Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

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

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

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

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.