Sunday, July 31, 2011

Full Moon

Full Moon is P. G. Wodehouse at the top of his form. Which means it's one of the funniest books in the English language. I was laughing from beginning to end, and there's really no point examining it mOre closely than that.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Voice of the Violin, Good Morning Midnight

I finished off two very good, very different books, one from Italy (Andrea Camilleri's Voice of the Violin) and one from England (Reginald Hill's Good Morning Midnight).  In a flight of fancy, it seems to me that comparing them is a bit like comparing two cars from the respective countries, a Ferrari and Rolls.

Voice of the Violin is a no-frills, very fast ride.  In the time it takes Hill to introduce his major characters, Camilleri has his inspector solve a murder, clear an innocent victim, and take care of some personal matters on the side.  But it's also a very smooth ride; you never feel like Camilleri is riding roughshod, skipping too many details.  Partly, he achieves this with minimal scene setting -- he'll switch locations with no indication, give a conversation, then switch over to somewhere else.  Again, though, it's done very smoothly -- I never felt a sense of dislocation.  And, by the same token, the conversations are minimal -- Camilleri just gives you the relevant bits, cutting away before the parties say good-bye.

Good Morning, Midnight, on the other hand, is a very ornate and stately ride.  Hill happily throws in sesquipedalian words on a whim, luxuriating in Dalziel's turns of phrase, and giving us two locked-room mysteries for the price of one.  The book moves at a very deliberate pace; it's not so much that it's slow as that Hill wants to present all of his characters, even the minor ones, fully.  This is important here, because their different testimonies about what happened are the backbone of the novel.  In the end, this is actually a modernist take on the idea of the locked room mystery -- most of the minor mysteries are not only left unsolved, but Hill takes pains to show that it's deliberate; in the novel, truth is unknowable.  All we have are different testimonies, and we can decide how much we trust each one's reliability.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Case of the Missing Servant

Tarquin Hall's Case of the Missing Servant is pretty much light as air, despite a few darker grace notes about corruption in India.  But overall a lot of fun.  His main character Vish Puri is entertaining to watch, and the minor characters were interesting enough to carry the narrative when it was their turn.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Death Without Company, Master of the Delta, Heartsick

I finished a couple of books that weren't really bad, were even pretty good, but didn't really do anything for me.

Craig Johnson's Death Without Company is a mystery set in a small town in Wyoming.  The problem with small-town mystery series is that it's pretty hard to justify more than one case in a row.  In the first book, there was a spree of 3 murders, more, we're told, than happened in the last decade.  Now, just a month later, there's another spree...  That aside, the folksy jokey tone just doesn't work for me.  It felt a bit like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Wyoming, where everyone's a smart-aleck.

Having said all that, Johnson is a perceptive writer.  His nature descriptions are beautiful.  Although the interpersonal relationships he describes don't interest me, they're definitely well-written.  I can see why the amazon reviews are in general so positive.

Heartsick pulls off the neat trick of starting out like a Red Dragon-wannabe, but ending up in a completely different place.  If nothing else, Chelsea McCain deserves kudos for not treading down the well-worn Hannibal Lector path of a brilliant psycho in jail teaching our detective how to find the bad guy.  Sadly, in every other respect I found it pretty unmemorable.  Again, I can see how it's good for the right audience, but not my thing.

Lastly, I wrote about Master of the Delta in my previous post.  It ended up as good as I'd hoped, a totally gut-wrenching conclusion.  As you approach the ending, it starts to take on more and more of an air of tragedy, where the narrator's willful obstinacy leads to an inevitable conclusion.  And the final couple of paragraphs were just perfect.  Wrenching, inevitable in retrospect, but still surprising the first time you read them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Master of the Delta

Thomas Cook's Master of the Delta is a suspense novel built around foreshadowing.  At about 2/3 of the way through, nothing actually suspenseful has happened, and yet the tension is incredible, because Cook's narrator tells us in many ways that things will end up badly, though he hasn't told us how.

Cook's foreshadowing is sometimes so deft and yet at others so heavy-handed that it's hard to believe one author wrote the book.  His narrator, Jack Branch, is looking back to events from 1954, when he encouraged one of his students to write a paper about the student's father, he was arrested for killing a girl, then killed in prison without a trial.  Branch interweaves reflections on what ended up happening to the characters in later life, as well as transcripts from a trial (the trial seems to have sprung from what the student learned while writing his paper).  These are really well handled, giving a sense of depth to characters who might otherwise be ciphers, as well as feeling like an actual part of the story as Jack Branch sees it.  He's known these people for 40 years (or whatever the number is), and so when he looks back he also sees what they've done in between 1954 and his present.

And then there are all the sentences that add nothing but a "had I but known..."  ("But I was young, and didn't know the havoc this could cause."  That sort of thing)  At this point, there are so many that they're more of a speed bump than a serious literary device.  Had Cook removed 2/3 of them, the remaining ones would probably be stronger.

Light in August

I think I have to give up on Light in August.  Too many variations on "He knew x but didn't know that he knew it."  It felt sharp the first time, even the second time, but by the tenth/twentieth (before I'm 1/3 of the way through the novel) it feels like a verbal tic.  I may yet try Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom, which are usually considered his best work.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Prestige (concluded)

I finished The Prestige yesterday. Great book, but the ending was a real let-down. In the end, Priest goes for a cheap scare with a conclusion that doesn't hold up logically. But getting there was a great ride. Yet another example of Lafferty's dictum that stories are better off without their final pages.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Prestige

I'm most of the way through Christopher Priest's The Prestige, and it's turning out to be an incredible book, pulling off a number of feats.

The main story is about two rival magicians in late 19th century London.  Priest chose to tell the story from each man's perspective, first one then the other, in a sort of he-said-she-said model.  That kind of story is tricky to pull off, because the second version can often feel repetitive and anti-climactic.  Priest avoids that in a couple of ways; for one, the first account is a memoir written in 1900-3, while the second is a diary, so there are many events that are prominent in one but missing in the other.  More importantly, as we start seeing the truth behind the facade of the second magician's life, the tension is increased by knowing some of what's going to happen.

The major theme of this story is the truth behind a facade.  Priest's narrators remind us several times that the truth is a small thing compared to the illusion, and yet each fails to apply that lesson to the way they he sees his rival.

On a side note, I'm a bit of an enthusiast about stage magic, and it feels to me like Priest has really done his homework.  His taxonomy of the 6 types of trick is one that I've seen elsewhere, his magicians talk properly about misdirection, and so on.  He also uses his time period very effectively -- this is a novel that couldn't work if transported more than a few years in either direction.

The Master and Margarita

Bulgakov's Master and Margarita is, at least according to a few sources I've looked at, considered one of the highlights on 20th century Russian literature.  Even granting the truth of that statement, I'm not sure how interesting it is to, say, an American in the 21st century.

Master and Margarita is, most obviously, a satire on Stalinist Russia.  Satan comes to Moscow and wreaks havoc; his mischief ends up getting some higher-ups picked up by the secret police or taken to psychiatric institutions.  This section of the novel is mildly amusing (although I felt like it dragged a bit by the end), but I can imagine it being much funnier to people living under the regime.

In a second strand, Bulgakov tells the story of Jesus and Pilate, but in a version with a number of variations from the Gospel account.  There are only 4 chapters of this, but they're spread out through the novel, and they're clearly important to the theme, with Jerusalem as a Moscow-analog.

Lastly, the eponymous master and Margarita take center stage for a while (but less than half the book).  The master has written a book about Jesus which has gotten him placed in a psychiatric institution.  Margarita uses Satan's power to help free him, as well as taking revenge on a few folks (this seems to be a bit of vicarious vengeance on Bulgakov's part -- some of Margarita's targets are people who tormented him in real life).

I liked the end of this third strand a lot, and I liked the Pilate sections -- they're interestingly ambivalent.  On the other hand, Satan's antics in Moscow largely left me cold.  The humor is sort of like reading, say, Art Buckwald columns from 1950; every so often, some of it will be trenchant because he happens to have hit on something that's still true today (like the way some people try to take up the same hobby as their boss), but a lot of it is only funny in its historical context.