Friday, November 21, 2014

Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett

I love the breadth and depth of the Discworld novels, and this is the 40th book in the series. Terry Pratchett is a treasure, and his books have brought me great joy. He is also dealing with Alzheimers, joint book projects, and what appears to be some high level administration of his creative empire. If we didn't know about the illness, this book would probably get a great deal of negative review along the lines of "rushed to publication."

All of these things matter, because this book felt like a not-quite-finished draft of the book it should have been.

The expected Pratchett plot structure is certainly present. The multiple plot threads, that work at cross purposes, are there. The work of structuring the book has been done--it's the layers that live on top of the plot outline that feel not quite finished.

Someone (no one we have ever met before, Dick Simnel) has invented the steam engine (just as in past books, someone has invented movable type and the printing press, or stamps, or moving pictures) and the Discworld is not going to be the same any more. Meanwhile, the Koom Valley Accord is not accepted by everybody, and this time it's the conservative faction of the dwarves who are trying to turn the clock backwards by destroying clacks towers and stopping the railway, while ousting the Low King as well. We have schisms in the dwarf community, we have religious differences, we have conspiracy and plotting, we have political maneuvering and a chance to see all the different types of dwarves.

Simultaneously, we have the opportunity to get a history lesson told by Uncle Terry, who highlights the humorous elements of what is basically the story of How Britain Got The Railroads. And the thing about bringing railroads to Discworld, is there are many many towns we haven't seen yet. What happens when Two Shirts is suddenly only a day from Ankh-Morpork? It's kind of like a revisiting of the early novels when Rincewind (who was never a great character) used to run from place to place and we'd get a travelogue of a place that was kind of like Australia or China, but wasn't quite.

So the bones of the story are absolutely there. Three very big plot strands--railroads, political intrigue among the dwarfs, and either new locations on the Disc, or new interactions among the places we already know. Next important element is--who is our protagonist? Who is going to lead us through these various threads?

Personally, I like Moist von Lipwig. His two novels (Going Postal and Making Money) were certainly full of lots of interesting details on the nature of money and finance. Stamps are actually paper currency--well, of course they are, I just hadn't really thought about those similarities. Financial crimes are based on "the idea of money" which seems to be what Wall Street is about these days. What do you do when it costs more to make a penny than the penny is worth? So Raising Steam as a Moist von Lipwig novel means it's going to be about the way a steam engine affects the financial world, right? Questions of financing such an undertaking, fortunes made by cleverly anticipating how the railroad might be used to move people and commodities, buying up land for the right of way, negotiations of contracts and the effects of the rail gaining here rather than there.

Of course, it could be a story like The Truth, which followed William de Worde and the creation of journalism in Ankh-Morpork, in which case, it would be about Dick Simnel and how he comes to understand the vast scope of his little invention. Instead, we get a story about a bunch of things that happened that just didn't matter and in the end there is a battle that doesn't happen. Moist doesn't behave much like Moist, Dick Simnel fails to come alive as a character, and mostly the story goes too fast. It doesn't slow down for the kind of wonderfully observed details that are the reason you read Pratchett books.

The story focuses mostly on the creation of the railroad. Dick Simnel shows up in Ankh-Morpork pretty quickly with a working steam locomotive. He immediately gets financed by Harry King. Vetenari strong-arms Moist into being the official city representative, and then orders the rail to be built to Uberwald as fast as possible. This shouldn't probably take much much longer than it does, as negotiating agreements with landowners really needs to happen before they know you are desperate to get to a particular destination. Also, the creation of steel hasn't really been clearly achieved in Discworld, much less enough to build the kind of infrastructure necessary for a continent spanning railway. But Vetinari has put Moist onto the job in order to get it accomplished, and it gets accomplished. With very little memorable about the project.

Unlike in the previous Moist-centric books, he is not actually trying to achieve anything other than the success of the railroad. He has no cross purpose or ulterior motive, so we don't see him wrestling with his own divided nature--his crass desires for personal advancement and freedom against his better nature and recognition of the value of his undertaking. Instead, Moist has to make the railway work in order for the climax of the novel to happen in Uberwald, so it gets built with very little in the way of effective obstruction, or colorful characters. There is the marvelously named Marquis of Aix en Paines, but he's not memorable except for the name.

There is no real joy in the project for Moist either. Nothing like the colossal scam he pulled in Going Postal to fund the rebuilding of the torched Post Office building. Nothing like the deft handling of difficult people to his own advantage like the characters of Tolliver Groat and Stanley. He is basically an efficient executive for the building of the railroad. So, he isn't recognizably Moist.

There is a moment--just a brief few lines, where the old Moist shows up. He's on the train, expecting sabotage from the Deep Down Dwarves and grags, so he goes up to top of the cars and gets used to the motion. He dances. Compare it to the generous description Pratchett gave of Moist scaling the outside of the Post Office (was that in Making Money?) You can see what Pratchett used to put into his writing, and what is tragically missing from this effort.

There are many other elements that seem only partially completed. There is a scene where Moist goes to the maquis outside Quirm, where hundreds, possibly thousands, of impoverished goblins are barely surviving. One gives him a potion, and he becomes basically a berserker, killing several of the rebelling dwarves in a scene that is only vaguely sketched. And then he basically gets over it. But this is Moist von Lipwig who used to take such pride in only scamming people who tried to scam him first. Moist von Lipwig who never used violence, and was offended by the implication that his scoundreling could have had fatal consequences. This is a man who lived by his wits, never violence. So why make him be violent now? Shouldn't that have had consequences? But the dead dwarfs are universally treated as bad guys who deserved what they got so there are no effects of the battle. Later, as the book approaches it's climax, there are fights with dwarfs who are either killed outright, or dropped off cliffs, or apparently run over by the train. Many of these dwarfs are described as young ones who were too naive or unthinking to realize the evil of their actions (so why did they have to be killed by Moist?) or were deep downers who were just bad (but then why were they above ground at all?)

In the end, the Low King gets to Uberwald in time (of course he does! There was never really any doubt) but there is no real confrontation with the conspirators and usurpers. There is a pale imitation of the scene from Fifth Elephant, when the leading conspirator is revealed to be sad and broken. In this case Ardent is grasping for power, but his methods are pretty much inconsistent and nonsensical. Why is he suddenly a grag, when in Thud! he was an administrator for them? He is agitating for the return to the old ways of the world, where dwarfs weren't expected to be friends with trolls, and goblins had no rights, so in theory, dwarfs had more power and prestige in the world? But now tearing down clacks towers was going to undo those changes is completely unexplained. Then, by the end of the book, he is described as being so ideological that he has progress to a place "beyond sanity" but the book doesn't really show it.

Finally, Raising Steam ends with the Low King of the Dwarfs reclaiming his throne from Ardent with basically no battle, and then awkwardly declaring her gender as female and insisting on being their Queen rather than their King. This had been clearly communicated in Fifth Element, but with the practical political recognition that it was not yet time to lead/force dwarfs into recognizing gender yet. There is literally nothing about dwarf gender in Raising Steam that would lead you to think things had changed. Why would the proper response to Ardent's coup, based as it was on the diminishing role of dwarfs (compared to trolls and goblins) and the Luddite distrust of clacks and railways, why would that the the impetus for gender identity?

So many places where I expected to get some character byplay, some conversation between characters (new ones even) that would make them feel vital--and those either didn't happen, or happened only in truncated form.

Of course, I didn't initially care for Monstrous Regiment at first, and came to love it after re-reading it later. There may well be more in Raising Steam than we would get from anyone else writing this story. But it feels like a diminution of the titanic talent that is Pratchett at his best, and that is our loss.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Introducing Agatha Raisin, by M.C. Beaton

I picked this up because the name M.C. Beaton sounded familiar. This compendium of two mysteries was on the shelf in the breakfast room of the small hotel where I was staying in Paris. In short, cannot recommend.

Agatha Raisin is a pugnacious Londoner in her mid 50s with a Birmingham background of which she is ashamed. After a successful career in PR, she has sold her firm and bought a cottage in the Cotswolds for the life she has always imagined. Of course country life is a poor fit for a pushy city woman, and alleged hijinks occur as she uses her PR techniques to force her way into acceptance.

The set up is strong, the execution is very poor. Agatha is appallingly inconsistent in her characterization, pushy one moment, then weirdly shy and adolescent the next as the plot requires. Her two sidekicks in "The Quiche of Death" are offensive stereotypes: a (literally) screaming queen of a gay character who by the end of the book is looking for a suitably docile and stupid woman to marry, and an inscrutable but wise half-Chinese police officer who teaches Agatha about herself despite being a good thirty years younger than she is. Fortunately, these two characters are mostly abandoned by the second book, to be replaced by a handsome and single male neighbor who (predictably) runs from any threat of commitment and who Agatha pursues in un-funny ways. Thus Beaton hits a two-fer of mid-life cliches with one "comic" pairing.

The mysteries are not well constructed. In fact, in both cases, the actual murderer is the most obvious suspect and the only real mystery is why the police haven't solved the cases well before Agatha even realizes the deaths are suspicious.

The first mystery "The Quiche of Death" centers around a village competition that Agatha enters in order to get the village to accept her. Of course, she can't cook, so she buys a quiche from a specialty store in London and enters it as her own. She doesn't win, and is so angered by the obvious favoritism (the competition judge awards the prize to the women with whom he has been having an affair for years--she always wins) that she storms out and leaves the quiche behind.

That night, the judge's wife leaves Agatha's quiche as supper for her husband, who dies immediately after eating it. Who could the murderer be? Will the police arrest Agatha? Well, obviously not. Agatha is not going to keep claiming she made the damn thing, and it's obvious that she is no baker. So who is the next logical suspect.

Well, who is ALWAYS THE FIRST SUSPECT IN A MURDER--THE SPOUSE MAYBE? And, it is. Of course it is. And she killed him by baking a quiche with cows bane in it and substituting it for Agatha's spinach one. And she did it because she was sick of his philandering. And the only reason--literally, the ONLY reason that this "mystery" lasted almost 200 pages is because the police couldn't find any evidence that she had baked the poisoned quiche in her kitchen. It takes Agatha 200 pages to realize that THERE IS A FULLY EQUIPPED KITCHEN IN THE BUILDING WHERE THE COMPETITION TOOK PLACE AND LITERALLY EVERYONE IN THE VILLAGE BAKES THERE. So the wife didn't bake it at home, she baked it in the community kitchen, which even the most bumbling police officer should have noticed in one of the 300 times they had been in that same damn kitchen themselves. Stupid plot for a mystery.

Next book, "The Vicious Vet," a new vet arrives in the village and starts playing all the middle-aged single women who fall over themselves in humiliating fashion and give him money for his dream of an animal hospital. He promises to marry them all, of course. Turns out, though, that he's got a mean streak and hates house pets. He euthanizes one woman's cat without her consent, and otherwise alienates almost all the women within two weeks, then turns up dead while performing a vocal cord operation on a racing horse at the local aristocrat's stables. He's stabbed with the syringe of horse tranquilizer.

Who could the murderer be? No chance of it being Agatha this time, thank god. Well, let's see, if I were going to do some basic police work, I'd look at who benefitted from the death. Turns out the vet has a partner in the clinic, who is also the beneficiary of the dead man's will. So if you follow the money, it leads to the partner. If you follow the means--who knew what was in the syringe and that it could be fatal, it leads to the partner. Guess who it turns out did the crime? The partner.  Nothing clever about it at all.

So why do we even need Agatha to solve these murders anyway? We don't, unless following Agatha around is either more entertaining than the police (it isn't, because she's a horrible person with no redeeming features other than being the main character), or because it gives us a way to explore the world of the village. Except it doesn't do that, since everyone is basically a cliche or a character that disappears after being interviewed the one time. Agatha is bored by village life, she is self-centered, she is routinely stupid and bumbling--too stupid to have been any kind of a PR success, and she manages to irritate me enormously.

The most egregious example of this is in "The Vicious Vet" when she manages to get her handsome neighbor James to join her for dinner in a pub after they do some amateur sleuthing. On the drive to the pub, she feels a pimple growing on her nose, so she goes through some allegedly hilarious maneuvers to keep him from seeing it. She stops at a drug store to buy cream, concealer, and lipstick, then runs to the ladies' room to deal with it. But (ha ha ha) the light is too dim, but she just happens (?) to have a 100 watt lighbulb in her car, so she sidles in and out with her face averted so James won't see her pimple, ha ha. He thinks she's odd, ha ha, but waits for her. She can't reach the light fixture so she stands on the sink, which rips out of the wall and floods the room. So she walks out, closes the door (like that's going to do anything) and takes James to a different pub, where she heads straight for the ladies' room again.

Are you laughing yet? It gets worse. By the time she comes out of the second restroom, the police are already waiting for her, because the first pub owner has already discovered the damage and realized she did it. (Village mysteries are just not that hard to solve, is what we are learning here.) So she caves and offers a check for an obscene amount of money to cover the damage, which the pub owner is refusing to accept, preferring to make a scene and humiliate her. He also insists on filing a criminal charge. So James steps in and does some basic damage control along the lines of "you don't have that kind of money, Agatha" and "why was that sink such a hazard anyway--I think you could sue for negligence and emotional distress Agatha" which causes the pub owner to accept a much smaller check for the whole thing to go away.

And way--who is supposed to be the PR professional in this scene? Why are we humiliating Agatha and simultaneously stripping her of any professional competence as well? Why does she have to be rescued by a man anyway? This was published in 1992! It would have been just as offensive in 1892, frankly--Irene Adler is appalled at such an incompetent woman is being foisted on the public at this late date.

Too bad, really. I won't be reading any more of these. And there are twenty-five of them!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Tapestry of Fortunes, by Elizabeth Berg

I am on vacation in Florida, escaping the grinding slog that has been this winter. I am also the general factotum for my parents, who have crossed into their eighties. I am the primary driver due to cataracts and residual weakness following chemotherapy.

I am spending far too much time looking at screens, and so I went out to Target to buy a book. This is the one I came back with.

I have read several of Berg's books, and I have liked them. I picked up The Beautiful Ruins and paged through it, remembering that it had been pretty well reviewed, but it just felt so--male. It was about men, men's problems, men's interest in women, men being manly while wanting beautiful women, and it just made me tired after sampling only a few pages. I wanted to read about women.

Thus, the Berg.

The copy on the back of the book was promising. The protagonist is a motivational speaker who can't take her own advice. She moves into an old house in my actual home town, with three other women, and they embark on their own growth journeys. All of them have lived quite a while, enough that they are reassessing their choices and trying to find peace with their pasts.

Sadly, I cannot recommend this book at all. It feels so entirely half-baked, as if Berg turned it in before really working through the final draft. The bones are the plot are in place, the set pieces are arranged, the characters and locations mapped out. But all the machinery shows, and the whole thing churns along without actually taking the time to convey the emotions it seeks to evoke.

Our Protagonist, Cece (short for Cecilia) has lost her best friend as the book opens.(*) Penny is dead before we even meet her, and the short flashbacks to their friendship feel perfunctory in the extreme. Oddly, Penny is married, and Cece is not, but the three-leggedness of the relationship is kind of glossed over. Supposedly this is her one and only friend (and the husband is kind of a BOGO), but the interactions between them are kind of generic.

(*Actually, there is a sort of prologue, where the pre-teen Cece gets her fortune told by a friend of her mother's. The fortune is kind of ambiguous, not at all compelling, and the friend disappears for the rest of the book. There is also a short chapter which is supposed to establish Cece's bona fides as a motivational speaker, but it's not actually very motivating. It's like the outline for the novel called for "Chapter One, Cece On The Job"but Berg's heart wasn't really in it at all. Perfunctory.)

"We lived next door to each other. We ate dinner and watched movies. Sometimes I didn't want to go home, but then I did. I kept their gifts to each other at my house. We had a fight once, where Penny accused me of buying too much stuff and not paying attention to my own motivational speeches. Then she died."

Generic, like I said. Oh, Penny thought her husband should remarry, and suggested Cece. They both declined. This is it--the great relationship. I'm not touched by it, because it's not dramatized, it's listed. People who are truly soulmate friends would have all of these elements on the checklist, but the checklist doesn't actually convey the nature of the relationship. There were no inside jokes, no moments of emotional connection. Supposedly the two of them wanted to travel together (conveniently, the husband didn't want to travel at all), but they never did. No guilt, no emotional repercussions at all for Cece--not even when, later in the book, she does exactly that with the roommates she has just met.

Subsequently, Cece decides it's time to sell her house, take a break from working, and change up her life. A postcard from an old flame arrives and he becomes the catalyst for change. Of course, everything works out perfectly in zero time. Cece mentions to her mother that she's thinking of selling her house. "Oh, there's a woman I know who's looking for a housemate, I'll just call her and set up an appointment for this afternoon."

Cece goes to the house, and it's perfect, the residents are all ladies of a certain age, she decides immediately that she wants to live there, they decide they want her to move in, the relator sells her house and all the extra furniture for cash at the asking price in one day.

Do you think any of the other conflicts will work themselves out as well?

Let's list them. The owner of the house, Lise, is a doctor. She is divorced, and has a prickly relationship with her adult daughter. Mostly, they don't speak to each other, so the readers don't see the reality of the relationship. Renie is a lesbian with a chip on her shoulder, and a daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 19 and hasn't seen since. Joni is a chef. Cece has this old flame. They decide to take a road trip to meet everybody from their past.

First up is Renie, who is able to Google her daughter (what???) and sends a few emails. Daughter doesn't want to meet her and is pissed at being abandoned, while also apparently having ended up in a pretty decent family. Despite being warned off by the daughter, she decides that she's going to go sit in a cafe for an hour and let the daughter decide to approach her, or not. Daughter writes a nasty note in response, but seconds later repents and they have an unseen reconciliation of sorts. Plans are made to see each other again.

Next is Lise, who is going to visit her ex-husband. He charms her, she realizes they have both mellowed, they make plans to try the relationship again. Joni, who has been fired by her jerk of a boss at the chichi restaurant where she works, decides she's going to open her own restaurant. (Her story has about zero stakes or conflict.)

Finally Cece goes to meet the first man she ever slept with, who also never married and apparently pined for her all these decades. At first, she misses him, as he is called away unexpectedly, but he flies back to see her and they realize they are The Ones for each other.

Also, Cece starts volunteering at a hospice--Penny made her promise before she died--and in the space of about a week, manages to get a dying 30 year old man to reconcile with his fiancee, serves as "best man" in their hospice room wedding, and is named the godmother of the subsequent (artificially inseminated) baby. Because of course--apparently, the bride and groom are orphans and hermits and have no one else in their lives but the hospice volunteer who works a couple hours a day for a week….

The descriptions of the rooms, decor, flowers, food and clothing all smack of glossy magazine spreads. Vintage cocktail pitchers hold hydrangeas on low coffee tables, while decorative pillows abound. Flowers seem to bloom in the gardens all at once, making it hard to pinpoint the time of year.

The whole thing comes in at a tidy 220 pages, slightly fleshed out, but far from fully executed. Kind of a disappointment. I'll be leaving this at a paperback exchange.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

This book has been popping up into my field of vision for a solid two years, and the first sequel is already out and keeps showing up as well. Goodreads connections have read it, it shows up on lists of "Best Of" books, and frankly, once something has managed to make itself heard over the usual noise of cultural recommendations, I feel like I need to check it out.

The timing on this one is entirely coincidental--it was sitting on top of the "Leave One, Take One" bookshelf at the hair salon I go to, and I figured that there was literally no way it would be easier to read this book.

The backstory is kind of intriguing--the author is herself an academic with a number of non-fiction books on her C.V. What does a professor of European history and history of science write about when writing successful fiction?

Turns out--she writes Mary Sue Meets The Dreamy Vampire.

Honestly, there is obviously intellect at work, and some lovely passages about the lure of old libraries and the pleasures of intellectual pursuits. Obviously, the scenes set in Oxford are drawn from her own experience. And I am not philosophically opposed to supernatural novels--mixing witches, daemons and vampires into academia is not necessarily a deal breaker. I am willing to go with someone who handles this well.  But this main character--Diana Bishop? She positively reeks of Mary Sue-ism to the point where I had what amounts to an allergic reaction and gave it all up.

Our Heroine is a witch. Actually, a Salem witch, the descendant of the Salem Bishop witches, who are supposedly the most powerful ones in America, as well as the daughter of the Proctor line as well. This means that she is Sooper Speshully Powerful, the culmination of the two most powerful magic families in the country. But! She refuses--on principle!--to use magic! Because her parents were killed mysteriously when she was a child, so obviously (?) that tragic backstory explains why she has to do academia like a non-magical person would. Except when she does use magic, but she tries to limit it! And fixing the washing machine shouldn't count, because it might have caused water damage to the apartment below hers! (This is an actual thing she says.)

So, now she is in possession of an honestly earned Ph.D. in history from Harvard, and she's got tenure at Yale. So no privilege or snobbery there at all. Because she didn't get it from using magic! It's all her own intellectual effort! (Because Harvard and Yale are completely meritocratic, and have no Old Boy Networks, or tendency to admit and reward family connections or anything.) So trust us--even though she is Magic, she didn't use it (unless she did?)--she is just one of the top 1% of intellectuals in the US all by herself! Nothing special about her at all!

Now, she's at Oxford doing research for a keynote address on alchemical history. Because that's not magic! She insists it isn't, so it mustn't be! And she calls up a number of books each day, including one called Ashmole 782, that is odd. It's not willing to give up its call slip to the librarian until Diana touches it. She feels the tingle of a spell on the cover. She opens it, and it's all palimsest and magical writing and odd non-standardized alchemical imagery, and since she is so principled (the washing machine doesn't count, I tell you!) she decides she would be too tempted to use magic to understand it, so she sends it back to the stacks.

But somehow, her touching it breaks a magical seal, and now all the magical creatures are aware that Ashmole 782 has been found. It starts asserting a magnetic draw, and all kinds of magical creatures start showing up in the library and trying to get their hands on it, using Diana if possible.

Fortunately, the incredibly handsome and debonair 1500 year old vampire Matthew Clairmont shows up before anybody else does. Even though magical creatures hide their nature from humans, Matthew has managed to become a world renowned expert on genetics and Norwegian wolves, and a couple of other areas, without looking more than 35 and without raising any suspicions. (He is also apparently not worried about having his fame follow him and cause any suspicions in the future either, when his seminal work is still being taught and he still looks 35 decades from now.)

Matthew and Diana are both gorgeous, both Sooper Speshully Powerful, and so of course Diana is absolutely not going to fall in love with him or anything. She even calls home to tell her psychic aunt that. And then she falls asleep in her chair with the window open, and wakes up in the small hours of the morning with the taste of cloves in her mouth.

What? Did you suspect that Matthew the Sooper Speshul vampire came in through the window and watched her sleep? Is this what vampires do now? Thanks, Stephanie Meyer. Thanks a whole lot. But--he had an excuse! He thought maybe she had smuggled Ashmole 782 out of the library, against all the rules and conventions of academic research! So he had to search her apartment! (But mostly he just stood there and watched her sleep, while seeing Powerful Magic seeping out of her skin.)

Powerful magic you say? She is more powerful than she knows? Maybe you have to teach her how to accept her power and control it so it doesn't break loose and wreak havoc. (Substitute the word "sexuality" for "magic" just to make the dynamic between these two characters as creepy as it is.) We are in vintage romance novel territory here--back in the old days of the late 1970s, when the formula required that the heroine be under the age of 22 and a virgin, while the hero had to be wealthy and a good 15 years or more older, as well as sexually experienced but wounded….

Of course, he starts putting the moves on her--I mean, hanging around the library to intercept all the other magical people who want to find that book and think she may have it. Nobody seems to have tried just putting in a call slip, nobody seems to be trying to track what happened to that book after she sent it back. Everybody just seems to assume that she's got it? Like with her at all times, even when running or rowing on the river?

I lost it when the big set piece of the first part of the book is the two of them finding they have something in common, which is--yoga? Seriously? Matthew the 1500 year old vampire puts on yoga pants and puts a mat into his Lamborghini and goes to do downward dog poses?

It's worse than that. The class is for all sorts of magical people--vampires AND witches AND daemons, who we have been told have strict taboos against mingling together. But magical wonderful Matthew has managed to use yoga class (!?!?!) to get these several dozen beings to overcome their natural revulsion in order to--take a yoga class. I am so not buying this at all.

But I stuck it out for about one more chapter, after Diana flounces around at Matthew, then finds out that he built the enormous country home where the class was held--back in 1590, using the architect who had built Hampton Court for Cardinal Wolsey. Then Matthew goes to Scotland to meet with a friend of his and to brood darkly over a chess board--because he is In Love With Diana. Because of COURSE he is--who wouldn't fall in love with someone with exactly zero personality, and who has been nothing but snide and bratty to him?

It's that Sekkrit Power she has (hint: it's really sex) that she doesn't realize she has (really, it's totally sex) and that he knows he can teach her how to harness and use (sex, ya think?)

So at that point, I gave up. You know where this is going, right? They are going to both be in love with each other, but not say anything because reasons. Or they are going to be Forced by Magical Society to be apart, until they overcome the oppressive system from the Sooper Speshulness of their Love (the greatest love story of all time and history, of course.)

I did look up a plot synopsis to see if I was missing anything--and nope. There is a whole lot more Sooper Speshul Magick Powers nonsense, and then. . .time walking? Also a lot of Diana being rescued by her white knight, which--ugh.

Well, at least I know I'm not missing anything. So many other books are already lined up to fill up this particular spot!

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Mockingjay, by Susanne Collins

This is the final book of the Hunger Games trilogy, and there is no mistaking that fact. Collins is so over this series that it's painfully obvious that she could barely be bothered to write this one.

To be fair, I don't have the writing and publication history at hand. I do have some vague recollection that after the first novel hit (and hit HUGE!) Collins went back and wrote two more novels, that were released very quickly in order to meet the demand for more of the story. Which is quite an achievement, and not something I feel that I could do, so Major Kudos to Ms. Collins. Seriously. Seriously bad ass, ma'am!

And I have to say that I admire many many parts of the trilogy, and this book in particular. I especially admire how she opened up the story from the very narrow focus of the first book, and how she took the idea of Hunger Games and recast it for this last book.

I just feel like the whole is kind of half-baked, as if it was rushed through production before it was fully thought through.

Quick synopsis:

In the first book, Collins establishes a post-war dystopian North America of indeterminate size. (Does Canada still exist? Mexico?) The Capitol of the nation of Panem has defeated the Districts, and compels them to send two tributes each year to the arena where they are forced to kill each other for the viewing entertainment of the Capitol. The classical Greek and Roman parallels are intentional.

Our Heroine, Katniss Everdean, is not chosen for the Games, her younger sister is. Katniss cannot bear to let this happen so she volunteers. The Capitol's fascination with the tributes leads to silly fashion shoots and chariot rides and the vapidity of celebrity culture up to the very evening before the Games, and then the tributes are released into a controlled location and forced to fight for their lives. Katniss manages to seem very powerful while not actually killing anybody. In the end, she and the other tribute from her District are the only ones left alive, and they both prepared to poison themselves with berries--which would leave no victors for the Games. The rules are changed for them, and they are both allowed to live.

In the second book, Catching Fire, the 75th anniversary Games have a different format, and the tributes are to be chosen from past victors. As the only female victor from District 12, Katniss is sent back to the arena. There is a Victory Tour, which gives the reader glimpses of all the Districts, as well as more strategy and backstory about the lives lead by previous victors. Collins gives Katniss the additional challenge of not only staying alive through the Games, but also coming to understand how the Games function in the political life of Panem. It's really pretty savvy plot construction, broadening the scope of the story and adding more complex world-building, while also not simply repeating the first book. Katniss has to survive again, and this time it requires different skills and even trusting others.

By the end of Catching Fire, Katniss has been rescued (abducted?) from the arena and flown by a rebel alliance to the mythical District 13. Of course, it's not just a myth, it's a real place that refused to surrender to the Capitol and threatened to use its nuclear capacity to destroy Panem. It was driven underground and cut off from the rest of the country, forced to provide all it's own needs. It is, conceptually, the Sparta to the Capitol's decadent Rome. Everyone is disciplined, rationed, conscripted to service the needs of the whole. There is little margin of any sort, all material goods are strictly inventoried and allocated sparingly. Katniss hates it. She is rarely allowed outside, she spends a lot of time passive-aggressively avoiding the obligations. This puts her in conflict with the leader of District 13, President Alma Coin.

This goes on for a very long time, as Katniss shifts the tiny distance between traumatized victim and bratty teen. Her partner in the Hunger Games, Peeta, was left behind in the Capitol, and she feels guilty for that. Gale, the boy she spent her time with back home, is slowing becoming militant in his opposition to the Capitol. Stuff happens with her family as well, as Prim is growing up but Katniss doesn't want to see it.

(Katniss is such an angsty martyr at this point, it would be funny if it weren't so dull.)

Eventually, a plan is developed to use her as the face of the rebellion, which means even more boring grooming sequences and photo shoots. Admittedly, I appreciate the fact that Collins is making a point of how much work goes into making someone camera ready and looking "naturally" beautiful--I do! Female beauty standards require a fair amount of work and attention, and Collins gives it to us at full volume. Katniss is also amazingly bad at acting, and the videos of her pretending to fight are risible.

Eventually, a plan is hatched that Katniss and her team--including camera operators and beauticians--will be taken to the Capitol where rebels are fighting a guerrilla style war. The plan is to drop her into areas that have already been secured, do some mock fighting, and then pull her out. Propaganda, pure and simple. What could go wrong?

Well, obviously, EVERYTHING could go wrong, and does. The team ends up watching atrocities and experiencing deaths, they find themselves in real battles, and the death toll grows. The President has booby trapped the Capitol with Games-like weapons, and the team ends up working their way through basements and apartments. At one point, they end up hidden in the basement of a former Games stylist for days, doing absolutely nothing while the war advances to a climactic moment. They join the assault on the President's palace, where Katniss witnesses the moral bankruptcy of the regime. A concrete enclosure/bunker has been erected in front of the palace, and filled with children. Any attempt at storming the gates will kill the kids. Then from somewhere a fighter jet strafes the kids--is it a rebel plane, or a double feint from the President? The rebels respond by sending in medics--and of course the first medic killed by the booby trapped kid enclosure is Prim.

Katniss is once again deeply traumatized, and also in the middle of things while not actually doing very much. She ends up inside the palace after it has been taken by the District 13 forces. President Snow is a captive--kept very nicely in a comfortable set of rooms, which offends her deeply. Strategy sessions are held, and Katniss has a seat at that table. A proposal is bruited about that a final Hunger Games be staged, using the children from the Capitol. And despite her experience of the horror, Katniss votes to hold them, to spread the pain around. It's a jarring choice, and not one well supported by the author.

Things keep happening off stage, and finally, Katniss is called upon to serve as President Snow's executioner. She stands on the balcony of the palace along side the new President Coin, and she has managed to discern that the new system is going to be a corrupt and horrible as the old one. Not sure what gives her this insight--perhaps she's just delusional at this point. In any event, she shoots the new president instead of the old one, but Snow obliges everybody by dying via cyanide capsule or something like it.

Then Katniss goes home to District 12, where Peeta comes too. The district had been bombed to the ground earlier, so almost no one is there, and in the end, Katniss marries Peeta because really, she's too tired to do anything else? This epilogue is weirdly tacked on, serving primarily as a declaration that Collins is done, done, DONE with this series and she's going to tie it all up so nobody can make her go back to it. After "10 or 15 years" Katniss caves in and has a couple of kids with Peeta, because she's pretty sure they won't be sucked up into a rebooted Hunger Games, and anyway, Peeta really wanted them.

Gale is given a "very important" job in District 2 and disappears from her life and the epilogue. Shippers--you have been told. No Gale/Katniss pairing will be allowed.

Kudos to Ms. Collins for tweaking the formula with each sequel, so they aren't quite the same story over and over again. On the other hand, it's clear that she was ready to be done, and did whatever she needed to to end the saga.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley--a Flavia de Luce Novel

I rated this 3 stars, although it might be a 3.5. 

First of all--what happens? The overarching pall of the series is lifted--we learn the fate of Flavia's mother Harriet. Harriet's absence has been of major importance to the family generally and to Flavia specifically. Flavia was so young when Harriet disappeared that she has no memories of her mother at all. Meanwhile, her older sisters have tormented her with this fact, alternatively accusing her of being the reason Harriet left, or claiming that she was adopted. In either case, Flavia feels the lack of her mother acutely, and she dreams of the possibility that Harriet will someday return.

More broadly, Haviland de Luce has mourned his lost wife for ten years, remaining remote and unapproachable, leaving his daughters to essentially raise themselves. The family estate is also in limbo, as Harriet's presumed death and lack of a will have created such a tax burden that the family lives basically in poverty. Harriet's absence makes the entire premise of the series possible. At the end of the previous book, the de Luces receive a telephone call, which Father reports "Your mother has been found."

The first five chapters of this book describe the preparations for her return--a special train, military escort, etc. etc. Which seems odd, until you realize that Harriet is, in fact, dead and it is her body being returned to Buckshaw. And, of course, that was exactly what you expected, except that you hoped otherwise. 

Harriet is also obviously more than just a "missing mum." The military honors, the security provided by the British Home Office, the special train, and Winston Churchill on the platform. Up until now (if I am recalling correctly), Harriet's disappearance has been treated as if it were the unfortunate result of an adventurous spirit who couldn't remain at home tending to children when there were mountains to climb and Tibet to explore. She was an aviatrix, an English Amelia Earhart, who simply never returned. Now, however, we are learning that she had an official role--and she disappeared while on a mission for England during WWII. This is not just a domestic tragedy, and the world beyond Bishop's Lacey and Buckshaw has entered the picture.

This coincides with a deeper focus on Flavia's character as well. Flavia is nearing her 12th birthday, and without trying, seems to be maturing. She has begun to see behind the surfaces of her family members and is beginning to show some real empathy. It's a welcome development--she remains fixedly eccentric as ever, but is somewhat less combative.

In developmental terms, her emotional intelligence is starting to catch up with her I.Q.

Regularly throughout the novel, she notices things about her family that had escaped her before. Watching her father navigate the funeral arrangements in his deep grief, she realizes that "the more he felt, the less he showed." He was not merely an absentee parent even while present--he was a complicated man dealing with enormous sadness. Flavia also stops to notice that her eldest sister Ophelia is quite beautiful, and she shares a hug with Daphne as they each find comfort in the other. 

Other family members arrive as well, including Haviland's sister Aunt Felicity, and Harriet's sister Lena, who also brings her young and precocious daughter Undine to Buckshaw. Undine is less a character in her own right than a reproduction of Flavia--young, bright, bored, and obnoxious. She exists almost entirely to show how Flavia has grown, since rather than recognize herself in the child, Flavia is annoyed by her. Instead of responding sympathetically, Flavia begins to adopt the tactics her sisters used against her, engaging in a battle of one-upmanship. And not always winning.

The book begins to reveal the backstory of Flavia's parents, both fighting in the Pacific, where Haviland was captured by the Japanese and subjected to the horrors of the POW camps. Harriet toured those prisons and the two managed to meet without giving themselves away. Harriet never made it home; Haviland did, a broken and grief-paralyzed shell. These are the stories that Flavia is hearing for the first time, expanding her world and changing her perception of her place in it.

It is no coincidence that this is the book where she flies in her mother's old Gipsy Moth plane as well. Bradley describes how the world looks different, and smaller, from the air, familiar and changed at the same time, without hammering the metaphor. Flavia's vision has expanded.

As a character study, this book is far more successful than I would have expected. The changes are not forced, and are scattered among the reliable standards of the series--her fascination with poison, battles with her sisters, extra-long descriptions of recondite chemical tests and facts.  

However, the book as a whole feels clumsily stitched together--there are set pieces that remain well written and engaging, but they fail to connect with each other either logically or emotionally. This is especially damaging to the mystery aspect of the book--too often the book drops narrative elements and fails to pick them up again, or fails to treat them consistently.

This most egregious example happens at the end of the novel, during the funeral service. Earlier, Flavia  found Harriet's oil skin wallet, which happened to contain her will. While running chemical tests on the wallet itself, Flavia found invisible writing that seems to spell "Lens Palace." Then, while sitting in church and gazing at a stained glass window of Samson and Delilah, Flavia notices that the gothic script under the window is hard to read--the M looks like a W, for example. With that, she realizes that "Lens Palace" is actually "Lena de Luce," and her aunt is the one who killed Harriet. 

The service then requires that she walk to the chancel, where she stumbles, and when she looks up after catching herself, she sees three police officers advancing on the murderer, who then bolts.

But we don't know why this is happening now. How did the police suddenly decide that Lena needed to be arrested? Flavia hasn't told them her thinking, nor have they seen the clues she has. The murderer hasn't done anything to give herself away, and the stumble is not a prearranged signal or anything. There is no reason why the police are acting at this particular point in the funeral service, rather than before or afterwards. Whatever logical method the police used to solve the mystery remains unexplained, while Flavia's solution is also not communicated to anybody either. So why does the murderer suddenly lose nerve and bolt? No reason is given, which feels like a cheat. I mean, Sherlock Holmes wouldn't solve a mystery, only to be told that the criminal has already been arrested for some unconnected matter. Like littering? 

Which is too bad, because while the series is certainly an exploration of Flavia's character growth, it is also a murder mystery series, and solving the murder needs to remain satisfying.

There is also a scene where Flavia walks out of her house (Buckshaw) and across the lawn to where two characters are working on an airplane. There is no reason why she goes at that particular time, and once she is there, she simply looks at them and then walks away. As far as I can tell, there is no reason for the whole scene. Why is it there? It doesn't amount to any sort of clue, it seems oddly out of character for Flavia to just walk out of the house at that moment for no reason.

There are a couple of other clunky matters as well. The first is the death of the man at the train station. As Harriet's coffin is being unloaded, a strange man in a long coat approaches Flavia, recognizing her as the spitting image of Harriet. He attempts to give her a warning: "Tell your father that the Gamekeeper is in trouble. The Nide is under…" something interrupts him, and then he is pushed beneath the train to his death. Flavia is the first to his side, and describes the sad sight of his arm above the platform, the golden hairs blowing in the breeze. 

So despite this chilling experience, and the clear invitation to investigate (who is the Gamekeeper? What is a Nide?) Flavia doesn't even think about the event much at all. I accept that she doesn't tell her father, allowing him to grieve without distraction for a while, but I find it very hard to believe that she doesn't even think about what it all might mean, or try to figure out who to interview who might have some information. She never even tries to figure out what the police might know about him. She just lets an obvious murder drop--this is not the Flavia we have known for the last five books.

Another oddity is her quest to revive her mother. Nuts, of course, her belief that she might be able to concoct a chemical mixture that would restore Harriet to life, but she takes it seriously, and Bradley devotes quite a large chunk of narrative to her quest. One chapter is spent detailing her research into the use of thiamine, based on some cryogenic experiments of her great uncle Tarquin, detailed in the notebooks in her chemistry lab. There is a short sequence where she learns a jujitsu move from her father's "man" Dogger: a blow that she believes will jolt a corpse back to life. There is another chapter spent trying to obtain the chemicals, first from the apothecary and then from the local doctor. The apothecary refuses her, but his reclusive sister (wife?) slips her the substance, claiming it is repayment of a debt to Harriet. The doctor happens to be carrying the other chemicals in his bag when he nearly hits Flavia at an intersection. It was a dosage for a patient who just died, so he simply hands it over.

These are almost suspiciously easy, and Flavia speculates that perhaps Harriet herself is assisting the project, supernaturally.

This is about four chapters of preparation, and doesn't include all the logistics about the family standing vigil with Harriet's coffin, what hours they are on duty, how Flavia manipulates Ophelia into switching shifts, and then how Flavia runs the line of mourners off. There is yet another chapter of Flavia opening the coffin, cutting through the inner zinc liner, and seeing her mother's face for the first time. (There is an explanation of how this is even possible after ten years, involving the body being originally preserved on the icy glacier, then packed in dry ice for transport and preservation.)

At this point, we have followed this plot for dozens and dozens of pages, with all its numerous steps and Flavia's confused motives--she would like to have the chance to have a mother, she would like to return Harriet to Haviland to ease his sadness, she would like to be a hero--this is a major component of the book. Sure, it's nuts to think that she could actually succeed, but the quest has become narratively hefty.

Which makes the denouement of it so disappointing. Just as she has looked at her mother's face, there is a knock on the door of the room, and (after some swift tidying up of the area) Flavia opens the door to find her father and two Home Office officials who insist on taking over the area and ejecting the family.

And Flavia doesn't even seem bothered in the least. This whole plan, the whole emotional need for a mother, all the work she has put into trying to revive her mother--gets foiled by the intrusion of a couple of goons, and Flavia simply walks away. She doesn't try again later, she doesn't try to snoop on the officers to find out why they are there (and we never learn it either)--in fact its only after quite a few scenes that she mentions that she lost her chance to try. And it's treated off-handedly, shrugged off as a missed chance.

I just can't believe that. Flavia wouldn't ignore the murder of a man on the train platform, especially after he gave her such a cryptic warning. Nor would she just walk away from the kind of major project that revivifying Harriet became. Maybe--just maybe--she would give up if she doubted it was possible--but the book doesn't make that case either. 

These feel like authorial slips to me, rather than evidence of Flavia maturing. It's as though Bradley crafted the chunks of the story, but ran out of time to link them together convincingly. Which is frustrating, because the elements of greatness are there! Flavia is a fascinating character, and the mystery is gripping. 

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Straight up--I really liked this book. Which is unusual enough that I might as well say so up front.

This is a very long book, beautifully written, nicely observed, and generally absorbing. To be honest, I think it got a bit flabby toward the end, and a leetle bit self-indulgent in the last 50-ish pages. but overall definitely worth the time and effort to read. In fact, as distracted as I am by shiny things ( a word which here means "the internet") I have found it hard to read actual physical books. But this one was hard to put down.

At the heart of the novel is an exquisite painting by Carel Fabritius called "The Goldfinch," a real painting by a Dutch master painted in 1654.

Because this work actually exists, but its loss and recovery detailed in the book are fictional, one has to suspect that the painting has a symbolic/metaphorical value. This sense is heightened by the heavy debt the book owes to Dickens generally, and Great Expectations specifically. (Of course, it's been ages and ages since I've read Great Expectations, so someone else will have to do a better job than I can, tracking the influences).

So, the book moves in four great sections, giant blocks of narrative that carry us through the narrator's life from about age 13 to roughly his late twenties. The first sets up the baseline of his life, the normal that is irrevocably disrupted. The narrator, Theo Decker, lives in New York City with his mother, his father having recently abandoned them, mostly to Theo's relief. However, he has gotten into trouble at his prep school, and the book opens on the morning he has been called to a meeting with the principal and his mother to face suspension or expulsion for some breaking and entering of homes he has been doing with a classmate. The meeting is for late morning, and on the way they stop at the Met Museum to see an exhibit of Northern European master paintings--one of which is the Goldfinch.

These details are efficiently sketched but not dwelled upon--we get a feel for the pace of Theo's life, with glimpses of the stressors: his father's alcoholic unpredictability, his devotion to his mother, his chafing need to act out, his fundamental decency…when the bomb goes off.

Because the bomb is the engine that starts to plot, I had been aware of it and was waiting for it. If I hadn't known, I might have been surprised, just as Theo was. After all, the scenes in the museum are not obviously leading up to a Major Event like that--there is detail about some of the paintings, description of some of the people, the minor logistics of Theo staying in one gallery while his mother goes somewhere else. And there is a girl, roughly his own age, who Theo is fascinated by but afraid to speak to. All of this beautifully observed quotidian activity doesn't obviously point to a suitcase bomb, which would certainly be unexpected in real life, and maybe wasn't obviously telegraphed…

The gallery is destroyed, Theo is knocked unconscious, and when he comes to, he has a confused conversation with the grandfather of the girl he saw earlier. Both of them are likely concussed, if not lightheaded by blood loss. Somehow, the man convinces Theo to take the canvas of The Goldfinch for safekeeping (it had been blown out of its frame), then gives him a ring and cryptic directions: "Hobart and Blackwell. Ring the green bell" before he dies.

Somehow, Theo finds his way out of the museum by a side door, and goes home to wait for his mother.  Tartt is very careful about the details of how this happens without Theo being stopped by police, or given any emergency medical care. It is this careful writing that makes the outrageous plot device absolutely believable--and it shouldn't be--but has to be for the book to work. And the book does work.

Tartt carefully handles his dislocation and grief. He ends up staying for months with the Barbours, the WASPy family of an old school friend. The glamorous apartment, relentless achievement, and chilly emotional life of the family is reminiscent of a J.D. Salinger book. Meanwhile, Child Protective Services tries to find living relatives, including a father who clearly did not wish to be found. (Child support evasion do you think?) During this time, Theo makes the pilgrimage to "Hobart and Blackwell" where he finds the girl from the museum, Pippa, and Hobie, a gentle giant of a man who restores the antiques that Blackwell bought and sold.

Theo falls in love with Pippa (echoing Pip's love for Estella from Great Expectations) without actually spending much time with her. She was seriously injured in the blast, and is soon shipped off to live with an aunt. Theo finds a soothing peace in the furniture repair shop, and spends increasing amounts of time there with Hobie--they share an appreciation for old things, and they both miss Pippa. 

Just as Theo is about to fully integrate into this new life, his father shows up and again his life is disrupted. Larry Decker has a flash style, a Las Vegas girlfriend who goes by "Xandra," and sells everything from the apartment Theo shared with his mother in a matter of days. Theo is roughly transplanted to Vegas, where the Deckers live in a shoddy McMansion in an unfinished housing development. Theo's house is the only one occupied on the street, and the stink of the burst housing market is conveyed through the rotting garbage--no trash service, no pizza delivery, no buses, and the desert threatens to creep back in and reclaim the place.

Theo's father remains both flash and unpredictable. He claims to have stopped drinking, by which he means now he drinks only beer and he takes many different types of drugs. He gambles for a living, moving from baccarat to bookmaking on sports events, his manic behavior muted only by the odd hours he and Xandra keep. Theo is essentially abandoned in the house, feeding himself mostly on bar food Xandra brings home from her job at a casino. 

Theo manages to find another inappropriate friend--Boris, the son of a Russian mining engineer, who has lived all over the world. Boris enables Theo's genetic addictive personality, and soon the two of them are spending most of the next two years drinking and taking drugs, watching old movies and being wasted. 

Matters here come to a head as Larry's gaming losses mount. A couple of visits from an urbanely threatening enforcer embodies the looming catastrophe. One day, Larry screams and threatens until Theo calls a lawyer about transferring his inheritance into an account--presumably so Larry can pay off his debts. The lawyer (the Dickensian "Bracegirdle") says the money can't be transferred, only used to pay education bills, and Larry's transparent scheme is foiled. The next day, Larry dies in a one-car accident (suicide or murder?) and Theo panics. Unwilling to fall into the clutches of Child Protective Services again, he grabs Xandra's dog, the well-wrapped Goldfinch, and a few personal items and buses back to New York, where he turns up on Hobie's doorstep again.

Again, Tartt carefully describes the maneuverings that make this arrangement believable. Bracegirdle recommends boarding school, but instead, Theo manages to get into an early college program that allows him to stay in the city. Tartt describes this period as a time when Theo has the raw talent to succeed, but is so damaged by the combination of dislocation, trauma and drugs that he puts in the bare minimum of work, failing in a very believable way. But he's got a family of sorts--Hobie and the occasional visit from Pippa.

The book then skips ahead eight years. Theo has graduated from college, and has taken over running the antique sales business that Blackwell ("Welty") ran before his death. He has become a full partner in the firm, and is now engaged to Kitsey Barbour. The Barbour family has declined in the intervening years, and Theo's friend Arthur was killed in a boating accident with his disturbed father. (This section smacks rather of Brideshead Revisited in the way the family is less dazzling, and the narrator now feels enough of a social equal to marry into it.)

Theo has the good eye and reassuring manner necessary to be a successful antiques dealer--and seems to be so- but he remains morally corrupt. Pressured by the business's unpaid taxes and precarious finances, he begins to sell rebuilt pieces as original antiques. Carefully priced high enough to be believable, but low enough to be tempting as "a steal," he primarily sells these pieces to the nouveau riche--movie produces from California, oil men from Texas. Theo begins to exhibit the jittery megalomania of his father, torn between pride and guilt. 

Predictably, Theo is found out, by someone far more unscrupulous than he, who seems to be playing a larger game, and refers obliquely to The Goldfinch, which Theo still has, taped up in a mess of newspaper and packing tape, sitting securely in a archival storage room. This is when Boris reappears and Theo's life is again significantly disrupted.

Because Boris stole the painting back in the old days in Vegas, and now has a dodgy international business career that involves mob members and drug deals. The painting has been used as collateral on a number of major deals, and recently disappeared in a bust. At Theo's glittering engagement party (where he is mostly marginalized) Boris whisks him away to Amsterdam to retrieve the painting.

Theo ends up being driven around the city, disoriented, frequently drunk or stoned, and eventually sting armed by Boris into a confrontation in an after hours deli, where one man ends up dead. Subsequently, another set of thugs attack Theo and Boris in an empty parking garage, and Theo ends up shooting one of the men. He and Boris split up, and he spends the next several days in a fog of terror and foreboding, waiting to be arrested for the murder, and unable to leave, since Boris has his passport. The painting is once again missing, snatched by one of the criminals during the shoot-out.

Ultimately, and decidedly off-stage, Boris locates the painting and manages to lead the "art police" to its location, where a number of other important stolen works were stored. Boris delivers a suitcase full of reward money to Theo, who (in the epilogue) uses it to repurchase all the faked antiques he had sold. 

He doesn't quite get the girl--Kitsey is cheating on him with the man she really loves, Tom Cable, the schoolmate who got Theo into the breaking and entering at the beginning of the book. She still wants to get married, even though she doesn't love Theo, because they are well matched. It's not clear what Theo is going to do about that. Pippa remains his true love, but she is very clear that she doesn't love him. Theo is forced to realize that his feelings for Pippa are tied up with his grief over losing his mother, and that he needs to let them go.

The last 50 pages or so are the flabbiest of the book--the plot has been tied up, Theo is flying around the country doing penance by buying back furniture, and Tartt indulges in a sort of moralizing about the meaning of art and why it is Important. Skip those.

Luxuriate instead in the lovely writing she dedicates to the tempos and textures of Theo's life. The cold rainy winter morning in the City, where the miserable weather is redeemed by the beauty of the museum as a place of respite. She evokes the mote-filled light of a quiet antiques shop, as well as the frosty discomfort of an immaculate apartment that is photo ready and superficially chic, but not comfortable. Even the way the desert sunlight is different from the weaker sun of New York is deftly described. Theo's life is believable down to the details, because Tartt is so careful to observe and report all those details.

Looking back on this book, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Tartt is a maestro of the altered consciousness. Theo spends almost all of the book in some sort of clouded state, either through grief, concussion, drugs and alcohol, or fear. Perhaps that is Tartt's real subject--the way perception is impaired. Her first novel, The Secret History, had as its central showpiece the hazy perceptions of a Dionysian rite, followed by the corrosive effects of guilt on the participants and their relationships. The Goldfinch revisits many of those same emotions.

Why is this such an enjoyable book? What is the point of over 770 pages of this man child's life? I'm not sure I can answer that. Perhaps the secret is in the pacing, deliberate but not slow, and the smoothness of the writing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.