Books, 2014 (3)

66.  Declan Hughes, The Wrong Kind of Blood. 7/2. Edward Loy, a private detective based in Los Angeles, is back in Dublin to attend the funeral of his mother. There he runs afoul of old friends who belong to the mob, old friends who are property developers (read crooks), and old friends who are gardai, not to mention a torturous family history. Loy is a hard-boiled detective with a tortured past. This was published before the 2008 crash, so Dublin is still prosperous and full of people conniving to increase their wealth. Not bad but a bit wearying towards the end. The 'wrong blood' is genetic dispositions to certain characteristics in the sense of coming from 'bad seed' and refers to inherited criminal tendencies.

67. Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam. 7/5. The latest book in the Discworld series. An unabashed paean to technology and its benefits, featuring a clash between modernizers and reactionaries, told with Pratchett's usual elan and humour.

68.  Declan Hughes, The Colour of Blood. 7/6. The second Edward Loy mystery. Loy is still in Dublin, battling the combined forces of Irish family, corruption, and hypocrisy. He wins this battle but is damaged in the process. The financial crisis hasn't happened yet; so property developers and greed are the main motive forces. The novel is set in Dublin, but with appropriate changes of name, the events in it could take place anywhere, but the psychology is Irish. Loy (and I suppose Hughes) is acutely conscious of being Irish. One character who is a psychologist even delivers a disquisition on the problem of being Irish. So geographically 'Ireland' isn't essential to the story but 'Irishness' is. I shall have to think more about how place factors into stories.

69. Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing. 6/8. Arden edition, ed. Claire McEachern. Another of Shakespeare's comedies that could so easily veer in tragedy. The Beatrice-Benedict and Dogsberry-Verges-the Watch subplots distract the mind from the slandering of Hero, which is the horror lurking beneath the light comedy.

McEachern points out that, for all the mentions and accusations and fears about cuckolding in Shakespeare, there is no actual case of it (she is forgetting Queen Margaret in Henry VI; doesn't Iago's wife or one of the servant women in The Merchant of Venice cuckold her husband? can't remember). Anyway, she argues that since in Shakespeare's time, cuckolding implied that the husband did not know that his wife was being unfaithful but others did (a husband who knew of the infidelity was a 'witold'), cuckolding became for Shakespeare a metaphor for the theatre, where the audience knew more that the characters. Perhaps. It's a clever argument but at this remove can be only speculation. Her discussion of the roles of public perception and the problems of reading outward deportment as clues to the inner mind in this play is more solidly grounded in the statements within in the play.

Like all plays, the characters rapidly shift gears. It takes little evidence for the formerly smitten Claudio and Prince Pedro to convince themselves of Hero's guilt, but a few words are enough for them to realise they were mistaken. Hero's father Leonato immediately accepts the accusations of Claudio, Prince Pedro, and Prince Juan as true and then denounces Hero in an ugly scene; he is almost as quickly convinced otherwise by Beatrice, Benedict, and the Friar. And it takes little for Benedict and Beatrice to abandon their hostilities and convince themselves that the other person is in love with him/her. Plays don't have the luxury of space enjoyed by the novel to explore changes of heart.

70. A Century of Great Suspense Stories, ed. Jeffrey Deaver. 7/14.  The century here is the 20th. Despite the title, most of the stories date from the 1980s and 1990s and are from authors capable of giving permission to reprint. There are a few from earlier authors such as Gardner, Ross MacDonald, McBain, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout, but the copyright hole seems to have prevented a representative selection from all but the most famous early and mid-century authors who still have agents authorized to allow reprints. Most of the authors are American (the two exceptions are Simenon and Rendall). For the most part, the stories are entertaining but not memorable. Deaver's editorial bios tend to assert each author's greatness and game-changing writing without doing much to put the author in the context of their contemporaries or explain how a genre was changed by their writings.

71. Shakespeare, As You Like It. 7/18. Arden edition, ed. Juliet Dusinberre. Good introduction and annotation by Dusinberre. For me at least, one of the most pleasant of Shakespeare's plays. Rosalind is entertaining w/o Beatrice's sharpness and self-willed ignorance. Jaques is morose and melancholy, but in a rather attractive way. Orlando isn't a love-sick swain. The nastiness found in many of the other comedies is here thankfully brief and is used to advance the plot by gathering all the principals in the Forest of Arden and to provide contrasts between the characters at court and in the forest and between their situations. The usual emphasis on marriage as an occasion for adultery and cuckolding (male adultery seems never to have been a concern)--Elizabethan males must have been obsessed with the subject.

72. Joseph Mazur, Enlightening Symbols: A History of Mathematical Notation and Its Hidden Powers. A history of the development of modern mathematical notation and how that notation made apparent and eased manipulation of mathematical relationships.Some of the early means of expressing mathematical propositions were truly complex rhetorical statements. One of the interesting things is how long it took helpful innovations to be accepted--there was a great distrust of zero and negative numbers, for examples.

This book was not as interesting as I thought it would be. Mazur too often gets sidetracked. It's a short book--225 pages--but there is as lot of filler and reiteration of points already made.

73. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, The Long Mars. 7/23. The third book in this series, but the first for me. In 2045, Yellowstone has exploded in a massive volanic eruption that devastates most of the earth. The survivors escape by stepping in parallel worlds--the closer the world to the original earth, the more like earth it is, and vice versa. The technology has been around for several decades and outposts exist on many of the nearest step worlds. There isn't much of a plot here--earth sends out an expedition to explore the step worlds further; it reaches world no. 250,000,000 westward from earth. Three people explore Mars and its step worlds. A new race of humans has evolved and is seen as threatening by the original humans. In the end, the right things are done by the responsible citizens of these worlds, and humankind in both its forms survives.

Pratchett's usual fancies and whimsy are not much in evidence here. On the science fiction scale, this tends less to fantasy and much more to the science, along with several questions about technology and the changes, both good and bad, it brings; morality in new circumstances; the endurance of human characteristis, both good and bad. I should find the two earlier books in the series. It manages to deal with questions without lecturing and work them into the story with a light hand.

74.  Tana French, Faithful Place. 7/25. Ostensibly this is a mystery novel. In 1985, nineteen-year-old Francis Mackey is waiting at midnight in the Liberties at the top of the street on which his family lives in a four-room flat. He is waiting for his girlfriend Rosie to arrive so that they can elope to England and escape from their dysfunctional families and the predictable lives that await them in working-class Dublin. Rosie never shows up. Frank doublechecks an abandoned house nearby to make sure she's not waiting for him there and discovers a note that implies that she's gone off to England by herself. Frank decides not to return home and instead takes off on his own. Twenty-two years later, in 2007, he's a detective sergeant in the Garda, and other than his sister Jackie, he hasn't spoken to anyone in his family in all that time. Jackie calls; Rosie's suitcase has been discovered during the demolition of the abandoned house. Frank soon uncovers Rosie's body in the basement. Eventually, he discovers the culprit. That's the ostensible mystery.

The mystery, however, is just the pretext for a very good novel about Irish families and neighbourhoods and their codes. It's a novel about identity and suffering and guilt and the madness of families. It's about deciding in the end what is important to your sense of who you are. The novel is deeply grounded in this part of Dublin, and the interaction between the Liberties and the lives of those who live there is a lesson in how to make place matter in a novel. The dialogue is carefully shaded--from the ripe, working-class-poor English of the parents to the better English of their children to the precise English of Frank's upper-class wife and their private-school-educated daughter.

What makes this even better is French's skill at characterisation. These are portraits of complex people shaped by their personalities and the environment. Even the minor characters are much more than simple placeholders.

75. Shakespeare, The Tempest. 7/25. Arden edition, ed. Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan. Near the end of the play, at the site of Ariel's final exit, the editors mention in a note a 1993-94 RSC production in which Ariel spat at Prospero as he flew off after gaining his freedom. That is probably totally contrary to Shakespeare's views, but it sums up what I feel about Prospero. He lost Milan through his own carelessness and misreading of human nature; now he wants it back. He has enslaved both Caliban and Ariel and mistreats them without understanding that he is the cause of what he labels their misbehavior. He uses and manipulates people and sees them in terms of their utility to himself. Prospero should have been left on the island. Prospero is for me the protagonist as egoistical bastard.

This is probably Shakespeare's most tightly organized play. Unlike the editors of other Arden editions, the Vaughans do not have a section discussing the rewritings and cuts directors have made in this play over the years. It seems to be one of the few plays in which all of the received text is presented. Trinculo and Stephano are clowns, but they serve the purposes of the play, rather than being comic interludes of dubious value. The spectacles and the mummeries are entertainments, to be sure, but they are entertainments with a purpose.

It is also a play open to multiple interpretations. None of the interpretations I have read over the years seems to me to capture the totality of the play. That always eludes us. Of course, great language and characters and a joy to watch.

76.  Ridley Pearson, The Red Room. 7/26. A thriller set in Istanbul. Two employees of a private security firm are sent on what is billed as a routine mission. Instead they get in a lot of trouble from competing security services with different agendas, as well as private crooks. Both survive a range of beatings over the course of two or three days, any one of which would put most people in the hospital for months. But, no matter, a good if improbable time is had by all.

77.  Ben Bova, Transhuman. 7/30. A medical science fiction/thriller. Senior citizen/biochemist cures granddaughter's cancer and reverses his aging process. In the process, he manages to outwit the FBI, a nefarious capitalist out to monopolize his research, the Army, and the White House and capture the affections of the heroine, who is a thirties-something doctor. Complicated and improbable plot, cliched characters.

78. Bill Pronzini, Strangers. 7/31. A Nameless Detective story. The classic hard-bitten detective solving a crime others had given up on. Strong storytelling with complex characters. Short but much more rewarding than the preceding item.

79.  Tana French, Broken Harbour. 8/2.  Another superior mystery novel from French. The mystery here is more complex than in Faithful Place and more central to the novel, but the real interest lies in the main character, "Scorcher" Kennedy, a detective inspector in the Dublin Garda murder squad. The mystery concerns the murder of two children and their father, and the attempted murder of the mother, who barely survives and spends the novel in hospital recovering from surgery. The murders take place on a housing development along the coast north of Dublin (the Broken Harbour of the title), which coincidentally is the place where Kennedy's family holidayed each year during his childhood and the place where his mother committed suicide. That experience has left Kennedy's younger sister disturbed, and she flits in and out of the action creating mayhem and anguish in Kennedy's life. Also complicating Kennedy's life is Richie, the rookie detective he is training.

The housing development was abandoned, largely unfinished, by the builders after the 2007 crash, and only a few homes are inhabited. The murdered father lost his job because of the crash, and the family tries to hold onto middle-class respectability even as it slowly goes broke. The father in the family tries to find a job, but his failure to fulfill his perceived role as the provider for the family leads to obsession and then to madness. The apparent culprit is a family friend dating from the parents' childhood. The friend has also lost his job and begins spying on the family. He confesses to Kennedy about halfway through the book, and the rest of the book is devoted to Kennedy trying to amass evidence to support the confession.  The evidence doesn't support the confession, and the case against the friend slowly collapses.

Richie finds evidence that the wife committed the murders and tried to commit suicide but suppresses it, reasoning that the wife will kill herself once she gets out of hospital and thus justice will be satisfied. He tries to implicate the husband once it becomes apparent that the friend's confession is fake. Kennedy discovers this and forces the wife to confess, but without cautioning her. So her confession is invalid. He then cooks up evidence that will put her away in a mental home so that she can get treatment.

The novel is more a psychological study, first, of the impact of the recession on families like the one in the book and, second, of Kennedy, the hitherto good copper who descends to fitting up the guilty person. Once again, French uses the setting as a major factor in the characters' lives and behaviour. The semi-abandoned housing development looms large in the mental deterioration of the family. French also excels at using language proper to all the characters. They speak naturally for their backgrounds and educations.

80. David Guterson, Problems with People. 8/3. A collection of ten short stories. Excellent examples of the craft of short stories. Nothing stellar, but all solid works featuring people attempting to cope with problems, most of them ordinary--both the people and the problems.

81.  Ian Rankin, Saints of the Shadow Bible. 8/6. John Rebus is back from retirement. This time he solves five murders, some recent, some ancient. Usual good read from Rankin.

82.  Martha Grimes, The Winds of Change. 8/10. A Richard Jury mystery, but the usual cast of characters has only walk-on parts. I read this years ago (published in 2002) but had forgotten it. I didn't even remember the unusual twist at the end. Several of the major characters in this have mislaid siblings or children. Grimes has a recurring lost or orphaned child character in many of her novels. Here at least they are central to the plot, unlike many of her novels which have a bright child with no parents extraneous to the plot. One wonders why this fixation.

83.  Ian Rankin, The Black Book. 8/12. Published in 1993, this was the fifth book in the John Rebus series. All the familiar elements are here. Towards the end there is a bit of clumsiness--one of the main characters commits suicide, and Rebus finds a diary in his effects that explains everything. It's a structural equivalent of the detective gathering all the characters together in the library or drawing room and then explaining everything. Still a good read.

84. Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum. Trans. Ralph Manheim. 8/16. I saw a reference to this and decided to reread it. I read it the first time in the late 1960s or early 1970s because I remember discussing it with Noel, and I didn't see him after 1972 or so. It still confounds--and enchants--me.

It's tempting to read this as a national allegory, and it's so intertwined with German history of the first half of the twentieth century that it needs to be interpreted against that background. On the other hand, Oskar, the man who refuses to grow up, is divided in his allegiances to the carnal and bestial Rasputin and the cerebral and idealistic Goethe. In the end he realizes that Goethe can be an evil a figure as Rasputin. So much of the novel deals with relationships between men and women that that theme must be acknowledged in interpretation. It's the Black Witch of the children's song that wins out, however. She isn't evil so much as fate and the random horrors of life.

Oskar does eventually grow up, both physically and mentally. After some 25 years of avoiding responsibility for his actions, he accepts punishment for his past behaviour, even if it means claiming credit for a crime he did not commit. The punishment is relatively benign (incarceration in a mental hospital), and the discovery of the real culprit leads to his release at the end of the novel at the age of 30. The chief benefits of his stay in the hospital seem to be the leisure to write this account and the avoidance of living. That comes to an end with his release, and he reluctantly faces adult choices and the assumption of responsibility. The incorporation of others' versions of his story into his account makes it apparent that he isn't always a reliable narrator. His autobiography is a romance in the older sense of a fantastic tale.

The tin drum is at once a child's toy, a martial instrument, a storytelling tool, and a means of influencing others. Its primary function for Oskar is to beat out stories. By telling stories through his drum, Oskar allows himself and others to relive them and purge themselves of them.

85.  David Guterson, The Other. The 'other' of the title derives from Rimbaud's Je est un autre.

As a teenager, Neil Countryman meets John William Barry. Neil comes from working-class stock; John William is the privileged and brilliant scion of a wealthy family. Both live in Seattle and share a love of the outdoors that takes them into wilderness areas north of Seattle.

Neil goes to college and becomes a high-school English teacher and a family man. John William drops out of college in his first year and then immures himself in the woods, convinced that this is the only way to exist without hypocrisy and compromise. Neil visits him often and helps him build a cave in a remote area and then disappear off the grid. After four years, Neil finds that John William has died since his last visit. He shrouds the body and leaves it in the cave, where it is found thirty-odd years later. A lawyer comes forward and reveals that John William wrote a will in his twenties leaving his considerable fortune (which has grown to $440 million) to Neil.

The two represent radically different approaches to life. Neil follows the conventional route of family and job, roles that he performs with grace and satisfaction. John William's approach is idealistic, radical, and unstable--it can't last.

The 'I' that we construct and believe to be our authentic self is the target here. John William is the person Neil might have become if he hadn't met the woman who would become his wife. John William's one attempt at a love affair, which might have led to a very different life for him, goes awry when the woman refuses to play the role he wants her to play. His response is to drop out and retreat from society. John William dies at the point when Neil is beginning to opt for family life and work, a bit of symbolism for the death of youthful idealism. The inheritance that Neil receives from John William is not the staggering sum of money but the knowledge of what his life is and what it might have been and the peace that comes from realizing that he is in the end happy with what he is.

My one quibble would be that Neil seems to be teaching graduate-level seminars in high school. His references to literature are wide-ranging; literature is one of his filters for constructing his sense of self.

86.  Ian Rankin, Bleeding Hearts. 8/29. An early Rankin featuring a likeable assassin-for-hire and a nasty private dectective dogging him. More in the action hero/thriller vein than in Rankin's dour Scot detective mode.

87.  Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. ca. 9/7. Re-read this while I was on vacation. It remains an excellent, joyful novel about the way the we learn to read and decipher books through individual and collective efforts.

88. Tom Phelan, The Canal Bridge. 9/14. A novel about two friends from a small Irish village who join the British army in 1913 and end up being stretcher bearers in France during World War I. One of them kills the other while he is awaiting a firing squad after confronting Haig and telling him off; the other comes home to the madness of the civil war following WWI and end up dying defending the home of his Protestant employers from an IRA group bent on burning it. The story is told in short, first-person episodes narrated by the various characters. Intentionally gruesome in dealing with the horrors of both wars but rather a sentimental tale. I started reading it before going on vacation and picked it up again today to finish the remaining 25 pages for want of anything better to do. Lots of research went into this, but not much understanding.

89. Kevin J. Anderson, The Dark Between the Stars. 9/19. This is the first book in a new trilogy in the Saga of the Seven Suns series. It runs to 200,000 words. The book's blurb refers to the series as a 'space opera'. It certainly is that. A large cast of characters and several linked plot lines appear and disappear as the story spins out in short segments told from the points of view of the major characters in turn. Humans and their allies have been peacefully pursuing their interests in the twenty years since the end of the last conflict. The forces of darkness (literally) appear and begin causing havoc. At the end of this segment, the forces of light (again literally) are in the ascendance, but many odd things are happening.

Early on, the author had a tendency to let his characters explain this unfamiliar universe in conversations, which often led to them discussing things they would know and assume as background. Thankfully he abandoned this tactic once he had imparted the basic information. This is filled with heroic characters making heroic statements and people doing noble things. Oddly, I really enjoyed reading it.

90. David Ignatius, The Director. 9/20. An espionage thriller. As the author notes in an afterword, computer and the internet have changed the world so much that the traditional spy thriller has to be updated to include cyber-terrorism. Except for the cyber-plot, this is a traditional thriller with bureaucratic baddies intent on world domination for our own good, foiled by the well-meaning naifs.

91. Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot. 9/21. It took me several weeks to finish this book. I've read it four or five times now. I will never comes to terms with it, never find anything to say about it that wouldn't be a desecration.

92. Graham Joyce, Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit. 9/21. Joyce is an award-winning writer of fantasies. This novel appears at first to be in that genre but ends up being more a psychological thriller than a supernatural tale.

David Barwise, a young man who has just finished his first year of university, takes a summer job at a holiday camp in Skegnes as part of its entertainment staff. The year is 1976, and these camps are declining. Skegnes is also the place where his father died when David was three years old. He becomes involved with a possessive man, who involves him in the National Front and other dicey acts, as well as with the man's wife, who is seeking to escape her husband. David also begins seeing apparitions of a man in a blue suit and a young boy. Eventually the possessive husband and his wife disappear, giving David an opportunity to become romantically linked with another, more promising woman, and a psychic helps David recover his buried memories of his father's death in Skegnes, which is the source of the apparitions.

The beginning of this promised more than the ending delivered. Indeed, the ending was rushed and too rational for the build-up.

93. Steven Galloway, The Confabulist. 9/27. The epigraph for this book is "Every man's memory is his private business" (Huxley). In the first chapter, a doctor tells the narrator, Martin Strauss, that he has a condition that will lead to a gradual loss of memory, but that his brain will invent new memories. Almost before the book begins, it announces itself as concerned with the fashionable topics of memory and self.

The book alternates sections on Strauss in the present, Strauss interacting with Houdini, and Houdini before Strauss knew him. Since Strauss is not old enough to have met Houdini, his narrative is clearly false.  Magic and spiritualism play important roles here for their ability to make us willingly believe in things we know to be untrue--they are akin to the ways that we invent memories. The Houdini plot involves a lot of conspiracy theory, and it becomes apparent that Strauss has already experienced memory loss and is busily engaged in substituting new memories for the lost ones. He is also a resident in a hospital.

This is a clever novel, well written and entertaining but preachy at times. Its message is close to the surface, and its insights about memory and self rather shopworn by this point.

94. Peter Watts, Echopraxia. 9/30. The author refers to this as a 'faith-based hard-science scifi novel'.  which sums it up. It deals with problems of consciousness and self on the eve of the Singularity. The characters have many discussions about these issues from the opposing standpoints of rationalism and religion. The main character is a 'baseline' human, a person who has foresworn all implants and augments that would increase physical or mental powers. He out-survives zombies (mindless humans), vampires (all-too-mindful humans), and various varieties of improved humans and artificial intelligences not to mention alien life forms on the eve of the Singularity. He ends up infected and tries to kill himself by walking off a cliff. The infection sees that he survives, presumably for the next novel in the series.

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