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.