Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Human Factor

Graham Greene famously divided his writing output into "novels" and "entertainments," with the latter being more light-weight thrillers.  The Human Factor, though, is something of a cross-over.  It's an espionage novel, but not much of a thriller; instead, this story of a mole in British intelligence focuses on his loneliness and isolation.

It's an enjoyable novel (although very depressing), once I got past the opening setup.  The ending images are pretty haunting.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Mr. Palomar

I don't really have anything intelligent to say about Mr. Palomar.  It's by Italo Calvino, which means it's sui generis, strange, and beautiful.  He was a fantastic writer, in both senses of the word.

Kings of Cool

Kings of Cool is the prequel to Savages, and very much of a piece with it.  The same punchy style.  The same lack of depth.  It's a bit worse for being a prequel -- I rarely like prequels, because a whole lot of the plot revolves around getting the characters into place for the next book, which we've already read.  The biggest pluses for this book are that the style is enough fun to get over the other hurdles, and the novel is short enough that its annoyances don't really build up.

But I'll be happy to read the next Neal Carey book, which should have a bit of substance.

Liberation Movements

Liberation Movements is Olen Steinhauer's fourth novel set in an imaginary Eastern Bloc country; each novel has taken a look at this country in a different decade.  Liberation Movements is a bit of an odd duck in the series, for a couple of reasons.  One of the major players is kinda-sorta psychic (her abilities are given a rational basis, but they're still supra-normal), whereas up till now the series has been very much of this world.  It's also set almost entirely outside of the home country of the series.

I think that both of these differences lead to a weaker book than the first three.  Part of the problem, I think, is that one of the strengths of those books was the relentless feeling of suffocation.  By setting so much of the novel across the border, Steinhauer relaxes the tension somewhat; in addition, I found the psychic a distraction, and the "explanation" of her abilities made it worse, because it took me out of the novel while I thought of how implausible the explanation is.

It's still a solid novel, and I'll certainly pick up the last of the series, but it just felt like a let-down after the first 3.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The James Deans

I loved the first two Moe Praeger books (although I see I that I only blogged about the first one).  They share with most hard-boiled detective novels a certain level of cynicism, but they also have an underlying optimism that people can find a personal redemption, even in an environment that is corrupt.  It's a rare combination with in the field, and Coleman's thoughtful exploration of hope and redemption was appealing.

Unfortunately, the third novel, The James Deans, is in much more standard territory.  There is a too-good-to-be-true politician, his wealthy handler, an corrupt policeman, and other standard accoutrements of the genre.  It's not a bad book per se (although the plot is a bit overly convoluted), and Reed Farrell Coleman is a solid writer, but it didn't really stand out for me.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

King's Ransom

A while back, amazon was offering a good deal on a large selection of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, about which I've heard many good things, so I decided to snap up the first bunch, up to King's Ransom, which I've been curious to read since seeing the Kurosawa movie based on it, High and Low.

As it turns out, I was both pleased and disappointed by this novel.  The first disappointment is that in just about every way, the movie is much stronger.  The kidnapping is simpler, the industrialist's character arc is better, and we don't actually meet the kidnapper until the end.

On the other hand, I've mostly been underwhelmed by the 87th Precinct novels so far, and this one finally turns the corner to be not too bad.  (Talk about damning with faint praise.  But it's the best I can do here).  But, having said that, my second disappointment is that the novel also wasn't really stand-out good either.  Maybe I can be convinced to try some later novels in the series, but for now I'm done with it.  I get that these books were written a long time ago, but Raymond Chandler's novels (for example) still leap off the page, and they're even older.

The Killing Kind

If the Felix Castor books are a mix of hard-boiled detective novels into the fantasy genre, The Killing Kind (and the rest of the Charlie Parker novels) are the flip side of the coin, putting some ghosts into a hard-boiled detective novel.  The ghosts don't really have a plot function as such (in fact, they're completely passive; they never even speak); instead, they're there to add another layer of dread and horror to this tale, already brimming with atmosphere.

I think the presence of ghosts in the novel also serves to give the human villains a sort of supernatural tinge, even though they're never explicitly presented as being anything other than human.  By allowing the possibility for one sort of supernatural occurrence, Connolly seems to leave the door open for others.  And, in a lot of ways, The Killing Kind could be read as a horror novel.  The main antagonist would work just fine in a horror novel, and he and his sister are very spooky when working in tandem.  They have an almost preternatural ability to appear in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I think it would bother me in a more realistic-seeming novel.

On the other hand, the detective elements are also well-done, and I find myself looking forward to more of Connolly's blend of horror and hard-boiled fiction.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is one of those novels where the main character is a child (in this case, 11 years old), yet is not at all written for children. The story opens on a gruesome note (yet a little darkly humorous, for all that) as young Pia Kolvinbach's grandmother lights herself on fire and burns to death.  The story becomes exaggerated, and Pia becomes known as the girl with the exploding grandmother.

Ostracized by the other children her age, Pia becomes friends with the other social outcast, Stefan, and the novel more-or-less chronicles their next year together.  Although the novel is ostensibly a mystery, about the titular vanishing, I didn't find the mystery to be the main attraction.  I'm not sure author Helen Grant did either; less than half of the novel is given over to it, and even there, we saw more of how the stress of a disappearing child plays out in the town, and not very much about solving the mystery.

Helen Grant weaves together legends from the town of BadMuensterEifel (where the novel is set); a good small-town setting; and the interesting characters of Pia herself, her family, and the town citizens into a compelling coming-of-age story.  Really, the coming-of-age story is not a genre that typically interests me; for me, the exceptions all have some other interesting facets to recommend them.  So it is here -- Grant is very good at placing Pia at a time when she still wants to believe in fairy stories, but is growing too old for them.

Friday, August 23, 2013

All Cry Chaos

All Cry Chaos should have been a natural book for me to love.  A thriller based around the mathematics of chaos theory is right up my alley.  And, indeed, I liked it, but it had some nagging issues that kept me from really loving it.

Author Jonathon Rosen has a nice breezy style when explaining the basics of fractals (though it's a bit rough around the edges).  Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, he loses the fact that chaos means that you can't arbitrarily predict things, even with the right equations, because you're limited by the accuracy of your starting point.  It's a somewhat academic point, but it means that his characters shouldn't be able to game the stock market as much as they do, even granting an equation which could predict prices.

Another issue that bothered me was the American-centric nature of the writing.  The main character French, but he thinks, for example, that a person has "eyes like Charles Manson," or hair like Ronald Reagan's.  It's pretty jarring, though it probably wouldn't work to put in the French equivalent of Manson -- I and most of the audience wouldn't know who that person is.  Instead, a simile without reference to a person would've been a better bet.

On the other hand, the plot moves reasonably well.  Rosen tries to bring some philosophical depth to the story with musings on the nature of math, society, and God, although it didn't feel integral to the story.


Horns is Joe Hill's sophomore effort, after Heart Shaped Box, which I enjoyed very much.  Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy Horns nearly as much.  Although individual parts are well-written, the whole didn't hang together for me.

One of Hill's strengths is his characters.  The major characters feel alive, especially /Merrin, the love interest of the piece.  Through the course of the novel, she seems to grow from an idealized image to a fully fleshed-out person.  On the other hand, he doesn't give nearly as much attention to his minor characters.  They're there to give protagonist Ig something to react against, and aren't much more than props.  (This includes Ig's father and mother, who should by rights have been ore important characters).

My bigger problem with the novel, though, is structural.  Ig wakes up one morning with horns growing out of his head, and finds himself gradually adopting the powers of the devil.  But it's pretty random -- why does it happen?  Why does Merrin's crucifix block his power, but others don't?  Why do people start telling him what they think of him -- that's not really a power associated with the devil?  I get that fantasy novels don't always have a good rationale behind them, and horror novels even less so, but even Ig wonders about some of these questions, foregrounding the fact that they make no sense.  Yet this also isn't presented as some kind of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, where you'll never understand what's going on because your brain is just too limited.

Individual sections work pretty well in isolation.  Hill knows how to write a compelling scene.  But, unlike Heart Shaped Box, which felt satisfying on every level, Horns didn't really deliver for me.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1

I was going to post regularly about The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but life has a habit of getting in the way.  But I just want to mark that I finished vol. 1.  In this volume, Gibbon lays out at least some of his thesis on the decline and fall.  In his view, Rome didn't have the civil apparatus for an orderly transfer of power, and so all too often, the Empire ended up in some sort of strife as rival claimants to the throne tried to grab it.  Even when that wasn't the case, the rivals would try to bribe the army, leading to an overweening armed force that was difficult to control.

He views the monarchy as an antidote to this problem.  You may not always have a good ruler, but at least there's an orderly succession in place, and everyone knows what it is.  (Although he glosses over things like, say, the fight between Mary and Elizabeth I).  He doesn't believe in popular government, because rival claimants will try to hold on to the throne by appealing to the mob or the army -- Gibbon can't seem to envision a popular election system where there's also an orderly transfer of power.

He also begins the process of working out his other great theme, the harmful effect Christianity had on the Empire.  His famous 16th chapter is savage on the subject of Christianity's claims to truth, but he doesn't really yet enter into the larger effect of Christianity on the Empire.  I eagerly look forward to reading vol. 2.

The Sun's Bride

Gillian Bradshaw's first few novels were historical fantasy, which I enjoyed very much back in my mis-spent youth.  But then she pretty much dropped off my radar, and it turns out she's switched to straight historical fiction, no fantasy involved.  Out of nostalgia as much as anything, I picked up The Sun's Bride, a novel set in and around Rhodes in 246 BCE, although I'm not much of a historical fiction buff.

I had mixed feelings about this novel.  I'm still not a huge fan of historical novels, but Bradshaw avoids most of the pitfalls that bug me.  One of the biggies is characters with modern attitudes in historical times -- Bradshaw avoids this one completely.  Her characters are steeped in a culture where slavery is the norm, and even the hero doesn't particularly object to it.

My other problem with historical novels is that they tend to throw in all the major actors of the time -- a Civil War novel will find a reason to introduce Lincoln; a Roman novel will throw in Caesar, Cicero, and a host of others.  Here, Bradshaw falls a bit into this trap.  We end up encountering both Laodike, who triggered the Laodicean War between Egypt and Syria, and the King of Mycenae (although mostly in passing).  Bradshaw makes it believable, but still...

On the other hand, Bradshaw is a good story-teller, and has a gift for making ancient Rhodes feel alive.  I'd probably read more of her novels, but I'm also not in a huge rush to do so.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Mansfield Park

Up until a couple of weeks ago, Mansfield Park was the only Jane Austen book I hadn't read through to the end, and I decided to rectify that situation.  Fanny Price, the heroine, is pretty mousy, and her cousin Edward, the love interest, is a fairly dry character, so Austen has handicapped herself right out of the gate.  (Elizabeth Bennett is most of the attraction of Pride and Prejudice, as Emma Woodhouse is in Emma.)

But, this time, I knew those facts going in, which made a difference -- I knew that the main characters are not at all witty, so I could stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Instead, it's easier to focus on the secondary characters, who are as well-drawn as any in the Austen oeuvre.  Their arcs are also the least predictable of any -- one is constantly kept guessing as to whether Mr. Crawford will redeem himself; whether Mary Crawford will be a good friend to Fanny Price; and so on.

Mansfield Park is still, I think, a hard novel to recommend.  Its earnestness is less appealing than the play of her more famous novels, or even of Northanger Abbey, which I enjoyed more than Mansfield Park.

Riders of the Purple Sage, War of the Worlds

Riders of the Purple Sage and War of the Worlds are each books that helped define a genre, Westerns and science fiction respectively.  But the former has dated very badly in the intervening century, while the latter is still one of the best books of its kind.

I don't know whether Riders was published as a pulp novel, but it certainly embodies the worst sins of the pulps -- cardboard characters, purple prose, racist (or anti-Mormon in the case).  I couldn't finish the novel, so maybe it has sterling qualities in the last 2/3, but it's hard for me to see why this novel is still read today.

War of the Worlds doesn't have memorable characters, either, although at less than half the length of Riders we don't feel the lack so much.  But the novel is memorable for its description of the quick descent in chaos, as the area surrounding London is ravaged by the Martians.  The novel is notable for its pitilessness.  Wells seems to say, "Just as humans had no mercy on the dodo, why should they expect any from others?"

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wives and Daughters

Elizabeth Gaskell's final novel, Wives and Daughters, reminded me more than a little of George Elliot's writing, particularly Middlemarch.  It's set some time before her present, unlike her more contemporary novels (such as North and South), which tend to focus on the effects of industrialization.  Also like Middlemarch, Wives and Daughters follows the intertwined fortunes of three families within a small area.  Since I loved Middlemarch, this resemblance is not a bad thing.

Gaskell's hand is a little heavier than Elliot's, particularly with Mrs. Gibson, the least sympathetic character of the piece.  But, on the whole, the novel has a lot of solid characters, all well-delineated.  I think Cynthia the most interesting character, always on the verge of disgrace yet still sympathetic.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Windup Bird Chronicle

2/3 of the way through volume 2!  We get the second part of Crete Kano's story, in which Wataya somehow "defiled" her.  Even by Murakami's standards, this is pretty obscure.  It seems that, if anything, Wataya saved her from herself.  It'll be interesting to see how the defilement idea plays out over the rest of the novel.

Also obscure is the mark on the narrator's face.  It's clearly got a symbolic function, but I'm at a loss right now to know what it is.

Monday, August 5, 2013

This Side of Paradise

This Side of Paradise was F. Scott Fitzgerald's most successful book during his lifetime, more so than The Great Gatsby, so I was curious to see what it was like.  The answer is, it's beautifully written, but also a bit of a mess.

This autobiographical novel follows the adventures of a rather feckless youth as he grows up and becomes a pretty callow young man.  I must say that, to the extent the novel is autobiographical, Fitzgerald seems to have had a bitingly merciless self-awareness.  Amory Blaine, the protagonist, is a total poseur, constantly trying to decide how he should stand, sit, talk, etc, based on how others might see him doing those things.  Amory is also pretentious and self-absorbed, and Fitzgerald's skewering is spot-on there, too.  Unfortunately, I felt like Amory is not strong enough to bear the whole weight of a novel -- after all, it's not too hard to make fun of a 17-year-old for being pretentious.  (Or even a 19-year-old Princeton student).

I should mention Fitzgerald's formal experiments in this novel.  I've read a couple of his other novels and short stories, and this, his first, is far & away the most formally innovative.  Fitzgerald switches into screenplay mode at one point, poetry at others, and so on.  The novel was published in 1920, which means it was written while Ulysses was still being serialized.  Seen in that light, the young Fitzgerald was definitely an experimenter.  It's too bad that the novel's contents are less interesting than its form.


Dis-enchanted starts out like a Terry Pratchett kind of fantasy, silly footnotes and all. But, after a while, author Robert Kroese manages to find his own voice.  Unfortunately, it's not a particularly interesting one.  It's not bad or anything like that, I just didn't find the novel particularly compelling.

The various twists at the end, instead of being surprising, feel arbitrary.  This novel began life as a serial novel, and it feels like Kroese got to a certain point and realized that it wasn't really working for him.  In particular, the driving force of the story turns out to be an accident that could have been easily overcome at any point in the story.  In short, I'd say that Dis-Enchanted is successful on the micro level (the jokes are pretty consistently chuckle-worthy), but not so much on the macro plot level.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Author Alan Bradley says that Flavia DeLuce, the heroine of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie sprang into his head, seized control of his novel, and wouldn't let go.  Flavia certainly comes across as very much her own character in this remarkably assured first novel.  Even better, she breathes life into the crusty old "murder on a country estate with a bunch of eccentric characters" story.  This kind of story is probably one of the oldest tropes in detective fiction, but Bradley somehow makes it feel very fresh.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Indiscretions of Archie

When I first got my kindle, lo these many years ago, one of the first "books" I picked up was the complete early Wodehouse (everything that's out of copyright).  As I've chronicled here & there on my blog, it's been a mixed bag, with a lot of dross.  After a string of the "school" books, which I didn't bother blogging about, I was beginning to regret the purchase.  But The Indiscretions of Archie was like the return of an old friend -- not that I've read the book before, but the sparkling Wodehouse wit is back.

Archie is a well-meaning dimwit who marries the daughter of a hotel magnate.  (What she sees in him is never really clear -- later Wodehouse is usually a bit better on showing why romantic matches happen).   Archie's father-in-law doesn't like him, since he sees Archie as a twit and a ne'er-do-well, so Archie tries one scheme after another to put himself back into his father-in-law's good graces and help out friends at the same time.  The situations are funny, but, more importantly, Wodehouse's writing is crisp and hilarious.

In some ways, Archie is like a practice run for Bertie Wooster -- not very smart, but always trying to help out friends.  However, without a Jeeves figure, Archie's antics can occasionally get wearisome.  I think it helps to read this book as the collection of short stories it obviously started as; there's no development at all, and then there's a very sudden ending tacked on.  I think this novel is not top-notch Wodehouse, but it's the next-best thing, which is still quite good.

The Trail to Buddha's Mirror

After A Cool Breeze on the Underground, The Trail to Buddha's Mirror was Don Winslow's sophomore effort. Although he hadn't yet adopted all the mannerisms that we come to see in his later books like The Song of the Dog, there are many foretastes of what is to come in things like the potted history of the opium wars.

At this point, he also hadn't adopted the less-is-more aesthetic of, say, The Winter of Frankie machine, with it's straightforward driving plot.  Indeed, here there are several plot twists too many, in this story with twins, triple agents, agents from CIA, two different political groups in China, and private investigators as well.

On the other hand, Neal Carey is an appealing protagonist (even though he turns out to be a pretty ineffectual one here).  The story is fun for the most part.  I'm looking forward to more.

A Spy by Nature

In A Spy By Nature, Charles Cummings takes a very realistic approach the espionage novel. Even more than John le Carre, There are no feats of derring-do or excitement here. Instead we end up with a fairly straightforward story of corporate espionage.

In some ways this is pretty cool.  We follow protagonist Alec Milius As he applies for a job in the Secret Service, befriends his  target, and tries to plant false information about British mining operations.  In a sense, this is a book without much happening. Alexc doesn't face an external enemy, so much as Alec's struggle against his own isolation from his friends and colleagues. 

Suddenly, at the end of the novel there's a reminder that this is indeed a high-stakes game that Alec is playing. It's a bit sobering after the more quotidian story lines that have come before. Overall, although this is the least thrilling thriller I have ever read, I look forward to reading more stories about Alec Milius. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Seven Shakespeares

The Seven Shakespeares is a bit of an odd-ball manga, set in England during the Elizabethan period.  Although Shakespeare is in the title and prologue, he barely appears in vol. 1.  Instead, most of the action is set in Chinatown in Liverpool.  The main character in vol. 1 is Li, a Chinese girl who can occasionally see future bad things (deaths and the like).  Others see her as causing the bad things, so her family is pushed from place to place until finally emigrating to Liverpool.  Her father is so desperate to have her stop saying omens that he scars her throat so that she can barely talk.  I found her story to be compelling so far, and it's an interesting departure from other manga.

Bleak House

Bleak House is Dickens at his most coherent, along with Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, but probably even more so.  Those two novels have one major narrative thrust each, whereas Bleak House has a web of plot threads that all intertwine in the second half.  At the beginning, it feels like Dickens is throwing out characters with abandon -- Lord and Lady Dedlock, for example, are introduced in chapter 2 but don't reappear until much later.  But soon everyone is enmeshed in the story, from the Dedlocks on high to little Jo down below.

One thing I haven't seen remarked on is how the title prefigures one the themes of the book -- deception.  This is a novel of deceptive appearances -- Lady Dedlock's, of course, but we see that the Chancery system seems to offer fairness, the lawyers appear to work on their clients' behalf, and so on.  The eponymous Bleak House is, despite its name, the happiest place in the novel -- the name presents a false front to the world, just like everything else in the novel (except John Jarndyce, whose nephew tragically assumes that Jarndyce is in fact a hypocrite)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron

Shades of Grey is a pretty far cry from Jasper Fforde's other work in some ways.  It's not a happy novel, and the ending is downright depressing.  But it's also got that same inventiveness that marks his excellent "Thursday Next" novels.  At times, in fact, Shades of Grey feels like a travelogue of strange things in this new post-apocalyptic world that Fforde has created.  In fact, I wasn't surprised when I later read an interview in which he said that the novel started out as a travelogue -- the plot doesn't actually kick into gear until the last quarter.

There are very few writers who can pull off a novel that's wholly a tour of imaginary places (Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is, of course, the shining example of the genre, but I can't think of any others off-hand).  And, as much as I enjoy Fforde's inventiveness (and there's a lot of cool stuff to see), there were a few places where the doldrums set in.  I'll be interested to see what he can do with the setting he's so carefully established in the next book.  Also, although the plot is complete, there are definitely plenty of mysteries to unravel in books to come.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sacrificial Ground

Thomas H. Cook is largely known for his suspense novels, but Sacrificial Ground, written early in his career, is a fairly straightforward police procedural.  In this case, though, straightforward is not at all bad; in fact, Sacrificial Ground is quite a good novel.  It doesn't really break any new ground, but it's tightly written without feeling rushed, it develops its central characters solidly, and the writing is decent.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

London Riot

Ben Aaronovich's London Riot is a competent enough entry into the urban fantasy field.  It's reasonably well-written, has a bit of an odd-ball plot, and does a nice job of using London itself as a major plot element.  But it also somehow didn't really ever make me say "wow."  I'll probably follow up with more of the series, since it was a decent debut.


Persuasion, written toward the end of Jane Austen's life (and published posthumously) is often considered her quietest work.  But to me it feels colder, somehow, than her other work.  Although Austen has always poked at the pretensions of her characters (Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, for example), here the vain and thoughtless characters (mostly Ann Elliot's family) take up a disproportionate share of space.

Another lack is that Ann Elliot herself doesn't really change through the course of the novel.  She's correct in just about everything she does, so we lose the narrative arc of, say, Emma's realization of her fallibility or of Lizzie Bennett's realization of her prejudice.

It's of course not a bad novel by any means (and her skewering of her characters' vanity is very funny), but I think I would rather re-read Emma or Pride and Prejudice than come back to Persuasion.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wind-up Bird Chronicle

About 1/3 of the way into vol. 2.  Toru realizes that his wife has been having an affair when she doesn't come home one night.  Her brother tells him it's because Toru is such a total waste of space -- he quit his job, has never really done anything with himself, and so on.  Toru gets defensive, but admits to himself that it's true.  So, to think things over, he goes down into a well to think things over.

This is one of the famous scenes from the novel, in the bit of reading I did about it before starting to read the book.  If nothing else, it's very emblematic of Murakami's style; rationally, there's no reason why Toru should go into the well.  In fact (as it turns out) it's a very stupid thing to do when he ends up stuck there.  But in the context of the novel, it feels like an understandable thing to do.

And we finally start to learn something about the relationship between Kumiko and Toru, as Toru has flashbacks to their getting together, her getting an abortion, and so on.  In this whole part of the book, Toru is finally less passive -- both in the present (yelling at his brother-in-law), and in the past (pursuing Kumiko, his reaction to the abortion).  We also learn about the darkness that even then was in Kumiko's character.

Overall, vol. 2 looks to be a lot more intense than vol. 1.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Rock, Paper, Tiger

I was inclined to give up on Lisa Brackman's Rock, Paper, Tiger about 20 pages in, feeling like it was a thriller that used pushing the protagonist from one location to another in lieu of an actual plot.  But I stuck with it, feeling like some actual development was going on.  Sadly, the joke was on me, and the story didn't actually go anywhere.  At just about any point after p. 30, I could've jumped to the last chapter and it would have made as much sense.

Ellie the protagonist has some character development, but that, too, stalls out in the middle 2/3 of the novel.  She's very passive, and so she gets pushed around from place to place, but it all feels very purposeless.  Lastly, the Uighur maguffin turns out to be completely meaningless; we never learn out why/whether he was important.

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Princess of Mars, King Solomon's Mines

Although I've more-or-less switched to talking about one book per post, it's hard not to write about A Princess of Mars and King Solomon's Mines, which I read back-to-back, simultaneously.

Both are pulpy adventure stories written almost a century ago, both are imperialist, sexist, etc.  And yet I enjoyed King Solomon's Mines, but couldn't really get into A Princess of Mars.  I think part of this is down to different narrative styles.  Allan Quatermain, narrator of Mines, is more appealing than John Carter, narrator of Princess.

  • Quatermain confesses to being "a bit of a coward."  Obviously he doesn't flee from danger, or this wouldn't be much of an adventure story, but he worries about the future.  John Carter is "so constituted that [he is] subconsciously forced into the path of duty without recourse to tiresome mental processes."
  • Quatermain regrets shooting an enemy general who didn't do him any personal harm.  John Carter would happily kill anyone who randomly gets in his way.  (As he kills 4 guards who are safeguarding Dejah Thoris, even though they weren't even holding her captive).
  • Quatermain sees the occasional humor in situations.  Carter is always (tiresomely) in earnest.  Similarly, Quatermain is occasionally pensive, and his flights of philosophy slow down the novel for a few pages here & there.  Princess just barrels ahead at full speed.
As I mentioned above, both are thoroughly of their time (though Haggard seems the closer to modern sensibilities of the two).  But even with that in mind, I found Princess hard to enjoy.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Jane Austen is known for her novels about women in more-or-less straitened circumstance who find and marry men of great wealth.  But Emma is very much the exception to this rule, as the very first line of the novel tells us.
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Instead, the ostensible plot of this novel is about Emma's learning some humility; she learns that she's not as perceptive or wise as she had thought.  I say "ostensible," because I think that the novel is really about the various class conflicts that are going on at the time of the writing -- the nobility vs nouveau riche, landed gentry vs those in trade, and so on.

Emma herself is quite a snob, and its easy to read her attitudes onto Jane Austen, but I don't think that would be fair.  Rather, Mr. Knightly is the epitome of virtue in the novel, and we see that he eschews the use of a carriage where one could walk (Emma chides him for it -- she says that he should ride in a carriage to show his nobility).  Through his eyes, we see Robert Martin as a solid yeoman, at least the equal of the pretentious Eltons.

It's also, though, a very funny novel.  In the long time since I'd last read it, I'd forgotten how funny it is.  It may be Austen's funniest novel.  (I'm about to go on a bit of an Austen kick, thanks to a nice sale at Audible, but next up is the (as I recall) more melancholy Persuasion).

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Pleasures of a Futuroscope

The Pleasures of a Futuroscope was Lord Dunsany's last work, published posthumously.  Unfortunately, I think it needed a much more severe editing than it got, the kind of editing it might have received had he published it in his own lifetime.

The opening is promising, as the narrator tells us about his view into the future and the coming nuclear cataclysm.  But from there, every page has at least one of the following paragraphs, and sometimes more than one:

  • The people in the future have returned to nature, and they are much more alive to the events in their day-to-day lives than we are.
  • The narrator doesn't know how the futuroscope works.  It's something like TV, in that it can go indoors and outdoors.  (This is nonsense, of course, but we can assume the narrator is just ignorant).
  • Someone who knows about science or history could really make good use of the futuroscope, but the narrator is just following one family.
  • I wanted to communicate with the people in the future, but the futuroscope only goes one way.
The story, such as it is, proceeds in the interstices of these paragraphs.  It's pretty dull through the first half of the book, which is where I gave up.  I really wanted to like this book, being a Dunsany fan, but it's just not very good, in addition to being preachy.  (I happen not to agree with his message, but that's a side issue).

Out of the Deep I Cry

Out of the Deep I Cry, the third book in Julia Spencer-Fleming's Fergusson series, was not as enjoyable as the first two, and I'm not sure why.  The characters and setting are still strong; the writing is reasonable; the plot is fine.  I think it's partly that the romance angle is getting old.  Three books (and counting) is a long time for an unrequited love story.  But, more, I think that previous books shuttled back and forth between Clare and Russ's points of view.  Here, we're stuck with Clare, and it ends up feeling a bit claustrophobic.  Lastly, with the whole story being from Clare's point of view, I start having the problem I always have with amateur sleuths -- why aren't the police dealing with this instead of you?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Glass Palace

Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace is in some sense orthogonal to Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown.  The former covers a few characters over a long span of time to illustrate the effects of the British colonization of India, while the latter looks at a period of a few days through a lot of characters' eyes (again, as a way of writing about the effects of the British Raj).  Ghosh's book also covers a vast geographic area, with sections in Burma/Myanmar, India, and Malaysia, where Scott's book all takes place in a small town.

But I'm not sure that The Glass Palace gains from its vastness.  For one thing, some of the time is passed over very rapidly, particularly toward the end where it feels like Ghosh just lost interest.  It feels a bit like he had a long-range plan to bring the story up to the present day, but the last 40 years are so rushed that he could've stopped at the end of WWII without substantially changing the novel.

On the other hand, the passage of time lets his characters have little epiphanies; in particular, his focus on the way the British used the Indians as an armed force to impose their will on other countries in the area was really interesting, and not something I've ever thought about.

On the whole, I liked the opening of the book very much, and more than the rest.  Maybe it's because the setting, Burma in the 1880s was so unfamiliar to me, whereas the 1930s and '40s in India seemed to cover ground I've seen before.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Naming of the Beasts

The Naming of the Beasts brings a lot of the storylines in Mike Carey's excellent Felix Castor series to a close.  I've seen in interviews that he plans to do at least one more, but if he stops here, the series will feel complete.

In one sense, it's a satisfactory conclusion.  Asmodeus has been a thorn in Castor's side since the first novel, and a confrontation was bound to come.  Carey makes Castor work hard for a chance, and the climactic showdown never feels cheap.  Also, Carey's prose is as good as ever, making him pretty much the best writer I've read in the urban fantasy field.  (Which I suppose is damning with faint praise, given that his competition is the likes of Jim Butcher; so I should say instead that he's one of best writers in the mainstream fantasy business.  Not in the overdone purple prose sense of, say, Patrick Rothfuss, but more like a Raymond Chandler, with the deft strokes of characterization in just a few words, the occasional simile that's just right, and so on).

On the other hand, the plot feels a little mechanical, in a way that the other Castor books have managed to avoid.  It felt a little like a video game -- Castor goes to Macedonia, and ends up with a seemingly irrelevant bit of junk, but it turns out to be useful against Asmodeus; then he meets with a guy whose secret seems worthless, but it turns out to be useful against Asmodeus, and so on.

On the third hand, Castor also has a set of run-ins with Jenna-Jane Mulbridge, and these are very well handled.

In the end, it's a book you just have to read if you've already read the other Castor books (and if you haven't, you should!), and my mild misgivings don't prevent it from being a very solid novel.

The Gumshoe, the Witch, and the Virtual Corpse

Just like its title, The Gumshoe, the Witch, and the Virtual Corpse, by Keith Hartman, is an overstuffed novel.  There are something like 15 point-of-view characters, sci-fi, witches, shamans, a mystery, social commentary, and so on.

The different pieces were mostly enjoyable, but they pull in so many directions that none of them really shines, and some really suffer.  For example, there's a whole sub-plot with Indian magic, and our gumshoe is set to be the next shaman, but it doesn't really go anywhere.  There are a few other similarly abandoned plots, which is just not good in a sprawling novel like this.

The other issue I had with the novel is that it feels very contemporary for a novel set 30 years in the future.  You could strip out the science fiction and the magic, and the resulting novel would be almost the same, except for the very end.

I think I might have enjoyed this novel more if it had been shorter.  At 430 trade paperback-size pages, it just dragged by the end.

The Mahabharata, vol. 1

The Mahabharata is one of the world's longest poems; it grew over time through a long process of accretion. As a result, there are digressions within digressions.

It's also so long that any unabridged translation spans many volumes. The one I chose to start tackling, by Bibek Roy, is about 10% of the whole. At that point, about 600 pages in, the main storyline is just warming up. What I mostly got was an interesting grab-bag of Indian mythology, including the birth of the Garuda, the creation of the nagas, and so on. 

It was also sometimes a bit of a slog. The major players have many names, which makes it tricky. And sometimes the same story is told twice, right near each other. I also feel like the translation is not particularly felicitous, although of course it's hard to tell. But I'd like to hope that the original is more poetic than Roy's translation. 

One of these days, I'm sure I'll get on to volume 2, because a lot of vol 1 was fascinating, despite my difficulties. But I'm also not in a rush. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Case Histories

Case Histories, the first Jackson Brodie novel, was Kate Atkinson's first foray out of the world of literary fiction into detective fiction.  Unfortunately, it fails very badly as detective fiction.

Some of the flaws stem from the heavy "literary" atmosphere Atkinson is building.  This is really a novel of character portraits, to the extent that we're about 2/3 of the novel when Jackson Brodie finally begins to work on all three cases, and the extent of his work is calling around to three witnesses.

But there are also some elements of this novel that are just inexplicable from any sort of perspective.  For example, there's a subplot about a threat on Jackson Brodie's life which seems to come from an airport potboiler.  It has no bearing on the plot, and enters into the realm of absurdity for a supposedly realistic novel.  (Like trying to assassinate a person by dynamiting his house.  Seriously.  This is the sort of thing you find in a Road-runner cartoon, not a serious novel).

So how is the novel as literary fiction?  Well, the above-mentioned stupid subplots have to be glossed over.  And you still have to ignore coincidences that would make Dickens blush.  And then you're left with a bunch of character sketches that don't really go anywhere, because you've just had to gloss away the little forward motion this novel has.

Maybe I'll try one of her non-detective novels, but I think that I'm done with Jackson Brodie.

The Rook

Daniel O'Malley's The Rook is a nicely light-hearted urban fantasy.  It breaks the urban fantasy mold in one particular respect that I quite liked: for once, we don't have a mix of faeries, werewolves, vampires, etc all thrown together; instead, there's only one vampire, and none of the others.  Instead, it's more like the X-men, with a bunch of folks, each with his/her own unique power, inside an organization that harnesses them and their powers.

The set-up is clearly a way to give O'Malley maximal opportunity for info-dumping. An amnesiac protagonist is a pretty classic way of introducing the reader to things that everyone else on the story is already supposed to know. Fortunately, his breezy style makes these sections less of a chore than they might be. And Myfanwy Thomas is an appealing enough character to carry the story through the rough patches. 

Overall, an enjoyable light read. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

A Dream of Perpetual Motion

I finished Dexter Palmer's Dream of Perpetual Motion a little bit ago, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it and what it says about our world.  It was one of the best, most thought-provoking novels I've read in a long time (and that includes Cloud Atlas, much as I loved that book as well)

I'm still finding it difficult to write coherently about the novel, so, forthwith, some general thoughts...

Palmer has written a book with the trappings of steampunk, but A Dream of Perpetual Motion doesn't really have a steampunk vibe.  Part of that is the way that most of the trappings Palmer uses have an important thematic function rather than just functioning as stage scenery.  For example, the novel is full of attempts to mechanize what we normally see as things that make as human.  Most obvious of those is the mention that Prospero wants to create an artificial/mechanical soul.  But we also see the ubiquitous mechanical men as attempts to supplant human beings (with a specific mention being made that it might be more efficient to have them not look human, but then it wouldn't achieve the aesthetic goal of replicating humanity).  And, of course, Harold's job at a greeting card factory, making ersatz sentiments, ultimately reduced to parody when he and his co-workers are told to create individual rhyming couplets that can be strung together by someone else in different combinations to create new greeting cards.

One thing I think was really interesting is that Miranda is rarely described, except for having long hair.  We just sort of tend to assume that she's beautiful because she's (in some sense) the heroine.  When the sculptor finally mentions that, in fact, she was kind of ordinary and had bad skin, it's a call-out to the way we romanticize and objectify others, just as Prospero, in a much more horrific way, objectifies Miranda and denies her agency.

There's also a theme of noise-as-destruction that runs through the novel.  Harold's telling his sister about noise-cancelling waves leads to her self-destructive art project; the musical constructs that go insane near the end of the novel are producing noise instead of music; and there's a mention somewhere in the novel that we need to find the music under the noise of life so that we can connect.

These are really random thoughts about the novel, and none of them is particularly profound -- partly because Palmer does such a great job of twining everything together.  It's sometimes said that if you can summarize everything that a book is trying to say into a few paragraphs, then you didn't really need the book, and I think that Dream really demonstrates the truth of the saying.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Ursus of Ultima Thule

There are some writers who perfectly marry the style of the their story to its content.  And some who just have a sort of neutral style that goes with whatever story they happen to write.  But I've never come across a novel style and substance seem to be so much at odds with each other as Avram Davidson's Ursus of Ultima Thule.

I always think of Avram Davidson's narrator as slightly fussy erudite professor.  He knows a lot of obscure information, and he backtracks in his narration to fill in those details every so often.  (This is clearly a deliberate authorial persona; I don't claim that Davidson himself talked like that, of course).  This is a device that works really well for his "Vergil" stories, for example, with its intellectual protagonist.

But in Ursus, Davidson seems to be channeling Robert E. Howard, writing a story about a barbarian warrior in a mythical land in the frozen north.  Davidson's ornate style, with its repetitions, back-trackings, break-outs into metered verse, and so on, seems oddly fitted to this type of story at first glance.  And at second glance.  Overall, though, I'd say Ursus has some real high points, where Davidson's overlays lend a feeling of strangeness to this story of what should be, after all, a very strange land to us.  On the other hand, there are climactic moments when one can feel the force of the story moving forward, but Davidson slows down, not so much to build tension as to add another arch comment or something.

In the end, I enjoyed it and I'm glad I read it, but I would certainly not recommend it as a first taste of Davidson to anybody -- the Vergil stories are Dr. Esterhazy stories are much more successful.

Iron Tears

I recently acquired just about the last R.A. Lafferty short story collection that I hadn't read till now, Iron Dreams.  I had a bit of trepidation starting it -- would it be up to the standard that I remember Lafferty setting in 900 Grandmothers?  Was he ever that good?

Fortunately, Iron Dreams shows that he was indeed that good.  Not that every story is a masterpiece; it's a decidedly odd-lot collection, containing the second story he ever wrote (unpublished till now) and also late-career stories from 1992 or thereabouts.  But at their best, these stories are whimsical and deep, funny and serious, and with a voice unique in fiction.  But what I found that I wasn't expecting was also a real wistfulness that I don't usually associate with Lafferty.

The title story is a great example; it's the story of an oread, though in the usual Lafferty fashion we're never actually told that that's what she is.  The actual story is hard to describe, as it always is with late Lafferty.  But there's an undercurrent of sadness in the way that she can never form an adult attachment.  The same current of wistfulness is more obvious in the first story, "You Can't Go Back Again."  It's the story of five kids who go to visit a small moon floating just about a canyon in Tulsa.  Later, as adults, they go back to find that it's just not as marvellous as it was when they were young.  Of course, it's also a commentary in how adults see the world, because as adults they're not impressed with the fact that they're visiting a moon; they can only look back and see that it's not as impressive as they'd thought as kids.  (And the moon-yetis are somehow smaller than they seemed back then too).

Overall, the collection has plenty of good works in it, and I'm glad to have finally have had the chance to read it.  It's a good showcase for his ability to make stories strange through his unique narrative voice.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Paradise Lost

John Milton's Paradise Lost was inflicted on me in 12th grade, and it left enough scars that it's taken a long time for me to return to it.  I use the term "inflicted" advisedly; as I recall, we were given minimal preparation, and such as it was was about Renaissance cosmology (the relationship between Heaven, Hell, and Earth).

This time, I decided to give myself the advantage of an annotated edition (sorely missed in high school), but the passage of time has been helpful as well.  In addition to having more familiarity with the Bible, I find the Latinate language and syntax less challenging than I did back then.  And, with no pressure to earn a grade, I could concentrate on enjoying Milton's epic.

It's a hard poem to write about, and not just because lots of people have already written better things than I ever could.  The real problem is that it's an easier poem to admire than it is to like.  It's a more unified epic than, say, The Faerie Queene, as well as having more distinctive characters, a flexible mastery of meter, and so on.  But I had more fun reading the latter work, even as I see the former's brilliance.

One thing I did really like was the way Milton uses the same word twice in a line (or sometimes even more within the space of a couple of lines) in different forms, or in different stress patterns.

For example,

...what seemed fair in all the world, seemed now
Mean, or in her summed up, in her contained,
And in her looks
(italics mine, to show stress)

Monday, April 15, 2013


I enjoyed David Ignatius's Bloodmoney, although probably more because it's a while since I've read a good modern espionage novel than because it's one of the greats.  Not that any of it is actually bad, and I thought Ignatius's villain is an interesting character.  (Also, his motivation at the end was very well done).

But it also doesn't really have the sorts of high notes that characterize, say, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with its complex characters and narrative reverses.

Watership Down

I've always thought of Watership Down as the sort of funny animal book my son reads, and it had about as much appeal as one of those books.  (Evan Hunter's "Warriors" books, for example).  This even though I've been told more than once that it's really not, there's more depth to it, and so on.

But I decided to give it a try anyway.  About three hours in, I was ready to throw in the towel -- it was just a funny animal book about rabbits after all.  But for whatever reason, I decided to give it another hour, and it somehow came into focus, and I ended up really enjoying it.  I loved the rabbits' folk stories, and also felt like the story of Hazel's growth into a real leader was very effective.

I know that people like to read allegories into it (particularly the fascism angle), but I'm not sure those parallels make this a better book.  Instead, read as an adventure story with real depth, it's a charming success.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Wind-up Bird Chronicle

Time certainly flies...  I started Haruki Murakami's Wind-up Bird Chronicle a long while back.  Then I lost volume 2, and by the time I get back to it 5 years have passed.  So I re-read vol. 1, and finished it last week.

Murakami breaks with the practice in his previous stories (that I've read) of having an unnamed narrator.  It's not really a big deal, I guess, but it gave me an odd moment when his character suddenly introduced himself (around p. 50 or so, if memory serves).  On a weirder note, the character names are almost all in katakana, except in dialogue; I'm not quite sure why he does this, but it's got a weirdly distancing effect.

Overall, it's (so far) slightly less wacky than, say, Dance, Dance, Dance or Wild Sheep Chase.  The psychic stuff is played more seriously, and the last two chapters in the volume (where we here about the Japanese army in Mongolia during WWII) are the grimmest of his work that I've read.  Although it's not all entirely successful (the Russian officer feels like a villain in a bad movie), it's nice to see Murakami's expanded range.

And characters like May, the girl whom the narrator befriends, show that Murakami hasn't lost the ability (or desire) to write oddball characters.  The brief turn at doing surveys for a toupee manufacturer is a great break from the developing grimness.

I'm looking forward to finally moving on to volumes 2 & 3, now that I've got them all in one place.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu

Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was a perfect melding of style and substance.  It's impossible to imagine that story being successful in anything but her pastiche of 18th century prose.  The Ladies of Grace Adieu is similar, in that Clarke has again written her stories in a pastiche of old writing, but these stories show her range within that format.  These stories are by turns gothic, whimsical, or fairy-tale-like, and each one has its own narrative style that fits perfectly.

As a side-note, Clarke is now my go-to example for how to pastiche 18-19th century fiction.  Jonathan Strange and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas are the only examples I can think of where the writing doesn't end up setting my teeth on edge.  (Mitchell, of course, is working in a very different genre in the 19th century sections)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Slip of the Knife

Denise Mina's Slip of the Knife is her third book featuring journalist Paddy Meehan; I had thought it wrapped up a trilogy, but I see on Mina's website that she projects five Paddy Meehan novels.  (Of course, said website also says that Slip has yet to be published, so who knows how accurate it is...)

Regardless, this a fantastic novel.  I've liked Mina's writing since I first read Garnethill, but I felt like Slip of the Knife is at a whole new level.  Mina keeps a nice balance between the struggles of Paddy's quotidian life (she works in the failing newspaper biz) and her tangles with some local members of the IRA.  In the process, Mina punctures some of the commonplaces of the suspense genre, as, for instance, when Paddy confronts a member of the IRA, telling him that if they threaten her son, she'll make them pay.  It's a rousing speech, but completely deflated by his reaction that everybody slain on both sides is somebody's child, and the so what.

The ending is terrific.  Mina manages to do more with moral ambiguity in a few pages than other writers do with whole volumes of grimdark grim-'n'-gritty novels.

As a side note, Ian Rankin also features the IRA in one of the Rebus novels set (IIRC) at around the same time -- I wonder if that was a thing in Scotland at the time, but I'm too lazy to check right now.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Monkey's Raincoat

After my recent reading of L.A. Requiem, I had a yen to re-read the first Elvis Cole novel, The Monkey's Raincoat.  For what it is, it's a very good novel.  The Monkey's Raincoat falls squarely into the tradition of the wise-cracking PI with a heart of gold, and Crais pulls it off well.  Elvis is interesting enough, and the story moves along fast enough that you don't quite notice how implausible the ending firefight is.

Crais also at least acknowledges the potential PTSD that will come as an aftermath of the events in the novel, even if he doesn't do much with it.

Overall, a very solid book, and I can see again why I stuck with the series.

Devil of Nanking

This is yet another book that I saw in the bookstore a while ago, mentally put into my "maybe interesting" list, then ended picking up as a kindle special.

I knew that the story-line concerned the Rape of Nanking, but not so much more than that.  In the event, the Rape of Nanking is only one of two major strands of the plot; the other takes place in present-day Tokyo, and concerns an English woman come to Japan to research the Rape of Nanking, who gets caught up in events centering around a yakuza boss and his enigmatic Nurse.

Author Mo Hayder has created an interesting protagonist in "Grey," mentally disturbed and trying to pick up the pieces of her life.  And the Nanking parts were pretty good, although a little too focused on omens, which I thought was a bit out of character for the narrator.  But the main present-day storyline as a whole somehow didn't quite gel for me.  Partly, it's hard to believe in "Grey" as a successful hostess, given her mental issues.  Partly it's that the reveal is obvious pretty early on.  (really, both major reveals, come to think of it).

It was a decent book, and I'm not sorry I read it, but it's not really one I'd rave about either.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


I've been meaning to post about each speaker in Plato's Symposium as I read them, but that plan fell to the wayside.  I'm three speakers in (not counting the framing device) and have yet to post...

I'm going to jump to the middle, because otherwise I'll never catch up.  Pausanias talks about the two types of eros.  There is the heavenly love, associated with love of the mind, and there is earthly love, associated with love of the body.  The former can inspire us to great things, like sacrifice on behalf of the loved one, and, hence, tyrants are afraid of it.  Pausanias also associates heavenly love with homosexuality, and this is why, he claims, cities other than Athens outlaw it.  The other cities are tyrannies, and so they worry that heavenly love will cause citizens to revolt against the government.

I found Pausanias's discussion of the laws of pederasty somewhat confusing, although it's hard to tell if that's because I'm just not in the right frame of reference.  I also find Pausanias unconvincing, but, again, it's hard to tell if that's deliberate.

On the other hand, I found the next speaker, Eryximachus, relatively easy to read.  He agrees that there are two types of love, but expands them into controlling forces for everything, particularly a person's health.  There is a love of good things, which causes health, and a love of bad things, which is not healthy.  On the other hand, Pausanias says that you need a bit of opposites to achieve a greater harmony.  Food tastes better with a bit of bitter, music sounds better with opposing sounds, and so on.  Just so, a doctor's job is to moderate the desire for the bad things, to where it can be healthful.  (I think so, anyway -- my Greek is not yet as good as I'd like...)

I think this is akin to the story about when the rabbis locked up yetzer ha'ra.  They found that without a touch of greed and competition, everybody just ended up doing nothing all day -- a little bit of the evil inclination can be a good thing.

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is such a tangled web of interlocking story threads that it's hard to know where to begin talking about it.

For me, the easiest clew to begin picking at has to be "Half Lives", the story of Luisa Rey, because it's anomalous within the greater structure of the novel.  Unlike the other 5 stories, Rey's does not purport to be factual -- it's presented as a thriller (and not a particularly good one).  The other 5 stories are first-person accounts of events that have (purportedly) happened to the narrator/journalist/correspondent.

And yet, Luisa Rey's story also fits into the over-arching narrative themes.  Rey reads Frobisher's letters from the previous section, she listens to the Cloud Atlas sextet, later on, Sonmi will re-experience Rey's fall in the car, and so on.  Her story is linked to the other 5 as much as any of them are linked.

My first thought is that, although Rey's story is particularly outrageous, Mitchell starts to cast doubt on his stories early on.  Frobisher finds Adam Ewing's journal from part 1 and comments that the writing style doesn't feel authentic.  In "Sloosha's Crossing," Zachry the narrator is telling us the story long after the fact, and his son tells us that he was often given to "yarning."  From there, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to deciding that Cavendish's story is, at least, heavily embellished -- the second half reads more like a sitcom than anything else.

On the other hand, it's just plain unsatisfying to see that they're all supposed to be "false," whatever that might  mean in a fictional work.  I think the most satisfying answer is to say that all of these stories are somewhat-edited versions of actual "true" stories, and that Mitchell is also working in the idea of the teller's bias making the "true" story unknowable.

From this, we can go to the idea that maybe all 6 stories are reflections of some deeper story that underlies all of them.  All 6 stories are stories of oppression and suppression, sometimes on a large scale, sometimes just person-to-person.  When looked at this way, I think the ending has a real resonance -- Ewing's declaration is a fitting close, applying not just to his story, but to all of them.

There's a lot more to say about this book, and maybe some day I'll say some of it :-).  One side note...  In contradistinction to some of the commentary I've read, I don't think this is really a novel of reincarnation.  Rather, I think the comet-shaped birthmark is another leitmotif linking the stories together.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

L.A. Requiem

I ended up re-reading L.A. Requiem by mistake -- audible had a 2-for-1 sale, and I thought it was a different Elvis Cole novel.  But this book is one that improves on re-reading.  The first time through, I was disappointed that Crais never really gets into what makes Joe Pike, Cole's enigmatic partner, tick.  We get a few scenes from his point of view, but they don't really form a portrait.

This time around, knowing not to expect those things, it's more clear how much Crais expanded his palette for this novel.  His characters are richer, Elvis is more believable (and less snarky). and it's overall one of the best in the series.  This is still light reading, but it's got enough weight that it doesn't just blow away.

Quick addendum -- I've moved on to reading Denise Mina's Slip of the Knife, and the contrast makes it clear how light-weight L.A. Requiem really is.

The Man Who Died Laughing

Tarquin Hall's The Man Who Died Laughing is, like its predecessor, The Case of the Missing Servant, lighter than air.  It also didn't really bring anything new to the mix, and wasn't quite entertaining enough for me to want more.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Boat of her own Making started life as a web fiction where Cathrynne Valente would publish episodes periodically, and the finished novel bears some of the marks of this genesis.  In particular, I felt like it took her a while to find the voice she was using for this story.

At first, the novel struck me as too arch for its own good, not really sure if it's aimed at children or adults.  There's a joke about the Wyverary's parentage that is not hugely appropriate for a children's book, or, more importantly, for the kind of children's book narrator that Valente is channeling here.  (The narrator feels like she'd be at home in an early-20th-century British fairy tale, say, the Narnia stories.  Not that Valente is aping Lewis, just that there's a feel to the voice.)

Fortunately, the style settles down about a third of the way in, and from there on out, I really enjoyed the novel.  It's whimsical without being grating, which is a hard balance to pull off.


I've felt for a long time that one thing that mysteries do well is provide structure to a novel, giving the author a  skeleton for hanging characters, setting, etc on.  C. J. Sansom provides yet another example with his novel Dissolution, set in the Tudor period at the height of Cromwell's power, a period I wouldn't normally be particularly interested in.

Sansom manages to work in a fair bit of the politics and history of the time without turning the novel into a history lesson.  More interesting to me, though, was his central character, Matthew Shardlake.  Shardlake is a reformer, somewhat liberal by the standards of the time, but Sansom resists the urge to put a 21st century person into the reign of Henry VIII.  Shardlake's attitudes toward class and religion are pretty regressive, and he's also willfully blind to Cromwell's abuses.  One could easily imagine a version of this novel with Shardlake as the villain of the piece.

My one quibble with the novel is one I have with many historical novels -- Sansom ends up dragging in extraneous historical characters (other than Cromwell, who is important to the novel), where it feels they don't necessarily belong.  But it's hard to run down this novel for a pretty frequent failing in the genre.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


I'm doggedly making my way through book IV of the Aeneid.  Dido has succumbed to a madness that sees Aeneas as an enemy because he's ready to leave her, though she considers the two of them married.  She tells her sister Anna to call Aeneas back, and I thought that these lines are very effective.  They read very directly and powerfully, and one can see why this story more than the rest of the Aeneid has captured the imagination of later writers.

Also, Vergil's playing with the ictus against the meter works really well here -- it's never really stood out for me as a technique as much up till now.


A. S. Byatt's Ragnarok is, as the title implies, her retelling of the Norse story of Ragnarok, the final battle at the end of the world.  In order to give a complete story, she starts with Yggdrasil and the creation of the world, moves through the story of the Midgard Serpent and Fenris Wolf, and ends up at the Final Battle.

This is a somewhat idiosyncratic rendering (Thor, for example, shows up for three pages), filtered through Byatt's concerns.  Byatt takes the idea that the gods knew Ragnarok was coming, but couldn't bring themselves to take the steps necessary to avoid it, and uses it as a stand-in for our knowledge that our environmental depredation is bad, but can't really bring ourselves to lessen it.  (She makes all this clear in a didactic afterword).

I enjoyed this book, but it's fairly minor as Byatt's books go.  It would be hard to recommend as an introduction to Norse mythology; the telling is too idiosyncratic.  It also plays against Byatt's strengths as a writer, I think.  She chooses an intentionally distancing point-of-view, refracting the whole story through the eyes of a girl growing up outside London during WWII.  Although Byatt is a very intellectual writer, I think her best writing has an emotional resonance to it, and this sort of distancing effect makes it hard to engage with the material.  (Byatt has also chosen not to humanize her gods; in general, I agree with this approach, because gods should be something "other", but, again, it's not a register that she plays well in).

On the other hand, it's hard to be too negative about Ragnarok; even weak Byatt is better than most authors at the peak of their game.  Although I'd prefer another Possession to this, Ragnarok is still better than many other books I've read lately.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Wreckage, Caterpillar Cop

Two fairly "meh" books.  I was particularly disappointed by James McClure's Caterpillar Cop, since I think Gooseberry Fool is a fantastic mystery novel and The Artful Egg has some funny views of South Africa.  But Caterpillar Cop is a by-the-novels procedural.  Zondi has a bit part, which certainly doesn't help matters; his and Kramer's different approach are part of what makes the series work.

The Wreckage didn't really do anything for me either.  It seems to be one of those books that's less than the sum of its parts.  Decent characters, decent writing, a good (believable) conspiracy plot, but the whole just didn't cohere for me.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Polar Star

Martin Cruz Smith's follow up to Gorky Park is the excellent Polar Star.  I mostly liked the former novel, but felt like it was aiming for a take on international espionage that it didn't quite pull off.  This novel isn't really focused on the espionage angle so much, which is a plus, but, more importantly, Cruz uses the setting of a fishing factory boat to brilliant effect.

As the novel starts, Arkady Renko is hiding out on the eponymous "Polar Star," a huge Soviet factory ship taking in the fish trawled by some American fishing vessels in a joint American/Soviet venture.  When one of the fish-cleaners on the ship dies mysteriously, Arkady is briefly rehabilitated so that he can find out who killed her.

The story takes place almost entirely on the titular "Polar Star," a claustrophobic environment that Smith uses to great effect in a few cat-and-mouse sequences.  Smith's writing is spare but evocative -- one can almost feel the cold while reading this novel.  His cast of villains is various and impressive, from the smug Communist official Volovoi to an old criminal from Arkady's past.  It's also a nice touch that, although these various bad guys are sometimes allied, they each have their own agendas and none of them really knows the full story of what's going on.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this novel, and am looking forward to reading the third Renko novel.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Ghost Story

Ghost Story is the 13th Harry Dresden novel, and it shows a striking self-awareness.  Up until now, it's been easy to see Harry as a sort of Gary Stu, fighting his way through a lot of bad guys and walloping them with his more-impressive fire-power.  But here, Harry confronts the idea that maybe discretion would have been the better course -- he's ended up causing a lot of problems, even as defeats the bad guys.  We can see that Harry's hot-headedness has caused a chain of events starting way back (to book 3 or 4, I think), leading to the war against the Red Court, the death of his friends, the crippling of Michael, and so on.

Having said all that, the emphasis on the book is not on soul-searching, it's still on action.  So it'll be interesting to see if Butcher has Harry turn over a new more restrained leaf, or whether book 14 goes back to business as usual.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a bit of a peculiar child itself.  Riggs has taken a lot of "found" photographs and woven then into a novel, mostly seamlessly.  In that sense, this is a stand-out book; some of the photos are spooky, some arresting, and they add some flavor to the novel.

Unfortunately, if the photos are a tasty garnish, I found the main meal of the novel to be fairly standard stuff, in the plucky-kids-take-on-evil vein.  Briggs' prose is fine, and there's nothing really wrong with the novel (except for the ending, which is very much a let-down), but there's not much to make it stand out either.  (In some ways, it strikes me very much as YA novel)

I suppose I'd read a follow-up, if I heard that it got more interesting -- I can imagine Riggs writing a more interesting second novel.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Jewel in the Crown

Paul Scott's Jewel in the Crown, the first book of his Raj Quartet, is one of the best novels I've read in a long time.  The book circles around the rape of Daphne Manners in the Bibighar Gardens during anti-British rioting.  Through this lens Scott looks at India at the end of the British Raj period from a variety of perspectives -- Hindu activists, British policemen, military and civil leaders, etc.

Impressively, none of them comes across as a "type"; instead, each person springs to life as an individual caught up in the affairs of the time.  (The closest to an exception is the British military commander, who feels like a creation that Scott didn't have much empathy for -- he's a bit too close to the blustery stereotype we have of that sort of soldier.  But even he feels pretty realistic).

I'd go on, but there's no point to just piling on superlatives -- this was a fantastic book, and there isn't much else to say.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Blood Safari

Deon Meyers' Blood Safari is a very competent thriller set in the lowveld in South Africa.  I enjoyed it a lot; I think Meyers has a real gift for pacing -- there were only a small number of action scenes, so they were nailbiters when they showed up.  Not a whole lot else to say about it; maybe there'd be more to say if I lived in South Africa and had an opinion on the suspicious death of the president of Mozambique in an aviation accident, which I gather from wikipedia was a big deal at the time.  But I'm not...

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Hugh Howey's Wool is something of a cause celebre among self-publishing enthusiasts.  It's garnered numbers of reviews and sales that many traditional-path authors would love.

The novel was originally published in 5 installments, and the first three stand pretty well as independent short stories.  I also felt that these three stories are stronger than the last two much longer stories, because they felt fresher.  I think the turning point for me is the end of the third story, the last line of which is the worst kind of action-movie cliche.

Not that stories 4 & 5 are bad, but they're somewhat predictable, compared to the first 3.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

House of Silk

House of Silk is the first official Sherlock Holmes novel approved by the Doyle estate (or the first in a long time, not sure which), and I was interested in tackling it.  But I think that Anthony Horowitz drops the ball in a couple of ways.

The hard thing about writing a Sherlock Holmes novel, I think, is that the detective is so brilliant that it's hard to keep him stumped for the length of a novel.  Horowitz solves this problem by intertwining two mysteries, "The man in the flat cap" and "The house of silk."  The first one (the flat cap mystery) starts off the novel, then Holmes is drawn into the house of silk story, and then there's a coda in which he solves the flat cap story.

Part of the problem here is that by the time we return to the first story, the stakes are so much lower than those of the main story, and we haven't seen the characters for so long, that the ending doesn't feel so interesting.  And this is unfortunate, because of the two stories, I felt like the flat cap story was much more authentic.  The resolution of that mystery felt like the sort of thing Conan Doyle would have written.

The house of silk mystery, on the other hand, is more problematic.  Part of the problem is that it's obvious from early on what the resolution is, because Horowitz tells us it's too shocking to be published during Watson's lifetime.  That doesn't leave too many options, and it was clear to me that Horowitz was going for the most obvious one.  In addition, I thought that his usage of Moriarty was gratuitous, as is giving Watson's wife a deadly disease just to show (I assume) that he knows that Doyle is contradictory about her, and that some fans speculate there was more than one wife.

Broken Harbor

Tana French  writes psychological studies that happen to be mystery novels.  Her novels are at least as much about the investigating officer as about the mystery of whodunit.  I thought that her best integration of plot and psychology was in Faithful Place, her third novel.  Sadly, I still think that's true after reading her fourth novel, Broken Harbor.

Not that Broken Harbor isn't good.  As a view into the mind of detective Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, the novel works very well; we see his journey from complete control over himself and his emotions into a man who can't keep it together.  His relationship with his sister gives an extra fillip to his story, and his fraying nerves are on display most when he's trying to deal with her.

But the story itself is overly complicated.  For the whole thing to work, French puts two borderline crazy people into the story, then adds in a third person who has a nervous breakdown.  Throw in Mick's schizophrenic sister and suicidal mother, and it feels like sane people are a small minority in French's Ireland. This novel is not so much as disappointing, particularly after the very successful Faithful Place.

The Complaints

After Exit Music, Ian Rankin rather boldly decided to end his long-running Inspector Rebus series and start a new, unconnected one.  I thought this was a really positive move; the Rebus novels hit their peak about five books before the end of the series, and I was happy to see something new out of Rankin.

Of course, it's hard to review a novel like this in a vacuum; the first question one has is whether Malcolm Fox is just Rebus redux or something new.  Fortunately, he's actually pretty different, but not just a photographic negative of Rebus, which would have felt about as pointless as an exact copy.

Suffice it to say that Fox has his own quirks, the team he works with is reasonably interesting, and the mystery itself isn't bad.  The only odd thing to me was that it seems like Rankin was ready to resolve the Breck sub-plot in a completely different direction, and it felt like that ending was just dropped on the cutting-room floor.  A lot of the minor bits with Breck don't quite make sense with the pat ending; I wonder whether Rankin will pick up those pieces in a later novel.

Ultimately, I felt like this was an improvement over the last couple of Rebus novels, even if it didn't quite reach the heights of the middle of the Rebus series.