25 August 2014

Books: The Likeness By Tana French (2009)

The Likeness is Irish author Tana French’s follow-up to her debut bestseller, In the Woods. While I actually think this is a better novel, it still seems a bit overlong and slow. 

It’s been six months since the events of the previous book and Detective Cassie Maddox is still trying to recover and to put her life right. She has moved out of Murder Squad into the Domestic Violence, and is hoping that this switch will make her life quieter and make her burgeoning relationship with Detective Sam O'Neill go a bit smoother –even if she can’t fully make a commitment to him or her new career.

But in the end, it’s Sam who gets her back involved in a murder case, one involving the stabbing death of a female college student. And while she’s puzzled at first why Sam called her, it becomes clear to Cassie when she sees the girl, her past is about to return in a most unwelcome sort of way. The young dead women’s name is Lexie Madison, which turns out to be a name Cassie used when she was an undercover cop years before joining the Murder Squad. Plus she also bears a striking resemblance to Maddox.

With no leads, no suspects, and no clue to Lexie's real identity, Cassie's old undercover boss, Frank Mackey, spots the opportunity of a lifetime. They can say that the stab wound wasn't fatal and send Cassie undercover in her place to find out information that the police never would and to tempt the killer out of hiding. At first Cassie thinks the idea is crazy, but she is seduced by the prospect of working on a murder investigation again and by the idea of assuming the victim's identity as a graduate student with a cozy group of friends.

As she is drawn into Lexie's world, Cassie realizes that the girl's secrets run deeper than anyone imagined. Her friends are becoming suspicious, Sam has discovered a generations-old feud involving the old house the students live in, and Frank is starting to suspect that Cassie's growing emotional involvement could put the whole investigation at risk.

The first part of the book, and arguably the slowest chunk, details Cassie preparing to go undercover at Whitethorn House, a manor outside Dublin and close to town called Glenskehy (and in most procedural shows these days would be quickly taken care of in a montage scene). The folks who live around the manor and the town don’t like the five people who’ve taken up residence there:  paternal Daniel (who inherited the house from his uncle, who equally was not liked by the folks), handsome Rafe, the oddball Abby, and easily rattled Justin. 

While the books plays out like an elongated episode of the Sarah Michelle Geller series The Ringer married with today’s TV procedural with a dash of Agatha Christie (every one of the four have stereotypical quirks and dark past, they’re also generally unlikeable as well, which is a Christie cliché) added for good measure, it’s dull pace undermines the plot –which while hyper-realistic, still stretches the credibility factor. While French appears to focus more on character development over plot manipulation (there is certainly no surprises here), it could’ve been more successful if The Likeness was a tighter ship –mostly the first hundred pages could’ve been trimmed to a few chapters. 

Still, her prose is strong and you end up liking Cassie more than In the Woods. Her dialogue is strong, and very realistic (I like characters who act like everyday folks instead speaking and doing things like they are characters in a book) and that really saves this book.

11 August 2014

Books: Earthquake Weather By Tim Powers (1997)

Since this is a double sequel to Last Call (1992) and Expiration Date (1996), Earthquake Weather further enmeshes the reader into the multiple genres that make up the unique universe that Tim Powers has superimposed on the real world –many different ethnic folklores, Egyptian mythology, ghost stories,  a bit of nior detective here and there- and mix them up with a bunch of different story threads that somehow get connected towards the end.
Scott Crane (from Last Call) is the Fisher King and has somehow failed his land, allowing a new outbreak of the dreaded phylloxera louse to ravage the vineyards of California. There is not a lot that Crane can do about this, owing to his having been murdered. Worse, he was killed in the wrong way -- that is, not by a potential successor. The possible heir is young Kootie (from Expiration Date) who actually has the requisite unhealing wound in his side. Crane's chief acolyte brings the late King's family and decay-proof corpse in a partly miraculous pick-up truck to the magic consultancy run by Kootie's adoptive parents: Pete, who has Houdini's hands, and Angelica, formerly a psychiatrist and now an initiate into brujeria.

Also along for the ride is Janis Plumtree, who has a cadre of personalities that shifts like the sand in the desert when dealing with the unpleasant knowledge that one of her “voices” actually killed Crane. There’s the c on artist Cody, the nymphomaniac Tiffany, and several more and a ghostly outsider that was the cause of her problems to begin with, her own murderous father. Accompanying Janis is Ed Cochran, whom ever since a strange boyhood epiphany has had a special empathy with viniculture, which will prove to be of immense importance in this story. And then there is Dr Armentrout, a comic, albeit, sinister psychiatrist who has a nasty fondness for ECT or Edison Medicine prior to splitting off and consuming, like those sniffers of ghosts, the disordered parts of his patients' or victims' souls.

While Powers is never boring, the whole effort to resurrect Crane or transfer his rule to Kootie drags and slows the book down (plus, based on the pages left to read, you knew their first attempt was to fail). But even the plot is thin and the characters remain unlikeable as ever. And he spends, from my point of view, investing time in supporting characters and ideas that while creative and interesting, are sort of dropped in with little or no reason. In the end, I found the book plodding and unengaging, which may explain why it took so long for me to get through it.