Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dead Men's Boots, Barchester Towers

Dead Men's Boots is the third novel about exorcist Felix Castor, a series which I think is far and away the best of the urban noir subgenre (although I think Child of Fire gives it a run for the money).  Here Felix is embroiled in an investigation into the ghost of an American serial killer who somehow ended up possessing a man in London.

It's hard to overstate how well Carey has caught the cadences of the hard-boiled detective novel here.  Castor is not a detective, but he ends up playing that role.  Carey also throws a bit of a curve ball by making this a more optimistic novel than the previous two, which was a nice change.

I see that I read the previous Castor book at the same time as I read The Warden, Trollope's first novel about the town of Barchester.  So it's an odd coincidence that I read the second Barchester novel, Barchester Towers at the same time as the third Castor novel.  Here, Trollope moves into a more broadly comic vein, particularly once he hits his stride in volume II.  At first, I would have put Trollope as a distant third behind Dickens and George Elliot -- his humor isn't as broad as Dickens's, and his realism is not as well-observed as Elliot's.  But once he hit his stride, I could see why he's rated so highly

He shifts into high comic mode at some point, invoking the muse ("Tell me o muse of the wrath of Mr. Slope"), apostrophizing his heroes, and so on.  His extended similes also make his subjects ridiculous, whether by magnifying them (comparing marital discord to war between massive armies) or comparing them to insignificant things (that same marital discord is compared more than once to cocks fighting over a dunghill).  His deus ex machina (Dr Gwinn) is kept off-stage for most of the story with a broken ankle and arrives too late to do anything.

All this is a kind of humor we don't really find in Dickens, even though I found them superficially similar at first -- both writers write broad characters without a lot of depth.  They're mostly types rather than actual characters.  Trollope occasionally tries to give his people more depth, by explaining that their innermost motivations are not as villainous (or virtuous) as they appear, but the end result is much the same.  Mr. Slope may not be a complete hypocrite, for example, but his actions are nonetheless odious, and his better qualities never lead him to do anything actually good.  But Dickens's humor lies more in what his characters say & do, while much of Trollope's humor is in his narrative voice, like the above-mentioned epic prose.

I'm still finishing Barchester Towers as I write this, so I may have more to say later, but I don't think so, somehow.

On a side note, I've started The Faerie Queene.  At 1000 pages, I guess I'll be at it for a while...

Monday, September 26, 2011

Death of Dalziel

I've been slowly catching up to the present on the Dalziel/Pascoe books.  Every time I think that author Reginald Hill has worn out his bag of tricks, he changes up the game somehow.

Here, he takes out Andy Dalziel, who most would have said is the mainstay of the series.  Dalziel is caught in a bomb blast and laid up in a coma for most of the novel, leaving everything in his understudy Pascoe's hands.  Pascoe begins to take on some aspects of Dalziel's character over the course of the novel -- he's always been the good cop to Dalziel's bad cop, and now he finds that the bad cop persona has its uses.

Overall, a solid entry in the series, Hill is at the top of his craft here.  He knows how to spin an artful sentence as well as anyone in the genre and better than most, he knows how to weave an interesting plot, and he writes dialog very well.  But I feel like the heart got left behind a few books ago; the middle novels often left me moved in a way this one didn't.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I've liked most everything I've read by Catherine Valente, but not so much with Palimpset.  In general, I like her poetic language and willingness to play with the boundaries of fiction, whether with the story-in-a-story concept of Orphan's Tales or the thicket of confusion that was Yume no Hon.  But Palimpset is relatively straightforward as a novel, and that's its downfall.

Valente wants to wander around her city of Palimpsest more than she wants to tell a story.  The shortness of the individual stories in Orphan's Tales or Yume no Hon restrained her, or, in any case it just didn't matter so much, because we moved on to the next thing quickly.   (I think the same is true of Calvino's Invisible Cities -- there's no plot, and so it doesn't matter so much that he meanders around).  But here, the plot exists uneasily with the sight-seeing.

Child of Fire, "The Dead"

I was pleasantly surprised by Harry Connolly's Child of Fire.  It's a first novel that a few people had told me was worth taking a look at, and amazon had a sale on it, so I picked it up, despite my misgivings.

I think the publisher does the book a disservice by making it seem more generic than it really is.  For one thing, the cover screams "generic urban fantasy."  The jacket copy reads like another tough-guy urban fantasy.  But the actual book is not so typical.  Ray Lilly, the protagonist, is pretty  is squeamish and vomits when confronted with violence.  In addition, in a genre filled with powerful heroes (Harry Dresden, John Taylor), Ray is just a sidekick, and an expendable one at that.

My major beef with the book is that it constantly alludes to a back story between the two major characters, but leaves it completely opaque.  This is clearly just sequel fodder, which is just annoying.

I was listening to a lecture on literary analysis, and the best thing about reading literary analysis is that it can inspire you to re-read a book, or in this case a short story.  The lecturer was talking about Joyce's use of symbolism in "The Dead," a story that I've talked about before.  My feelings about the story haven't changed particularly, so I won't rehash them (I'm a little less sanguine about Gabriel's chances of changing than I was, but I still think "The Dead" is the most optimistic story in the collection).  But it's interesting to see the craft in Joyce's use of light & dark, snow, and open spaces.  Joyce uses light and darkness to separate Gabriel from his wife, as well as to show Gabriel's isolation from others.

The snow, of course, links everyone together -- Ireland is a metonomy for the world, I think.  This goes without saying, except it gives me a chance to quote the beautiful ending:
It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
I have changed my idea that the story is told from Gabriel's viewpoint.  The beginning is told from the maid's perspective: "LILY, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet."  Gabriel would never make such a solecism as "literally run off her feet."  In the first half of the story we whirl in and out of Gabriel's consciousness.  We have to see from outside sometimes, so that we can have a foretaste of his epiphany when he sees himself in the mirror.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Nightingale's Lament, Hex and the City, Burn

Audible had a 3 for 2 on series books, and I used two of them on the next two Nightside books.

Nightingale's Lament was interesting, but more for the odd powers that Green gives some of his characters than for any particular plot reasons.

In Hex and the City, though, he moves the story in a new direction.  Green has dropped hints in the first three books about the origin of the nightside and about protagonist John Taylor's mother.  I'm used to getting these sorts of dribs and drabs of backstory in other series (Butcher does it a lot in the Dresden Files), and it can be a bit irritating; it feels like a way to stretch out a minor mystery that may never be resolved.  But in Hex and the City, Green moves the backstory into center stage, which I think is a bold move.

Unfortunately, the boldness is offset by somewhat shaky execution.  The Nightside series in general is patterned like a hard-boiled mystery series.  One thing that Green should've absorbed from other books in the genre is that, while there may be many false leads for the detective, each one usually brings him a bit closer to his quarry.  But, here, Taylor has a series of confrontations with putative witnesses, and each one ends up saying a variation of "I don't know the answer and I can't even guess.  Maybe you should try someone else."  Although those confrontations are interesting in their own right, any one could have been left out without changing the flow of the story at all.

Overall, though, Green's resolution of so many issues in one swoop sets the novel above the previous two in the series, and is enough to keep me going through the next one.

Speaking of noir mysteries, Burn is a throw-back to older crime fiction.  Unfortunately, author Sean Doolittle doesn't really do anything new or innovative.  I wanted to like this, because I kind of liked Rain Dogs.  But, just like that book had a by-the-numbers quality to it, so did this one, except that nothing really stood out at all.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Amazon betterizer

Not really a book, but connected to books, and it really annoyed me.  The amazon betterizer is as stupid as its name (what did they do, have a contest for stupidest name?).

It's got to be the worst book recommendation thing I've seen in 5 years.

1. Its only levels are "like" and nothing. You can mark a book as not interested, but that doesn't stop 10 other books like it from coming up. (I tried this -- after I marked "Going Rogue," some book by Mark Levin, and "The Patriot's Guide to History" as not interested, I gave up).

2. Related to 1 -- I actually have ratings on something over 500 books that I've put in over the years. The "Betterizer" ignores them. Instead, it wants to know if I "like" the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, the Julia Child guide to cooking, and the aforementioned "Going Rogue."

 3.  The way it works is, it shows you some items, and if you don't want to "like" of them, you hit refresh, so it gives you different items. I went back to the page to try again, and it started over from the beginning. I hit "refresh", and it gave me the same books as the last time I hit refresh (it changes the books, but it gives you the same choices as before). Since I'd hit refresh 3 times before, I had to refresh 4 times to see new books.

Netflix already showed everyone how to do this right. Instead of recommending 10 cookbooks, ask me if I like cookbooks. Instead of recommending me 10 books by conservative luminaries, ask me if I read political books.

It feels like something a few interns cooked up, but its hard to imagine this thing went through even one day of usability testing.

Since I'm complaining, anyway, I'll mention that amazon's categorization needs major work.  When I go to recommendation for "fiction and literature," why is Learning Greek Through Plato the second recommendation?  For that matter, why does Plato's Republic top foreign language fiction?