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.