Books 5 to 9

I last did a books post waaay back in February. It’s fair to say my pace has slowed a bit since then, but I’m still doing much better than last year.

5. Fragile Things – Neil Gaiman

The familiar Gaiman obsession with storytelling and tales-within-tales runs through most of these short stories, to variable effect. We kick off with ‘A Study in Emerald’ which does nothing particularly surprising in blending Sherlock Homes and Cthulhu, but gets it very right and features a neat rug-pull at the end. After this strong opening several of the early stories feel disappointingly clunky and obvious, with Gaiman’s unadorned prose falling the wrong side of flat. The obvious and unfunny ‘Forbidden Brides…’ is the worst of the whole book. Some aren’t so much stories as matter-of-fact recountings of inexplicable incidents that attempt to make a virtue of their lack of plotting by claiming to be “true”, while others, like ‘Closing Time’, aim for a shiver-down-the-spine ending but fail to generate much unease. The best stories are ‘Bitter Grounds’, ‘Other People’, the nasty ‘Keepsakes and Treasures’, the whimsical ‘Sunbird’, and ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ (the ‘American Gods’ sequel novella which rounds out the collection). Throughout the collection are laced examples of Gaiman’s poetry which are–on the whole–more consistent and inventive than the short fiction, particularly ‘The Hidden Chamber’, ‘Locks’ and ‘Inventing Aladdin‘.

6. Fairyland – Paul J McAuley

A very strange, heady novel. Everyone was talking about McAuley’s 1995 novel as a classic, so I hunted it out of my wife’s collection. The first section is unapologetically cyberpunk, a genre that at this remove seems increasingly dated, tangled up in a web of contrived future jargon and implausible sub-cultures. It does at least have the virtue of presenting a UK version of cyberpunk, but it hews so closly to the template that this makes little difference. The remaining sections of the book go spinning off into interesting biological extrapolations that feel far fresher and more relevant, dealing with the transformation of genetically engineered slaves into ‘alien’ creatures modelled on faeries. It’s a wildly imaginitive book, packed full of strange ideas and exotic psychologies. Quite unlike the usual testosterone-cool of most cyberpunk. I suspect there are depths to the book I haven’t spotted, but even on a surface level it’s a cut above.

7. Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler

The second Philip Marlowe novel. The prose and the similes remain as crisp and witty as before, and the plot gets ever more tangled. I have a distinct suspicion that the explanation at the end made no sense whatsoever, and that the version of events we’d previously understood made a great deal more sense. However the plot is really beside the point. Marlowe as a character carries the novel: laconic, cynical, honest, and constantly getting himself in slightly over his head. There are the usual damaged women who fall for him in about ten seconds flat, and the usual mixture of grudgingly-respectful gangsters and bemused cops (and also, near the end, a weirdly homo-erotic bonding experience with a cop working the sea-front, unless I’m reading way too much into it.)

8. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

I was reading this when it won the Hugo for Best Novel. Which was nice. It’s a mixture of detective novel, character study, alternate history and a musing on Jewishness (the latter of which I’m hardly qualified to assess). Its alternate history credentials have been soundly endorsed by the Hugo win, and this aspect of the novel– postulating the relocation of Jews to a small island in Alaska following the Second World War rather than the creation of the state of Israel–is a huge feat of imagination. However it may be a backhanded compliment to say that the novel makes the city of Sitka seem so real that it doesn’t feel at all like an alternate history for most of its length. Instead it plays as a straightforward tale of a world-weary Homicide Detective, Meyer Landsman, and his attempt to investigate what begins as a murder, and ends as a conspiracy, taking in various aspects of Jewish society and experience along the way. Chabon’s sparkling prose is every bit as inventive and witty as Chandler’s without being remotely similar to Chandler’s clipped style. The sense of both place and culture is vividly real. The plot meanders even more than a Marlowe novel, and eventually meanders its way out of steam and into a rushed anticlimax, but the characterisation remains firm until the very end. I enjoyed this a lot.

9. The High Window – Raymond Chandler

The third Philip Marlowe novel, dealing with yet another rich, repressed family. I liked this a little less than the previous two entries in the series, but it’s still a good read. I hesitate to call it a mystery because, as before, by the time I get to the end I’m hard-pressed to tell you who did what to whom and in what order. There’s a definite theme of brittle, deeply screwed-up women emerging in Chandler’s novels. It’s hard to say whether this is part of the genre, part of the era, or part of Chandler. Either way, at least this woman has no particular crush on Marlowe, even if he does ride in on his white charger and save her anyway.

Between the two Chandlers and the Chabon I feel like I’ve been on a bit of a crime kick recently. Since I’m currently reading the fourth Marlowe novel it doesn’t look like it’ll end any time soon.

(Films 9 to 19 are here.)

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