Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Venus in Copper, Academ's Fury

It's been a busy couple of weeks, so not much time for reading.

Following up The Catiline Conspiracy, I decided to try a Roman mystery by a different author, Lindsey David.  Her novels are set a little bit later, in the time of Vespasian, but it's still the time of the high Roman Empire.  Overall, the book didn't do anything for me.  Davis has obviously done her research; there are a lot of details about Roman food, housing, and so on.  But the characters felt like modern Britons playing in a meticulously detailed set -- they never felt to me like people from another, somewhat alien, culture.

I haven't finished Jim Butcher's Academ's Fury yet, but it's another fun popcorn novel.  Lots of excitement and heart-stopping moments, and Butcher is just good enough to keep his plot under control.  He'll never win any writing prizes, but he achieves his goal, and that's more than can be said of many books.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Fall of Rome, In the Woods, The Catiline Conspiracy

Tana French breaks one of the mystery genre's prime conventions in In the Woods, which is that murders must be solved, even cold cases from twenty years ago.  Her central character, Adam Ryan, was playing in the woods with two friends who disappeared, leaving him behind.  He was traumatized by the experience, and, when he was found two days later, had lost all memory of the event.

Flash forward twenty years, and Adam is an investigator in the murder squad.  When a child is murdered near the same woods that Adam's friends disappeared from, he and his partner dive into the investigation and he becomes quickly convinced that there's a connection to the old case.  In the end, though, there isn't actually a connection, and Adam descends into a breakdown; in fact, the old case is never resolved, and Adam is left in disgrace.

French has left us some ambiguous clues to the first case, and I saw some threads where readers had some ingenious solutions to the case, but I think that they're missing the point.  The novel is more of an existential statement -- some mysteries are truly insoluble, particularly to the people most tied up in them.  Adam is in a sort of limbo; he consciously wants to never think about the old events (he tells us so many, many times), but his subconscious drives him to solve the mystery.  In the end, the contradiction is too great, and he runs away from every attempt to actually resolve his issues.

Jenna bought me R. A. Lafferty's The Fall of Rome, just about the only one of his books I don't own.  It's an interesting read from a number of perspectives.  The subject matter itself is moderately interesting, and Lafferty is a lively writer, making it easier to keep track of the many personages who wander through the history.  But it's also interesting as a lens through which to view Lafferty's fiction.  He has the same themes; the forces of disorder are constantly nibbling at the edges of established order, and will eventually bring it down.  He's got the same ideas of archetypes recurring again and again (in Fall, one of the Goths is Cain, waiting to swoop in and destroy his brother and the Roman empire).

His other typical touches work well with a history from this period.  One of the oddities of Lafferty's style is a third-person seemingly-omniscient narrator who will nevertheless flat-out tell you that things couldn't have happened the way he just told you they did.  Here, he does something similar -- he'll quote a source, then tell you it makes no sense, but after all the source was there and we weren't.

From the fall of the Empire, I jumped back to just before its start, in John Maddox Roberts's Catiline Conspiracy, a historical mystery set at the time of the Catiline Conspiracy (who'da thunk it?).  Roberts's protagonist, a low-level noble named Decius Metellus, is an engaging narrator, and the minor characters are enjoyable.  But he has a fundamental problem with fictionalizing the conspiracy -- in the end, the conspirators weren't that competent (which is why Cicero was able to stop them so easily).  So he adds in a sort of super-conspiracy, of which Catiline was just the most visible part, and I found it to be not so convincing.  I enjoy the narration, but Roberts is a little too tied-down by the real history, so I may just jump ahead a couple of books -- the next one goes from a real case that Cicero tried, but after that he has Decius working on cases too minor to be part of the historical record.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Never Let Me Go, The Office of the Dead

Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go works on so many levels it's hard to know where to start.  It's a coming-of-age novel, a consideration of bioethics, a novel of alienation, a subtle science fiction novel, and more.

A lot of what makes this book work is the slow pace at which Ishiguro reveals details about the world of the Haylsham students.  As they learn about themselves, they also learn about their place in the world around them; I think this is why so many reviews talk about this as a coming-of-age novel.  But that's too reductive a view of the novel; the coming-of-age part is only the first two-thirds of the story, and the final third gives the story its resonance.

We follow Cathy, Tommy, and Ruth through their childhoods, but it's when they reach adulthood that their story reaches its full level of pathos.  More than that, though, I think that the pathos runs through the novel, in Cathy's off-handed comments about other characters who've "completed," or in the way she just accepts things that we readers recoil at.

This also isn't really a book about cloning or medical research.  As Samuel Goldwyn famously said, if you have want to send a message, send a telegram.  Ishiguro is using the bioethics theme to give context to his deeper story about alienation, not to posit some realistic "this is where things are going" warning.

Overall, Never Let Me Go is one of the best books I've read in a long time.

I liked Andrew Taylor's Office of the Dead, as well, the third volume in his Roth trilogy (The first two were The Four Last Things  and The Judgment of Strangers)  I liked the first one a lot, but, in retrospect it was the most traditional of the three.  A serial killer kidnaps a little girl, and the hunt is on to find her before she can kill the girl.  It stuck out for me because of the sympathetic portraits of the people involved, and the way it didn't spend too much time on the mechanic of the police investigation, preferring to spend time on the girl's parents.  The second one was, I thought, less successful, partly because nothing really happens till right near the end, and Taylor wasn't able to drive the book forward without a suspense angle.

It seems he figured out the trick for Office of the Dead, though.  There's no real suspense here, either -- the suspicious killing shows up 270 pages into the novel, and is disposed of a few pages later.  Instead, Taylor has written a novel about the way that our past binds us into our present.  It's a theme of the whole trilogy as well; Francis Youlgreave becomes a major influence on events in the three novels, even though he died decades before the first one starts.  This third novel, though, charts a course of redemption for its protagonist.  She's the only one of the major characters in the three novels who can accept her past but still move on, forgiving wrongs done to her by others.