3 Stars

The Woman in the Dunes

The Woman in the DunesThe Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1924 – 1993) was first published in 1962.  I read the Vintage International edition from 1991. The novel won the Yomiuri Prize. In 1964, a Japanese film by the famous Hiroshi Teshigahara was released – author Kobo Abe wrote the screenplay. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to the Italian film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Vittorio De Sica.

This is probably Kobo Abe’s most famous novel. I have not read any of his other works, but I do own The Ark Sakura. I am open to reading other works by this author, but he does not interest me at the same level as some of the other super-famous authors of mid-20th Century Japanese authors. Sometimes his works are classified as absurdist/surreal literature, which is a genre I can sometimes devour and at other times am disinterested in.

The man intended to collect insects that lived in the dunes. – pg. 10

I enjoyed this book, and I really do appreciate what the author has shown us via sand. However, I cannot help but subtract a few points from my estimation of its rating due to a few sections of the novel.

There are dozens of ways to interpret this novel, but the erosion of the main character’s opinions via the Sisyphus-lifestyle is the overwhelming concept. The sand claims all – eventually. Survival alongside the eroding powers of the sand drives the story. The way the sand affects everything is really well done. The author very gradually traps the main character within the pit in the dunes. This is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the writing; the character being trapped is done so subtly and simply.

I really enjoyed the early chapters because the early interactions between the man and the woman are so very well written. In translation, the woman’s sentences are often open-ended, with ellipses or simple statements that only seem innocent:

“But somebody just said ‘for the other one.'”

“Hmm. Well, they’re referring to you.”

“To me? Why mention me in connection with a shovel . . . ?”

“Never mind. Don’t pay any attention. Really they’re so nosy!” – pg. 30

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is how the woman clearly knows what is going on and yet, is able to seem innocent. Though she knows what is happening to the man, she may or may not be powerless to stop/change it. Like the man, the reader will probably consider, in turns, the woman to be mentally challenged, an entrapping vixen, or a resigned, but dedicated villager.

The author really puts the main character through some suffering, but he also inflicts some on the reader. Readers will constantly want “justice” or “to know the reason” or “someone to accuse” through the novel. And Kobo Abe just doesn’t provide a clear and direct target for all of that. Frustrating? Maybe. Engaging? Definitely. (Probably the reason for Kafka comparisons.)

Stop looking so stupid! He was angry; he wanted to make her admit her guilt even if he had to force it out of her. – pg. 90

The subtle horror of being trapped/imprisoned for, seemingly, no reason is the key that makes this novel so vibrantly emotional. Even if I disliked parts of the novel, I have to credit the author with the ability of being able to tap into that fundamental chord in my being that I assume every human possesses, which rebels against such a circumstance. It seems it is easier to accept a prison sentence if there is a reason. But without reason or cause, without an authority or a captor to blame, without a purpose or goal – such an imprisonment is a magnitude of horror well beyond a reasonable incarceration.

For some time he concentrated on digging.  The sand was exceedingly tractable, and his work appeared to be progressing.  The sound of the shovel as it bit into the sand, and his own breathing, ticked away the time. However, at last his arms began to grow weary. He thought he had worked for a considerable time, but his digging had apparently had no results at all. Only a little bit of sand had fallen from right above where he was digging. – pg. 68

The man’s psychological state is what one might expect. He is outraged, indignant, and frustrated. He calms himself by convincing himself a rational and thoughtful method will rescue him. He dips into the violent and the desperate. He only very gradually comes to realize an outcome, which, perhaps, the woman knew from the start. The woman’s reaction to the man’s arrival, when you think about it in retrospect, contains all of the pensive understanding of what she knows he and, by connection, herself will have to undergo. Her early timidity is probably because she knows what emotional turmoil will occur – and she has to resign herself to going through the turbulence as well.  In a way, this also means that nothing the man does truly surprises her.

And what of the man’s mental state? At points he forces himself to be relatively rational. Bargaining and reasoning with his supposed captors. He also attempts “scientific” escapes and schemes. But he is also clearly disturbed because he has mental conversations with himself – or the Mobius man.  Kobo Abe even suggests, subtly, that there is an element of schizophrenia at play. Late in the novel, the man has a mental conversation with an imagined judge:

-Your Honor, I request to be told the substance of the prosecution. I request to be told the reason for my sentence.

-I am telling you that in Japan schizophrenia occurs at the rate of one out of every hundred persons. – pg. 217

And this fascinating little segment with the man conversing with himself continues to an amusing conclusion:

-Well, listen to me calmly.  Acrophobes, heroin addicts, hysterics, homicidal maniacs, syphilitics, morons – suppose there were one per cent of each of these, the total would be twenty per cent. If you could enumerate eighty more abnormalities at this rate – and of course you could – there would be statistical proof that humanity is a hundred per cent abnormal. – pg. 218

I disliked, though, the chunk at the end where the main character is told the “deal” how the villagers will let him see beyond the pit. This was weird/vulgar and destroyed a lot of good faith I had in the author. This part was the “too far” point in the writing.

Excellent in concept and writing, although the 1960s-Freudian-focus is a bit too prominent in the whole thing. Definitely for an adult readership. I appreciate the “horror” of the novel, but dislike some of the episodes. In any case, this is an excellent novel for book clubs, I think, because there is a lot to discuss about all of the various interpretations available.

3 stars

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The Counterfeiter and Other Stories

CounterfeiterThe Counterfeiter and Other Stories is a collection of stories by Yasushi Inoue (1907 – 1991) that contains three stories. The Counterfeiter was published in 1951, Obasute was published in 1956, and The Full Moon was published in 1958.  Although the three stories are different from one another, I think they do give a good sample of the author’s style and tone. I really enjoyed The Counterfeiter and I also enjoyed The Full Moon, but Obasute was not very likeable. I think that to enjoy Obasute one needs to have a lot more understanding of Japanese culture and history – particularly Izu Peninsula – than I have.

I knew right as I finished The Counterfeiter that many readers would dislike these stories. I think the concept of what a novel is and should be, what a story ought to contain, what a narrative’s purpose is, is very different from the Japanese perspective than the typical post-Enlightenment Western conception of literary works.  I do not claim to be any sort of literary expert whatsoever, but I can speak for some of the non-Japanese mindset.

Western Europeans and Americans are educated in literature since they begin school with the idea that a literary work has a point and purpose.  Small schoolchildren begin writing book reports wherein they are drilled in the exercise of figuring out the main point or the resolution or the purpose of the book. In fact, I know that many schoolchildren are told to summarize their readings.  This serves to really cement in the mind the idea that literature has a beginning, a middle, and an end and can be summarized in terms of writer’s intent, character development, and climactic action.  Reading more Japanese literature, I am discovering that this sort of mindset will struggle when encountering some authors like Yasushi Inoue.

Inoue, more than others, seems to have a skill in bringing to life a vivid story, with excellent wordsmithing, about a mundane matter.  The fullness with which Inoue tells us a story about what in reality is a very everyday sort of “story” is very interesting.  This is the sort of author who can tell you about the day he had, which may have consisted of mundane work, a couple of meals, and watching the trees outside, but yet you listen so intently because he makes this narrative into a story.

In The Counterfeiter, there is a strong sense of autobiographical writing. The narrator is a journalist who is commissioned to write a text on the artist Keigaku Onuki.  We learn that the narrator is a bit disinterested in the project.  Boredom or laziness or disinterest cause this text to have taken far longer than it should have.  The narrator tells us this is because he cannot form a definitive chronology of the artist since no one alive is able to accurately detail out Onuki’s years. And in searching for data, the narrator becomes more interested in Hosen Hara than in Onuki, who really fades from the narrative altogether.  The last chapter, which is merely two pages, explains the narrator’s feelings on his biographical research. To discuss that here would be to ruin the reader’s experience.

I can see myself making a pseudo-archetype out of Hosen Hara. I will probably use him as an example in the future. These are all such unique stories that the characters in them stand up among the multitude of characters in fiction.  And one of the other feelings I have about this story is how realistic it is. If I handed this “story” to someone who knew nothing about this, I could convince them it was an excerpt from a non-fiction biography. The realism is so strong that I suspect we could start a silly quest (a la Foucault’s Pendulum and “The Bee Book” by Kit Williams) to find Hara’s paintings.

Obasute was a tougher piece to penetrate because I am lacking some of the cultural data that probably makes the story far more potent. I did, however, appreciate the narrator’s efforts to examine other members of his family in light of his thoughts on his mother’s Mount Obasute request. Still, the family relationships element also fell weakly on me. At the end, I felt I wanted more from the story – either regarding the mother or regarding the sister.

The Full Moon was actually just as good, if not better, than The Counterfeiter. Against the backdrop of the harvest moon festivals, the rise and fall of executive businessmen is portrayed. If there is cynicism regarding the business world involved in Inoue’s writing, it is hidden.  The rise and fall of the businessmen sometimes has a destiny/karmic feel to it. Ambition and sycophancy are highlighted, but so are the choices of the quite melancholic main character, Kagebayashi. Although not full of action and excitement, this story is haunting in its everydayness .  The truth factor question of Jiro Kaibara’s stories about Kagebayashi plays with how such a random event can influence so much, whether or not that event is true or false. Just like in The Counterfeiter, the story is subtle and melancholic. Just like in real life, there is a sense of lack of closure and resolution. These are not tidy, manufactured stories.

Well, I recommend these stories for advanced readers who have some interest in Japanese literature. I can see some readers being frustrated by these subtle stories. I think words like haunting and mundane suit this collection well. I intend to read more Inoue.

3 stars

Snow Country

Snow CountrySnow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was published in its finalized form in 1948. I read the Vintage International edition translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. This is the first Kawabata novel that I have read, though I own several. Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, which made mention of Snow Country and two other of his works. His Nobel Lecture was entitled Japan, The Beautiful and Myself and I do want to take a look at that. There is an annual prize in Japan awarded to the year’s most accomplished work of short fiction. The Kawabata Yasunari Prize for literature was established in 1973 by the Kawabata Yasunari Memorial Association to honor Japan’s first Nobel Prize–winning novelist. The winner receives a certificate, a commemorative gift, and a cash award of one million yen.

So much has been said/written about this novel that I doubt I can add much value to the overall volume of commentary. I did not love the novel, but please, do not assume I am a lazy or stupid reader. I really wanted the novel, with it’s poetic and spare writing, to grab my heart by it’s beating valves and drag me around the mountains of snow country.

Disappointingly, that did not occur. Broadly, because I deeply disliked both main characters. The writing is quite good and scenic; it envelopes the reader. But the sloth and decadence of Shimamura and the annoying voice of Komako killed the wonderment of the writing. I don’t forgive them for that.

However, I cannot say that I disliked this novel.

Kawabata’s Nobel Prize was awarded “for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind.”  This sort of statement sometimes makes me grumpy. The thing is the definite description there in the phrase; the “the” that causes issue.  At once we are to recognize The Other and embrace diversity – therefore keeping the independence of The Other, but yet we are also expected to support and enjoy the fullness of the universal human experience.  So, what is this “Japanese mind”?  Even if we assume that in 1968 they did not choose their words so nicely, is there a “Japanese mind”? A mind so in tune and vital that it is quite simply separate and distinct from all other human minds? Or is “Japanese mind” merely a euphemism for “experience produced within Japanese culture”?

This little messy babbling of mine is important because I think this specific novel by this specific author is affected by these questions/answers. Snow Country is allegedly his most famous and well-enjoyed novels – by Japanese readers and non-Japanese readers alike. Is it because the non-Japanese readers love the insight gained through glimpses into the “exotic” Japanese world via this prose? Or is it because there is something universal in the writing that appeals and is readily accessible by all readers?

I felt that the writing was very good for most of the novel. I mean, there are places where I was less impressed. But throughout, the actual writing – and it has been likened to haiku and poetry many times – was very good. Its a spare prose with a pseudo-poetic feel. Again, some of the greatness may be reduced because of translation.

Above all of that, I could synthesize with the feelings in the story. It is hard to choose the correct words here, so let me keep trying. I do not mean simply that I sympathized/empathized with the characters, but rather that I feel that I have also experienced those feelings. Feelings, though, is also the incorrect word. I mean, something deeper – something like the relationship to the milieu. Or, more like the ennui of the whole scenario. Or, perhaps better, the Russian term тоска́/toska. Observe what happened here – I was unable to find the English word and had to dip into different languages.

Is this a love story? No, I do not think so. Allegedly, Komako falls foolishly in love with Shimamura. I must have missed that part. Please do not tell me it is “between the lines” or that the reader has to supply this. I missed that part because it was not there and it could not happen. Shimamura is thoroughly unlikeable and I doubt the young geisha could see anything of value in him. His heavy ennui drips down every page of the novel and he is truly a shameful character. Not because of his morality, per se, but because he is so wretchedly slothlike. Much has been commented about Shimamura’s dilettanism, yet I don’t think this is his defining characteristic. I see him as sluggish and oozing his upper-class ennui.

When Shimamura goes for a massage, the woman says: (pg. 59)

“. . . you must not have to work. Feel how nice and soft you are.”

“No stiff muscles on me.” Shimamura replies.

I find Shimamura repugnant. His conversation is also lazy and slothful. He repeats phrases and seems constantly hazy on the conversation. Komako is just as frustrating. Her conversation is immature and ridiculous. Much of this is because most of the time she is drunk (she is a geisha and must attend “parties”) or because she is acting as her age dictates. Still, I find her to be annoying, at best.

This novel, for me, was about distance. The remote hot-spring inn is far from Shimamura’s home in Tokyo. The mountains and snow make the setting isolated and Kawabata writes them so that you feel the silence of heavy, hard-packing snow. Snow deadens sound like nothing else; I have experienced this at length. There is distance, too, between Shimamura and his family. There is distance between Komako and Yukio. There is distance between Komako’s hopes and dreams and her reality. Of course there is the distance between Shimamura and Komako. Finally, as if this were not enough distance, there is the distance between the characters and their selves. The Self. Themselves. This seems repetitive when it is written out, but in Kawabata’s novel it is omnipresent and sturdy, not nearly as redundant as my listing it makes it feel.

For example, often Shimamura is depicted looking out at the mountains and trees. He vaguely ponders the autumn leaves or the skiers. He has lazy daydreams about the grasses and snows. In fact, several times he wanders listlessly, but yet cannot seem to really ever become “one with nature.” There is always the distance as he stands in the inn, by the screens looking out at the scenery. Basically, this is a metaphor for all of Shimamura’s distances.

Overall, if you can stand a novel filled with ennui and distance, this is a perfect representation of that. I mentioned above that this is not a bad novel, I did not dislike it. But I was not convinced all of the time. What I was drawn in by was that heavy-headed fuzziness that sloth and bad schedules and long winters come with. And that is not a feeling I have ever relished.

3 stars

Time and Again

time and again aceToday is Clifford D. Simak’s birthday (1904 – 1988).  It is a happy coincidence that I am writing this review today, after having finished reading his 1951 novel Time and Again.  I read the Ace 1983 edition with cover by Romas Kukalis.  I also own the 1976 Ace edition with cover by Michael Whelan. I like the Whelan cover more so I read the 1983 one.

This is the fourth Simak novel I have read.  It took awhile to get through this one – and I managed to polish off other novels during the time I was also reading this one. I admit, I got stuck on page 90 for a couple of weeks and the book sat abandoned.

 I got stuck at page 90 on June 15th. (Today is August 3.)  So, the book sat there because I did believe this might be a book I have to abandon. And abandoning a book mid-read is not really something I do, unless there is a very good reason. The novel starts all right, gets ridiculously awful – disjointed, confusing, and random – and then suddenly most of it straightens out and things make sense. The ending continues on too long and gets a little out of hand, honestly.

I am impressed that Simak pulled this one together. Still, there is no excuse for the nonsense and total random that goes on early in the book. It is REALLY tough to read through – literally, I was just reading words and they were not stringing together to make a coherent plot or even any basic sense. I could not have told you what this book was about for anything. I forced myself to keep reading (weeks later) – and then Simak pulled some threads together and the writing improved by leaps and bounds.

The story has less to do with time travel and more to do with Simak’s views on quasi-religion (destiny/life). The questions revolving around destiny and life are juxtaposed against the natures of humans and androids. (Simak’s androids are different than Asimov’s.) Finally, over all of this, to make this a science fiction story, rather than a pondering, there is a “war” of sorts that is fought by far-future humans and robots. All of this makes for a confused book. I see what Simak was doing, and its not a bad idea, but the execution got muddied. He sorts it out – mostly, but there are some rough sections that are really tough to get through.

The middle and middle-end part of the book is quite good. You really could not read it without the beginning and actual end, though. So readers are stuck with that murky front end with the total chaos.  Still, when Simak is “on” the writing is great.

And he didn’t say it because he was interested at the moment in war, whether in three or four dimensions, but because he felt that it was his turn to talk, his turn to keep this Mad Hare tea chatter at its proper place.

For that was what it was, he told himself… an utterly illogical situation, a madcap, slightly psychopathic interlude that might have its purpose, but a hidden, tangled purpose. -pg. 145  Chapter XXIV

I really liked this quote and I feel that I can relate to the character’s feelings here. Haven’t you been in a conversation where it seems you are talking around something and everyone seems smiley and fake and bizarre, but everyone plays along? Anyway, the next lines are quotes from Carroll, so Simak’s usage of the Mad Hare (as opposed to Mad Hatter) is clearly deliberate. Similarly, this is somewhat of the feeling you get when you read the early chunk of the novel:  we are all talking about something illogical, random, but we sense a hidden and tangled plot in there somewhere.

At the end of the day, the basic concept of the novel is that of Destiny. Or destiny. I do not believe Simak is a theist, so I do not think that is a euphemism for a deity, but there is definitely a pseudo-Tao concept being played with here. I am not suggesting that it is totally worked out in an academic way, but it is a solid concept for a 1950s novel.

Destiny, not fatalism.

Destiny, not foreordination.

Destiny, the way of men and races and of worlds.

Destiny, the way you made your life, the way you shaped your living. . . the way it was meant to be, the way that it would be if you listened to the still, small voice that talked to you at the many turning points and crossroads.

But if you did not listen. . . why, then, you did not listen and you did not hear.  And there was no power that could make you listen.  There was no penalty if you did not listen except the penalty of having gone against your destiny. – pg. 175 Chapter XXIX

This page sums up what Simak is playing with in this novel. I am not sure it is clear for most of the book, but this page lays it out plain as can be – or, as plain as the concept of destiny can be, anyway. And the action and characters and storyline are all accidental, it seems, to this discussion, which does not even occur until late in the novel. Its fairly interesting, but the reader will suffer getting to that point. Depends on if it is their destiny or not, right?

time and again ace whiteNow, there is a bit of time travel – but its not very much like time travel stories we know and “love.”  This time travel is juxtaposed with the concept of destiny, so it kind of applies. And in the last quarter of the novel, the main character ends up in the year 2000 or so in Wisconsin. On a farm near a river in Wisconsin. (Simak students will know this is Simak’s home of which he had a great fondness for and often plays a part in his novels.) Simak really likes Wisconsin, because when he writes about it, it is descriptive and meandering and he draws it out and praises everything about it.  Its so dang rural. And farmy. It kills me when Simak does this. I do not doubt his sentiments and I understand his love for the location, but my word do I suffer reading about grass and hay!

Lastly, Simak had me grinning in chapter XXXIII, when Sutton (the main character) first arrives in Wisconsin in 2000. Sutton meets a resident of the time just fishing and smoking a pipe…a fellow named “Old Cliff.”

This is a difficult, but relatively rewarding read. Definitely for Simak fans. Those with interest in 1950s robots/androids could find interesting bits here, too. And, of course, readers curious about Simak’s concept of destiny would enjoy this. The first half of the book, however, will require a bit of effort from all.

3 stars

Rogue Male

rogue-male largeFirst published in May 1939, Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household is another good read that NYRB publishing has returned to bookshelves. I believe this NYRB edition is 2007. It is a slender novel of merely 208 pages, but it contains a very interesting plotline.  It is a very masculine read, whatever that may mean. ‘Masculine’ being the adjective that I think best describes it – so it will fit on that “Man’s Man” bookshelf alongside Hemingway, Bukowski, and Haggard.  The plotline is in that group of novels that include assassinations, fugitives, and secret agent novels. So, think along the lines of Joseph Conrad and John Buchan.

In a nice pseudo-noir fashion, the reader never learns details about the characters – details such as names, birthdays, and other specific data. However, instead of the novel simply being a chase novel, Household writes intriguing and often insightful assessments of psychological importance. The main character, a member of the highest-level of British society is an avid sportsman. He is no debutante amateur in hunting; throughout the novel we are given plenty of examples of how well this character understands hunting and its associated skills.

Anyway, the novel is supposedly composed of the character’s writings as events occur – or soon thereafter, as in a journal.  The combination of the character being well-educated have possessing a high status in society allows for the journal to be quite a bit more psychological and thoughtful than one would expect from a hunter. Or at least, more than I would expect, which would be merely like a sniper’s log.

One of the key points throughout the novel is that the reader must question much of what the character has written. This is because as the novel (journal) progresses, the character also peels away self-deceptions and discovers more about his own actions and the motives behind them.  Therefore, when we first read that the character finds himself with his firearm on the compound of a political figure, maybe the prima facie reasoning needs to be questioned. But who can have time for that – because immediately, the chase is on.

This shooting trip of mine, started, I believe, innocently enough.  Like most Englishmen, I am not accustomed to enquire very deeply into motives.  I dislike and disbelieve in cold-blooded planning, whether it be suggest of me or of anyone else.  I remember asking myself when I packed the telescopic sight what the devil I wanted it for; but I just felt that it might come in handy. – pg. 8

Do you believe this? The reader, throughout, might question the truth-value of those statements. Well, the plot moves onward:  the main character is chased by the agents of the dictator – chased through the woodland in which he was found and then further chased throughout his own country. The hunter becomes the hunted.

Of course, the novel touches on all the expected points:  the devolution into an ersatz animal-state, loneliness, survival, etc.  All of this is done well and I think it is even more interesting coming from the very English point of view of the character.

Motives are, more or less, what this novel is about – under the rather well-constructed surface story of the hows and wheres of the fugitive and his narrow escapes. In fact, it is not until much later in the novel that the character, in his journal writing, tells the reader a sketchy and detail-less moment about a former romance – how does this romance influence the character’s actions? Further, does the character himself even know?

I wanted to give this novel four stars.  I found it very interesting and highly entertaining. However, there are several places where “you just gotta be there.” By this I refer to points in which the main character is describing things and its just too difficult to really picture what he is describing. I mean, there is a general image – but the details are too messy or undefined. I feel the author is very clearly describing something he knows well, but even for all of that, its too much for the reader to mentally build a perfect representation of the scene or item. But if the reader is at all hindered in this closely followed hunt, then I must deduct a star. The thrill of the hunt is based on the “being there” and if the reader cannot truly picture every fibre of grass and every scent of mud, then it is not as good as it needs to be.

Finally, Asmodeus. The cat. He is eternal. I love cats. I want to give the main character a gold star for understanding them. And avenging them.

3 stars

Death at Crane’s Court

death-at-cranes-courtDeath at Crane’s Court by Ellis Dillon (1920 – 1994) was first published in 1953.  I read the Perennial Mystery Library edition of 1988 with cover by Bradley Clark. This is the first novel I have read by Dillon – not too surprising a fact since Dillon is only known for very few mystery novels. I would definitely read more of her works, though.  She was born in Galway, Ireland and several of her novels take place there.

In this particular novel, however, the setting did not play a major rôle whatsoever.  I actually would have preferred if it had more significance. I was hoping for a more culturally-flavored story, I think

Crane’s Court is a “hotel” (older meaning of the term) near Galway. The hotel has a new owner and he arrives via train with one of the new residents of the hotel. The new owner is found murdered not much more than a month after his arrival and the suspects are multiple since the majority of the residents are: hunters/sportsmen, senile and crazed, invalids/infirm.

Everyone, it seems has motive, opportunity, and is in agreement regarding their negative feelings toward the new owner:  John Burden.  The story begins following the travels of George Arrow to his new home at Crane’s Court. And as plain and easy-going as George is as a character, the novel is really stolen completely by the enigmatic and vociferous Professor Daly.

Issues that face the detective, Inspector Mike Kenny, are the facts that the residents of the hotel are members of a past-age wherein many would have been upper class and therefore not subservient to lawmen and the public justice. They all still dress for dinner. The location of teatime in the facility is a major item of contention. In other cases, the senile and/or crazed residents are treated with just as much privilege as their peers. But, rather than living in a familial and warm community, there is a great deal of competition, distrust, pettiness within Crane’s Court. Some of this is due to eccentricities of old age, some of this is due to social status.

I wanted to like this novel a whole lot more than I did. There are a number of red herrings, but the clues are slim. All of the characters are recklessly unique and some of them are charming. But throughout, I felt any one of them could turn and reveal their hidden maniacal side. I was never sure when each character really was cleared of suspicion.

And it is not a fair-play novel. For the most part the reader follows Inspector Kenny around as he questions the residents and suspects, but the reader is not privy to any of his conclusions or argumentation. Toward the end of the book, the real surprise is almost how much work Kenny has done “off-stage.”  In fact, a lot seems to happen off stage and maybe filling in some of these gaps would have made a more rounded novel.

At the end, if I am being bluntly honest, I am not sure I think the guilty character is perfectly convincing – although it is all explained sufficiently. And I don’t think I really like any of the characters. I mean, they would be fine to read a short novel about, but I do not think I would turn my back on any of them.

This novel would not disappoint any vintage readers or mystery readers. I think it actually falls closer to a four-star rating, but I always rate low when books are in the middle unless there is just some overwhelming reason to do otherwise. The Professor could have been one of those reasons – he is definitely the most engaging of the group. I found him, sometimes, to be a little creepy and weird (the glib are disconcerting).

3 stars

Dissolution

dissolutionDissolution by Richard Lee Byers is part of the large collection of Forgotten Realms novels.  I think that the dark elves, or Drow, are the most famous creations of this expansive franchise. This novel is book one in a miniseries of novels that contain the tale of the “War of the Spider Queen.”  Byers was carefully selected by managing members of the Forgotten Realms franchise to write this first novel in the miniseries, by which it was hoped new readers could approach the mythology and old readers would re-kindle their love for the franchise.  This first novel was published in 2002 and five others followed afterward, each from a different author.

I have not read much in the Forgotten Realms collection. I read, at least, the first two (very famous) novels in the Drizzt Do’Urden subseries; that would be R. A. Salvatore’s Homeland and then Exile.  I do recall reading some of the third Drizzt novel, but I honestly do not think I finished it. Based on the internal chronology of the franchise, the War of the Spider Queen novels occur just under a hundred years after the first Drizzt novel (Homeland) takes place.

Generally, I get the sense that these huge franchises of novels/games are looked down upon by the “reading elite” as hack/pulp meant solely to feed some stereotyped awkward love for these genres.  Somewhat like a soap opera for teenagers, I suppose.  I do think this is a prevailing opinion, but I do not think it is completely true. Sure, in every genre there is a grouping of zealously loyal fans.  However, when the fans are not in adoration of the most literary or academic pursuits, there does tend to be a negative view taken.  But there is a simple joy in following these serial, melodramatic (and often formulaic) fantasy-soap operas.  And, whether people like to admit it or not, there are some great creations that come out of these large franchise series.

The Drow, or dark elves, are one of those really interesting creations. If you think of Forgotten Realms, you will have some thought to the dark elves. They are something like – though I hesitate to push the negative analogy too far – the opposite of the stately and high-minded elves brought to us by J. R. R. Tolkien. Now, I know Tolkien’s elves are hardly original, but his representation seems to have supplanted the older Germanic/Scandinavian conceptions.  So, the Drow live in the Underdark (underground) and have a matriarchal society infused with magic.  It is hardly an amoral or anarchic society, but the rules are very much based on ambition, political power, uneasy alliances, and treachery. Love, compassion, mercy, and trust are not really parts of this world. Naturally, this is what makes these dark elves so dang interesting in any storyline.

Byers was elected to write the opening novel in this miniseries that is entirely focused on the Drow world. The storyline is vast and complex and he had to leave a lot of room for the following authors to work, while giving them a good footing. And so the majority of this novel is functional and introductory.  Byers gives us specific examples of the Drow behavior and activities.  Then, he begins to follow a couple characters specifically and begins the subplots.  The reader bounces back and forth between a variety of characters, some of these are more interesting than the others.  I will say that for the first half of the book the thread following Pharaun Mizzrym and Ryld Argith seemed stupid. It was the part that caused the most aggravation in my reading.

Finally, just past the halfway point, the Byers started to bring some of these threads together.  Finally, what seemed like pointless roaming in circles actually started to converge.  This was good because it was getting to be a real struggle reading along.

The only character – from start to finish – who I found continuously interesting was Quenthel Baenre.  Quenthel is a Drow priestess; in fact she is the Mistress of the clerical school in the dark elf city. Throughout the novel, I found myself following her exploits with more interest than those of the other Drow.

The last third of the novel gets quite intertwined in combat scenes, monsters, magic, and Drow treachery.  And, I will say, there are several scenes in this novel that are a bit darker and more gruesome than one would expect in franchise-owned pulp.  The novel serves its purpose – one does want to read further in the War of the Spider Queen and the Drow remain dark and treacherous. Overall, Byers does a solidly adequate job. But nothing here is beyond what one should expect and the novel has some awfully sluggish sections.

3 stars

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