Friday, October 30, 2009

The Keeper, Idylls of the King

Sarah Langan's The Keeper is a horror novel that doesn't quite succeed, and I'm musing about why. Part of the problem, I think, is that you can tell from early on which characters she likes, and you know that they'll come out of everything unscathed. Other writers have the good and bad suffering alike.

But it's not quite so simple -- I loved Heart-Shaped Box, and I think there's never any doubt that the protagonist will prevail, and it's pretty unlikely that his girlfriend will die. I think the difference is that Joe Hill performs some narrative sleight-of-hand to keep you from seeing it too closely -- Jude gets injured pretty severely, and his employee dies right near the beginning. Langan, on the other hand, really pushes it in your face, paradoxically by having more characters die. There's a section about 2/3 of the way through where about 10 characters die in horrible ways, but it's not scary because they're mostly ad hoc characters -- they don't really exist outside of that chapter, so it's hard to care what happens to them. More importantly, it drives home the fact that Langan doesn't want to take out any characters that she's spent any time on developing.

I'm in the middle of listening to Tennyson's Idylls of the King, so I don't have a complete opinion of it, but I wanted to note something that I like. It's mostly the story of various of Arthur's knights, and Arthur doesn't feature heavily in most of the stories so far. This gives Tennyson a chance to mention Guinevere's affair with Lancelot in passing in the stories, so that we get a sense of how long the affair is actually going on, and how pervasive it was (as various knights avoid thinking about it, or as Guinevere and Lancelot cover it up) . I think that versions which focus on the triangle never really give you that sense.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Smiley's People, Berlin Game, His Majesty's Dragon

Coincidentally, two spy novels this time around. Audible was having a big sale, and I've been thinking about re-reading Smiley's People for a while. I've also been kicking around the idea of reading some Deighton, since he's in much the same sort of espionage as leCarre.

LeCarre has two modes that most of his writing falls into. There are the suspenseful novels and detective-y, more character-based novels. (These things are relative, of course -- even at his most suspenseful, leCarre isn't writing James Bond novels). The former ones are books like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Night Manager, while the latter include books like Tinker, Tailor and A Murder of Quality. It certainly isn't the case that one style is better than the other -- in my examples above, Spy Who Came in and Tinker, Tailor are among the best espionage books around, and the other two are not so good.

Smiley's People is at the extreme end of the detective-y side (although I suppose Murder of Quality is arguably more so, but it's a lousy novel, so I don't count it). There is a little bit of suspense when KGB agents try to arrest one of the minor characters in Paris, but most of teh action happens off-stage. Instead, we follow George Smiley around as he follows up the death of one of the Circus's informants against the wishes of his superiors. As the novel progresses, Smiley gets closer and closer to Karla, his nemesis in Moscow Centre, but le Carre makes the process deliberately anti-climactic. I say deliberately because le Carre has shown that he can do suspense as well as anybody, and so I think that he decided not to, here.

Indeed, le Carre has subverted a number of conventions in Smiley's People. For one, he never actually confronts Karla. When Karla finally defects to the West, he crosses over the border and gets into a car. In a sort of epilogue, we here that Smiley may have debriefed him, but we never get to hear any of it. Further, Smiley ends up getting to Karla through Karla's daughter, not because of Karla's fanaticism, or because of some mis-step that Karla made in a plan against the West. Lastly, it's not even clear what this victory means -- by the end of novel, the Circus is still in disarray, and it's not clear that this will put it back on the right track.

Len Deighton's Berlin Game is treading the same ground as le Carre's work, in having a spy novel that's as much about office politics as about world politics. He's not as good as le Carre's peak period, but neither is le Carre any more (see my discussion of A Most Wanted Man.) Berlin Game is about Bernard Samson, an agent now past his prime, who used to work out of Berlin. When one of their sources in East Berlin wants to cross over to the West, Bernie is sent in to persuade him to stay, while trying to watch out for a KGB mole in the deparment.

I enjoyed this book, but very much because of the last 1/3 or so, maybe even last 1/4. Up until there, the book errs on the side of realism, and we're treated to endless scenes of Bernie worrying if his wife is unfaithful, if he's going to get a promotion, complaining about dinner parties, and so on. Realism is great, but Bernie's not such a likable character that we want to spend that kind of time with him. By the end of the book, though, he has a number of illusions about himself punctured, so I think I'll give the next book in the trilogy a shot.

A quick note that I read Her Majesty's Dragon, but I don't have much to say about it. I think it'd be hugely appealing to fans of dragons (so I've recommended it to Moshe) and fans of Napoleonic wars historical fiction, but I don't fall into either category. Also, the dialogue was annoying -- not quite right, but not really modern either. I'd love to run into another writer like Susanna Clark, who really seems to get the dialog right (to my untrained ear, at least).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Starfish, Heart-shaped Box, The Lake, The Blonde

A few more books from my recent spate...

I finally finished Mizuumi (The Lake) by Kawabata. It's an odd novel, not really unified in any way, and without much of a conclusion. As the novel progresses we learn more about Ginpei, the main character, but in the end he's still something of an enigma. I loved the way Kawabata moves around in time seamlessly, one second in Ginpei's childhood, the next in his time as a school-teacher. Still, this is a hard novel to love on the whole -- Ginpei is completely unsympathetic, and there's no plot to hang your hat on either.

Speaking of books with unsympathetic characters and minimal plots, I finished Starfish, by Peter Watts, recently. The main character is certainly unsympathetic, since the story is about people who live deep underwater maintaining geothermal energy stations. The book's main conceit is that only very disturbed people can live down there, so almost all the major characters are borderline psychotic. There's a plot that shows up at the end of the book, but it's almost perfunctory -- it seems that Watts got through 70% of the book, then decided that nothing had happened yet, and he added a plot (although I understand that it features heavily in the sequel).

Having said all those negative things about the book, I must say that I enjoyed it considerably. Watts's portraits of the disturbed characters are gripping, as we see them gradually acclimatizing to life underwater, and realizing that they don't really want to go back.

I also read Duane Swierczynski's The Blonde. I just checked amazon to see how to spell his name, and I see that most of his writing has been for comic books like Cable. I think that's really the only way to approach this novel -- it's like a prose version of a pulpy comic book. A very fast read (I think it took me all of 6 hours to read), not much to think about when you're done, but a lot of fun while it's going on.

Lastly, I finished Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box, which I thought was a brilliant horror novel. People have made a big deal about the fact that Hill is Stephen King's son, but his writing doesn't owe much to his father. King can write psychological horror (as he showed in The Shining), but he also likes to go for the gross-out (as he put it in Danse Macabre). In this novel, a man is haunted by the ghost of a former lover's step-father. He wants revenge because his daughter committed suicide after being dumped, and is trying to get out hero to kill himself. The ghost can't directly affect the physical world, so most of the horror is watching him trying to manipulate Jude (the main character) into killing himself and his current girlfriend. As Jude tries to get rid of his ghost, he ends up growing up -- in some ways this is a coming-of-age novel, even though Jude is in his 40s.

But the main thing that blew me away is how relentlessly tense the novel is. The ghost is a constant presence, and even moments of relaxation are suddenly shattered.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Exit Lines, Child's Play, Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden, Dead Sleep

With the various Jewish holidays, I've been able to polish off a few books in the last couple of weeks.

For whatever reason, I decided to download the next two installments of Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe series, Exit Lines and Child's Play. The former was excellent; the latter was very good. Exit Lines hits just about every note perfectly. The three deaths in the story happen to three old men, and this ties in thematically with the aging of Pascoe's father-in-law, and his first signs of senility. It's rare that detective novels manage to parallel the private lives of the detectives with the mystery. In addition, Hill keeps the three investigations separate very skilfully -- it's almost like watching a juggler in action (and when a fourth investigation rears its head, he still manages to keep them all clear for the reader). Lastly, we finally get to see some real development of Dalziel's character.

The only negative I can think of comes from this being a book in a series. Dalziel is under investigation for manslaughter, and it seems like he could be on the take as well, but there's never any real suspense around those issues, since we know he's got to continue for the rest of the series.

Child's Play is very good, but, in the end, is very conventional. I feel like Hill was setting up future events -- we see some cracks in Pascoe and Ellie's relationship, and Pascoe is starting to be less of a whiz kid, and having to face up to that. We also see how political Dalziel can really be when manipulating his superiors (leading to one of the funniest scenes I've read in any mystery). But you can see Hill pulling the strings -- one or two too many coincidences, characters with guilty secrets, and so on. Standard fare for a mystery novel, but Exit Lines had me hoping for better.

Catherynne Valente seems to have tried to see how far she could take the story-in-a-story concept, and the result is In the Night Gardens. In this book (it's hard to call it a novel), a character will, say, set off on a quest to find a foozle. Along the way, he meets another character, who says that she encountered the foozle years ago, and here's her story. In her story, she runs into someone else, who tells his story, and so on. As various stories finish, she pops back out to the outer stories, moves them forward a bit, then back to a new inner story. As a formal experiment, I found this fascinating. There are rarely more than 3 pages in a row from one character's story, and yet there's never a sense of treading water -- each story is interesting, and there's constant forward movement. Her writing is gorgeous as well, changing voices for the different characters' stories easily. The one thing that was missing was a sense of emotional involvement, and that's a big lack in a book so long (almost 500 pages). Still, I'm looking forward to reading her follow-up book.

Greg Iles's Dead Sleep is a great example of why it can be so hard to write a good mystery/thriller. Most of the book is very good, setting up a great character in the middle of a scary situation. But the last few chapters, where the villain is revealed, were a complete let-down. I think there's no other genre where a relatively few pages can so quickly retroactively sink what led up to them. But in a thriller, if the climax isn't good, the rest just falls apart retroactively, so to speak.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Hammerhead Ranch Hotel, Gone to her Death, The Guards

A bit of a dry patch this week... I read Tim Dorsey's Hammerhead Ranch Hotel, and it was pretty unsatisfying. I've got many reasons for not liking it that I could pontificate on, but it really just comes down to not having any likable characters. The obvious contrast is to Donald Westlake, who made a career out of humorous crime novels. But he realized that if you're going to have a novel full of people doing stupid and illegal things, their should be at least one sympathetic character, even if he's also doing stupid and illegal things.

For example, Westlake's Dortmunder gang is never violent, as well as being spectacularly unsuccessful in their various schemes. Dorsey's Serge Storms, on the other hand, ties someoneto the ends of a drawbridge when it's going to open. Even if that person is total scum, there's a point where things aren't really funny any more. (Obviously, to me -- Dorsey seems to have plenty of fans!).

Gone to her Death was a very solid puzzle mystery, and I really like the relationships between the major characters. I don't know what it is about British writers -- they really seem to work nicely with the language in a way most Americans don't bother with. McGown has a lot of nice similes, but unobtrusive. She also has a great narrative voice, just a touch of occasional snark/cynicism. Same with Reginald Hill (whose Exit Lines I'm in the middle of right now, and which is so far excellent) and P.D. James. Even Peter Robinson and Peter Lovesey, of whom I'm not a big fan. Whereas faux-British Deborah Crombie or Elizabeth George just don't have it.

I also read Ken Bruen's The Guards, and it was OK, but it felt like I'd already read it all before. P.I. who used to be a policeman -- check. Main character an alcoholic -- check. He reforms, but a particularly gruesome crime knocks him off the wagon -- check. Short punchy sentences -- check. It's not that I hated the book, but life is too short to read retreads -- I doubt I'll pick up any of Bruen's other books.