Aug 202016
 

The Luminaries

By Eleanor Catton

Two Stars

Read July 2014

Despite all the glowing reviews and the Booker Prize, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries fails to obey the first rule of fiction: Show, don’t tell. The novel opens with the long-winded telling of the same story by twelve different men: on the 1886 night when the richest man in the New Zealand gold fields went missing, a young whore tried to end her life and a hermit in the nearby hills died. Those twelve each represent a different astrological sign, and while an understanding of astrology may add layers of meaning to Catton’s story, that knowledge does not appear essential to understanding the book. Each of the men purport to have some special interest in the happenings they relate, but the hows and whys remain obscure. Eventually, we meet the suicidal whore, explore the hermit’s hovel with all its secrets, and are introduced to a slew of other characters major and minor. But for most of the 800 pages of this novel, the story always circles back to the open mysteries: What happened to the richest guy in the gold fields? Why did the whore try to kill herself? How did the hermit die? In addition to her astrological motif, Catton brandishes a bunch of gimmicks from Victorian novels, including a sea chest that goes missing, a huge but unsigned bequest, and a seance. And just like so many Victorian novels, this one goes on and on and on, telling and telling and telling while endlessly circling back to the opening mysteries. When the reader has just about given up hope of ever finding out the answers to those initial questions because the book has almost run out of pages, Catton provides a brief explanation that left this reader wondering, “That’s it?” Catton is no idiot, but after 800 pages of sound and fury, her story truly signifies nothing.

Aug 202016
 

Tatiana

By Martin Cruz Smith

Four Stars

Read September 2014

I slammed Smith’s last Renko mystery for too little story, and his recent revelation that he’s suffering from Parkinson’s, which now requires him to dictate his novels to his wife, may provide some insight into the problems with that book. But those problems definitely are not in evidence in his most recent novel, Tatiana, which may be shorter than earlier works but still delivers a full and satisfying read. The novel opens with the murder of a translator in Khaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic Sea port that is separated from the motherland by hundreds of miles of former Soviet republics. That killing is soon followed by the falling death of Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative reporter who goes out a Moscow window the same week a Russian mob boss is gunned down. When Arkady Renko winds up with a cache of Tatiana’s tapes and a notebook filled with pages of word-pictures he can’t understand, he’s sucked into an investigation that nobody wants or authorizes of a death officially deemed an suicide. Unraveling the mystery carries him from Moscow to Khaliningrad and offers a fascinating look at contemporary Russia and some really scary bad guys.