Friday, December 15, 2017

AmsterdamAmsterdam by Ian McEwan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] it seemed to Vernon that he was infinitely diluted; he was simply the sum of all people who had listened to him, and when he was alone, he was nothing at all."

I finished reading Ian McEwan's Amsterdam (1998) - my first novel of this quite famous author - only few days ago but have been too busy since then to write a review. Alas, I am finding out that I have already forgotten much about the novel and need to reach to my notes to refresh memory. It does not seem like an auspicious introduction to the author.

The novel begins with a formidable sentence:
"Two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the crematorium chapel with their backs to the February chill."
Molly, a well-known restaurant critic and photographer, has died rather suddenly of a rapidly progressing brain disease. Her funeral ceremony is in progress: Clive, a famous composer, and Vernon, the editor of Judge, a popular London tabloid, reminisce about their times and sex they had with Molly. Another Molly's former lover, Julian, who is currently the foreign secretary and has his sights set on the position of Prime Minister, is also a subject of the conversation. Molly's husband, George, completes the quintet of the main characters in the novel.

After the interesting opening - the conversation in the crematorium is quite a nice piece of real literature - the novel morphs into a sort of mystery. George finds compromising photographs from Molly's past, and all three former lovers become involved in the plot that focuses on whether to publish the pictures in Vernon's magazine. Unfortunately, I could not care less for the plot: it is of as sensationalist quality as the stories in Judge that Mr. McEwan is ridiculing.

On the other hand, there is some good stuff in the novel as well. For instance, I appreciate the author's sense of humor: Clive has been commissioned to compose the Millennial Symphony to be performed at the dawn of 2001, the task he envisions as something on the order of Beethoven's Ninth. When he finishes the work by composing a sort of current-day Ode to the Joy, the Ninth final movement, he contemplates whether he is a genius - a hilarious fragment of prose.

Obviously, the best passages in the novel have nothing to do with the plot. In addition to the outstanding beginning, the account of Vernon's hectic day as an editor of Judge and the description of the workplace politics are first rate. Yet perhaps the best fragment of the novel shows how Clive composes the key musical motif for the final movement of his masterpiece: while hiking near Allen Crags in the Lake District he hears a bird's piping sound on three notes. That sound becomes the inspiration for his monumental work but prevents him from paying attention to more important things that are happening at the same time. Realistic, well written, and funny! The ending is probably supposed to be funny as well, but I find the comedic payoff somewhat feeble.

Amsterdam is an easy read (maybe a warning sign?) and one can find quite a few thoughtful quotes in the text. While Mr. McEwan is certainly a gifted writer and his accomplished prose is a pleasure to read I do not think that the highly polished sentences add up to much.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

On the Line (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #10)On the Line by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"Focus! Christ, Smith, focus"

What an extreme disappointment! This is my tenth novel by S.J. Rozan, the author of remarkably good Winter and Night and Stone Quarry , an author whom until now I would have trusted not to be able to produce bad novels. Even the weaker installments in the series, for instance, Mandarin Plaid, were at a decent level. Alas On the Line (2010) is a completely different story. Juvenile, utterly implausible, and brimming with clichés worthy of the greatest Masters of Formulaic Thrillers.

Bill Smith is practicing Brahms piano sonata when his phone rings: Lydia Chin manages to say a few words but then the kidnapper interrupts. An electronically altered voice tells Mr. Smith that he has 12 hours to find Lydia. Otherwise she dies. The kidnapper, once wronged by Smith, is now exacting his revenge. Our hero is invited to a game: he will be offered a series of clues and if he does not solve even one of the puzzles, Lydia will be killed. Yeah, as lame as that. If you are new to the series: Lydia is Bill's detection business partner, and also his unrequited (as far as we know) love. Please read better books by S.J. Rozan than this one. This mess is not worth your time.

Mr. Smith enlists the help of Linus, Lydia's "kid cousin", a teenager computer whiz, and his girlfriend, Trella, who is "barely old to drink". Linus and Trella are accompanied by a canine superhero named Woof. So Smith, Linus, Trella, and Woof are the crew to battle the Super Evil Villain in the series of puzzles. Later in the story they are joined by a "piece-of-work pimp and his boys." I am not sure even Mr. Patterson would stoop so low with the plot.

And now combine the canine-enhanced juvenile crew with murders of Chinese prostitutes, the murders being parts in the puzzles set by the Super-Evil Villain. Combine the human drama of torture and death with the (maybe unintended) humor inherent in the composition of the good guys' team. The combination is putrid.

The clues left by the ArchVillain are usually booby-trapped. When the dramaturgy of the story requires explosion, BAM! There it is. Obviously Mr. Smith knows what the booby traps are. So lame! The puzzles are based on loose associations related to popular culture. Of course, Smith and the crew are instantaneously able to decrypt all the references. It reminds me of the most atrocious cliché of the last 50 years of thrillers. Suppose a computer geek needs to get into a passworded computer system: the genius sits at the keyboard, thinks for seven seconds, makes a guess, and the guess is right!

I would like to say: FOCUS!, S.J. ROZAN, FOCUS!!!

One and a half stars.

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Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Life of Raymond ChandlerThe Life of Raymond Chandler by Frank MacShane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Unlike James, Joyce, or Conrad, who were all in exile from worlds they detested, Chandler was in exile from a world he thought he loved. Instead of his adored England, he lived in a place where values seemed to shift with the tides."

Seven weeks ago I reviewed here the biography of Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar). Since Macdonald has often been compared to Raymond Chandler it seems worthwhile to compare their biographies. I do not find Frank MacShane's The Life of Raymond Chandler equally brilliant work, but it is a solid, informative, and interesting book, and I recommend it without any hesitation. I also need to provide a disclaimer of sorts: I consider Ross Macdonald to be a better writer than Mr. Chandler and I hope that subjective judgment does not color my comparison between the biographies.

The author depicts Mr. Chandler's life trajectory chronologically, in a conventional manner of a biography, from the writer's birth in 1888 in Chicago, childhood in Nebraska, then his youth in England (and Ireland), brief time spent in the British civil service as an Admiralty clerk, and equally brief stint on a newspaper job. Next, Mr. Chandler returns to the U.S., settles in California, marries Cissy, and lands a well paying job as an auditor in an oil company. Continual struggle with drinking and self-doubt plague him until his death in la Jolla in 1959.

Mr. Chandler's literary career is presented in detail, from his early "cloy and saccharine" poetry, through several years of writing crime stories for pulp magazines, to his novels, beginning with The Big Sleep, peaking with The Long Good-Bye and ending in an unremarkable Playback.

Mr. MacShane has selected the motif of Chandler's lack of sense of nationality as the main conceptual axis of the biography. Much of Chandler's worldview must have been affected by the shock resulting from his encounter with the loose concept of culture in California after having grown up in a rigid class structure of England.

The other leading motif in this biography is Mr. Chandler's struggle to escape the categorization as just a mystery writer. Chandler detested the basic premise of classic, deductive detective stories and was more interested in people than in the plots. I agree with the author that Chandler managed to escape the genre-writer niche only in his masterpiece: the Time reviewer observed that The Long Good-Bye
"crossed the boundary between good mystery and good novel"
Mr. MacShane contrasts the formulaic character of Hammett's Sam Spade, who "is not a person at all" with Chandler's Philip Marlowe, tough and clever yet human. Well, I tend to disagree: even in the outstanding Good-Bye Marlowe is at most half a person. It was finally Ross Macdonald who created a believable PI character in his Lew Archer.

I find it rather surprising that to me Chandler's novels feel so much more dated than Macdonald's even though their most productive years are less than 25 years apart (1939-1953 vs. 1949-1976).

And finally a personal connection: La Jolla, California, the place where Raymond Chandler spent the longest period of his life. I know all streets where he rented houses: my family and I used to live just a mile or two away, albeit some 25 years later.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Long DropThe Long Drop by Denise Mina
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] all the hope he will ever feel is sucked out through his soles into the wet, treacherous earth..."

Denise Mina is one of my absolutely favorite writers and of the six books of hers that I have reviewed here on Goodreads, I have rated two with five stars (Garnethill, a masterpiece transcending the crime/mystery genre and The Dead Hour , a great crime novel) and three others with four stars. So I was really looking forward to reading Ms. Mina's newest work, The Long Drop (2017). Even if I do not think it is one of her better books the novel is definitely a very good read and I wholeheartedly recommend it. The fact that it is a standalone novel is an added bonus. I deeply appreciate Ms. Mina stopping each series that she had begun at three installments. It is more difficult for a writer (as Ms. Mina herself confirmed during her conversation with readers on Goodreads) but the tedious repetitive literary routine is thus avoided.

After 12 purely fiction crime/mystery novels, Ms. Mina sort of ventures into the field of the so-called "true crime". Despite the standard disclaimer about "fictitious characters and events" this is a fictionalization of the real-life story of a famous American-Scottish serial killer, Peter Manuel, convicted in 1958 for seven murders, and suspected of even more killings. I have read about twenty books in the true-crime genre, and this is the first one that I really like. I have been trying to understand why and the simplest explanation I have is that while most true-crime books attempt to show fictionalized events as true, Ms. Mina does the opposite: she writes about true events as fiction. And nothing conveys truth better than well-written fiction.

The novel intertwines events that happen in two time frames: the night of December 2/December 3, 1957, and the second half of May of 1958. The memorable December night begins when a famous and successful Glasgow lawyer accompanies his client, William Watt, whose family was murdered, to meet Peter Manuel. Manuel wants to sell information about the murders. We follow Watt and Manuel in their night-long voyage from one pub to another, we witness their drunkenness progress through a number of stages, and we read about the grim lives of various characters involved in the story. The other time frame presents scenes from Manuel's trial.

Ms. Mina presents a masterful picture of the working-class Glasgow of the late 1950s, the Glasgow of nightmares. She depicts the lives of men whose daily routine involves either extremely hard physical work or crime, daily heavy drinking in pubs, and the unifying pattern - vicious beatings they administer to their wives and children. In the meantime, the overlords of the economic crime, the masters of robberies, extortions, and protection racket, such as Dandy McKay, the real rulers of this working-class city, are beyond prosecution, untouchable by police as the crime lords, the police, and the city government live in perfect symbiosis. This is an extremely dark novel, made even darker by Ms. Mina cynical and thus deeply realistic portrayal of the basest human instincts.

At the beginning I had some difficulties connecting with the characters, but then I read the gut-wrenching passage about the father of one of the murdered girls:
"...his wife is waiting for him. She puts her arms around him and he sobs into her hair.
Mr. Cooke thinks about the weeping woman in the gallery. His unique desolation was all he had left of his Isabelle. Now the crying woman has taken that as well. He has been robbed again."
From that moment I could not put the book away: at times it shook my deeply and I appreciated the terrific prose.

I admire Ms. Mina for trying something different than repeating Alex Morrow stories. She is a great writer and even if not all her works are masterpieces they are all wonderful and worthwhile reads.

Three and a half stars.

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Travels With My AuntTravels With My Aunt by Graham Greene
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] I thought of Mr Visconti dancing with my aunt in the reception room of a brothel behind the Messagero after swindling the Vatican and the King of Saudi Arabia and leaving a wide trail of damage behind him in the banks of Italy. Was the secret of lasting youth known only to the criminal mind?"

I am quite ambivalent about Graham Greene's Travels with My Aunt (1969): on the one hand novels that are funny in a demented way are one of my favorite genres. Alas, on the other hand, Mr. Greene's novel serves as a vehicle to tell a huge number of loosely connected stories, which - in turn - happens to be one of my least favorite genres. This balances out to a marginally positive recommendation based on various pearls of wisdom scattered throughout the text and some hilarious scenes.

The beginning sentence of the novel neatly sets up the plot:
"I met my Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than half a century at my mother's funeral."
Immediately after the funeral, Aunt Augusta invites Henry, the narrator and a retired banking executive, for drinks. She tells him that he is not his mother's son, but rather a product of his father's affair. And so begins their friendship, of a sixty-something man with his seventy-something aunt. They could not be less alike. While Henry is a quintessential banking executive whose life is utterly organized, predictable, and boring, Aunt Augusta has a strong streak of anarchy in her, lives to travel, and knows some very, very, very strange people. She manages to infect Henry with her carefree attitude to life and they begin traveling together.

Their travels begin modestly, with a Brighton outing, but the range escalates to Paris, Boulogne, then on the Orient Express to Istanbul, and finally Argentina and Paraguay. The set of characters is even more impressive: first of all, there is Wordsworth, a Sierra Leone-born man, ostensibly Aunt Augusta's valet but in fact a man who attends to all her wants, and the mysterious and powerful persona of Mr. Visconti. My favorite character is Tooley, a very young woman whom Henry meets on the Orient Express. They smoke pot and she tells him about her life tribulations and about her father, a CIA operative.

The avalanche of colorful stories assaults the reader with the richness of tantalizing details: as an example, just on one page the author mentions marijuana and acid experiences, CIA, and the fear of castration. Future is being told from tea leaves, we learn about a porn movie theater in Havana, we are told about confession taken by a fake priest during World War II, and a suitcase stuffed with cash is toted across various borders. Tooley's father keeps a detailed record of his daily urinations and a character is arrested for using a wrong-colored handkerchief to blow his nose. We have a whirlwind of fast-changing locales in Europe, Asia, and South America, so the novel may even be viewed as a travelogue of sorts.

I have been totally exhausted and frankly bored by this maelstrom of stories, but it is quite likely that other readers will find the novel exhilarating. What redeems the book for me are the occasional tasty nuggets of literary brilliance and astute observations like
"Luckily in middle age pleasure begins, pleasure in love, in wine, in food. Only the taste of poetry flags a little [...] Lovemaking too provides as a rule a more prolonged and varied pleasure after forty-five."
True! Alas, the express train of my life left the station called "Middle Age" many years ago.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

McNally's Trial (Archy McNally, #5)McNally's Trial by Lawrence Sanders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"I won't label [her] as Rubenesque, but she was abundant and all the more stirring for it. Her body was vital, overwhelming. I hung on for dear life and, in addition to my pleasure, had the added delight of being a survivor."

Having just finished Inside Mr. Enderby a rather dark and serious novel I decided it was time for some mindless entertainment and a pure leisure read. Lawrence Sanders comes to rescue and the always dependable Archy McNally, of McNally & Son, a debonair, gourmet, dapper, and a very manly private investigator responsible for conducting discreet inquiries in his fathers law firm. We are reminded that Archy is not a lawyer himself as he had been expelled from Yale Law for streaking naked across the Philharmonic stage in a Richard Nixon's mask: can one not love such a character?

The firm's client is Ms. Fogarty, a high-level employee of a funeral-home chain (Mr. Sanders allows himself to chide the euphemism 'grief counselor', thank you!), who has noticed an unusual uptick in the company's business in recent months, and wants to make sure nothing illegal is going on. Obviously, Archy is the one to conduct his trademark discreet inquiries, alas this time he is burdened by having an apprentice helper: his acquaintance Binky Watrous needs a job. The case quickly grows to involve some serious crimes and really bad people; even special agents of the FBI make their entrance. Of course, it is Archy who figures everything out but not soon enough: quite serious things happen, serious enough not to fit the light-hearted mood of this story.

Archy in his role as the narrator is again using florid language full of cute periphrases, which to me is perhaps the best feature of McNally's novels. The language is artificial yet somehow, magically, it does not sound artificial. The prose is perfectly suited to depiction of sex scenes. The descriptions do not use physiological terms, do not rely on heavy metaphors, and do not sound awkward and embarrassing as most of such writings do in non-top-shelf literature. They are simply funny:
"Zing! Went the Strings of My Libido."
or further on the same page:
"She owned a body as solid as the figurehead of a Yankee clipper [...] but there was not an ounce of excess avoirdupois on her carcass. Believe me; I searched."
On the negative side, I like this installment the least of the three I have read so far (two others being McNally's Risk and McNally's Luck ) Binky Watrous, a dweeb and an expert in imitating birdcalls, is not an interesting character at all. Not worth all that focus. In fact, most characters are caricatures, including the FBI special agent Kling, except for two strong female characters, Ms. Fogarty, and Mrs. Sarah Whitcomb, the funeral-home owner's wife. I also liked the mention of Boleslaw the Bashful, the king of Poland (1243 - 1279). Overall, not too bad as pure entertainment.

Three stars.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Inside Mr. EnderbyInside Mr. Enderby by Anthony Burgess
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anthony Burgess is mainly known as the author of A Clockwork Orange , which I reviewed here on Goodreads, and which owes a large part of its popularity to the outstanding film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick. While Inside Mr. Enderby (1963) may not convey equally powerful artistic vision, it is still a remarkable novel and, to me, it deserves almost as high a rating.

A truly magnificent chapter opens the novel. Children from the future, on their Educational Time Trip, visit a great poet of the past, a Mr. Enderby, who is sleeping in his rented flat. They explore his body and also his bedroom, kitchen, and - most importantly - his bathroom: this the only place where Mr. Enderby is able to create poetry. The Muse visits him only when he sits on his "poetic seat."

After this remarkable introduction we follow events in Mr. Enderby's life in a relatively linear fashion, beginning with him receiving a notice of winning a small poetry prize. The award ceremony is an unforgettable scene, with its speeches and poetry readings punctuated by Mr. Enderby's emissions of wind. He meets a journalist from a women's magazine; she will play a significant role in his later life. We follow comical adventures related to Mr. Enderby's inebriation in London, a wonderfully demented story that concludes Part 1 on the novel. Two other parts take place mainly in other locations: in Italy and in the north of England. The ending is in a way similar to that of Clockwork Orange, as improbable as it may seem.

While this is a very funny novel - I was laughing out loud many, many times - it is also extremely dark. It offers a pessimistic view of contemporary culture (contemporary in 1963, but then we only went downhill thanks to TV and Internet), yet the main message seems to be the damage that broken childhoods inflict on people. Mr. Enderby had been traumatized by his stepmother, from whose intimidating specter he has been trying to escape all his life.

It is Mr. Burgess' prose, though, that I find the main value of the novel. From its breathtaking beginning through many unforgettable passages - for instance, Mr. Enderby's horrific experiences in Castel Gandolfo - I have been savoring the author's writing. The text is richly sprinkled with fragments of poetry, mostly of Mr. Enderby's authorship. Many passages are truly hilarious like the one where the poet is trying to ascertain whether he is in command of his male qualities:
"He stealthily felt his way down to find out what was his body's view of this constatation, but all was quiet there, as though he were calmly reading Jane Austen."
On the other hand, I am not a particular fan of Mr. Enderby's (or perhaps the author's) severe obsession with the non-decorative aspects of human physiology: burps, farts, dandruff, urine, belching, boil-scars, vomit, ear wax, teeth-picking and the like, which permeate the novel. Yet Mr. Burgess' brilliance in handling the language, the syntax, the sound, and the vocabulary are so masterful that they can carry whatever content is thrown there, even the ugly detritus of our body works.

Three and three quarter stars.

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