Perdido Street Station

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I read recently that distopias are much more common than utopias in futuristic fiction.  That makes sense, since there can’t be much suspense, danger, or other plot engine in paradise.  There’s plenty of both in the city of New Crobuzon described in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, published in 2000, but on consideration, it may not be any more of a distopia than some big cities of today.  The political leadership is presiding over a police state with only a half- hearted pretense of democracy, but that’s been seen before.  There’s a lot of pollution and crumbling infrastructure, but that’s nothing new either.  Much of the distopian atmosphere is created by Miéville’s way with words, the endless inventiveness of his descriptions of dirt and decay and the (negatively) evocative names he gives to people and places (there’s a pub called “The Dying Child”!).

Miéville doesn’t explain where this city is, but I could guess that it’s on a planet colonized by humans from Earth in the distant past, on which they have encountered and learned to live beside a number of other intelligent and bizarre species.The two main characters who are introduced at the beginning are a bird man who needs a new set of wings and a human scientist to whom he applies for help.  The scientist hopes to solve the wingless bird man’s problem with unified field theory, but not the version Einstein was working on.  In a civilization in which computer technology is less advanced than the ability to harness magic, scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin seems to succeed eventually in constructing a sort of quantum computer from junkyard finds.  That’s lucky, because he and his friends need every possible weapon to fight some extremely dangerous enemies.

 

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NOT Agatha Christie

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Closed Casket, published by Sophie Hannah in 2017, is the second of Hannah’s attempts to continue Agatha Christie’s mystery series featuring eccentric and brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.  She has devised a plot intricate enough to mimic Christie and hasn’t done a bad job of presenting Poirot.  Scotland Yard Inspector Edward Catchpool, narrator of most of the story and Poirot’s foil, is also well done.  The rest of my comments explain why I will avoid Hannah’s first outing of the reimagined Poirot and any third or following volumes.

One of Christie’s great strengths was her ability to create a great variety of plausible characters, some of whom turned out to be murderers but none of whom were obviously deranged or psychopathic (and if they were, it would turn out to be a red herring). The characters chosen by Hannah to populate a Christie-style 1920’s mansion, by contrast, are uniformly weird.  They’re so peculiar, in fact, that I wonder if Hannah has made them so peculiar and unsympathetic as a kind of homage by exaggeration.  Because none of them are at all believable, the entire plot collapses, depending as it does on unreal people behaving more and more strangely.

Too bad.  It was a good idea.

The Spy House

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The Spy House, published by Matthew Dunn in 2015, is a competently written thriller and one of the most annoying books I’ve ever read.  I’m sure I’ve read some other Dunn thrillers featuring joint MI6 and CIA agent Will Cochrane, but this one made more of an impression because the plot is over-the-top ridiculous and Dunn, according to the book’s cover, is a former MI6 officer who must know better.

The plot was obviously taking an odd direction when the assembled personnel at a White House meeting agree that Israel is a “rabid dog”.  This seems a bit extreme as a consensus about a democratic ally, although certainly possible.  But it turns out that Israel is literally crazy.  The Israeli ambassador to France has been assassinated and Israel believes that this was done by Hamas and intends to wipe out Hamas in Gaza in retaliation.

Let’s ignore, for the moment, that when hundreds of rockets were launched into Israel from Gaza, this being not probably but indubitably the responsibility of Hamas, Israel, for it’s own sake, was determined not to wipe out Hamas and saddle itself with Gaza.

According to Dunn’s scenario Israel intends, at the same time as it attacks Hamas in the south, to attack both Hizballah, in Lebanon to the north (an entirely separate entity to Hamas) and the Palestinian Authority to the East.  In other words, Israel plans to start wars simultaneously on three fronts.  And it announces these plans two weeks in advance to the assembled bureaucrats of the U.S., Britain, and France (i.e. to the whole world).  This would really require Israelis to be mad dogs, just as likely as pit bulls to chase you down the street and sink their teeth into your ankle.

The United States, Britain and France are worried that if Israel goes to war it will cause havoc in the Middle East, because Sunnis will start fighting Shiites.  The reader is not supposed to have noticed that at the time of the book’s publication there was already havoc in the Middle East, and that Sunnis and Shiites started fighting without waiting for Israel to attack them both (and wouldn’t this be more likely to make them stop fighting each other and cooperate against their common enemy?)

Dunn’s plot clearly isn’t meant to be entirely realistic.  His protagonist is almost a super-hero, and he inhabits a fictionalized spy world in which a master spy might have all of his antagonist’s friends and family killed just to make him feel bad.  Dunn may have thought that there was no point thinking up a realistic plot for this kind of book.  I disagree with that.  Realistic would be good, and even barely plausible would be better than completely ridiculous.

Another possibility is that Dunn simply assumed that his readers either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care.

My best guess – Dunn entrusted the plot to an early version of a computer program, something like “Plot-a-Thriller 1.0”, gave it as key words Israel, Hamas, Hizballah, and Gaza, and pressed “enter”.

 

 

The Travelers

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The Travelers, published by Chris Pavone in 2016, is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time.  And that’s interesting, because his basic premise could easily have been too far fetched to support a short story, let alone a 646 page (in the edition I read) tome.

Maybe one of the things that helps the book succeed is the main character, a travel writer who is a nice young man with standards in life, including doing his job well and being faithful to his wife.  A second positive factor is that while Will Rhodes is the main character, several other personages, both good and bad, are presented in non-judgmental detail.  This leads to the source of the suspense that carries the plot along – which of the characters are the good guys and which are the bad guys?  Except for Will, whose motivations are innocent as he gets himself in trouble, we don’t know which side the other characters are on.  One side may represent the CIA, even though it engages in some apparent crimes, but which one?

I can think of a third factor that makes the book enjoyable, and that is the development of Will Rhodes as he marshals his strengths, which are diligence, thoroughness, and willingness to try new things and to head undeterred into unappealing situations, to solve his problems.

The New Mrs Clifton

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I’m an impatient reader.  This means, among other things, that I don’t enjoy long, intense, and as far as I’m concerned pointless novels about random peoples’ (usually) tragic lives.  As my English teacher’s old aunt said when he offered to take her to a Shakespeare play, “Murder, rape, incest – no thanks, I have enough of that at home!”

The New Mrs Clifton, published by Elizabeth Buchan in 2016, is one of those books that I generally avoid, but with two mitigating features.  It has an interesting and apparently well researched setting, World War II Berlin and London immediately after the war.  And it starts with a hook for readers like me.  Buchan has managed to add an element of mystery to her story by beginning it with the discovery in 1974 of a woman’s body buried in a London garden.  The scene immediately switches to 1945 and introduces four women, one of whom will presumably somehow end up buried in the garden.  With the solution to the mystery to look forward to, I read and enjoyed the relatively long (401) pages and quite tragic story.

For anyone who might be interested in reading the book, I can add that the story concerns a young Englishman who comes home immediately after the war with a German bride, to the consternation of his two sisters and his jilted fiancee.

The Madman’s Tale

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The Madman’s Tale, published by John Katzenbach in 2004, is a very well written mystery/suspense story told mostly from the point a view of a certified schizophrenic.  The challenge here is to see things as the schizophrenic does, which is a little like trying to write from the point of view of a psychopath or homicidal maniac, made slightly easier by the possibility of talking to an actual schizophrenic without requiring armed guards.

In this story Francis Petrel, a young man who hears voices, is committed to a mental hospital where a young nurse is brutally murdered.  The female prosecutor who arrives to investigate has the cooperation of the two men who found the body, a fireman who has committed a crime of conscience and been sent for observation and Francis, who is saner than most of the other inmates and whom the fireman has befriended. Actually, the voices Francis hears in his head are the sorts of thoughts and responses that go through everybody’s head, such as, Run!  Hide!  This is a bad idea!  Francis is certifiably insane because he hears these things rather than just thinking them, and the voices all talk at the same time.  This may be a description of a rather benign form of schizophrenia, but I can see that it would still cause a mental mess.

The hospital is described as a depressing place but one where people are mostly trying to do their jobs, and if the two doctors in charge aren’t concerned about justice for the probably innocent inmate who’s been arrested, it’s mainly because their overriding interest is to avoid problems for themselves.

The murderer must be either a patient or an employee of the hospital, but there is no easy way to figure out who it is.  An annoying aspect of the writing was young Francis periodically thinking that as a bona fide lunatic himself, he’s achieved some profound insight into the thinking of their murderer, followed by a comment like, “he must be smart”, or “we can tell that he isn’t afraid,” pronouncements that the prosecutor and the fireman seem to appreciate.  It reminded me of an old joke from the time when PC users were frustrated by attempts to get assistance from Microsoft Help:

A small plane approaches Seattle in a thick fog.  The pilot has no idea where he is until he spots an office building poking out of the mist.  As he flies past a lighted window, he shouts to the man at the desk inside, “Where is this?”

“It’s the accounting department!” the office worker shouts back.

Now the pilot can find the airport, because the reply told him immediately that he was at the Microsoft building.  That’s because the reply was perfectly accurate and completely useless.

 

The Zookeeper’s Wife

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I can wholeheartedly recommend The Zookeeper’s Wife, published by Diane Ackerman in 2007 and recently made into a movie.  I haven’t seen the movie, but I can see why Ackerman was interested in writing the story and why it could make a good movie.  The story provides a fascinating insight into some aspects of World War II, from the often described Warsaw Ghetto to the lesser known activities of the Polish Underground, and especially the part played by zookeeper Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina.

Added to the drama and suspense provided by the setting, the fact that Antonina kept a diary must be what made the story irresistible to a conscientious writer of non-fiction, one who makes an effort to be accurate and avoid making up details to fill out the material.  Here I’m inserting my only quibble –  you don’t have to put every detail you learn into your book.  Ackerman apparently noticed in a photograph that Jan Zabinsky’s wrist seemed hairy.  I can understand that she wanted to utilize every bit of information she had, but by dragging in mention of the “hairy wrist” she creates what seems to be an inappropriate distraction.  Was Jan Zabinsky unusually hairy?  Did this hairiness affect the story in some way?

The movie almost makes itself.  You have wartime Poland, with bombing and invasion by German, and later Russian, soldiers.  You have a zoo full of exotic animals to add an unusual touch to the setting.  And finally, you have a series of colorful characters, refugees from the murdering gestapo, who are given shelter in the zoo.