Monday, June 22, 2009

Rainfall, Florida Roadkill

This weekend was one for mindless crime novels, and it taught me yet again that there are vast differences between good mindless and lousy mindless novels.

Florida Roadkill is a crazy romp of a novel, a caper story on meth. There are something like a dozen characters chasing after a bag containing $5 million, and only the people who actually have the money have no idea that they're carrying $5 million in the trunk of their car. Most of the dozen villains die in one ironic way or another, sometimes at each others hands, and it's general hilarity all the way through, partly because there are sympathetic characters as such.

Rainfall wants to be a high-octane thriller about an assassin who learns the error of his ways, but is embroiled too deeply into evil plots to walk away. But the stock characters (the assassin with a heart of gold, the brilliant hacker, the evil government functionary) render the whole thing ultra predictable instead.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Daniel Silva, Reliquary, Time and the Gods

I've been picking out kindle books to take on vacation, and one of the frustrating things is that if you want to start a new series, the first book(s) are not always kindle-ized. So I got out Daniel Silva's first two Gabriel Allon books from the library, as well as Reliquary, the sequel to Relic (which I wrote about in my previous entry).

Reliquary was a total dud. The only good thing was that I didn't take it on vacation and find out that I couldn't get through it.

The two Gabriel Allon books were decent espionage/suspense novels, although reviews unfairly seem to hype Silva as the next le Carre. I think that does Silva a disservice, aside from the fact that he's not as skillful a writer as le Carre -- he's not really working in the same territory. Le Carre writes about people with a fairly ordinary skillset; they may be good at languages, or very clever, but they can't single-handedly infiltrate a heavily-guarded compound or kill 4 people with their bare hands. Silva is writing about a skilled assassin.

I was going to write that le Carre is more realistic, but I'm not sure that's the case. There are certainly some small number of very skilled operatives out there, and Silva's actual plots are not of the over-the-top save the world variety, especially in The English Assassin. Silva is working more in Frederick Forsyth or Len Deighton's territories, and he's a very skilled practitioner in that area.

I also finished Time and the Gods, one of the first books I picked up for the kindle. It's by Lord Dunsany, and contains more stories in his Pegana mythos (although "mythos" sounds very grand and unified, and these stories are not really unified). In general, I'm quite a Dunsany fan -- I like The King of Elfland's Daughter, loved The Charwoman's Shadow, and mostly like his short stories. But these stories were very much of one note -- the gods are at best malignly neglectful, but if you choose to defy them or claim they don't exist, they'll punish you. A few of the stories are witty -- his description of famine as a creature that drinks all of the water from the soil and the air, for example, was really memorable. But as a whole, I found it too repetitive.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Judas Unchained, Relic, The French Lieutenant's Woman

After my glowing comments on Pandora's Star, it's almost embarrassing to write about how much I hated the follow-up, Judas Unchained. What makes it particularly galling is that many of things that I praised in the first novel turned out to be particularly irritating in the second.

Hamilton continues to provide a full sense of place, and his characters continue to give us a panoramic sense of the universe. The problem here is that the tempo of the plot in Judas Unchained has sped up considerably -- the full extent of the alien threat becomes clear in the first 100 pages -- but the writing continues at the same snail's pace. One of the climactic scenes of the novel is pages of stuff about a guy trying to control a hang-glider. Ironically, it's more or less a repeat of a scene that happens early in Pandora's Star, where there's almost nothing riding on the outcome; the second time around should have been much punchier and to the point; unfortunately, that was symptomatic of the whole book -- scenes that should've been quick and exciting just dragged.

Relic, on the other hand, is quick and exciting, if ultimately completely shallow. But once in a while it's nice to read something mindless but competently written, to see the workmanship that goes into a good thriller.

On the heavy side, I also finished listening to Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, which is an odd mash-up of Victorian and post-modern sensibilities. Aside from the story itself, which is set in Victorian England, Fowles gives us digressions on the sexual mores, the status of servants, the falling of the upper class, and so on. But he also does things like inserting himself into the story, giving us two endings, and so on. I found it to be very tastefully done, and the writing was gorgeous. I hope to write a bit more about this fascinating novel in my next post.