Month: June 2017

Peril at End House

perilPeril at End House is my latest read Agatha Christie novel. I read The Mystery of the Blue Train earlier this year, but I did not write a review. That is the sort of novel that does not really need to be looked into any further. Christie’s personal troubles during that novel do seem to have spilled over into her writing of it – it is not a very good novel. There really is not much I can add to what has already been said about it dozens and dozens of times. However, Peril at End House was very good and seems to represent Christie back to form.

Peril at End House was published in 1932 and it is the sixth novel featuring Hercule Poirot. The story takes place in Cornwall, which is a place I have never been, but suspect would be nice to visit. In other words, I am immediately more kind to a novel that is set in a location I am interested in. Hastings is in this novel, too. He was sort of written out of the novels for awhile, so the fact that he is in this one makes me a happy reader.

There is an involved and heavily-populated storyline here. Lots of characters, it seems, which means a lot of suspects.  But I think a strong argument can be made that a large part of the novel depicts the relationship between Poirot and Hastings. I hesitate to say that in 2017. Makes it sound untoward. Poirot is very insufferable in this novel – to those that find him annoying. No matter how obnoxious or arrogant he is, Poirot never seems to get on my nerves. However, I can see how he vexes others, including Hastings. The interactions between Poirot and Hastings are often the best parts of the novel. I do feel bad for Hastings – whenever he gets the upper hand on Poirot, Poirot quickly redirects their attention to something else instead of conceding defeat.

Hastings is so naive and harmless, sometimes I wonder how readers are not more annoyed by him than Poirot?

“You would say that! It would appeal, I know, to your romantic but slightly mediocre mind. Buried treasure – yes, you would enjoy that idea.”

Poirot is tough on him, but only because Christie is trying to be tough on the reader. Hastings sometimes represents that reader that wants their stories to be as fantastic and outrageous as possible. On one hand a reader seeking for wild entertainment and romantic elements – on the other, Poirot seeking methodological deductions. Describing Hastings to another character (in front of Hastings), Poirot says:

“He is, to begin with, reluctant to see evil anywhere, and when he does see it his righteous indignation is so great that he is incapable of dissembling.  Altogether a rare and beautiful nature. No, mon ami, I will not permit you to contradict me. It is as I say.”

That does describe Hastings perfectly and succinctly and it is significant to note that Poirot calls this both “rare” and “beautiful.”  Its also aggravating and appalling. But Poirot seems to enjoy having this personality around him, even though it frustrates him. Just as, we know very well, Hastings is sometimes thoroughly frustrated with Poirot.

The situation in the resort town St Loo is that it seems someone is trying to kill “Nick” Buckley. Buckley is a rather rambunctious young lady who has ownership of End House, a dilapidated old home around which the resort area has developed. Buckley is called “Nick” as reference to her grandfather, who owned End House, and their close relationship.

Nick has a number of guests, friends and acquaintances, that seem to revolve around her home. The lives of these folk has a rather bohemian feel to it, they are all in this little town drawn there because of some connection to Nick, but yet, it does not seem that they are really there because of her, either.  There is a feeling of lazy, youthful socialites.  This is the most difficult part of the novel for me:  why are all these people here? It feels like some weird parasitical group-up with these people.

Christie pulls off something like what she did in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but not exactly. It works, though, because it does suit the character’s temperament, making it seem genuine and obvious. In reality, Christie is really skilled at making the reader fall for whatever she wants them to. The reader will follow Christie like a lemming and then be surprised whenever Christie pulls the curtain aside.

Overall, the storyline is interesting, the characters are really well written and distinct, and Poirot is totally obnoxious. It is not the greatest mystery ever written, but it is a charming read.

4 stars

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The Carter of La Providence

The Carter of La ProvidenceThe Carter of La Providence (also known as The Crime at Lock 14 and Le Charretier de la Providence) by Georges Simenon is one of the Inspector Maigret novels. I believe it was the second one.  It definitely is the second one I have read and I have mixed feelings about it. It was first published in 1931 in Belgium.

Having grown up on an island and amidst rivers and lakes, having wiled away many an afternoon watching boats come through locks, I did appreciate the setting of this story. But I like the setting much more than the story itself. Simenon also made the weather lousy.  So, not only is the story set on the Marne Canal in Northern France, it is raining, muddy, and generally dismal. A perfect location for the bulky, sulking main character:  Inspector Maigret.

There were two or three patches of sky where the sunlight still lingered, but the rain was coming down more and more heavily. -pg 49

Maigret is as expected – rock-solid.  He ponders a lot and does not share one bit of what he is thinking.  He seems demanding and grumpy.  Maigret interrupts people when they talk, stomps around in the mud, and thinks heavy thoughts. So, if murder was not grim enough, when Maigret is added to the storyline, things get heavy.  Why do I like Maigret? Well, probably because unlike Poirot or Lord Wimsey, Maigret is the noir figure. Unlike Whimsey’s hyperactivity and Poirot’s “little gray cells,” Maigret seems to use brute force to conquer mysteries.  But not physically.  It is as if Maigret confronts mental challenges with a bull-like resistance and then overpowers them. From Maigret, I can see derivatives in Stuart Kaminsky’s Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov and Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther characters.

Unfortunately, Maigret kept a little too much to himself this time around. I feel that because the reader was not privy to most of Maigret’s deductions, it made Maigret’s movements seem very random.  Further, the actual resolution seemed a bit too convoluted. Or something. Its just not a resolution that I found reasonable.

Also, the basic ingredients of the story did not appeal to me. Old weird people on a “pleasure boat” seemingly idle, drunken, and pointless sicken me. Bohemian leeches, hang-ons, bored socialites… none of these people are ones that I want to have anything to do with. Still, I admit that they add to the heaviness of the setting; the novel feels full of sluggish muddy elements. A character is describing one of the yacht-riders to Maigret:

“A dead weight.  A beautiful woman who is incapable of existing except on a couch, smoking cigarettes and drinking sweet liqueurs.  She started the day she first came on board and has been doing it ever since. . . . Oh sorry:  she also plays cards. I think it’s the only thing that really interests her.” – pg. 56

This is good writing. From this description I can really picture this creature. I was not around in the 1920s/1930s, but it seems like this sort of character was everywhere.  I imagine such a person to be something like a flapper-chick who has gone rotten and just oozes over chaise-lounges and smokes endlessly.

The resolution seemed a little less resolving – and maybe that is Simenon’s fault.  He set up some wonderful red herring-suspects and he gave us a truly weird character swirled in the middle of the muddy locks to wonder about. But the solution seemed almost unrelated or cobbled together.  I just didn’t like it. Came too quickly, from out of nowhere, and did not go in a more expected direction, I guess.

Overall, it’s not really a good read. However the unique setting and the brooding Maigret manage to make the story worthwhile. I want to read more Maigret, but this one is unnecessary. Its a shame because…. locks….

2 stars

Alive

AliveAlive by Scott Sigler is the first book I have read by this author. It was published in 2015 as the first book in The Generations trilogy. It is marketed towards a “young adult” audience.  However, there is a lot of gore in it. I might be totally off-base, though. I mean, I have no clue what young adults read or are capable of reading. It just seemed to me to be a little heavy on the “blood & guts” part. At least that is how I usually refer to those elements. So, take heed all of you with sensitive imaginations!

This book has a famous last page wherein the author begs readers (particularly those who use social media) not to put any spoilers out and about. Because everyone deserves a fair shake at the novel’s surprises and plot twists. I think its a noble request and a good idea and I will agree to it.  Although, I believe there is an ulterior motive to it. That being said, please understand if this review seems a bit vague.

For the most part, I like all of the characters – in the sense that qua characters they drive a good storyline. I do think that the plot is confusing – even after some of the reveals. There are some questions and difficulties that, even though I think we should have gotten them resolved, don’t seem satisfying. But, it is only book 1 of 3; maybe more answers are forthcoming.

The overall sense of the book is suspenseful, dark, and tense. The author does a good job with the tone of the thing. However, when it comes to descriptions where explanations are being made – its sketchy. The explanations are confused or just seem jumbled a bit. Not to the point that they become unreadable, but that it requires more patience than I think it should to get through some of these sections.  Descriptions and explanations should help, not make things more confused.

I gave this four stars because I felt that it was unique enough in presentation (if not in actual plot) to merit that. To be honest, the novel deserves a 3.5 star rating.  However, I do not use half-stars, so I bumped it up to four.  The main reason I was tempted to keep it at three stars was because there is a very…awkward obsession with breasts. Yeah, I know that sounds super odd. And if it sounds odd – trust me, it is because it is odd. However, this recurring factor is at least not constant and can be overlooked when it occurs.

That being said, I appreciated the inner monologue of the main character, I appreciated the suspenseful tone of the story, and I enjoyed the process through which the author made the big reveals.  So, presentation gets the glory here.

I wonder about the gore-level; it is slightly heavier than a lot of novels that I have read, so the fact that this is a young adult novel makes it surprising.  On the other hand, the gore, is relevant to the storyline.  Most of it (not all, mind you) seems relatively reasonable to the plot of the novel.  Ultimately, this novel focuses on how the characters must survive.  I do not think that is a spoiler. Survival is not uncommon a theme. Survival is also, generally, messy. But not all young adults – or adults, for that matter – want to read such tense and messy entertainments.

There are a couple elements that I dislike about the novel. However, per the author’s request, I will not share them. I feel his request, while sensible, also reduces negative comments as-well-as general spoilers. Thankfully, the elements I disliked are not large enough to ruin the novel. However, let it be stated now that a lot is on the line with book two. The bar is set high for the second novel in the series and if the author fails to carry through, it really will make this first novel seem much worse.

4 stars

Deep Storm

Deep StormI finished Deep Storm by Lincoln Child today. It was first published in 2007. This is the first novel I have read by Child, though I think I own a couple of other ones.  Overall, I was not impressed by this novel.  Also, since it is not at all Child’s first published work, it is also difficult to be very giving in the rating. In case you do not know, this novel is a techno-thriller/adventure-pulp story – it also is science fiction. But the science fiction is a little different than, say, Star Wars-style.

Overall, I feel this novel is lazy in some places.  The novel came across to me as if the author wanted to write a techno-thriller – a topic that he does know a lot about – but the story aspects he just threw together a bit carelessly. The story takes place on and very much under an oil rig in the North Atlantic.  On a routine drill, weird signals and malfunctions occur.  The Navy is somehow made aware and scientists, both military and civilian, are called in. A huge cutting-edge facility is built on the surface of the ocean floor deep below the oil rig. Efforts to continue research are made.  Until crew start getting ill.  Dr. Peter Crane is summoned by the chief civilian scientist to come aboard this confidential mission and help determine what is making the crew ill.  Part of the reason Crane agrees to the whole thing is that the scientists entice him with the cryptic talk of what they found below the sea. For the first half of the novel, there are many hints to Crane and the reader that it is actually Atlantis.  Honestly, I would have preferred if it were Atlantis rather than the alien route that the storyline took.

Crane does not get a warm welcome. There is friction between the civilian scientists and the military presence. Furthermore, the medical cases are all distinct and Crane is given a frustrating amount of resistance in his attempts to find answers. Crane is an ex-Navy doctor with submarine experience so he, supposedly, pulls on some of that to assist in dealing with matters in the Deep Storm Facility.

The leader of the whole expedition is Admiral Spartan – that’s Richard Ulysses Spartan. I cannot even believe an author would attempt such a heavy-handed name. As I mentioned earlier, there is an effort to make Deep Storm about Atlantis – and then there is a big reveal in a different direction.  Using these monstrous Greek names is not witty, its obnoxious.

Anyway, there are several issues I have with the novel. One of them is the main character, Peter Crane.  For at least two-thirds of the novel, Crane is really quite useless. He bumbles around doing nothing and being daft – merely existing as a focal point for the author to tell the story. I mean, he just gets lost in corridors and keeps asking the same questions. I find it difficult to say he was even necessary to the story, which is odd because he is the main character!  He does not have much development, nor does he have much depth [pun!].  Crane is exactly what he is when we first meet him, with no hidden complexities. He might be a good doctor, but as detective he is a bum.

Secondly, there is a really quick chapter (just a few pages) wherein one of the original characters on page one returns and there is a cameo of a character named Wallace and an explosive interchange between the two.  We next meet Wallace aboard the rig, we do not know how he got there. Throughout the rest of the novel his motivations remain hidden, although while previously he seemed like a leader, in future segments he seems just like a goon. Its not great storytelling.

Another issue is with the character Hui Ping – she is a scientist. We have already been told that the Facility has hired only the top-notch scientists. Yet she does not know what a Faraday screen is. Aliens and technology are believable – but not a scientist not knowing what a Faraday screen is. The author makes sure to utilize this character several times: her knowledge of the layout of the facility is integral to the story and her awesome ability to do forensic computer things is vital as well.  She is also able to recognize patterns in data and analyze binary code. The whole lack of Faraday screen knowledge killed this character for me, though. Lazy writing, I guess.

Further, I think the layout and geography of the underwater facility ought to have been presented with a map or a quick schematic. After awhile, though Dr. Crane kept telling us what floor he was on, I lost track of what it all meant. When authors constantly remind you about location, I want location to be important and significant, not just filler.

Suffice to say, its adventure-pulp. There is a mystery and several bad guys and it is a techno-thriller. However, it is not the best effort by an author. Frankly, I was somewhat bored.

2 stars

The Gray Man

The Gray ManThe Gray Man by Mark Greaney is the ninth novel that I have read that was originally published in 2009.  Its not purposeful. It is, however, the first in the Gray Man series of novels and the first I have read by Mark Greaney.  Greaney has been the collaborator/writer for the Tom Clancy (1947 – 2013) franchise of novels. I have read none of those.

Let it be said from the start that this novel is not great literature. This is pure entertainment.  In a different era, such a novel would be referred to as pulp. Now, “pulp” originally meant the low-quality paper that was used to print magazines and novels in the first chunk of the twentieth century. This cheap paper was used to print entertainment fiction for the masses.  Increased literacy, cheap entertainment, increasingly efficient methods to print all contributed to the proliferation of what is now known as “pulp fiction.”  None of it was ever intended to be wholesome, scholarly pondersome literature.

Nowadays, we have changed the quality of paper and the multitude of media entertainment is humongous. However, I still refer to certain “genres” of novels as pulp. Because much of the pulp fiction found in that long ago era was science fiction, detective stories, action/adventure stories, boys’ fiction, and smut.  While the paper is a bit crisper now, some novels are still pulp.

The thing is, just because it is pulp does not mean that readers should snub it, act righteously indignant around it, or treat it as sub-par.  Novels, all novels, are meant for entertainment. If, in any novel, there is a secondary by-product of moralizing, or sharing a plight, or drawing attention to some social/moral issue – that is still secondary. Otherwise, well, it would be a thesis, an article, a commentary, a letter. (Of course, this is not a complete universal, but try not to be extremist.)

I like pulp novels, since I like all novels – more or less. There is something very much like brain-candy in these fluffy, superficial, fast-reading, over-the-top, wild, outrageous novels. I think the word is “fun.”  So, I do own a large collection of Doc Savage, The Executioner, Fu Manchu, The Saint, and Nick Carter novels.  Not all pulp novels are also good novels. Some are horribly written and even their novelty as pulp is thin.

Luckily, The Gray Man is a very good pulp novel. Its a whole lot of fun in 465 really fast-turning pages. Why? Because even though this novel should be slushy and aggravating – it just is not. I do not know how, exactly, Greaney is able to withhold from crossing into the whole “takes it too far” – but he does. And we are left with a quite polished novel that – oddly enough – respects the reader enough not to stereotype them.

Because there exists the stereotype that all readers of action/adventure thrillers are over-testosteroned, barely literate, ultra-patriotic, simple-minded buffoons. Scarily, some of the readers are comfortable accepting this as their type…in stereo. It is easy to see which books follow that stereotype – the writing talks down to the reader. There is nothing complex at all, yet everything is repetitive. The sentences become clipped phrases. The amount of gore, sex, foul language is amped up. And, finally, the plot is weak but at the end of the day the flag waves around a pile of spent rifle shells and the hero goes home with at least two buxom blondes on his arms.

If at gunpoint, I would tell you the truth, and that is:  I was highly entertained by this novel. It is such a fast read! Hey – there is not. one. typo. This is exceedingly rare these days. Also, I think the author knows he is not competing with Calvino or Nabokov – and he is okay with it, but that does not mean he does not write this genre novel to the best of his ability. It’s action, but somehow not slushy as one might expect.

Totally a non-stop action thriller. It has some cussing, a bunch of gore, but no sex. So, its definitely rated-R.  The main character sustains an injury during a fight that made me cringe in my seat and I instinctively was holding my hand over my side for awhile. This is good:  it shows the author writes convincingly.  Now, the fact that the character continues onward and does anything he does after that?  Well, let us say that in pulp novels, like in movies, you have to suspend disbelief.  The Gray Man is nearly indestructible, I guess. But you knew he would be. We like to grind our heroes up – a lot – in these sorts of stories. Why is this? Heroes are also, apparently, gluttons for punishment and can endure damn near anything. (Cp. Batman, Wolverine, et al.)

The author balances a lot of characters fairly well.  They are not multi-faceted and heavily nuanced, but they do play their rôle consistently.  The main character is oddly likeable… even if he seems indestructible. And the plot of the novel, well, it feels familiar. I mean, there are a LOT of plot points that we have already seen in a variety of movies, novels, and newspaper headlines. Yes, one would expect this to make this novel an eye-roll inducing mess of tropes and tired stories.  Somehow, though, Greaney does enough balancing to make it fun and interesting – if not new. New, I reckon, really is not always better.

Lastly, Greaney’s lines on page 400 ratify him as someone who knows something about these topics.

Justine had seen fistfights on television action shows.  This was nothing of that.  The movements were faster, more brutal, crueler.  There was no ballet or poetry in the relationship between the adversaries, no choreography. No, it was unyielding surface on unyielding surface, the jerking reactions and the grunts and cries of wild beasts, labored breathing from exertion and panic. The sounds of cracking impacts and the frenzy of a combat so pitiless, she was sure all the men would tear to pieces in the street in front of her.

Lots of people take martial arts as a hobby. Many have learned CQB and H2H in the military. But I think Hollywood and MMA/UFC have really changed how people view combat. Have you ever – truly – been in combat where your life was actually on the line? Not point-sparring, not sport fighting, not cage matches. Not for pay. Because yes, real hand-to-hand combat is ugly and gross. Real kung fu is not acrobatic or flowery. The fact that Mark describes a fight thusly verifies to me that he does know a little something about it. I gave Mark a star for this paragraph alone.

Overall, readers can burn through these pages! Fast reading full of action and double-crossing and excitement. Fans of Batman, Transporter, Wolverine, The Executioner should enjoy this one. But, I think, many folks not normally into reading this “genre” would find some entertainment here, too.

4 stars

Second Foundation

Second Foundation Youll cover

Second Foundation – I. Asimov; 1991 (Cover: Stephen Youll)

Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov is the third novel in the Foundation trilogy. It was first published in 1953; I read the Bantam 1991 edition. I read the first novel in the trilogy, Foundation, in January of 2012.  I read the next in the series in August of that same year. Unfortunately, I failed to return to this series until now in 2017. I gave both of the previous novels four stars in my rating/review and I think this novel will also get the same.  It was a bit of a struggle to read this one, because Asimov has a very distinctive writing style that does not lend itself, in my opinion, to brisk reading.  I think this is at the core of the reasons why many readers dislike the Foundation series and rate them lower than other novels.

Asimov was an intelligent fellow. Fiercely intelligent, even. I do not think that this can be disputed whatsoever.  His science fiction is also creative – full of big ideas.  Asimov also stuffs the presentation of all his big ideas with logic. I believe when he sat down to write his novels, he did not go about it by writing:  and then the character did this.  No, I believe Asimov did say that the character did some action – and then Asimov considered why this character did the action.  Asimov’s intellect does not seem to tolerate random and empty things.  Unfortunately, in contemporary society, I find a lot of people who accept prima facie anything and everything. Many times, their interest is very superficial. Asimov does not strike me as a writer who will just write stuff for the sake of word count.

Asimov’s considerations of things (which sometimes make it onto the pages and sometimes hide in the background – barely discernible) made his writing very much his own.  I found many reviews and comments on his novels wherein the readers complain about how “slow” his writing is. Or how the characters are “wooden.” Or how the novels are so “boring” that they could not finish reading them.  Maybe these reviewers are not the most articulate in describing what they experience when they read Asimov, but I can understand where they are coming from.  There is a perfect example in Second Foundation of this sort of writing. Chapters five and six of the novel (pgs. 64 – 96 in my edition) are exactly what readers complain about regarding Asimov’s writing.

In all honesty, I stalled out in my reading during these chapters. I think I re-read these pages nightly for a week because they kept putting me to sleep. Literally. It is indeed boring writing and it seems repetitive and it did take some effort to push through. Are these chapters integral to the overall story (both in this novel and in the series)? Yes, I think they are and so would be very against excising them at all. Could these chapters have been shortened or otherwise edited to make them less tedious?  I am not sure.  I think to do so would be to lose the very Asimovian aspect of the whole series.  I would not care to do that to the author or his works.  Honest to goodness, once I marched through these pages, the novel picked up pace and it was very good the rest of the way.

What the heck goes on in those pages? Asimov has several characters confront each other and they converse back and forth about what happened and why it happened and what the possibilities are. Who is lying? Who has incomplete knowledge of the subject? Who is being fooled? What are the intentions behind these matters?  In other words, Asimov is digging into the characters’ minds to root out the purposes in their actions. He is logically arguing among them. And he is also showing all the likely possibilities that the storyline could follow.  From this standpoint, it really is not bad. However, considering the pacing and style in a novel, it is quite numbing. Readers who make the effort and want to care and understand Asimov, will appreciate what he does when he writes segments like that. Readers who just want to be entertained probably will not pull much from such sections.

In this novel I really like Darell and Arcadia. They are awesome – in their own way. I want their continuing adventures, so to speak. I want to get to know them and have their backstories with all the nuances in good fiction. However, this is another aspect of Asimov’s writing.   It seems he is so potent a personality himself that his characters tend to all seem flat and cardboard – wooden, if you will. So many readers complain about the lack of “character development” in Asimov’s novels. But in my opinion, this does not precisely state what happens. I think that all of Asimov’s characters are all very flat and similar – because he, himself, shows through so strongly in all of them.  There is something subtle and familiar about all the characters – even though, on the surface, they are totally different.  I am willing to bet Asimov, when he wrote, often asked himself something like:  now, what would I do if I were this character? And then took his response into consideration when writing the story.

Overall, this is an excellent ending to the trilogy. I can see so many places where this series could be expanded and developed and re-examined. The big idea of it is so awesome, I think the novels all get four stars just because they present it. Sure, there are valid complaints about Asimov’s writing style throughout, but at the end of the day, the novels are very much Asimov’s novels and not something churned out by machine or a “novel generator.”

4 stars