Thursday, February 24, 2011

Nail Through the Heart, Death's Jest Book

Nail Through the Heart was another Kindle freebie, a crime novel set in Thailand.  I enjoyed it, but not enough to try others in the series.

Death's Jest Book is the umpteenth entry in the Dalziel and Pascoe series.  It's one of those examples of an author's craft improving even as his invention flags.  Hill's craft has never been better -- his similes are crisp and witty, his dialog is strong, Frannie Root's letters have a distinctive voice, and so on.  At the same time, the story isn't that compelling.  It's mostly a cleanup operation from Dialogues of the Dead, resolving the hanging plotline of an uncaught murderer, wrapping up Pascoe's pas de deux with Frannie Root, and that's about it.

I've felt for a long time that crime novels can give a writer a leg up by giving him a natural impetus forward -- there's always something to move the plot forward, because he ultimately has to resolve the situation created by the crime.  In Death's Jest Book, Hill shows the reverse; with only a minimal crime to focus on, the plot completely languishes, and, however fun the writing, it's not enough to save the book.

One other big shortcoming is series-itis.  Hill has crafted a few long-running characters by this point (Wield, Dalziel, Pascoe, Ellie) as well as some shorter-running ones who he wants to make long-term (mainly Novello, but also "Hat" Bowler), and he wants to give them all a role in the book -- if he'd taken out some of those sub-plots, the book would've been shorter and stronger.  I don't know if he's worried that we'll forget who they are if they don't show up or what.  (Compare this with Jim Butcher, who's got the confidence to drop characters out of sight for 3-4 books at a time)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Hunger Games, John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End is one of those books that started life as an internet phenom, then was re-bound and sold as a book.  I'm usually leery of these things, but I decided to give it a shot (I've since found out that it was substantially fixed up before becoming a book).

Whatever its other literary merits, John Dies at the End pulls off the trick of being very funny and very scary at the same time, sometimes within the same paragraph.  The closest thing I can think of is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but even there the humor usually alternates with the horror; they don't come simultaneously.  (And I'm not talking about "humor";  the jokes are actually funny).

I enjoyed Susan Collins's The Hunger Games more than I thought I would.  It's one of those YA books that crosses the line to have adult appeal, even though it's clearly written with the teen market in mind.  I think part of its success is that Collins has been pretty ambitious, throwing in a lot of classical references (Theseus, Spartacus, Romeo & Juliet) that I can't help but think go over the heads of most kids.  Like the way that the major antagonist in the Games is called Cato, even though all the other Tributes have non-Roman names.  But for kids who can't tell a Roman name from a non-Roman one, does this have any resonance?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Thing from the Nightside

Simon Green's Thing from the Nightside was entertaining fluff.  For what it's trying to be, it's perfect, and I guess you can't ask for more than that.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Knights of the Cornerstone, What the Dead Know, Into the Blue, The Iron Rose

I've been in the middle of a few books for a while, and finished them more or less simultaneously.

First one was one that I've had on my to-read list for a while, What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman.  It's a solid, accomplished crime novel by a novelist who seems at the top of her game (but I'm guessing a bit, having only read short stories by her before this).  This is also the kind of book that goes right to the heart of what's most interesting about crime fiction -- that it shows us people under stress by placing them into some of the most trying circumstances.

In this case, Lippman writes about the abduction of two girls (12 and 15 years old) from a mall in Baltimore.  The story starts twenty or so years later when a woman shows up claiming to be one of the girls, and then proceeds mostly in flashbacks to the day itself, and then 5, 10, 15 years later.  In each case, we get a glimpse of one of the girls, her father, and her mother, and Lippman shows us the gradual disintegration of the parents' marriage, as well as the residual guilt they feel over the kidnapping.

The main "mystery" of the novel -- is this mystery woman actually one of the girls? -- is not very interesting, and I think Lippman put it in as a sop to genre conventions, that there has to be some mystery.  The solution is pretty transparent from early on, and the time she spends on it is really just a further way to illuminate the woman's state of mind.

But the body of the novel, the flashbacks, is absorbing reading; Lippman shows us the ripples from the kidnapping with a lot of skill and sensitivity.

Into the Blue, by Robert Goddard, is a different kind of crime novel, where the point is in the twists and turns of the plot.  Harry Barnett is showing a friend around the Greek island of Profitis Ilias, when she disappears.  He's the primary suspect, of course, but actually clears that up surprisingly quickly.  He then decides to track her down, following a trail of her last few months in England.  Goddard entices us with some standard tropes of the genre, such as secret societies and evil psychiatrists, but each one leads to a dead end, which was a nice change.

In the end, the whole thing ties together a bit too neatly for my tastes, but in this kind of book the journey is really the point, and Goddard does a nice job.  Harry's contacts are all sketched out nicely; even people that he only talks to for a few pages are given enough space to feel like people, not simply signboards whose job is to send Harry to the next place in his quest.  The down-side, though, is that the pace is so deliberate that there's no feeling of suspense or a race against time; we never really feel that Harry is in danger, and that's a pity in something that is, after all, supposed to be a suspense novel.

James Blaylock has been a writer who works his Christianity into his work for a long time, usually subtly.  (Somewhat like his friend Tim Powers).  In Knights of the Cornerstone, though, he's at his most explicit, with its Knights Templar, a saint-blessed veil, and Godly miracles.  The earnestness is usually balanced by his fairly goofy heroes, who are very flawed, and often just barely competent.  Unfortunately, that trait is missing from Knights; Calvin, his protagonist, is almost average, with just a touch of the eccentric, and for large stretches of the novel he's not particularly funny or interesting.

It's a real pity, because Blaylock's silly heroes have always been the reason to recommend his writing; I can't imagine recommending this to anyone who's not already a Blaylock fan.

Adrian McKinty got me interested in Peter Temple when he mentioned that Temple had won the Australian equivalent of the Booker Prize, so I decided to start with one of his earliest books The Iron Rose.  I think I'm going to have to jump ahead to the later ones -- The Iron Rose has some good stuff, but it's mixed in with some fairly derivative pieces.  Mac Faraday is a former Federal Police officer who retired and became a black-smith, and, as the novel starts, one of his old cases has come back to haunt him.

Temple is very economical in this novel; everything that happens, even it seems extraneous, turns out to matter to the central plot.  Nevertheless, I found the most peripheral parts to be the best -- descriptions of Faraday's workaday life, his work on restoring a garden, the weekly soccer matches, all of these trump the fairly creaky drug smuggling plot.  The good news is that, the way the novel ties together, Temple spends quite a bit of time on those pieces, and so overall I enjoyed the book, certainly well enough to read more by Temple.