Saturday, April 22, 2006

Holiday reading

A million things to catch up on, but while I've been offline I have read: White Skin Man by John Baker Dead Simple by Peter James The Black Angel by John Connolly (half-way through). As an aside, I always think that I'll have a lot more time than usual for reading when I am on holiday, yet in the event it does not happen. Free time these days is further curtailed by the wretched killer sudokus. I have been addicted to them since the Times first introduced them. Recently, the newspaper has changed killer sudoku provider (great job title! beats being any other sort of provider I suspect), with the result that three or four of the week's offerings are either impossibly frustrating or take hours to do instead of 10 or 20 minutes. A brief recap of these books. White Skin Man wins hands down out of the three -- the author writes so well, and he can put a pretty good plot together as well. I came across this book because John Baker, the author, linked to Petrona, so I discovered his blog, which I highly recommend as an excellent literary blog -- there is some great writing on there, in particular a couple of recent posts about his early experiences of communal living with which I strongly identify. Although John writes two series and I intended, in my usual "over-ordered" manner, to buy book one of series one to start with, somehow I managed to buy book two of series two --- which I didn't realise until about one-third of the way through. No matter, the book is excellent. I'll certainly read more. Unlike Dead Simple, White Skin Man is a slow burn, gradually drawing in the reader until you just have to keep reading on. It is as much "social comment" as a crime story, in particular about racism in various aspects and manifestations. I don't know how this book compares to John's others in terms of quality but it will be good finding out -- he's very assured on atmosphere, plot and character. This is an author who gets inside everyone's heads. The book does not end with all loose ends tied up, and the series main character, although mostly tangential to events here, is both sufficiently unusual as a character and within his own developing story, to create reader-demand for the next installment. My only caveat, and it isn't really a caveat, is that the book has on occasion a slightly preachy tone. I am reminded a bit of "Strife" by John Galsworthy, and similar writing of that era, in which the working class is earnestly noble under the capitalist yoke. In White Skin Man, relatively minor characters analyse their sociopolitical place in the universe, and similar, for a couple of pages here and there, for no apparent reason. It is interesting to read these diversions, but they don't seem very realistic to me, and they detract somewhat from the focus of the book, in particular lessening the impact of the author's treatment of the relationship between the photographer and her doctor husband which increasingly drives the plot forward -- the least successful part of an otherwise excellent novel. Dead Simple has received "rave reviews" in the crime-fiction world, and indeed is a racy read: hard to put down once started. But unlike White Skin Man, the book kind of peters out in the middle once the reader (this one, anyway) twigs the basic plot twist. For the first third, James maintains the tension incredibly well to an almost unbearable point: I kept thinking "blimey, he's as good at this as early Stephen King" -- until the author blows it by having a character opine that events are like a Stephen King novel. The author goes on to make several other literary and movie comparisons as the story goes on -- always a mistake in my opinion -- in particular when authors explicitly compare their characters' looks to film stars, I always "come out of the book" as it makes me think that the author is more concerned about selling the movie rights than in holding the reader in the world of the book. However, the police detective, Grace, is an interesting character, and carries the book. The plot, as I say, degenerates into predictable cliche at the end, so I lost interest in it. But I would be quite keen to reacquaint myself with Detective Inspector Grace if James writes another episode. The Black Angel is a book I wasn't going to read until I saw it in a bookshop the other week at a ridiculous price. I enjoyed Connolly's first book in this series very much indeed, but each subsequent book has been less successful as the detective aspects have reduced and the supernatural ones increased from being mere hints to fully blown plot elements, in parallel with the writing style becoming less careful. The books are quite gruesome, and while I can stand that for a "rooted in believability" plot, I can't be bothered with it once you get angels, demons and devils in the mix -- it seems to me then to become just an excuse for shlock. The Black Angel is racy but clunky -- it is one of those books where every so often you get a few pages of italics about some medieval middle European monastery-sacking, to explain why in modern-day America strange murders are happening as unpleasant men seek mysterious relics. I am hanging on in there, but only just. It looks as if the main character's new wife is going to ditch him for being too obsessed with detection and murder, which is sad as the first book was a poignant description of how he coped with the death of (and tracked down the killer of) his first wife and young daughter. My "formula alert" antennae are definitely up, as Connolly seems to be heading down the Kellerman route.