wrong – I quite liked the idea behind it. A guy’s daughter is abducted and presumably murdered, he has a crisis of faith before God comes along and explains a few Truths about the purpose of life and the love that God has for His creation.

My main problems with the book arise from the fact that the author really isn’t a very good writer. His prose is adequate enough I suppose, but he’s more talented amateur than professional novelist. It’s all a bit preachy too, especially if you don’t think that we all descended from Adam.

I hear from another Christian friend that there’s some rather dodgy religion in here too. I can understand why. The book portrays the Holy Trinity is a rather unusual way. Nothing wrong with that but the author’s made some very strange choices with the characters that he’s picked. He’s also unable to portray his character’s voices in a convincing way – just about all the speech in the book in indistinguishable between characters (author’s voice rather than the character’s) and it really spoiled the whole read for me.

Clearly this book wasn’t aimed at me. It has no hope of changing my opinion about the creation of mankind especially as it uses a very literal Christian view of Creation. It isn’t written well enough to engage me as a novel as I really didn’t care about any of the characters.

So, why do so many people rave about it?

Not my cup of tea

…and the Wheel turns

One of my favourite book series is The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordon. It was a monumentally long series of books – 12 in total – although Jordan sadly died before he could finish it. I’ve read the first ten and despite the tenth book being immensely dull I would love to finally get around to finding out how it all ends up.

I still need to read Knife of Dreams, the 11th in the series, but Jordan died before completing the final volume. Luckily for us Brandon Sanderson has been asked to finish it all off and this book, called A Memory of Light, will be released towards the end of the year.

To mark this event, and to jog our memories, Tor contributor Leigh Butler is reading all 11 books and commenting on each and every chapter in a series of posts over at Tor.com. This is a huge task – the first four entries are up already – but Leigh is very obviously passionate about the Wheel of Time (having already created the Wheel of Time FAQ) and she writes with wonderfully witty prose. I like her writing a lot and I’m enjoying her read-through very much.

I think I need to get hold of Knife of Dreams soon and get it read, if only to find out what happens to Egwene. In the meantime I’m going to repeat the advice that I gave to Obama for Brandon Sanderson:

Don’t fuck it up.

Many thanks for finishing off the series too.

Down On The Farm – Charles Stross

I seem to be in the mood for free short stories from Tor! After reading through, and thoroughly enjoying After The Coup by John Scalzi I’ve just read the other free story on the Tor site – Down on the Farm by Charles Stross.

I’ve not read anything by him before but I do have one of his books on a free PDF (via those lovely people at Tor) on my drive somewhere. I’m almost certainly going to have to read it very soon as this story was excellent.

It’s a little longer than Scalzi’s effort but still short enough at 36 pages. It visits an old universe of Stross’s that features some secret organisation called The Laundry. These black suiters deal with all sorts of otherworldly shenanigans, apparently, and this story involves a bit of advanced mathematics, 1960s computer systems and demonic possession of some description.

It’s funny and rather exciting too. The storyline is quite unexpected and satisfying. Read it if you have a spare 20 minutes or so.

After The Coup – John Scalzi

US Sci-Fi and Fantasy book publishers Tor have launched their new website recently and are celebrating this event with a couple of free stories.

The first of these is by one of my new favourite authors, John Scalzi. I really enjoyed his novel Old Man’s War and his US publisher, Tor, have persuaded him to write a short story set in the same universe. It features one of the main side-characters from that first novel, Harry, and can be downloaded in multiple formats, or just read on the webpage in plain text, right over HERE.

It’s very good. 24 pages of an amusing little episode where Harry gets to have his face punched in. It’s certainly not very serious stuff but it does set the tone for the novels. If you like this, and you probably will, then you’ll love the novels.

I really should get hold of The Ghost Brigades before too long. Thank you Tor for the free stuff, and thanks to John Scalzi for giving us the new story.

The Runes of the Earth by Stephen Donaldson

It’s been a long, long time since I read any of the Thomas Covenant novels. I started the original trilogy back in the mid-80s while I was supposed to be revising for my O-levels. I found all three books far more interesting and exciting than maths and physics, but despite my lack of revision I still managed to pass some of my exams.

The second trilogy similarly interrupted my A-levels two years later. Once again I somehow managed to pass my exams but I often wonder how well I would have done had I not been too busy enjoying the excellent writings of Stephen Donaldson.

The first six books in the Thomas Covenant saga are among my most favourite of all books. I was hopelessly drawn into the trials of The Land, even if the subject matter was often somewhat downbeat. Covenant was the ultimate anti-hero and unlikely subject for a fantasy series – a rapist novelist with leprosy and a mad wife.

The third chronicles seem certain to be a quadrilogy, the final book of four not being released until 2013. It seems an awfully long time to wait between books but the wait will be worth it – the first entry, Runes of the Earth, is just brilliant.

It takes a little while to get going. Linden Avery, doctor and healer of The Land in the previous trilogy, is the point of focus for this book. She’s been caring for Thomas Covenant’s ex-wife Joan while bringing up her adopted son Jeremiah. The story introduces Covenant’s son, Roger, and circumstances deteriorate in spectacular fashion returning Linden Avery to The Land.

It seems that Lord Foul has somehow transpired to capture Joan (with her wild magic inspiring white gold wedding ring) along with Linden’s son. Queue much misery, such is the way of Stephen Donaldson’s writings.

There are some astonishing scenes during Linden Avery’s search for her son. I can hardly wait to read the second book, Fatal Revenent, but I may wait until the paperback comes out. With the third and fourth books not yet published I may as well catch a few more novels before leaping back into the story, even if Donaldson did leave the storyline teetering on the brink of disaster/redemption in an extremely masterful way.

Donaldson’s prose is sometimes a little too wordy but his plotting and characterisations are quite wonderful. This novel is as good as anything else in the series and I can heartily recommend it.

Free Sci-Fi

Now that I’m getting back into reading again I’ve been pleased to see that so many publishers are releasing free copies of some of their books. I think this is a great way to get people to read authors’ works that they perhaps wouldn’t have done normally.

I’ve managed to find a few books here and there and I’ve just found two more. These are two short stories by Greg Egan and Ken Macleod that have been nominated for this years Hugo awards. You can download both stories as free PDFs.

I’ve heard of both authors but never actually read anything by them, so this is a good time to try them out. If I like them then my Amazon wishlist gets updated a little bit more.

The Portable Door by Tom Holt

I seem to have the habit of buying books when they’re cheap and then storing them, unread, on a shelf gathering dust. One of these books is The Portable Door by Tom Holt.

Tom is one of those authors that I’ve been meaning to try out for years. I love Terry Pratchett‘s stuff and I figured that Tom Holt would have a similar style. I was wrong about the style, although both write humorous fantasy novels, but I thoroughly enjoyed the novel nonetheless.

The Portable Door introduces us to Holt’s inept hero Paul Carpenter.  Paul isn’t really very good at anything, not even nomination whist. He has few friends and no job and applies for a post at JW Wells where he meets a Thin Girl called Sophie, who has plenty of her own problems. Neither of them know very much about the company and both are surprised to be recruited.

Initially they’re set to work sorting out spreadsheets into date order. Oddly enough this is very similar to my very first proper job. I worked for a credit company called Club 24 and my job was to sort out credit applications into numerical order. It was tedious work and this is how Paul and Sophie find their new job.

The thing is, neither of them have the gumption to ask what these sheets are for, or even ask what JW Wells do. In time Paul finds that he has the knack for finding bauxite deposits in the Australian desert and that he’s fallen hopelessly in love with the sullen, skinny girl he works with.

All sorts of bizarre incidents start happening. Why is there a new receptionist every morning and how did this large piece of sword-embedded stone end up in Paul’s bedsit? What are all these strange items in the store-room and why does the stapler keep appearing in all sorts of strange places?

Tom Holt writes with a very dry wit. I found myself chuckling all the way through the book even though I had know idea where the plot was taking me for at least the first 200 pages but there’s plenty of interest injected into Paul and Sophie’s initially mundane existence. It’s not even remotely Pratchett-esq but it is very funny in parts.

We’re gradually introduced to more and more weird goings-on that reveal the nature of JW Wells business. You’re not really given much idea about what the whole point of the book is until near the end but it’s all held together beautifully and the ending is very satisfactory, with more Paul Carpenter-related books to come.

It didn’t really keep me gripped but it was a very entertaining read. Tom Holt has plenty of ideas and most of them work wonderfully well but you do start to think that the book is meandering around a bit too much in the early stages. However, the constant gags and hilarious similes kept my interest going all the way through the 400 or so pages.

Well worth seeking out, even if you’re not a fantasy reader.