Thursday 23 February 2012

Carol Goodman: Arcadia Falls (2010)

Note: There is a serious spoiler in the final paragraph of this review.

There is almost a subgenre of fiction set in remote New England boarding schools and colleges. Like thirties house parties in English stately homes, a staple setting for vintage crime fiction (as well as P.G. Wodehouse, of course), they provide a sealed community of privileged individuals which acts to intensify relationships, promote jealousy and passion, and makes more or less normal people behave in strange and bizarre fashions - as happens, for instance, in Donna Tartt's Secret History, referenced in a review quoted on the cover of this edition of Arcadia Falls.

The specific location for this story is school focusing on art, formerly an artistic colony. It is told from the point of view of a recently widowed (and, as a result, newly poor) single mother Megan Rosenthal, who gratefully takes up a post teaching English literature at Arcadia Falls, which is accompanied by the offer of a place at the school to her daughter Sally, only to find that within a few weeks of her arrival and the start of the school year a student goes missing before her body is found at the foot of cliffs in the (extensive) school grounds. At the same time, Megan becomes fascinated by the relationship between the two women who effectively founded and then ran the school for decades with a somewhat peculiar vision (which includes participation in pagan rituals to mark the seasons by the pupils).

A "finding oneself" theme is very important in Arcadia Falls, exemplified by a children's story, The Changeling Girl, written by one of the school's founders which is told, retold, reflected and commented on throughout the novel in ironic fashion, as characters both act it out and talk about it - adopted children discovering or seeking the identities of their parents, for example, as well as Megan trying to build a new life for herself and Sally after the death of her husband. Another theme is the way that the decisions made in one generation affect the next, with several mothers giving up careers to raise children, or giving up a baby for adoption, with repercussions for both the parents and the children. Sometimes the treatment is a little mawkish, but generally these themes serve to unify the disparate elements of the story and even provide something of a moral, if the reader feels that such a thing is necessary.

Though the setting with its Gothic touches and the themes of Arcadia Falls are hardly original, it is a well written and entertaining novel on the boundary between literary fiction, crime fiction, and fantasy, the last being more suggested than the other two genres. It is the depiction of character and the touches of atmosphere which make the story worth reading. It reminded me of the novels of Mary Stewart, particularly the later ones. However, the sentimentality of the ending was a big problem for me, so in the end I would rate it at 6/10.

Edition: Piatkus, 2011
Review number: 1451

Friday 17 February 2012

John le Carré: Our Kind of Traitor (2010)

Since 2000, John le Carré's novels have been rather downbeat, even by the standards of a writer not known for cheerfulness (The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends, The Mission Song, and A Most Wanted Man). Our Kind of Traitor is much more of a pleasant read, with a rather arch tone shared with some of his earlier novels, The Russia House and The Tailor of Panama in particular coming to mind. The former also shares with this novel a plot in which innocent people are used as intermediaries in secret negotiations. Thus, the story is simple: Russian money launderer Dima wishes to give up the secrets he holds after the betrayal and murder of one of his closest friends by a Russian Mafia boss for whom they both worked, and chooses the British Secret Service as the recipient (asking for a place for his daughter at Roedean school in return).

Dima's chosen instrument for making contact with the British is Oxford English fellow Perry, who is holidaying on Antigua with his girlfriend Gina at the same time as the Russian, with whom he also shares an interest in tennis, which provides a convenient reason to meet up and become friendly. Most of the first part of the novel is taken up by Perry and Gina's debriefing, describing the initial tennis match and the introduction of Dima's proposal to the two of them. Both the description of these sessions and the questioning itself are arch in tone, occasionally to the point of becoming irritating rather than light and amusing. It sometimes reads as though Le Carré is parodying his earlier writing in this vein (in the novels mentioned above).

Myself, I feel that John le Carré peaked a long time ago.  His books from the last decade are still worth reading, but something of the spark has gone out of them, even though he still has something to say, finding new topics after the end of the Cold War. The change of tone makes Our Kind of Traitor more fun to read than, say, The Mission Song, but perhaps too its subject matter is less significant than Le Carré's righteous anger at the way that the poorer nations of the world continue to be exploited by the richer. For the best Le Carré experience, go back to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. My rating: 6/10.

Edition: Viking, 2010
Review number: 1450

Thursday 9 February 2012

Keri Arthur: Destiny Kills (2008)

Having just read a novel which was the second in a series, I thought I had done the same again when I began to read Destiny Kills. The opening chapters seem to follow on straight from an earlier story, and that back-story is very complete and alluded to in such a way that it makes this seem like it continues something fully written out. But it turns out to be the start of the series - though of course it is possible that there is an earlier, unpublished story.

The opening is also remarkable for its use of a rare conceit: a narrator with amnesia. It is a striking device, which is very useful to the author as the narrator naturally needs lots of things explained to her that she would otherwise be expected to know, and this makes it easy to introduce ideas to the reader in a fashion which seems natural. There are two serious problems, however, which explain why it is rarely used: real world amnesia is not all that common, especially of the all-enveloping type which is used here, so readers find it inherently implausible (have you ever met someone who, when sober, is unable to remember their identity?); and it is a too striking device, which will all too easily overwhelm everything else in the story. Indeed, only a single other instance of its use occurs to me: the brilliant Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham, from 1941, where the idea is sustained for much longer (and more ingeniously made part of the plot and characterisation) than it is here.

Being an amnesiac on a deserted beach with a dead body is a difficult position to be in. And it is not long before Destiny McCree (for that turns out to be the narrator's name) is on the run from the police, joining a professional thief who is the brother of the dead man, summoned telepathically by him. The moment of amnesia passes, and Destiny remembers that she is a shape-shifting sea dragon, who had fled (with the dead man, an air dragon) from a group of amoral scientists who have held her captive for a decade to study her. As in another recently reviewed novel, this leads to a chase across the United States, this one from Oregon to Maine.

While the amnesia is not used as much or as interestingly as it could have been, Destiny Kills is an enjoyable thriller-with-magic. The romance between Destiny and thief/air dragon Trae is well handled too. Compared to many fantasy novels around at the moment, the story is quite soft-centred: more Anne McCaffrey than Richard Morgan. But it's well written, and enjoyable to read, without having any pretensions to profundity - 7/10.

Edition: Piatkus, 2011
Review number: 1449

Saturday 4 February 2012

Kate Griffin: The Midnight Mayor (2010)

I read this, the second in a series, without having read the first, so in describing this book, I may give away aspects of the first without intending to.

Sorcerer Matthew Swift is dead, but he remains alive through the symbiotic relationship he has with the blue light angels, spirits of electrical current, who now also inhabit his body. He restlessly walks the streets of London at night, until one evening at the beginning of The Midnight Mayor when he answers a payphone which rings as he passes it and is magically attacked down the wire. Before long, he discovers that London is under attack from the "death of cities", and he has been chosen to defend it, taking on the office of Midnight Mayor.

I found that The Midnight Mayor grew on me as I read through it. It seemed at first to be just another of the currently fashionable urban fantasy novels, but in the end Swift's dual character is well enough portrayed, and his solution as to how he can stop the death of cities is interesting enough, to raise the story out of the crowd. Kate Griffin began as a writer for children, and some of the details of The Midnight Mayor are somewhat reminiscent of parts of China Miéville's brilliant Un Lun Dun; examples include the heavy metal spectres and the appearance of the death of cities.

London is of course a city full of ancient myths and legends, but the interesting aspect of Griffin's take on it is the idea that magic is based on what has significance for the sorcerer, which makes it possible to build up a whole new, up to date urban mythology, where seers prophesy using the entrails of ragged plastic bags, and the words of spells are not Latin or Hebrew but come from legal and official documents such as parking tickets and ASBOs (the latter not providing terribly effective magic, naturally). Any object which is in some way part of London's culture can become part of the magic, whether graffiti tags or the information on Underground notice boards. This immediately makes Matthew Swift's world stand out from so many other works of urban fiction, as the modern urban setting is vital to its internal mythology.

The main reason why The Midnight Mayor grew on me was that it is well constructed (the way the magic works being just one example of how clearly thought through the world building is), carefully building to a climax which proves well worth the wait, if perhaps a little predictable in some of its details.

Edition: Orbit, 2010
Review number: 1439

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Mark Alpert: Final Theory (2008)

The quoted reviews of this novel almost all compare it to The Da Vinci Code, and that is probably as good a place as any for me to start mine. Alpert is clearly a far better writer than Dan Brown, which may seem like faint praise, but the idea behind Final Theory is so closely related to The Da Vinci Code that it needs to be said.

Alpert studied physics, and now works for Scientific American, and the secret which is at the heart of Final Theory is a physical theory rather than a religious idea. Towards the end of his life, Einstein spent a lot of time searching for a unified theory which would bring together the physical forces and provide an explanation for the results of quantum theory, something which he was uneasy with despite his involvement in its early stages. He never succeeded in doing this. Alpert has combined this idea with Einstein's belief in pacifism, and the secret in Final Theory is a unified theory which Einstein did find, only to conceal it because of his concerns at the military uses to which it could be put. However, Einstein ensured that the secret theory would survive, by telling parts of it to each of his three assistants, so that if the world became peaceable, the theory could be reconstructed and revealed.

Many years later, one of the assistants posts his portion of the theory online before killing himself, and then Einstein's worst fears begin to be realised as several groups including the American government start a hunt for the keepers of the rest of the secret. The central character of Final Theory, David Swift, is, like Alpert himself, a science journalist who was once a physics graduate student. He is summoned to the hospital bed of his former professor, who was one of the three assistants, to be told a series of apparently meaningless numbers, which is designated "the key" by the dying man. This was the secret for which he had been attacked in his apartment and which leads the FBI taskforce which to take over the investigation from the NYPD, and then to illegally detain David. When the detention centre David is taken to is attacked by a Russian mercenary, David goes on the run, trying to find the secret - not necessarily the best thing to do in the circumstances, I suspect, but this gives a direction to his flight.

The big problem with Final Theory, as have been gathered from this summary, is that even for a thriller the plot is extremely implausible. It hinges around the willingness of large numbers of government employees to act illegally on a minimal suspicion that David might know something about the secret, and that the secret will be something which can be used to create a devastating weapon (and if it were possible, the development process involved would be decades long);  but this is bread and butter to a conspiracy theory novelist. The problems arise more from David's escape and the ensuing chase across the United States, during which he and other amateurs consistently outwit or have superior skills to those of trained police and mercenary soldiers. Thrillers do not have to be plausible in these respects, but the action sequences in Final Theory do not distract the reader enough to stop holes in the plot being noticeable.

Unsurprisingly given Alpert's background, the physics used as the background is interesting and works well. His idea about how Einstein could plausibly have found a unified theory despite his rejection of quantum mechanical uncertainty is quite convincing, though  those readers who have never read popular explanations of relativity and quantum mechanics might find unexplained terms including "timelike closed curve" intimidating - and these people probably make up most of the intended readership for Final Theory. The periodic pauses in the action during which the physics is discussed is probably the reason why the holes in the plot are quite as evident as they are.

Entertaining for the most part, but generally unconvincing and unlikely to hold up for thriller fans not already interested in the science. My rating - 3/10.

Edition: Pocket Books, 2009
Review number: 1438