First up is Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. A reread, but I do like reading this book. Now I think about it, this may be the second time I've read it this year. Anyway, those of you who've read it know what I'm talking about, and those of you who haven't really ought to give it a try. Personally, I was hooked within a couple of pages. The bit about Hiro's pizza delivery uniform stopping a bullet like a wren hitting a patio door but letting sweat through like a breeze wafting through a napalmed forest. I liked that. And the line about the batteries of his car having enough potential energy to fire a pound of bacon into the asteroid belt.
Next is London Lights, by James Hamilton. This is a survey of the scientists and artists who `lit up' London (in some cases literally) during the fifty years between Trafalgar and the Great Exhibition. It's full of detail and personality, and to a great extent that's it's problem. It's too dense, and there are just too many people. Unlike The Plot Against Pepys, which approached its period with a similar eye for detail, there's no narrative threading through it that you can hang onto. It's a little like being at a huge party and having other guests introduced to you, individually or in groups, at bewildering speed. I can't fault Hamilton's research, which is painstaking, but maybe it would be better to dip into the book now and again, rather than to read all the way through.
Actually, the most startling thing I found was that it was only fifty years between Trafalgar and the Great Exhibition, between Hornblower and the birth of the Modern Age, so to speak.
Next are The Last Temptation, A Place Of Execution, The Mermaids Singing and The Wire In The Blood, by Val McDermid. I would never have read these but I went to the press launch of the ITV adaptation of A Place Of Execution and they were giving out copies of the novel and The Wire In The Blood - the series was produced by Robson Green's production company, Coastal, which also makes the Wire In The Blood series.
ITV drama is often pretty poor, but Place Of Execution was very good, I thought, and 'nuff respect to Coastal for doing a good job.
So I read the books, and quite liked them, so I bought a couple more and liked them a little less. The Wire In The Blood is the first of the Tony Hill books, and to my mind it's the one that works the best. It's a serial killer thriller, natch, but Hill makes an intriguing and flawed central character and all the other characters and the northern setting are very well written.
The Mermaids Singing doesn't work quite as well - several of the characters work in television, and I thought that setting seemed a little unreal, but then I don't work in television, so what do I know? But yes, very well-written again.
The Last Temptation is kind of an uncomfortable book. It kind of butt-welds two plot strands - a serial killer travelling the rivers and canals of Europe killing psychologists and an undercover investigation of a Berlin-based people-trafficker - together. Taken separately, both strands work, but together they kind of make your attention wander.
A Place Of Execution, set around the disappearance of a young girl from a Northern village in the early 1960s, is a stand-alone, and I really enjoyed it. The ending came out of absolutely nowhere - didn't see it coming at all.
I like McDermid's stuff, but I think I'll give her a rest for a while.
Next is The Good German, by Joseph Kanon. Brilliant book. Its evocation of Berlin around the time of the Potsdam Conference is a masterpiece and I really like the way Kanon writes. Journalist Jake Geismer returns to Berlin - where he was stationed just before the War - for `one last story,' but also to find out what happened to his lover. And he gets drawn into a plot involving Nazis, Russians, the various Occupying Forces, rocket scientists and corrupt officers. Kanon paints a portrait not only of a destroyed capital but a destroyed people, and of the victors strip-mining Germany for everything - and everyone - that will be of use to them in the struggle that's coming. Much recommended.
Next is The Lodger, by Charles Nichol. I mentioned a few months ago Bill Bryson's book about Shakespeare, a slim volume which tells us everything that's known about the Bard. Nichol takes just one of the things we know about Shakespeare - he gave evidence in a lawsuit when he was lodging at a house in Silver Street in the City of London - and produces a somewhat thicker volume. It's not a bad book, I was just a bit `so what'? about it. Nichol doesn't have the touch of the authors of The Plot Against Pepys when it comes to evoking a time and a place, and we really don't finish the book knowing anything new about Shakespeare.
Next is Fourtold by Michael Stone. Those of you who know me will know I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about short fiction and the lack of it on bookshop shelves, so this collection of four novellas made my heart lift. Particularly as the novellas are very, very good. The first, `San Ferry Ann,' I read as a disquisition on faith and loss set in Belgium during he flu epidemic that immediately followed the First World War. `The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark' is about a young man whose mouth is on his forehead, and who visits a very rum clinic which seems to have been designed by MC Escher. `The Terracotta Warrior' would make an absolutely cracking Hammer film - 1920s setting, country house, seemingly indestructible creature. And `Lemon Man' follows two seemingly-unconnected threads, one about the unravelling of the marriage and life of a young man in the Midlands, the other about a world apparently taken over by angels.
Very occasionally, I was reminded of Clive Barker - the early good stuff - but Stone is very much his own man. The setting of `San Ferry Ann' was unusual - I don't think I've seen that before, and it says a lot for the overall strength of the book that, while I thought this was the weakest story, I still enjoyed it a lot. My favourites were `Kasper Clark' and `The Terracotta Warrior,' `Clark' because it's very funny and completely barking mad, and `Warrior' because it's a very old-fashioned English horror story of a kind I haven't seen in a long time, and because it has a brilliant gag near the end that you'll miss if you blink but which, if you think about it, the whole story has been working up to.
Much recommended. 'Nuff respect, Mike.
Next is Brasyl by Ian Mcdonald. I've been a fan of Mcdonald ever since Desolation Road and Out On Blue Six, and he just keeps on getting better. This is a story of multiple universes, quantum computing, seventeenth-century Jesuit priests, present-day reality-television producers and slightly future-day thieves, all wound together in a plot which spans the whole of Creation. It's set in Brasil, as the title implies, and in places it's overwritten to a technicolor degree. My only quibble is that sometimes it's too overwritten and that the ending sort of storms along too quickly, but otherwise it richly deserves the praise that better critics than myself have heaped upon it.
And finally The Wheel Of Darkness by Lincoln Child and Donald Preston. The Preston/Child books featuring Special Agent Pendergast have been a bit of a guilty pleasure for me for quite a while. He turned up first in Relic where he was a secondary character - and the better for it. Then again in the sequel, Reliquary, where he was more centre-stage. I thought Pendergast was an unusual and interesting creation - an FBI agent with the manners of a Southern gent and the investigative powers of Sherlock Holmes. He became the lead in A Cabinet of Curiosities, and again in Still Life With Crows, and both books were okay, but then Preston and Child began, not to jump the shark, so much as get a ladder, put it against the side of the shark, and start climbing. The next three books, detailing Pendergast's battle against his brother Diogenes - the Moriarty to his Holmes, the Fu Manchu to his Nayland Smith - started to get more and more ridiculous. And now we come to this one, which begins with a theft from a Himalayan monastery and ends on an ill-fated Atlantic cruise liner. Pendergast has become a caricature, but that's okay because that's all most of the other characters are too, the plot's just absurd and the thing's slickly but almost carelessly-written, as if Preston-Child couldn't be bothered to try harder. I'll give them one more book to pull things back together, then they're on their own, I'm afraid.