Posts Tagged ‘novel’

Familiar Path

25 March 2011


Dear J-

The typical fantasy storyline goes something like this: young person discovers they’re a once-in-a-millenium class talent (whether for sorcery or swords), but is unable to convince themselves of that fact without some kind of agonizing sacrifice, quest, or divine intervention (and if there’s one thing fantasy plots get consistently it’s the polytheistic. World these people live in). Ultimately, though, good trimphs over evil through the course of flexing thoe powers, the unkillable evil is rooted out and destroyed, and our protagonist settles in for a long, happy life with the one character that, as in romances, seems completely wrong and arrogant (feelings which actually hide the depth of their regard; thanks, Pride and Prejudice).

Worse yet is when the hero serves as author wish fulfillment, a Mary Sue. Everything about the charcter is just as the author, only more ideal. They’re a little handsomer or prettier, wittier by far, a dynamic, sparkling personality that no one can help but be attracted to without envy. I suppose you could make a case for those authors as control freaks: not only are they putting words into every character’s mouths, they’re also taking the opportunity o rewrite their reality into something more ideal. Really, there’s nothing wrong with that aside from the sneaking suspicion that I get sometimes that I’ve already read this stuff. I do tend to read in patterns and perhaps I’ve gotten too jaded as a result.

I’ve been reading the Path series by Dianna Pharaoh Francis and it’s reading a bit too close to the standard template for me to enjoy fully — granted it is well-executed and moves along in a snappy manner but the truth is I don’t know if that’s something I can spend reading time on when there’s so many other stories, classic and novel, out there elsewhere. It’s one reason I stopped reading Jean Auel: the character of Ayla was fast becoming a Stone Age superhero, able to leap credulity and the reality of her situation in a single bound. Here in the current series the heroine, Reisil has had deity-granted powers that make her unbelievably powerful yet immature enough to refuse them on first contact. On the whole, though, the effect is familiar rather than annoying and so I continue to read.



Given Day

28 September 2010

Dear J-

As a follow-up, I finally finished Lehane’s The Given Day late last night and having had some time to let it filter through my unconscious mind, I’m standing by my assertion that most of the heroes stuck out like a sore thumb, being unusually progressive and modern-minded. The strange feeling never really went away; even as the story moved along to its gripping conclusion (Lehane does know how to tell a tale) those characters stood in stark relief to the villains, who were painted with flat, broad strokes.

It was worth reading, but unlike the Kenzie-Gennaro series, I’m not sure I’d re-read it in five years when all the details have leaked out or my head. The characters are quite likable, but they wouldn’t be out of place in a modern setting. There’s a note of false drama with the byplays between Danny and Nora, Luther and Lila; Lehane grants us our wishes for a happy ending.

The work of a critic, especially an amateur one, is shockingly easy (just look at any typical Amazon product review). The act of creation, the labor, is apparent in the novel’s craft: compulsively readable and fleshed-out; as with other Lehane novels, I’m transported back to Boston. I just wish the characters were a bit more complex, as most of his earlier ones have been; you could make an argument for Danny as Mary Sue wish-fulfillment. All this is telling me that I need to watch The Wire, his contemporaneous writing project.


Curious Incident

6 August 2009

Dear J-

I just wrapped up reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon); the narrator and protagonist is an autistic teenaged boy living in Swindon, England.  There’s been tragedies piled on top  of his life, and the plot revolves around everyone struggling to cope — with life, with school, and the central mystery of who killed the neighbor’s standard poodle, Wellington.  It’s a dry description, but with a scrupulously reliable narrator (he cannot tell a lie) the story is uniquely told, unfolding to reveal the killer and the consequences.  Plot chapters are interleaved with glimpses into the thought processes inside the narrator’s mind, fascinating as a conceit (how accurate?) and world we rarely experience (the author must have done research).  The writing becomes lyrical at times and I never pass up those chances.

But Mother was cremated.  This means that she was put into a coffin and burned and ground up and turned into ash and smoke.  I do not know what happens to the ash and I couldn’t ask at the crematorium because I didn’t go to the funeral.  But the smoke goes out of the chimney and into the air and sometimes I look up into the sky and I think that there are molecules of Mother up there, or in clouds over Africa or the Antarctic, or coming down as rain in the rain forests in Brazil, or in snow somewhere.

I hate reviews because most of them pad out their content with plot spoilers so that you might as well not even bother seeing the subject for yourself, so I’ll stop there.  If we accept that his story is an accurate portrayal of autistic behavior (and saying that is like saying a certain shade of red represents color in general; both fail to capture the broad spectrum), then it’s a curious mix of logical rationality (science and math trump religion) and superstition (yellow and brown).  I quite enjoyed it, in fact, and saw echoes — not of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man — of me.

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

There is a movement afoot to link childhood vaccines with autism, as widespread vaccination and a rise in diagnosed autistic behavior have both shown up in recent years.  Some of it may be misdiagnoses — perhaps the threshold is lowering; there are any number of obsessive actions, from repeating words to insistence on a place for everything and everythng in its place that figgy shows.  It’s not said to take away from actual issues, just that tying it to vaccines doesn’t make much sense — there are any number of things, from the number of two-job parents to the rise of TV and Hannah Montana that have happened at the same time, and those links haven’t been explored fully, either.  It’s the same kind of lazy logic that infects Internet forums; wanting to believe makes us jump to conclusions well beyond what’s supported.

What struck a chord in me in the novel was the narrator’s social phobias, brought on by sensory overload:  he notices everything, which must then be processed and rationalized, and his mind just doesn’t keep up.  We so-called normals have some kind of automatic filter to help us gloss over certain details instead, but I insist that everyone has some detail they obsess over.  Again, accepting the premise of accuracy, the novel provides a vehicle for understanding, ultimately, our lives.


Wolves Eat Dogs

27 September 2008

Dear J-

I’m almost ready to forgive Martin Cruz Smith for the shock he gave me in the first ten pages of Havana Bay; after finishing the fifth Arkady Renko novel, Wolves Eat Dogs, there’s some redemption for those of us who’ve adopted the rumpled Russian Columbo.  As a mystery, the story’s pretty far-fetched and the plot stretched impossibly thin:  New Russian billionaires and their deadly links to Chernobyl, the indefatigable, forever disgraced Arkady pursuing the threads of the story in his phlegmatic way, and disaster averted at the last second.  Since we first met him in Gorky Park, the methods haven’t changed (asking incessant questions, refusing to accept answers), and neither have the improbable results.  Yet the scope of his enquiries has grown and so have his responsibilities, which is at odds with his career-limiting philosophy of disregarding his superiors in doggedly pursuing the clues.  Thus in the rawest sense of a good book — does it make sense? — the answer is no.  The first two books in the series, Gorky Park and Polar Star, remain the superior mysteries.

Yet it’s less the need for an Arkady than it is for Smith to pursue the evolution of Russia; Gorky Park afforded a glimpse of fabled, curtained Moscow after sixty years of Communism, and the events following 1989 have provided rich ground for Smith to explore.  In this sense, rather than remaining the backdrop of the story, the setting has become the primary focus of these three Renko novels — Red Square, Havana Bay, and now Wolves Eat Dogs.  In this last, it’s still unclear how Smith can paint such a vivid picture twenty years on from the disaster.  The strength of his writing is in the winking insider’s view — it aids the believability of the story, that he can show you just how a local would feel about the place they live.  The details are well-checked and believable; the power plant at Chernobyl was one of the largest electrical generating stations in the world, never mind nuclear power plants, with plans for six reactors (they completed 4.95, apparently).  In contrast, the biggest nuclear power plant in the US is at Palo Verde, in Arizona, with a mere three reactors (the biggest one in the world is Kahiwazaki-Kariwa in Japan, weighing in at seven).

By this point the eye was always pulled to the reactors.  Chain link and razor wire surrounded what had been a massive enterprise of cooling towers, water tanks, fuel storage, cooling ponds, the messenger ranks of transmission towers.  Here four reactors had produced half the power of the Ukraine, and now sipped power to stay lit.  Three reactors looked like windowless factories.  Reactor Four, however, was buttressed and encased by ten stories of lead-and-steel shielding called a sarcophagus, a tomb, but it always struck Arkady, especially at night, as the steel mask of a steel giant buried to the neck.  St. Petersburg had its statue of the Bronze Horseman.  chernobyl had Reactor Four.  If its eyes had lit and its shoulders begun shifting free of the earth, Arkady would not have been totally surprised.

— Martin Cruz Smith, Wolves Eat Dogs

We forget how little we are able to change our world, or perhaps we ignore it.  Wolves Eat Dogs is an improbable tale in an impossible place with an unbelievable hero.  And yet I find myself drawn into Arkady’s evolving world and how he’s dragged along for the ride; the certain fatalistic tone of Russian literature infuses Smith’s novels lends weight to the foreign settings, and keeps me coming back for more.