Thursday, January 31, 2013

250 posts!

The review of John Armstrong's Classic Layout Designs is the 250th post. If you wish to use that a an excuse to celebrate, please do so. There are precious few reason to celebrate, so every excuse counts.

Classic Layout Designs (John Armstrong)

     John Armstrong Classic Layout Designs (2000) 15 articles reprinted from Model Railroader, all with beautifully reproduced new prototype photos. The drawings were also brought to a common standard, but the computer operator had some problems: elevation marks are inconsistent. As with all perfect-bound books, the gutters are too narrow, and bleeding pictures to the inside causes an irritating loss of graphic information.
     Armstrong has added brief comments on his articles, which are entertaining to read. He notes that "layover tracks" are now called staging. He emphasises that layouts should be designed to be built in stages. But he’s too modest to draw attention to his four primary contributions to layout design: a) scene-by-scene plans based on prototypes (the "layout design element" or LDA of the layout design SIG); b) fitting main lines into a space subdivided into squares based on minimum radius; c) staging; d) use of backdrops (even double-sided) and hidden trackage to limit the visible layout to one scene at a time. All these are aspects of total layout design, an approach that his disciple Iain Rice has also mastered. About the only difference between Armstrong and modern designers is aisle-width: 30" or more is now considered minimal.
     Reading Armstrong’s plans can be difficult, as he was a master of squeezing every last inch of track into the space available, a skill no doubt developed because he designed for real people living in real houses. This creates a deceptively spaghetti-bowl look. Careful study reveals that very rarely can one see more than one scene at a time, however, and then usually only by elevating oneself to helicopter level. Printing the scenic suggestions in darker ink could have mitigated the problem.
     Only the wretched physical design of the book prevents four stars. *** (2001)

Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine July/August 1997

      Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, July/August 1997. Borrowed from WCESS. Demonstrates that the short story is the mystery genre’s best format: just long enough to create barely believable characters and a plausible plot, but compressed enough for an easily visible shape of the story. Most of the stories are sentimental, a few have the Hitchcockian twist of the crook inadvertently double-crossing himself (or herself) through excessive ingenuity, and a couple work on every level.
     Memories (Wanda Jones) plays a nice variation on Southern Gothic: a plain girl’s nasty older brother gets his just deserts in a psychologically satisfying way. Stop, Thief! (Dan Sontup) works the double-cross motif expertly: honest citizen wants to use petty crook in an insurance scam and set him up as the fall guy, but makes the common error of thinking crooks are dumber than honest citizens. Streetwise (J. A Paul) believably mixes a smart kid, school bullies, an observant cop, and a martial arts coach into a well-paced yarn. Most of the stories are competently written (or edited). A few are a bit precious in style or concept, but I guess the magazine has to cater to a wide range of tastes. ** to *** (2001)

Murder on Location (Howard Engel)

     Howard Engel Murder on Location (1982) One of the Benny Cooperman series, which had a moderate success some years ago. (There’s a new one out, so I guess he’s still popular). Soft-boiled PI, gris rather than noir in mood. Plot somewhat convoluted, and Engel is not as adept at planting clues and red herrings as other writers: the reader (me) gets confused. Perhaps more recent stories are better constructed. The characters are attractive and real enough to engage interest, the style is competent, the atmosphere realistic in the mannered style of such confections. Two people are murdered; the roots of the crime are deep in the past. Cooperman is a shadowy figure, however, despite the first-person narrative. The book will do as an airplane read. ** (2001)
     Upfate 2013: I read all the Cooperman stories eventually. Most of them are better than this one.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Helen Fielding)

     Helen Fielding Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Picador, 1999) Kathryn gave me this book after failing to finish it. After failing to finish it myself, I understand her reasons: Fielding is a one-trick dog. The first Bridget Jones book had the advantage of freshness, and Bridget did display some change and development. This Bridget is trapped in her angst and neurosis. The closest she comes to change is to remind herself of what she believes she has become, a resourceful, responsible woman of substance. The constant repetition gets tiresome – plot consist of more than happenings. Also, the book has a lot of the feel of The Diary of a Nobody about it, we are supposed to feel superior to poor Bridget and her laugh at her inability to get out of her emotional tarpits. Leaves a bad taste. Didn’t finish. *

Present tense (John Moss)

      John Moss Present Tense (NC Press, 1985). A collection of essays on authors such as Timothy Findley who achieved prominence from the 1960s onward. Also included: Jack Hodgins, Mavis Gallant, Michael Ondaatje, Norman Levine, Carol Shields, David Helwig, Hugh Hood, Matt Cohen, Marian Engel, Audrey Thomas, George Bowering, and Robert Kroetsch. The list illustrates how the reputation of the moment does not predict the future. Hodgins, Helwig and Kroetsch are now of merely academic interest (ie, only academics read them, not necessarily seriously), while Ondaatje achieved pop star status with The English Patient. This book is part IV of a series, and authors you might expect to be treated here appeared in earlier books. The essays themselves are on the whole not well written. Many read as if written for an undergraduate course; perhaps that is their provenance, since most of the writers discussed were at the time too new to have established an oeuvre. The photographs of the authors show them in their 30s, very young-seeming in light of their later work.
      I did not read all the essays in this book. I found the common "reader’s response" point of view tedious – a critical work should attempt to describe the objective aspects of a book, not merely the reader’s feelings. Also, several writers used the past tense to summarise a book’s story, a modern habit I find very irritating. There was also a general sense of limited experience and knowledge, hard to pin-point, and perhaps more an effect of the style and of omissions than of explicit errors. What the essayists lacked most, however, was delight in their subject. A good critic conveys not only that his subject matters enough to write about, but also that the book was a pleasure to read. That particular "reader’s response" appeared only in George Woodcock’s essay on Findley, and almost made me want to attempt again to read that tedious trickster. * (2001)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Muppets Take Manhattan (Movie Review)

     The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) Not the best Muppet production. It tells the trite but true story of the show-biz group that tries to conquer Broadway, fails on first try, eventually gets a break, and puts on a smash hit. But the movie moves so slowly I sometimes wondered why one should call it a movie. It also lacks the Muppet zaniness, has no satirical edge whatever, and generally disappoints the seasoned Muppet expert who, like me, has watched their TV series over and over again. In the end, Kermit and Miss Piggy get married. This should’ve been an opportunity for a madhouse wedding reception, but no, the movie just stops. Mildly amusing, with a couple of bits that approach the expected standard, but overall a disappointment. Perhaps the slow pace is designed to appeal to young children. ** (2000)

Small, Smart & Practical Trackplans (Iain Rice)

     Iain Rice Small, Smart & Practical Trackplans(2000) A very well written book. The title misleads, as Rice has here designed layouts, not mere trackplans. He makes this point in the introductory chapters: that one should design a layout, not merely draw a trackplan. He also provides useful tips on construction of ultra-small layouts and staging methods (eg, the train cassette, a brilliant idea. I wonder who invented it.
     The layout designs he offers are very well done. They each have a charm of their own, are definitely practical (some are of layouts he has built), and the overall philosophy is just what’s needed, now that people are discovering that the basement-sized layout demands a club of some sort (even if only a group of the builder’s friends.) I wish the book were as well designed as written. It’s a perfect-bound book with very narrow gutters, which results in slices cut out of several trackplans. Also, a spellchecker has been used to proofread the text, and it shows, from stray words in strange places, to the potentially damaging misprinting of ‘uptight’ for ‘upright’ on p.78 (in the chapter about Lake Wobegon.) These minor flaws irritate all the more as Kalmbach usually produces impeccable books. Content **** Production *
      Footnote: When I look back at the layouts I tried to design some 30 years ago, I realise that I had half-formed some of the ideas Rice presents here. They build on John Armstrong’s principles, the major change being the attempt to balance all aspects of a layout. Armstrong designed operating model railroads, but did not make as much use of staging as is now the norm, and sometimes skimped on scenic effects in order to get sufficient trackage for ‘real’ operation. Rice emphasises that the scene we see is all that matters, and that the trains that pass through it are like actors in a play, a point first made by Frank Ellison. Staging tracks can take the place of a basement full of railroad. Armstrong’s layout designs led to the railroad that fills up a basement. Rice’s reinterpretation of Frank Ellison reminds us that a small railroad can offer as much operating interest as a large one; and, because the layout can be finished in a reasonable time, may offer even more modelling pleasure.


Monday, January 28, 2013

Trent's Last case (E C Bentley)

     E C Bentley Trent’s Last Case. (1913ff) With an essay by Dorothy Sayers. This is a classic, so they say. It apparently demonstrated how to open up the detective story genre, and in some ways I suppose it did. It actually blends love romance and crime novel, for the central plot point is not who done it, but will the ‘tec, Philip Trent, find true love? He suspects that his lady love, Mrs Manderson, is implicated in the murder of her husband, you see, and being the chivalrous dog he is he can’t bring himself to pass his deductions to Inspector Murch, the copper with whom he conducts a friendly rivalry. As it turns out, he needn’t have worried, for he was wrong, and his lady is innocent – as is her putative lover Marlowe, although he is the one who has discovered that Manderson has tried to frame him, and so tries to make what looks like suicide look like murder by person or persons unknown and unsuspected – himself least of all. But the real murderer is Cupples, Mrs Manderson’s uncle, and he doesn’t reveal his part in the story until the verty, very end. Trent quite properly makes him pay for dinner.
     This is an interesting story, but it is terribly dated all the same. I don’t think it’s just that we’ve had the same sort of double and triple plot twists over and over again, for we don’t in fact tire of plot twists. The style is quite amusing, in the somewhat laboured Edwardian mode. It’s the sexual morality that dates the book. The purity of womanhood was a given in those days, and Mabel Manderson and Philip Trent just don’t ring true anymore. The lover tortured by moral scruples about imputing impurity to his beloved is definitely a creature of another century.
     The puzzle was quite good, but Bentley isn’t as good on the process of solution as he should be. One can see that, if this was indeed the first of its kind, it was a ground-breaking work, and why Sayers claims it set later crime writers free to write novels, not mere puzzle stories. Nevertheless, the book was a pleasant read. **1/2 (2000)

Selected Writings (Oscar Wilde)

     Oscar Wilde Selected Writings. (Selection 1961) Several essays, the fairy tales, and the two great plays – a pleasure to read. Wilde’s great gift is to express a morally serious point of view through in elegant epigrams. He is always a pleasure to read – and that pleasure exhibits Wilde’s greatest weakness. Unfortunately, many people believe that a funny saying cannot be meant seriously, and so don’t listen to the satire, even if they hear it. I read most of the selections this time round. The Importance of Being Earnest is a joy. ****

Reflections on the Psalms (C S :Lewis)

     C. S. Lewis Reflections on the Psalms (1961) Lewis is not at his best here. He writes, he says, as a neophyte for other neophytes; he aims the book at fellow Christians. And there are difficulties in doing this, but they don’t arise from Lewis’s pretended theological innocence. Lewis is a moral theologian of no mean skill, and his reflections convince most when he reflects on the psalms’ moral lessons. But underlying the whole book is an odd literalism, which often makes his arguments seem designed to conform not to logic but to some external standard of truth. Lewis doesn’t accept such special pleading elsewhere, so I think there is an unreconciled conflict between the need to believe that the Bible is God’s word, i.e., Truth, and the knowledge that it is after all a collection of very old books, rife with errors, omissions, mistakes, and obvious and not so obvious redactions, let alone the inherent translation errors, and the inevitable mistakes in interpretation that come from our ignorance and prejudices, and differences in culture or worldview between ourselves and the writers.
     Lewis is disturbed by a number of things in the psalms, not least the hate-psalms, and twists and turns every which way to explain them away. His explanation essentially amounts to this: As a believer, I am bound to find some good in these horrible things, since they are inspired by God. Therefore, some good must be found. And the good is that it is a horrible example. In other words, Lewis has certain values and the Psalms must be interpreted to conform to these values. I always find this a problematic mode of argument, even when, as here, it leads to useful insights.
     Lewis would never take this approach with other literature, and I am disappointed that he does so here. It would be better in my opinion if he had said he had no explanation, that these psalms are there as much by reason of ancient reverence for ancient texts as for any spiritual reasons. Such reverence often amounts to superstition, not only in the past but nowadays, too. I also believe that the Bible is inspired, but I don’t have as literalist an interpretation of this concept as Lewis apparently does. I think the Bible should be read like any other text. That is, we need to understand as best we can what the texts meant to their writers, and distinguish that from what they might mean to us. Lewis does some of this, but unlike me he doesn’t build on what our ancestors (probably) thought they meant, he adds meaning from a new frame of reference, the Christian one. From time to time, his argument reads more like reading into the text than reading out of it.
     There is also more than a whiff of the Only Truth syndrome. Lewis occasionally hints that pagans and other non-Christians have a dim understanding of God’s revelation by the grace of God, but Christians have the whole thing, and pure, too. It seems to me that he is the True Believer personality. When he found atheism wanting, he went to the opposite extreme. This makes me think about exactly what I believe. First of all, I think that to say "I believe" means something quite different from "I know." Belief is about meaning (and therefore about purposes). Knowledge is about experience. One could rephrase this as, we know what we have experienced, but as soon as we try to explain it, we enter the realm of belief. EG, we know that our instruments measure certain energy flows. We believe that this means there has been a change in the energy content of electrons in the atom. The fact that we have checks on our beliefs doesn’t make them knowledge. One consequence of this: accounts of our experience are true or false (someone else can confirm or disconfirm them), but accounts of our beliefs are not. A belief is consistent or inconsistent with our accounts of experience – but consistency is not the same as truth.
     The question is, what is religious belief as distinct from other beliefs? I think it is the claim of what they cover. Simply, religious beliefs claim to explain the meaning and purpose of our existence. They don’t answer the question, How did we come to be here? but the much more serious question of Why did we come to be here? I affirm the Christian belief not because I think it is true but because it is consistent with my experience on a grander scale than any other I have encountered. Does that mean the others are any less worthy of affirmation? Not from my point of view, but that merely means that I have built (and continue to build) my Christian belief system so that it makes sense to me. No doubt other believers have done the same with their belief systems. The fact that religions have so much in common suggests that they are all, so to speak, inspired by the Spirit.
     Can a belief be true? As I said, I don’t think so. But one can test a belief’s consistency. A beliefs should be consistent with itself, and it should be consistent with experience. Related beliefs should be consistent with each other. Science is a method of testing beliefs about the meaning of ordinary experience. What’s significant here is that over time scientists affirm the same beliefs, and agree that tests show errors, that is, inconsistencies in these beliefs. Scientists also have methods of building beliefs. That is why their beliefs are called theories, or more recently models (since the word theory has lost almost all its useful meanings in everyday language.)
     Can religious belief be tested? Of course. Jesus said how: "By their fruits ye shall know them," he said, and spent a lot of time pointing out the hypocrisy of his co-religionists. If one doesn’t act consistently with one’s stated beliefs, then clearly something is wrong, either with the beliefs, or the claim that one is following them. Lewis is in fact very good on showing the fruits of belief and unbelief. His strength is moral theology. Where his book focuses on these questions, I find it convincing and helpful. Overall: *** (2000)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Way Through the Woods (book)

      Colin Dexter The Way Through the Woods (1992) A cold case, the disappearance and possible murder of a Swedish girl, is revived when a letter containing a poem referring to a Swedish Maid is published in The Times. Morse has just gone on holiday, so it takes a while for his investigation to get going. The puzzle’s solution is acceptable on an intellectual level, but this time Dexter’s psychology is off. I just don’t believe the motivations of the murderers (yes, there are two). Dexter tells the story in short chapters, some which are diary excerpts, newspaper clippings, and police reports. The resemblance to a video or movie script keeps the story moving, but it was the memory of John Thaw’s Morse and Kevin Whately’s Lewis that created the sense of a world inhabited by real people that I want from even the most formulaic crime story.
      There’s no question: the video adaptations of Dexter’ work are far better works of art and craft than Dexter’s novels. He’s meticulous in the placement of clues and red herrings, and scrupulously fair in the resolution of the puzzle, but ultimately the characters are thin and the motivations perfunctory. We know for example that Morse likes Wagner, but we don’t really know why. I don’t like Wagner much as it happens; I think his Ring operas are bombastic and stupid misreadings of the sagas, and much of his music is sheer kitsch (it’s no accident that Hollywood composers allude to it when reaching for dramatic ambience to juice up a second-rate movie). But some of his pieces are sublime evocations of Weltschmerz, which is enough. I have no idea whether Morse would agree with me, and without that knowledge Morse’s preference for Wagner over Gilbert and Sullivan is a mere tic of character.
      As crime puzzle, the book is first rate. As a crime novel, it’s mediocre. **

The Mirror Crack'd & Peril at End House (book reviews)

     Agatha Christie The Mirror Crack’d (1962) This is one of the best Miss Marple stories. A woman dies suddenly during a reception at the recently renovated Gossington Hall (where the body had been found in the library many years before). The psychology of the crime baffles the police. Who would want to murder this harmless busybody? As so often happens in an Agatha Christie, the past holds the vital clue. Twenty years before, the victim had hauled herself from her sickbed in order to meet her idol, a film star. Miss Marple, physically frail and mentally a little slower than she used to be, as always is able to empathise with both the murderer and the victim, and by doing so to understand both why and how the woman was murdered. The plotting is beautifully done, everything fits. There are a few nicely done digressions, which serve to show Miss Marple’s acumen, and also, I suspect, to express Christie’s distaste for the effects of population growth and modernisation. The characterisation is more subtle and complex than in the early novels, which adds to the charm of this book. ***½

     Agatha Christie Peril at End House (1932) One of the best Poirots: the murderer actually enlists Poirot in the hunt for her supposed attacker. I knew the story before I reread this novel, but that increased the pleasure: I could see how artfully Christie places red herrings amongst the genuine clues in Poirot’s path. I think she enjoyed showing how Poirot’s vanity misleads him. If he weren’t so sure of his perspicacity, he wouldn’t accept the story fabricated for him. The murderer is clever enough to build the story through apparently trivial details. The significance of apparent trivialities is Poirot’s forte, and his attention to them is therfore also his weakness. I throughly enjoyed rereading this book ***½

Life of Pi (movie review)

     Life of Pi (2012) [D: Ang Lee. Suraj Sharma, et al] We went to see this because Marie has read the book and liked it. She said the movie followed the book quite well; she even commented on what some sequences were supposed to be, e.g., a "mythic world".
     I haven’t read the book, and based on this movie, I won’t be reading it. When the book first appeared, some reviewers alluded to Latin American "magic realism", and drew comparisons with Gabriel Maria Marquez. I don’t know why, but this kind of comparison puts me off. I’ve read some Marquez, and seen the movie of Love in the Time of Cholera, which I enjoyed a lot. Maybe I fear that comparisons will set me up for disappointment.
     The movie was entertaining enough, with some tense moments when Pi is almost drowned for example, and the imagery was sometimes gorgeous. The most interesting bits were the back story about the family preceding the shipwreck. There are unanswered questions about how the tensions and conflicts within the family might be resolved. Pi’s sampling of several religions is nicely done, and for my money a story interweaving the family and personal threads would have been enough. The shipwreck and the bit with the tiger is gratuitous fantasy, and about the only thing that can be said in its favour is Pi’s own comment: "It happened. Why should it have a meaning?"
     Pi’s search for meaning is the theme and excuse for the story, and presumably his ordeal of survival on a lifeboat with only a tiger for company is supposed to help us understand the existential ambiguities. Pi at first tells the tiger story to the insurance investigators, and when they reject it, tells them a more horrific tale of murder and revenge, which to my mind has the ring of truth. The frame story has Pi telling both tales to a visitor (who’s visiting Pi on a recommendation by Pi’s uncle), but only the tiger story is actually shown. The visitor interprets the fantasy as a version of the reality, and decodes it as such. Then Pi asks the visitor which tale he prefers: "The one about the tiger." We may prefer that story, too. Some of us, anyhow. I don’t. I find it a rather pedestrian fantasy, actually. The struggle to stay alive, with all the apparently trivial random events that threaten death, was involving enough. The tiger isn’t needed to increase the tension, so why is he there? Because Yann Martel decided to put him there, I suppose. Or because he wanted the tiger to be a symbol for the Other that resides within all of us. A bit pretentious, and so awkwardly done that the visitor’s explication is actually needed.
     I wouldn’t have chosen to see this movie, but having seen it, I can say that if you want to spend a pleasant, if not exactly involving, couple of hours in a movie theatre, you could do a lot worse than pick this one. Camera angles and imagery clearly show that it was scripted for 3D. The acting is very good. Lee and his editor know how to cut a scene to extract maximum tension. The music (which apparently caused the composer some difficulties) is not overly intrusive. It’s been nominated for 11 Oscars, IMDb rates it at 8.2/10, it’s at 88% at Rotten Tomatoes, but I rate it only ** out of four. I did like Richard Parker, the tiger, though.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Foyle's War (TV Series)

     Foyle’s War (2009+) Michael Kitchen plays Det Inspector Foyle, a widower who has been firmly kept in his place as a policeman, despite his willingness to serve more directly in the war effort. The series follows the war, beginning in 1939, when the wartime economy began, and regulations about the treatment of foreign nationals were enforced, sometimes cruelly. The look and feel of the period is captured quite well, except that the effect of coal fires on the colours of brick and stone is absent. I suppose it’s difficult to persuade property owners that a layer of sooty grunge should be applied to their carefully maintained houses. I think it’s more the characters, the dialogue, and the clothes that create a satisfying illusion of wartime Britain.
     Foyle investigates murders, the black market, fraud, and so on. He is a man with a strong sense of duty, and a strong moral sense. These occasionally collide, especially when considerations of national security intersect with crime. He respects authority in the sense that he respects the roles of the hierarchy, but he respects the law even more. He is methodical, quiet, observant, reticent, laconic, with simple tastes, and strong feelings, which he rarely shows. He may feel pity for the perpetrators, but he wants justice above all, which may make him appear ruthless. Kitchen’s style of acting, his skill in conveying emotion and thought by minute changes in expression and tone of voice, is perfect for this character. The other characters, equally well drawn, and dialogue replete with casual remarks that reveal the back stories, create the sense of a community.
     The back stories develop slowly. Each episode deals with at least two plot threads. The occasional characters are given a context that not only provides the clues and red herrings, but also grounds them firmly in their own lives. They don’t feel created just to fit the plot; the psychology of their choices feels real. Most importantly, the effects of evil on the innocent bystander is a constant theme.
     This is the second time we are watching the series. We missed several episodes the first time, but even the ones we’ve seen before seem fresh and new. Knowing that plot allows us to focus on characters and their choices. The writers deserve high praise. ****

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Model Railroader (1942-1999) (Magazine)

Model Railroader (1942-1999) I’ve been skimming through old MRR magazines in an effort to get rid of them. I clip and cut articles that may be of use, toss the mutilated mags, and put the unmutilated ones into boxes for the CRHA’s sale table at the March Train Show. A fellow called John Morgan is to come and pick them up. I hope he has a large trunk. So far, I have 7 boxes, and I haven’t yet gone through Trains or Railroad Model Craftsman. Yikes!
     Reading a lot of magazines in chronological order (more or less) gives one a strange experience. It’s not so much the content of the magazines as their tone. In the 40s and 50s, writers clearly spoke to fellow addicts, and gave them all sorts of tips on how to indulge their harmless vice. The number of household items and discards pressed into service as modelling materials is astonishing. Many are periodically rediscovered: clothes-pins, for example, with their tips carved to suitable shapes, make excellent holding clamps. Before the availability of nicely detailed brake wheels, dress snaps stood in. Cardboard is scribed with a blunted awl or a carefully dressed screw-driver tip so that the grooving tool won’t tear at the edges of the scribe lines. Angles are bent from scribed card or heavy paper. Charts list the wire sizes suitable for different pipe sizes in the different scales. Rube Goldberg contraptions are devised to operate signals and crossing gates. Before the advent of transistors and logic chips, train detection or interlocking signalling systems offered challenges that only the strongest modellers could face. Layouts are given whimsical and punning names (which must have grated on the owner’s relatives of not the owner in short order.) Frank Ellison’s articles on prototypical operation are pioneering efforts that only slowly change the focus of the serious modeller, a creature that doesn’t’ begin to appear in great numbers until the 60s. “Operation” in fact usually means ”mechanical engineering.” Layouts designed for prototypical operation feature dozens of tracks curling under and beside and over each other in a three dimensional maze.
     By the 60s and 70s, the emphasis has shifted. There is more talk of designing a model railroad, to look like the real thing and to be operated like the real thing. There are articles about how to give a free-lanced railroad the look and feel of the real thing. More and more writers describe ways of making the layout look and feel like a prototype. “Railroads you can Model” becomes regular feature. These are invariably short lines or branches. People try for a more realistic balance between scenery and track – a lot of track is hidden, and division points (a de rigeur feature of earlier layouts) almost disappear. Staging yards (fiddle yards to the English) take their place, and are used to provide the requisite number of trains. With increasing wealth, many more modellers build basement size layouts. John Allen’s Gorre and Daphetid inspires not only fantasies of Western railroading, but also proves that a large layout can be built and maintained by one person (with a little help from his friends) so long as the track plan is relatively simple. Allen also shows that a good model railroad consists of visually separated scenes, and that such a scheme enables interesting train operation. Spaghetti bowl track plans aren’t needed after all. McClelland’s Virginian and Ohio inspires not only prototype-based free lance layouts but layouts depicting actual prototypes.
     By the 1980s, technical reliability and close to perfect models are taken for granted. Now modellers concentrate on reproducing a vision of railroading as they remember or experience it. Model railroading shifts from craft to minor art. Layouts are visually and operationally integrated. Malcolm Furlow’s small project layouts show the way. Furlow designs self-consistent layouts which make no attempt at having everything. Trackplans are simple and fit well into the scenery (I think Furlow starts out with a scenic concept, since his articles always start with a mock history that emphasises locale.) But the trackage also permits train operation: a couple pleasant evening hours will be needed to run a complete day’s worth of trains. Furlow’s layouts are satisfying to build and fun to operate. Those who have more space simply build bigger versions of such railroads, whether based on a prototype or an imaginary place and time. Although layouts are bigger, trackplans are simpler in relation to their size.
     In the 1990s, trends of the past consolidate. Even better technical quality is expected, and a lot of product that sold well in earlier decades disappears. Manufacturers upgrade mechanisms and proto-typical details. Scratch building is replaced by kit bashing and kit conversion. Why build a diesel shell from brass if you can combine a couple of plastic shells by judicious cutting and fitting?. Wood kits are replaced by resin. And the complex trackplan returns in a new guise: multi-level layouts are not only designed but built, Each level is relatively simple, but the carpentry and scenic illusions at the transitions are not. These layouts are designed to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for prototype realism. 12 stations offer more operational fun than 6, so go to a 2nd or 3rd level to get the extra stations. DCC and computers enable more proto-typical train running, too – including a prototypical risk of collisions.
     In most ways, the hobby has matured. The magazines repeat old themes. Craft is still a major part of the hobby and always will be. But most of the discussion now centres around methods and concepts of operation, and of the “total layout design” needed to achieve the dream: running a model as much like a real train as possible. *** (2000)

Of This and Other Worlds (Book)

     C. S. Lewis Of This and Other Worlds (1982) A compilation by Walter Hooper of both published and unpublished essays on literary matters, mostly on fantasy and science fiction. As a quote from a review says: Much of the essential Lewis is here. The essays do of course repeat many ideas, but Lewis writes so well one doesn’t mind. His major contribution is his insistence that fantasy (“fairy tales”) is not a child’s taste, since many (most?) children don’t like it, and many adults do. He also has good things to say about proper criticism, on the nature of error and truth, and so on.
     In good Aristotelian fashion, Lewis makes careful distinctions between description (which is more or less true) and expression (which is more or less honest.) He also is good on subtle errors of thought. His essay “The Death of Words” ought to be read by every language arts teacher: it will help them explain why expressive or ascriptive adjectives should be avoided, for example. He notes how words that once described social facts, e.g., “gentleman”, decayed into mere and vague expressions of approval. The source of this deterioration? Well meaning people who don’t want to accept the social distinctions implicit in the term, since many non-gentlemen are of course morally superior to many gentlemen. These people then want to use the term not in its social denotation but in its “true sense”, i.e., as a description of the moral ideal connoted by the term. Lewis dryly points out that a word surrounded by qualifiers such as “true sense” is a word that has lost its meaning. And he expresses regret: what men cannot name they soon become unable to think about. (In this, he agrees with Orwell, of whose 1984 he says that the appendix on Newspeak is the best part.)
     Lewis has a tendency to digress, which usually leads to even greater insight. His review of The Lord of the Rings, for example, occasions some thoughts on theocracy and ideological tyranny that explain a lot of recent politics. He hints that ideology is the modern form of an ancient perversion of religion, but doesn’t expand the hint. Never mind; the hint is enough.
     All in all, a delightful book. Lewis as usual exhibits his ability to explain complex ideas by means of homely examples, and his style is a model of clarity and elegance. The difficulty of the essays varies. **** (2000)
     Update 2013: Lewis's shrewd remarks about language constitute a nice layperson's account of Wittgenstein's theories. "The limits of my language are the limits of my thought", Wittgenstein said. He meant it in more radical way than Orwell did, I think. It could be rephrased as "That which we cannot imagine we cannot discuss." Consider science: we in fact cannot frame a theory which we cannot, somehow, imagine. I don't mean imagine in a physical sense: I mean "form images of." Ideas images. Theories are built out of ideas.

The Triumph of Evolution (Book)

Niles Eldredge The Triumph of Evolution (2000) An attack on so-called creation science and a defence of evolution. Very good on the general theory of evolution and on current efforts to clarify specific details. Also good on the efforts of creationists’ mistakes and deceptions, and on why creation science isn’t science.
     Eldredge’s major insight is that creationists believe that without God you can’t have an ethic or morality. This belief drives their hostility to evolution. They are truly afraid that a godless description of the world’s origins will lead to all kinds of evil. Practical experience of course shows otherwise. Most people have only a vague faith and theology, yet behave well enough. (I am extending Eldredge’s argument here.) What’s more, most people argue ethics not in terms of God’s will but of human rights and obligations, and don’t ask where these rights and obligations come from. They are givens.
     Creationists themselves come in all sorts of flavours. At one end of the spectrum you have people who accept “micro-evolution” but deny “macro-evolution.” At the other end you have biblical literalists of the most naïve sort. But they all agree that evolution is morally dangerous. It is this moral danger that drives them, not a quest or respect for truth. How you can assert moral authority without respect for truth I don’t know, but these people do it. Like all true believers, they will cheerfully violate their own morality in the service of the cause. Eldredge documents a couple of cases of outright lies by creationists (he was the victim.)
     Eldredge, unlike many anti-creationists, is not opposed to religion (he himself is agnostic.) In his final chapter he deals with religion as a human and social fact. He asks the obvious question: Why do humans invent religions? Why do so few humans seem to be able to get through life without one, however vague? He notes that the image of God changes as humans’ sense of their place in nature changes. His answer (oversimplified, perhaps), is that myth seems to be the necessary expression of this sense or apprehension, and religion is the institution that embodies and expresses the myth in daily life. What’s more, insofar as myths function this way, they are true, which implies that all religions are true. It also implies that none, past or present, has the whole truth.
     Eldredge believes that the social function of religion is to shape our behaviour vis-à-vis the world and each other. To that extent the creationists are right about the connection between a creator god and morality. But myth does not have to be about a personal creator god (see Buddhism), nor does it have to be theistic.
     At this point Eldredge’s ideas imply that one’s fundamental belief system is one’s myth. Taken with his discussion of creationism, they also imply that belief systems can and often do deteriorate into superstition. Certainly the creationist stance as stated often looks like a superstition. This part of the book is in many ways his most valuable contribution to the debate, although it will upset those who believe that their religion is not only true but the Only Truth.
     Eldredge goes a step further. He calls for a reinterpretation of the biblical (and other) myths to emphasise our stewardship of the Earth. He notes that many Christians are already talking about our relation to the Earth in these terms, and are using Genesis as their justification. This encourages him, and me too, since it clearly shifts the focus from the question of the truth of the creation story to its ethical meaning for us as creatures.
     Evolution is part of the scientific story of origins, and as such it testable to the extent that all historical accounts are testable. No doubt there will be further discoveries that will fill in the details and provide better data for (dis)confirming various hypotheses about the process. Genesis reminds (or ought to remind) us that we stand in an ethical relationship to the Earth, and should guide us to a better understanding of our responsibilities. Science can provide data to help us make wise decisions, but it can’t provide us with the ethical imperatives that will determine the choices.
     A footnote: I find it interesting that a large proportion of fundamentalist/literalist Christians are not only creationist, but also dominionist: they believe that humans have an absolute right to use the Earth as they see fit. One consequence of this is often not merely indifference to environmental concerns but active hostility. This in my opinion is evidence enough of the sterility of the fundamentalist attitude. By their fruits ye shall know them.
     Eldredge does not write as well or gracefully as his friend and collaborator Stephen Jay Gould, but he writes clearly and occasionally with wit. *** (2000)

Dangerous Corner (Play)

     J. B. Priestly Dangerous Corner (1932) One of Priestley’s favourite subjects: The effect of hidden or secret knowledge on relationships. Six people, related by blood, marriage, and business, stumble into an evening of revelations surrounding the death of Martin, Robert’s brother. The revelations of unacknowledged actions and feelings disturb them all. Martin was loved and hated, the married couples don’t love each other, Olwen is in love with Robert, whose wife Freda loved Martin. Gordon (Freda’s brother) had an unhealthy attachment to Martin (which Martin used but didn’t return), and his wife Betty is mistress of Stanton, who is a cad, thief, and liar. The brother of the dead man has no faith or hope, and has subsisted on illusions (one of which was Betty’s purity and innocence,) which have now been shattered. Martin was a moral monster, playing these people off against one another, and using them all a objects of amusement and gratification.
     The question of course is how these people will continue, knowing what they now know. Priestley ducks it by replaying the first few lines of the play, and turning the story down safer lines. A trick ending, which I suppose was necessary, since to answer the question would require not just one other play but several. In other words, the play is the opening section of a novel. Anyhow, it reads more like a novel than a play. The stage directions are very specific in terms of movement about the stage, but they don’t help. I’ve seen a video version of another of his plays, When We Are Married, which was well enough done that I saw it twice. Priestley has a knack for characterisation and analysis of relationships, which makes for interesting stories, but the interest does not go very deep. He also tends to show the women as stronger and more pragmatic than the men. This seems to me a very English trait, but I couldn’t say why I think so. ** (2000)
     Update 2013: Re: strong female characters: Shakespeare started it. His heroines are generally stronger than the men, many of which are doofuses.

Outward Bound (Play))

     Sutton Cane Outward Bound (1923) The conceit of the play is simple: The passengers on a ship are dead. The ship is bound for Hades (both Heaven and Hell.) Vane plays nicely with this notion, especially in countering the then still current notions of the after-life. But the characters and their life stories (revealed when a jolly clergyman turns out to be the Examiner) are clichés. Their fates are thinly disguised versions of purgatory, limbo, and (eventually) heaven. It’s a one joke story. I found it interesting enough to read, but I also felt impatient with the slow pace of the story.
     This is a very actable play. One could really exaggerate the characters without damaging the effect. But the script promises more than it delivers. Apart from the cosiness of the afterlife (no fire and brimstone, no heavenly hosts), it’s thoroughly conventional in its views. It’s the kind of play that some people would call daring or different, others would call mildly amusing, and others would consider clichéd and boring. **

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mr Pim Passes By (Play)

     A. A. Milne, A. A. Mr. Pim Passes By (1922) A puzzle play depending on mistaken assumptions, family secrets, errors of fact, and so on. Mr. Pim visits a family in the country, and in his conversation suggests that the wife’s first husband is still alive. This of course causes an Ibsenesque revelation of the cracks and strains in the marriage, and the hypocrisy within the family. All ends well and conventionally, except perhaps for a more honest understanding between husband and wife. Pim acts as a catalyst. His character is just woolly and ineffectual enough to make his misunderstandings and their effects on the family believable. Overall, the characters are stereotypes, but good character actors could make something quite pleasant of this script. ** (2000)

The Green Goddess (Play

     William Archer The Green Goddess (1921) Some travellers are stranded in a remote and apparently uncivilised region of the world. The Rajah turns out to be English educated, etc etc. The themes concern British-Indian relations, European imperialism (both political and cultural), the stability of marriages, etc. An oddly earnest play, despite the bits of comedy in it. Forgettable - I had to skim it to remind myself of what I’d read! * (2000)

What Every Woman Knows (Play)

      J. M. Barrie What Every Woman Knows (1908) In style and tone, a cross between Pinero and Wilde. Some very good satire on the solemn (as opposed to the serious) man. A pseudo-Shavian play, not as acerbic or subtle as Shaw’s works, yet treating the same themes. Maggie the wife is of course the driving force in her husband John Shand’s political career, a fact he never fully acknowledges, although he eventually recognises her value to him, and even, in his awkward, self-centred way, comes to love her. Shaw did it much better, but Barrie did it more palatably: he didn’t insult his audience the way Shaw did. A nicely done play, which could be done successfully now, if the director can find the right balance between affectionate respect and camp. **½

The Importamce of Being Earnest (Play)

     Oscar Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) Why does this play work so well in contrast to Pinero’s melodrama? Its story is melodramatic (the discovery of lost orphans, the reconciliation of lovers, the winning of the approval of disapproving relatives, are all melodramatic motifs), but  unlike Pinero, Wilde knew and understood the artificiality of the genre, and played with it. Paradoxically, this playfulness makes more profound and subtle, that is truthful, points about morality, social standards, hypocrisy, and true goodness than Pinero’s laboured drama, which deals with exactly the same themes. Part of the difference is of course the language. Wilde’s style is realistic, or seems so, despite the many epigrams, or perhaps because the epigrams are just the ones a truly witty person (such as Oscar) would use in polite company. Wilde also understands the difference between superficial and deep feelings, Pinero’s characters operate at one level only. And Wilde doesn’t write his play to teach a lesson, but to entertain, which in the end teaches more powerfully than any overtly didactic work ever can. **** (2000)
     Update 2013: I've seen two film, one video, and one stage version of this play. In every medium, it works wonderfully well. It's thought of as a comedy, that is, a funny play. It's certainly funny, but it's also a comedy in Frye's sense: the story of an outsider hero who must undergo some test which nearly destroys him before becoming a full member of his community. That's one reason it's lasted. Another is that it shows how people can and do transcend the rules of the society to which they ostensibly subscribe. And of course it's a romantic comedy, and a vast multitude of theatre-goers are suckers for romance. That includes me.

The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (Play)

     Arthur Wing Pinero The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1894) One of the plays in Sixteen Famous British Plays (Modern Library 1942). These are all full-length scripts, so I will review them individually. I’ve been reading them since August.
     All these plays were in their time box-office hits. Reading them one is struck by the datedness of the style, characterisation, and structure. This play is no exception. It’s a social melodrama, a soap opera in other words, and a very dated one. Mrs. Tanqueray has a past which catches up with her: she has been the mistress of one of her husband’s old friends. Just as she has made friends with her husband’s daughter (a moral snob), the old friend shows up. She kills herself because she can’t bear the shame of it all. I suppose the play was considered daring in its time. It’s pseudo-Ibsen. It has its moments, but to me it seems overwrought and artificial. It appears to be intended as a tragedy, but at best it merely achieves pathos.

     Why can’t we believe in these stories nowadays? Perhaps because even in their own time they were unbelievable. Their content and form are social parables (which all melodramas are, according to Davies), and weren’t intended to be taken literally. Yet the style is naturalistic, and the tone is Ibsenist. The play doesn’t really know its own genre, in a way. That it would work as theatre is plain. but since it’s dated, it would be hard to do well now. Interesting as a period piece, its values seem not merely quaint but oppressive to us, so it might have interest precisely because it’s so dated. But most theatre goers would be offended, I think, by the smugness of the male characters. *1/2 (2000)

The Mirror Crack'd & Peril at End House (Books)

     Agatha Christie The Mirror Crack’d (1962) This is one of the best Miss Marple stories. A woman dies suddenly during a reception at the recently renovated Gossington Hall (where the body had been found in the library many years before). The psychology of the crime baffles the police. Who would want to murder this harmless busybody? As so often happens in an Agatha Christie, the past holds the vital clue. Twenty years before, the victim had hauled herself from her sickbed in order to meet her idol, a film star. Miss Marple, physically frail and mentally a little slower than she used to be, as always is able to empathise with both the murderer and the victim, and by doing so to understand both why and how the woman was murdered. The plotting is beautifully done, everything fits. There are few nicely done digressions, which serve to show Miss marple’s acumen, and also, I suspect, to express Christie’s distaste for the effects of population growth and modernisation. The characterisation is subtler and more complex than in the early novels, which adds to the charm of this book. ***½

     Agatha Christie Peril at End House (1932) One of the best Poirots: the murderer actually enlists Poirot in the hunt for her supposed attacker. I knew the story before I reread this novel, but that increased the pleasure: I could see how artfully Christie places red herrings amongst the genuine clues in Poirot’s path. I think she enjoyed showing how Poirot’s vanity misleads him. If he weren’t so sure of his perspicacity, he wouldn’t accept the story fabricated for him. The murderer is clever enough to build the story through apparently trivial details. The significance of apparent trivialities is Poirot’s forte. I throughly enjoyed rereading this book ***½

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Hospital (Movie)

     The Hospital (1971) [D: Arthur Hiller. George C. Scott. Diana Rigg] Dr Bock (Scott), chief of staff, feels suicidal because he thinks he’s accomplished nothing worthwhile. His marriage had ended, his children are petty crooks, the hospital he works for is a shambles. Just how much of a shambles becomes apparent when a series of murders occur, all of them the result of the murderer’s taking advantage of the chaos and sloppiness and poor management. Barbara Drummond (Rigg), the daughter of a comatose patient, wants to take her father home to Mexico, and a group of community activists wants to stop hospital expansion. Bock and Drummond have an affair; her father, whose brain has been fried by the semi-competent treatment, turns out to be the murderer; and Bock turns down the opportunity to go to Mexico with Drummond, because, as he says, "Someone has to be responsible." But he does help her get her father away from the scene of his last murder, and on the way to Mexico. I suppose this evasion of justice is what makes this a "black comedy", as IMDbF terms it.
     Doesn’t sound like much of a movie, and it isn’t, but it has an odd retro charm. It’s very 70s in its tone, plotting, acting, and editing. Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote and co-produced, received one of his three Oscars for the script, which is certainly well-constructed. But a well-constructed script doesn’t necessarily give us characters real-seeming enough to engage us beyond the plot. Didn’t do it for me, anyhow.
     My main interest in the movie was to see how Chayefsky resolved the various twists and tangles he invented. The resolution, Bock’s surfacing from his deep funk and taking control of his life (and the hospital), seems to be contrived. Marie said the movie wasn’t very Hollywood, by which she meant that it didn’t have the happy superficiality we nowadays expect from Hollywood (when we don’t expect gory horror, that is). But the ending is pure Hollywood I think: only a Hollywood movie would show a character enjoying such an easy cure for depression. **½

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Dear Life (Book)

     Alice Munro Dear Life (2012) The latest, and I suspect the last, of Munro’s story collections. She demonstrates the same ruthless powers of observation as in her other books, and the same ability to show us the moment of revelation, of self-discovery, of the momentous decision. But the decisions that change the course of a life are never known as such. In Munro’s world, as in real life, people choose what seems to them a minor expedience. Its effects redirect a the course of a life, but that’s not seen for months or even years, when a chance glimpse of the past overlays the present with unrealised and unrealisable possibilities.
     Munro shows us the bones of a life, the topography of desire and need and fear and pleasure that underlies the roads and fields and woodlands of the everyday busyness and chores that we believe is the defining landscape of our lives. But this power of seeing below the surface is not enough to make art. Munro’s style wastes no words. In a few words, a single phrase, she can show us the essential detail, the unexpected insight that tilts the world into focus, the one remark that clarifies forever the relationship between two people who would otherwise never know what roles they play in each other’s lives, that one memory that shows what could have been. Her stories are not only life-like, but like life.
      Reading Munro stories, we are able to imagine our own lives as random patterns of our own and other people’s choices. She suffuses that randomness with significance. Not meaning or purpose, for meaning and purpose imply predictability and planning and successful progress towards a goal. In a random universe prediction is impossible. But we may explain the random sequence. Munro explains how a life’s pattern came to be, and leaves the why unanswered and unanswerable. Munro has the skill to leave us satisfied with the how. She leaves us accepting that the how is all we’ll ever know, and that it’s enough. ****

Monday, January 07, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (movie)

     The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) [D: Peter Jackson. Ian McKellem, Martin Freeman, etc] The Hobbit interpreted as an action flick. Quite entertaining, but not satisfying. Yes, the story is a fantasy, so we need special effects. And yes, there are battles and such in the book, but they don’t go on and on and on the way they do here. After a while the fighting is quite boring. I kept myself amused by picking out allusions and references to other fantasy quests, such as Star Wars.
     It’s a pity the special effects and battles take up so much space and directorial energy, because the effect of culture clashes on the interplay of the characters, the way the characters grow as they journey, the reminders of the ancient grudges that propel and complicate the plot, all these are quite good as far as they go. But the relentless focus on "action" doesn’t leave much room for or attention to these things. Action isn’t bashing other people over the head with magic swords, it’s the decisions that a character must make in the face of competing interests, inadequate data, and conflicting motives. The motivations of the villains could have been explored too: why are the Orcs such savage enemies of dwarves and men and hobbits, for example? Is Saluman already corrupted by Sauron? Why do the elves decide to assist the dwarves? Their alliance has always been one of convenience. They have little in common besides enemies. I think that Jackson has simplified Tolkien’s vision to mere diagrams. Evil is more complex than shown in this movie.
     Of course, anyone who has read the books, and/or seen at least the first part of The Lord of the Rings can follow the story well enough. Several of the actors reprise the characters they portrayed in the film trilogy. The universe of the stories is well imagined and realised. The telling of the tale proceeds briskly enough, the only longeurs are those comic-book fights. The filming angles and special effects betray adaptation to 3D, which in my opinion is unnecessary. But if you go see it prepared to suspend disbelief, you’ll spend an entertaining three hours. **½

Noel Coward: The Complete Short Stories (1985)

     Noel Coward The Complete Short Stories (1985) Coward was a very clever writer, all of these stories are worth reading, but few stick in the memory or move the heart. I think he constructed stories rather than told them. Several are more or less gloomy shaggy dog stories: "The Wooden Madonna" tells how a self-satisfied young playwright patronises a ordinary bloke Englishman and become the unwitting mule for diamond smugglers. Others show a rather too neat resolution of the plot: In "Nature Study" the dissatisfied wife of a stuffed shirt type runs off with the chauffeur. Coward has a sharp eye for folly, smugness, complacency, hypocrisy, and worse vices; but he also has a soft spot for people who are just trying to get by as best they can, held back from worldly success by kindness and decency.
     He knows the theatre, and several of his best pieces are set in that milieu. The characters in these stories have the ring of truth: I wonder if someone who knew Coward and his career intimately would recognise their prototypes. The best story, "Me and the Girls", the narrator recounts his life as a small-time manager/producer who wanders the show circuit with a troupe of girls who perform in shows devised to make the most of their small talents in singing, dancing, an sketch comedy. He’s man who has made the best of his few chances at love and affection; now he’s dying, and we realise that his tawdry and messy life has been marked by courage and kindness. Not a bad legacy for anyone. I saw video versions of this and "Mrs. Capper’s Birthday", and enjoyed them both.
     Nor are these stories a bad legacy for Coward: they are skilfully made, and they consistently make heroes of those who practice the ordinary virtues of kindness and decency. You may guess from this that the tone is often rather sad and occasionally world-weary. You would be right. His short stories amount to novels in miniature. Like other short story writers, Coward can suggest a whole life in a few incidents. I enjoyed reading these stpories, even the early ones where the mechanics of the plot were a little too obvious. ** to ***

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Lucky Elephant Restaurant (book)

     Gary Ryan The Lucky Elephant Restaurant (2006) Ryan live in Calgary, and makes that city the setting for his books. This is a police procedural with a social conscience: DI Lane is gay, and has an extensive social/family network, which to some extent interferes with his police work. His partner Arthur’s sister is dying of cancer, so they will have to adopt her son Matt. Jay, the brother of the prime suspect, has been hiding from her, but finds a substitute family in the Vietnamese community. Because Matt is enrolled in minor hockey, Lane becomes a ref, and tangles with a hockey parent who’s a jerk. And so on. These vignettes extend the story to book length, and plotwise delay the action enough that it takes some time for Lane and sidekick Harper to close the case. They also intersect with the actions of the prime suspect, who is attempting to get the case closed quickly, and if possible eliminate Lane as well.
     Plot: a man and his daughter are found dead in the foothills bush west of Calgary. There are “anomalies” that suggest murder. The ex-wife/mother is a suspect early on. It’s pretty obvious that she done it, so the plot turns on how Lane and Harper will get sufficient evidence to make the case, and whether they'll be able to do so before she does more damage. In the end, she over-reaches, attempting another arson, but is caught in the act, and shot when she attacks the police who are guarding Lane’s house.
     Ryan handles the various levels of ignorance and knowledge, lies and truth, past and present skilfully enough that the narrative tension keeps us reading. In style and structure, the novel is cinematic: chapters of varying length, jump-cuts and montage-like snippets of scene, miscellaneous information, dialogue, sidelights on character. It wouldn’t take much to turn this book into a script; I think it would make a good series. Like many late 20th/early 21st century crime novels, the mood is elegiac and dark. There is hope and joy in family life and friendship, but these treasures must be jealously protected from attacks by bigots, egotists, jerks, power seekers, and other social riffraff.
     All in all, an above average example of the genre.**½