April 25, 2008
*** Retribution, Stuart Kaminsky, 2002
I twigged to Kaminsky back in the 80s with the Inspector Rostnikov series, the story of a Moscow police inspector who has to tread the delicate dance of Soviet politics to avoid Siberia or worse while solving crimes. Those are three and four star books. I followed the series through the breakup of the USSR and the new politics of mafia and gangs. It's a fascinating, incredibly well-written series, an example of taking the whodunit to the literary level.
So when I saw a Kaminsky novel while digging around through the bargain stacks, I snatched it up. Retribution, the second in the Lew Fonesca series, makes it clear that Kaminsky has not lost his touch.
Last year I started reading while working out on a NordicTrack elliptical. Reading while working out really tests the quality of a book. The workout, 40-60 minutes of steady, heart-pumping effort, is unpleasant enough. The book has to engage me to the point that I forget I'm working out. That's a tough standard. I'm not as forgiving of lazy writing when I'm sweating and gasping and looking for something to take me away from it. I keep a stack of books nearby because I am known to toss books that fail the workout test across the room.
Retribution not only made the workout endurable, it engaged me to the point that I went past the hour without realizing it. Now that's some engaging writing!
April 17, 2008
*** Embrace Me, Lisa Samson, 2008
I always approach a Lisa Samson novel with trepidation. I love so much of her work that with each new book I wonder if she can do it again. How many times can she ring that bell that resonates down to the core? The truth is that no matter how many times a novelist cranks out a sterling piece of work, each new project is a new chance to fail, an opportunity to demonstrate that the well is dry. Staring at the blank first page of a novel is a terrifying prospect, no matter how many you have written or sold.
A while back I listed my top three Lisa Samson picks. Now I must revise my ranking. Embrace Me, the 10th Samson novel I have read, just claimed the top ranking. I'm reluctant to displace The Living End as #1, so perhaps I'll rank Embrace Me as #0.
I won't summarize the plot, as you can find that information anywhere. Instead I'll tell you my impressions.
Lisa never shies from the tough road less taken. She climbs inside the characters and claws her way out to a plot and a theme. Sometimes, as in this case, she climbs inside some bizarre characters, but it just makes the journey that much more interesting.
Lisa's novels are in first person, although sometimes from multiple viewpoints. Heretofore those viewpoints were always female. Embrace Me marks the first foray into a male viewpoint, which she credits Will (her husband) for assisting in refining. I won't say that she totally nails the male perspective, but she's close enough as to make no difference. Mark Andrus may have written in As Good As It Gets that for Jack Nicholson to write women, "I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability." The only fault I'll attribute to Lisa in writing a man is that she may have not gotten shallow enough. Heh.
There are some startling revelations in Embrace Me that, in retrospect, I should have seen coming, but I didn't. This book knocked me out of the saddle more than once. The mercy is that, unlike The Living End, I didn't read it on the bus, so I didn't have to wear cheap sunglasses to preserve my privacy when it moved me.
April 11, 2008
*** To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis, 1997
It's been a long time since I've found myself thinking about the characters in a book when I'm not reading it. That's what happened with this one. This book felt like PG Wodehouse meets Robert Heinlein.
The title is an allusion to a 19th century book, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). Before I was halfway through, I decided to get a copy of the 1889 book. After I finished, I went to the bookstore but didn't find a copy. However, I bought another book by Connie Willis. That should tell you something about how good she is.
Not surprisingly, To Say Nothing of the Dog was nominated for a Nebula award in 1998 and won the Hugo in 1999. But, before you write this off as a sci-fi time travel novel and give it a miss, which is exactly what I would normally do in that circumstance, let me tell you that it feels nothing like a sci-fi novel, so don't let that scare you off.
Strangely, although it was pretty clear from the cover copy, I somehow failed to realize it was written by a woman until I was 60+ pages in. I was surprised because the voice was remarkably like the dead white guys I'm so fond of reading.
This book has a lot going for it - a great plot, some nice puzzles, a gradual unfolding of the world of the novel and the issues at state, well drawn, memorable characters, and excellent writing. There were a few puzzles the characters seemed a little late to figure out, but even more things I was sure I'd figured out that I turned out to be wrong about.
April 4, 2008
I am addicted to words. As a kid, I read the dictionary. Seriously. It has shaped my writing and what I love about reading.
I am drawn to writers who are masters at the art of using words. There is nothing quite like a fine bit of writing, that sentence or phrase that seems to express the essence of a thing in a way that is at once fresh and obvious. In a way that makes you wonder why you never thought of it that way, because now that you’ve heard it, you can’t imagine a better way to express it.
Combine that with engaging characters and a nice plot, and you can’t lose.
Most good stories have the four main components of characters, plot, dialog and narrative. All are important, but they occur in varying degrees of presence depending on the type of book. For example, a spy novel might depend more on plot and less on characters. A travel book might rely heavily on narrative and have little or no plot. It may or may not have interesting characters, depending on who’s writing it and why.
Many modern readers are plot junkies. They want to keep the action going and are willing to accept two-dimensional characters that act according to type as long as the plot twists keep coming. A completely unforeseen surprise ending is the acme of this type of book.
For me, a really great book, regardless of type, is built around characters. The plot is simply what they do, the dialog simply what they say, the narrative providing the infrastructure in which they do and say those things.
Do you know any really clever people, fun to be around? It is fascinating how a mundane setting or experience can be transformed by such a person. I find it the same with books. If the characters are riveting, it really doesn’t matter what they do (the plot). If the characters are really well done, it might take you a while to realize there IS no plot! I once read a brilliant paragraph by Nabakov that described a screen door. A screen door, for crying out loud! Which has nothing to do with characters, but I just remembered it so I threw it in.
This is not to say I enjoy reading books about screen doors. I like a good plot as much as the next guy, and clever dialog can be a thing of beauty, even in the presence of formulaic plots, as Damon Runyon and P. G. Wodehouse have demonstrated.
In the end, for me, it comes down to the writing itself. Whisper a well-turned phrase into my ear, and I'll follow you anywhere.