I’m afraid I still have no idea what The Devil’s Steps was trying to accomplish. As I covered in my review, for reasons covered by the book a fair-play mystery is out of the question, and yet the revelation seems to be trying to say something along those lines. So was it a thriller? But if it was a thriller, its purpose remains just as mysterious. It’s a very unfocused book with a very unfocused plot that somehow just doesn’t cut it. Although the scene where a drunk man thinks that a house is a very large tree is loads of fun.
Rivers of London is a decent book, but the audiobook is shoddily put together. The reader is under the impression that the faster he talks, the more exciting the book will be, but the result was the opposite: I began wondering whether I was keeping him from something important! Things get particularly bad near the climax, where the reader blazes through the events so quickly that they never had an opportunity to sink into my head, leaving me somewhat puzzled as to what the ending was all about.
I don’t like The Big Sleep. I think it’s overrated, poorly written, and highly inconsistent, with characters behaving like two completely different people depending on which half of the book we’re in. It’s got some terrific ideas, but it doesn’t do anything with them, and Raymond Chandler ended up doing some far more interesting stuff in other books. But critics love it, for some reason, and insist it’s one of the best mysteries ever written despite a terrible plot that makes little sense. I’m not saying this novel is one of the worst of all-time, but academics have a love affair with it because it was written by Chandler and Therefore It Must Be Perfect! They have read far too deeply into it, coming up with fantastic theories about the novel’s literary aspirations that make a Harry Stephen Keeler plot look plausible by comparison. It’s just a bad book—let’s just get over it already and move on to better books by Chandler instead of desperately reading meaning into this one. (The image of the knight in the stained glass window is brilliant, though.)
It seems that everyone is praising Still Life as an excellent mystery. It really isn’t. It’s a terribly manipulated mystery that has a very unsatisfying motive and yet an obvious culprit, who even tries to do some sort of Hannibal Lecter impression at the ending. (I’m not even kidding, he almost directly quotes the film-version Lecter, memorably played by Anthony Hopkins, at one point.) To put it bluntly, the third act is terrible, especially in comparison to the first two acts, which were quite good, and the story dies a long, slow, and painful death.
This book is just embarrassing. Despite a promising start to the proceedings, for a long time absolutely nothing happens. You know that character X is obviously dead, but Marsh takes her sweet little time before revealing (to the surprise of absolutely nobody) that X is dead, and then unmasking a completely random culprit. But by that time, I didn’t care, and I was absolutely cringing at the dialogue for a young person, full of such hip (kids still say hip, right?) slang, like, you know? There’s being surreal, and then there’s blatantly lazy plotting. You get only one guess as to which group I feel this book belongs to.
This book has a really promising plot which sounds like a remake of The Burning Court: a mysterious poisoning takes place, and it seems that the reincarnation of a 300-year-old witch is responsible. Only Sara Woods cannot focus on one story. This book is all over the place, and only every once in a while does it remember that it is supposed to be a mystery. It commits three of the worst sins a mystery can commit. It’s poorly plotted. It’s uninspired. And, the worst sin of all: it’s dull—excruciatingly, unforgivably dull.
I am not a Patricia Highsmith fan. Her misanthropy is very off-putting, and it fills every page of Strangers on a Train. To put my complaints briefly: the entire novel is an avoidable situation. The story is well known: Guy Haines meets Charles Anthony Bruno on a train, where Bruno finds out they both want someone in their lives dead. So the psychopathic Bruno takes it upon himself to murder Guy’s wife and then demands that Guy do the same with Bruno’s father. Here is the problem, one I spent an entire review complaining about: Guy is a moron. He gets evidence pretty much proving Bruno is guilty of the murder, and what does he do? He destroys the evidence, of course, and then whines about the guilt that haunts him! Honestly, I couldn’t care less if I tried. I have no sympathies for characters who bring about their own downfalls through sheer stupidity. This is what happens in this novel, which should have been a short story or novella at most, and Highsmith’s disdain for all of humanity makes this a highly unpleasant novel. I really wanted to find Guy Haines and kick him by the end of the book.
Start with a serial killer in 1920s New York, murdering people with methods inspired by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Now throw in Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, teaming up to investigate the murder. Now, throw in the ghost of Poe himself, working with Conan Doyle to solve the crimes! What do you get? Well, if you’re William Hjortsberg, you get a perfect opportunity to write porn. But I don't see how - quick, another sex scene, before a passing reader uses two brain cells! And the scenes derail the entire book, as each one gets more graphic, with one being particularly painful to read. And hey, guess what? They have no relevance to the story! Hooray! I asked Roland Lacourbe, who has written a book on Houdini, what he thought of Houdini having an extramarital affair. His reply was that portraying Houdini like that was nonsense. And Hjortsberg seems to realize that, because the way he writes Houdini, he’d never have such an affair, but for some stupid reason I just can’t fathom, he has one anyways. But hey, we’d miss out on some classic porn if not for such an artistic decision! It quickly becomes clear that Hjortsberg has no interest in tying up his story, and the ending is frankly indecipherable. And finally, this book wins the Most Awkward Sentence Ever Written Award: “Houdini had never before in his life had a blow job.” For a good chunk of the year, it seemed like this would be the worst novel I’d read in 2012… and then I came across:
Unreadable. Overwritten and absurd. Louise Penny decides to talk to readers about religion. And hoo boy, she reveals her ignorance of it in bucketloads. Much of the commentary on religion is degrading and insulting to someone who has practiced Catholicism for his entire life. The monastery in this novel must be from the same universe as My Little Pony, because in all my life I’ve never come across monks like this. Their reasons for joining a monastery? To run away from the world, because to hell with it, there’s no way someone could possibly believe in this religion nonsense—it must mean that they are running away from reality! But then, some disgusting suggestions about child molestations are casually thrown around and never again brought up, the entire plot turns around the vow of silence (which does NOT work like Penny describes—at all!!!), and the most insultingly stupid plot point is saved for late in the book. The monastery in question is a Catholic one… yet it is hiding from the Vatican, which until now has had no idea where it is!!! How could that even work??? My mind boggles that fans have not only swallowed that particular piece of stupidity, but they praise this book as one of Penny’s finest! I’ve come to the conclusion that if an author is not a practicing member of a religion, they had better stay away from it, because all it reveals is what they think the religion is like. There’s one scene late in the novel that encapsulated the experience for me. Armand Gamache stands in front of a door, and hesitates over whether to open it. For a few pages, he goes over all the symbolic implications that opening this door would entail… until finally, someone else opens the door! I have no idea if Louise Penny was engaging in self-parody or if she was taking herself seriously, but if I had a hardcover copy of the book in my hands at the time, I would have thrown it through my window in sheer fury. But how could I know better than Penny? I've only been a Catholic all my life and regularly go on retreats and count many religious people as personal friends. Louise Penny spent a few nights in a monastery. Clearly she's the expert.
I hesitated over whether to put this novel at #1 or #2 (although for all intents and purposes, #1 and #2 this year might as well share the #1 spot, hence the reason there are 11 books this year instead of 10 like last time). I settled on placing this at #1 because this is really a unique book. It’s a detective story that fails as a detective story and as a commentary on detective stories, but because it’s postmodern, that’s the entire point and gosh darn it all, isn’t it brilliant? No. No, it isn’t brilliant. It isn’t even good. It’s badly written, inconsistent, unfocused, and written with a disdain (if not hatred) for “mere” detective fiction. If you like detective fiction and you’re in this book, you will either go insane or be portrayed as a gum-chewing nitwit. My review of the book parodies the way academics take it so seriously, and honestly, I can’t add much to it. This is unreadable garbage, but the kind of garbage academia goes nuts for. My pet theory is this: Paul Auster is not trying to say ANYTHING in this novel, but English Lit profs have found deep messages in it, including what he was trying to say, what he obviously intended to say, what he should have intended to say, and what was better left unsaid. So all is well with the world in the end... unfortunately. I reject the postmodern viewpoint of life, but when it comes packaged with such hatred for a genre I love, I want to throw the Literati out of the sandbox until they learn how to play nicely with the other genres instead of trying to reduce every other genre to the plotless, hopeless mess that is today’s “literary” fiction.