Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Alcoholic Musings

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book combines two of my favorite topics -- alcoholism and writers. And yet, I was disappointed.

Olivia Laing picked six writers who struggled with alcohol addiction: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. Laing traveled around the United States to visit their old haunts, analyzed their writings about drinking, and mixed it all up with some scientific research into alcoholism. 

"I wanted to know what made a person drink and what it did to them. More specifically I wanted to know why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself ... There have been many books and articles that revel in describing exactly how grotesque and shameful the behaviour of alcoholic writers can be. That wasn't my intention. What I wanted was to discover how each of these men ... experienced and thought about their addiction." 

What I found most interesting were the drinking stories and quotes she included from the writers themselves or from those who knew them. However, there are only eight chapters in the book, and instead of focusing on one writer in a chapter, she jumped between the six men so often that I found it jarring. For example, just when I would be getting in the groove about Cheever, she'd suddenly switch to a Fitzgerald anecdote. 

I think my favorite section discussed the friendship/rivalry between Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and how Hemingway would look down on Scott for not being able to hold his drink. Hem wrote: "Alcohol was a straight poison to Scott instead of a food." Of course, we know that alcohol is a poison, but Hem didn't see it that way.

There was also a strong section on Tennessee Williams and his time in New Orleans. Laing, who is British, said she "found it almost impossible to piece New Orleans together. It wasn't like any place I'd ever visited, though at times it reminded me in its rich confusion of Addis Ababa, especially at night."

Aside from the New Orleans section, the travelogue portions were the weakest part of the book. Laing took an Amtrak train for much of her journey across the States, and she included far too many pointless observations and random conversations with strangers that had no bearing on the narrative. 

It seems like Laing was trying to mix three different types of writing: scientific research into alcoholism, a travelogue around the U.S., and a critical analysis of literature and letters, but the final concoction was flat. 

Note: The title refers to a line in Tennessee Williams' play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," when Brick, the alcoholic husband, says he's "takin' a little short trip to Echo Spring," which was a nickname for a liquor cabinet that housed a brand of bourbon.

Stealer of Flesh

Stealer of FleshStealer of Flesh by William King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When an ancient amphora containing a demon is stolen, Kormak tracks the thieves down until one remains. Staggering out of a blizzard, Kormak finds himself at a fortified manor where both the last thief and the amphora are guests....

I knew William King from Gotrek & Felix: The First Omnibus so I was pretty excited when this popped up on my Freebooksy email one morning.

Basically, a body-stealing demon gets loosed upon the world and Kormak crosses an entire continent to slay it. The story is told in five smaller tales, all linked, much like some of the old Conan paperbacks this was inspired by.

King's prose is a cut above it's media fiction roots. Much like the Gotrek and Felix books, there's a good dose of humor interspersed with the gratuitous carnage.

Kormak is much deeper than the Conan ripoff I originally had him pegged for. He's a member of a religious order dedicated to fighting the forces of darkness and doesn't have a great love of wizards.

Still, if you're not a fan of the way the Sword and Sorcery subgenre of fantasy treats its women, you aren't going to find it to your liking. The female characters are largely interchangeable.

While he's not going to unseat Joe Abercrombie or any other of fantasy's current juggernauts, William King delivers the goods in Stealer of Flesh. It's bloody good fun. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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9 Tales of Henghis Hapthorn

9 Tales of Henghis Hapthorn9 Tales of Henghis Hapthorn by Matthew Hughes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

9 Tales of Henghis Hapthorn is a collection of tales about Henghis Hapthorn, Old Earth's best freelance discriminator. There are nine of them.

First, these tales occur in Matthew Hughes' Archonate Universe, in an age just before the time of Jack Vance's Dying Earth (or a very similar setting different enough to avoid litigation), an age where magic is slowly replacing science. Secondly, this would have been great to have before reading the three Henghis Hapthorn novels.

The Immersion: An old enemy hires Henghis to find out who dumped goo on his head and left him hairless.

The Immersion was a good way to reintroduce me to Henghis' sometimes confusing world. The tales are told in the first person and he talks like the Sherlock Holmes of thousands of centuries in the future. The mystery was fairly complicated, as Hapthorn's usually are, but still satisfying and somewhat hilarious.

Will it be the best tale in the collection? It would be premature to say...

Mastermindless: All the men of Old Earth have been rendered penniless, unattractive, and dull, and it's up to a penniless, unattractive, and dull Henghis Hapthorn to unravel what happened.

This was the first Henghis Hapthorn story published and the rise of magic is present in abundance. Where did everyone's looks, money, and intelligence go? Henghis beats his suddenly less effective head against the wall until a pattern emerges. Quite entertaining.

Falberoth's Ruin: Who wants Falberoth, Old Earth's biggest crime lord dead? Pretty much everyone so Hapthorn has the unenviable tasks of narrowing it down to just one suspect.

This one has the Agatha Christie ending where the suspects are gathered. Hapthorn is quite a character and I have to say the short stories are as enjoyable as the books. It's a pity it's not easy to read one without the other.

Relics of the Thim: A known charlatan has apparently figured out a way to snatch objects from the past. But everyone knows time travel is impossible. Or is it? That's what Henghis Hapthorn intends to find out!

Henghis didn't play much of a part in solving this mystery. His relationship with his Integrator continues to degrade. I'll have to consult the introduction but I think this story found its way into one of the Hapthorn novels because I think I've read it before.

Finding Sajessarian: Adventurer/criminal Sajessarian hires Henghis Hapthorn to try to find him. Is he up to the challenge?

This one was a little strange but very amusing. I like that Hughes isn't afraid to show Hapthorn isn't as brilliant as he thinks at times.

Thwarting Jabbi Gloond: Jabbi Gloond takes over Gresh Olabian's house and Henghis resolves to get to the bottom of things.

This was another odd mystery that almost had an Agatha Christie ending. I'm not sure if its in the appropriate chronological place in the collection, though.

The Gist Hunter: While adjusting to the profound changes in his integrator, Henghis attempts to clear the name of Turgut Therobar.

Turns out Turgut was kind of a bastard. I found the parts about the integrator adusting to life as something resembling a lemur rather than a machine way more interesting.

Sweet Trap: Henghis Hapthorn is hired to find a man who has fled Old Earth for parts unknown. Fortunately, aiding him are his Integrator, now a lemur-like grinnet, and Osk Rievor, the intuitive part of his brain that has taken on both a personality and a name.

This one also feels like something I've read before, especially since I don't forget names like Tabanooch.

Fullbrim's Finding: Fullbrim goes missing and Hapthorn is at it again!

Hapthorn is in fine form in this, what I believe is his last outing to date.

Overall Thoughts: While the stories probably weren't meant to be read consecutively, I really liked this collection. As I said earlier, it would have been great to have access to all the short stories while I was reading the three Henghis Hapthorn novels.

Hughes' writing evokes Doyle, Vance, and P.G. Wodehouse in equal measure. The mysterious, while not solveable by the reader, are very entertaining.

The later stories are easier to fit into the chronology of the series. For instance, Osk Rievor has become a second person by this point, which I believe happened at the end of the second book.

I don't know how accessible they'd be to someone with no previous background with Hughes' Archonate setting, however. Still, free on the Kindle, they were well worth my time. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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