Friday, December 31, 2010
OHara's Book Reviews: Best of 2010
When I first started this blog way back in July, I just wanted to have a small site in which to store the reviews of the books I read. I thought it would be fun to have a permanent record, just for myself.
Naturally, I was very excited when I saw that people around the world were actually reading my stupid little book review blog. I haven't gotten a tremendous amount of hits, but I've been thrilled to see that somebody is enjoying my reviews. There are obviously people out there who are just as interested in books as I am!
And since this is the time of year when people start making their "Best of the Year" lists, I figured it would be fun to have a little "awards ceremony" here on the blog (even though it hasn't really been running a full year).
Over the past few months, I've read twenty-five books of fiction, which is a little off my usual average. I've had a fairly hectic fall and winter and not as much time to read as I'd like--also, some of the books I've read recently have been pretty huge. The Fiery Cross was so big that it was physically difficult to tote around.
And now for the awards, which I have made up and which have no significance in real life. The only prize is bragging rights.
Funniest Book of the Year:
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
Jeeves and the Tie that Binds by P.G. Wodehouse
How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett
I do like my British humorists. Maybe it's the dry wit. Maybe it's the wacky characters with the wonderful names (Augustus Snodgrass, Bertram Wooster, Rincewind). Maybe it's just because there isn't enough American comic fiction. Anyway, I have to go with my gut on this one--at least, the gut from which my frenzied belly laughs were emitting. How Right You Are, Jeeves is definitely the funniest book I've reviewed on this blog. Nobody can make me laugh like Wodehouse and HRYAJ is an absolute comic masterpiece. Jeeves and Wooster have never been more hilarious, the plot never more ridiculously tangled and the supporting cast never more colorful.
Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi Book of the Year:
Olympos by Dan Simmons
The Host by Stephanie Meyer
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
Much as I enjoyed Eye and Olympos (and even The Host), this category has only one obvious winner. His Dark Materials is an instant classic, a kinetic mixture of fantastic storytelling and mind-bending metaphysics. No book this year made me think--or care--as much as Pullman's three-volume masterpiece.
Best Mystery/Thriller of the Year (Older Category):
Three Men Out by Rex Stout
The Hollow by Agatha Christie
Soft Touch by John D. MacDonald
This is a tricky category. MacDonald is definitely the best stylist of the three and Soft Touch is a great little piece of noir fiction, but my heart says Three Men Out. I just can't get enough of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.
Best Mystery/Thriller of the Year (Newer Category)
Out of the Deep I Cry by Julia Spencer-Fleming
To Darkness and to Death by Julia Spencer-Fleming
All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming
The Hard Way by Lee Child
China Lake by Meg Gardiner
LaBrava by Elmore Leonard
Another tough one. There are several fabulous books on this list. Frankly, Child is tough to beat at the top of his game, as is Leonard. Ultimately, though, I have to pick the book that shocked me, sucked me in, gave me chills and broke my heart. All Mortal Flesh is Julia Spencer-Fleming at her very, very best, and a more spellbinding, emotionally shattering read would be hard to find.
Best Modern Literature of the Year:
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Different Seasons by Stephen King
Um, sorry Stephen. You know that I love you, but McEwan is one of the finest prose writers I've ever read and Atonement is pure bliss for book lovers. The Dunkirk sequence deserves to become a classic piece of writing, on par with anything you're likely to find in the English language.
Best Classic Literature of the Year:
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
I've read my share of Shakespeare (five or six plays, including these two) and even though I've always loved his writing, there's a clear winner here. Julius Caesar is just a smarter, more complex piece of fiction.
Special Achievment Award:
I've read a lot of incredible books and authors over the last few months, but none of them have quite bowled me over like Ian Rankin has. Knots and Crosses stunned me with its brilliant psychological drama, while Hide and Seek blended Rankin's trademark lyricism with a riveting mystery plot. I already have the third volume, Tooth and Nail, and I'm eagerly awaiting my next trip into the seamy depths of Inspector Rebus's Edinburgh.
Special Achievment Award:
I may have had some major criticisms for The Fiery Cross, but Diana Gabaldon is still on the short list of my favorite authors and Jamie and Claire Fraser are arguably my favorite fictional characters of all time. I love the Outlander series so deeply that it's a little scary sometimes (I have actually caught myself thinking about the characters as though they're real).
So 2010 has been good. 2011 will be just as good. My first book of the year will be The Help, which is highly entertaining so far. I hope to progress farther in the Wheel of Time series, get caught up on the Outlander series and finally finish The Brothers Karamazov. Thanks for reading this year, and I hope you'll stay on for '11!
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
China Lake by Meg Gardiner, 2002
Decent thrillers are easy to come by nowadays. There are plenty of authors who make a living writing respectable, passable thrillers (Dan Brown, David Baldacci, Sue Grafton, Brad Meltzer, Clive Cussler). Finding a really superior thriller author is a rare treat, and Meg Gardiner is without a doubt, a superior author. China Lake, her debut novel, is a wonderful read: funny, scary, smart and absolutely pulse-pounding.
As the book opens, California lawyer Evan Delaney is preparing for her brother's return to their childhood home, the China Lake military base. Evan has been caring for her brother's young son Luke while his father was stationed abroad. But when Evan encounters a fanatical religious cult called the Remnant, she discovers Luke's mother Tabitha has reappeared, now a faithful member of the Remnant, who plan to jump start the Apocalypse with an arsenal of biological weapons. And their insane leader wants Luke, and will stop at nothing to get him.
The plot unfolds beautifully, gaining layers of complexity as it unravels. Gardiner keeps things moving at roller-coaster pace, and effortlessly pulls off twist after twist. I haven't read thriller plotting this good since the last Lee Child novel.
But Gardiner's real secret weapon is her vibrant characters and snappy, witty dialogue. The cast of characters is expertly sketched(with a few exceptions). Evan is a highly appealing protagonist and her paraplegic boyfriend Jesse is equally likable. Gardiner even pulls off the difficult feat of making six-year-old Luke realistic rather than overly cutesy.
The book does have one glaring flaw, especially in the early pages. Gardiner's portrait of the Remnant is not quite believable. She makes them too overtly venomous and too gratuitously stupid. There is nothing seductive or fascinating about them; they're ugly one-dimensional ogres. Their goals and beliefs are totally over the top and Gardiner hits too many of the easy notes too often (they're sexists, racists, homophobes and all-around jerks).
Admittedly, Gardiner fleshes out the cult members a bit as the book progresses, and it's fairly easy to ignore the sloppy character work, especially when all hell is breaking loose elsewhere in the story. But it's too bad that Gardiner couldn't have taken a slightly more subtle approach.
The rest of the novel is pretty much gold. There are some truly amazing moments and reveals. The climax is tremendously exciting, wrapping up the story in an action-packed way, while leaving a small cliffhanger for the sequel (there are currently five Evan Delaney novels in print, with more on the way).
Another thing that Gardiner does well is fleshing out the world of her novel with small quirks and funny subplots (there's a wonderful running story involving bloodthirsty ferrets that pops up every now and then). Despite the seriousness of the novel's main plot, Gardiner has an excellent sense of the offbeat and odd that keeps things from being blandly straightfaced:
Yeltow stared into the pickup. They had most definitely gotten her. Glory drooped on the seat, her eyes wide, blood pouring from gunshot wounds in her face and chest. The blood running down her rib cage mixed with the white foam splattered inside the truck. It dripped onto the gun stuck in the waistband of her cargo pants, a nine-millimeter Beretta. Next to Yeltow, the young uniform looked nauseous. Death smelled sweet and creamy, he mumbled. What was that stuff?
Behind them Randi Brueghel was chattering to McCracken. "I heated it up on the stove," she said, "got it so hot. The cans says 'Warning, contents under pressure,' so I thought, if I can make it burst it'll so totally distract Glory. . . ."
Yeltow saw the exploded canister, made out -Wi on the side. The uniform said it sounded like a bomb. It did. How could he have known it was a can of Reddi-Wip?---(pages 320-321)
The book does get fairly far-fetched by the end, it's true, but less so than most mainstream thrillers. And far-fetched or not, I'm really not going to pick apart the novel's stellar final chapters. Any author who can keep me guessing that much, while also making me care about the characters, is highly skillful.
It's a shame that Gardiner is still largely unknown in the US. An Entertainment Weekly article by Stephen King praising the Evan Delaney series improved her marketability significantly, but she's still far from a household name. It's too bad that a dolt like James Patterson is making millions by churning out formula potboilers, while a thriller as all-around wonderful as China Lake gets ignored.
NEXT UP: The novel that was one of 2009's biggest publishing hits: Kathryn Stockett's The Help.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, 1990
Though my reading tastes are wide and varied, fat epic fantasy novels are not high on my list of favorite genres. I mean, I love The Lord of the Rings as much as anyone, but hardcore fantasy books with huge mythologies and complicated, apostrophe-filled names are mostly virgin territory for me.
But when I heard about the late Robert Jordan's massive Wheel of Time series, I knew I had to check it out. The series currently spans two authors, twelve volumes and over 11,000 pages (and it's not even done yet). The first book, The Eye of the World comes complete with three or four maps and a detailed glossary in the back. The series is a pleasingly daunting prospect; entering it almost feels like an enormous homework assignment.
After eagerly devouring Eye, I am assured that the Wheel of Time is anything but a homework assignment. The first book is an old-fashioned, red-blooded adventure, complete with rampaging monsters, ancient secrets and battles over the fate of the world. It's a zippy, utterly engaging read.
The story is nothing new. Three unrelated farmboys (Rand, Mat and Perrin) living an insular life in a rural village are suddenly thrust into prominence when an army of monsters targets them. On the run with an assorted group of allies, the boys must evade the ancient, reawakening evil that threatens their world-- an evil that they alone may be able to stop.
The journey is dangerous and colorful in the grand tradition of quest literature. Jordan isn't reinventing the Wheel here (ha ha), but what his universe lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in detail and scope. Yes, the Lord of the Rings parallels become a little excessive, but so many lesser authors have pillaged from Tolkien, too, that it's hardly noticeable.
To a large extent, Jordan is working with archetypes. The story is familiar and generic--I'm sure you could find several dozen titles in the 'Fantasy' section that follows the same basic narrative pattern. What Jordan brings to the novel is energy, verve and enthusiasm. You get the sense that he really enjoyed creating a world and the characters who people it.
Those characters appear to be stereotypes at first, but all of the main characters deepen as the book progresses. None of them is exactly three-dimensional, but they're engaging and likable. Rand is our hero and while he's not the most exciting protagonist I've read about, he carries the book ably. Mat, his snarky best friend, is widely considered the series' breakout character, and I'm curious to see where his storyline goes in the future. His wit and pessimism is a nice counterbalance to Rand's stoic positivity.
If nothing else, Jordan is a master of pacing, keeping things propulsive, switching viewpoints before any one becomes stale. There is an exhilarating feeling of danger at every turn, and villains pop up to confront our heroes at regular intervals. It's too bad that most of them are a little cheesy; the series could use more compelling bad guys.
The villains may be generic at best, but the broad scope of The Eye of the World helps inject more nuanced conflict into the story. Mercifully, there is no politicking, but there are multiple factions in play, some of them trustworthy, some of them less so. One of the novel's central questions is whether our three heroes are being used by everyone around them, even their allies. These questions aren't answered fully, though there's certainly plenty of space for them to be addressed later on.
Jordan is not the world's greatest prose writer, nor does he try to be. For the most part he's competent, with the odd flash of excellence or mediocrity. He does have a propensity for awkward word choice that sometimes slows down the narrative, but his dialogue is lively and smooth, rarely slipping into the overblown Middle-Ages patois that some fantasy writers use. His descriptions are serviceable, too, sometimes even slipping into a sort of dreamlike lyricism:
The stone hallway was dim and shadowy, and empty except for Rand. He could not tell where the light came from, what little there was of it; the gray walls were bare of candles or lamps, nothing at all to account for the faint glow that seemed to just be there. The air was still and dank, and somewhere in the distance water dripped with a steady, hollow plonk. Wherever this was, it was not the inn. Frowning, he rubbed at his forehead. Inn? His head hurt, and thoughts were hard to hold on to. There had been something about. . . an inn? It was gone, whatever it was.
He licked his lips and wished he had something to drink. He was awfully thirsty, dry-as-dust thirsty. It was the dripping sound that decided him. With nothing to choose by except his thirst, he started toward the steady plonk-plonk-plonk.
The hallway stretched on, without any crossing corridor and without the slightest change in appearance. The only features at all were the rough doors set at regular intervals in pairs, one on either side of the hall, the wood splintered and dry despite the damp in the air. The shadows receded ahead of him, staying the same, and the dripping never came any closer. After a long time he decided to try one of those doors. It opened easily, and he stepped through into a grim, stone-walled chamber.
One wall opened in a series of arches onto a gray stone balcony, and beyond that was a sky such as he had never seen. Striated clouds in blacks and grays, reds and oranges, streamed by as if storm winds drove them, weaving and interweaving endlessly. No one could ever have seen a sky like that; it could not exist.---(pages 168-169)
One of Eye's main elements is the lofty cosmic struggles going on between the Light and the Dark One, a struggle that involves the Wheel of Time,something called the One Power, a group of magic-users called the Aes Sedai and a lot of other stuff that's difficult to understand. I'm sure this will all have much significance later on down the road, but I prefer the more grounded adventures to the metaphysical elements, which bog down a slightly anticlimactic climax. Jordan is more adept at describing the grime and toil of being on the run than he is at painting broad, century-spanning spirituality.
What makes the novel so much fun is ultimately Jordan's obvious love of an old-fashioned kind of storytelling; the kind that's more concerned with magical swords and sentient wolves than with deep meaning and social criticism. Not to say that Eye has no observations to make, or themes to put forth, but story is clearly king in Jordan's universe. He spins a very good story, which is probably why I'm already eager for Book Two. I know that the WoT encounters many problems later down the road, especially the untimely death of Jordan himself (the series will be completed with the help of another author). Later volumes have also been roundly abused for being slow-moving and dull, causing many fans to abandon the books altogether. Frankly, all the controversy just makes me more interested in where things are going. I have a feeling I may end up addicted to this series.
NEXT UP: China Lake by Meg Gardiner, a lesser-known author of California-set thrillers.
Monday, December 13, 2010
Death of a Gossip by M.C. Beaton, 1985
M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth series of cozy murder mysteries is highly popular in the United Kingdom. I had read that the series was good and I enjoy a good old-fashioned mystery as much as anyone, so I dipped into the first volume, 1985's Death of a Gossip, with interest.
After reading the book, I can only assume that the series gets far better in future installments. I can't see for the life of me how Beaton is so popular, at least based on the quality of Gossip.
The plot: A small group of strangers meet in the idyllic Scottish town of Lochdubh to attend a local fly-fishing school. One of the pupils is a nasty woman who seems to have dirt on everyone. Within a few days, she is found strangled to death, and all of the students have a motive. It's up to the laconic local constable, Hamish Macbeth, to solve the crime.
The story is pure Agatha Christie cliche, but in skilled hands it might have been fun. Unfortunately, the novel could have been written by a precocious twelve-year old, at least judging by the quality of the prose.
Beaton's writing style is incredibly awkward; it absolutely screams amateur. Her dialogue is, to put it politely, on the nose and probably even more awkward than the prose segments. The characters speak in a stilted, exaggerated way, as though Beaton is trying to make their one-dimensional personalities clear with every word. They also have an annoying tendency to say exactly what's on their mind, or to relate important information to the reader, which could have been much more naturally integrated into narration.
And the characters. She puts together a cast so uniformly aggravating that it's practically an achievement. Alice Wilson, who has roughly a third of the book narrated from her perspective, is one of the most exquisitely annoying fictional characters I've ever run across. She's whiny, egotistical, amoral and just plain dumb, but it seems like the author is trying to make her sympathetic. It doesn't work. Alice doesn't come off as a helpless victim, she comes off as a self-absorbed nitwit who falls for an awful guy despite the anvil-sized hints that he's really a jerk.
Beaton isn't any kind of master mystery plotter either. There are few clues in the novel and no complicated personalities; Beaton displays over and over again that she has all the subtlety of a wrecking ball. She makes it excruciatingly obvious during the novel's opening pages that everyone in the fishing school would like Lady Jane dead:
"I'll kill her," muttered John. "She's ruining the holiday for everyone." --- (page 14)
If she tries to spoil things for me, I'll kill her, thought Alice passionately. --- (page 23)
"I'll murder her. I'll kill that horrible woman. Kill! Kill! Kill!" --- (page 25)
The child's hard, assessing gaze was fixed on her face. "No," he said at last. "I hate that ugly fat woman. She's cruel and mean and evil. Why doesn't she die? Lots of people die in the Highlands. They get lost and starve and die of exposure. They fall off cliffs. Why can't something happen to her?"--- (page 32)
Accidents happened. Anything could happen. Alice pictured Lady Jane's heavy body plummeting down into a salmon pool, her fat face lifeless, turned upwards in the brown, peaty water. --- (pages 41-42)
Gee, do you think Lady Jane might end up dead? Maybe everybody has a motive. It'll probably be a fellow pupil who does her in. Gosh, that foreshadowing sure is subtle and understated.
Admittedly, the novel picks up speed once the actual murder occurs and has a passable, albeit dull, ending. The solution to the mystery is very mildly surprising, but impossible for a reader to actually guess, since there are really no hints to form theories with.
Beaton goes to a great deal of trouble to make Hamish Macbeth a likable, endearing main character, and he is at least somewhat more interesting than the cast of suspects. I don't much care for the ham handed ways that Beaton used to make him seem the spunkiest, most intelligent character in the book, but he wasn't a terrible detective to headline a cozy mystery. It's too bad the mystery was so inadequate.
I could also mention some of the awkwardly dated elements (the story is supposedly set in the 1980s, but some of the social mores and cultural references feel more like the 40s) and Beaton's uninspiring attempts at screwball comic relief, but I can leave well enough alone. Death of a Gossip is ultimately a dumb, light mystery novel with grade-school-reader prose and pancake-flat characters. It was mildly entertaining in its way, but some of the fun was in ridiculing the poor writing and obvious literary contrivances.
Wikipedia informs me that the Hamish MacBeth series now numbers a whopping twenty-six volumes, with a twenty-seventh coming in the February of 2011. I can only assume that the series got much better, and fast.
NEXT UP: The Eyes of the World by Robert Jordan, the first novel in the ginormous Wheel of Time series
Saturday, December 11, 2010
LaBrava by Elmore Leonard, 1983
It's always a pleasure to discover an author with an entirely original, distinctive writing style and a quirky way of freshening old tropes. Elmore Leonard's two main genres are Westerns and crime novels, two genres that are well known for hackneyed devices and cliched storytelling.
Leonard doesn't go for that. He writes fast-paced, dialogue-heavy novels that are completely his own in tone and content. Take any paragraph out of any of Leonard's mature novels, and he will be instantly recognizable. At his best, he's a wild breath of fresh air, at his worst he gives you light, entertaining reading.
LaBrava ranks among the best of the Leonard novels that I've read. The dialogue sizzles, the characters pop and the plot is a coherent, twisty thrill ride. As always, Leonard creates a world and a prose style so vivid and unique that it could only be his own.
When he was twelve, Joe LaBrava fell in love with femme fatale movie actress Jean Shaw. Now an ex-Secret Service agent turned photographer living in a Miami hotel, LaBrava runs into Shaw, who's being menaced by a couple of mysterious thugs. It's up to him to save his boyhood crush from her enemies, but like the characters she played on the silver screen, Jean Shaw may not be what she seems.
In classic Leonard style, the villains are more interesting than the heroes. LaBrava gives us two excellent ones: redneck security guard Richard Nobles and deadly Cuban go-go dancer Cundo Rey. Leonard is always comfortable writing villains and the segments from Nobles' and Cundo's points of view are some of the strongest in the novel.
LaBrava himself is a pretty solid main character, too, although he gets upstaged by Nobles, Cundo and Franny Kaufman, a girl with wild hair who lives at his hotel. Leonard has an incredible gift for character and dialogue; nearly all of the major players in LaBrava are memorable in some way.
If Leonard tends to have a fault, it's his plots. Generally, they're either too loose and unstructured or they're too structured and overly predictable. LaBrava strikes a nice balance. The story moves swiftly, keeps you guessing and delivers one major shock mid-book that catapults the novel to even higher tension. So what if the climax is a bit expected? This is definitely one of Leonard's most tightly-plotted novels.
His prose remains a gift. Leonard ignores all the rules of punctuation and grammar to get the story told, and he does it without seeming pretentious. Other writers attempting his style would seem like authors deliberately trying to be "experimental" or "cutting-edge." Not Leonard. He is simply telling the story in a direct, true-to-life way. From his pen drop gems like "I see 'em come in with no socks on, I know they've got a portfolio full of social commentary." There's such a striking combination of wit and realism in his writing.
There was a discussion when LaBrava went around the block from Ocean Drive to Collins and headed south to Fifth Street to get on the MacArthur Causeway. Maurice said, we're going north, what do you want to go south for? Why didn't you go up to Forty-first street, take the Jessica Tuttle? LaBrava said, because there's traffic up there on the beach, it's still the season. Maurice said, eleven o'clock at night? You talk about traffic, it's nothing what it used to be like. You could've gone up, taken the Seventy-ninth Street Causeway. LaBrava said, you want to drive or you want me to?--- (page 11)
The novel's ending is fairly satisfying, if a little truncated-feeling. Another few pages of wrap-up would have been welcome, but that's not Leonard. He rarely has much falling action; he prefers to wrap things up at the climax.
In short, LaBrava is another excellent novel from Leonard, probably one of the finer ones of his that I've read. It's a highly original story of crime that's neither a mystery nor a thriller, but something all its own. And Elmore Leonard can write a line of dialogue like practically no other author.
NEXT UP: Death of a Gossip by M.C. Beaton, a popular author of "cosy mysteries"
Monday, December 6, 2010
The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, 2005
The Outlander saga clocked in at around 4000 pages by the end of the fourth volume, Drums of Autumn. The series is a truly scale-breaking story, one so complicated and intertwined that even the most faithful fans will need to check Gabaldon's companion volume or website from time to time while reading The Fiery Cross, the massive fifth chapter of the sprawling cycle.
The sheer size of the Outlander books is simultaneously a positive and a negative thing. It's positive because there's so much room to develop the characters that I love, and a negative thing because the sheer scope allows more room for authorial slip-ups.
Unfortunately, The Fiery Cross is the first Outlander novel to feel truly marred by those mistakes and missteps. It's a book that switches constantly from engrossing to dry, from utterly original to disappointingly formulaic. It's a 1000-page mess of a book, really.
When we last left the time-traveling Fraser clan, they were cozily ensconced on their North Carolina homestead in 1771. After more than twenty years of adventure, separation and loss, the family is finally together.
But Claire, Brianna and Roger have brought knowledge with them from the future: knowledge of the impending American Revolution, a bloody conflict whose seeds are being sown even as the Frasers struggle to survive in the hostile wilderness.
This being a Diana Gabaldon novel, there's also a couple of gruesome surgeries, a mystical ghost-bear, a couple of battles, a cache of mysterious treasure, murder, contested paternity, potty-training and many, many sex scenes.
It's hard to imagine how a book with this much story crammed into it could be slow, but Gabaldon manages it. The plot is-- well, there really isn't one. There are many subplots and sub-subplots and a great deal of drama, but the novel really feels more like an eighteenth-century slice of life than anything else.
The previous volumes were all incredibly busy epics in which the overarching story was affected in every chapter. In The Fiery Cross the status remains quo throughout. The Frasers are in more or less the same situation at both the beginning and end of the book.
There are more problems, too. The book definitely seems like it was incompetently edited. Redundant scenes, purple prose, awkward sentences, unnecessary interludes, continuity errors and recycled pieces of prose pop up throughout. Especially annoying are the turns of phrase (such as "comically blank" and "pleasantly muzzy") that are repeated over and over. A firm editorial hand could have fixed many of the book's most egregious errors.
Some segments are downright painful to wade through: the 160+ page beginning, which takes place entirely at a huge gathering of American Scots, is a punishing read. Proceedings move at a snail's pace, killing the book's momentum before it even gets started. It's an outrageously miscalculated opening for the book.
And the sex. There are so many scenes of sex between the two main couples that it seems to be a writing crutch for Gabaldon. It happens far too often and is far too lavishly described. There can be no doubt that Gabaldon is a pretty terrific romance writer, but she should realize that her preoccupation with sexuality sometimes gets in the way of the story.
It may seem like I'm being hard on the novel, but I only criticize it because I love the series and the characters so much. Gabaldon is capable of a special kind of brilliance and it's too bad to see that the overall novel is a bit of disappointment.
There's a great deal to love, though. When she's at her peak, Gabaldon can run rings around lesser writers. She has a fantastic understanding of history, and an even better understanding of human beings.
In Jamie and Claire, she has created two of the finest characters I've ever read about. The longtime reader has an enormous history with them. They're both in their early fifties now, but we've watched them progress since they were in their twenties. Gabaldon continues to deepen them throughout Cross. The chapter in which they share their frustrations over past lovers is a prime example of the kind of character development Gabaldon is capable of:
We closed the barn door and walked back to the house in silence, hand in hand.
"Claire," he said suddenly, sounding like a little shy.
"I dinna mean to excuse myself--not at all. It's only I was wondering. . . do ye ever. . . think of Frank? When we. . ." He stopped and cleared his throat. "Does the shadow of the Englishman perhaps cross my face-- now and then?"
And what on earth could I say to that? I couldn't lie, surely, but how could I say the truth, either, in a way he would understand, that wouldn't hurt him?
I drew a deep breath and let it out, watching the mist of it purl softly away.
"I don't want to make love to a ghost," I said at last, firmly. "And I don't think you do, either. But I suppose every now and then a ghost might have other ideas."
He made a small sound that was mostly a laugh.
"Aye," he said. "I suppose they might. I wonder if Laoghaire would like the Englishman's bed better than mine?"
"Serve her right if she did," I said. "But if you like mine, I suggest you come and get back into it. It's bloody cold out here."--- (page 877)
Roger also got a lot of attention in The Fiery Cross. Indeed, his narration is threatening to overtake Claire's, while Jamie and Brianna only narrate brief segments.
I do like Roger, who is definitely Gabaldon's favorite punching bag (kidnapped and tortured by Indians in Drums, he gets hung and left for dead in this installment, prompting Claire to perform emergency throat surgery). His developing relationship with Jamie is wonderfully handled by Gabaldon, who draws subtle parallels between Roger's growing attachment to Jamie and the loss of his own father when he was small.
Brianna is still the most one-dimensional of the four main characters, and this volume gives her little room to shine. She's endearing and likable, but not as real to me as Jamie, Claire or Roger. Maybe Book 6 will give her more screen-time and more development.
The book's middle is definitely saggy, but Cross picks up a lot during the final pages, giving the characters a huge amount of new information on time-travel and bringing back Ian, one of my favorite characters in the series.
A few big questions remain unanswered. Why did Ian leave the Mohawk village? Who fondled Claire during the night at River Run? Can the Frasers jump-start the Revolution? What about the newspaper clipping reporting their deaths by fire? Is Jemmy Roger's or Stephen Bonnet's (my prediction: Bonnet)? Gabaldon definitely does a bang-up job of leaving you hungry for more.
Ultimately, The Fiery Cross feels like the first placeholder in the Outlander series and the first time that Gabaldon has really seemed to be struggling a bit.
Does that mean that it's a bad book? Good God, no. It's sometimes infuriating, sometimes disappointing, but it's also a rich immersion in Gabaldon's world, a place that feels real enough to touch, with characters more complex and rounded than just about any you're likely to find. Gabaldon is still capable of fairly staggering feats of writing. I just hope she tightens the plot in her next entry. And finds a new editor.
NEXT UP: Elmore Leonard's LaBrava
Friday, November 26, 2010
Three Men Out by Rex Stout, 1955
Although not particularly well known to contemporary readers, Rex Stout and his series of Nero Wolfe novels are a crucial step in the establishment of the mystery/crime genre. They're also enormous fun: neatly plotted, engagingly written, funny and devastatingly well-characterized.
When Stout first started writing the series, there were two basic kinds of crime fiction: the English "drawing-room" mysteries, as written by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, and the hard boiled American pulp/noir, as written by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
Stout ingeniously combined the two with the characters of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Wolfe, a snobby, brilliant gourmand and eccentric who leaves his Manhattan brownstone on only the rarest of occasions, is very much an old-school detective in the style of Hercule Poirot.
His assistant and companion, Archie Goodwin, is a street-smart man of action with a charmingly laconic style of narrating the adventures of his sedentary employer. He's not a Watson who stays on the sidelines of the story either; he's usually right in the thick of it.
These two and their wonderfully structured life in Wolfe's huge house are a perfect framework for Stout's plots, which, like the main characters, are an offbeat mixture of the old and new.
About half of the books in the Wolfe saga are novels. The rest are books containing three or four short novellas. Three Men Out has three middling-length novellas in it and they're all excellent. Stout's style is better suited to tighter, shorter stories; his full-length novels can sometimes drag.
The first entry, "Invitation to Murder," is probably the weakest overall, but it's still a crackerjack tale of crime. The novella's middle sags a tad and the mystery is not as intriguing as could be, but when Wolfe arrives on the scene things perk up significantly.
Number two, "The Zero Clue," is even better, a crisp, entertaining narrative that forces the fastidious Wolfe to put up with a house full of policemen, as well as his nemesis, Inspector Cramer. The puzzle would be pretty much impossible for the layman to unravel, but it's terrific fun to watch Wolfe do it.
"This Won't Kill You," the final story in the book, nicely represents what makes the series so unusual. In one novella we have classic body-in-the-library mystery (there's a dramatic unveiling with all suspects present; Wolfe must solve the crime in a single location), hard boiled pulp (Archie's take-down of a possibly insane druggist armed with sulphuric acid) and a dollop of pure originality (the whole affair takes place at a baseball park).
All three novellas have tropes and devices in common--like Christie, Stout loves to develop a small group of suspects--but unlike many mystery writers, Stout has a knack for keeping his plots fresh, rather than just re-doing the same story over and over.
His prose, as narrated by Archie Goodwin, is quirky and entertaining. A few awkward, outdated words and phrases present themselves to the modern reader, but in a way that adds to the charm. Stout is very good at characters and his dialogue is fast-paced and believable, as is Archie's inner monologue. It's always nice to find a writer who can mix wonderful stories with prose that goes beyond the ordinary. In this passage, a potential client is being interviewed by Wolfe:
Weighing rather less than half as much as Nero Wolfe, he was lost in the red leather chair three steps from the end of Wolfe's desk. Comfortably filling his own outsized chair behind the desk, Wolfe was scowling at the would-be client, Mr. Herman Lewent of New York and Paris. I, at my desk with notebook and pen, was neutral, because it was Friday and I had a weekend date, and if Lewent's job was urgent and we took it, good-bye weekend.
Wolfe, as usual when solicited, was torn. He hated to work, but he loved to eat and drink, and his domestic and professional establishment in the old brownstone house on West Thirty-fifth Street, including the orchids in the plant rooms on the roof, had an awful appetite for dollars. The only source of dollars was his income as a private detective, and at that moment, there on his desk near the edge, was a little stack of lettuce with a rubber band around it. Herman Lewent, who put it there, had stated that it was a thousand dollars. ---(page 3)
Wittier than Christie, more character-based than Doyle, more elegant than the pulp authors of the period, Stout is a wonderful find for the consummate mystery lover, as is Three Men Out, a sharp, focused collection of very good stories.
The Wolfe/Archie series as a whole is quite excellent, and so much fun to follow. Like P.G. Wodehouse (who was a friend and admirer of Stout's), Stout has created a whole universe teeming with recurring characters and little nods to previous adventures. Three Men Out is an exceedingly strong, highly entertaining installment in the ongoing saga.
NEXT UP: Probably The Fiery Cross. Stay tuned.
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, 1599
What always astonishes me after reading a Shakespeare play is how incredibly relevant they still are. A lot of the literature from Shakespeare's day and even farther back is a kind of historical curiosity, a document to be examined for facts, not something to be read for enjoyment.
Shakespeare isn't like that. Remove some of the flowery language and old-fashioned stage directions, and you have a story as fresh and vibrant as any being currently written, and strikingly complex characters.
The story is well-known. In the time of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar slowly gained power. Many thought he would declare himself emperor, and a small group of concerned political figures decide to assassinate him.
Julius Caesar, like many of Shakespeare's historical tragedies, is a masterpiece of political morality and torn loyalties. It's an impressively timeless story.
Caesar is the play's central figure, but not the protagonist. Honorable, conflicted statesman Brutus is the hero of the play, but even he is no flawless piece of cardboard. He is perennially doubtful--of Caesar, of the conspirators, of himself. By the end of the play, he is honored as the only one of Caesar's assassins who truly committed a selfless act, but Shakespeare leaves even this ambiguous.
There really are no "good guys" or "bad guys" in Julius Caesar. Even though Mark Antony is the de facto antagonist, he's not really worse than anyone else in the play. His famous speech to the Roman people is pure political genius and one of the play's high points.
Like Hamlet, the play's first half deals with doubt, indecision and difficult choices. The second half, after Caesar's death, is a more standard tragedy, as the various conspirators deal with the aftermath of their fateful decision. Most of the main characters are dead by the end of the play, several by their own hand.
One of the play's more intriguing characters is the shifty, brilliant Cassius, a man whose ruthlessness and ambiguity links him to such characters as Iago and Richard III. Shakespeare never quite tells us his motivation. He spearheads the plan to kill Caesar and seems to espouse Brutus's philosophy, yet it's never quite clear whether he is acting for noble reasons or selfish ones. That's part of the genius of Shakespeare: we are not just enjoying the story, we're actively trying to figure out the character's true psychology and motivations.
Atypically for Shakespeare, there are only a few characters in Julius Caesar that seem to warrant much analysis. Though the cast is large, only Brutus, Cassius, Antony, Casca and Caesar have long passages to themselves. The rest of the characters merely support the framework of the story; there are no scene-stealing minor characters like the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet or Margaret from Richard III.
Julius Caesar is heavy on speeches, especially during the first two-thirds (the last part of the play leans more towards give-and-take dialogue). There is Antony's famous speech to the masses and Brutus's oration which directly precedes it, as well as several speeches among the conspirators, as they try to convince each other, and themselves, of the worthiness of their cause and the way in which they should go about it. Here is Brutus addressing the conspiracy at his home (Cassius has just suggested killing both Caesar and Antony):
Brutus: Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,
To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,
Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;
For Antony is but a limb of Caesar:
Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,
And in the spirit of men there is no blood:
O, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar. But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it! And, gentle friends,
Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully,
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds:
And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,
Stir up their servants to an act of rage
And after seems to chide 'em. This shall make
Our purpose necessary and not envious:
Which so appearing to the common eyes,
We shall be called purgers, not murderers.
And for Mark Antony, think not of him;
For he can do no more than Caesar's arm
When Caesar's head is off. (pages 29-30, Wordsworth Classic edition)
One of the many delicious things about this speech is the heavy irony, which is only apparent after the end of the play. Though Brutus claims that Antony will be powerless without Caesar, Antony steadily grows in power throughout the play, eventually routing the conspirators and personally causing the suicide of Brutus. Although Brutus is noble and wise, Shakespeare still allows him to make a staggering mistake that will eventually cost him everything.
That's not to say that Brutus was necessarily wrong in stopping his fellows from killing Antony. Their plan was to assassinate Caesar, and Caesar alone. No others were to be harmed. Had the conspirators murdered Antony as well, their position would have been far less morally defensible. Though all the conspirators claim high and noble reasons for killing Caesar, Brutus is the only one who was unwilling to kill another man in addition. Was the whole enterprise truly for good or for evil?
It's food-for-thought moments like these that make Julius Caesar such a great work and Shakespeare such an utterly superior storyteller. The play is a staggering masterpiece of politics, psychology and philosophy. It's also a rich, intelligent story that still has power and relevance today, perhaps even more so.
NEXT UP: I take a break from heavy classics and fat historical novels with mystery author Rex Stout and Three Men Out.
Monday, November 22, 2010
The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett, 1983
Like Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, Terry Pratchett's series of genre-skewering Discworld novels have amassed a rabid cult of fans. The Discworld series is complex, interconnected and rather daunting at first glance, but I was pleased to find that the first volume, The Color of Magic, stands well on its own.
It's also the most delightful romp through a wacky fantasy world since the Oz books. The novel is fast, funny and utterly original. It gleefully mocks the tropes and cliches of the fantasy genre while developing a universe that works as more than a platform for jokes.
When naive tourist Twoflower arrived in the sprawling city of Ankh-Morpork, he soon falls in with the wizard Rincewind, who he employs as his tour guide. Unfortunately for Twoflower, Rincewind is quite possibly the "most incompetent wizard in the known universe."
Together, Rincewind and Twoflower travel the Discworld, stumbling into misadventure after misadventure, including an encounter with a Lovecraftian monster, a run-in with a nation of dragonriders living on an upside-down mountain and nearly becoming human sacrifices for the Disworld's first space voyage.
The book is terrific fun. It is amazing for the sheer audacity of its scope and the inspired lunacy of Pratchett's creatures and cultures. Hydrophobic wizards? The deadly number eight? A living piece of homicidal Luggage? One author hasn't created this many memorable concepts since Adams's first Hitchhiker's novel.
Pratchett is also a fabulous wordsmith in the grand tradition of P.G. Wodehouse. His fantastical prose is just a pleasure to read, as is his witty dialogue:
Twoflower sat down on an ornate mother-of-pearl chair with a glass of oily wine in one hand and a crystallized squid in the other. He frowned.
"I think I've missed something along the way," he said. "First we were told we were going to be slaves--"
"A base canard!" interrupted Garhartra.
"What's a canard?" asked Twoflower.
"I think it's a kind of duck," said Rincewind from the far end of the long table. "Are these biscuits made of something really nauseating, do you suppose?"
"--and then we were rescued at great magical expense--"
"They're made of pressed seaweed," snapped the Guestmaster.
"--but then we're threatened, also at a vast expenditure of magic--"
"Yes, I thought it would be something like seaweed," agreed Rincewind. "They certainly taste like seaweed would taste if anyone was masochistic enough to eat seaweed."
"--and then we're manhandled by guards and thrown in here--"
"Pushed gently," corrected Garhartra.
"--which turned out to be this amazingly rich room and there's all this food and a man saying he's devoting his life to making us happy," Twoflower concluded. "What I'm getting at is this sort of lack of consistency."
"Yar," said Rincewind. "What he means is, are you about to start being generally unpleasant again? Is this just a break for lunch?" ---(pages 182-183)
Just as much fun as the crazy creatures and amusing wordplay are the characters themselves. Even though Rincewind and Twoflower are in the middle of pure insanity, they both really start to endear themselves to you. The hapless, anti-heroic Rincewind is just hilarious and Twoflower's wide-eyed innocence is a perfect counterbalance. The supporting characters are excellent, too: Hrun the Barbarian, who struggles to count to three, Kring the talking sword, Death himself, the aforementioned Luggage.
The book isn't entirely without flaws. The opening segment is the weakest, and doesn't do the best job of integrating the novice reader into Discworld. Pratchett's writing has a distinctive, purely original rhythm that takes time to get used to; it can be jarring at first.
But once you're immersed, The Color of Magic is a smart, fast-paced joy to read. It's very funny, sometimes hilarious, but it also creates characters and a world that genuinely work as more than just a joke machine. I definitely look forward to visiting the Discworld again.
NEXT UP: I am currently working through both The Brothers Karamazov and Diana Gabaldon's fifth Outlander book, The Fiery Cross. They're both huge books, and it's been a slow reading month. The very next one I review will probably be Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
Friday, October 29, 2010
Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin, 1990
The first novel in Ian Rankin's celebrated Inspector Rebus series, Knots and Crosses, (1987), blew me away with its emotional power, well-written mystery and its compelling, complex main character.
I'm tempted to say that Hide and Seek is even better. It is not as emotional or as quite as psychologically complicated, but it is a riveting, dark look at a rotting city, as well as being an excellent, ever-twisting mystery. It's a small masterpiece of crime fiction.
John Rebus, a detective in the Scottish city of Edinburgh, arrives on the scene of an apparent overdose, a drug-addicted young man who lies dead surrounded by signs of Satanic worship.
Rebus thinks there's more to the case than a simple overdose. With the aid of the deceased's rebellious girlfriend and a wary young constable, Rebus follows a trail of drugs, blackmail, occultism and murder, a trail that leads from the city's lowest depths to its most affluent heights.
The most important thing in a mystery novel is the mystery itself, and this one's a doozy. Rankin is a master of pacing. He doesn't go for big action scenes, but there's an undercurrent of constant danger that keeps you frantically flipping pages.
The detective is the second-most important component of the mystery novel, and in John Rebus, Rankin has hit a gold mine. Rebus is cranky, lonely, self-destructive and often cruel to his inferiors at the police station, yet he's a surprisingly likable protagonist. He's the kind of fascinating character that I would willingly follow through fifteen or twenty books.
The large cast of supporting characters is equally well-drawn. One of the highlights of the novel for me was the partnership of Rebus and young, up-and-coming constable Brian Holmes. Their relationship never became a one-dimensional buddy-movie rivalry; it's nuanced and understated.
Rankin's prose and dialogue is as quirky and razor-sharp as in the previous installment, a nice combination of readable and poetic:
What was it the old man, Vanderhyde, had said said? Something about muddying the water. Rebus had the gnawing feeling that the solution to these many conundrums was a simple one, as crystal clear as one could wish. The problem was that extraneous stories were being woven into the whole. Do I mix my metaphors? Very well then, I mix my metaphors. All that counted was getting to the bottom of the pool, muddy or no, and bringing up that tiny cache of treasure called the truth.
He knew, too, that the problem was one of classification. He had to break the interlinked stories into separate threads, and work from those. At the moment, he was guilty of trying to weave them all into a pattern, a pattern that might not be there. By separating them all, maybe he'd be in with a chance of solving each. ---(pages 152-153)
Perhaps best of all, the novel's conclusion is perfect, a difficult feat to pull off in a mystery novel. The central puzzle is satisfyingly resolved, we get a short, intense burst of action and then some sly set-up for the rest of the series.
As much as I enjoyed Knots and Crosses, Hide and Seek is in some ways a stronger, more mature novel. It's a thrilling, sometimes shockingly deep ride into the dark side of humanity, and I loved every page.
NEXT UP: The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse, 1960
The world of P.G. Wodehouse is really as different from our own--and as convincing--as Middle-earth or Philip Pullman's multiverse. It's a world where nothing bad every really happens, a world full of humor and joy.
The Jeeves and Wooster series has never failed to enchant me and How Right You Are, Jeeves is a delightful, hilarious entry into the canon.
When Jeeves leaves Bertie Wooster's side for his annual holiday, Wooster retires to his Aunt Dahlia's country house for what he thinks will be a relaxing visit. Since this is a Wodehouse novel, the house is a hotbed of trouble for the hapless Bertie. Among the fellow guests are Bobbie Wickham (a mischievous former flame of Bertie's), a New York playboy, a nosy mystery author, a psychologist disguised as a butler and the former headmaster of Bertie's grammar school, his boyhood nemesis.
Within hours of his arrival, Bertie finds himself trapped in a labyrinthine maze of drowning dachshunds, false engagements, missing cow-creamers, mistaken identity and Market Snodsbury's upcoming grammar school prize-giving. Only one man is brainy enough to get Bertie out of the soup: Jeeves.
The plot is exactly what we've come to expect from a Jeeves and Bertie story and that's a good thing. Wodehouse's devices may repeat themselves a bit, but the ridiculous intricacies of the plots are gloriously fun to follow.
This novel makes the bold move of having Jeeves off-stage for much of the action, which allowed Bertie to really wreak some hilarious havoc during the novel's first half. There's no comic set piece as glorious as Gussie Fink-Nottle's grammar school prize-giving in Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), but there wasn't a single page that didn't make me smile.
Another thing I love about this series is the many recurring characters and plotlines that are carried through the entire saga. In this novel, we see the beginning of a warm friendship between Roderick Glossop and Bertie, formerly enemies, and we see strained relations between Bobbie Wickham and Bertie, formerly head over heels for each other. These touches of continuity are simply delightful for the familiar reader.
Wodehouse is an extraordinary wordsmith with a staggering proficiency in comic timing and convincing, yet hilarious dialogue. In this passage, Bertie has a telephone conversation with the intimidating Aubrey Upjohn, who he's supposed to be blackmailing:
"Oh, Jeeves is the man's name?"
"Yes, Mr. Upjohn."
"Well, he carelessly omitted to pack the notes for my speech at Market Snodsbury Grammar School tomorrow."
"No, really! I don't wonder you're sore."
"Sore with an r."
"No, sorry, I mean with an o-r-e."
"Yes, Mr. Upjohn?"
"Are you intoxicated?"
"No, Mr. Upjohn."
"Then you are driveling. Stop driveling, Wooster."
"Yes, Mr. Upjohn." ---(page 133)
There's no question: Wodehouse is an incredible master of language, which he uses to create humor and joy rather than complex works of important "literature."
That, when you boil it down, is the essence of the Jeeves and Wooster saga: Joy. It's as much fun as anyone is likely to have reading, yet as you read, you can only marvel at Wodehouse's technical skill, that he uses in such a wonderful way. How Right You Are, Jeeves is a shining example of a Jeeves novel, and a shining example of English comic writing at its best.
NEXT UP: Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
The Hard Way by Lee Child, 2006
Lee Child's Jack Reacher series is literary crack. Each novel is a blissfully thrilling blend of mystery and action. Child's lean writing is a combination of John D. MacDonald's and Elmore Leonard's. No other thriller writer gives me as much as pleasure as Child and The Hard Way is another exemplary entry in the Reacher canon.
Jack Reacher (the spiritual grandson of MacDonald's Travis McGee) is an ex-military cop who wanders around America, not staying in one place for more than a few days. His only permanent possessions are his bank card and his folding toothbrush. When he sees cruelty or injustice, he'll deal with it using his lethal skills-- and then move on.
In The Hard Way, Reacher is in New York when he witnesses a dead drop ransom payment. Before long, he's been hired by the head of a deadly mercenary group to find his abducted wife and daughter--and he isn't telling Reacher the whole truth.
Although the Reacher are technically thrillers, the mystery element is usually very strong, and The Hard Way has a fantastic mystery with several truly shocking twists and a conclusion that actually makes sense.
Not to say that the series' signature action isn't in fine form. The climax (which occurs, of all places, in a small English village) is pure kinetic pleasure. Child's clipped style is perfectly suited to action.
There's some nice character interactions, too. Per the formula, Reacher picks up a female companion, an ex-FBI agent saddled with the unfortunate name of Lauren Pauling. Their romance is nicely understated, although nothing highly memorable.
Always a dynamic pacer, Child keeps up the series standard without resorting to a string of over-the-top action scenes. The first two-thirds of the book are really more of a mystery than a true thriller, but the final segment more than makes up for it in badass-ery:
Reacher stared at it for a moment. Then he put it in his pocket. He buried the longer knife to its hilt in Perez's chest. Tucked the shorter knife in his own shoe. Kicked the corkscrew and the broken flashlight into the shadows. Used his thumb to clean Perez's blood and frontal lobe off of the G-36's monocular lens. Picked up the MP5 submachine gun and slung it over his left shoulder.
Then he headed back north and east toward the barns.
Reacher, alone in the dark. Doing it the hard way--- (pages 459-460)
The Jack Reacher novels are just so much fun, unadulterated reading pleasure. Even the occasional unnecessary political aside can't dull the novel's appeal. Writing a novel as truly thrilling as this ain't as easy as it looks and Child is at the top of his game. The Hard Way is about as entertaining a book I've read in the last few months. Until the next Reacher adventure anyway.
NEXT UP: How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse.
Saturday, October 9, 2010
All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming, 2006
I recently met Julia Spencer-Fleming at a book festival. She was charming, witty and personable, and I was lucky enough to get two of my books autographed. Her Millers Kill series is truly superior mystery fiction, and All Mortal Flesh is the best one yet. It's a pretty incredible read.
During the previous four novels, Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson have faced down murderers, helicopter crashes, near-drowning and bombs. But the stories have all been crimes that they are investigating, not crimes that directly involve them.
The fifth installment changes that with its jolting shocker of a beginning: Russ's wife Linda is found murdered and mutilated in their home, mere weeks after the two of them seperated because of Russ's feelings for Clare.
Russ goes on the hunt for Linda's killer, aided by the increasingly guilty Clare. Things become even more complicated when a state policewoman becomes convinced that Russ is the murderer, forcing him to go on the run.
I really can't say anything more about the plot except that A) it would make Agatha Christie green with envy, B) it's stay-up-all-night-riveting and C) it delivers one shocking twist that ranks among the finest I've read in a contemporary mystery.
But, as always, it's the two main characters that really matter, and both Russ and Clare are in top form here. The two have emerged as such deep, well-rounded creations, and their relationship only gets more compelling and complex in this novel.
Making the novel revolve around Linda's death is a brilliant move. This is what fans of the series have been waiting for since the first book, but Spencer-Fleming masterfully demonstrates that this event can only push Russ and Clare farther apart.
The prose is better than ever, too. Spencer-Fleming brought her A-game to this novel and it shows. Russ finding out about his wife's murder:
The terrible thing was here. He felt himself crack open, his jaw unhinge, his lungs constrict. His field of vision shrank, and his head filled with a loud, dry-edged shuffle as his mind laid down every card in its deck. Linda relaxing in her favorite chair at the end of the day. The two of them shouting at each other over the hood of her car. A funeral--he had never planned a funeral, didn't know how to do it, didn't know who to call. Oh, God, he was going to grow feeble and old alone, without his wife, his beautiful wife. . .
The way it would feel, his finger tightening on the trigger as he pumped onetwothreefourfive rounds into her killer. Just like that.
Memory. Guilt. Confusion. Self-pity.
Rage. --(page 37)
The plot twists and turns until the teriffic climax, which brings the mystery to an unexpected and satisfying close. There's no over-the-top action, but it's an excellent conclusion. It's the shattering emotional moment that closes the novel that really leaves you hungry for the next installment, though.
All Mortal Flesh is a triumphant acheivment for Spencer-Fleming and the series. It's a pretty fantastic novel, from every angle. It's a wonderful mystery, but it's also a deep, insightful look at a tragic love triangle.
NEXT UP: The Hard Way, by Lee Child.
Friday, October 8, 2010
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, 1995-2000
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and your daemons shall assume their true forms, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to reveal the true form of one's daemon, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
And the eyes of them both were opened, and they saw the true form of their daemons, and spoke with them. --(The Golden Compass, page 273).
Let's get one thing straight: Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is as much children's fiction as The Lord of the Rings is. The saga's incredible passages of violence, sexuality, cruelty, horror and spiritual complexity makes these books as dark and deep as any adult fantasy series.
The trilogy is hard to encapsulate. It is the story of hundreds of overlapping worlds, the story of a man bent on destroying God, the story of two children caught in the midst of a metaphysical war. It has as much action and adventure as could be hoped for, and memorable characters, and complicated themes. It's a masterpiece of fantasy fiction, no question.
Pullman and his three novels have garnered incredible controversy, and rightly so. The trilogy is everything that its detractors claim it to be. Do I agree with all of Pullman's spiritual/philosophical/moral points? No, I do not, but he makes them compellingly and (for the most part) without too much ham-handedness.
And the trilogy is not a dry religious treatise. It's an epic, emotionally engaging bildungsroman that holds together astonishingly well over its 900+ page length. It's a true feast for book lovers.
The first volume, The Golden Compass is a rip-roaring adventure in a steampunk-y parallel universe. It has armored bears, exploding zeppelins, mysterious prophecies and a plucky young heroine. It's an engaging, smartly written fantasy novel that merely hints at what's to come.
Book two, The Subtle Knife is a deeper, more complex novel that even manages to top the first novel in terms of action. The world-cutting knife is a glorious invention and the plot thickens and twists like a thriller.
The conclusion, The Amber Spyglass, is the longest, darkest volume in the cycle, with the widest scope. Although I had a few problems with Spyglass's first half (a lot of subplots, too many new characters), the ending is truly magnificent, as powerful and emotional a finish as any I've ever read.
My only major complaint with the cycle is that Pullman's hatred of organized religion comes through too strongly, and isn't as well-developed as other aspects of the book. Every single person belonging to the Christian religion is, without exception, portrayed as a cruel, dangerous zealot. For an author who can make characters as morally conflicted as Pullman can, this seems like a truly lazy way to establish the trilogy's villains. The sections of the novels dealing with The Authority--read: God-- is also too highly colored with Pullman's own prejudices.
But in a cycle as huge as His Dark Materials (I read all three books as one massive novel, which definitely enhances this impression), this isn't a deal-breaking misstep. There's so much to enjoy in Pullman's world.
The main characters, Lyra and Will, are fantastic. Frankly, in the first volume, I found Lyra a little annoying, but in retrospect, her character development was pretty outstanding. Will is also an incredible creation; he couldn't be farther from the stereotype of the "heroic little boy." He's an incredibly dark character.
Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, the other two central figures (and Lyra's parents) are just as fascinating. Imagine Severus Snape and a female Ben Linus interacting, and you get an idea of how layered and complex their motives and desires are. Their eventual sacrifice is perfect, especially because no other characters actually know what they did.
Pullman's powers of invention rank next to J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. His multiverse is an incredibly colorful place, full of strange creatures and bizarre landscapes. The armored polar bears are his most stunningly original creations.
The end of the story is amazingly good, considering the buildup. The mysteries are resolved, the characters dealt with and the series concludes with an incredibly moving moment of grace and sacrifice that's among the most heartbreaking passages of fiction I've read.
It's an incredible trilogy and indisputably a modern classic. It's a work that I know I will return to, to again be swept away by the scope and scale and dizzying emotional power. Reading His Dark Materials is like reading The Wizard of Oz or The Lord of the Rings. It's a work of fantastic fiction that changes the parameters of the genre itself.
Also, there's battling armored polar bears, and they're awesome.
NEXT UP: Julia Spencer-Fleming's fifth Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson mystery, All Mortal Flesh.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, 1837
Of all of Charles Dickens's novels, The Pickwick Papers stands out as his lightest, most comic work. I've always been a great lover of Dickens (1812-1870) and The Pickwick Papers in no way disappoints. It's a masterpiece of English comic literature, and what's more, a sheer delight to read.
The story is loose and simple: Mr. Pickwick is a jolly, light-hearted gentleman who has founded The Pickwick Club, a London men's group. At the beginning of the novel, Pickwick and three friends (romantic Tupman, poetic Snodgrass and cowardly Winkle) set out to roam the countryside, sending back reports of their adventures to the club.
But as the novel progresses, the initial premise is laid by the wayside as the action begins to center less on the four friends and more on Mr. Pickwick and his sharp-witted servant Sam Weller.
Throughout the novel's enormous length, the Pickwickians stumble into a great deal of trouble: lawsuits, carriage crashes, elopements, cons, duels and even jail time for Mr. Pickwick.
Dickens is trying his hardest to entertain, and entertain he does. The book really is laugh-out loud funny, even in 2010. Take this exquisitely worded passage:
"Because, sir," said Mr. Pickwick, considerably excited, "because you are too old, sir [to wear an outlandish bandit costume to a party]."
"Too old!" exclaimed Mr. Tupman.
"And if any further ground of objection be wanting," continued Mr. Pickwick, "you are too fat, sir."
"Sir," said Mr. Tupman, his face suffused with a crimson glow, "this is an insult."
"Sir," replied Mr. Pickwick in the same tone, "it is not half the insult to you that your appearance in my presence in a green velvet jacket with a two-inch tail would be to me." (page 229)
Dickens's comic invention is boundless. Quirky characters and bizarre situations are one of his trademarks, and he's already in fine form here. An especially amusing running joke is Mr. Winkle's incredible incompetence as a sportsman, even though he considers himself a bit of a master.
It's Sam and Tony Weller who are the book's breakout characters, particularly Sam, a sharp-tongued, cool-headed cockney who helps the hapless Pickwick out of many a dilemma. Tony, his father, is also about as colorful a character as anyone could want. The bonds between Sam and Tony and Sam and Pickwick are the novel's center.
Yet despite all the craziness of the novel's supporting characters and incidents, it's the almost saintly figure of Mr. Pickwick that, to me, is Dickens's greatest achievement in the novel. Pickwick is simultaneously larger-than-life and truly human.
A little more than halfway through the book, the comic tone becomes a little more realistic and there's some true darkness when Pickwick finds himself in a debtor's prison. Dickens's sense of drama is always a tad on the melodramatic side, but the prison sequences stand out as particularly well-realized.
One of the few things that I didn't love was that Dickens felt the need to embed seven or eight complete "short stories" in the book. These tales (generally being told to the Pickwickians at a pub or eating-house) are all good, but they take up a lot of space and contribute nothing to the novel's plot.
But Dickens remains the consummate reader's writer. The Pickwick Papers is a truly joyous reading experience. It is not shallow or superficial, nor is it deep and dark. It's a long read, but it's an enjoyable, memorable journey every step of the way.
NEXT UP: Philip Pullman's enormously ambitious three-volume fantasy series His Dark Materials.
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin, 1987
Although Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series is wildly popular in the UK, it's lesser known in the US. The seventeen-book series has a reputation for being at the top of the crime fiction genre. I definitely expected to enjoy Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus novel, but I didn't expect to fall in love with it forty pages in.
Rankin is just so good. His prose is a marriage of toughened noir narration and lyrical description. His dialogue is lean and believable. His main character, John Rebus, is a spectacularly realized creation.
The novel's plot is straight out of the police procedural fiction handbook. Inspector John Rebus is an asocial, hard-drinking police inspector in the crime-ridden Scottish city of Edinburgh. He has a history of nervous breakdowns, a young daughter and a dark past, a past that comes back to haunt him when a serial strangler begins terrorizing the city and sending Rebus cryptic messages.
The plot may be classic, but Rankin's style is so unique and his characters so compelling that it feels brand-new.
In a lot of ways, the book is more of a character study than a straight crime novel. We really get to know Rebus and yet he remains a bit of a mystery, to the readers and to himself. He's basically a good, moral man, yet he has a habit of stealing rolls from a bakery for his breakfast.
The mystery plot is really more of a Jekyll and Hyde tale. Rebus and his opposite number are two sides of the same coin. One is good and one is evil, but it is more complex than that. As the killer's fiendish plan brilliantly unfolds, we realize that the question isn't who, but why. The novel's final third is as thrilling a piece of mystery fiction as any I've read.
Rankin's prose is beautiful, sometimes hard-bitten and cruel, sometimes more poetic. He can invoke a sense of place or a state of mind with ease.
While a police-car slept nearby, its occupants unable to do anything save curse the mountains of rules and regulations and rue the deep chasms of crime. It was everywhere, crime. It was the life-force and the blood and the balls of life: to cheat, to edge, to take that body-swerve at authority, to kill. The higher up you climbed into crime, the more subtly you began to move back towards legitimacy, until a handful of lawyers only could crack open your system, and they were always affordable, always on hand to be bribed. Dostoevsky had known all that, clever old bastard. He had felt the stick burning from both ends. (page 42)
The novel is perhaps a bit short, and there's a subplot involving a crime reporter that was not quite at the same level of the rest of the book, but these are very small faults. Knots and Crosses is an excellent novel on any level and a pretty fantastic crime novel. The climax is perfect, which is a very rare achievement in this genre. It doesn't go overboard on action scenes; the book is too cerebral to resort to that.
But it's cynical, beaten-down John Rebus that has me excited for future installments. He promises to be a wonderful series character, at least based on this superb first entry.
NEXT UP: The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
To Darkness and to Death by Julia Spencer-Fleming, 2005
Spencer-Fleming's fourth installment in her Miller's Kill series had a lot to live up to. The third volume was a terrific thriller and an excellent novel in its own right. To Darkness and to Death, like the previous three books, is a delightful, skillful ride, but it suffers slightly in comparison to its predecessors.
The novel occurs in real-time, from many different viewpoints. It's Russ's birthday and also the day of a black-tie gala to celebrate the sale of timberland to a Malaysian corporation.
Not everyone is happy about the sale, which is primed to put a logging company and a paper mill out of business. When the heiress to the timberland disappears, Russ, Clare and the people of Miller's Kill are drawn into a tangle of violence, murder and interwoven stories.
The real-time device is clever and Spencer-Fleming executes it well, but I don't think it was quite the right move for this series. The previous three novels all unfolded at a slower pace, with more emphasis on the characters. This entry seems like Spencer-Fleming's attempt to emulate more action-packed fiction.
She emulates it quite well. The book is the very definition of a page-turner. About a third of the way into the book things really kick into high gear and don't let up until the literally explosive finale.
But even though the book is an extremely entertaining read, it's disappointing that Russ and Clare were given such short shrift. The novel focuses far more on a few new characters than on the main ones. We don't even get to experience the blowback from Russ and Clare's first kiss.
Spencer-Fleming is still a damn good writer, who can write action, humor and shattering drama with equal finesse (a scene between two minor characters late in the book is pretty phenomenal). She's excellent at describing how her characters feel, although she sometimes has trouble with their actual motivation.
He was thinking what to do with the body as he walked around the tower. He wasn't cocky, but he was rather pleased by his composure and rationality-- until he stepped around a birch tree and finally saw Eugene van der Hoeven up close. There was something wrong about the way Eugene's limbs lay. As if he were a mannequin put together in a hurry. Or a marionette doll flung aside by a careless child. Shaun started shaking. His breath sawed in and out, too fast, until black spots swam in front of his eyes. Eugene wasn't a person anymore; he was a broken thing. And Shaun had done it to him. (page 141)
Another problem with the novel is that the constant connections and coincidences in the storyline eventually becomes a bit much. The book's main narrative relies a little too heavily on pure chance for my taste.
But, flaws aside, To Darkness and to Death (although probably the weakest so far of the Russ/Clare series) is an excellent read. The prose and characters are top-notch. Spencer-Fleming just needs to focus a little more on story next time.
NEXT UP: Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin.
Monday, September 6, 2010
Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon, 1997
Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series is a scales-breaking saga of time travel, romance and high adventure. One Gabaldon novel has more action and adventure than your average silent-movie serial and more romance than a shelf of Harlequins. Better still, Gabaldon has a wonderful sense of humor, a knack for creating terrific characters and, to top it off, is arguably the best historical writer I've ever read.
The series' mammoth fourth entry revolves around Jamie and Claire Fraser, time-crossed lovers who have finally reunited in eighteenth-century colonial America. As Jamie and Claire begin to build a settlement in the wilderness, their daughter Brianna, who's still in the 1960s, travels through the stones to find her parents, pursued by her own lover.
And that's just the beginning. Gabaldon is informative and witty and she packs the novel with incident and excitement. The woman can mix Indian mysticism and little-known British word games with descriptions of herbal remedies and life on sailing ships.
Gabaldon is a master at portraying the complexity and ambiguity of eighteenth-century life. She doesn't sugarcoat or preach or try to paint incredibly complicated phenomenons with a broad brush. What she does is present her characters (and readers) with difficult situations and choices, and then lets everyone make up their own mind about the consequences.
But all of this is just window dressing. The saga's real main plot is the story of a family separated by time. In the first few volumes, the emphasis was most strongly on Jamie and Claire's romance. With Drums, we get to see Brianna's side of the story, as well as gain some fresh insight into Frank's perspective.
Drums is just as compelling as the rest of the series, but moves at a slightly slower pace, which I personally found refreshing after the breakneck third volume. The cozy scenes at Fraser's Ridge are balanced out by the horror and suffering encountered by Brianna and, particularly, Roger.
Gabaldon keeps developing her main characters as the series progresses, and introduces many new ones over the course of the novel. I particularly like the evolution of Young Ian. He starts the book as a well-meaning, but awkward young man and ends it as a mature, capable adult.
The novel's villains are just as interesting as its heroes. The book's Big Bad is Stephen Bonnet, a highwayman, pirate and rogue-of-all-trades who is a fascinating love-to-hate character that should impact things interestingly in the series' future.
Complaints? Well, the book is an absolute doorstopper and a little trimming wouldn't have hurt (that said, I loved every page). Gabaldon does occasionally fall back on romance-novel cliches, particularly during the sex scenes, which are numerous, graphic and largely unneeded.
The novel's final stretch,, while as entertaining as all-get-out, revolves around a sitcom-like case of mistaken identity that definitely stretches credulity and even becomes a tad farcical.
Still, she brings it all together with a great ending. We have a small twist (a certain letter from Frank), a beautiful call-back to the novel's very beginning and, at long last, the official engagement of Brianna and Roger:
Across the fire, something winked red. I glanced across in time to see Roger lift Brianna's hand to his lips; Jamie's ruby shone dark on her finger, catching the light of moon and fire.
"I see she's chosen then," Jamie said softly.
Brianna smiled, her eyes on Roger's face, and leaned to kiss him. Then she stood up, brushing sand from her skirts and bent to pick up a brand from the campfire. She turned and held it out to him, speaking in a voice loud enough to carry to us where we sat across the fire.
"Go down," she said, "and tell them the MacKenzies are here." (page 1070)
NEXT UP: I'm reading Julia Spencer-Fleming's fourth novel, To Darkness and to Death.
Monday, August 30, 2010
Different Seasons by Stephen King, 1982
I've read a lot of Stephen King. Some of it is very, very good--The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower (2005) is a personal favorite, as is the entire Dark Tower series--and some of it is self-indulgent and ponderous--Under the Dome (2009), for instance.
Different Seasons is mid-period King and it's one of his best efforts that I've read. The four novellas that make up the collection are not his usual small-town horror, although one of them has a strong supernatural element.
The opening novella, "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" is something of a modern classic, especially since the iconic film adaptation. The story is a terrific little gem, a bit hokey in segments (as much of King's work is), but ultimately a strong piece.
In the novella, wrongly convicted man Andy Dufresne becomes a beacon of hope in the darkness of Maine's Shawshank Prison, as told by another inmate:
You may also have gotten the idea that I'm describing someone who's more legend than man, and I would have to agree that there's some truth to that. To us long-timers who knew Andy over a space of years, there was an element of fantasy to him, a sense, almost, of myth-magic, if you get what I mean. The story I passed on about Andy refusing to give Bogs Diamond a head-job is part of that myth, and how he kept on fighting the sisters is part of it, and how he got the library job is part of it, too. . . but with one important difference: I was there and I saw what happened, and I swear on my mother's name that it's all true. The oath of a convicted murderer may not be worth much, but believe this: I don' t lie. --- (pages 38-39)
Number two in the collection is "Apt Pupil," a long, shuddery tale of a parasitic relationship between an old Nazi war criminal hiding out in the States and a sadistic young boy. This is King outside of his comfort zone and it's a triumph. The novella is far scarier than most of King's horror novels and is a well-constructed thriller aside from a few moments that don't ring quite true (the initial meeting between Dussander, the Nazi, and Todd, the boy, is a good example).
The third story is "The Body," the tale of four young boys on a quest to find the body of a kid who was hit by a train. Technically, it's well done, but the main characters themselves become grating over the course of the novella and there's just a little too much sap. Still, it's a fairly successful entry in the collection.
It's the fourth novella, "The Breathing Method" that lingers most in my memory. It's really two stories--one concerns a bizarre gentleman's club in New York and the other is a Gothic tale of the supernatural. Both stories pack a wicked punch and King's prose is knife-sharp.
Overall, it's an excellent collection. All of the novellas are entertaining in their way. "The Breathing Method" is probably my personal favorite, but they're all well-crafted stories. King's prose is confident and strong, even though faults that will become more annoying as time goes by (folksiness overload, incredibly obvious symbolism) are present.
Different Seasons is a vastly superior collection to King's next one, Four Past Midnight (1990), which shows King at his weakest. Different Seasons is Stephen King at the height of his talent. It makes me wonder why King has produced so much mediocre material over the past few years. Sometimes he seems to be trying too hard, sometimes he's trying too little. He should look back at this collection and all the things he did right in it.
NEXT UP: Drums of Autumn, the fourth novel in Diana Gabaldon's fabulous Outlander Series.
Monday, August 23, 2010
The Hollow by Agatha Christie, 1946
I've always liked Agatha Christie mysteries, but very few of them really excite me (1934's Murder on the Orient Express and 1926's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd being two of the exceptions). They're quick, pleasant reads with familiar, cozy settings and simple characterizations. In a way, they're the literary equivalent of a crossword puzzle or a brain-teaser.
The Hollow really isn't much different from the typical Christie whodunit, but it's clear that Christie (1890-1976) was trying to branch out a little bit with this particular novel.
As always, the book revolves around a small group of English characters (most of them distantly and confusingly related) who come together for a weekend party in the countryside.
Among them is John Christow, a brash, arrogant doctor obsessed with finding a cure for a rare disease. He's also an insufferable jerk who bullies both his timid wife and his opinionated mistress. He also has a jealous ex-fiance in the background, hungry for revenge.
One morning, while hanging around alone by his host's swimming pool, John is shot:
[S]uddenly, John was acutely conscious of danger. How long had he been sitting here? Half an hour? An hour? There was someone watching him. Someone--
And that click was-- of course it was--
He turned sharply, a man very quick in his reactions. But he was not quick enough. His eyes widened in surprise, but there was no time for him to make a sound.
The shot rang out and he fell, awkwardly, sprawled out by the edge of the swimming pool.
A dark stain welled up slowly on his left side and trickled slowly on to the concrete of the pool edge; and from there dripped red into the blue water. (page 71)
With half a dozen quirky suspects and a missing murder weapon, the police are baffled. Luckily, master Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot is just next door and hot on the track of the murderer.
As you can see, the actual murder doesn't occur until page 71, which is unusually late in the game for a Christie mystery and the preceding 70 pages are a little painful. Things move along at a snail's pace and very little happens.
Christie was a competent writer. Sometimes she would hit on a nice simile or display a dash of wit. She does well when dealing with interrogations and sleuthing and riddle-solving, but elongated scenes of domestic life are not her forte. Her characters are too thin to be interesting without a murder involved.
Still, Christie is trying to make this novel a little more personal and more character-based, and she partially succeeds. There's a little more of an emotional punch than usual.
The mystery itself is solid as usual. The clues are well-placed and the conclusion is surprising if not brilliant. Other than the overlong beginning, the book is well paced.
Hercule Poirot, Christie's fussy main detective, has always been a favorite of mine. He's just fun, with his complete lack of physical courage and his sharp psychological insight. Unfortunately, he seems to be shoehorned into The Hollow in a rather clumsy fashion. He's off-stage for large chunks of the novel and plays no significant role until the end.
Despite some uneven and unexpected elements, The Hollow is a pretty standard Agatha Christie whodunit. It's a good read--especially once you've gotten past the first 70 pages--but it doesn't wander far from the expected formula, which makes for an entertaining, but forgettable experience.
NEXT UP: The 1982 Stephen King novella collection Different Seasons.