Monday, June 28, 2010

Sue Grafton: U is for Undertow

Wasn't I lucky last library visit, getting so many olden goldie favourites that I hadn't read? Janet Evanovich, Kathy Reichs, and now Sue Grafton. This one has the story set in both the present, in a first person Kinsey narrative, and in the past, from different third person views. Grafton has started to do this more frequently in the recent books. It does work well, making for more varied reading, the opportunity to delve deeper into fringe characters, and just generally breaking that specific writing mold that I suppose it's all too easy to fall into, if your heroine is a single loner who solves cases by following up leads, one at a time.

Kinsey is approached by a young man who thinks that he, as a child, witnessed the burial of a little girl who was kidnapped a short while before. He's only just remembered the incident. Kinsey starts picking at the oh-so-few leads that there are, and the mere act of picking of course makes the original perpetrators nervous, and their stupidity solves the case in the end. The kidnapping takes place in 1968 and a lot of the story is about the conflicts between the new hippies and the old establishment so to speak, but surprisingly it's rather focused on the hippies being slackers, druggies and losers, with little sympathy for them. It could be that just these particular hippies are repulsive, but it does come across rather as being the whole movement. Perhaps it's an attempt to scale it down, to focus on the small town's reactions when they just get a drop of the whole idea. Although the fact that the old-fashioned fuddy-duddies are lovely people, especially compared to the dirty, rude, immoral hippies. Who aren't even good parents. A leetle bit odd.

I did like this book, but it could definitely have been neater. I liked how the ending was totally anti-climactic (I still have bad memories of the one that ended in a battle between Kinsey and someone else in heavy machinery - diggers? anyway, it was not good). Would have been nice to see what a great and ruthless editor could have done, plus less pressure to come up with a product. Hm.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Kathy Reichs: 206 Bones

It's been ages since a Kathy Reichs book! I have however been "treated" to the pointlessness that is Bones on a fairly regular basis since the eldest offspring likes it. She likes crime series of the detective variety, coping with any amount of gore, but cannot bear anything with proper realism, anything departing from the crime-solving formula for shows (or books I suppose). It's sweet. Bones, however, is boring.

Having read a lot of good fiction since I last read Kathy Reichs I am more sensitive to the not-so-great bits of her authorship. Staccato writing, a weakness for ending chapters with cliffhangers that in the next chapter don't lead anywhere (invented example "I asked him if there was a problem. And the day got worse." - next chapter: it doesn't actually get worse. It's just not better.)

This one starts of with Temperance being buried alive in a small space, and under the guise of her trying to remember why she's been put there we get the whole background story. It's not great, really. But entertaining enough. I'd say that the plotline of academic fraud and ambition is farfetched, but since Reichs does work in that area she might just be tweaking the truth a little, not a lot. So it can pass. And on the whole she does tie up the plotlines. Fair play.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Janet Evanovich: Plum Spooky

Does what it says on the tin. No surprises!

I miss the dark streak that runs through the first few novels. Here Stephanie is actually threatened with a very violent and cruel rape, and she seems to just shrug it off? What the hell? If they keep the dark streak in it could make for successful filming. Maybe not this one, it has an over-human monkey in it - so eighties.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Seven books behind

So best get cracking, right? I've actually been, well, not swamped exactly, but let's say adequately supplied with work recently. So no time for furtive blogging at all, and I never get to the computer at home. Now I've got mr Bani's laptop (I remember fondly the days when I had my own and could use it ... now it doesn't access the internet, and really, what else are computers for in this day and age? But I digress. I snark, and digress) so will try to to loads here.

One of the books I've got in my pile is a Ngaoi Marsh that's all about morris dancing, which would be great to write about today when we're celebrating midsummer here en Suecia and the whole country happily has danced around the phallic symbol that is the may pole (or midsummer pole or what have you). Since they do morris dancing around may poles, I mean. But that book also has one of the best Ugly Covers ever, and the jpeg of that is on my work computer (naughty naughty!). So I'll save it.

Instead I'll turn to the latest book discussion club novel, one that I plugged hard for: Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. I don't think I'd ever even heard of it, because I don't stay up-to-date with book news at all, but I spotted it in the cheap paper-back section on Bokus or Adlibris and fell for it immediately, what with my recent great Atwood experience with The Blind Assassin and my general hankering for some good sci-fi. So I pushed for it and we chose it.

Oryx and Crake is set in a future where companies that do genetic research are very rich and powerful and separate from the rest of society. They can afford gated communities for their staff and their families and are pretty much a society unto themselves. We get to know Jimmy after society has collapsed, when the only people alive apart from him are "Crake's children", humanoids that we understand are not quite human. Gradually Jimmy reminisces and tells us the story of his life, how he got to know Crake, a scientific genius who was so disillusioned with mankind that he wanted to start over with a new and better species. Now, Jimmy is alone, the sole bearer of the entire planet's history - because the children of Crake know nothing and can't understand if he tries to explain.

In theory this is a great set-up, with ample scope for melancholy and an almost claustrophobic void of loneliness. Sadly I was a little disappointed. The book didn't feel finished. It felt like an experimental science-fiction essay on the potential dangers of genetic manipulation half the time, and the characters were not developed enough for me to really sense them - one idea is that part of Jimmy's aching loneliness after the end of the world is that he has a whole language and no-one to share it with; Jimmy having worked with words all his life. But I don't feel this, I just read that it is so. There is a difference. The novel should have been put away for a few years and then taken out and re-read, because with a little more tweaking it'd be superb. Now it's good, but not more than that. We all enjoyed it as a good story, as entertainment, but it could have been the kind of book that keeps you awake thinking about it.

Oddly, despite a recurring theme of women and children being sexually abused and used - classic Atwood themes that she feels strongly about -  the female characters are the weakest. Oryx, the woman loved by both Jimmy and Crake, is hollow and empty. I wondered for a while if we were to deduce that she wasn't real, but a figment of Jimmy's imagination, but it's not that layered a book. That's disappointing, coming from Margaret Atwood.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Donna Leon: The Death of Faith

So amici, my first Donna Leon. I've avoided them since before the dawn of this blog due to a healthy suspicion of Americans writing books set in other countries, a suspicion fuelled by Elizabeth George and ooohhhh whatshername, I've read several of them ... Deborah Crombie, that's the one. I mean, it's bad enough set in England, in Italy it'll be terrible, I reasoned. But my other little sister nudged me on, so I thought I'd give it a go. And ok, it's not at all as bad as I'd feared. She does fall into the tourist brochure trap a fair bit, by not the worst I've read in that respect, and I can see myself reading some more of her books this summer. However, I'm not in love with Inspector Brunetti as a character. I find him and his wife and kids to be curiously bloodless and empty. This passage, about the family's mood at dinner, illustrates why:

There was none of the usual joking with which they displayed their boundless affection for one another.
If you write like that you do, at some level, think your readers are idiots. And then you can have all the untranslated Italian bits you like wedged in, it still shows. Also, apropos Italian, I'm just annoyed by the untranslation of certain terms and in particular titles. Dottore indeed. Bloody hell. It's merely pretentious! "Look at all the Italian I know!"

Anyway, the story is that Brunetti is approached by a young woman who used to be a nun and work at the nursing-home where his mother stays. Now she has left the order, and says it's because she feels something is being covered up. She asked some questions about some of the old people's deaths, and felt she was being told to keep quiet about it. Brunetti fishes for a bit but finds nothing to hold on to, but then someone tries to murder Maria the ex-nun ... There is a parallell storyline about the religious instruction at his children's school, and most importantly about the priest who takes confession there and who is clearly a paedophile. So a very up-to-date topic, really.

The author and therefore her characters are very anti-religion. As I've written somewhere before, I don't like conspiracy theories. I don't believe in them. And while I, as a Catholic, don't like Opus Dei or their take on my religion, I don't think that the organisation is worth the reams of conspiracy theories that are generated around it. I don't think that the bad and evil things that have been/are being done within the Catholic church can be ascribed to sinister plots by sinister men. I think that it's more awful, I think that most people are stupid and do stupid  and selfish things (at best), and then muddle about trying to cover them up, and then other people do the same. But it's not that organised. And this book has a lot of the classic thinking of Vatican as the big octopus with tentacles e.v.e.r.y.w.h.e.r.e. Maybe it's more true of Italy? Maybe I don't get it? But I think I do know a fair bit and have seen a fair share of the Church's bad side, and I don't believe in the conspiracy ideas. I think they're simplistic and a little silly. The truth is more complex and therefore worse.

Book oddity: reference to a "dead-hampster handshake". I seriously hope "hampster" is a typo. But on the whole I've never heard the term - bizarre!

Surely relevant in a blog with a lot of crime fiction

Idaho woman suspect in library condiment vandalism.

The nerve.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Agatha Christie duo

So, both Death Comes as the End and Black Coffee. One after the other. That's cured me for a while. Reading one okay book seems to have led me to forget all the others I didn't like. I think I was lured into it by the recently watched Doctor Who episode that shows Christie in a favourable light. And it wasn't even particularly clever, even considering how low my Doctor Who expectations are.

Black Coffee is the best one. Originally a play, it's been adapted into a book by Charles Osborne. In the foreword/introduction Christie's grandson says well done, Osborne, you'd never know it wasn't the Dame. Well, I think you kinda would. I mean, you can tell it's a play ... although perhaps I see it cuz I know it? But I think not, I think it is obvious. And I don't think that it would look like that if Christie herself had adapted it, because she'd have rewritten more. I think. Anyway, it's full of clichés and monotony and it's easy to spot the killer. But on a posititive note - it must be fun to watch in on the stage! You see everything happen before your very eyes, and then you have to think, did I see who did it? After all, when reading it's simple. It's basically laid out for you, right under your nose. So, it probably works really well as a play. Story: Poirot called to house of scientist who has invented new explosive, arrives just as scientist drops dead in armchair surrounded by entire household plus Italian guest. Quite silly. Like every Christie parody ever written I suppose.

Death Comes as the End is worse, because it's pretentious. "As the wife of a prominent archaeologist" as the introduction puts it, Christie had learned a lot about ancient Egypt and set this story there. A young widow, Renisemb, returns to her father's house with her little daughter, just as he returns from a business trip and brings along a new concubine. The concubine is spiteful and catty and ends up dead. When more people start dying it is assumed that it's her ghost doing it, but Renisemb and the household scribe, Hori, unravel the truth. By means of gazing into the sunset and saying inane stuff that's meant to seem profound as hell, mostly. God it's boring. I struggled. There has to be some flesh and blood even in a fictional character, after all!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

An ickle bickle library visit

I went to the library yesterday, inspired by my recently discovered librarian blogs perhaps (although more probably because I had time to kill before pilates class) and picked a few random things out. I have a list of books to check out in my phone notebook but they tend to be things the library doesn't have. Sulk.

So I got Agatha Christie's Death comes as the end, Janet Evanovich's Plum spooky, Donna Leon's The death of faith (on recommendation from my sister, I've been avoiding Leon so this had better be good!) and finally a book by Charles Osborne called Black coffee, of which I have no memory now at all. I think it was crime fiction. Something on the cover made me take it.

[ETA June 10th: Ha, serves me right for just logging on to my library account and reading what that said. Black Coffee is an Agatha Christie play that has been adapted as a novel by said Osborne. THAT explains why I borrowed it.]

The first two of course could be as awful as anything. I'm actually reading the Christie and can attest to it being pretty dire. But I'll get back to you on that.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Ngaoi Marsh: Death at the Bar

There is a bookmark in this book, well, a business card from my pilates teacher, and on it I've scribbled "p 100 12 o'clock?" which is a reminder to myself to mention this when writing. However, page 100 in Death at the Bar mentions nothing about clocks, so I remembered that actually the reminder belonged to Overture to Death. I think. I haven't got the book here at work (from whence I'm furtively blogging) so I can't check. The note was to remind me of a mistake - Alleyn and Fox get to their inn after a hard night's work, at the crack of dawn, and mention that it's 12 o'clock. Something like that. So there you are. Pulp fiction fault I suppose.

Now, pulp indeed, feast your eyes on the cover to your left above on your left. A cover that, incidentally, is also wrong. The man who dies is not a middle-aged fellow whose eyelids have been glued to stay open - no, the man who dies is a young brilliant lawyer. Here you can note the title's pun - the bar, gettit?
Sorry for the spoiler, but hey. This annoys me a little, I have to admit. Even though it strenghtens my theory that they had a certain selection of people who posed for these covers and there was no young handsome man among those.

The story is that three men, an extraordinarily gorgeous actor (Parish), his cousin, a brilliant lawyer (Watchman), and their friend who is an earnest and talented painter (Cubitt) (no prizes for guessing who is the best man among them) have a tradition of holidaying in a small fishing village in Devon, a village with the curious and isolating feature of being virtually hidden behind a stretch of cliffs and only accessible through a tunnel through the mountain (unless you approach by sea, of course). This time when they arrive they find a new-comer, a slightly odd man who is a wizard at darts and who has rapidly risen to the position of secretary and treasurer in the local Communist party. Watchman starts behaving strangely towards this man and appears to wish to provoke him. After a drinking session he challenges the newcomer to throw darts between his fingers - a party trick that the newcomer has demonstrated earlier. This time he misses, and Watchman receives a minor injury (minor, not crucifixion as the cover implies). Within minutes he is dead - was the dart poisoned?

There are a few twists here which make it rather fun, but the most interesting aspects of this book are class and gender. Class - in the background is the Communist party, staunchly defended and supported by the pub-owner's son, whereas the pub-owner himself is a roaring Tory. A local young woman has been given a university education and is now trapped between her background and what she has become. To her the Communist party promises egality, but it's clear that she thinks only in matter of class, really. When Watchman sexually assaults her she dismisses it as "nothing, nothing she couldn't handle". In a sad echo of one of the Soviet Union's big equality failures and hypocrisy wins she isn't aware of any feminist theories on patriarchal power, instead pretty much takes the blame herself.

Also, I wonder if the distinction between public and private bars exists anymore in the UK? Would be interesting to see.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Two covers to make you quake

Scanners FTW. Here are the covers for Death and the Dancing Footman and Vintage Murder. For the former, one has to ask oneself how long the poor model was forced to sit in that position before the photograph was deemed perfect. "Just a little longer Gerry, we're almost done. No, you shouldn't have had that extra pork pie for your lunch, I agree, and definitely not the two pints. But that's not my fault now, is it? Alright everyone, take two minutes so Gerry can loosen his belt a little. Trudy, could you dab on some extra blood there on the back of his head? Thanks love. Careful, don't step on the pipe!"

And isn't Vintage Murder just too spectacularly tacky? Blood splattered on the snowy white table cloth, I ask you. It looks more like the head waiter has been bludgeoned to death by a disgruntled diner than anything else.

And then someone brought in a three-year-old who had just had a jam sandwich and let him wipe his fingers on the dead man's shirt.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Ngaoi Marsh: Overture to Death

Oh, dramatic isn't it? And I've just been taught how to scan something on the printer and get a jpeg file, so for your viewing pleasure:

Isn't it fantastic? Who is the woman posing? Was it a full-time or a part-time job? Inquisitive minds are dying to know. There is no information inside the book incidentally, none at all. This is functional art at its ... well, not best. Most lurid? I must get the other ones scanned too.

First published in 1939, it's set in a small village where the small society group in residence - the squire, his son, the squire's spinster cousin, the rector and his daughter (in love with the young squire-to-be), the doctor, the enigmatic single newcomer (also the doctor's lover) and the first, original parish spinster - decide to set up a play to raise funds for charity. The two spinsters are best friends and bitterest rivals, both constantly struggling to be the most important and most valuable lady-in-charge in the community, and both hopelessly in love with the handsome rector. Miss Idris Campanula is used to being the boss of everything, bullying herself onto committees and into first position always. When Miss Eleanor Prentice came to live with her cousin she used her gentler ways of manipulation to coax her way into the local petty positions of power, usurping Idris. With gossip and religious hypocrisy as the glue of their friendship they nevertheless get along by default. Miss Prentice is all set to play the music score for the play. When her finger is injured Miss Campanula jumps at the job, only to have her gloating self shot on premiere night (see illustration) by the booby-trapped piano. So, enter Alleyn and Fox. Also, bloody Nigel (sigh). Whodunnit?

Actually, it's obvious whodunnit almost from the beginning. I still enjoyed it though. There are some great Alleyn quotes in it, which I can't be bothered to look for at the moment. Ah well. It's interesting as an attempt at psychology, which must have been all the rage at the time because there are numerous references to this suspect "science". The crime is resolved after a show-down of the classic kind, with all the involved gathered back at the stage. Now, she cops out here Marsh does, because she resorts to this lame solution and tries to cover it up by having Alleyn very annoyed at having to use it - yet he does, so whatever. Also interesting is a general air of the times, a break between Victorian morality (the spinsters) and young, carefree (but not premarital) love.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Ngaoi Marsh: Vintage Murder

Just see that title - postmodern isn't it?

Vintage Murder was first published in 1937, and is set in the days of Alleyn's courtship of (with?) Troy. He is on holiday in New Zealand, getting away from it all. The whole book is basically a sort of colonial's defence of the real motherland, and also a bit of a tourist brochure to be honest.

Alleyn shares a night train with a group of travelling actors heading for the fictional town of Middleton. Two suspicious things happen on the journey: a theft and an assault on one of the managers of the stage company. The two incidents are seen as disturbing and odd, but are kept quiet. After their Middleton show, however, when the troupe and some guests are all gathered on the stage for a birthday celebration for the leading lady, murder is done. With a vintage bottle of bubbly, no less.

I enjoyed the book but it's not one of my favourites. The solution was hard to get to on your own unless you studied the plans of the theatre building, helpfully enclosed, of course.

Definite what-the-hell moment for the description of the Maori doctor, Rangi Te Pokiha. You see, he's civilized, just like us, but when he gets angry the savage comes out! Not so modern that. But I seem to perceive that the word savage, when applied to a person who was of native descent, wasn't as harsh as we'd percieve it today. I must look in some old dictionaries.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Ngaoi Marsh: Death and the Dancing Footman

It feels very trivial to be writing a blog entry on a vintage crime novel when the Middle East is in such turmoil. I keep checking the news, hoping that information will start to flow soon, that reason will start to prevail and most importantly that everyone accepts their own responsability for what they themselves have done. My opinion is that it's horrendous for a nation to board ships in international waters - unless there's a very good cause indeed, in which case the information should be out there for all to see. Yet it's even more depressing to contemplate even the possibility that there might have been activists preparing for violence. I sincerely hope that this mission  wasn't deliberately sabotaged in that way. There were a lot of people involved who wanted it to be a mission of trust, and whose reasons for going were as much about defying Hamas as defying the Israeli blockade, I'm sure of that. What a minefield it all is.

Shall we lose ourselves in the world of house-parties and gentlemen detectives instead? But with a little nod towards war, nonetheless. Death and the Dancing Footman is from 1942, so WW2 hovers over the proceedings. The real shortages hadn't started when she wrote it, that's clear, as Jonathan Royal prepares a weekend party for a motley group of guests, all invited precisely because there is tremendous enmity between them. There seems to be no lack of great food and booze for mr Royal. His friend and confidante is a playwright named Mandrake. Being the only one with no ties to any of the other guests he is told about Royal's plans for the weekend. Royal wishes to be creative, but having no painting, musical or other skills he has decided for the unconventional medium of people. By forcing together people who dislike each other he hopes for drama and for the resolution of conflicts and lovers' tiffs. Obviously, someone gets murdered.

I was rather pleased with myself for spotting the murderer quite soon, and based on clues in the book too. It really was obvious, only one person could have done it.

I'd like to take a picture of the covers of a few of these Marshes I bought. They really are spectacularly odd - a set of the murder has been arranged and photographed, including pools of unrealistic blood. I wonder who these people were who posed for these covers? Actors of the lower grades? Artists' models? Friends of the publisher, doing it for a laugh? Was there a special guild? Special agencies? Could one trace one of the models now and ask? So many questions.