Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

Strong Poison
Dorothy L. Sayers, 1929, 567p.
Strong Poison opens during the closing moments of the murder trial of Harriet Vane, who stands accused of poisoning her former lover with arsenic. The judge is summing up, and we witness his summations from the gallery, with the commentary of various spectators. The victim, Philip Boyes, ate a meal with his cousin, then went for coffee with Vane, then fell ill before returning to his cousin's house, where he died three rather vividly described days later.

Despite appearing to be an open-and-shut case, the jury is hung, and a retrial is ordered. Lord Peter Wimsey, who is among those in the gallery, has come to two conclusions over the course of the trial: Vane is innocent of the crime, and that he must marry her. Lord Peter by this time (his fifth novel) is a somewhat famous amateur sleuth, and with Vane spared for the moment from the gallows, he attaches himself as an agent for the defence. The re-trial will likely begin in about a month, which Lord Peter hopes will be enough time to both save her life, and successfully court Vane.

My wife and I have been conducting a lazy survey of the history of detective fiction, and P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction1 has been something of a roadmap. She identifies Wilkie Collins excellent Victorian The Moonstone as the first true contemporary detective novel, and we started there2. Between the wars in England was considered "the golden age" of detective fiction, made most famous by Agatha Christie. James encourages the serious reader to skip over Christie and look at some of the other excellent female writers of the time, including Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh3. Sayers was first up in our survey, and this was our initial selection4.

We picked an entrance work that is well in to the series, which always has challenges. Strong Poison was reportedly one of the highlights of the series — she had her primary characters down, and was skilled in what she was doing. Authors have to strike a balance between repeating descriptions (and potentially boring faithful readers), or leaving new readers behind. Sayers errs a bit on the side of leaving new readers behind. I was 60% of the way through this story before I had any sort of a mental picture of Wimsey (apparently he wears a monocle!) and the partnership between Wimsey and Miss Climpson was hazy for me at best5.

Wimsey himself was a much less serious character than I had been expecting. He spends the bulk of the novel cooing piffle and massaging his temples. The heavy-lifting is left to an army of cast-off women in his employ ("the cattery"), apparently a standing army for such purposes. While I think Sayers certainly has the early century English aristocrat painted, (at least in compelling caricature: a stroll in the garden with a constant burble of jovial twaddle,) it starts to wear on me after a bit. And apparently it wore on Sayers too. A lesson to those starting a detective series, I suppose: If you couldn't stand to spend an afternoon with your character, you will surely be sick of him after a dozen novels.

Given that Sayers appears to be P.D. James' favourite writer from this era, I shouldn't have been surprised by the attempts at social realism here. It feels confined by the genre, something that chafed at Sayers but which she felt was impossible to penetrate. Raymond Chandler famously dismissed the British Golden Age Detective novel (and much of the English detective genre to that point) in his 1950 essay "The Simple Art of Murder"6, and while I don't cast it all away as vigorously as he does, he has his finger on the bulk of the problem here. There is a crime, but everything is penetrated by a surreal British sense of order and gentility. The crime isn't brutish, it is sophisticated. In this type of novel, order is momentarily interrupted but restored in an unreal dashing way. Chandler would seem to wave this all away as profoundly unreal, but there is a reality working away within the unreal form.

Harriet Vane's social situation is an easy example: her concession to reside with her lover outside of marriage taints her in her trial and alters her social standing. When her lover has a change of mind, and decides to marry her after all, Harriet is enraged and refuses. It seems easy to understand from her perspective: she incurred great social cost for something that was obviously a whim of little consequence to him. But many of those surrounding cannot understand her refusal to "patch her honour". The breadth of her agency clearly unsettles many.

The fascinating example to me is Miss Climpson and her "ladies". These are all single women with tremendously precarious standing, common in England after the First World War. With astounding numbers of young men killed in action, a sea of women existed who were unable to marry and restricted in their employment. Lord Peter harnesses this power, depending on their invisibility and deep desire to be useful. Or does he take advantage of their situation? Reading it from this remove, I found aspects of it a little dark. Lord Peter charms and validates these desperate women, who then take great chances and even break laws to further Lord Peter's cause. For me, this dynamic was the most interesting aspect of the book. I couldn't resolve whether Sayers had a stance here at all, which I suppose is what cleaves social realism from political writing. Lord Peter did what he could do, and that he could do it at all is perhaps the point.

And for me, this is where I reject Chandler's thesis that reality must pervade a fictional work to exist at all. It feels like rejecting painting because it isn't three dimensional, or sculpture because the horseman doesn't smell of leather.

It was those moments of reality that made this book so readable. The mystery itself was interesting enough, and familiar and comfortable and suitably tense in places. But those great gold moments where reality pokes through the folds kept me engaged.


  1. Talking about Detective Fiction is an excellent shorter read - far from an exhaustive history of the genre, it is a survey peppered with James' bold and engaging opinions combined with significant thought on the evolution and contexts of the genre.
  2. Kiirstin reviewed Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.
  3. I think that Kiirstin and I might attempt Allingham next in our survey of golden age works, though I have come to the conclusion that I can only avoid Christie for so long.
  4. Kiirstin also reviewed Strong Poison. If you are wondering, she was the one that cheated on the cover; the library edition we read had the striking black and chartreuse cover shown above.
  5. Some research suggests the Climpson and her Cattery enter the series fully established, with little background.
  6. A copy of Chandler's essay "The Simple Art of Murder" is available online (apparently legally?)


Assorted Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout

There is something about British detective fiction that generally aligns with my sensibilities. Perhaps it is the landscape or the weather that feels familiar yet exotic to my Canadian feet? More likely it comes from the fact that many of the British detectives are thoughtful and somewhat retiring, rather than guns-a-blazin'. Or perhaps that classic British detective fiction is a story of a chaotic lapse, rather than a quest for order in a sea of chaos?

My biases (and some snobbery) aside, there is a lot to like about the Nero Wolfe stories, both in their novelties and in their execution. As mentioned before1, they combine some classic detective fiction staples (the armchair detective, the cerebral genius, the implausible puzzle crimes) with some of the more American hardboiled staples (the hired thugs, the dangerous women, the wise-talking dick). Add to that one of the more unusual Watson-style narrators2, and while the stories aren't always great, they do engage.

A co-worker maintains a little library of Stout in her cube, and over the summer and into the challenging fall, I made my way through five of the novels. I reviewed the first two on their own, but the next three really warrant more of a light survey.

Over My Dead Body
Rex Stout, 1940, 272p.
Over My Dead Body is a fairly early story in the series, and the first to deal with Wolfe's Montenegrin roots3. Two young Montenegrin women approach Wolfe to help one of them deal with an accusation of theft leveled against her. Both work at a fencing studio as instructors. Wolfe is disinterested, but feels forced to act when one of them claims to be Wolfe's long-lost adopted daughter.

Archie is dispatched to investigate, and in short order there is a murder and international intrigue (Nazis, spies and Slavic princesses). As with many of these stories, Wolfe seems to be privy to a great number of ideas about the case right from the start. The reader is left in the same boat as poor Archie, to flail around getting ducks lined up for Wolfe's dramatic conclusion. And dramatic it is, though not altogether surprising.

The twists and contrivances pile up a bit thickly here, and all too few of the characters are more than conductors for clues and red-herrings. Scattered through the work are ripe lines, though ripe in both senses: Some cute and charming observations, some that emit an odour that make the eyes water.

The Doorbell Rang
Rex Stout, 1965, 192p.
The Doorbell Rang is my least favourite Wolfe Mystery so far. We zip forward a full quarter century from the previous book, and Wolfe is still tending orchids in his Manhattan brownstone. This is a later and unusually politically motivated novel. Wolfe takes on the (deserving, mind you) target of the malign FBI of the 1960s. As easy as it is to hate that enemy, the story is a fairly unbelievable and adolescent revenge fantasy. There is naturally something satisfying about seeing Wolfe bullying a bully, and there is a sort of boisterous paranoia that lofts the first half of the book along.

Both Wolfe and his client invite the FBI to their table, then need to find a way to flush them back away. While there is little question that the FBI of that era viciously overstepped and needed more transparency and oversight, the in-novel action is largely self-interested. Featuring the FBI in the novel shone a light on the issue, and it referenced a more concrete book for readers to investigate more on their own — but that is an accomplishment of Stout's, not Wolfe's4. While this validates the book as a weapon, it gives the reader only an odd sort of external joy.

Meanwhile, within the story, a man is murdered, apparently by the FBI. And herein lies my other problem with this outing: the cold dead body here becomes a chess piece to be manipulated around the board by Wolfe and Cramer and the FBI in their games with each other. Games with grudge, but little greater end. I find it hard to get invested in a match of egos and balls when you throw a corpse into the equation. It is all true to character, perhaps, but too thin on charm and payoff.

Death of a Doxy
Rex Stout, 1966, 192p.
Death of a Doxy is a much more enjoyable later outing for Nero Wolfe. You can tell that one of Stout's challenges was that once you establish your hero as reticent to take cases, you have to work hard to motivate said hero into involvement. In this case, as with the first, the motivation is a matter of personal honour. Rather than a family commitment, here one of Wolfe's long-standing henchmen has fallen under suspicion of murder.

Orrie Cather has been juggling two women, and one has turned up dead. The live woman is a pure and charming stewardess that Cather wants to marry, and that might prove challenging if he goes to prison for killing the other woman. In short order it seems possible that everyone was blackmailing everyone else. While The Doorbell Rang tackled a contemporary topic, this book seems to whip us back to the 30s, where one might use the word "doxy" in the first place. I didn't realize until the end that I was picturing the cars, costumes and even the rhythms of the 1930s in this book written and presumably set 30+ years later.

Here we have another hard-boiled trope come finally to call on the sexless Wolfe: he's met his match, and she's a woman. She is the dead woman's inexplicable best-friend, nightclub performer Julie Jaquette. We are meant to be captivated by this wilful and cynical kindred spirit of Wolfe, but mostly the shock here is that Wolfe sets aside his natural squeamishness towards women and they have some actual conversations. Jaquette can keep Wolfe on his toes mostly by making an awful lot of sharp turns and pithy one-liners, but sure enough, the effect is indeed charming. Their banter escalates to a caper, which isn't quite as much fun, but Stout can only find so much room in the plot for a friendship.

The treatment of women here is pretty uneven, but this is a work of its time and place. The women are girls, dames, broads, wives or doxies, and few of them are more than that. Jaquette is more, but only in so far as Stout concedes to give her some of the choicer dialogue, and leaves her some uncategorized mysteries that the other women (and frankly, most of the men) aren't afforded. Her wiles are more than just standard issue feminine wiles, and she doesn't feel like furniture in her scenes with Wolfe and Archie.

I found the climactic act of deduction is a too-pat "misjudgment of hubris", but as usual it is made up for with a lot of movement and drama. Of the three works, it was the tightest and most satisfying.

With another couple dozen titles in this series waiting patiently for me on a co-worker's shelf, I am sure I will return to Wolfe's brownstone. But having sampled his work thoroughly, I think I will wait until the cottage is aired out and there is some sun on the back porch again.


  1. Previously, I reviewed the first and second novels in the Nero Wolfe series: Fer-de-Lance and The League of Frightened Men respectively.
  2. My spouse's review of Fer-de-Lance has a much better discussion of Archie Goodwin, the quasi-Watson of this series.
  3. Confusingly, Wolfe claims to be American born in this novel, rather than born in Montenegro. It makes little sense in the context of the story, and conflicts with all later books. Stout was pressured to change Wolfe's birthplace by the publisher.
  4. Which leads actually to the most interesting aspect of this novel: Stout himself drew the attention of the FBI, and was placed under investigation by them.


Ruling Passion by Reginald Hill

Ruling Passion
Reginald Hill, 1973, 328p.
I have always had something of a bias against the "this time it hits close to home" trope in fiction. In detective fiction, I enjoy when cases have personal resonances for our detectives, but generally I don't like when they have actual personal connections. This bias puts a damper on my enjoyment of movie thrillers, where invariably the hero's family is at risk or requires avenging.

The most obvious reason for this bias is that it seems pretty improbable and needlessly manipulative. How many times in reality has a detective had to go rogue and solved a case before his colleagues catch up with him because they believe him to be the killer? How many times does the hero cop catch up with the real murderer during the same climactic moment his reticent partner catches up with him? It cannot be a large number.

A less obvious reason is that one of the points of a hero is that they do their jobs skillfully and exhaustively even when it is someone else's family at risk, or someone else's wife's murder that needs solving, or someone else's name that needs clearing. The heroic ideal is the person that goes into the burning building to save the person he doesn't know. Part of the joy of a great detective story is that compulsion to make things right that can never be made right again. The sense that they can fulfill an important role that changes things, but doesn't change anything.

So, I was disappointed when I saw where the first chapter of Ruling Passion was headed: Detective Pascoe and now-girlfriend Ellie Soper arrive late for a weekend reunion with out of town college friends only to discover three of their friends savagely murdered, and the fourth missing. This is the third outing for Detective Superintendent Dalziel and his Sergeant Pascoe1, and Pascoe here is out of his beat, functioning as a shocked and troubled witness rather than an investigator. Dalziel almost doesn't figure in the first third of the novel; he is working away on a string of robberies. The partnership between the two heros is disrupted, and Pascoe's role is disrupted.

Despite my bias, Hill kept me moving, and this outing is in fact the best in the series so far. Pascoe profited from the fish-out-of-water routine, with trenchant observation on his position as a policeman but not an investigator. Pascoe also reflects on grief and shock eloquently (though the voice feels more authorial here), and Hill's writing-in-the-small is tremendous.

As with the last novel, the writing-in-the-large stretches credibility. In An Advancement of Learning, I was more forgiving of this: the character work was stellar, and the characters and the setting largely felt very real. Only the logic of the crime was incredible, and you cut yourself off from too much detective fiction if you cannot forgive a preposterous crime2. Or perhaps the problem is that the interactions and reflections of our three series characters (Dalziel, Pascoe and Ellie) are so interesting that you indulge the actual crime investigations only grudgingly. There is murder, fraud, robbery, a suicide attempt and likely more here, and naturally all of it is somewhat implausibly connected, though mercifully not in an "evil genius" or conspiratorial manner. It is interesting enough, incredible but not fantastical, but you shortly wish he would get back to the scuffling between our heros.

The highlight of the book and the low point of the book both rotate around Ellie Soper, Pascoe's girlfriend. The highlight is the introduction of the relationship between Dalziel and Ellie, a relationship of rambunctious tensions. Hill knows these characters intimately, and the reader feels that he only has to put them in a room or on the phone together to have their interactions appear on the page. Dalziel is coarse, meticulously thoughtless, and chauvinist largely for the charm of provocation. Ellie is a strong, smart "modern" young woman3, self-possessed but only casually combative. Dalziel forces an upper hand in an early encounter with a shock attack, but a rematch over beer is endearing in its dance of mutual restraint.

The low point brings us back around to our "this time it hits close to home" trope. If you venture into this territory to generate drama and develop characters, you have to take all the characters along for the ride. Pascoe's reaction to finding his friends brutally murdered is moderately believable: he is a policeman, and he is inured to some aspects of the shock. Grief falls over him, and the combination of the familiar shock and the unfamiliar shock is handled well in the early story. Ellie has little preparation for such a shock, and is whisked away and sedated. Her shock and trauma has moments of reality, but for the purposes of his story, Hill is forced to let it melt away much too quickly. Tough though she may be, the stroll from the bloody scene of a massacre to a sparring banter session in a pub is surely a long one. In this regard, as with some of the writing around the crime, Hill is writing a detective novel from a generation earlier: the body is found, and shortly tea will be served in the drawing room.

That can all be forgiven of authors 80 years ago and of authors today, but I can't so easily forgive taking one character on one journey of discovery while another quickly slides through a trap door into her own expedient developments at great odds with reality.

I've been promised that Hill's novels keep getting better and better, and so far this is deeply affirmed. Hill is getting brave with his characters, and while I think he overreached a bit here, the bravery keeps things moving forward.


  1. I reviewed An Advancement of Learning previously, the second Dalziel and Pascoe novel.
  2. The preposterous murder is perhaps the great tradition of detective fiction, from the exotic poison snake in the sock drawer to the tampered parachute. Hill's murders themselves are realistic so far in the series: firearms or blunt force trauma, usually unpremeditated. It is the scenarios around the murders that are generally the issue, mostly, in my opinion, the challenge with motives.
  3. Written as it was in 1973, Ellie isn't remotely contemporary, but she is largely written as progressive for the time, thus "modern".


Paying for It by Chester Brown

Paying For It
Chester Brown, 2011, 292p.
Subtitled A Comic-strip Memoir About Being a John, this graphic work explores both Brown's journey into paid intimacy, and both his comfort and discomfort with prostitution.

The story starts with Brown's break-up with girlfriend Sook-Yin Lee (yes, the famed broadcaster) and his characteristic deadpan reaction to it. Brown and Lee continue to live together through Lee's next relationship as it begins and then ends. The nature and ending of these relationships crystallizes his feelings about romantic love.

Brown is sensitive and thoughtful, but also austere and practical. It is hard for the reader not to come to the same conclusion that Brown does: Romantic love isn't really his thing. Brown clearly has close and meaningful platonic and brotherly relationships with his ex-girlfriends and with fellow comic artists Seth and Joe Matt and others. The intensity and risks (and compromise, perhaps) of romantic love seem incompatible with him. But Brown goes a step further than most readers will be willing to go, and he dismisses romantic love universally, not bitterly, but certainly with a coldness of incomprehension. Here Brown comes across as reductive and overly broad. He argues convincingly that he needs a combination of filial love combined with sexual release — then unconvincingly paints this as a rational universal position. He sells me that prostitution makes sense as an avenue for him to explore, and portrays his explorations with both sensitivity and honesty. But then he argues that romantic love is a universal evil, and further argues not only for legalization of prostitution, but rather unconvincingly for normalization.

"Normalization" for Brown means that it would be considered normal for ordinary people to exchange money for sex as a part of dating and even within romantic love. Much like sex before marriage was deeply stigmatized in the past but happened anyway, and is now broadly acceptable in most circles, he argues that transactional intimacy could be made acceptable in a similar way, though it would take both legalization and time.

Click to enlarge excerpt
It is easy to understand why Brown argues what he does, and unfortunately it is impossible for the reader not to subject Brown to some sort of analysis. While Brown seems comfortable with his choice in many ways, it is clear the stigma wears at him. Many of the women he transacts with have some level of shame, and Brown is responsive to this shame: he anonymizes the women, stripping their tattoos and obscuring their faces to make sure that no one would guess at their identities from their cartooned forms. He says he talked with many of them about their lives, but limits what he recounts in the book to their experiences with prostitution. Most notably, he has been seeing the same woman for many years, forming a long-term but paid sexual relationship with her; she explicitly requests that he doesn't discuss their relationship any more than he absolutely has to in the book, and he respects that. All of this shame and stigma eats away at the work. Naturally it limits his portrayal of the women in the story, and it makes their interactions even more one-sided then they likely are.

In Brown's expansive footnotes and appendices, he says that he disliked the publishers suggestion for the title "Paying For It" because he felt it suggested a double-meaning: he was paying for sex in the financial sense, but there was some additional cost of a personal, social or perhaps even karmic nature1. He doesn't feel that he has paid that cost, but a full third of this book reads as a defence of his activities. And he is clearly conscious that publishing this sort of work at this time requires an array of either defence or defiance. It seems that there are costs here: either he is open about his lifestyle, and therefore placed on the defence, or he must live this aspect of his life in some level of secrecy. I am conscious that, for some people, locating oneself on the defensive is an opportunity rather than a cost, and sometimes his defence (particularly in the appendices2) feels like a recreation rather than an imposition.

Click to enlarge excerpt
It is no coincidence that I haven't discussed the artwork in this graphic novel yet. Brown's composition and line is disciplined but stiff. He is skillful with dynamic angles and bold use of black, which add some energy to a work that largely lacks movement. Scene after scene takes place in coffee shops and bedrooms, where people simply don't move around much — thank goodness his angles occasionally shift, and he sets some conversations on the street, which allows for visual interest in the background. His figures have a heavy, rigid feel to them. His faces alternate between confused dread and bemused confusion, which in the self-portraits I think is likely pretty accurate.

While the personal aspects of this work are compelling, the prescriptive elements are out of place and unconvincing. Brown has no shortage of bravery when it comes to being open about his personal life; I wish he had been brave enough to let the personal aspect of this story open the reader's mind modestly. Instead he pries at the reader with a crow bar, trying to force open what could only reasonably be cracked ajar. Many readers will also be irked to find that so much of something labelled a "memoir" is given over to uneven libertarian polemic.

Overall, while this is a hard book to love for a variety of reasons, it obviously fascinated me and stuck with me. Though I don't find the artwork exciting or expressive, that can't really be a basis for criticism: With Brown, I don't think that is the point. The restrained artwork dovetails with the narrative to lay him bare for the reader3, and the visual along with narrative honesty here is where things are most successful. When things aren't successful, at least they are thought provoking — sometimes because of what Brown is saying, and sometimes because of what the book seems to say about him.


  1. Brown apparently wanted to title this book I Pay for Sex, a title blunt and telegraphic to the point of comedy.
  2. There are no less than 23 appendices, hand-lettered and only sparsely illustrated. Some of this is the addition of disclaimers and detail to specific sections of the graphic story, other sections are handed over entirely to his arguments for decriminalization and normalization.
  3. Often literally; The New York Time's review aptly describes his self-representation as being like "a praying mantis with testicles".


The Music of Chance by Paul Auster

The Music of Chance
Paul Auster, 1990, 224p.1
David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, which I recently reviewed2, referenced The Music of Chance repeatedly in the segment set in London. The protagonist of that section was in a band called "The Music of Chance", after "a novel by that New York bloke". This century being what it is, I Googled the novel, and within minutes it was on hold for me at the library down the street. Years of serious Wikipedia addition compel me to at least try to follow these links, but link networks get fatter as you traverse them, and time and attention become rarefied and dusty. However, following this link led me towards a rewarding reading experience of four Auster works in fairly short order3.

The novel starts with Jim Nashe driving. Driving and driving. His wife has recently run off, and he has sent his young daughter to be raised by his sister. His estranged father has died, and left him with a modest fortune. After visiting his daughter, he finds himself compelled to drive. He leaves his job as a fireman, and simply starts driving. He drives for over a year, stopping along the way, periodically visiting his daughter and a woman he becomes attached to. The compulsion to drive eventually consumes his inheritance and he finds himself detached from everything but his daughter and sister. With his finances coming to an end, but his restless lust for driving unsatisfied, he happens upon Jack Pozzi, a young man who has obviously just been severely beaten.

Pozzi is a semi-professional gambler with a "sure thing" lined up, but no financing. Nashe goes all in with his remaining cash, in the desperate hope of feeding his need to drive. The story comes to a climax during the "sure thing", a poker game with two lottery millionaires, but the climax is soon deflated as the story takes a sharp turn. Pozzi and Nashe lose more than everything to the millionaires, and become indentured servants, building the millionaires' folly — a wailing wall in a meadow made from imported stones from a long destroyed Irish castle.

While Pozzi balks at the indignity, Nashe struggles with the task but sees it almost as an opportunity. With few connections in his life, and no vision for the future, the isolation and purpose of the folly appear to shift his inertia. But their situation is ambiguous and paranoia reasonably blooms. Are they employees, or slaves? Where they cheated? Will they ever be able to leave?

In each section of the story, Auster allows tension to build, but then whips us down different paths before allowing the tension to resolve, and at a certain point in the story, I found myself getting physically anxious. Repeatedly the author appears to be accelerating towards a climax, but leaves the reader hanging. In the end there is no resolution but rather an eruption.

Late in the story, Nashe is alone in the small trailer set up beside the folly, and he is given a small electric keyboard. He has some of his old sheet music salvaged from the trunk of his car, and starts playing. He discovers that pieces written for the harpsichord sound best on the keyboard, as it has poor volume control. He focuses in on a famous piece by French composer Couperin called "Les Barricades Mystérieuses". He seems to recall that no one was certain what barricades the title refers to. To him there is something compelling about the way the piece builds momentum then slackens but refuses to resolve its internal tensions. Like Mitchell in Cloud Atlas, Auster uses an embedded musical work to wink at rather than explicate the structure of the work, though in Auster's case it is a reference rather than a product of the fiction itself.

I wasn't familiar with Couperin, only enough to know that he was non-fictional. Upon hitting the reference and understanding the importance to the work, I put down the novel and pulled up the Wikipedia page for Couperin, and was listening to a YouTube recording of "Les Barricades Mystérieuses" on a harpsichord within a minute or so4. This sort of referential gratification made me reflective: it would have been entirely impossible when this book was written just over 20 years ago. I could have perhaps found a book or a recording within a couple of days at the library, but only perhaps. Google, Wikipedia and YouTube would seem to render all text into hypertext — while I couldn't click the reference in this hardcover, I was nevertheless satisfied nearly as quickly with text, images and audio.

Does this immediate satisfaction deflate some of the mystery of the work? Does it make a deeper understanding of the work more accessible to the musically obtuse5? Or does it distract from the primary work by embedding it in nest of links?

To be fair, I was led to this compelling novel by following links, so perhaps it is only appropriate than links should lead me back out again.

If you crave a traditional plot or firm resolutions, then this book isn't a good match; it is a novel but not precisely a story. However, the skillful structure and propulsion of the narrative made this effective and affecting. The author's almost reckless manipulation of tension and his persistently eerie tone made this hard to put down.


  1. Full disclosure: My library copy had the first edition cover, not pictured. The first edition cover is possibly the ugliest book cover I have ever seen, and I can't bring myself to post it or even link to it here.
  2. My recent review of Ghostwritten by David Mitchell.
  3. I followed up this novel by reading Auster's New York Trilogy, which in an ideal world I would review soon.
  4. A version for harpsichord and discussion of the name "Les Barricades Mystérieuses".
  5. My neighbour owns a harpsichord, and was intimately familiar with the piece; he would have resolved the reference without digital means. The connecting power doesn't give me something universally impossible, but rather makes something universally possible.


Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

David Mitchell, 1999, 436p.
David Mitchell's debut novel, composed of nine loosely interconnected stories that stretch across Asia and then towards the west. I read Mitchell's Cloud Atlas earlier this year, which featured a set of six interconnected stories. Where Cloud Atlas's stories were nested, and moved forward and then backwards in time, the stories in Ghostwritten take place in roughly the same time and universe. As in the later work, these stories are connected not just by character and coincidence, but also by themes and ideas. Ghosts appear in all the stories, but in various forms - from literal haunting ghosts to ghostwriters to sleeper agents to... well, no spoilers.

It is hard to talk about this novel without using the phrase "astounding debut." This is a first work by a writer who was just 30 at the time this was published, but his confidence and ambition is stunning. He begins moving through Japan to Hong Kong and then into mainland China, establishing a startling sense of place and building (mostly) compelling primary characters for each segment in relatively short stories (each of the first seven stories are around 30 pages). Ignoring the quality of the writing for a moment, you have to pause and admire the gumption of a debut novelist who starts off with a brainwashed cult terrorist on the run in coastal Japan, seething with disgust for the local masses of unconverted. Anger, fear and rank delusion right from page one, and then we are off across the landscape of the world.

With each section, there is a shift in perspective and sometimes in style and tone, though much less so than in Cloud Atlas, where each section is written in a different dialect and genre. The bulk of the stories could work as interesting standalone short stories, though some of the later stories build a little on earlier stories. The second story was a particular favourite of mine: a stalled young Japanese man in Tokyo has ensconced himself in a record store, surrounded by the jazz he loves, but conscious that this isn't where his life is likely to lead. A very sweet and simple love story sets him back off on a journey again, but I was invested both in the journey and in his contemplative stasis. The fourth story ambitiously attempts a history of modern China from the perspective of a woman running a lone tea shack on the side of Holy Mountain1, from her despoiling as a girl by a warlord's son in the late feudal era, through the cultural revolution to the modern day.

After five excellent and distinct segments, it was almost a relief to find that Mitchell hadn't sold his soul for unearthly powers. The sixth segment is an underwhelming art caper in Saint Petersburg, Russia which I dragged myself through with some effort. This section lacked the sense of place that many of the others had, and the primary characters largely bored me. The seventh segment moves to London, and while it isn't the strongest in the novel, I perked right back up. Perhaps Mitchell intentionally let his tightness slip here, before the novel starts accelerating towards its gasping conclusion? He has the skill and the balls to manipulate the reader this way, but I somewhat doubt it. I could imagine him jerking the reader around a bit with a referential but implausible story2, but I can't imagine him intentionally letting the mood and landscape belly flop.

The connections between stories read more like Easter Eggs than critical to the story; companies and people and stories that pop up and satisfy our need for connection, but don't necessarily inform the plot. And there is something of a major plot arc here, I think, though it is somewhat hard to elaborate. Since the traditional novel forms are eschewed, the reader needs to work harder to grasp at the whole. Because the plot (if there is one) is tangled with the reoccurring themes and ideas, the reader is pushed into thinking more about ideas than activities. Or rather, that was my approach - I think that the structure encourages a deeper reading, but doesn't insist on it. You could stroll through this as a collection of crisp short stories or as character studies.

Overall, I didn't like this as much as I liked Cloud Atlas, but it did feel less ostentatious. In between these two books, he wrote number9dream with some similar choices and themes, which certainly gains a spot on my "to be read" list.


  1. Apparently Mount Emei, the highest of the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism in China.
  2. I raise this mostly because he does do something like this in Cloud Atlas, and it worked for me. However, in that case each nested story casts its outer story as potentially fiction and definitely as text or other media, and some of the inner stories critique the outer ones. There isn't that sort of internal interaction with text here, though. Without one section explicitly commenting on another section, which doesn't happen here, I am not sure it makes sense.


White Rapids by Pascal Blanchet

White Rapids
Pascal Blanchet, 2007, 156p.
White Rapids is a short, bold graphic work by young Quebec illustrator Pascal Blanchet, translated from French. Blanchet's interests are obvious from the outset: Architecture and mid-20th century graphic design. His 1950s palette is subtle, warm and consistent throughout, but styles mix and blend - some Googie swash here, Deco there, Streamline Moderne - though all with bold flat and architectural shapes.

Blanchet wants to tell the story of the rise and fall of a company town in remote Quebec. A common story in Canada, this one is unusual in that it is not a mining community, but rather a community built around a hydroelectric project. Founded in the late 1920s (see excerpt for lovely 20s Deco), peaking after the war, the town is then automated into obsolescence in the 1970s. He does tell this story, but only the lightest wisp of it - the bare essentials. There are no characters1, only scenery, which is sometimes peppered with figures. But the scenery! Blanchet is a master with the architectural details, with perfectly coloured bevel and shadow. His set pieces are brooding, wistful and exciting, with a dynamic perspective.

There is a story here to be told in just the architecture. The work starts with the dramatic deco lines and early 20th century offsets of the Aldred building in Montreal2, but tries to manufacture a matching suspense and drama in the narrative that doesn't make any sense to me. Then we have the dam at the centre of the story, with a sense of tension and release that made me need to use the washroom. And then the buildings in the town, pulsing and murmuring away - then later empty but not consumed, warm and with a sense of dust. All perfectly vibrant and powerful, despite the muted palatte.

Excerpt from White Rapids
Just as the drama at the beginning of the story rings false, the drama at the end is thin and twee. In the middle, there is some sort of sing-a-long tour of the town and its surroundings which I think is intended to stitch together various views, but which instead distracted me from the views.

Part of the problem here is that this is a graphic novel but not "comic" style - there are no panel divisions, and no convention of word balloons to lean on to structure the text. Full page and full spread artwork without divides and borders is perfect for his style, but he hasn't figured out how to integrate text. My inclination is that he simply shouldn't have - it consistently distracted from the work. Or perhaps I want him to delete all of the text to rid this work of its most painful aspect, the monumentally bad use of font. Each page has a distracting new font wedged into the artwork. Some are merely hard to read, others are ugly and hard to read. The undisciplined use of type and text here is mysterious, considering how disciplined his line and colouring is.

It is possible to have an extremely pleasurable reading if you gloss over parts of this work. The reader knows what the plot arc is from the back cover, so ignore the text (and the humans) and just look at the set pieces as they move by. In that reading, the post-war years with their supposed optimism and domesticity are one of the ephemeral moments of the century, quickly washed away by late century pragmatism.


  1. Okay, there is one realized character: a "legendary fish" named "The General", a trope so stale that The Simpsons mocked it a full 20 years ago. I'll be generous and note that General Sherman was a catfish, and The General was a sturgeon.
  2. The Aldred Building still stands, and there are lots of great photos online. The excerpt is an establishing view of this building from early in the piece.
Kiirstin also reviewed this book at A Book a Week, and we had a short discussion about it which is posted after her review.


My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

A early collection of Wodehouse short stories, now in the public domain1. There are eight short stories here, four of which are very early Jeeves & Wooster stories, the other four feature Reggie Pepper, who is obviously an early draft of Wooster, sans Jeeves.

My Man Jeeves
P.G Wodehouse, 1919
The Reggie Pepper stories have their odd moments, but Wooster without Jeeves is quickly tiresome and clearly out of balance.

The Jeeves stories are narrated by Wooster in a light, collegial tone with a double-helping of jazz-age aristocratic colloquialisms. Wooster is a member of the English idle classes, in a world of school chums, country houses, perhaps a show after dinner at the Drone’s club. Wooster isn’t particularly sharp, but the bulk of the young men in these stories are even duller, stumbling into money trouble or (more often) a problem of how to attract an engagement or escape from one. They all come to Wooster, but they come for Jeeves.

Jeeves is Wooster’s personal valet, with his own preposterous language. Where Wooster’s exposition is a meandering jaunt around the park, Jeeves is stiff and precise in an equivalently roundabout way. The prime charm, at least in these early stories, is the spousal dialogue between these two; it is extravagantly wrought.

Wodehouse apparently came to plotting late, and the plotting in these stories is pretty thin. I’ve been somewhat spoiled, in that I had watched these stories in season three of Clive Exton’s excellent TV adaptation2. Exton took several of these stories and intertwined and even connected them, while retaining the bulk of the admirable dialogue in place. Stripped and split pea like this, they feel a thin soup indeed.

All four Jeeves stories are worth it for the dialogue. The Reggie Pepper stories are interesting as a precursor, but to channel Wooster for a moment: if I read them again, I wouldn’t, if you see what I mean.


  1. Available from Project Gutenberg, I read it on a Kobo.
  2. Exton's series is great, but these stories all take place in New York rather than London or the English country side, and the obvious production challenges make these episodes pretty claustrophobic and a bit dull.


An Advancement of Learning by Reginald Hill

An Advancment of Learning
Reginald Hill, 1971, 254p
The second novel featuring Dalziel and Pascoe, Reginald Hill's Yorkshire detectives. I read the first novel about a year ago, and wasn't immediately inspired to continue with the series. One of the problems with reading mystery series from the beginning is that the first volume is rarely great. The author is figuring out the characters, the setting, and finding their voice and angle - even more so if this is the authors first series. For example, the first outings of P.D. James's Dalgliesh and Ian Rankin's Rebus - not terrible, but obviously not ready.

Hill's second outing is much more enjoyable. A series of grotesquely improbable murders occurs on a small and somewhat remote college campus. The setting is cozy-style - an insulated and incestuous knot of suspects, but appropriately for its time (the early 1970s) it is lashed through with generational and sexual tension, not to mention generational and sexual experimentation. Superintendent Dalziel is older, corpulent, coarse and direct. His sergeant, Pascoe, is young and university educated - a rarity in a policeman at the time. Pascoe's social science education is a target for constant mockery Dalziel, and the academic setting exacerbates his scorn.

Though credibility is stretched from the starter's pistol, the story is interesting and well told. Hill excels with his secondary characters, though he is more aggressive with scorn and with lust than most. The old maids are generally savaged, and the campus sweater candy is drenched in drool. Largely filtered through the protagonists, the sexism is era-appropriate, though somewhat dissonant to my 21st century ears.

Like James, Hill is concerned with the lives and histories of the primary figures in his mysteries, rather than the mechanics of crime. It makes a richer story, and Hill's writing is thoughtful without being heavy. In this case, though, the climax leaves us with sort of limp motivations for the central crimes. In this book, as with the first, Hill's crimes are improbable and his mysteries a bit soggy, but the thoughtful writing and considered characters makes the flaws easy to forgive.


Jamilti and Other Stories by Rutu Modan

Jamilti and Other Stories
Rutu Modan, 2008, 120p
I previously read and reviewed Rutu Modan's Exit Wounds, this is a collection of graphic short stories from earlier in her career. These stories are 10 to 30 pages each, and you can get a lot of artwork in that space, but not a lot of story. You can make up for that lack of temporal space with the depth of content that the artwork holds, but Modan is really only up to that challenge occasionally. Her line work isn't particularly expressive, and she leaves most of the atmosphere to her colour work.

Or perhaps all the elements are here, but not at the same time? There is great atmosphere and variety of perspective in "The Panty Killer", but the story is a limp mystery that didn't engage me at all. "Homecoming" is made up entirely of bold, full page panels with line and colour that put me in a Gauguin mood, and an interesting story, but thin, rote characters. "Jamilti" has an interesting story and an engaging character, but flat, clumsy line work. And so on, until the last story "Your Number One Fan", which has all the pieces in place and I think is superior to "Exit Wounds".

Which leads me to approach this as a satisfying collection of juvenilia. The reader can watch the author diddle around with various notes, before finally hitting a lovely, rich minor chord.
Except from Your Number One Fan


The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout

The League of Frightened Men
Rex Stout, 1935, 230p.
This is the second Nero Wolfe mystery, and one of the better ones. This novel and Fer-de-Lance1 (the first) were the two selected from Stout's canon for inclusion on the Haycraft Queen Cornerstone2 list of influential crime fiction. In my readings so far, these are indeed the two most worthy.

The story is enjoyable and somewhat unusual. A group of college associates are being threatened by one of their own, with good reason to believe it is the author and playwright that was accidentally crippled in one of their college pranks. Two men are dead, with the strong implication from harassing letters that it was murder. Now another man is missing, a man who had come to Wolfe for help and been turned away. Wolfe wants to cajole the whole group to sign on (and pay up) to have the case solved. As always, Wolfe is staying put, his investigations take the form of reading the potential culprit's books and plays. The street-level action is left to narrator and sideman Goodwin and a long standing group of contract footmen.

Like many of the Wolfe stories, the business angle is as much a part of the intrigue as the crimes. In fact, in this story, Wolfe's chess game with his clients easily takes up as many words as the putative crimes under investigation. Or perhaps I should say, a key dimension of the mystery here is how Wolfe plans to lure customers and execute his contracts.

The artful turn of phrase that I enjoyed so much in Fer-de-Lance is less present here, though not gone. Stout came to these two novels after a series of failures at writing literary fiction, and you can tell. At times playful with sentence and imagery, the narrative feels much more like Archie's voice than the later works I have read. Later works, like The Doorbell Rang seem to have narrative language that melts away from the reader and lets the action sit in the foreground largely unadorned (though the dialogue remains fairly sharp and contorted). Knowing little about Stout's progress, I am inclined to believe that his sense of his audience (boys and young men) evolved, and he dialed up the action and dialed down the language play. This certainly makes the later works more accessible. While he never strips matters to the dial-tone dumb of a Hardy Boys novel, it has dampened my favourite dimension of his work.

As with many of the Wolfe books, don't try to figure out the motivations of any of the secondary characters. The secondary characters are scenery, and trying to understand them as people is like wanting backstory for the fire escape. Actually, given some of Stout's notes included in this series's printing, I think that the fire escape is more likely to have backstory than most of the characters.


  1. I previously reviewed Fer-de-Lance
  2. The Haycraft Queen Cornerstone is a list of influential crime fiction written before 1952 (when the list was last amended).

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Way behind on my reading list - read this a month and a half ago. Sometimes extra time is constructive, I suppose. I find the style and details creep away and I am left mulling the settings and ideas.

Brighton Rock
Graham Green, 1938, 284p.
I picked this classic Catholic murder thriller as my entrée to Greene1, and it seems an excellent choice. Set in the seaside diversions of Brighton, the novel opens with the murder of a London newspaperman "Fred" by young Pinkie and his recently-inherited second-tier gang. Fred's death is ruled natural, but Ida Arnold is convinced otherwise. Pinkie must lock down aging gang member Spicer and young witness Rose before Ida can pry them lose.

Ida Arnold is a secular do-gooder, compelled to act by her sense of justice. Catholics Pinkie and Rose scoff; they live in a landscape of good and evil, not of right and wrong. Human justice for them is just a mechanism by which man inflicts pain on man in the guise of a god. Pinkie embraces his fate in hell, and Rose seems to beg for her corruption. Belief, setting and culture tangle in a layered Brighton, where like hard candy, everything can only ever be whatever it is in the centre.

Greene's writing is rich without being florid, and his characters real but pleasantly opaque. I am a sucker for 20th century English settings, and the pier here seems as compelling a character as Rose.

As far as novels with Christian themes, I feel at home in Catholic novels2. They may be informed by an ideology that is largely inaccessible to me, but at least they have the good sense not to be uplifting.


  1. My wife's uncle is a big fan of Greene, and he graciously marked the books he recommended in the "also by" of this book for me. Unfortunately, it was a library copy, which means that I no longer have the list (and also really shouldn't have marked the library copy). However, Our Man in Havana was definitely there, so I have added that to my TBR.
  2. I reviewed Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away some time ago as a guess reviewer on my wife's book blog. The Violent is another densely Catholic novel with many overlapping themes, despite the many differences between these two authors. Reading both is like attempting a Venn diagram of the Catholic novel.


Across the Empty Quarter by Wilfred Thesiger

Across the Empty Quarter
Wilfred Thesiger, 1959/2007, 96p
This very thin volume is actually an excerpt from Thesiger's Arabian Sands1 (I believe), and it starts and ends in the middle of a much longer narrative. While this means that the first section directly refers to text and events not available, and the last section ends on a notable cliffhanger, I enjoyed the selection. Removed from the larger context, it was easy to submerge into the writing and the experience, even if the overall journey was unclear. It had the feel of reading a diary, with the daily conflicts, rations and mood audited serially.

I have read very little colonial explorer non-fiction, and this work is a fairly late example of this genre2. Thesiger is relatively free of condescension and while he is enamoured with his surroundings, he doesn't wash them in a romantic light. When he sees brutality or foolishness, he is cautious to put it in contrast with the range of his experience in the area (the Arabian desert).

An interesting journey into culture and region now highly transformed3, and also into a type of tourism now long gone.


  1. Arabian Sands is still in print from Penguin. The Penguin Great Journey series was a selection of short works generally culled from other materials that represented interesting historical travel writing, including contributions from Mark Twain, Herodotus and Anton Chekhov among others. The series book design is lovely. Oddly, despite only being published in 2007, they all appear to be out of print now.
  2. The travels discussed here were from 1945-1949, with the writing first published a decade later, though obviously heavily based on notes written in the field.
  3. I have briefly visited nearby Dubai and Abu Dhabi, (which of course are coastal emirates and I would be a fool to confuse these with the desert nomads he writes about,) and the transformational pressures of the last half-century are obvious and at most times surreal.


Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany, 1966, 173p.
Rydra Wong (space-captain/poet/linguist) adventures into space in the midst of a galactic war to track down the source of a new, compelling language. This is science fiction that explores linguistics, specifically the notion that language and perception are tightly coupled. What if languages were designed that allowed new ideas to be formed? What if you could design a language that wouldn't just enable certain thoughts, but would indeed require these thoughts? Would languages that didn't include notions of independent first and second person subjects make you anti-social? Modern linguists would likely dismiss this, but people who work with software developers are forced to consider the question more seriously.

Like a lot of hard science fiction from the 1960s, the science being explored has moved on. But the exploration remains interesting because there is depth to both the writing and the universe. The author's background in the humanities means that there are credible cultures and variations in species and location, credible challenges with languages.

On the downside, the background is a bit more rich than the author can sustain, and some of the business around the discorporate beings is frankly silly and offhand. Overall, fresh, interesting and worthwhile short novel that has aged surprisingly well for something that has had the science move on underneath it.


  1. The edition I have was published back-to-back with Empire Star, another short novel by Delany at the same time. My wife and I both read that story on our 2009 spring migratory bird trip in the back of our camper. My wife reviewed that novel at the time. The two works are quite different, both in style and in universe, but they do connect, in that Empire Star is mentioned as a story written by Rydra Wong in Babel-17.


Solaris, by Stanisław Lem

I waited over a month for my hold at the library to come in, but it was worth it. This is just a lovely short novel. The only translation currently available in print is famously second-class (Polish to French to English1) and I think in places it shows, but the source material shines through.

Stanisław Lem, 1961, 204p2
Our protagonist arrives at a station hovering over the "ocean" planet Solaris, a planet that appears alive, but stubbornly refuses to communicate. The research station is in disarray, with the occupants tormented with what appears to be an attempt by the planet to communicate. Threading through the immediate drama of the personal torment is the history of the discovery and research of the planet, which we encounter through the research station library. This narrative was the highlight of the book for me, a reflective half-satire about science shot through with dazzling imagination and imagery, and a portrait of man's ambition and weakness when it comes to exploration.

The ocean here is my favourite sort of science fiction: a novel, compelling idea that is broad enough to be a metaphor for many things, without being an obvious metaphor for one thing in particular; fascinating on its own, but a gateway to many other ideas. It is almost certainly my notable déformation professionnelle3 talking, but the ocean triggered a lot of thinking about the Internet: like the ocean it appears dispersed, emergent, and largely deaf to human probing and concerns. Some Googling reveals that Lem himself felt vaguely this way about the Internet: "The technology moves forward, however the control of its direction is very weak."4 As a specific metaphor, it falls apart, much like it does as a metaphor for the human mind, the universe and many other things. But it prods you along those paths.

A lot of Lem's optimism feels a bit anachronistic now: his future has knowledge in epic, exhaustive surveys rather than today's dirty squirts (redeemed only by situating themselves in the context of a billion other dirty squirts). His pessimism felt astonishingly topical, though, and it nestled immediately with a friendly cluster of like-minded dirty squirts squirming near the surface of my waters.


  1. The author had expressed disappointment with the translation. Finally a new direct translation has been published, but only as an audiobook, somehow.
  2. Pictured is the first edition US cover, my library copy had a dismal 1980s cover.
  3. A favourite disorder around my office: déformation professionnelle.
  4. See bottom for source and context of quote.


Fer-De-Lance, by Rex Stout

Rex Stout, 1934, 313p.
The first book in Rex Stout's copious Nero Wolfe mysteries. Published in 1934, it appears around the same time when hardboiled American detective fiction was appearing as a sub-genre, and it actually is an interesting coupling - combining the prototypical American tough guy with the "gentlemen detectives" which were the British mainstay at the time.

Nero Wolfe, corpulent and cerebral, directs the investigation sequestered in his Manhattan brownstone. Archie Goodwin, the narrator, is his American leg-man, a tethered version of his darker American counterparts. Where many of the British detective fiction in this area is confined, here we bounce from the closed world of Wolfe's brownstone to the car-focused movements of Goodwin. It is a formula that works, with the dynamic established in this first book virtually unaltered for the remaining 30+ novels in the series.

The writing is the real hero here: inventive and colloquial, evocative and playful. It never tries to be more than entertaining, exuding charm but forsaking depth.

A major problem for me is that Wolfe is an infallible genius and all the detection is done up front, leaving the bulk of the novel to drive verdicts to conclusions -- largely by bullying. Additionally, as an enthusiast of character, there is a lot missing here. While our principal cast have dimension, those inhabiting the mystery around them (including the victims) are paper thin, or worse.

I started with the first book, but next I will try one of the best-loved episodes next before passing judgement. Enjoyable sun-time reading, certainly.


Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

Chronic City
Jonathan Lethem, 2009, 480p.
The novel centres on a pot-fuelled and bohemian friendship in a semi-parallel Manhattan. Here a giant tiger (literally? or perhaps lovesick mining gear?) stalks the streets; Marlon Brando is alive or dead or maybe never was? Orbiting the earth is (perhaps) our narrator's fiancee, stranded by Chinese space mines. Can Perkus Tooth, retired columnist and cluster headache survivor come to understand this Manhattan? If he does, can any understanding be transmitted to Chase Insteadman, retired sitcom actor and designated mourner?

Initially disappointed, I am retro-reading this book as a frame for the series of love letters from space that run through the novel. These letters are beautifully written, compelling, and in the end manage to be heartbreaking in three dimensions. The rest of the novel focuses on Insteadman, a consciously cardboard entity. He provides a required frame for the space letters, and the earthbound world around him occasionally sparkles with beauty or wit. I understand that his vacancy is one of the points of the novel, but also sucks too much of the vitality from its bones.

Oddly, this book compels me to read more Lethem, not so much because the journey was engaging, but because the glimpses along the way were so enticing. Trolling around in reviews suggests that there might be works by him that glimmer all the way through. So, Motherless Brooklyn goes into my "to be read", but I would not recommend this as an entry work for Lethem.


Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Bridge of Birds
Barry Hughart, 1985, 288p.
Based loosely on Chinese folktales and the form of the Taoist novel, this is a semi-episodic quest adventure to save the children of a village who have been poisoned by local (yet oddly omnipresent) hucksters. Along the way, our heroes fall sideways into a quest of divine proportion. Our hero and narrator is Number Ten Ox, the village lummox. He is dispatched to find a sage to cure the children, and finds Master Li, an impossibly old drunk with "a slight flaw in his character". The episodes in the quests have a cyclical form, with repeated elements and situations mixed with inventive and suitably unlikely palaces, magic and monsters.

Full disclosure requires that I mention that fantasy and folk stories are two genres that I struggle to enjoy. The fact that this novel kept my interest says a fair bit about its execution. Folk stories in particular, with their tendency towards archetypes and evil, magic and beasts, feel inhuman and didactic to me. The supposed Taoist form here avoids my least favoured aspect of the folk story: the innocent. Even the divine are fallen and foolish, and the human tends towards the foreground.

This book felt to me like "Chinese Takeout" — by consensus it is isn't based deeply in any reality, enjoyable to chow down on but ultimately not terribly substantive. I was hungry an hour later. Charm, some wit, fairly skilled execution. A bit cardboardy and... a strong suspicion that most of these dishes have the same base sauce.

Also, way, way too salty.


Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan

Exit Wounds
Rutu Modan, 2007, 168p.
Exit Wounds is the first full-length graphic novel by Israeli author Rutu Modan. This is a nice smaller work with two strong and contrasting major characters, both of whom have closed themselves to different sorts of truths. Israeli life is a strong background echo which supports rather than informs the central themes of estrangement.

The writing is the strongest thing here, but the art is mostly very good. The colouring is flat and harmonic (a little like Chris Ware), but occasionally a bit too busy. Her composition can be exciting and dynamic, but so often it isn't.

Most unusually, her line work often feels most expressive in her background work, with primary faces and hands awkward and empty. This can perhaps be said of the whole work: it breathes in the background, and falters in the foreground. For example, the illumination of Israeli life is subtle but rich, but pleasantly background. The main characters have moments that feel genuine, but they have too much space to work in here, or perhaps not enough. Whatever the failings, though, there is more than enough talent here to make me keenly anticipate a sophomore work.