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.