Monday, August 30, 2010

Different Seasons by Stephen King

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

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.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement by Ian McEwan, 2001

Some books break your heart. Some books are so beautiful and so perfectly crafted that you find yourself getting truly involved in their stories-- even though you know it will only end in tragedy.

Atonement is gorgeous and brilliant and savagely cruel to readers' emotions. It's one of the finest novels I've ever read. The prose is simply superior, but (more importantly, in my opinion), so is the story.

The novel opens a few years before World War II. Briony Tallis is a young girl in an idyllic, innocent England. A precocious budding author, Briony looks for the story in everything. This tendency leads to disaster when she observes an encounter between her older sister Cecilia and the housekeeper's son and gravely misreads the participant's motives, setting the stage for a catastrophic lie that will destroy the lives of three people.

McEwan is a revelation. One moment, he is poetically exploring the recesses of a character's mind, the next he is relating a pulse-pounding scene of wartime destruction. He can do dialogue, description, even action scenes like a grand master.

Take this excerpt:

A second thought always followed the first, one mystery bred another: Was everyone else really as alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it, with a finger held up to her face? Did everybody, including her father, Betty, Hardman? If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone's thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone's claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance. But if the answer was no, then Briony was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had. This was sinister and lonely, as well as unlikely. For though it offended her sense of order, she knew it was overwhelmingly probable that everyone else had thoughts like hers. She knew this, but only in a rather arid way; she didn't really feel it. (pages 45-46)

I mean, wow. How the hell did Ian McEwan get inside my head?

The novel starts with a lengthy segment exploring the situation at the Tallis's house in 1935, through several viewpoints, all impeccably, believably written. After Robbie is arrested for rape, the novel leaps to his experiences in France during World War II.

The section following Robbie as he tries to join the evacuation at Dunkirk is the best piece of war narrative I've read since Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels(1974). It's a pitch-perfect combination of tragic and thrilling.

Atonement's other big section is the relation of Briony's experiences as a nurse in pre-Blitz London. Again, McEwan shines. The episode is horrific and sickening, and startlingly beautiful.

If I have a criticism for the first four-fifths of the novel, it's that the three parts feel a tad disjointed, almost as though they're not quite part of the same narrative. This is no mistake, however.

In the closing pages (which take place in London, 1999), we find out that the previous 440 pages were all written by Briony, seeking atonement for her crime through the godlike power of writing.

By this point, I was caught in the novel's web, involved with the characters, and truly hoping for a happy ending.

Naturally, there really isn't one. Star-crossed lovers Robbie and Cecilia were both killed in the war and never reunited. Briony lived out her life in misery, never finding redemption for her one, devastating lie.

There could be no other ending. It would not be consistent for there to be an uplifting ending. The novel is dark, and though there is still hope at the end, it is basically about the inability to change the past and the fact that every single action has a consequence.

But what I really respect McEwan for is his marriage of technical brilliance and fabulous storytelling. Many "literary" authors are so busy reveling in their cutting-edge prose that they forget that they need a gripping story. McEwan has the best of both worlds and the result is a truly spectacular piece of fiction.

NEXT UP: A classic Agatha Christie Poirot mystery, The Hollow.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Soft Touch by John D. MacDonald

Soft Touch by John D. MacDonald, 1958

John D. MacDonald (1916-1986) is not a showy author. What he does, and does incredibly well, is tell a story and wind it tighter and tighter. His tales of crime and suspense are short and simple--MacDonald's plots are typical of his era's pulp fiction--but incredibly effective.

Soft Touch is the story of Jerry Jamison, a middle-aged married man trapped in a dull suburban life and a loveless marriage to an alcoholic floozy.

Enter his old war buddy Vince, who has a proposition: an easy two-man heist that will leave him and Jerry with over three million dollars in cash, no strings attached.

Jerry goes through with the robbery and gets his share of the loot, only to see his life fall apart in a tangle of greed, betrayal and even murder.

The story itself is not highly original, but MacDonald handles it like a master. The novel is incredibly brief, only 160 pages. I usually like a thicker book, but it's just the right length for the paranoia-inducing story.

Jerry himself is an interesting character to base the story around. He considers himself one of the good guys, at least until he gets his first glimpse of the money. His lust for wealth leads him down a very, very dark path and he eventually murders both Vince and his wife in the novel's most disturbing segment.

MacDonald doesn't cater to the thrill-a-minute crowd. Even though the novel is very brief, Jerry only faces down thugs at the very end. MacDonald, unlike so many other mystery/suspense authors, understands that it's tension, not action that really makes a novel riveting.

Despite his reputation as an author of pulp fiction (most famously the Travis McGee series), MacDonald's prose is tight, yet packed with wit and insight:

A one-dollar bill has a humble and homely look. A five-dollar bill has a few meek pretensions. A ten is vigorous and forthright and honest, like a scout leader. A twenty, held to the ear like a seashell, emits the far-off sound of nightclub music. A fifty wears the faint sneer of race track. It has a portly look, needs a shave, wears a yellow diamond on the little finger. And a hundred is very haughty indeed.

Then there is quantity. A wad of ones in the bottom of a grubby pocket, or fanned between the fingers in an alley game. Or three frayed fives in a flat cheap billfold. Then there is the flashy billfold, padded fat with ones and fives and tens and twenties. Next step is the platinum bill clip, with its dainty burden of twenties and fifties, crisp and folded but once. After that is the unmarked envelope with its cool sheaf of hundreds, slipped from hand to hand in the corridor of a government building.
(page 48).

The novel doesn't have pretensions of its own. None of MacDonald's work does. He clearly understood what he was doing. He was a storyteller, and he was an excellent one. Soft Touch is a good read, not as excellent as MacDonald's The Only Girl in the Game (1960), but probably the equal of his A Bullet for Cinderella (1955).

Soft Touch is currently out of print, which is too bad. MacDonald's crime novels are boiled-down little masterpieces of the genre and Soft Touch is no exception. It's a good novel, written by an excellent author.

NEXT UP: I'll be reviewing Ian McEwan's modern classic Atonement.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Olympos by Dan Simmons

Olympos by Dan Simmons, 2005

Dan Simmons is a truly original author, and the Ilium/Olympos cycle is one of the strangest and most rewarding pieces of fantasy- sc-fi literature I've read. Olympos, the second volume, is every bit as good as the first, which was a truly magical novel.

The plot is not describable. It is intricate and multi-faceted and demanding. It involves a careful reconstruction of the Iliad in an alternate universe, a post-apocalyptic Earth, mechanical cyborgs called moravecs who discuss literature and poetry, characters from Shakespeare with god-like powers, tentacled monsters, enormous plot twists, planet-destroying black holes and Coke cans.

Like TV's Lost, the duology is both a challenging mental puzzle and a rip-roarin' tale of action and adventure. Simmons is clearly at home describing impossible and fantastic spectacles: the city of Paris iced over into a web of frosty tunnels, an incredible cable-car system using thousands of replicated Eiffel Towers, titanic battles between gods and hideous monsters, collapsing cities. A passage telling of a giant Brane Hole appearing in the middle of deserted Paris:

Daemen raised his face and stared, jaw going slack. A spinning had appeared in the direction of the crater, somewhere between him and his mother's domi tower. The thing was some hundreds of meters across and spinning rapidly. A form of lightning crackled across it like a crown of electrical thorns and rays of random light stabbed out from the sphere. The wet air was filled with rumbles that made the pavement shake. Shifting fractal designs filled the sphere until the sphere became a circle and the circle sank, ripping a building apart as it settled to the earth and then partially beneath the earth.

Sunlight flooded out of the circle now, but it was not any sunlight as seen from Earth. The circle stopped sinking with only one-fourth of it wedged into the ground like some giant portal. It was only two blocks away, filling the sky to the east. Air rushed toward it from behind Daemen at near-hurricane speeds, almost knocking him down in its loud, wailing rush.
(pages 222-223)

Simmons's prose is quite good, and he's especially talented at describing otherwordly locations. His action scenes are notably well-written, too (Daemen's battle with Caliban on the e-ring in Ilium is a good example).

Olympos's story is absolutely mammoth, with dozens of subplots, supporting characters and various strange tangents, yet Simmons does a solid job of keeping his plot under control.

Unfortunately (again, like Lost), a few plot threads and mysteries never quite get cleared up. I would like to have a clearer picture of who/what exactly Prospero, Ariel, Caliban and Setebos are. The Odysseus/Sycorax storyline is also given short shrift.

One of Simmons's main problems with the novel is that--due to the incredible complexity of the story--his characters sometimes get shunted aside a bit. Hockenberry, Daemen, Ada and Harman are all fine characters, but none of them pop very much. They also have an annoying tendency to say exactly what they feel and to recap important points in their dialogue, which can come off as a tad clunky at times.

It's really well-read moravecs Mahnmut and Orphu who steal the show, along with Hephaestus, the snarky god of fire. I especially like the bond between Mahnmut and Orphu, and their literary discussions are a lot of fun.

The novel is definitely smart, mixing literature and actual science in a way that makes both accessible and entertaining. It says a lot for Simmons that he can make lengthy tangents about Proust or quantum mechanics genuinely interesting.

And after 1700 pages, Simmons has a lot riding on his ending, which is largely satisfying. All questions aren't answered, but the fates of the main characters are all detailed and I feel like the puzzle pieces to the mythology are all there-- you just need to assemble it yourself.

The book is wildly, wildly entertaining. It's an intelligent, visually incredible page turner and an extremely impressive achievement. Simmons is shooting so much higher than the ordinary author, and has so much respect for the intellect of his audience. The Ilium/Olympos cycle is one of the best pieces of science fiction/fantasy I've yet read.

NEXT UP: I'll be reading the little-known crime novel Soft Touch, by legendary author John D. MacDonald.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Out of the Deep I Cry by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Out of the Deep I Cry by Julia Spencer-Fleming, 2004

Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series is currently six volumes long. I've read the first two books (2002's In the Bleak Midwinter and 2003's A Fountain Filled With Blood) and found them to be witty, tightly plotted whodunits with excellent action scenes and a compelling will-they-won't-they relationships between the central characters.

The third installment, Out of the Deep I Cry, elevates the series from a well-written series of mysteries to serious literature. Spencer-Fleming proves herself to be a really gifted writer with the novel's harrowing passages of passion and pain.

Clare Fergusson, reverend of an Episcopalian church in a small town in upstate New York, and Russ Van Alstyne the town's police chief, are the series' main characters. Even though Russ is married, the two are powerfully attracted to each other. Spencer-Fleming's subtle, sensitive portrayal of their relationship is a beautifully controlled feat of writing.

When a member of Clare's vestry draws on an old trust fund to repair the church's roof, Clare and Russ are drawn into the disappearance of a local doctor--a disappearance that eerily mirrors a similar one in 1930.

The mystery is unusual and far more intricate than your usual "body in the library" puzzle. The various suspects and possible motives are sharply drawn and clues are slipped in with the skill of a practiced author.

Flashbacks tell the complex story of the tragic Ketchem family, particularly the tormented matriarch Jane. The flashbacks are largely superb--historically accurate, emotionally moving and beautifully mirrored in the main story.

It's not many authors who can believably weave flashbacks from 1926 or 1950 into the narrative of a present-day novel, but the flashbacks work wonderfully, although a couple feel a tad long, as though they've been lengthened to pad the novel. Damn fine padding, though.

Spencer-Fleming's writing is sharp and crisp, her dialogue believable. Though she is not an author that lapses too often into poeticism,some of her passages have a luminous beauty:

And that ended his day's adventure. At least until that night, when he woke up his mother, yelling, from the first nightmare he could remember since he was ten. And in later years, even after he had walked, awake, through nightmares of men blown to a pulp and helicopters falling out of the sky, he still sometimes remembered the sensation of sinking into the cool dark water. The pale, withered face. The black, black eyes. And he would shiver. ---- (page 12)

Each book so far has featured a memorable action set piece at the novel's end. The first book had a thrilling cat-and-mouse game between Clare and a killer in the middle of a snowbound forest. The second book featured a helicopter crash. This book tops both of them with a terrific scene in which Clare and Russ are trapped in a flooding basement. After 350 pages of buildup, Spencer-Fleming is smart enough to know that readers want an action-packed climax.

The solution to the novel's central mystery is twisty and satisfying. Spencer-Fleming takes special care to make it emotionally satisfying, rather than just a simple shock ending.

And the wonderful twining of the novel's mystery plot and the relationship between Russ and Clare is ultimately the book's highlight. It's a balancing act that most writers struggle with, but Spencer-Fleming manages it with apparent ease.

With three future volumes in print and a fourth coming out in spring '11, there's plenty more to come from the series, which, with this installment, really makes the leap to greatness.

NEXT UP: I'll be reviewing Olympos, the second part of Dan Simmons's insanely strange and original Ilium/Olympos duology.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Host by Stephenie Meyer

The Host by Stephenie Meyer, 2008

There are a lot of things that Stephenie Meyer does not do well. Her characters are thin. Her plots are shallow and entirely without momentum. She rarely exhibits much real writing talent.

She is, however, a fine storyteller who can make you care about characters that are not realistic, or situations that bear no resemblance to actual life. Her massively successful Twilight series is a lot of fun and The Host, too, is an extremely entertaining read despite its glaring faults.

The story takes place in a future when Earth has been taken over by parasitic "souls' who have made the planet into a peaceful, human-free paradise. A very few rogue humans remain in hiding.

A soul named Wanderer is implanted in a human named Melanie Stryder. Unlike most human hosts, Melanie refuses to leave her mind. Instead, she manipulates Wanderer into setting off in search of the man she loves and the colony of free humans he lives with.

The premise is reasonably creative; the execution is pedestrian. Meyer never goes into too much detail about the souls or the other alien worlds in the universe; like in her Twilight books, the supernatural is not really what the story is about.

What the story is is a passable, entertaining romance with a central love quadrangle involving four people and three bodies. Since Wanderer (called Wanda by the humans) shares Melanie's memories, she lusts unreservedly after Jared, while a hunky human named Ian gets a crush on Wanda herself.

Frankly, the romantic segments of the novel feel like Twilight with a fresh coat of paint. There's not a dime's worth of difference between Wanda and Bella, and Jared and Ian bear more than a passing resemblance to Jacob and Edward.

Like Bella, Wanda spends an inordinate amount of time cowering, being selfless, or nursing injuries incurred by the bigger and stronger, as well as being carried, cuddled or kissed by either Ian or Jared. There's nothing really wrong with it (it goes with Meyer's genre of female fantasy), but it is sometimes annoying that Wanda doesn't rely on herself a little more.

Once Wanda/Melanie reach the human colony, the plot mostly peters out. True to form, Meyer can't really handle villains or plot twists, so things mostly move along slowly and without a very clear sense of direction.

That's not to say that Wanda's slow acceptance into the colony isn't interesting or fairly well written. It's actually pretty intriguing and there are some clever touches; I especially like how easy it is for the humans to steal supplies from the mild-mannered alien parasites.

Meyer has some moments of clear-eyed, if on-the-nose prose. Take this passage, about two-thirds of the way through the novel:

What was it that made this human love so much more desirable to me than the love of my own kind? Was it because it was exclusive and capricious? The souls offered love and acceptance to all. Did I crave a greater challenge? This love was tricky; it had no hard-and-fast rules-- it might be given for free, as with Jamie, or earned through time and hard work, as with Ian, or completely and heartbreakingly unattainable, as with Jared.

Or was it simply better somehow? Because these humans could hate with so much fury, was the other end of the spectrum that they could love with more heart and zeal and fire?

I didn't know why I yearned after it so desperately. All I knew was that, now that I had it, it was worth every ounce of risk and agony it had cost. It was better than I'd imagined.

It was everything.
(page 472)

It ain't Shakespeare, but it gets the point across well, and it's an interesting perspective. Most of Meyer's prose is workmanlike and uninspired. Some of her dialogue is okay, although anyone rough or violent generally ends up sounding like a Saturday-morning cartoon.

Another of Meyer's characteristics as a writer is her inability to kill or make permanently miserable any of her main characters. The novel's end is a classic example: everyone ends up with more or less exactly what they want.

Sometimes that's okay. The Host is pretty much the definition of feel-good, escapist literature. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, honestly. I like Wanda and Melanie and Jeb and Ian and Jared and even lunk-headed but ultimately redeemable Kyle. The novel doesn't say anything especially new or creative. It's about a hundred and fifty pages too long. It isn't even very well written. But it's an entertaining escape to a world where everybody finds a soul mate and, even though many millions of humans are effectively dead, everybody we care about ends up okay.

NEXT UP: I'll be reading Out of the Deep I Cry, a mystery novel from Julia Spencer-Fleming, a relatively little-known author who writes excellent mysteries. New review coming soon!