rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Author via I think [profile] bookelfe?

This is fascinating, because it's a very classical adventure plot, in which the protagonist runs around the jungles of Guatemala looking for a fabled and fabulously antique artifact called the Queen Jade, which has been sought after and described by various conquistadors, archaeologists, dilettantes, and probably Indiana Jones. Well, actually the protagonist is looking for her mother, who is an archaeologist who has disappeared while looking for the Queen Jade-- a disastrous hurricane swept through her last known location.

But the way this plot, with all its ciphers, cryptography, machete-whacking through jungle, and so on, is handled is not classical adventure story at all in several directions. For one thing, Guatemala had thirty years of civil war ending in 1996, and this comes up and is addressed: the army are dangerous, the wounds are deep, the country has been devastated, and a lot of people have pasts on one side or another that they don't want to talk about. For another thing, the protagonist is Mexican-American, and her traveling companion is from Guatemala but moved to the U.S. at a young age and became a university professor, and there are actual ramifications to this because despite fluent Spanish and skin tone these backgrounds in that country make them norteamericanos. (The companion keeps protesting that he's from here, to which the response is pretty much 'so where were you during the war?')

And this is a book which has a romance (not a terrible one, but eh, whatever) but which is centered mostly around competent women being competent. So that's a good thing.

There're a lot of folktales, diary entries from the sixteenth century, folksongs and whatnot, of the sort people make up for stories like this, and they are a lot of fun, especially since people indulge in linguistic speculation about them, which is always my cup of tea.

The major problem I had is that the story took about a hundred pages to stop being setup and do things, and they were not the most interesting hundred pages ever. It was obviously setup for something, but I think it could and should have moved faster. That is one third of the entire book during which I was bored while waiting for the other shoe to drop. And the prose is workmanlike, which means that it by itself was not enough to entertain me while I waited, especially since one of the things on which I was waiting was for there to be enough character development for me to care about these people and this plot. The other shoe did drop, eventually, and I cared enough about these people and this plot to enjoy the resolution, but seriously, needs faster pacing. This kind of adventure novel traditionally has a snappy opening setpiece and there are, in fact, reasons why.

So my impression overall is that it is a vast improvement most of the way around on lots and lots of similar things in its genre, but that that brought it to the level of a decent, enjoyable, non-brilliant beach book. I hear there is a sequel. Maybe, since it does not have to do so much work at the beginning, it will get to the parts I liked faster.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Read August 8th. Author via [personal profile] coffeeandink.

Gorgeous, delicious noir which both upholds the conventions of the genre perfectly and is quietly subversive on questions such as who has agency in the story. The prose is amazing.

This novel is based on a real murder which made the tabloids in 1931, one of those crimes which became a nationwide scandal but has by our day faded into the background for everyone except those who encounter it in an academic context. In 1930, Marion Seeley, twenty-one, doctor's wife, finds herself alone in Phoenix, Arizona working at a tuberculosis clinic. Her drug addict husband, de-licensed, has gone to Mexico to work as a mining company doctor, his last desperate hope at cleaning up and making some money so they can have a life together. Marion, by herself in the big city, is taken under the wing of one of the other nurses at the clinic, Louise; Louise is supporting a tubercular roommate, Ginny, and the two of them hold parties which are attended by all the wealthy men of the city. Sex and liquor and drugs flow freely, and at one of the parties Marion, an innocent abroad, meets one of the town's most influential businessmen, and falls instantly into lust for him.

The core of the book is the quadrangle formed by the three women and this (inevitably married) man: the women bound to him by economics and desperation, because they could maybe make rent and food on their salaries, but not medicine, and not parties, nothing that might be fun for girls in their early twenties who know they are one step away from homelessness and will do anything not only not to take that step, but to forget it for a little while; the women, bound to each other by friendship and love and the sexual currents between them that cannot be openly spoken about (even when acted on); the man who is not worth a smudge on one of their shoes, and who is rich beyond counting, and who doesn't think he's bound to anyone by anything.

It goes badly. It does not go badly in any of the ways one might instantly expect it to go badly, given the setup. It is worse. You need a certain gore tolerance, for this book, with its beautiful, nightmarish descriptions.

The thing that's amazing is that you never lose sympathy for Marion, Marion who starts as unforgivably naive, a girl who can't believe what's going on around her, and who at first is only having what comes naturally, an affair that fills her life with fire, something to look back on when she's old. But it slips beyond that and beyond that and beyond that, until even she doesn't know where the line ought to have been drawn, only that it ought to have. There is no line, that's the problem, it all feels inevitable although it can't have been; the important thing, though, is that there is a point where Marion looks around and says to herself, I am still here, I will still be here, and no one can take me from me, and that's a moment I can't recall ever seeing in noir before, film or novel. For a woman. In the movies they'd have made one of these women into a femme fatale. God knows the tabloids did. Of course, scratch the surface of the femme fatale and you find a woman who'd like to get off her feet, get off the street, and get her rent paid for the next six months solid. This book knows that.

There's a section at the end, after the novel proper, where the author tells you about the real murder, and what the newspaper coverage of it was like, and what we can and cannot know about it, and what she has done to extrapolate. It's a fascinating and sensitive reflection on what it means to be writing about other people's real, though historical, pain. I wish more novels based-on-a-true-story had sections like it.

I am also not going to get over the prose of this anytime soon. It's an amazing combination of hard-boiled, rhythmic, and sensual, the lushness of one of those thirties movie boudoirs turned mean (not that those rooms weren't vicious already). It's the sort of language that makes me want to read the entire thing aloud, except that for content reasons I really don't. I highly, highly recommend this.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Via [personal profile] sovay.

An extraordinarily competent spy novel which kept confusing me by being compulsively readable and bizarrely enjoyable despite both being in a genre I usually consider Not My Thing and also being a book that is in some ways actively working against being entertaining.

Late 1960s; the Cold War is raging. The protagonist runs intelligence networks for the British in East Berlin, but the accession of a new head of East German counterintelligence means that his agents are caught and wiped out ruthlessly. Shipped home with his career in shards around him, he's offered a last chance at taking out the counterintelligence head in the dirtiest way possible, a way that involves seeming to defect.

This is in some ways one of the bleakest novels I have ever read. The protagonist sees no difference in ideology between the two sides because there is no difference in methods. His is a world of cheap rooms, bad food, luxury offered only as bribe, sex offered only as bribe, murder he meets only with numbness, financial chicanery, betrayal after betrayal after betrayal. His only consolation is that he believes that having individuals fight the war is better than having armies do it (World War II seems to have broken something in him, permanently, and you get the impression he will do anything to keep a nominal peace). Between the Great Powers the only neutral space is the top of the Berlin Wall-- a killing zone.

And yet, one of the brilliant things about the book is that, well, who's to say the protagonist has it right? He's incredibly damaged and his worldview is not necessarily the one the narrative endorses. One of the great suspenseful questions of the novel is whether he will succeed in breaking out of his internal mental traps (some of which he intentionally set up himself, as part of his cover), and that far outweighs any questions about physical jailbreaking.

In fact, I think the most brilliant thing about this book, and the thing that makes it so readable, so interesting, is that it is desperately suspenseful, yes, and it contains spying and counterspying and prisons and tribunals and daring escapes, yes. But the suspense has nothing whatever to do with the mechanics of the spying and counterspying and daring escapes. The suspense is based on, one, as I said, the protagonist's mental state; and, two, that although we are always aware what his plan is, and can watch it play out as it was designed to the letter, the real doubt is about the deeper motivations. A lesser book would have tried to hide the fact that the protagonist is faking being a double agent. This one makes you wonder what the goal of the British government is in running someone who is this broken, when we know they know it. Ninety percent of the events in this book are predictable from the first couple of chapters. But every single one of them occurs with so many undercurrents, so many fresh possibilities for doubt, that after a while the mere fact that our protagonist's plan keeps working seems as though it is sinister, as though anything he manages through competence must ultimately be the result of conspiracy. In short, this book takes a (mostly) relatively simple plot and makes you so paranoid about it that it continuously surprises you.

Which is also about where the protagonist is, explaining a lot about his mental state.

This is the book I have seen that uses most thoroughly the paradox that spies are individual persons who work for abstract concepts in a way that can be harming to the very concept of individuality. In 1963, in the middle of the war it's discussing, it must have been even more viciously fanged, it must have been written in fire. A reader now can look at this book and say, in twenty-odd years that wall will come down. In fact, a reader now can read this book while listening to the Sex Pistols' 'Holidays in the Sun', which I did; it was cheering. When the novel came out it must have seemed like an ongoing exposé of a state of living in 1984.

Unless, of course, the protagonist is wrong. But the things that made him the way he is did, historically, happen.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
I sometimes think that the authors of reference books may not be fully aware of the awesome responsibility they have taken on: which is that a certain sort of bookish child, when encountering a reference book that seems at all good, will laboriously go through and find absolutely everything that it refers to, or mentions in the bibliography, on the grounds that this is clearly How One Is Meant To Use Reference Books. Which is not to say that it isn't-- only the writers of reference books do not, I think, expect you to do it. Otherwise a great many more people would have read at least some William Hope Hodgson. Lovecraft tells you to, after all, and as an adolescent I would read anything Lovecraft told me to*, which is why I occasionally have the literary tastes of someone who began reading seriously in the Mauve Decade. It seems obligatory to talk about Hodgson in articles on the history of horror and early fantasy and what not, but I don't run into a lot of people who read the books. (If I am wrong on this let me know! I would love to be wrong.)

Mind you, there are perfectly good reasons not to read William Hope Hodgson. The best way I have of describing The Night Land, for example, is that it is like reading the greatest novel of the sheerly eerie weird ever written, the one that is so inexplicable and yet so badass that you will never get a single image from it out of your head ever again, through a tightly-meshed fishing net in which someone has painstakingly knotted stray bits of broken glass. That net is the hideous tin-eared pseudo-archaic language. ("And," [personal profile] sovay said, thoughtfully, in conversation, "the net is made partially out of the King James Bible, but not the good bits." Yes.) My edition of The Night Land is the two-volume reprint by Lin Carter, from which he slashed several thousand words of terrible Victorian slushily pink maudlin wibbling romance, because he thought it was too awful to inflict on the readers.

I repeat: Lin Carter, a man who wrote a series with a protagonist called, and I am not making this up, THONGOR LORD OF LEMURIA, thought that this book was TOO TIN-EARED NOT TO REVISE. I love the book, I reread it every so often, and my cast of mind during it can be summarized as 'this is awesomely amazingly wonderful, why the fuck do I do this to myself again?'.

I do not suggest trying to read the uncut Night Land. It only wastes your time and annoys the pig.

Seriously, though, one of the greatest novels ever written, as long as you put your fingers in your ears every so often and go LA LA LA I CAN MANAGE. And The House on the Borderland, while not in great prose, should be perfectly readable to anybody, and I highly recommend it.

This one, The Boats of the Glen Carrig, is Hodgson's first novel, drawing directly on his experiences at sea in the earlier part of his life, and it is not in the genre I usually expect from him, namely dark fantasy edging on horror. There's very little that is supernatural here, and almost nothing that really has to be except that crabs don't grow that big. It is mostly a competent, workmanlike, and atmospheric thriller set in a world in which all the myths about the Sargasso Sea are absolutely true.

The protagonist and his party are in lifeboats following the wreck of their vessel somewhere in the south Atlantic, and keep washing up in various places in a frying-pan-to-fire sort of way. The very first place they make landfall is probably the most interesting, a giant mudflat full of inexplicable noises which can be summed up in some ways as 'R'lyeh if it had just happened instead of being built by anything intelligent' (remember, Lovecraft read these), but the island they spend the most time on has an interesting combination of killer cuttlefish, giant crabs, and Life Not As We Know It going on. There's not much in the way of characterization, but this is a great entry in the Man Uses Stuff genre-- you know, we must fight off this crab the size of a table using only the following six items it has been previously mentioned we have in the lifeboat, plausibly and in a manner somebody would think of in a hurry, that sort of deal. The physical realities of food, water, fire, and shiprigging are ingeniously done and always feel completely real, and with that and the attacks by various monsters Hodgson has wound up with a consistently entertaining book which never lags for a second.

The language, although intentionally archaicized, is not archaicized to be from a period as far back as he tries to fake in other works, so it's clunky but nowhere near as terrible as he can get. But then I don't know, I have such a readability threshold with Hodgson because I know what he is capable of, so persons unfamiliar with him might find this more annoying.

I do recommend this to people who don't usually like horror or suspense, though, because due to the era in which it was written it has a much lower body count than this sort of book would nowadays, and feels much more like a survival-on-an-environmentally-hostile-planet piece of SF than I would ever have expected.

Now of the novels I've only not read The Ghost Pirates. The title is promising.

* If anyone can tell me, for a fact, with citations, whether Lovecraft read Moby-Dick and what he thought of it I will bake you brownies, seriously. It doesn't say in Supernatural Horror in Literature, I can't afford the complete collected letters, and I really want to know because Moby-Dick by my lights is the great novel HPL would have wanted to write.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Recommended and made available to me by B. and consequently while the internet tells me that there was probably a U.S. edition, and I am certain of a British edition, this copy is from Peshawar. B. suggested this book strongly enough that I tried to find a U.S. copy and had no luck. Just to mention that at the start.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22 (oh dear, sorry, wrong book, ahem:) Mohammed Hanif's first and so far only novel is a fictionalized version of events surrounding the (entirely real) plane crash which killed the then President of Pakistan Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, and several generals in August 1988. B. described it as a mystery novel, the blurb is by John le Carré, the back calls it a black comedy and biting satire and I could add several other genres to that list except that even to mention several of them would critically spoil the plot.

One thread of the novel is on the level of international affairs: looks inside the head of Zia, his bodyguard, his generals, his wife. This thread is comedy so black it occasionally comes around the other side and starts being funny because it's so insistently not funny at all; the problem is that much of it is quite believable and if the world actually works this way we are probably all doomed, which is what makes the book genuinely hilarious. You laugh that you may not hurt your head from face-palming. It's kind of amazing that twenty years is sufficient statute of limitations for a satire this vicious, except that from everything I've heard somebody had to do it.

The other thread follows Ali Shigri, a young officer in the Pakistani Air Force whose much more illustrious military father's suicide was recently staged by upper government officials. Shigri is in no particular order competent, intelligent, bitter, cynical, funny, about six times as naive as he thinks he is, desperately in love, obsessively grieving, and in entirely over his head. His first person narration gives the book its heart and is almost noirish, except with more being beaten up and thrown into prison by one's superior officers than usual. He provides the focus for the ridiculous number of plots swirling about, as of course the question is not whether anyone staged the plane crash, but who it might have been. And what they were thinking, and whether any of this was remotely intentional. Shigri is that rare thing in a noir or a satire, a hero who can rise to actual tragedy; his hatred of God is the most optimistic thing about the book and every time we see it it is genuinely cheering.

If looked at objectively, this ought to be the most depressing book I've read all year, but I mean it when I say it is funny-- laugh-out-loud funny, on multiple occasions-- and it's just too good to be depressing. The plotting's too good, the characters are too good, the ironies of history and the ironies of fate and the ironies that are the author smiling at you from behind his meta and saying now, really, what were you expecting? and proceeding with, if there is such a thing, the opposite of eucatastrophe, one truly, truly epic fuck-up. This book is a child of Heller and Orwell, by way of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and though I will not claim greatness for it, it has learned some lessons from its parents. Among which is to be genuinely enjoyable, so that the audience doesn't run away immediately. And I like it better than Catch-22, which is sometimes gratuitously nasty, whereas this one is never gratuitous.

This has the feel of an authorial one-off, one of those books where the writer may well have said (fully and successfully) what he had to say. But if Hanif writes another novel I will be very interested, and I recommend this one, to those who have an extremely high tolerance for cynicism.
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I'd vaguely heard of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels on several occasions, as they would I think qualify for a place on a list of non-science-fiction-fantasy things that people in sff fandom tend to enjoy. [personal profile] kate_nepveu was kind enough to suggest a starting point, in What's The Worst That Could Happen?, which also happened to be the only one the library had.

Dortmunder is a professional burglar, and the tone of the series is caper/suspense/humor. Not a genre I've read widely in, so I'm not in much position to say whether this book, or Westlake in general, fit into or are subverting any common tropes.

Which means-- I'm sorry, Westlake fans-- that I disliked this book entirely on its own account. )


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