I try to support Politics & Prose by choosing books at random based on what they display on the tables. The books are attractive, I sometimes know the authors, and the blurbs and opening pages convince me to buy. But lately I've been striking out, coming home with books that I quickly become disappointed with.
The latest was Don't Cry, Tai Lake by Qiu Xialong, featuring his Inspector Chen in Shanghai. I've had his Death of a Red Heroine on the shelf for some time but never gotten around to reading it. I gave this book quite a while, a good halfway through it, letting the exotic setting in a resort outside Shanghai, the plot about environmental decay and the author's penchant for quoting poetry, both classical Chinese poetry and Chen's own verses carry me along. But it was just plodding along. The writing, aside from the poetry, is lackluster, the characters like a literary version of naive art, and the mystery anything but compelling.
This miss closely followed an earlier purchase of Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon. I've read several of Kanon's books, though I didn't think his later novels matched the quality of his debut, Los Alamos. Obviously, the setting in postwar Istanbul intrigued me, but I found the beginning of the book at least quite dull, sort of Alan Furst without the drive (just as the later Furst books seem to lack any oomph). It may be that I'll pick this up another time and get into it, but I'm leaving it aside for now.
The first strike of the three was The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri, the new novel featuring Inspector Montalbano, which I've already commented on.
Let me indulge in a quibble. My theory is that an author will not have a main character who smokes unless the author him(her)self smokes. Camilleri leaves you in no doubt because he's holding a cigarette in his author photo in the best 1950s fashion. I accept that culturally, in Sicily and China, for instance, a lot more people still smoke and it's perfectly logical to have a character with this habit. But at this point I personally just find it offensive and while I might be willing to overlook it in a crackerjack book that I can't put down, it just becomes another annoyance if I'm plodding along in a dull narrative. In general, I think it rarely contributes in any significant way to atmosphere or characterization and sometimes even seems to be a passive-aggressive act of defiance on the author's part. So fine, ohne mich.
One of the advantages of buying books online is that you can do a little research before actually making the purchase. While the star ratings may be a little dubious, they do win in credibility with numbers and you can always look for outside reviews. Most of my online purchases start the other way -- I run across someone who raves about a particular book and go to Amazon for the purchase after some cursory due diligence. I will continue to browse at P&P, but I will be more cautious about impulse purchases.