Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Dead Yard

I finished The Dead Yard this morning while feeding the baby -- I think I'm going to be going through audiobooks a lot faster these days...

Although I mentioned in my previous post about The Dead Yard that the book seemed to start as a farce, it certainly doesn't end as one.  Michael infiltrates an IRA splinter group, and at the beginning they're mostly pathetic.  There's a funny scene where they rob a bank, but all of the big bills are in the safe, and the tellers are telling the gang that they ought to wait around for the manager to return.  It teeters on the edge of violence, but ends calmly.

The gang's next attempt is also a big screw-up, but this time McKinty ratchets up the tension a bit by turning it into a hostage situation, and we see that even these screw-ups can create a situation where innocents can die.  From that point, the game turns serious, until the exciting finale.

I'm not really sure what I think of this novel vis-a-vis the first one.  On the one hand, there's no question that most of my issues with the first one have gone away here.  The plot is less straight-forward, and right until the end there I didn't know how it was going to end.  (Obviously Michael's going to get away, but what about Kit or Peter?)  Also, in Dead I Well May Be, Michael was strongly developed, but the other characters not as much.  Here, Kit stands out as a great character, but on top of that, even a minor character like Jacky is more nuanced than, say, Fergal or Andy were in the first book.

On the other hand, there's a sort of macho posturing here that I didn't like as much.  In the first book, Michael would say that he'd use his army training to sneak into some place, but then follow that up immediately with something like "who am I kidding?  I was in that course for two days and then kicked out."  Even in the coda to that book, in which he's much more self-confident, there's a sort of self-deprecatoriness that I found appealing.  Here, we get Michael saying things like "I swear that I will avenge you, Samantha," but with no self-deprecatory follow-up, and I found myself missing it.

All these differences point to one larger fact, that this book is a big departure from the first novel, and I really like that risk-taking.  McKinty could've gone back to do another story about Michael in the big bad city, but instead he struck out in a very different direction; I always think it's cool when authors do that, especially when the new work is as satisfying as this one ultimately is.

As a final though, I think Michael ducks his own responsibility for the way events unfurled.  At one point, he escalates the situation, hoping for a big score, and then sort of plays down the aftermath.  I don't know if McKinty glosses over that because he wants to make Michael a bit of an unreliable narrator or if he didn't want to make Michael too unappealing, but I think it's important.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Finished book 18!  Whew.  It contains one of the most famous scenes in the Iliad, the description of Achilles's shield.  The shield has depictions of everyday life, showing a harvest festival, a trial, a dance, and so on. Like everything else in the Iliad, it's on a huge scale -- almost 200 lines.  It's hard to imagine it even fitting into a smaller work -- it would just dominate the surroundings -- so it seems like it's been created just for this poem.  So, even though so much of the poem is made up of formular lines, I think that this scene points to the work of a single hand.

The poetry itself is gorgeous.  It's interesting to see the sort of images that are normally part of the similes take center stage -- instead of having Diomedes compared to a lion attacking cattle, the lions themselves here become the focus.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sharpe's Tiger, Pictures of Perfection, Lizardmen Island, The Dead Yard

After evoking Dickens in Recalled to Life, Reginald Hill moves on to Austen in Pictures of Perfection. Considered purely as a novel, Pictures is more successful. As much as I enjoyed Recalled to Life, Hill had to stretch a bit to get Dalziel to New York, whereas Pictures is set very firmly in Yorkshire. Through the course of the novel, we hear about Enscombe's traditions and history, and it's largely a very self-contained world. By the end of the novel, even as Enscombe goes through significant changes, none of them will impinge on the outside world -- Dalziel leaves with no arrests to make, or even any crimes to report; Pascoe's life with Ellie is left unchanged. Instead, Hill focuses on village life, using Sgt Wield as a catalyst to speed up events, and as our window into this insular village.

On the other hand, Hill invites comparisons to Austen -- every epigraph comes from her letters, the opening line is a pastiche of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, and, of course, the plot depends on entailments and the descent of property, which was a mainstay of her work. Unfortunately, I think that Hill is less successful here. His natural bent is more Dickensian than Austenian, tending more to broad humor. The ending, in which everything is resolved neatly by sudden legal maneuvering, is a great example of writing that's more Dickens than Austen.

Still, when I put the Austen allusions out of my head, I feel that this is one of the strongest entries in the Dalziel/Pascoe series.

On a totally different tack, I've been tackling Bernard Cornwell's "Richard Sharpe" series. Normally, I like to read a series chronologically in the order they were published, but it's next to impossible to find a list like that for Sharpe (and I don't feel like comparing (c) dates on each book), so I've gone to the book that's set the earliest, Sharpe's Tiger, even though it was written 17th or something. Sharpe is a private in the British Army during the conquest of India, serving under Colonel Wellsley (later the Duke of Wellington). By this point in his writing, Cornwell obviously has a good grasp on who Sharpe is, and he's presented vividly -- very smart, loyal to his friends, and not particularly scrupulous about his methods.

More interesting than Sharpe himself, though, is the setting. Cornwell has obviously done a slew of research into the period, and it's a great glimpse into history. He has a little historical note at the end about which characters and events are real (which is also forthright about the Cornwell's making up the central event of the battle of Seringpatam), and many of the real ones are so well-integrated into the story that I'd thought they were his own inventions.

I've also been reading a Japanese collection of mystery stories, and I've just finished the second one, about a man and his wife who are trapped by aboriginal "lizard men" on an unexplored island. It's a great example of how setting and humor can overcome a dismal plot. The man and his wife are to be sacrificed to the lizard woman goddess (there's an untranslatable pun in there), but when her cave door is opened, it turns out she's dead and mummified. Shock all around, and the man's wife volunteers to find the killer in exchange for their freedom. The actual details of the solution are pretty dumb (as I think most locked-room mysteries are), but I enjoyed the story anyway, because the narrator's voice is so funny -- he's completely bemused by the whole thing, and it's played very deadpan.

The first story was not so good, because it also depended on a silly plot device (in that case, a hotel in Alaska built on an iceberg which breaks away from the mainland, so the narrator's sense of direction is all screwed up because the sun is coming in from the wrong side(!). I kid you not). I really hope that the third gets away from the trick plots -- even when it's okay, like in the lizardmen story, it'd be better if the plot were stronger.

I've also started listening to Adrian McKinty's The Dead Yard. I'm about a quarter of the way in, and I gather from the foreshadowing that it's going to turn out tragic, but for now I'm mostly finding it funny. Early on, Michael is recruited by MI6 for a hair-brained attempt to infiltrate a splinter IRA cell, and ends up on the scene of a failed assassination attempt. I don't know if McKinty intended it to be funny, but I could only think of that line that "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." There was a tense shoot-out scene in the first book, Dead I Well May Be, and here we have one assassin with a broken weapon and another whose shots go wildly off into the walls, while Michael and Kit make their escape.

So far, I'm enjoying the book -- Michael's turns of phrase are as funny as ever, and I'm enjoying his interaction with Kit. Looking forward to hearing the rest of the book. (Though Doyle can't do an American accent :-( ).

On a personal note, it was amusing for me to note that Michael arrives in Boston on the same month and year that I returned to Boston, although to rather different fates...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Rain Dogs, Tales of the Three Hemispheres, A Pelican at Blandings

Rain Dogs, by Sean Doolittle, is a nice story about a man's redemption wrapped around a fairly average story about drug trafficking. The beginning of the novel didn't exactly bode well -- Tom Coleman is an alcoholic newspaperman from Chicago who inherits his grandfather's canoe rental place in the small town he grew up in. He's written well, but the whole alcoholic detective thing is a bit played out by now, I thought.

But over the course of the novel, Tom begins to confront his demons and starts detoxing. Since this is a stand-alone novel, we're left with some sense of hope that Tom has started his recovery process, which is a nice change from series novels where the alcoholic just can't kick the habit. The actual crime part of the story is pretty much by the numbers -- there's a drug-trafficking ring near the canoe rental place, Tom gets involved, yada yada yada. But fortunately it only takes up a small part of the novel -- I think I was a third of the way through before that stuff even begins to be important.

I've written a lot about Dunsany recently, and I just finished off another of his collections of short stories, Tales of Three Hemispheres. When I wrote about The Sword of Welleran, I was a bit worried that I was getting tired of Dunsany. Fortunately, Three Hemispheres is a more interesting collection. Sword had some stories that really went nowhere, really more musings than stories, but Hemispheres has nothing like that. In addition, it's got more range -- there's one funny story about a strange overcoat with possibly magical properties, there's a ghost story, and so on. Lastly, it doesn't have the tics that Sword has -- the narrator isn't inserted willy-nilly into every story, and where he is inserted (in the last three stories), he has a good story reason to be there.

A Pelican at Blandings is Wodehouse almost at the top of his form. He was getting on in years when he wrote it (I think he was 88), but the wit is as sharp as ever. The plot gets away from him once in a while (one character seems to exist only to push another down the stairs at a crucial moment, and the coincidences aren't as well organized as in his earlier books), but it's still a great entry in the Blandings books.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Sword of Welleran, Waiting for the End of the World

Dunsany was one of the creators of modern fantasy, and The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories benefits and suffers in about equal measure from his being among the first. One of his great strengths is that he moves around effortlessly within subgenres -- any given story might be a sword-and-sorcery tale, an allegory, a fairy tale, or what have you. He also has an ear for how his sentences sound -- his sentences are resonant without the ornateness of, say, E. R. Eddison.

At the same time, some of his pet tricks have become cliche by now, and grate after a while. For example, the way in which inverts he his sentences can frustrating be after a while. In addition, he has some clumsy contrivances which fantasy has largely grown out of, like the way he specifies that he (the narrator) saw this story in a dream, or was watching for a hidden place, or something like that. Even his own later fiction like The King of Elfland's Daughter doesn't have this problem, and I can imagine it was something that he came to realize was unnecessary.

The stories themselves are a mixed bag, not just in genre terms as I mentioned above, but in quality as well. The title story hits a great emotional high point as the citizens of the city, inspired by the ghosts of heroes past, take up arms against the barbarians and repel them, only to fall into deep mourning that so many good people have died, and to reject the values of their erstwhile heroes. Other stories really drag -- Dunsany seems to have a deep streak of pastoralism (as Tolkien does later), and the meditations on the virtues of the countryside vis-a-vis the city get old very quickly, even if they're disguised as stories. Ultimately, it's fun to go back and read the "classics", especially when they're as short as this one -- the whole book is maybe 50 pages (hard to tell page counts on the kindle).

One of Andrew Taylor's psychological novels caught my eye in the bookstore, but it was the middle of a trilogy, so I decided to look for the first book at the library. They didn't have it, but they did have one of his first books, Waiting for the End of the World. I took it out, not knowing quite what to expect and ended up having a blast with it. The story concerns Dougal, who seems to have gotten sucked in to the unsavory circle of a certain Hanbury (this all happened in Taylor's first book, Caroline Minuscule, which the library unfortunately didn't have, so I'm guessing a bit), and gets suckered into doing some spy work for Hanbury. Hanbury is trying to infiltrate an arms-smuggling ring for his own nefarious purposes, and the hapless Dougal ends up trying to infiltrate a castle in secret, working for the FBI and CIA, and so on, while trying to hang on to his moral center. All in good fun, and, even if the psychological novels aren't as good, I think I'll try to at least scoop up the rest of his thrillers.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Shape of Water, Ivanhoe

With one thing and another, I had a fair amount of time for reading over the New Year break. I've decided to split my posting into a few parts, because otherwise it will become one long tl;dr.

It took longer than I thought to finish Ivanhoe, since I didn't have much time for listening, but I finished it yesterday morning, and I thought it ended quite well. The ending has come in for some criticism for being pretty unromantic, with Ivanhoe marrying Lady Rowena and Rebecca going off to Spain, but I'm not sure that's true or even much of a criticism.

We've seen since the beginning that Ivanhoe is in love with Rowena and that the feeling is mutual. The idea that he would instead marry Rebecca only comes about, I think, because Rebecca ends up being such a stronger character than the relatively colorless Rowena -- Scott doesn't devote much time to Rowena, because we already know that Ivanhoe will marry her if he can, whereas it almost feels like he (Scott) became more attached to Rebecca as the story continues.

One other thing that struck me was Scott's portrayal of Richard. He comes across as a hail-fellow-well-met, and I was grousing a bit, because of course Richard was actually a terrible king, but then Scott threw in little gibes about how it was Richard's love of riding around like a knight errant and other sorts of romantic chivalry that made his rule such a mess -- he'd rather do those things than spend time building up institutions and the life of the people -- and I thought it was a good way to make Richard heroic in the story while acknowledging his less than stellar kingship.

I also started a new detective series by Andrea Camilleri, this one set in Sicily. The Shape of Water was a wonderful novel in every way except for the actual detective parts. The characters all seemed to jump off the page, the story was humorous in the right places, Montalban, the lead character, is very appealing, and so on. The only problem is that all his detecting doesn't actually lead anywhere; everything proceeds pretty much as if he weren't there. The victim's nephew exacts revenge on the murderer, then commits suicide, end of story. There's never a role for Montalban to do anything.

Still, the characters and setting were so interesting I'm looking forward to trying to next one in the series, hoping that Camilleri's plotting has improved.