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.