Paul’s Book Reviews: Science Fiction, Fiction, Mystery, Anthology

“Francie and Neeley went down into the cellar each evening and emptied the dumbwaiter shelves of the day’s accumulated trash. They owned this privilege because Francie’s mother was the janitress. They looted the shelves of paper, rags and deposit bottles. Paper wasn’t worth much. They got only a penny for ten pounds. Rags brought two cents a pound and iron, four. Copper was good—ten cents a pound. Sometimes Francie came across a bonanza: the bottom of a discarded wash boiler. She got it off with a can opener, folded it, pounded it, folded it and pounded it again.” — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

the twelveThe Twelve
Justin Cronin

When I read the first book of this planned trilogy (?), The Passage, Cronin’s narrative gifts helped me swallow its bullshit supernatural vampire premise. The story was well plotted and paced (not to mention suspenseful and genuinely frightening), the characters were well-developed and interesting, the fictional settings  convincingly described. In other words, I could almost imagine it as a real though alternate world, and I cared about the characters and worried about what might happen to them.

As I mentioned in my review of the first book, reading Cronin is like reading a better version of Stephen King. Cronin, at least for the first half of The Twelve, carried me along as he had done in The Passage. But somewhere during the second half of The Twelve the guilty pleasure of reading a silly vampire book turned to plain guilt. Was it just me? I don’t think so. I think Cronin lost it in the second half. Too many characters, too many flashbacks, too many suspensions of logic and possibility, and one supremely anti-climactic climax. Cronin either got rushed or tried to squeeze too much in or lost his train of thought … and along with it lost me. By the end, I no longer knew what the hell was going on.

If you want to read a good vampire book, read the original Dracula by Bram Stoker. If you want to watch a good vampire movie, rent Let the Right One In. If you wish Stephen King had written a better vampire novel, read Justin Cronin’s first book, The Passage. But skip this one.

black outBlack Out
John Walton

I started this mystery in a happily anticipatory state, looking forward to a good read about life and crime in wartime London. As I progressed I became more and more disappointed. The characters, so interesting at first, did not develop past first impressions; in fact they became flatter as they committed increasingly improbable actions without adequate explanation.

Some of the novel’s key plot points were simply not credible. The protagonist, Scotland Yard Inspector Troy, is a member of England’s monied class, the product of an expensive education, chums with important members of the aristocracy and perhaps even a few royals. Yet we must believe he has abandoned it all to become a policeman. He does not realize the person who badly beats him in a dark alley is the high society woman he’s sleeping with until, during a second fight, she shoots him with a pistol. That the American woman Troy is also sleeping with, a sergeant assigned to the London office of the OSS, is more than a mere secretary is clear enough to the reader if not to Troy; still it seems wrenchingly contrived when she moves the plot along by revealing her true identity as a major in the Soviet spy service.

Wartime London is casually described with less detail than I expected. The sex, while described in more detail, seems joyless. The principal villains, the aforesaid society woman and an American OSS agent, are uninteresting characters about whom we really learn very little, mere foils throughout. We never find out why the British society woman takes up the role of the OSS agent’s hitman. We never learn why the German and Polish emigres were murdered or what they were up to that drew the attention of the OSS. We never learn why the Soviets are involved.

Improbable plot points, flat characters, too many unanswered questions … overall a disappointing read. I was hoping for another Alan Furst WWII espionage novel. I suspect that’s what the author was aiming toward. He fell short.

escape velocityEscape Velocity: a Charles Portis Miscellany
Jay Jennings, editor

There’s not a lot out there for die-hard Charles Portis fans. The five novels are thankfully back in print, but that’s it, because that’s all he’s written. Other than, that is, a few hard-to-find short stories, a brief memoir, a play, and newspaper reportage from his days as a working journalist.

Editor Jay Jenkins has tracked down and assembled these short pieces in this anthology. I suppose it’s must reading for Portis fans … I certainly felt it was a must-read, at any rate … but it’s an appetizer, not a meal. My initial reaction to Portis’ reportage was that it was like most reportage, confining itself to facts, but then I began to notice the details Portis included, particularly in his articles about southerners, racial integration, and the Ku Klux Klan. Quintessentially Portisian. The short stories, the long read about a car trip down the Baja peninsula, and the memoir are deeply satisfying and written in true Portis style: you will also see the origins of many themes Portis explored and developed in his later novels.

The anthology is worth the price for the memoir alone, let alone the rest, but still I must warn you that reading Escape Velocity is not quite the same experience as reading a Portis novel. I see now that if I want more Portis … the real, undiluted Portis, that is … I’m simply going to have to re-read the novels!

blue remembered earthBlue Remembered Earth
Alastair Reynolds

A potboiler with a humanity-spreads-its-wings theme, filled with faux “hard sci-fi” babble about nanotech and human/machine interfacing. The future societies and governments Reynolds describes are quite creepy, built around pervasive electronic surveillance of the population backed up by psycho-mechanical limits on individual human behavior: solar system-wide communitarianism gone mad. There is one small surveillance-free zone on the dark side of the Moon, and, frankly, I found it hard to believe the entire populations of Earth, Mars, and the rest of the Moon hadn’t migrated there long ago. But no, everyone seems quite happy to live in crime-free gated communities.

The West has shot its wad. Climate change, wars, and mass migration did in North America and most of Europe long ago. Africa and India have emerged as the dominant civilizations on Earth and are the primary colonizing powers of the inner and outer planets. The main characters, members of a single family, are African. But apart from elephants and African landmarks, you never get the sense that the characters differ in any way from the conservative businessmen and liberal artistic types who inhabit America today.

Improbable interventions and magical technology keep the plot moving. The writing, at least initially, facilitates the suspension of disbelief, but as serendipitous clues pile up and characters we thought long dead suddenly appear to steer our hero and heroine back onto the right path, uncharitable thoughts intrude. Mine were mostly along the lines of “Oh, really?” and “You’ve got to be shitting me.”

My verdict? Space opera with a technological veneer, average at best.

a tree grows in brooklynA Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith

This was a book club selection; for a change a selection I was solidly behind. I almost always enjoy reading young adult fiction, and here was the Ur-YA novel itself … moreover, one I’d never gotten around to reading.

As literature, I can’t rate it as highly as its reputation suggests. The characters, given their background, environment, and poverty, are simply too good to be true, and Betty Smith romanticizes a life that would drive today’s youth to drink, drugs, dropping out, and suicide. But at the same time I have to acknowledge the novel’s emotional impact. I couldn’t help feeling a strong connection with Francie, a full and well-drawn character I found myself rooting for almost from page one. Moreover, even though Smith’s version of early 1900s Brooklyn tenement life is suspiciously glossy, the wealth of period detail is fascinating. I remember sitting at my grandmother’s knee as she told stories about the old days, suddenly realizing, for the first time, that she was once young too, not that different from me … such was my reaction to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

I don’t know if today’s kids, reared as they are on apocalyptic dystopias and vampires, would have the patience to stick with this rather sedate novel, a novel in which nothing much really happens, but it’s worth trying to introduce them to it. I’m glad I finally read it. I enjoyed it and felt I got something out of it. I can’t say that about Gossip Girl!

back to bloodBack to Blood
Tom Wolfe

Did not finish, so no rating.

I slogged my way through two chapters, then gave up. Obviously I do not know how it ends or what Tom Wolfe’s actual intentions were, but the material I read reeked of racism. The novel seems designed to foment distrust and fear of a growing Hispanic population in the USA; it reads like a letter to the editor from an elderly white shut-in who’s frightened of black and brown people and knows nothing about them other than what he’s heard on AM hate radio and Fox News. The novel’s Miami Cubans speak in exaggerated Spanglish (“wee een Mee-ah-mee now”): these attempts at dialect are cringe-inducing, shockingly insensitive, insulting. Moreover, Wolfe insists on explaining everything, even when showing is explanation enough, by awkwardly inserting journalistic footnotes into his characters’ dialog: he’s like the irritating NPR newscasters who interrupt guests to spell out well-known acronyms. Wolfe’s writing is repetitive: the newspaper editor in the first chapter ponders the fact (if it is a fact; Tom Wolfe believes it to be) that only Americans use the words Latino, Latina, and Hispanic; the Cuban-American Miami cop of the second chapter repeats the same thought almost word for word.

I loved Wolfe’s journalism in the 1970s. It was fresh. His later novels resonate with echoes of his earlier journalism … which is no longer fresh. I kept encountering phrases (“Halusian gap,” for example, which I remember from The Right Stuff), whole paragraphs, entire articles that have been recycled and inserted into fictional scenes. It does not make for good fiction, especially when Wolfe shoehorns his recycled material into fictional characters’ heads … people don’t think like that, and they sure as hell don’t talk like that. Wolfe is a fine journalist and observer of the cultural scene. He has not proven to be a novelist. Back to Blood, to me at any rate, is unreadable.

– See all my reviews

© 2013, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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