Friday, December 28, 2012

Winter's Tale

Winter's Tale is an epic, exuberant work.  Epic in length, but also in theme (the recreation of the world), in characters (a huge cast, all of them feeling larger-than-life), and in time (the novel spans a century).

Helprin's writing feels exuberant.  There's beautiful writing on ever page:
He moved like a dancer, which is not surprising: a horse is a beautiful animal, but it is perhaps most remarkable because it moves as if it always hears music.
His teeth were like the signposts that appear in the remoter camps of expeditionary armies to point the way to the world's brighter and more congenial locations. They thrust in all directions 
He throws out cool ideas with reckless abandon -- a flying horse, a bridge-builder whose workers are the souls of the dead, a consumptive woman whose fever burns so hot she has to sleep in the snow, and on and on.  His minor characters would be major characters in a smaller book.

Of course, the book has its flaws.  His characters are a bit flat (although I think that suits the epic scale, so maybe not a huge flaw).  It can feel a bit disjointed at times -- major characters get dropped for hundreds of pages.  But I'd forgive a lot in a book this amazing, and this one has relatively little to forgive.

First Lord's Fury

The last of the Codex Alera, First Lord's Fury is a lot like the others.  By this point, one just accepts that Tavi is super-human, that nobody we care about will die (I'm not quite done with the book, but I feel safe making that assumption), and so on.

I think that it's good that Butcher finished the series here -- I certainly would've stopped reading, even if he hadn't.  For all their flaws, I think the "Dresden" novels are more interesting than the last 3 "Alera" books.  I guess my problem isn't any one thing that Tavi does; it's that he's a brilliant tactician, inventor, diplomat, and, in the last two books, incredibly powerful to book; Tavi's role should ideally be split among three people, each of whom could also be wrong sometimes.  I think Tavi only ends up being wrong on a significant scale once in the whole series.

I'm labeling this one disappointing not because I hated it, but because I was hoping that Butcher would somehow surprise me in the final installment.  Instead, it's pretty competent, average work.

The Folded World

The Folded World is the second part of Catherynne Valente's Dirge for Prester John; I briefly touched on the first one here.

She says there will be a third, although I think that if there is never a third volume, the story will still feel complete.  As I said about the first one, Valente's usual beautiful prose is evident on every page.  There is also an attempt at satire in places, which I felt mostly fell flat.  Valente pulls the old trick of having an outsider comment on the absurdities within society; in this case, her mythological beings who can't tell the difference between, say, prayers and magic spells, or the difference between Islam and Christianity.

The problem is, she's mostly satirizing a medieval kind of Christianity which no longer exists, and, even if we widen the target to include all intolerant religions, she's satirizing beliefs which her readers probably don't hold.  The result feels a bit stale; satire is more biting when it picks on the vices we actually possess, as Thackeray does in Vanity Fair.

But, that aside, I really enjoyed the structural inventiveness of the novel.  Valente interweaves stories that are completely out of order, and her frame story about a monk trying to copy a decaying manuscript allows her to even do things like claim parts of the stories are illegible.  It's also got an emotional kick at the end, something that I think Valente's novels have lacked in the past.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair is a sprawling monstrosity of a book.  It clocks in at something around 750 pages, has a large cast of characters, and goes from London to the countryside and all the way to Waterloo.  In that space, Thackeray takes consistent aim at the various sins and hypocrisies of his society, which admittedly haven't changed so much between his time and ours.

Nobody is spared, and the novel's subtitle "A novel without a hero" is borne out.  I've seen arguments that Dobbin, the good guy of the novel, is actually the hero, but I don't think so.  Dobbin is mostly ineffectual, and is also largely absent for a lot of the novel.  Amelia is sometimes called a "heroine", but, then again, so is Becky, so I don't think we can take that appellation at face value.  Dobbin and Amelia, although good, are too ineffectual to do all the good they can; in the end, it takes Becky's scheming and willingness to blacken George Osborne's character to resolve Amelia's remaining issues with Dobbin.

For the record, this was my second attempt at Vanity Fair; I had tried reading it about 8 years ago, and got stalled out in the long section on how to live on nothing a year.  In these few chapters Thackeray does his best to show us how the Becky Sharps of this world are not merely lovable rogues who don't do any actual harm, but instead how their unpaid bills and defaults drive a lot of the little people into bankruptcy.  It feels to me more angry than the rest of the book, in which Thackeray mostly adopts a sort of amused contempt, as if to say, "Yes, this Vanity Fair of ours is a sordid place, and there's nothing we can do about it."  I found it a difficult read this time as well, and came close to stopping again.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Skin Palace continued

As I mentioned in a previous post, there's a lot going on in The Skin Palace.  Not all of it is profound (the theme that people will do anything to get a part in a movie is an old one), but it makes for a potent mixture, particularly toward the end of the novel.

Unfortunately, it's very slow to start.  Reel 1, the first 100 pages or so, which takes time to set up the characters, feels very static, and O'Connell either doesn't have the chops or doesn't care enough to really make the humdrum feel interesting.  I suspect it's the latter, because later in the novel, he becomes much better at picking out the salient detail that makes a scene come alive, even in the more quotidian settings like a basement darkroom.

For its strangeness, The Skin Palace is probably the most mimetic of all of the O'Connell's books that I've read, which is a pity.  When the novel is in high gear, the strangeness takes over, and it feels like we're in a world that's a sort of cracked reflection of this one.  There's nothing specific that one can call out as being impossible in our world, but the whole has a sort of phantasmagorical feel.  At those times, O'Connell can then deliver an emotional punch that jumps over normal logic but feels right in this novel.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Skin Palace

Jack O'Connell's novels don't fit into any easy categories; although marketed as a "novel of suspense," The Flesh Palace is almost anything but.  O'Connell uses the props of crime fiction -- gangs, life in a ghetto, and so on -- but this isn't crime fiction either.

Instead, we step into a world that feels a little bit off-kilter, where a whole diner can be buried under-ground, where one of the city's gangs wears Jewish garb from talmud schools in Eastern Europe, and in which a film collector has the unexpurgated Wizard of Oz that never had a theatrical release.  (Yes, I know there's no such thing).  As in the previous Quinsigamond novels, O'Connell is writing about how images transform our thinking; in this case, movies affect the way we look at the world.

Unfortunately, I felt that this novel lost its way a little bit.  There's some weird meta-text that I admit I can't quite get my head around.  There's a German porn director (and the link to fascism is made explicit at the end) whose chief star is named Leni (as in Riefenstahl, hope I spelled that right), who produces (I think) inauthentic art.  That's made pretty explicit toward the end, when it's revealed that he made some fake photos in the style of great photographer Terrence Propp, but his photo doesn't give you a sense of underlying depth.

At the same time, his protege, Jakob, is a Jewish boy who fled from Eastern Europe.  Jakob needs to break free from his own gangster heritage as well as from his mentor's pornographic movie-making.

And that's all fine as far as it goes, but it's only one plot strand (and, in the end a relatively minor one).  I'm having trouble relating it to the major thread.   Too tired to do it now, in any case.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

Tale of Two Cities is another of my re-read attempts that I engage in from time to time.  I remember liking the book waaay back in 9th grade, but how would it hold up 30 years later?

It was fantastic.  I'll admit that I was crying at the end.  The writing is beautiful all the way through.  The book is less digressive than most of the other Dickens that I've read; the plot is a fairly straight arc, without a lot of venturing into narrative cul-de-sacs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Fountain Filled With Blood

I enjoyed A Fountain Filled With Blood, the second novel in Julia Spencer-Fleming's series, just as much as I did the first.  Although it deals with social issues (in this case gay-bashing), she never uses the novel as a soap-box.  Instead, her characters have to face a difficult decision, and they come up with different answers with integrity on each side.

Killer's Wedge

Another early Ed McBain novel, Killer's Wedge shows the beginning of a more interesting voice, with some occasional nice figurative language.  ("The clock on the squadroom wall, white-faced and leering, threw minutes onto the floor where they lay like the ghosts of dead policemen.")

But the plot!  It's hard to believe that it was plausible, even in the 1950s, for one person to hold up a whole squadroom of detectives for a whole day.  The major virtue of this book is that it's so short that before you bother analyzing it, it's over & done with.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

My new long-term project is Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  And it definitely is long-term.  The penguin edition of vol. 1 (of 3) weighs in at 1000 pages, with a 100 pp introduction.

At about 200 pages in, I'm enjoying it.  Gibbon is very detail-oriented, and so there are some good stories in there.  In particular, I was really surprised when, after covering the emperor Pertinax in what seemed like great detail, Gibbon then relates that Pertinax only ruled for a couple of months.

But the story of Pertinax is important for Gibbon, because it shows the extent of the corruption of the Praetorian Guard, whom he blames for the first step down the path of decline.

Killing Floor, Time Traveller's Wife

Two books that I'm about to give up on.

The Killing Floor is the first of Lee Child's Jack Reacher books.  I read a couple of them a long time ago when I desperately needed something escapist, but they got too far-fetched for me (e.g. one book's plot relies on the killer hypnotizing people to commit suicide; the most cursory search will tell you it doesn't work that way).  But I heard that the first was the best, and audible offered it for free, and...  it's still too far-fetched for me.

It's too escapist and too solid at the same time, I think.  Child gives us a long info dump about how cash works in the economy (although his explanation of the danger of counterfeiting feels wrong to me), and that got me thinking about what happens to a small town economy when you dump millions of dollars into it (every business owner gets $1000/week).  You wouldn't end up with a gorgeous town; you'd end up with a town that looks like Weimar Germany, with hyperinflation out the wazoo.  And that gets me thinking, why bother dumping cash into the town?  Why not just threaten anybody who talks?  Or, for that matter, just keep the damn thing a secret, which is what they were doing anyway -- the recipients of the money don't even know why they're getting it.  And the more you think about it, the more it unravels, until the novel stops being fun.

Audrey Niffenegger's Time Traveller's Wife different.  She's a good writer, and I can't really complain about the quality of the book.  But it just squicked me out, so I'm bailing.  Horses for courses, as they say.

Friday, November 16, 2012


Jane Eyre is such a defining book for Charlotte Bronte (though she wrote three others) that it's hard not to read Villette through the lens of Jane Eyre -- how's it like Jane, how's it different, and so on.  So, since this is my own blog with my own rules, I'm going to give in to the temptation.

Firstly, Villette is much harder to like than Jane Eyre.  It's relatively plot-less, and Lucy Snowe, the heroine, is not as likable as Jane.  She's particularly prejudiced against Catholics, as well as continentals in general; Jane is somewhat anti-French as well, but Villette takes place in a fictionalized Belgium, so Lucy's prejudices come up again & again.

Secondly, Villette feels much more modern.  Gone are all the Gothic trappings like the madwoman locked in the attic.  (I don't count the "ghost" for obvious reasons).  There are none of the melodrama that one tends to associate more with 19th century fiction (the house fire, the attempted bigamy, etc).  The whole book feels more muted in every way than Jane Eyre.

So, without viewing it through Jane Eyre, what did I think?  It's a novel that takes a while to get into.  Lucy Snowe starts out so reticent that it's tough to keep going at first.  But this is a novel that amply repaid my time -- the characters feel very fully formed, and I was really drawn into Lucy's world.  Coming right after reading The Moonstone, it felt so much more alive. Villette feels like a novel with no contrivances; characters do what they're going to do, not in order to move the plot forward.  There's no easy morality on display either -- the good doesn't uniformly triumph, nor do the bad necessarily suffer.  On the other hand, Bronte also doesn't have the equally facile nihilism of a Thomas Hardy, where things will always go badly.  Instead, we get a mixture of the two, and in somewhat unexpected ways.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford reads like a series of vignettes.  Originally published as a series of short stories in Charles Dickens' magazine, it's hard to even call some of them short stories.  Rather, they're sketches of life in the little town of Cranford, among the shabbily genteel spinsters of the town.

It's a humorous collection with some deeper under-currents, particularly about the way the social structure is changing right under people's feet, but the whole thing feels a bit slight to me.  There's a deep gap between Gaskell's finely drawn characters in North and South and the broader caricatures on display here.  Here, the "disappointing" label is apropos; it's not so much that this is a bad book as that I'd been hoping for better.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Moonstone

Just as The Woman in White is considered one of the first suspense novels, so is Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone considered the first detective novel.  Unfortunately, although I really liked the former, I didn't really like The Moonstone.  Caveat lector: I've only read the first 2/3 of The Moonstone; I didn't like it enough to finish.

Maybe if I had read The Moonstone first, I'd have liked it more.  The epistolary style feels much fresher in The Woman in White than in The Moonstone.  But I'm not sure that's entirely because I read the former first; The Woman in White has more formal innovation, including extracts from a diary, a grave marker, and so on, whereas The Moonstone only has straightforward 1st person narrative.

But I'm not really looking for formal innovation in a Victorian novel.  I think the bigger problem is that The Moonstone doesn't have any really interesting characters, except possibly Detective Cuff, who barely shows up.  Wilkie Collins showed that he could create a strong female character in Marian Holcomb.  But Rachel, who is supposed to be strong-minded in the same way, comes off as merely spoiled.

She knows a good deal about the crime, but won't tell anyone what she knows.  This is bad enough, but Collins has all the other characters (except Cuff) basically shrug and say, "Rachel says that so-and-so is innocent, so that's good enough for me."  I think this is actually pretty patronizing; it's hard to imagine them doing the same for a male character.  More than that, it rings fairly hollow to me -- I would think that in real life, she'd get pressed pretty hard by her family (not to mention the family lawyer) to tell what she knows.

Really, I think that it's not a very good novel.  Instead, it's the sort of book that gave mysteries a bad name for decades -- contrived and plot-driven.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Einstein Intersection

Samuel Delaney was one of the important members of the New Wave of science fiction that started in the 60s, and The Einstein Intersection is one of the books which heralded the new direction science fiction was taking.  Less literal, more allegorical, and, in this novel, very explicitly mythical.

Delaney evokes the stories of Theseus, Orpheus, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and Billy the Kid.  Unusually, the protagonists are aware that they're re-enacting these archetypal stories, even as they switch among them.  In theory, this should give the plot more power, because we don't really know what's going to happen -- our Orpheus-hero could turn out to be working through a different story altogether.

But I found that the book was robbed of power instead.  There's some sense that the characters have to re-enact all the old stories in order to find new ones for themselves, but I don't understand why they want to.  Why would they stay on a hostile Earth (and it's clear that leaving is an option) and live old mythswhen there's no need?  It's never really explained.

On a side note, the Einstein Intersection of the title is very 60s, and doesn't make much sense to me.  There's some weird thing about Einsteinian provable truths crossing with Godelian non-provable truths, and it rather rubbed me the wrong way.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Marcus Aurelius Meditations

Not much to say about the Meditations.  They're a great statement of stoic principles, best read a few at a time, otherwise they get very repetitive.  But as a set of morals to live by, one could do worse.

Some of the Meditations are quite beautiful, some a very elegant phrasing of a more prosaic thought.  Overall, I'm glad to have finally gotten around to reading them.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca has one of the most famous opening sentences of any novel in the 20th century, followed up by a fantastic first chapter, very atmospheric and evocative.  From there, the story loses its drive for a while, but I was willing to cut it a lot slack from that first chapter.

I felt like it never quite regains the heights of the first chapter, but it regains its momentum once the planning for the fancy-dress ball starts, at about halfway through.  The reader knows something will go drastically wrong, and DuMaurier skilfully stretches out the suspense.  The last chapter of the novel is very rapid, which is just as well, because by that point it would be pretty easy to stay one jump ahead of the narration.  But I liked the understated way the novel ends, with no final confrontation between the narrator and Mrs. Danvers.  It fit in well with the sort of melancholic feel of the beginning.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

End Games

End Games, published posthumously, is the last of Michael Dibdin's uniformly excellent "Aurelio Zen" series.  Not one to fall into a routine, Dibdin took on a number of different voices and styles through the series, from high farce through depressed tragedy.  End Games is pretty squarely on the humorous side of the spectrum, with a few broad caricatures in the cast, and a plot involving the the Golden Menorah from the Jewish Temple, a movie about the Book of Revelation, and the burial place of Alaric, the leader of the Goths who sacked Rome.

The story takes a little while to get into gear; it takes Dibdin a little while to establish his cast and the tone of the novel.  In addition, the plot is very intricate, with several plot threads running simultaneously; in a masterpiece of plotting, Dibdin keeps them clear for us, even though nobody in the novel ever sees more than a couple of them.

The humor tends to be broad, as I mentioned above.  (Are there really any Microsoft millionaires who don't realize you need a passport to get into Italy?)  But I think that's really a part of the style of this sort of novel -- it's as silly as criticizing Bertie Wooster for being so ignorant.  It's a deliberate story-telling choice, as we can see from other Dibdin novels, where he adopts a completely different voice, and this novel needs to be reviewed on its own terms.  On those terms, it's a huge success, and a fitting novel to end a series on. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Occultation is a collection of horror stories by Laird Barron.  Most of the reviews I've seen compare Barron to Lovecraft, but I don't really see a huge resemblance.  If nothing else, Barron is a much tighter writer.

I think that people are focusing on the sense one gets in Barron that the horrors are bigger than just a vampire or zombie, that sense of "big" horror that we can't even really comprehend.  But Barron makes it much more personal than Lovecraft does, and I liked these stories more for it.

One side note -- Barron seems to love insect imagery, I'm not really sure why, even in stories where insects don't play a large part.  Other than that, this is a short note, because other than saying that these are good horror stories, I don't find much else to say about them.

Tristram Shandy

Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy has been on my re-read list for a while now, and I'm finally getting back to it, and what a pleasure it is.

It's almost impossible to talk about Tristram Shandy without talking about the narrative tricks -- skipped chapters, "translations" from invented Latin sources, breaking the fourth wall, and so on.  There are very few post-modern tricks that weren't explored by this novel back in the 1700s.

But I think, on this reading, that those tricks, funny as they are, are not the reason we still read the book today.   Sterne's portraits of Walter Shandy and his brother Toby (not to mention the less-important characters like Yorick or Dr. Slop) are vivid and funny, even if one takes out all of the textual tomfoolery.

Another thing that's become more clear to me on this re-reading is that, as digressive as Tristram might be as a narrator, Sterne is incomplete control of his narrative.  He constantly alludes to the topics he's going to get to when there's time to do so, then seems to get sidetracked, but he does seem to always actually get there.  I think the longest tease is the references to Widow Wadman, whose story doesn't show up until near the end, but, even there, we do eventually get the story.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Lady Killer

Ed McBain's Lady Killer is something like the seventh entry in his 87th precinct series.  I've read a few of the later novels (and some of his other work), and it's quite good.  So a while ago, when amazon was offering big discounts on a lot of the early 87th Precinct novels, I scooped a few of them up, hoping to see the evolution of a writer.

Unfortunately, even at 7 books in, this is not really a strong book.  The officers of the 87th are on the trail of a killer who has sent a note saying that he will strike at 8 PM.  They have 12 hours to find the killer and victim in a city of millions.  Luckily for them, McBain pulls the old "killer wants to be caught" bit, and so the note has clues within itself.

In the end, it's an inoffensive story, a quick read, but very slight.

I've still got a couple more of these early ones, so hoping for better luck next time.

The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham, is hard to read now, in our more post-colonial day.  It's the story of Kitty, a spoiled woman, who goes into plague-torn China and comes out a better, more empathic person.

Part of her growth comes in her reaction to the Chinese people.  At first, she thinks that they're all funny-looking and barbarous.  By the end of the novel, after caring for some of the plague victims in a convent, she learns that they're people too, and generally becomes less spoiled.  But the novel undercuts its own message.  Even as Kitty learns more about the Chinese, the novel gives us almost no Chinese people with any individuality at all.  Only two of them have names, and one of those (Colonel Yew) doesn't even have a speaking part.

Essentially, all of the Chinese people are in the novel to serve as catalysts for Kitty's personal growth.  The Europeans are nicely drawn individuals (Kitty's husband, the nuns in the convent, etc); only the Chinese are so treated like one big mass.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fluke, or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings

I've had Fluke on my to-read list for a long time, but I was disappointed in the last Christopher Moore book I read, so hadn't really gotten around to this one.

I had thought the humor in the last one more than a bit labored, and at first I was pleasantly surprised with Fluke.  It was funny, the characters engaging, and I was enjoying the noodling around.  Unfortunately, at some point the plot started up and it all went to hell.  The plot is kind of funny in a way, but I never really found myself laughing, and at the same time the writing seemed to get less funny.

In the end, I was back to my original opinion, and can't imagine I'll be reading more Christopher Moore.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Hearing Secret Harmonies

At long last, the final volume of A Dance to the Music of  Time. Like its predecessor, I don't think it comes up to standards of the best books in the series, but it's not necessarily easy to pin down why.  Certainly, on a sentence-by-sentence level, or even paragraph-by-paragraph, Powell is as good as ever here.

Oddly enough, I think part of the problem is the relatively well-defined plot.  I think that most of the books in the cycle have some sort of underlying structure, as I've mentioned in the occasional blog post.  But these last two novels may as well be subtitled "The Decline and Fall of Widmerpool."  And I think that the overtness is unfortunate -- Powell works well when everything is understated, I think.

Having said that, the final chapter was fantastic.  Everything that I've liked about the whole cycle, with a nice tie tack to the first novel, A Question of Upbringing, bringing us full circle.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

In the Bleak Midwinter

Juliet Spencer-Fleming's In the Bleak Midwinter is a very solid first novel.  I liked several things about it very much, and there wasn't really anything to dislike.

First, there's a real tangible feeling of place in her upstate New York setting, and it feels almost like another character.  The ice and snow are constant companions, from the beginning of the novel when Rev. Fergusson rescues a baby from hypothermia, right through the climax when she again confronts the driving snow and cold.  But even in the normal scenes of driving from place to place, the cold and ice are there, whether it's in the driving conditions, the cold feet, etc.  Reminded me of my days in Rochester.

Second, the two main characters, Rev. Fergusson and Russ VanAlstyne are very believable.  I've mentioned before that it seems to be hard for most authors I read to make interesting/believable religious characters.  Here, Spencer-Fleming has created a nice dichotomy between Rev. Fergusson and Van Alstyne, without tilting the field toward one or the other.

I look forward to reading more novels about these characters.

Temporary Kings

Temporary Kings is the eleventh book of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time cycle.  More elegiacal than what has come before, it's clear that the series is drawing to a close.  That's probably a good thing; as much as I enjoyed this novel, it's a pretty clear fall-off from, say, the WWII volumes, or even the immediately preceding novel, Books Do Furnish a Room.

Widmerpool's turning out to be a Stalinist spy of some sort felt like a plot twist out of a different sort of novel altogether, and the spectacular blow-up at the end of the novel felt like an inelegant departure from the normally restrained tone of the other novels.

On the other hand, some good new characters are introduced, and I liked the way the book weaves the past into the present so effortlessly.  Nick hears an old man singing "Funiculi, Funicula," and that takes him into a reminiscence of when he was younger in Italy for a short while, then he's back to the present, and then there might be a short bit about one of the characters we saw in a previous volume, and so on.  All this, of course, adds to the elegiacal tone I mentioned above.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Books do Furnish a Room

Coming in to the final stretch of A Dance to the Music of Time, this is volume 10.  In the immediate post-war years, Nick Jenkins's acquaintances Quiggen and Craggs try to publish a literary journal.

As always with this series, I liked book 10, even though there's so much of the sort of thing that normally annoys me.  The plot, such as it is, is negligible.  We still never see Nick's wife Ysabel, even though the novel starts with her brother's death and she has a baby 2/3 of the way through.  In fact, we get very little of the interior Nick, even when his son is born.

And yet...  The characters that are present are so sharply drawn, and the prose is such a pleasure to hear, that I'm loving the series. Speaking of hearing the prose, I have to give props to Simon Vance, who does a great job of bringing these characters to life.

It's been a great ride so far, and I'm looking forward to the next two books.  (Audible packages them 3 together, so I'll be listening to them soon).

Hose Monkey, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

A couple of disappointing novels which I couldn't finish.

I was looking forward to Hose Monkey by Reed Farrell Coleman, because I very much enjoyed Walking the Perfect Square.  But I found the first 40% to be fairly pedestrian, and gave up at that point.  It's not that's it's an bad book, it's just not a stand-out in any way.

On the other hand, I found Jonathan Saffron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to be actively annoying.  The narrator, Oskar, is putatively nine years old, but he doesn't feel like a nine-year-old, not even a very smart (asperger?) one.  I just couldn't get into this one, and gave up about 15% in.

Child in Time

I've had one thing or another by Ian McEwan on my to-read list for a wihle, but Child in Time was never one of them.  But amazon offered it cheap one day, so I grabbed it.

As a devotee of the crime genre, I'm used to books about kidnappings, but not so much kidnappings that are never solved.  (Although Tana French's In the Woods does this as well).  Instead, McEwan is more interested in charting the course of the bereft parents' grief.  I really liked this aspect of the novel -- the protagonist's arc of depression felt very real to me.

Less successful, I think, are the two sub-plots.  In one, our protagonist is on a subcomittee writing a manual on child-care which turns out to be a farce.  (Delivering a manual with chapters like "A good smack saves nine.")  These sections almost read like satire, but not particularly sharp, maybe because I don't live in the UK.  More importantly, the tone of these passages feels very jarring coming in the middle of a psychological portrait of grief.

The other major sub-plot concerns a friend who retreats into childhood rather than face his regrets about the way his life has turned out.  This story should be a nice counterpoint to the main story, giving a sort of what-might-have-been, but it never really gelled for me.

Overall, I liked the novel enough to put more McEwan on my to-read list.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Changes, Side Jobs, The End of the Affair

More Jim Butcher with Changes  and Side Jobs.  Guess I'm sort of addicted, even though I the writing is pedestrian at best.  More people raise one eyebrow in 10 pages than I've seen do it in my life.  Same with snorting.  But from a plot perspective, Butcher keeps things moving.  And he's not afraid to change up the series -- Changes definitely lives up to its name, closing off several long-running plot threads, including one that I thought would keep going till the end.

Graham Greene's The End of the Affair is a much more weighty novel, even though it clocks in at less than half the length of a Dresden novel.  On the one hand, this is a fairly intellectual novel about the nature of faith and God and suffering.  But it's also a cri de coeur for the protagonist, who can't deny God's existence, but also can't accept His cruelty.

Usually, I'd feel that there were one too many miraculous events near the end of the novel, but here they heighten the intellectual tension.  Rather than giving the author an easy way out, they point up the arbitrary nature of miracles -- one person is saved, another dies from flu.

The end of the Iliad. Woot!

Whew!  Did it!  Finished book 24 of The Iliad!  Book 24 is very powerful, flows beautifully even for my limited Greek.  I'm not sure the whole 24-book shebang was worth reading in the original, but there are certain highlights that really were, and book 24 is one of them.

Next, on to Plato's Symposium.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Angel on the Beach

Angel on the Beach was a set of short stories by Jay Caselberg.  Overall, I liked most of them, enough to pick up one of his novels.  They tend to have a slightly spooky feel without going into overall horror.

Unfortunately, one downside of reading short stories and then waiting to blog them is that I can't remember the details of most of the stories I read, so this is going to be a very short post.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt was an odd little book (as well as seeming an odd nominee for the Mann Booker prize).  A western with touches of magic realism (and maybe science fiction), the novel also has a stylized narrative style that would stand out in any book, let alone an amalgamation like this one.

The title already tells us that we're in for something a bit different -- the oxymoronic mixing of Sisters Brothers promises strange alchemies in the course of the novel.  And so we have the brothers themselves, one pretty clearly a psychopath, the other gentler (but when it comes right down to it, is he any better?  He certainly aids and abets his crazier brother).  We have the genius scientist who finds a better way to find gold, but poisons the landscape and himself in the process (I think the beavers that are destroyed as the result of his process help humanize a metaphor that's otherwise too stark).  We have the weird witch who lays a curse on the brothers.

DeWitt has a flair for set pieces.  Some are funny (the bit where Eli tries to order vegetables in a restaurant was hilarious), some are frightening (the witch), some are sad (the beavers).  Eli's narrative style, deadpan and serious, makes the funny moments funnier.  At the same time, the funny episodes and the more serious ones get the same narrative style, and so DeWitt can switch back & forth rapidly, which is great -- you never quite know how any of the events will play out.  Events which start out ludicrously can turn out to be quite moving.

My one issue with the novel is that it feels a bit schematic in the long ending section.  The two brothers ascend to the top of the world, so to speak, and then tumble down through each location they visited earlier in the novel in reverse order.  I know that there's a venerable tradition for this sort of journey in literature (the obvious one that comes to mind is A Clockwork Orange), but I don't think there's a way for it to avoid feeling mechanical, and that's a pity for a novel that had mostly felt very fresh until that point.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Mill on the Floss

I just finished George Elliots The Mill on the Floss, which I liked, but not as much as Middlemarch, which I really loved.  Like MiddleMarch, Mill on the Floss doesn't really have a unified plot.  But in Middlemarch, the major plot arcs happen simultaneously, one to each of the three families, in Mill, the arcs are successive, and they feel badly tacked together.

In a sense, Mill could be looked at as three books -- "The childhood of Tom & Maggie Tulliver", "Tom pays off the family debts," and "Maggie Tulliver's disgrace."  Taken together, these stories provide an engrossing portrait of the rural English life of Elliot's childhood, but they're also somewhat static in themselves, particularly the first of them.  But even the story of Tom's coming of age is rather static, though it shouldn't be.  But Elliot elides the period of time from when he first starts making money till the point when he has enough to pay the family debts.  So instead, we see Tom only in his before and after states.  Finally, Maggie's story at the end is sort of a portrait of what it's like to be in such disgrace -- at the point when she gets ready to move on, the flood comes and conveniently wipes everything out.

Of course, all this carping does not mean I didn't enjoy the book.  I enjoyed it, but reading it so soon after Middlemarch, which I thought was superlative, it's hard to avoid the comparison.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


212 was pretty average.  Not bad, really, and I ended up skimming the last half instead of giving up outright, but nothing about it stood out for me either.  One thing I didn't like was the role of coincidence -- it's a common-place in police procedurals for two unrelated crimes to end up related (although I sometimes find those contrived as well), but in this case, we have 3 cases that are related, and our protagonist ends up on each one completely by accident (rather than, say, talking to someone working on one of them, which bothers me less).

The Killer Inside Me

Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me is one of the classic noir books.  It gives us a picture of psychopath from the inside; as the novel starts, he's managed to restrain himself for 15-20 years (at a guess), but he's about to start killing.

For a book written in 1952, The Killer Inside Me feels very modern.  There's a bit of psycho-analysis to explain why Lou went off the rails, and at first I felt like "oh, no, he's taking it out on the women because they remind him of an experience when he was 14," but then Lou asks himself the question "why all the men?" and realizes that, in the end, he can only guess but his own thought processes are not really open to himself.

One other thing I liked was that, although this is a violent book, the violence is clearly not intended to be titillating.  Overall, Killer deserves its reputation as one of the great noir novels.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Turncoat, Princeps' Fury

Two books by Jim Butcher, about whom I've written a lot over the years.

As always, his plot-lines are great; he writes a good climax.  His writing has also steadily improved -- Turncoat never really made me cringe, and it had a couple of similes I quite liked.  His dialog is solid enough, even if there's still too much reliance on stock phrases.  (This tendency is worse in the Codex Alera series -- it's kind of ridiculous that, 10 years in, Kitai still calls Tavi "Aleran," or Max still calls him "Calderan."  This would be like my calling my wife "Bostonian," or my colleagues at work "Russian" and "Indian.")

One nice thing in Princeps' Fury is that Tavi makes a huge mistake; it's nice to see that he's as fallible as the others characters for once.  Although Issana and Bernard are still never wrong.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Night Watch, A Darkness on the Edge of Town

Two books about which I don't have much to say.

I used to be a big fan of Pratchett's Discworld novels, then lost interest.  Now, 15 years later, I decided to give the series another go with Night Watch.  I must admit, I really enjoyed it.  Pratchett is a funny guy.  My only qualms with the book are (a) there's an odd mix between the humor and a couple of the characters who are just casually brutal, and (b) I sometimes find the mix of humor and didacticism grating, even though I tend to agree with the POV presented.  Oddly enough, the second of these is the reason I stopped reading in the first place.  But maybe it's been long enough, because I'm ready to dive back into the series again -- but this time I'll take it slow...

J. Carson Black's On the Edge of Town introduces her detective Laura Cardinal.  I found Cardinal appealing, but I didn't like the book very much.  Yet another serial killer book, this one features two serial killers, maybe more.  The serial killer sub-genre is a more than a little over-crowded now, and so it takes more than this novel has to offer to stand out.  (John Connolly's Charlie Parker novels, for example, impressed me)

The Cold, Cold Ground

The Cold, Cold Ground is the nth book by Adrian Mckinty which I've ended up listening to in Gerard Doyle's narrative voice.  At such point as I end up reading Fifty Grand, I'll have to make the agonizing choice of print vs audio, since Doyle didn't narrate that one, and the two seem inseparable to me.

In this novel, McKinty puts Doyle to the test, setting the novel near Belfast during the Troubles, with different accents coming thick & fast.  I, of course, can't tell one Irish accent from another (although the Rhodesian one was quite good, I thought), but the sounds give one an idea of the ... I'm not sure what to call it ... ethnic mix isn't right, neither is tribal identities, but Belfast at the time was very divided, the accents are a sort of metonymy for the conflict.  (On a side note, I thought the Doctor's accent came & went a bit, but that's a minor point).

That aside...  how was the actual book?  I quite liked it, although I've got to admit that a priori it wouldn't normally be the sort of book I'd tend to read.  The Troubles aren't really a period that grabs me particularly (although I also liked Eoin McNamee's Resurrection Man).  But McKinty's been a writer I enjoy reading since Dead I Well May Be, so I decided to give this one a shot.  After a lyrical beginning, Cold, Cold Ground is stylistically fairly restrained, which lets you focus on the very colorful events going on around Sean Duffy, the protagonist.  A Catholic cop living in a Protestant neighborhood, Duffy is not exactly marked out for a quiet life.  Here, he ends up involved in two murder investigations, one official and one on his own time (more or less).

One thing I liked about Cold, Cold Ground is that the story is very tied to its time and place, but at the same time don't feel didactic.  The Troubles form a necessary backdrop, but somehow it doesn't feel like McKinty wants to lecture me about them.  I guess I'm mostly thinking of Stuart Neville's Ghosts of Belfast, which felt pretty uninteresting to me, because it did feel very moralistic.  Not that McKinty's world lacks a moral center; Sean Duffy is a man with a clear moral compass, even as it leaves him in the occasional quandary.

Two last points.  The amazon review mentions a serial killer.  At this point in my life, I'm heartily sick of serial killer novels, but this one is sufficiently different to be interesting .  Even in the early stages, where it seems more standard, there's enough other stuff going on to keep the story vibrant.  Second, Duffy goes through a bit of a sexual awakening that felt kind of tacked-on (sorry if you're reading this, Adrian).  I assume it'll play out in the later novels of the trilogy, but it just felt kind of extraneous here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Thicker Than Water

Thicker Than Water is the fourth novel in the Felix Castor series, which I've said before is the best of its little sub-genre of noir urban fantasy.  Actually, that strikes me as damning with faint praise, given the competition, so I should probably say that it's one of the strongest fantasy series going, as well as one of the strongest noir series going.

Carey has a mordant sense of style:
[I]t’s got a bit of class, as hospitals go. Tell me it wouldn’t lift your spirits to be wheeled out of an ambulance past that terrific eighteenth-century fa├žade. ‘Bloody hell,’ you’d think, ‘I’m going up in the world.’
As well as arresting images like "The next day dragged on like a wounded snake across a barbed wire entanglement."

The preceding is all common to every book in the series, but there isn't much to say specific to this one, except that Carey finally fires the Chekov's gun he's been showing since book 1.  I'm very much looking forward to the fifth novel.

Jewish Dog

Finally finished The Jewish Dog. It's a bit hard to write about it from a literary perspective, because, having poured so much time and effort into it, I want it to be excellent.  With that caveat out of the way...

For most of the book, Kravitz juggles the irony of the dog's perspective of the Holocaust compared to the theoretically more advanced humans'.  But, in the end, the dog comes to understand what's going on in the death camps, and I thought that this part wasn't so successful.  By the time he meets his former Jewish master, the story has turned into a fairly straight adventure story, without the levels of awareness that made up the previous sections of the novel.

And then, at the very end of the novel, Kravitz redeems it all in a master-stroke.  Dog and master die, go to heaven, and meet God.  Instead of a full-on discussion of theodicy (which I think wouldn't have worked anyway), Joshua (the dog's owner) argues with God about whether the dog is even allowed into the human heaven.  There's also some studied ambiguity about the Heavenly Dog who appears from time to time in the novel -- what connection does he have to God?

Overall, I think this was a book well worth the time it took to read, although I'd probably counsel slow Hebrew readers (like myself) to skim through the last few chapters until the epilog.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is one of the earliest English novels, and in some ways it shows its age, particularly in the too-long denouement.  But overall, I found it pretty enthralling, and it often surprised me.

For example, in a bit of what we'd now call multi-culturalism, Crusoe decides that he shouldn't interfere in how the savages conduct themselves, since they have their own norms, which are not the same as his.  Of course, this is all over-laid with a dose of 17th century imperialism; the savages have their own norms, but the British norms are still better, and Crusoe knows that eventually they'll come over to Christianity.  But he feels that it's not his place to presume to correct them (except in the case of Friday, of course).

The novel is as much a story of Crusoe's spiritual odyssey as it is a story of his physical struggle to survive.  Crusoe attributes his success to Divine Providence, which constantly allows him little favors, like the survival of some amount of corn so that he can raise corn on his island.  It seems a little churlish to point out that, in order to teach Crusoe a lesson, God kills his 20-odd crewmates, but that thought kept running through my head.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Desert Places

The edition of Blake Crouch's Desert Places which I got on my kindle has two endings, neither of which is totally satisfactory.  This isn't some sort of meta-fictional game, like Fowles' French Lieutenant's Woman.  Instead, we have the story as published, and Crouch's original idea which all the publishers rejected.

In both cases, we have a seemingly omniscient psychopathic bad guy tormenting protagonist Andrew.  The published version just leaves it at that.  Bad guys are scary, and that's just the way it is.  They can watch your every move, track your private conversations, and survive weather conditions that would kill anyone else.  On the one hand, this is an exciting way to run a story, but as soon as I stopped to think about it, my suspension of disbelief was gone.

The original ending actually has a good explanation for what's going on, but it's so obvious that I figured it out 10 pages in, leaving me a good 90 pages of fairly tedious reading to see if I was right.  Crouch is no Chuck Palahniuk.

I've started the sequel, but I don't see myself finishing it (I've already taken a break to start another book).  It's one thing to have an explicitly supernatural antagonist; it's a whole other thing to have a supposed human who's able to survive being shot and left to die in subzero temperatures more than 10 miles from the nearest habitation.  That's no longer scary, it's just pointless.

She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tales of Biblical Terror

She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tales of Biblical Terror has a title somewhat belied by its contents.  To me, the title seems to promise looking at the bible stories through a slightly different lens, in which they're actually scary, but at the same time, it seems to me a bit of a tongue-in-cheek title.

The stories themselves are mostly not funny (although one is).  They're a bit of a grab-bag, from fairly direct retellings of biblical stories (Ruth as a vampire, Jonah as a disciple of cthulhu) to ones very loosely inspired by the original (Daniel as a modern-day poet brought in to help with forecasting the future at the firm of Bell, Chase, and Her).  This last was a good story in its own right, and I quite enjoyed it.  The Ruth story was good.  Cathrynne Valente had a story, and, despite the fact that I usually enjoy her writing, I didn't like it at all.

All in all, I'm glad I gave it a try.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one I can talk about without worrying whether I'm giving anything away.  For better or for worse, we all come to this novel already knowing what the twist ending is going to be, which is a bit of a pity.

I tried to read it with blinders on, as if this were a new novel I'd never heard of, which is a difficult thing to do.  The first thing that becomes apparent is that (as the title implies), Stevenson has structured the story something like a mystery novel, in which we don't know the connection between Jekyll and Hyde until the last pages.  On the other hand, a reader can never penetrate the mystery unless he already knows the answer -- there's no rational answer to be found in the text.

And I think that's ultimately part of what drives this story -- the limits of rationality.  Jekyll's rationality holds Hyde in check (as our rationality holds our internal Hydes in check), but cannot kill him.  Further, although we see Jekyll's evil side in Hyde, we never see a wholly good side.  For dramatic purposes, perhaps, a wholly good character is not so interesting, but there are probably ways around that.  Rather, I think that it's an essential part of the somewhat pessimistic point of view of the story; although an evil side can exist by itself, it's not really clear what a completely good side would even look like.  The Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy is not so much good/evil as it is rational/evil.  And yet it's Jekyll's rationality that leads him to freeing Hyde.

For such a short book, there's a lot to think about packed into its pages.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist was one of the first books by Dickens that I read, back in the day.  I should say, started to read, because I couldn't get more than halfway through before giving up.  But in the past couple of years, I've read and enjoyed a few books by Dickens, so I figured I'd give it another try.

I know that Oliver Twist is one of Dickens' best-loved books, but for the life of me I don't see why.  It's not a terrible book, but I felt like it has neither the depth of, say, Great Expectations or the humor of Nicholas Nickleby.  I will say that the penultimate chapter (Fagin's last day on Earth) is very good.  But that's balanced out by the fact that Oliver himself is a cipher, the love story (such as it is) is boring, and the good guys are generally interchangeable.

I'm leaving out the standard Dickens faults, like the extended use of coincidence, because I like the other novels even though they're just as bad on that front.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sharpe's Prey

Sharpe's Prey seems to exist primarily to fill in the hole between Sharpe's Trafalgar and Sharpe's Rifles.  Which doesn't necessarily make it a bad book; rather, it seems a little atypical, in that Sharpe has no particular reason to be in this story.  Sharpe ends up in Denmark during the second British bombardment of Copenhagen.  This part of history was new to me, and Cornwell does a great job bringing it to life.  So from that standpoint, the book is a success.

As a whole, the book is a bit of a downer, which is different from the others.  The British come across as the bad guys, even within the system of 18th century morality.  And it's as much as stated that Sharpe's love interest will be executed once he's in no position to hear about it.  In short, a good novel, just not really what I was expecting.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Out of the Sun

Out of the Sun is a followup to Robert Goddard's Into the Blue.  In that novel, perennial loser Harry Barnett ends up foiling an evil plot and saving the girl, who then says "so long" and leaves.  Out of the Sun picks up some time later, and Harry is still a loser.

I think Harry's character arc is probably the best thing about Out of the Sun.  Although Harry can be resourceful, it's also hard to break the habits developed over a life-time of life beating him down.  Whether it's a case of events conspiring against him (his partner embezzling from their joint business) or Harry sabotaging himself (drinking his life away), things don't work out for him.  So he's taken a very slacker attitude, choosing not to care about anything.  Even when, as in this novel, he decides he wants to care, it's hard for him  to stop sabotaging his own efforts, and this was one of the big sources of suspense -- is Harry going to stop himself, aside from any external issues?

Sword of the Lictor

The Sword of the Lictor is the third of Gene Wolfe's book of the New Sun.  Severian is slowly maturing; near the start of the novel he helps an innocent escape instead of executing her.

This novel also has one of the most obvious Christian parallels, where Severian is taken up on high and offered dominion over the world, albeit in a science fictional context.  At the same time, there's an interesting twist, in that Severian kills the Satan-figure with the equivalent of a karate move, something I don't think we see in the biblical version.  I think this illustrates the complexity of the biblical parallels with BotNS -- Severian is not himself supposed to be Christ, he's merely a man trying to do good and bring light to a fallen world.

Iliad, book 24

I finally reached the last book!  Zeus sends Tethis to Achilles to tell him to ransom Hector's body, and he sends Iris to Priam to tell him that he may go retrieve Hector's body.

Lots of powerful speeches here.  Apollo's protest to the gods at the way they permit Achilles to remain obdurate, Tethis's reminder to her son that grief cannot replace food or rest, Hecabe's protest to Priam that she doesn't want him to go to the Greek camp are all very strong.  We also see Zeus here as the conciliator, finding a middle ground between Apollo and Hera, honoring Achilles without dishonoring Hector.

Richardson comments that book 24 looks forward to the Odyssey, where both have scenes of gods complaining to Zeus about the gods' unjust treatment of mortals, and I found that really interesting as well.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Red Tree

Caitlin Kiernan's The Red Tree falls into the long tradition of the horror novel as journal, often with a preface telling us how the journal came to be found, although its writer is no longer with us.

These novels depend on mood even more than most horror novels, because the final confrontation has to take place off-stage, after the journal has ended.  Not only that, but everything has to happen in retrospect, so to speak, because the journal entries must be after-the-fact.  So these stories rely on the journal entries to slowly build a sense of dread, even as not much may be happening in the outside world.

The Red Tree is an excellent exemplar of the form, with the eponymous red tree a spooky presence through the whole book without itself doing anything overt.  Kiernan has given us a bit of a modernist twist by making the journal unreliable -- Sarah, its author, has mental issues, and admits to making things up.  Even so, I think we're supposed to "believe" in most of the journal, even if only as an insight into Sarah's slide into madness.

I also think this book will repay another read-through; a lot of it has a sort of dream logic that feels like it will make more sense later.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White is absolutely amazing so far (2/3 of the way through).  I've known for a long time that Collins is the "other" Victorian popular writer (he was Dickens's rival), but, although I've read a fair amount of Dickens, I never got round to reading Collins.

I decided to take a chance on it when audible was doing a 3-for-2 deal, and I wanted the other two anyway, and I started this book expecting not to be so impressed, but I was very wrong.  The novel starts out a bit slowly, but within an hour I was hugely enjoying it. First off, Marian Halcombe is one of the best female characters I've run into by a male Victorian writers.  She's more interesting than just about Dickens female, not to mention Henry James's Isabel Archer.  She's funny, opinionated, and bold, and I enjoyed her diary section very much.

Which brings me to the second thing I'm enjoying.  Collins has a different character narrate each section of the novel, each with a different voice -- this is something I expect more out of modernist fiction than the Victorians, and I was pleasantly surprised.  Given a paragraph by any of these characters, one could immediately assign it to the right one.  (Granted, some of them, like the housekeeper are more of a type than a character, but others are really well done).

Third, I'm finding the novel suspenseful, even though it should by rights be pretty creaky stuff by now.  The Woman in White is one of the earliest suspense novels, and the whispered conversations, conniving husband, mysterious foreigner, etc, should are all rather old hat.  And yet...  I found myself wanting to play some sections at double speed so that I could find out the resolution (though I've managed to resist so far).

Of course, the novel has its faults, in particular the villains who are pretty much a type.  Although the villainous Italian count is an interesting enough schemer that he's fun to read about anyway.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Manuscript Found in Saragossa

I finished reading The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and I wasn't so impressed.  I think Potocki used up his best material in the first third, and the effort of tying the stories together didn't really work for me.  And the ending is a total disaster. 

I'm not if the school that says that the ending of a novel can break the whole thing if it's not good, especially not for such a mosaic novel as this one.  But I was really losing steam by 2/3 of the way through, and I only pushed through to see how Potocki would end it, and was very disappointed.

The Stress of Her Regard

I last read Tim Powers's The Stress of Her Regard some 20 years ago.  I'm re-reading it, fortuitously it turns out, since the sequel just came out last week.

With 20 years under the bridge, it's a bit easier to see this book within the spectrum of Powers's ouevre. For good and for bad, it seems to take many of his usual themes and turn them up to 11.  We have a secret history involving more than 10 real historical figures in major and minor roles (more typically Powers works with only a few, and rarely in major roles).  Both hero and heroine suffer horrendous bodily damage, and more than once.  Powers combines a bunch of disparate mythological references, here as far as apart as vampires, the graiae, the sphinx, and so on.

In all, I think he over-eggs the pudding a bit.  In the excellent Last Call, every new revelation feels somehow inevitable, a feeling of "Aha! I should have guessed that it worked that way."  Here, it sometimes feels forced -- OK, I get that vampires are disrupted by wooden stakes and silver bullets because the one is a non-conductor and the other is too good a conductor.  But why the garlic?

Having said that, this book, while not up to the standards of Last Call, is very good.  A number of the set pieces are as good as anything he's ever written (the whole Alp section, the ending, and the beginning in particular).  His Byron is manages to be alternately sympathetic and horrible while remaining clearly one consistent character.  Even knowing the end, I found the book to be consistently suspenseful, not an easy thing to pull off.

All in all, I'm eagerly looking forward to the new book.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Portrait of a Lady, Manuscript found in Saragossa

I've given up on Portrait of a Lady.  No good reason, but I just wasn't particularly enjoying it.

I'm now in the middle of Jan Potocki's Manuscript found in Saragossa, a very odd novel indeed.  In some ways, it's a fairly modern book, despite being written in the 18th century.  The closest analog I can think of is Catherynne Valente's Orphan's Tales, with its stories-within-stories.

In this novel, we follow a young officer of the Walloon guards as he stays the night in a possibly haunted inn, meets up with a cabbalist and his sister, then some gypsies, and then even the wandering Jew.  As he travels with them, these characters tell him (and each other) their stories, which sometimes involve others' stories, which can even involve other stories still.

One big difference from the Valente book is that there's also a lot of cross-cutting.  There are three outer stories being narrated, and Potocki switches among them quickly.  His characters are also more aware of how dizzying it can all be than are Valente's, as this little excerpt shows (a mathematician is complaining about the Gypsy King's story):
‘Really, this story alarms me. All the gypsy’s stories begin in a simple enough way and you think you can already predict the end. But things turn out quite differently. The first story engenders the second, from which a third is born, and so on, like periodic fractions resulting from certain divisions which can be indefinitely prolonged. In mathematics there are several ways of bringing certain progressions to a conclusion, whereas in this case an inextricable confusion is the only result I can obtain from all the gypsy has related'

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Portrait of a Lady

I've started Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, which many point to as the first of his mature works.  At about 1/3 of the way in, I must confess to not liking it all that much.  The people spend of lot of time talking in epigrams, so that I feel a bit like being in a very long-winded Oscar Wilde story, except that Wilde would have disposed of the events so far in half the space.

For now, though, I'll give James the benefit of the doubt, assuming that he's still maturing his style in these early chapters.  (The novel was originally published serially in a magazine, so that's certainly possible).

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I've finished Jacob de Zoet and coming to the end of Ghostwritten, so here are some more thoughts on both.

First, Ghostwritten is the more obviously bravura performance.  I loved Jacob deZoet, but parts of Ghostwritten took my breath away.  But Mitchell is playing post-modernist tricks in deZoet as well.  The slave narrative at the beginning of part III and the long poem at the start of chapter 39 are the most obvious examples, but I wonder whether the whole of part II is another.  I think part II is the weakest section, with all of hugger-mugger straight out of a Gothic novel (evil monks, crazy death cults, an inescapable monastery), but I wonder to what extent readers are expected to realize that it's a deliberate borrowing, not necessarily to be taken seriously.  For that matter, I wonder to what extent a reader should take it seriously at all -- it feels pretty intrusive into the otherwise-realistic flow of the novel.

Second, Mitchell has an amazing ability to inhabit his characters and give us their voices.  Again, Ghostwritten is the more obviously virtuosic of the two, but I think that creating a pious man like Jacob without making him a goody-two-shoes is a real achievement, as is the creation of Penhaligon.  To me, this is the major thing connecting the two novels -- Mitchell's amazing array of voices.

Third, I'm now a David Mitchell fanboy, and I'm sure I'll be reading his other books in the near future.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Thoussand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, Ghostwritten

Due to one thing and another, I'm listening to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet while reading Ghostwritten, both by David Mitchell.  If nothing else, the two books show Mitchell's versatility.  Thousand Autumns is a fairly straightforward historical novel about a Dutch trading outpost in Japan in the late 1700s, while Ghostwritten is a loosely linked collection of narratives (each with a very distinct narrator).

I'm less than halfway through either book, so I'm hesitant to give impressions.  The third story in Ghostwritten, for example, was radically different from what had come before, and more reversals could easily come.  But it's clear that Mitchell has some serious literary chops, and I'm enjoying both books very much.

On a side note, I finished book 23 of the Iliad, coming up now to the big finale.  Woohoo, it's been a long journey.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Beekeper's Apprentice

I previously read one of Laurie R. King's "Mary Russell" books more than two years ago, so it was interesting to go back and re-read my comments in light of my latest read, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, which is the first of the "Mary Russell" books.

As I wrote then, Mary Russell should by rights be an unbearable Mary Sue.  She's (almost) as smart as Sherlock Holmes, physically very fit, a deadshot aim with a rock (which plays a role in two separate incidents in the novel), and manages to get Holmes off his cocaine habit just by meeting him.  And yet...  I enjoyed the novel quite a bit.  I couldn't even really say why. 

King gives us some nice chemistry between Holmes and Russell, and she doesn't try to have Russell over-shadow Holmes.  In fact, though Russell is shown to be very fast, in the end Holmes is still the lead.  (which makes sense, as he's got a leg up of 40 years' worth of experience).

Having said all that, I still find a little goes a long way, and I imagine it will be a while till I return to the Russell/Holmes duo.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Deadhouse Gates

The Deadhouse Gates is the second novel in Steve Erickson's monumental Malazan series.  It alone clocks in at 850 pages, longer than the entire Book of the New Sun put together.

The most important question is, was it any good, and fortunately it's easy to answer yes.  Malazan is a complex world, with a lot of different cultures, and it's clear that Erickson's put some thought into the way it's put together.  Although I can imagine editing this book somewhat, I don't think it could be significantly cut.

The harder question is, is it worth the time and energy to read it?  After all, the series is a whole is probably as long as the complete works of many authors, some of whom are better writers than Erickson.  But the large canvas he's chosen for himself gives Erickson the chance to work on a huge scale.  Even by the end of the second novel, I felt like there's a lot of Malazan left to explore, and that Erickson has a handle on how he wants to unfold it.  And that sense of scale can be fun to read in and of itself, even if the writing is occasionally clunky -- the feeling that no-one is doing anything quite like this.  (I know that Malazan gets frequent comparisons to A Song of Fire and Ice, but (a) the Song isn't finished yet, and  (b) it's not really clear that Martin knows where he's taking the series.  I haven't read the novels myself, but I've definitely heard that the latest couple of novels have had a lot of treading water).

Death of a Gossip

Death of a Gossip is the first Hamish MacBeth novel.  I liked the TV series for its offbeat humor, as well as that it had a low-key approach.  As I recall, there was a crime of some sort in most episodes, but it never amounted to much (one episode was about a thief who leaves a pint of raspberry ripple ice cream at the scene of every crime).

The novels, however, seem to center around murder, from the descriptions.  As a general rule, that would irritate me, since part of me is saying "that would make Lochdubh the per-capita murder capital of the world, given that it has only a few hundred inhabitants)."  But that's neither here nor there for the first novel in a series.

More importantly, M.C. Beaton seems to follow the Agatha Christie school of mystery writing.  In the pool of suspects, there are only one or two without a motive (really, only one), and so that's the one who must've done it.  Beaton's writing is humorous enough, and the novel is short enough (less than 5 hours on audible), that I can see myself reading another one, but I don't seem that time coming soon.

The Lighthouse Land

I think of Adrian McKinty as a crime fiction author, but The Lighthouse Land is an exception, being both a YA novel and science fiction to boot.  So, how does it stack up against his crime fiction, which I've liked in the past?

So, how did it stack up against his adult fiction?  Not so well, I'm afraid.  It's not exactly that it was a bad book, but it didn't have much of the flair that characterizes his other novels.  I mentioned Michael Forsyth's flights of fancy in one of my earlier posts, so I'm not going to rehash it, but I think one of McKinty's strongest points is a very individual voice, and that was a bit lacking here.

My other problem lies in the science fiction aspect.  This book has a heavy emphasis on the science behind the magic, so to speak.  Jamie's arm comes and goes because the salmon scans his DNA, and the missing arm isn't missing in the rebuilt Jamey; humans and Altairians can't have kids because of different biology; and so on.  And once you're going to go that route (instead of a more Star-Wars-y hand waving route), the science has to be pretty solid.  Viruses shouldn't be able to jump to aliens who may not even have DNA; the idea of the salmon rebuilding your body from your DNA is really problematic (how does it know how fat to make you? How does it know how tall you are? etc), and so on.

It's probably churlish to pick on a YA science fiction novel for weak science, but it nagged at me enough that I didn't enjoy the novel.  Paradoxically, these things bother me less in novels where the author doesn't even try to explain -- I find that no explanation is worse for me than a bad one.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Resurrection Man

Adrian Mckinty listed a few of his favorite Irish crime writers in his blog, and I decided to give a few of them a try.  Corridors of Death was the first, and Eoin McNamee's Resurrection Man is the second.  But I almost hesitate to call it a "crime novel;" this isn't from any genre snootiness ("This book is good; it couldn't possibly be a crime novel."), but rather because it focuses less on the crimes than of the milieu of Belfast during the Troubles.  (Having said that, I'm actually a little over 2/3s of the way through, so any opinions are subject to change).

The novel focuses on Victor Kelly, a Protestant terrorist, and through him and the reactions of others to him, McNamee offers a glimpse of Belfast seen through the lens of Protestant/Catholic fighting.  McNamee's language is obviously carefully thought-out and well-crafted, so the number of similes and metaphors relating actions to the cinema are telling.  From Victor on down, just about all of the characters see themselves as part of a gangster movie.  The violence they take part in isn't real to them, and they see themselves as glamorous heroes of the silver screen rather than the terrorists they actually are.

I think that (in general) this is one of the great things about similes; the similes characters use can tell us what they think without the author having to come out and say "Victor didn't see any of this as real; he thought his life was like a movie."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Small Favor concluded, Corridors of Death

As I mentioned in my last post about Small Favor, one of Butcher's strengths is the large-scale architecture of his novels.  He tends to write good climactic scenes and to structure the lead-up to them well.  Unfortunately, in Small Favor, although the story as a whole is satisfying, the denouement is very weak; it essentially consists of Harry visiting a bunch of major characters and opening up plot points for the next novel.

Ruth Ann Dudley's Corridors of Death is the first in a series about Robert Aimiss, a civil servant,  and James Milton, a police detective.  In this novel, she gives us a mildly satiric view of the British Parliament (some of which resonates even with this American), some nicely rounded characters, but also a rather dull plot.  Amazon reviewers seem to indicate that the series gets much better, and I liked what I read enough to try the second at some point.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Small Favor

Small Favor is the 10th of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files novels.  I'm only half-way through, but I have to note that once again, Butcher combines some cringe-worthy sentence level writing with top-notch large-scale plotting.  One example of the former is that we when Thomas shows up about two chapters in, we're told that he now carries a krukri (hope I'm spelling that right).  About five chapters later, we're told that Thomas now carries a krukri and that it's a Ghurka knife.  It's hard to believe that the copy editor didn't switch the order of the two sentences (or kill the repetition altogether; it's not exactly a major plot point).

As usual, listening to these is the way to go.  Butcher writes as if Harry is telling us the story, and Marsters manages to make the infelicities sound as if Harry just slipped up a little in the telling.

Shooting Star

Peter Temple's Shooting Star is a stand-alone novel about a former soldier/former policeman turned mediator.  He's hired as a go-between when a girl is kidnapped.  The book is mostly standard hard-boiled detective stuff about wealth and corruption, and it's not really a big stand-out. 

One thread in the three Temple books I've read is the redemptive power of creation.  One of his protagonists is a wood-worker, one a blacksmith, and here a landscaper.  But it's the least developed here, and that's a pity, because I felt that his bits about the blacksmithing/carpentry set his other books apart from the run of the mill.

The Dead Hour

Denise Mina's The Dead Hour, follows Paddy Meehan's activities after Field of Blood, in which she was introduced.

Many of her fellow reporters are laid off near the beginning of the novel, as the newspaper tries to adjust to changing times and become more punchy and less serious.  (It's hard to believe the novel is set in 1984; this part feels very contemporary).  Paddy is still working the crime beat, still trying to be taken seriously in a men's world, still pulling in the only paycheck in her extended family.

She witnesses a killing, though she doesn't realize it at the time, and ends up running afoul of a small drug ring.  In a way, the whole novel is on a very small scale.  It's actually a bit of a relief to read a novel where the drug ring is still just a few people, the corruption is limited to a few cops, and so on.  In a lot of novels where the lone character breaks one of these drug rings, a part of me is saying, "yeah, right."  But here it feels pretty realistic, because, in the end, the guy is just a small-time operator.

On the down side, we spend a lot of time with one of the possible witnesses in the cases, Kate, and she's so irritating and egotistical that it's hard to work up any sympathy for her, and I was just waiting for those parts to end.  I'm not against irritating and egotistical characters (Pale Fire is one of my favorite books), but I think it takes a very special kind of skill to write them well, and, here at least, Mina's not quite up to the task.

On a totally different note, she manages to completely close off the plot and yet end on a cliffhanger anyway.  Not sure if I'm impressed or annoyed (especially since I have the next one in my to-read pile anyway).

Dark Hollow

I finally finished Dark Hollow.  On a sentence-by-sentence level, Connolly is a fantastic writer.  A couple of quotes I highlighted along the way:
Walter was a good man and, like many good men, his flaw was that he believed himself a better one.
Outside, the snow fell like years, blanketing the past with the unblemished whiteness of possibilities untold.
 Unfortunately, I felt like the plot level was weaker than it should've been.  The novel feels very crowded, with at least three groups of killers, none of them working together.  There's really only one conflict that matters in this novel, Charlie Parker and Caleb Kyle's, and the others just get in the way, and felt a bit like padding.  Abel and Stritch are the worst example; it feels like they could've been stripped from the novel with almost no editing needed.

For me, the balance tips in favor of Connolly's style, and I'll be reading more of these novels.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dark Hollow

Between one thing and another, my reading pace has slowed dramatically, so I'm not very far into John Connolly's Dark Hollow.  But so far I'm enjoying it tremendously.  Connolly does a good job at adding peripheral horror to the standard PI story, but he's also just a very solid writer, as he shows in lines like "he was so worried about becoming a mark that life swindled him without him even noticing".

Looking Glass Wars

I just finished listening to The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor (not to be confused with John LeCarre's much better The Looking Glass War).  Beddor has a lively imagination; his takes on Lewis Carrol are very original.  But, in the end, this novel is just another young adult novel about finding yourself/being true to your ideals.

There are two sequels, but I think it unlikely that I would tackle them.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Con-man

The Con-man is the 4th book in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series, and it was leaps and bounds better than the second, The Mugger.  (The selection available on kindle was pretty random, so I'm not reading every single one).  The ending is a very accomplished montage, jumping between locations every few paragraphs without being jarring.  McBain is also coming more into his own by this point, not just a second-rate Chandler.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Odds and ends

On vacation recently, and I had a bunch of very short books on my kindle, so that adds up to too many books to address individually.  For my own records, though (or in case I decide to go back and expand on them...)

Mute Witness, Stanley Fish.  A decent crime story, but nothing stand-out.

The Score, Richard Stark (Donald Westlake).  Another Parker novel, I liked this much better than the first one.  But I think I prefer Westlake in funny mode (ala Dortmunder).

The House of Dr Edwardes, Francis Beeding.  Gothic novel from the early 20th century.  OK, but the last quarter was awful.  The worst deus ex machina I've read in a long time.

Skulduggery Pleasant, Derek Landy.  Kid's book, my kids liked it, I thought it was decent, but I won't be reading more of the series.

The Habitation of the Blessed, Katherynne M. Valente.  The only book mentioned so far that's worth writing more than a line or two about.  A very lyrical work (typical of Valente), with interesting thoughts about mortality, stories, and things like that.  It's the first part of a series (a duology? not sure) so I'll probably write more after I read part 2.

The American Envoy, Garbhan Downey.  Thanks to Adrian McKinty for pointing this one out.  Very funny novel about an American envoy to an Irish town, trying to get some businesses to create jobs, while trying to crack a drug ring at the same time.  Nice bonus: it's an epistolary novel, something very rare in this day & age.

An Unpardonable Crime, Andrew Taylor.  Set in Victorian England, Taylor gets the writing down perfectly (to my untrained ear).  But the story was too diffuse for my tastes, and I ended up giving up halfway through.  Every time an interesting thread would develop, Taylor dropped it to pick up something else.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Grove

It's been a while since a horror novel really creeped me out, but John Rector's The Grove pulled off the trick.  A spare novel, The Grove is the story of Dexter McCray, a man suffering from some sort of psychological illness (never identified).  Before the novel starts, Dexter has been off his meds for a while, because the world is a grayer place without them.

When he finds a dead body on his property, it kicks his neurosis into high gear, and he starts imagining the dead girl as a vengeful ghost, trying to use him to find justice for herself.  Even though Dexter knows she's a figment of his imagination, he'd rather have her near him than lose her by taking his pills.

Dexter is a man living on a knife-edge of sanity, and watching him try to walk it like a tight-rope was a nerve-wracking experience.  At every moment, we worry that Dexter will do something violent, either to himself or others as he hunts for the girl's killer.   The ghost's appearances start out fairly benignly (to the extent that such a delusion can be benign), but quickly turn into a voice for Dexter's darker side -- her metamorphosis is very creepy, and makes this on of the great psychological horror novels.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Woodcutter, The Mugger

Ed McBain's The Mugger is the second of his well-regarded 87th Precinct series.  Unfortunately, this one shows its age a bit; it feels a bit derivative of Chandler here and there.  It's not a bad novel, but also not a great precursor of good things to come.

The Woodcutter, on the other hand, is by an author with a long career, and here Reginald Hill is almost at the top of his form.  I think that the final climactic revelation is a little too melodramatic, but it's also almost irrelevant to the story, and, up till that point, the book is pitch-perfect.  As usual, Hill is very aware of his literary antecedents, in this case The Count of Monte Cristo.  Although he's not in way aping Dumas, it's clear that he knows that story well, while putting a more modern twist on it.

The first part of the story (the unfair incarceration) is communicated to us through essays that Wolf Hadder is writing for his prison psychiatrist.  So they're not in particularly chronological order, and, of course, Wolf has every reason to be careful with his revelations, since his parole will depend on her evaluation of his progress.  Also like the Count, Wolf finds a secret hoard of cash, and he will take his revenge in indirect ways, eschewing direct violence.  Dumas's Count, though, comes to a moral clarity in his actions toward Mercedes.  Does Wolf do the same for Imogen, his Mercedes?  The contrast between Imogen and Mercedes is probably one of the biggest structural differences between the two books.  (Obviously, the addition of the psychiatrist is the other).

This is a much more straight-forward suspense novel than the Dalziel and Pascoe series, and it was a nice break from those.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Gardens of the Moon

Steve Erickson's Gardens of the Moon is a reasonably-done high fantasy.  I think it's a bit of an indictment of the field that that's already a stand-out quality for me.  After the disappointments of The Warded Man and The Way of Shadows (not to mention the even-worse sequel) it's nice to read a novel where most of the characters approach a semblance of being well-rounded, without a whole lot of silly angst, and dialog that doesn't leave me wincing after every third sentence.

The above paragraph sounds pretty negative, but I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed Gardens of the Moon, more than I've enjoyed a high fantasy novel in a while.  But I have the sneaking suspicion that's because the competition is so weak, not because Gardens is so strong.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

North and South concluded

Continuing my thoughts from here...
I finished North and South yesterday, and it doesn't conclude as well as I had hoped.

I think part of the problem is that the structure of the novel is a bit intractable for moving toward a conclusion.  Given how relations between unions and managers played out in real life, there's no realistic way to resolve Thornton's union issues within the relatively short span of the novel (a few years).  So we end up with Thornton's advocating a kind of quasi-socialism (or possibly an enlightened feudalism), in which laborers and capitalists each realize that both sides have things to offer, and that without the hard work of both sides the income stream would dry up.

Against this utopianism, though, Gaskell sets a clear-eyed vision of the present.  Thornton's uprightness leads him into bankruptcy; Frederick's situation is never resolved successfully; in contrast with, say, Dickens, major characters sometimes simply keel over and die, with no dramatic fanfare.

Certainly, I feel this work deserves to better-known.  It may not be as good as the best of Dickens, but I think it is easily as good as the Trollope I've read.

Friday, January 20, 2012

North and South

As an American, it's hard to look at the title of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South and not think of the American Civil War.  But the North and South of her title refer respectively to England's North (with its mill towns) and South (London and its environs).

In addition, the title tells us that this novel is a study in contrasts and in the conflicts that stem from them.  So we get an opposition of
  • town and country
  • unions and manufacturers
  • nobility and nouveau riche
  • rich and poor (different from the above)
  • violence and civil disobedience
Gaskell sets up characters who exemplify their different classes, with their legitimate grievances, and then lets us watch them in action.  I don't mean that her characters are simple cardboard cut-outs representing workers or manufacturers, but, rather, that she gives makes them all people acting with good motives.  So she has, in Thornton, a principled capitalist who believes that if he pays his workers too much, he will be undercut by his competitors; in many ways, he reminds me of a modern libertarian.  She has, in Higgins, a union man who believes that, if men are not coerced to join the union, it will lose all its strength.

I'm not done with the novel yet, but it will be interesting to see how (if) she resolves the various conflicts that she's set up.

One side note: I think it's an unfortunate sign of Austen-mania that a lot of the reviews on amazon say something like "this is Pride and Prejudice with social awareness" or "like Jane Austen with a conscience."  Really, I think Gaskell has no more in common with Austen than does, say George Elliot.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Shadow of the Torturer, Cool Breeze on the Underground

I've read Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer more than once, and, in addition, there's a huge lit-crit crowd that has discussed it to hell and gone.  So, this is just a few things that struck me this time around...

  • Severian actually foreshadows the end of the tetralogy more than I remembered, telling you that he's writing a memoir of his ascension to the throne as early as the end of chapter 1.
  • I think that the writing is not as high-flown as it's made out to be by other readers.  Most of the odd words are used to describe things that would be filled in by made-up words anyway.  (Mostly odd creatures or alien races).  The few exceptions (armiger, exultant, optimate) are fairly easy to work out from context.
  • Although obviously intelligent, Severian doesn't question very much of what happens.  (Prime example, where did Dorcas come from?)  Of course, this gives Wolfe an opportunity to tease us with puzzles, but I think it's also an important part of Severian's character.  Is Wolfe trying to say that Severian's time in the guild has made him less questioning, more obedient to authority? 
    • Maybe it shows that Severian is ultimately very practical -- he can't know where Dorcas came from, so he doesn't spend time worrying about it at the moment.  I don't really buy this, though, because he shows himself to be introspective.
I think further thoughts will have to wait until I've re-read more of the tetralogy.

Don Winslow's Cool Breeze on the Underground is obviously an early work.  It doesn't have the same relentless energy that characterizes The Winter of Frankie Machine.  Here, there are places which get bogged down in the backstory or the technical details of detective work.  But even at this early stage, Winslow has a great breezy style that carries you through the dull moments; I'm looking forward to reading more of Neal Carey's adventures.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Wrong Kind of Blood

There are a lot of good things to say about Declan Hughes's The Wrong Kind of Blood.  Ed Loy, the PI protagonist, is an appealing but flawed narrator; the Dublin setting is nicely realized; the denouement is effective.  Not only that, but Hughes has added symbolic weight to the "wrong kind of blood" in the story, showing a nice literary awareness.  In this book, the wrong kind of blood can refer to class differences, physical incompatibilities, the blood-typing of a paternity test, and more.

But it just didn't work for me.  Part of the problem is the heavy over-loading of coincidence that Hughes needs for his story to work.  In order to tie two generations of crimes together, a body of a man killed 20 years ago must be discovered at the same time as the case Ed Loy is investigate, even though there's no other connection between the discovery of the body and the disappearance.  Three days earlier or later on the body, and there's no novel.  That's just one coincidence of many in the novel, but the whole book hinges on it, and it was a real problem for me.

In general, the problem the book has is that there are something like 5 barely connected cases going on, and there's some real reaching to get Ed Loy involved in all of them, especially since he's not a professional cop.  (I think that this is the advantage stories with professional police officers have -- you can conceive of a bunch of unconnected cases crossing one guy's docket).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Past Caring

Robert Goddard's Past Caring is a bit hard to categorize.  It's a suspense novel without much suspense.  It's a literary novel with too much of the deadwood that goes with suspense novels.  It's a historical novel with huge stretches set in the present.

Throwing out all the categories, Past Caring is a mostly absorbing read that managed to keep me interested in the life & times of one of the protagonists, a former cabinet minister in England in 1908, a period I have no particular affinity for.  It's a pretty leisurely, slow-paced novel until the climax, when one paragraph suddenly made me feel like I was dropped off a cliff.

Goddard writes well about flawed people trying to overcome their pasts, and I liked that aspect of this novel.  Although Goddard drops the ball a bit, in that Martin talks about an expiation that he never quite makes.  But I think that's a minor structural flaw; probably the biggest problem I had with the book was a tendency to tell the same story from 3 different viewpoints.  Although the differences between accounts are important, I kept wanting the characters to get on with it already; it felt like a lot of padding in an already long book.