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Shifting Sands

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This book got good reviews, which is a mystery to me. This review may have some spoilers. Private Investigator Dan Lord is investigating the suspicious deaths on the same night of his nephew and sister in law. Of course the police won’t believe both were murdered and when they finally do Dan becomes the main suspect.

Every cliche of the hard boiled detective novel is present; the eccentric, reclusive computer expert who performs tasks at a cost, the old love interest, the whore with a heart, Russian spies, strip clubs, the attractive female sidekick with a dodgy past, renegade government spooks knocking off civilians, the honest detective, shady government/ corporate deals and so on.

This tired and predictable plot would be fine if the protagonist was worth our interest and admiration. Unfortunately the action unfolds and events happen largely as a result of Dan’s incompetence. He apparently does exhaustive background checks on everyone in his life but accepts the new “intern” at face value, without doing the most basic checks. He is wrong about the identity of people he does check up on, which makes all his high tech office security superfluous. Despite people being slaughtered with alarming regularity after talking to him about his nephew and sister in law’s death, it never occurs to Dan to warn people or provide for their protection – with predictable results. The body count mounts. He does other dumb stuff too but it seems unkind to keep labouring the point.

There’s lots of boring macho scenes where Lord gets to show us he can fight, including a 4 page description of a fight with a student in a dojo that was extraneous to the plot. This is 243 pages in! We know the Dick can fight! Maybe it’s just me, but I find fights boring to read and too many of them will see me skipping pages like a speed reader on acid. I also skimmed the pages of detail about tracking cell phone messages or signals or something equally dull.

Some of the writing is cluttered with cliches such as, “His nose had always been good. Always. His gut rarely failed….But Dan had a nose. a gut. He usually saw what was coming before it turned the corner. It was a watered down version of a sixth sense, the capability of looking at the pieces of a puzzle and fitting them together to see the bigger picture” Seven cliches in 2 sentences. I would like to think the author is doing it on purpose and giving us all a sly wink but I doubt it.

The resolution to the plot occurs largely because facts the protagonist knows or learns as events unfold are withheld from the reader, which means we have no real chance of solving the mystery ourselves. This breaks one of the cardinal rules of mystery writing, although by the time I speed read to the end I didn’t really care. I guessed the nephew’s mystery illness a few pages in. The reader is not told what the illness is until the end of the book, although Dan obviously knows the whole time. Sneaky bastard.

Withholding information from the reader (that the protagonist knows) is a lazy (but common) way to plot a mystery/action novel and tends to annoy people like me who read a lot of this genre. Good examples of mystery/action novels that allow the reader to make discoveries along with the protagonist (so we empathise with them) is the Jason Bourne Series by Robert Ludlum or the Sam Capra books by Jeff Abbott.

It is not enough to continually put the protagonist in suspenseful situations and have appalling things happen to them. To be effective this escapist genre requires the reader to feel we are going along with the protagonist for the wild, crazy ride. Great genre writers achieve this by allowing us to feel what the protagonist feels and share in the discoveries as they happen. Escapist literature of all types (romance, crime, thrillers etc) often have plots that strain credulity, but we read on because we are allowed to enter the inner world of the main characters and live vicariously through them. We can’t do that if the protagonist “withholds” information from us until the end of the book. We can end up feeling cheated or tricked, which would have been my feelings if I had invested more energy in reading this book.

I don’t usually do bad reviews. Most books have something of interest and a few good points. Mark Gilleo is a competent writer with the crisp style I prefer. In my assessment, he needs to keep faith with the reader and bring us along on the ride, not throw us out the bus at crucial points along the road.

Being Anti-SocialBeing Anti-Social by Leigh K. Cunningham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book over a few days while doing my daily 10km walk on the treadmill. I found the writing style to be quite formal and precise, which is unusual for this “chick lit” genre. The novel lacked the upbeat, humorous style suggested by the cover. I am neutral about this book -neither loving nor despising it. The plot centers around a two year period in the life of a woman on the brink of 40 in which she and members of her large family and friendship circle experience major life changes.

I found it difficult to visualize some of the characters or remember who they were-especially the men. Finally I realised this is because none of the character are adequately described in terms of appearance, dress, speech or mannerisms. We know the main character drinks and eats too much, has dyed auburn hair and is of medium height but not much else. Cunningham tells us Amber looks like “Elle Mc Pherson” but I find this manner of describing characters to be a little lazy and irrelevant to readers who do not follow the reference.

Cunningham’s narrator, Mace, takes the time to explain the meaning of the term “pun” and also re-tells the story of the rabbit and the tar baby. I am old enough to know what a pun is and also the story of the tar baby. This suggests Cunningham (or her editor) expects her readers may not understand her references so feels the need to explain them. Maybe Cunningham’s genre is more serious, literary novels rather than light hearted chick lit. She is a skilled writer and no doubt capable of writing a more literary novel. The crisp quality of her prose (which I enjoyed) was wasted on the prosaic and at times cliched subject matter. I felt the author had a lot more to say on the universal themes of love, loss and betrayal but was held back by the constraints of the genre. I will be interested to see what Ms Cunningham does next.

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The Price of SaltThe Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Patricia Highsmith has written a thought provoking love story between two women. The novel is written in Highsmith’s usual spare writing style and the plot takes a few chapters to unravel but I would advise readers to persist. It does become more engaging and it’s not a long book.

I found several aspects of this book interesting. First, It’s young Therese, barely out of her teens, who pursues the older, sophisticated woman despite Carol’s initial misgivings. Second, throughout the novel Therese is unwavering in her belief that her love for Carol is not “an abomination” or shameful. She is openly affectionate towards Carol in public until Carol warns her not to be. Therese cannot understand why they should care about how society views their love. She even asks her boyfriend if he has ever been in love with a man, which means he works out the nature of her relationship with Carol fairly quickly. Interestingly, he initially dismisses her infatuation as a “schoolgirl crush” that Therese will overcome.

Of course, Therese’s and Carol’s love affair will not go unpunished in 1950’s America. Carol’s estranged husband uses their affair to extract a devastating revenge. Some reviewers have commented that this story has a happy ending- which it does for Therese. Carol, as a mother, pays a much higher price for her “little bit of salt” than her younger partner.

This is a masterful book peopled with complex and imperfect characters who struggle to find happiness in an equally complex and imperfect world.

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