July 22, 2008

The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill

So, The Pure in Heart is the next book in Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler crime novel series, and it's pretty good. It's only pretty good though, as compared to The Various Haunts of Men which was fantastic.

Technically, The Pure in Heart is almost as strong as The Various Haunts of Men. Hill uses the same multiple 3rd person POV technique again and it still works, though for some reason it was vaguely less effective. Once more, the reader is drawn into the lives and minds of the characters, all of whom are realistically drawn. But....

There's something missing and it took me a little while to figure out what it is. The book lacks a central sort of heart - a sympathetic central point of view. In The Various Haunts of Men, that heart was Freya Graffham, who, for reasons I'm not going to get into, does not appear in the second book. Now, instead of Graffham, we are given Simon Serrailler, whose point of view was the only one never given in the first book. Simon was always either observed or talked about, but his point of view was never breached. This made him something of a cipher and very compelling. But he was compelling because Freya found him compelling. She convinced the reader to find him so as well. Left on our own with Simon now, he's not so much compelling as as inaccessible and hollow. Hill obviously still finds him a very attractive character, but without Freya's eyes to soften the portrait, he's just rather frustratingly cold.

The story itself also lacks something. The Pure in Heart is much more procedural in nature. We see the Lafferton police rally to search for an abducted boy, or solve the murder of a handicapped woman and both are not uninteresting. But the taut line of suspension that runs through The Various Haunts of Men just simply isn't there, so the climax is less of a catalyst and more of a get-it-done sort of experience.

Though well written and interesting to a point, The Pure in Heart is a lesser book than its predecessor. The Various Haunts of Men is most definitely the one to read. I wouldn't necessarily bother with The Pure in Heart unless you're a hard core fan of procedurals and crime fiction, or you're a sucker for inaccessible, emotionally distant men.

Bookmarks Magazine

I just picked up Bookmarks Magazine for the first time and it's great. Ever since I stopped working in bookstores, I've felt a little disconnected from the general publishing scene, which I used to follow like politics. It was really fun knowing whose getting published and what's going to be released before the books hit the stores. Bookmarks fills that geeky knowledge gap.  

Each issue generally covers about two to three months of new releases in both fiction and non-fiction, literary and genre, with a compilation and overview of all published reviews to date. Each issue includes author interviews and reader picks and all kinds of good, book-y fun. 

Check out their website here.

July 18, 2008

The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman

In the past few years, I've started several of Alice Hoffman's books, but this is the only one that I've finished. It's not that the others weren't good - they were very well-written from what I could see. They just didn't hold my attention.

The Third Angel - Hoffman's newest - held my attention. A lot. So much so, that I finished it in two days and, between it, work and my own writing, got very little sleep. And I'm still not sure why I couldn't put it down....

So, instead of trying to put into words the intangible something that apparently got me, I'm going to focus instead on the more tangible - arguably - issues of style and structure.

Hoffman's style is easy - she writes with a very light hand. This suits the structure she chose. The story is actually three stories divided into three interconnected parts. Each part is its own novella, with a complete narrative arc. The three novella/chapters are woven loosely together by imagery (feathers, darkness and light), themes (death, redemption, hauntings), setting (London, a mid-class hotel) and the characters. The characters being the strongest link. For example, the too-handsome fiance from the first chapter is the son of the girl in the second chapter. The girl in the second chapter writes a song about the lovers in the third chapter. These are just the largest, simplest threads - the links run from huge to miniscule, but they never feel contrived. Hoffman's characters walk through each other's lives, barely touching or devastating, and forming a web of experience around the titular third angel.

I liked Hoffman's idea of the third angel - maybe it's this idea that drew me. In the second chapter, a doctor tells his daughter that there is the Angel of Life and the Angel of Death. Then there is Third Angel, who walks among us and whom we're supposed to help. This angel is a mirror, so that we might see ourselves and respond. The Third Angel carries with it the sense of regret and responsibility and, oddly enough, hope that runs through the book. Characters lose themselves in a single moment, lose a part of themselves, become ghosts. Sometimes that part is recovered; sometimes it stays lost. 

But Hoffman doesn't preach. She just loosely weaves her tale, and I suspect that every reader will get something different out of it - something reflective of themselves. For my part, I am both impressed and unsettled by how she moved me. It was very unexpected. Based on that alone, I'll be giving her other books another try.

July 15, 2008

The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

I really enjoy mysteries and crime novels, though I tend to gravitate more towards Sherlock Holmes and Dorothy L. Sayers than the grittier, 21st century sort. Given this, I was kind of surprised to find myself up at 2am, totally eaten by The Various Haunts of Men. 

This is Susan Hill's first book in the Simon Serrailler series, which feels much more like a psychological crime novel than a traditional murder cozy, though there are plenty of murders to go around. Here's a very brief, spoiler-free (hence the brevity) synopsis:

Detective Constable Freya Graffham transfers to the cathedral town of Lafferton from London's Met after finalizing her divorce. She fits in well with the town and the force, and becomes fascinated by her superior, the rather enigmatic CDI Simon Serrailler. When a middle-aged spinster goes missing, Freya finds herself unable to let it go. When more townspeople and even a dog disappear on 'The Hill', Freya's hunch is verified and a serious police search begins, drawing her closer to Serrailler and the dark, startling ending of the book. 

The strength of Hill's writing is in her structure and her subtly. Through the use of multiple points of view, she allows the reader to understand and become attached to many of the characters, even (and perhaps especially) the characters who will later disappear. She alternates the multiple third person POV with brief chapters written in the first person, allowing us to briefly occupy the perpetrator's mind. In this way, Hill slowly reveals the criminal's identity and the full scope of his/hers (see, no spoilers) psychosis. 

The other thing I really liked about The Various Haunts of Men is the ending. Obviously, I'm not going to say much about it, except that Hill is a very unsentimental writer - she allows things to happen to her characters as things might happen to people in real life. Just because you love someone, does not mean you will be loved back. Just because you're turning you're life around, does not mean it cannot end. Hill avoids the temptation to neatly tie up the ends and in doing so she wrote a crime novel that feels a great deal like reality, only with more corpses than most of us will probably ever see, which is pretty much fine by me.

Incidentally, this all started when a friend sent me a LibraryThing recommendation for Susan Hill's novel, The Woman in Black - a ghost story in the Dickens mold. I read The Various Haunts of Men while waiting for Link+ to deliver it. There are also three more books in the Serrailler series (the newest will release in February), so a small swath of Susan Hill posts are probably going to follow....

July 9, 2008

"Study in Emerald" by Neil Gaiman

"Study in Emerald" is not a book, it's a stand alone short story by Neil Gaiman and it's fantastically well-written and chilling as well.

One warning: While "Study in Emerald" is good enough to enjoy on it's own, the reader will get a thousand times more from it if he or she has at least a passing familiarity with the Sherlock Holmes canon by Arthur Conan Doyle and/or Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos. I am not a Lovecraft gal, but I'm addicted to Holmes. The friend who sent me the pdf of Neil Gaiman's story loves both. "Study in Emerald" is brilliant, but because its brilliance is tied into how well Gaiman uses the Doyle and Lovecraft material, knowing the two narrative contexts helps. 

Okay, that said, I want to be sure not to scare people off because this is one hell of a short story. Lovely use of period language (terrific Victorian 1st person POV), lovely description and a beautiful subtle twist of an ending. Just wow. It's available free online here. And be sure to read the advertisements that are sprinkled throughout the text - I especially liked the one for Vlad Tepes's Exsanguination Service. Too funny.

For the lit. geek with a fondness for Victorian mystery and/or existential horror (love that that I can actually classify that as a subgenre), "Study in Emerald" might just be the best short story you'll come across in a very long time.

July 5, 2008

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Philips

Gods Behaving Badly is Marie Philips's first novel. I loved it. Here's a quick synopsis: 

The gods of Olympus live on on the 21st Century, but their powers are waning because no one believes. They're forced to live two to a bedroom (Apollo and Ares share; Persephone takes the floor when she visits Demeter) in a dilapidated house in London. They do mundane work to pay the bills (Artemis is a dog-walker, Apollo's a TV psychic and Aphrodite is a phone sex worker), and in general are having a bit of a hard time (Eros has converted to Christianity and Zeus is the crazy old guy in the attic). Apollo refuses to heat some shower water for Aphrodite (they have to conserve their powers) and revenge ensues. Then Artemis hires a mortal cleaner named Alice, who, with her non-boyfriend Neil, bring about some greatly needed change, though entirely by accident.

This synopsis doesn't do justice to the plot, which arcs very cleanly while covering a a great deal of well-paced ground. In fact, their isn't one loose link in the plot or one flabby bit in its execution. Philips's breezy, clever style works beautifully for the material, as well. But in a book full of the delightful, it's Philips's characters that make Gods Behaving Badly an especially enjoyable read.

Neil and Alice are Philips's two mortal protagonist/heroes. We first meet them in Alice's broom-closet office when they sat down with orange juice boxes to play Scrabble before watching a taping of Apollo's awful cable TV show.  Their most outstanding qualities, respectively, are how nice they, yet Philips also establishes them as fully rounded characters without compromising her generally light hand. 

And if Philips's mortals charm, then her Greek Pantheon dominates. I actually laughed out loud. I almost never laugh out loud when I read (nor do I usually cry - except for Where the Red Fern Grows, which made me cry like a little girl, and not just because I was a little girl when I read it). Philips's characterizations of the Olympians as narcissistic and fantastically amoral worked - and it worked because she also allowed for a great deal of pathos in them as well. Demeter is beside herself because she couldn't keep a clemetis alive, Artemis misses her dogs, and Athena, though the goddess of wisdom, cannot communicate clearly enough for anyone to understand her, and so on.... 

Philips's characterizations, which come through like crystal in her dialogue, are her real achievement. The characters, and her care in conceiving them, set Gods Behaving Badly apart from the flock of other clever, post-modern retellings of historical, mythological and otherwise un-copyrighted material that has recently been appropriated. Much as Glen Duncan re-conceived the devil in I, Lucifer, Philips re-conceives the Greek Pantheon here. Granted, Duncan's work is by far more speculative and intellectually daring, but for sheer entertainment purposes, Gods Behaving Badly is an absolute winner.