Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Soldier's Art, The Military Philosophers

The Soldier's Art and The Military Philosophers are books 8 and 9 of Powell's Dance to the Music of Time.  Together with book 7, The Valley of Bones, they make up the third movement.  For the first two movements, I felt like the movement division was pretty arbitrary, but here it makes sense.  Books 7-9 feel like something of a whole, with a largely new cast of characters, and with the previous characters barely showing up.  (Kenneth Widmerpool is the big exception here).

The writing is great, as always, but the limitations of Jenkins as narrator are more apparent.  For whatever reason, Powell has chosen to make Jenkins an observer who is rarely (or never) introspective.  In these three books, something like half the cast of the previous novels gets written out in air raid attacks or are otherwise casualties of war.  But Jenkins never reacts to these events, and it feels like there's a big emotional hole in the novels.  I've remarked on this problem before, as well --  Nick sees Isobel, his wife, but tells us nothing about the visit; Nick becomes a father, but only in a throw-away aside.  It's almost as if Powell would have been better served by a third person narrator.

On the other hand, I felt like the characters and events are more incisively written than ever.  Jenkins's army companions are very distinctive, and get away from the round of bohemians and upper-class dinner parties that made up the first 6 novels in the cycle.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Valley of the Bones

The  Valley of the Bones is book 7 of A Dance to the Music of Time.  Pretty much everything I've said about the previous ones is still true.  Gorgeous writing, meandering plot, and all.  This novel chronicles the beginning of WWII.  Jenkins is assigned to an army unit, but doesn't see any fighting.  Unlike previous novels, this one has almost an entirely new cast of characters.  There's one extended scene where Nick goes on leave and meets with family and friends, but that's it.

Damsel in Distress

P. G. Wodehouse's Damsel in Distress sometimes feels like a prototype for the Blandings Castle stories.  A similar set of characters, but not as well-defined as their Blandings equivalents.  So in place of Lord Emsworth, the forgetful Earl and fanatical pig-raiser, we have Lord Marshmoreton, forgetful Lord (but not as absentminded as Emsworth) and fanatical gardener (but not as single-minded as Emsworth).  In place of Constance, sister and worrier over the family dignity, we have Marshmoreton's sister, but she's also not quite as funny.  Instead of genial fathead Freddie Threepwood, we have amiable fathead Reggie Byng.

On the other hand, taken on its own merits, Damsel in Distress is very funny.  If one hasn't already read the Blandings stories, I would send him there first; but this story is a great alternative for someone looking for a lesser-know Wodehouse.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Talking About Detective Fiction

P.D. James' Talking about Detective Fiction is pretty much what its title implies, James writing some informal essays on detective fiction.  Overall, it was a pretty lightweight bit of criticism.  James has some astute observations, such as her discussion of the importance of setting.  But, in general, it's a bit idiosyncratic -- there's a bit of history (but only through the Golden Age, and even there skipping around quite a bit), a bit of theory (like the importance of setting), a bit of talking about how things have changed since 1930.  And, in each case, just as things are getting interesting, James is onto the next thing.

I was also a bit disappointed that she didn't talk much about her own work.  I think that James is one of the authors most instrumental in moving detective fiction towards a literary status, and I'd be interested in hearing more about what led her down that path.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Warded Man

Too damn long.  When the eponymous Warded Man doesn't show up till 2/3 of the way through that should be a sign to an author that the first 2/3 need some serious trimming.

Holmes on the Range, SPQR III: The Sacrilege

A couple of historical mysteries this time round. 

Holmes on the Range is set in 1890s Montana; one of the drovers at a ranch is a devotee of Sherlock Holmes', and applies Holmes' methods to a murder on the ranch.  I wanted this to be funnier; Hockensmith's humor tends to the slapstick, and there isn't that much of it.  Unfortunately, there isn't much of anything else -- the characters are too thin to carry the novel when the conceit wears thin.

SQPR III is the third story of Decius Caecilius Metellus the younger, as he falls into yet another case based on one of Cicero's orations.  Unlike the previous entry, The Catiline Conspiracy, Decius isn't directly involved in the case that historically went to trial.  Instead, author Roberts uses the case as a jumping-off point for a conspiracy among what would become the first Triumvirate.  That part is a bit dull if you know the actual history, because it's telegraphed miles away.  But the rest is a fun light romp through an interesting period of Roman history.