Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best of 2011

Best of 2011

2011 has been my first full year writing this blog, and I’ve been having a lot of fun. I don’t know if anyone appreciates my commentary (or thinks I’m an idiot), but I hope that somebody out there is reading. My hits have been at an all-time high this year and I’m surprised and pleased that my measly little book review blog is being viewed in Russia, Germany, the Ukraine, India, Thailand, Japan, Sweden, the UK and Turkey, among other countries. If you’re out there, thanks for reading! I still haven’t gotten comments and they would certainly be appreciated!

I’m not going to make any big, sweeping generalizations about the state of literature in 2011 for the simple reason that most of the books I read this year weren’t published in 2011. I read forty-five books of fiction this year (and reviewed one book of nonfiction), fewer than I would have liked, but a combination of long books like A Dance with Dragons and a busy schedule resulted in some months where I only read a couple of books. I’m amused to see that in the month of May, when I was recovering from a difficult surgery, I read seven books. Hauling A Breath of Snow and Ashes around the hospital was a bit of a challenge, since in hardcover it’s approximately the size of a watermelon.

The genres that I covered this year were as diverse as usual. I read historical fiction, thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, crime fiction, romance, horror, classics, humor and sci-fi. I love the endless variety that reading gives me; no two books are the same, and it’s so much fun to read two diametrically opposed books back-to-back, like Water for Elephants and Mystic River. The only genre that I haven’t really delved into has been nonfiction. The only book of nonfiction that I reviewed this year was Michael Caine’s excellent autobiography, The Elephant to Hollywood. I actually do read nonfiction, but I’ve chosen not to review it since 1) I read a lot more fiction, 2) I tend to read nonfiction books in pieces rather than straight through (something I wouldn’t dream of doing with fiction) and 3) nonfiction is quite a bit harder for me to review. If, in the future, I read a biography or memoir that I have something to say about, I might review it, but otherwise I’m going to stick to what I love best, which is the world of fiction.

This year, I’ve read some of the hottest new titles, as well as a massive Russian novel from the turn of the century. I’ve read long novels of high fantasy and short novels of pulp crime. I’ve read wonderful classics like Watership Down and stunning modern novels like Case Histories. I’ve read books by bestselling authors like Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich, and books by lesser-known authors like Julia Spencer-Fleming and Joe Hill. It’s been a wild tangle of amnesiac Victorians, presidential assassins, rampaging dragons, amateur bounty hunters, teenage geniuses, lost gods, Southern maids, sedentary detectives, time-traveling doctors, sarcastic dwarves, hard-drinking Scottish cops, hard-drinking Russian philosophers, rabbits, Aes Sedai, aging rock stars, tattooed Swedish hackers, Italian gangsters, Cold War spies, vampires and James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser. You can only have experiences like this while reading, and I really can’t express how much fun I’ve had wolfing down all these wonderful stories. And I Learned Stuff, too, so there.

Last year at O’Hara’s Book reviews, I did a little awards ceremony to commemorate the books of 2010. Since there are almost twice as many books on the roster this year, I’m not going to do awards, since it would take a while and wouldn’t be as interesting. Instead, we’re having a Top Ten books of the year list, since I love lists. Placement on the list is mostly arbitrary, since I enjoyed every single book I read this year, even a couple of the less-stellar ones. A few books were disappointing (Anno Dracula, Water for Elephants, Life Support), but none of them were truly bad.

The list is:

10. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I am not putting Brothers at Number Ten because I think that Numbers One through Nine have higher literary quality. I’m not qualified to really judge the book on its literary or technical merits. I'm not going to lie: it was a long, hard read, definitely the biggest reading challenge I've undertaken in a while. Like all challenges, it was genuinely rewarding to complete. A lot of vodka is drunk and a lot of philosophical points are debated at length in this novel, and it was often very tedious. But those deep digressions were also sometimes surprisingly rich and fascinating and memorable. Episodes like the Grand Inquisitor interlude may have been a pain to slog through, but it's stuck with me. Dostoevsky was addressing the most important questions of human existence, so is it really any wonder that the novel sometimes comes off more like a series of interconnected essays? The characters--pious Alyosha, moody Ivan, impulse Dimitri, slimy Smerdyakov--may come off as hysteric and one-dimensional, but that's because Brothers is ultimately a novel of ideas and philosophy, not people. A tough read, but an eminently worthwhile one.

9. Tooth and Nail/Strip Jack/The Black Book, by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series has dipped a bit in quality over the past couple of volumes, but these three novels are still damn fine crime writing. Tooth and Nail, the best of them, is a razor-sharp serial killer puzzle with a finely deployed plot and excellent characterizations. The Black Book in particular has lacked some of the darkness and amorality that was the hallmark of the first few volumes, but it was still a satisfying and well-written mystery (and it introduced Big Ger, so it can't be all bad). John Rebus remains one of my favorite-ever literary detectives: a guy that sometimes seems impossible to like, yet we always do in the end. As tortured and conflicted as the villains he hunts, Rebus is a remarkably complex and arresting protagonist. Rankin's true accomplishment, outside of his clever plots and gritty writing, is his panoramic portrait of Rebus's Edinburgh: seamy, bleak and grimy, a place where it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, who were perhaps not so different in the first place.

8. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Watership Down begins as a sunny fairytale in the vein of The Wind in the Willows, but it soon turns into something stunning. Adams has created a world that's both utterly alien and completely familiar, drawn with an enthralling mixture of plausibility and whimsy. There's nothing whimsical about the war between the warrens, however, and the thrilling final chapters are more reminiscent of Lord of the Rings than Beatrix Potter. This is a true epic, beautifully written and surprisingly resonant. The standalone "rabbit legends" are a smart and funny little bonus to the main story.

7. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Probably the most difficult-to-describe novel on this list. Utterly original, darkly funny and breathtakingly strange, Gods is a long, winding journey that reads like a mashup of Charles Dickens, Stephen King and the Brothers Grimm. It's a wild look into the underground world of forgotten gods struggling to make ends meet in a hostile land, as well as an examination of the book's understated main character, Shadow. The plot unfolds like a brilliant magic trick and Gaiman's writing is clear and bewitching. There is a loose end or two--perhaps inevitable in a book with this many interlaced subplots and sub-subplots--but it hardly matters when the end result is so rich, unusual and oddly touching. I love Gaiman's audacity and unwillingness to play by the rules, like embedding a plotline that reads like a standalone supernatural thriller into the middle of the novel. Stuff like that either works perfectly or it messes up the whole book. Here, it works. This one is a real feast for book lovers.

6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

I knew about halfway through Dragon Tattoo that it was going to end up on this list. It's one of the very finest mysteries I've read this year (or ever), with a dynamic plot and a breathtaking array of twists and turns. It's the characters that make the book so special though, especially Lisbeth Salander, the tormented antisocial hacker with a mysterious past. The slow development of Lisbeth's relationship with Blomkvist is just an incredibly fine piece of characterization in a book absolutely stuffed with excellent characters (the villain, for instance, is utterly chilling and memorable). There's a bump in the otherwise impeccable plotting towards the end of the novel, but otherwise this is the textbook definition of a great read: smart, enthralling, scary, moving. I can't wait to dig into the second and third books in the series, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they show up on the 2012 list.

5. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

The question of whether organized religion is a force of good or of evil is one of the central questions of many great works of literature (including The Brothers Karamazov). Brideshead Revisited is a probing account of the strictly Roman Catholic Marchmain family, through the eyes of the hedonistic Charles Ryder. It's a fascinating novel and one that inspires a lot of thought and reflection. Waugh himself was a devout Roman Catholic, but there is more nuance and complexity to the novel than there would be if it was a simplistic, straight-faced sermon. Although I'm sure Waugh was secure in his own personal faith, I'm not sure that the book represents a simple argument in favor of Catholicism. Like Dostoevsky, Waugh is not afraid to show an opposing view, and it's undeniable that religion creates incredible turmoil and tragedy in the Marchmain family. Lest the novel sound like a gloomy read, I have to mention that Waugh is also an extremely funny and sly writer with a knack for quirky social comedy. A highly thought-provoking and beautifully composed novel.

4. Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

It's probably fairly obvious from my reviews that one of the things I love about fiction is when someone mixes a first-rate plot with really well-drawn characters, especially in a genre novel. It's also rare to see a crime novel that's written with the literary flair of Mystic River, a book that's an elegant piece of high-end writing disguised as a hardboiled police procedural. Lehane tells a story of Shakespearean tragedy and betrayal on the mean streets of Boston, weaving the past and the present together in a seamless narrative. His writing is hard-edged and sophisticated, his dialogue something Elmore Leonard would be proud of. The scene where--spoiler alert--Jimmy kills Dave on the riverbank is one of the finest scenes of drama I've read in any book this year.

3. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John le Carré

A lot of the books on this list are big. I tend to like fat, meaty books with complicated plots and big casts. Spy, on the other hand, is a slim, spare book with one main plot and a handful of characters. Despite its brevity (or perhaps because of it), the book is a small, perfectly cut diamond of a spy novel. The plot is woven with incredible care, each thread carefully developed. Here's a thriller that's thrilling because of how finely plotted and exquisitely formed it is, not because something blows up every ten pages. Le Carré's writing is wonderfully precise; not a word is wasted. His characters are each drawn with striking clarity and insight, from Leamas, the tormented double agent, to Fiedler, the German operative with inscrutable motives, to Liz Gold, a naive woman who finds herself the ultimate innocent bystander. By the end, le Carré has shown us a glimpse of a morally decaying world where right and wrong are hard to separate. The final pages pack a double wallop of a huge emotional payoff and an exceptionally fine plot twist.

2. A Breath of Snow and Ashes, by Diana Gabaldon

Although I was a bit disappointed by The Fiery Cross, the fifth book in the enormous Outlander series, Number Six, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, was everything I could have hoped for. The Outlander books are 1,000-page time machines, pure sensory transportation. I can honestly say that there are no fictional characters that I love more than the Fraser family (hey, there's few real people I love as much as the Fraser family) and the way that Gabaldon has developed them is nothing short of genius. Her books are stuffed, even overstuffed, with plot, and side stories, and fantasy, and adventure, and history, and drama. At her best, Gabaldon is so good that it's easy to overlook just how excellent she is at making us care. Breath is as wonderful as any of the earlier books in the saga, and far less slow-pokily plotted than Cross. There are scenes here that pay off hints dropped thousands of pages and dozens of years ago, or that cast a new light on characters that we already feel like we know. That kind of richness is incredibly rare, and the fact that Gabaldon has sustained it for so long is proof of her enormous talent as a writer and a storyteller.

1. A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin

This was an easy pick for #1. Of all the literary discoveries I made this year, none have provided me with as much enjoyment (and frustration, of course) as George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. I read all five books this year, and I am continually bowled over by the enormous scope of the series, and the thousands of details that make it come alive. This is a series that has provoked just about every emotion in me, and it's not even close to done. The characters are just incredible, and I have to stop myself from listing my favorites because it would take way too long. Okay, I'll mention one: Tyrion is all kinds of awesome, and I honestly think he will be remembered as one of the greatest creations in modern literature. But then there isn't a single major character that isn't complex, just as there isn't anything in the series that's simple or straightforward. This can be frustrating as a reader who naturally wants things to work out, but it also creates a world as rich and multi-layered as ours. And let me also mention that Martin is a staggeringly good writer, who manages the very difficult task of making a medieval fantasy world seem real without making it seem anachronistic. The last couple of books in the series have been, perhaps, a bit lower in quality than the first three, but that's less an indictment of Martin's writing than a comment on the series' immense scale and complexity. I have to end this now, because the paragraph is getting really long, and I'm running out of superlatives. Anyway, these books are without a doubt the best that I read this year.

And here are some runners-up who didn't quite make the list:

The Deep Blue Good-by, by John D. MacDonald-----A smooth, stylish entry in MacDonald's Travis McGee series. It loses points for some tedious sexism, but it has a rip-roaring climax that makes up for it.

I Shall Not Want/One Was a Soldier, by Julia Spencer-Fleming----Spencer-Fleming's mystery plots are fantastic, but what really sets her series apart is the sizzling romance and exquisitely detailed character development.

Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill-----A weird, twisty tale of ghosts, rock n roll, and the afterlife. Terrific prose, and the protagonist is a delightfully complex antihero.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett-----Thoughtful, funny and wonderfully characterized, this breakout hit deserves a place as a modern classic.

The Enemy/Bad Luck and Trouble/Without Fail, by Lee Child-----All of Child's Reacher novels are excellent, and these three were no exception. Absolutely top-notch thriller writing and the best action scenes in the genre.

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson-----This one would probably have made it to the list if it weren't for the lack of narrative cohesion at the end. Still, beautiful writing and sad, hilarious, wonderfully developed characters.

The Godfather, by Mario Puzo-----While I didn't love Puzo's pulpy writing style or slapdash pacing, the novel's power is undeniable, and Michael Corleone's sweeping arc is absolutely epic.

Anyway, that's my year-end post. Thanks for reading the blog this year, and stick around for 2012, which will hopefully be an even better year for books than '11!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, 2008

Salander looked through the door to the living room at Blomkvist pulling out CDs and taking books off the bookshelf. He had just found a brown pill bottle that was missing its label, and he was holding it up to the light. He was about to unscrew the top, so she reached out and took the bottle from him. She went back to the kitchen and sat down on a chair, massaging her forehead until he joined her.

"The rules are simple," she said. "Nothing that you discuss with me or with Armansky will be shared with anyone at all. There will be a contract which states that Milton Security pledges confidentiality. I want to know what the job is about before I decide whether I want to work for you or not. That also means that I agree to keep to myself everything you tell me, whether I take the job or not, provided that you're not conducting any sort of serious criminal activity. In which case, I'll report it to Dragan, who in turn will report it to the police."

"Fine." He hesitated. "Armansky may not be completely aware of what I want to hire you for. . ."

"Some historical research, he said."

"Well, yes, that's right. I want you to help me identify a murderer."
---- (page 365)

I tend to get annoyed when everyone jumps on a cultural bandwagon, and then begins acting as if this one song, or TV show, or movie, or book, is the only one of its kind ever created. This kind of mania often leads to a kind of "Emperor has no clothes" situation, where everyone who's a critic or who considers themselves cultured has to pretend to like a certain thing, like Glee or gangsta rap or The Social Network. Too often, the object of everyone's adoration isn't very good, or at least isn't as good as it's cracked up to be (there are of course exceptions to this rule, like the Harry Potter series). For some time now, Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy has been treated like it's the first series of mystery novels ever written and Lisbeth Salander is the most original character ever put to paper. I honestly expected The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to be less than its inflated reputation; maybe I even harbored a snobbish desire to scoff at something everything else was excited about.

I was wrong. They were right. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is very, very good, fabulous even. And Lisbeth Salander is indeed one of the most uniquely riveting characters I've met in a while.

Tattoo is at heart a very old-fashioned murder mystery, but done in a truly original way. The plot concerns the Vanger family, a very old and wealthy clan of Swedish industrialists, whose checkered past includes Nazism, corruption and incessant infighting. Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger, a seemingly innocent teenage girl, vanished during the annual family meeting on the Vanger's northern island. Not a trace of Harriet was ever found, and her uncle, family patriarch Henrik, has devoted most of the ensuing years to uncovering the truth. He is convinced that his niece was murdered by a family member, who continues to taunt him by sending him flowers--Harriet's traditional gift--every year on his birthday.

As a last resort, Vanger hires Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced financial journalist convicted of libel, to solve the mystery over the course of one year. Blomkvist is at first skeptical that any crime has been committed, but he enlists Lisbeth Salander, a tattooed, emotionally unhealthy young hacker, to help him track down a cunning and twisted killer. As the pair dig into the Vanger family history, they uncover secrets, corruption and a blood-drenched trail that hints at an evil far greater than the murder of one girl.

This is a novel that delivers hugely on several levels. It's as ingenious and finely-plotted as any mystery I've read this year, as well as bone-chillingly scary and, by at its climax, utterly thrilling. But as good as the plot is, the characters are even better. Throw in the exotic and finely evoked sense of place and Larsson's unique pacing and rhythm, and you have the makings of a real modern classic.

Originally written in Swedish, the novel was translated into English by Reg Keeland, and it seems to have been a smooth translation. You can tell that it's a translation; there's the occasional word or sentence that seems awkward or somehow uncomfortable, but for the most part it doesn't detract from the book at all. The unusual rhythm is part of what makes the novel so interesting. Larsson has an odd style, both leisurely and compulsive. He has no qualms at slowing the story down to deliver a large chunk of exposition on Swedish business or guardianship laws. This is the kind of thing that I usually get annoyed at, but I'll be damned if it doesn't work for Larsson. The information dumps that occur here and there usually work for the story, and the slower pace gives the central mystery more depth and gives the characters more time to develop.

The plot is indeed a gorgeous thing, twisted and complex and perfectly executed. A mystery narrative this good is extremely rare and incredibly difficult. Larsson infuses the story with melancholy and loss; the question of what happened on that day has settled over Hedeby Island like a blanket. The mystery is not just a dry intellectual exercise: it has palpable influence over the present. Larsson lets us feel the frustration of the investigation, as Blomkvist spends long hours trying to make even a small amount of headway. There is a great deal of sifting through old documents, searching for old pictures, hunting through files for the smallest clue. It sounds dull, but it's much more realistic than our heroes immediately finding huge leads in a forty-year old cold case. When the breakthroughs finally begin to come, Larsson completely avoids the classic mystery-novel fumble (the mid-book tangle of clues and suspects) and instead gives us a logical puzzle that twists every time we think we have a handle on it. The double-pronged solution is brilliant, and the confrontation with the book's main villain is incredibly intense and chilling--like, try not to hyperventilate while reading a book, intense and chilling.

But the plot is still window dressing, because it's the characters that make the novel such a success. Although Salander gets all the attention, Blomkvist is a finely drawn protagonist. Erudite, intelligent, reserved in word and action, we spend a lot of time in Blomkvist's head and yet we learn more about him from the narration of other characters. He could have been simply the straight man to Lisbeth's unusual personality, but he's a lot more complex than that. The minor characters are uniformly interesting, from the personable, but hardened, Henrik Vanger to the emotionally unstable Cecilia Vanger to Blomkvist's fellow editor and part-time lover, Erika Berger. Larsson likes a meaty characterization and there's hardly a single figure in the book without a somewhat memorable personality; even Frode, the dutiful family lawyer, has some layers.

It's Lisbeth's book, though, and she owns it. She really is one of the strangest characters I've ever read about, and certainly one of the most fascinating. The quintessential loner, Lisbeth is an incredibly gifted researcher and computer hacker who has seemingly no interest in human contact. Sometimes unresponsive to the point of catatonia, sometimes eloquent and well-spoken, Salander is capable of extreme violence and fits of rage, which she hides behind a frosty exterior. Seemingly bisexual, possibly autistic and lacking any social skills, she is an outcast from society, not dependant on anyone anyone except herself and her legal guardian. Lisbeth is a cipher, a conundrum, a mystery to everyone around her. She comes very close to the edge of being an outright antihero, but she seems to function within her own moral guidelines. Larsson does not bring Salander into the main story until more than halfway through the novel; instead, we are privy to a highly unpleasant episode in her life that functions as a lengthy subplot.

Salander's horrific rape by her legal guardian and subsequent revenge is by now the book's most famous sequence (people are inevitably drawn to anything that's extremely violent or sexual). It's a truly horrifying turn of events, described in matter-of-fact terms by Larsson, who, to his credit, mostly resists reveling in the salaciousness of the storyline. The scene is still rather difficult to read, and it's hard to say whether it was truly necessary or not. I give Larsson credit for not showing too much detail, as that would have come off as nasty and James Patterson-esque. Lisbeth's vengeance is powerful and satisfying, although almost as brutal as the rape. The whole story exists mostly to establish Lisbeth as a character (and to further illuminate the novel's theme of violence against women), and this it certainly does, in a memorably visceral way. Although Lisbeth is angry and violated by the rape, she does not seem to regard it as something very much out of the ordinary, and that may be the most chilling part of the whole affair. Her backstory, when it comes, will be inevitably traumatic.

But it's not Salander's rage that is the heart of the book, it's her slowly developing quasi-romantic relationship with Blomkvist. Theirs is a pairing that is almost immediately a classic dynamic, like Holmes and Watson, but, um, different. Very different. The way that Blomkvist gradually attempts to forge a friendship with Lisbeth, and her push-pull response, is a slightly mesmerizing bit of character work, and indicative of Larsson's excellent character work. It's a smart move to keep the two central characters apart for so much of the book, because by the time they finally meet, both have been clearly established. The novel's two sequels will undoubtedly deepen their relationship, judging by the rather heartbreaking little vignette that ends the novel. The love triangle between Blomkvist, Salander and Berger should be highly interesting, especially considering the extreme contrast between the two women.

If I have a quibble with the book, it's the subplot regarding Blomkvist's war with a corrupt Swedish industrialist, which is really only important at the very beginning and the very end. At the end of the novel, Larsson lovingly devotes a huge segment to the conclusion of the story, ignoring the fact that the mystery plot wrapped up fifty pages ago. It's a jarring leap from a dark, grisly serial-killer thriller to a complex account of financial crime and Swedish journalism. It's not a bad storyline by any means, just misplaced, and it makes the book's ending feel long and anticlimactic. The storyline has a distinct whiff of fantasy wish-fulfillment about it: Larsson was a crusading financial journalist himself, and it's easy to imagine that the whole plot is a thinly disguised version of real events. In any case, it's not the book's high point and it's a shame that it couldn't have been moved to one of the sequels or dealt with before the true climax.

That (fairly small) problem aside, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was one wonderful book. Oddly enough, what it reminded me of was the Harry Potter series. Not in style, content or tone, but in the sense of being totally swept up in a near-perfect marriage of plot and character. This is a book that combines the appeal of the fast-paced thriller and the big, climb-in-and-live saga. It's a good thing that are two more books to develop Blomkvist and Salander, because they promise to become an iconic crime-fiction pairing, and the Millennium trilogy, or its first entry, at least, may well become a classic in the genre.

NEXT UP: My "Best of 2011" post should be up soon, and I'm currently reading Lev Grossman's critically acclaimed fantasy novel, The Magicians.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, 2009

I look at Cinna, raising my eyebrows for an explanation. He just gives his head a slight shake, as perplexed as I am. Why are they delaying this?

Suddenly the door behind him bursts open and three Peacekeepers spring into the room. Two pin Cinna's arms behind him and cuff him while the third hits him in the temple with such force he's knocked to his knees. But they keep hitting him with metal-studded gloves, opening gashes on his face and body. I'm screaming my head off, banging on the unyielding glass, trying to reach him. The Peacekeepers ignore me completely as they drag Cinna's limp body from the room. All that's left are the smears of blood on the floor.

Sickened and terrified, I feel the plate begin to rise. I'm still leaning against the glass when the breeze catches my hair and I force myself to straighten up. Just in time, too, because the glass is retreating and I'm standing free in the arena. Something seems to be wrong with my vision. The ground is too bright and shiny and keeps undulating. I squint down at my feet and see that my metal plate is surrounded by blue waves that lap up over my boots. Slowly I raise my eyes and take in the water spreading out in every direction.

I can only form one clear thought:

This is no place for a girl on fire.---- (pages 262-263)

Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, tributes from the impoverished District 12, have won the Hunger Games. As the first joint winners of the games, Katniss and Peeta find themselves in a delicate political situation: the trick that won them the Games has made Katniss into a symbol of defiance against the government. As districts begin to rebel against the all-powerful Capitol, Katniss is forced to walk a tightrope between encouraging the rebels and keeping the Capitol appeased and her friends and family safe.

Things only get worse when the twist is revealed for the next year's Hunger Games: the tributes will be chosen from the former victors, all of whom are now countrywide celebrities. Katniss and Peeta will be forced to return to the arena, to compete against a gang of hardened older killers. And this time, only one of them can survive the Games.

Like The Hunger Games, Catching Fire is a zippy and highly entertaining novel, written with a lot of originality and verve. Even though Fire had some structural problems that Games didn't, I actually enjoyed it more. Since the characters and world have already been established, Collins is free to deepen the plot and character development, while still providing hair-raising adventure and some admirably imaginative devices. I'm not doing handstands over the central love triangle, which occurs more in Katniss's mind than in reality, but it's still done pretty well.

The only real problem with the book is that it has a slow beginning, a repetitive middle and a terrific third act. We know from the beginning that Katniss and Peeta will end up in the arena again, since it's the book's main plot and it's the only direction the story can go in. But instead of revealing this early, Collins draws out the revelation, focusing on happenings inside District 12, where the Capitol is tightening its control. The dystopian elements are not the real draw of the series; Collins does a fine job of making the Capitol a believably evil force of facism, but she doesn't do much that's new with the concept. Having Katniss internally recap the events of the first book for about thirty pages starts things off rather sluggishly, and it doesn't help that the love triangle proves to be more conceptual than actual. Katniss goes over the Peeta/Gale debate in her head over and over, despite the fact that there isn't enough interaction between either couple to warrant all the analysis (that said, the idea that Katniss and Peeta have to pretend to be lovers for the camera is delightfully wicked).

Once the twist in the Games is revealed, we have to go through all of the Games-related routines that were established in the previous book--like all reality shows, the Hunger Games has a set formula that is repeated each year. This is fine and is probably necessary for the story, but it sometimes feel like a warmed-over rehash of what happened in Games. It feels as though the story doesn't really begin until the Games do, some 260 pages in.

Like its predecessor, the last act is far and away the best part of Fire. The concept of the deadly competition is Collins's masterstroke and she does a great job of coming up with inventive (and sometimes grisly) traps and obstacles. This time around, the other tributes are also much better developed than Katniss's opponents in Games, something that leads to a much more dynamic conflict, since Katniss actually knows some of the people she's fighting. The whole section reads like one long action movie--which it soon will be, since the adaptation of the first book is coming out next year. Collins has provided quite a gift for the filmmakers with Fire; her talent for cinematic description is one of her most useful writing tools.

I still have problems with young-adult-iness of her writing. Having bare-bones descriptions is not bad in and of itself, but when writing about a sci-fi world, it seems odd not to describe it more effectively. For instance, the whole Captiol is described in only a few lines, as is the arena. Collins's spare style may be perfect for action, but it hurts her a bit when it comes to world-building. On the other hand, we get pages of Katniss's emotional descriptions, which tend to be pretty generic star-crossed lover material. A lot of teen literature has this kind of internal narration, as though younger readers can't interpret a character's motives based on her actions and dialogue. Collins does tend to over-explain and reiterate certain concepts over and over; she feels the need to remind everyone that Haymitch is an alcoholic every few pages by having him throw up or pass out. The present-tense narration also turns into a distraction after a while. A more conventional past-tense might have served the story better.

There's definitely stronger character work in Fire than in Games. Katniss is still a pretty engaging protagonist, even if she goes back and forth between being a total badass and an emotional wreck. Gale gets a little more depth, as we see the depth of his hatred for the Capitol and his desire to escape his miserable life in District 12. Peeta remains the most likable character, and Collins gives him some much-needed dimension here. A couple of the new characters show promise as well. President Snow is an appropriately unnerving baddie and dangerous heartthrob Finnick Odair is an interesting and somewhat multi-layered addition to the cast. Even though Collins is not particularly good at writing compelling supporting characters, her heroes are strong enough to keep the plot moving along and just complex enough to keep the book from feeling cartoonish.

I spent most of Catching Fire enjoying myself without getting too involved or being much shocked by the plot twists, so when Collins suddenly hit the gas and gave us one hell of a cliffhanger ending, I was surprised by how skillfully she had woven it. It's an ending that basically upends everything that has been constant about her universe and sets up an all-bets-are-off final chapter, 2010's Mockingjay. I still wish that Collins had written the trilogy with an adult audience in mind, allowing her to have a more complex plot and richer prose, but Catching Fire is still a pretty satisfying and creative sci-fi thriller, and I'm genuinely excited to see how it all turns out in Mockingjay.

NEXT UP: Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini, 2011

Thorn roared, and then he sprang up from the street into the air above the black-shrike-thorn-cave and hung there, flapping heavily to maintain his position. He appeared as a featureless black silhouette against the wall of flames rising from the houses behind him, save for his translucent wings, which glowed orange and crimson.

He lunged toward her, reaching out with his serrated claws.

Saphira waited until the last possible moment; then she leaped to the side, off the black-shrike-thorn-cave, and Thorn rammed headfirst into the base of the cathedral's central spire. The tall-hole-ridden-stone-spike shuddered under the impact, and the very top of it--an ornate golden rod--toppled over and plunged more than four hundred feet to the square below.

Roaring with frustration, Thorn struggled to right himself. His hindquarters slid into the opening Saphira had torn in the roof, and he scrabbled against the tiles as he tried to claw his way back out.

While he did, Saphira flew to the front of the black-shrike-thorn-cave and positioned herself on the opposite side of the spire Thorn had collided with.

She gathered her strength, then batted the spire with her right forepaw.

Statues and carved decorations shattered underneath her foot; clouds of dust clogged her nostrils; and bits of stone and mortar rained down upon the square. The spire held, though, so she struck it again.

Thorn's bellowing took on a frantic note as he realized what she was doing, and he strove even harder to pull himself free.

On Saphira's third blow, the tall-stone-spike cracked at the base and, with agonizing slowness, collapsed backward, falling toward the roof. Thorn only had time to utter a furious snarl, and then the tower of rubble landed on top of him, knocking him down into the shell of the ruined building and burying hum under piles of rubble.

The sound of the spire smashing to pieces echoed across the whole of the rat-nest-city, like a clap of rolling thunder.
--- (pages 320-321)

Eragon, the first novel in the Inheritance Cycle, was published in 2002 when its author was only eighteen--he began writing it when he was only fifteen. Eragon is clearly the work of a young author; the writing is uneven and stilted, the dialogue an awkward mix of modern and faux-medieval and the plot is a Star Wars carbon copy, with dollops of Lord of the Rings added for good measure. What made the novel so much fun was Paolini's energy and endless enthusiasm for his subject matter; he wrote like a precocious kid having the time of his life. It didn't hurt that the plot, though derivative, moved like a runaway train, and that his world is filled with dragons, elves, magic, battles, dwarves and monsters.

The next novel, Eldest (2005), had an entirely different set of problems from its predecessor. Paolini mostly abandoned the puppy-dog-eagerness and stylistic simplicity of Eragon in favor of a long-winded, pretentious style, as though he was responding to his critics with a thesaurus by his side. His attempts at incorporating New Age-y wisdom and chunks of metaphysics into the story didn't work out too well, either. The penultimate installment, 2008's Brisingr, brought greater balance and maturity to the series, despite a draggy pace and a tacked-on ending. For all his other faults, Paolini has always been a crackerjack storyteller and I've enjoyed his books for a long time. I've been eagerly looking forward to Inheritance all year. As the final book in the series, Inheritance promised to be a treat, the epic conclusion to a story that I'm pretty invested in after all these years.

Alagaesia, the world of the Inheritance Cycle, is fairly similar to a Middle-earth with more dragons and less hobbits. The Cycle follows Eragon, a young human who discovers that he is one of the final Dragon Riders, a breed of warrior that died out a hundred years ago, when an evil Rider named Galbatorix destroyed them and declared himself king. Together with his dragon Saphira, Eragon joins a rebel organization called the Varden that's dedicated to defeating the insanely powerful Galbatorix. Quests and sword battles and poorly written romance ensues; you get the picture.

Inheritance finds Eragon and the Varden nearing the end of their military campaign against the Empire, but they are no closer to defeating Galbatorix, who has the power of hundreds of dragon souls at his disposal (don't ask), as well as a powerful slave in the form of Murtagh, Eragon's half-brother and fellow Rider. As the Empire and the Varden begin their final clash, Eragon and Saphira must unravel a decades-old secret to find Galbatorix's weakness and destroy him before their rebellion is forever crushed.

Like all endings, Inheritance has a difficult job to do. It has to resolve two thousand pages of conflict and dozens of subplots in a satisfying way, it has to compare favorably with its predecessors and leave the readers feeling like their investment of time and emotion has been worthwhile. For me, the novel was a totally absorbing and worthy end to the story; in fact, it's probably my favorite book of the four. Paolini's skills as a storyteller are undeniable and even though his writing still leaves something to be desired, he does a pretty darn good job of finishing the cycle with a bang. The characters are well-served by the story, the plot moves along nicely (a couple of dull chapters notwithstanding) and there are many, many action scenes, something that Paolini has a real knack for. The climactic Eragon/Galbatorix encounter is exciting and there are giant snails, too. What more do you want?

Paolini's writing is still sometimes pretentious and overly detailed, and his love affair with little-known, barely appropriate words continues unabated. He has progressed by leaps and bounds, though. His dialogue, despite the occasional B-movie exchange, has gotten much better and his characterization, once thin and bloodless, is now a little more nuanced. I do get annoyed that everyone in the series, no matter their status or upbringing, talks like an English professor or that Eragon's dragon mentor gives half-baked Zen advice that Yoda would deem spurious, but these are minor and slightly endearing flaws that I've grown used to after hundreds of pages. His strengths as a storyteller outweigh his technical flaws and he could easily stand with many of the successful writers working in the epic fantasy genre. For instance, his prose and character-building outstrips Robert Jordan's by a sizable margin, even if his mythology lacks the Wheel of Time's complexity and scope. Paolini is not a great world-builder like Tolkien or George R. R. Martin; Alagaesia and the races that dwell there feel like they've been brought in piecemeal from other fantasy works. But his books do have an admirably complex and consistent system of magic that he uses only rarely for deus ex machina.

One thing that Paolini does very well, and always has, is action scenes. Inheritance is full of endless battles, fight, skirmishes and duels, all described in exhaustively gory detail. The action sometimes reads like the novelization of a video game, complete with levels, a hit point meter and a boss at the end of each mission. Though it does get a bit repetitive after a while, the constant over-the-top adventure keeps those pages turning, and Paolini is pretty darned good at keeping readers on their toes with his creativity and propulsive writing. The final siege is a truly exciting and epic sequence, culminating in a terrific struggle between Roran and the commander of the Empire's troops. The dragon/dragon combat is quite thrilling as well. Sure, most of the fighting has the gleefully unbelievable appeal of a Hollywood action movie (the good guys' seemingly limitless power is a bit wearying), but it's done so well that I don't really care that he goes overboard at times.

Ultimately, Inheritance's secret weapon is the characters. Paolini started out with a pretty cardboard cast of heroes, villains, rogues, mentors and cannon fodder, but as the series has progressed, the main characters have developed into likable, somewhat relatable people with distinct personalities. The characters may not be quite three-dimensional (everybody stays in their roles, for the most part), but they are well-drawn. For all that his occasional whining is annoying (not to mention that odd pacifistic streak that only pops up every now and then), Eragon is a distinctive and fully-realized hero who has never been a simple Magical Orphan protagonist. Saphira is very much a character in her own right, and Paolini has done a great job in making her both alien and familiar. Arya, Eragon's elven love interest, has been an annoyance for most of the series--she was initially written with an almost fawning appreciation for her beauty and tenacity, despite that the fact that she had the winning personality of Mr. Spock. Inheritance singlehandedly redeems her in my eyes: for the first time, Paolini hits the right balance between Arya's human traits and her elvish ones. She's still a bit less compelling than she should be, given her crucial role in the story, but her dynamic with Eragon is more smoothly written here than in Eragon or Eldest.

The series' two breakout characters, Eragon's cousin Roran and his half-brother Murtagh, also get a fine showing in Inheritance. Roran, who has graduated from a minor supporting character to a secondary protagonist, is not the deepest or most complicated character, but his resourcefulness, tenacity and unbending determination to create a safe life for his wife and family are strangely compelling. I like the fact that Paolini uses him to occasionally cut through all the magical and metaphysical crap that sometimes burdens the story. He also gets all the best action scenes, despite the fact that he has no superhuman skills of his own except a really good hammer arm. If someone out there has not already dubbed him Captain Hammer, I'll be astonished.

Murtagh is one of the few morally murky characters in the saga, and certainly the most interesting. Paolini had given us only relatively brief appearances from Murtagh up until Inheritance, probably realizing his potential. Murtagh is the heart of the final book's most intriguing storyline, as he struggles to defy Galbatorix in order to save the woman he loves. This is the darkest place that the cycle has gone to so far, and Paolini deserves credit for an excellent piece of character development. Murtagh's eventual triumph over Galbatorix is a bit too reminiscent of Darth Vader and the Emperor, but it's still a good conclusion to the series' best character arc.

Speaking of Galbatorix, the first appearance of the evil Rider was one of the things I was looking forward to in the fourth book. Like the shark in Jaws, Galbatorix has been confined to the shadows for the first three books in the Cycle, a device that was intriguing at first, but eventually started to feel like a cop-out, to the point where he doesn't seem like much of a threat. So much of the mythology rests on Galbatorix's motives and actions, his endless power is discussed over and over, his evil and cruelty is talked about and reiterated. Yet we don't see what is arguably the entire cycle's central character until halfway through the last book. When he finally shows up, it's an anticlimax. After that much buildup, it would have been nearly impossible for Galbatorix to live up to his reputation.

To Paolini's credit, Galbatorix is not just a sneering mustache-twirler like Durza; his dialogue is appropriately silky, his threats veiled, but convincingly dangerous. As a villain, he's fine. As the mega-super-arch-villain of the entire series, he's a disappointment. There's not enough time to develop him as a character or to deal with the massive amount of backstory that has accumulated. He's introduced, he sneers a lot, and then he's dispatched in a fairly satisfying manner. We don't get much anger from him, or any sense of the insanity that he's known for. The instigating event that led him to evil--the death of his dragon--is not so much as touched upon. Keeping the Big Bad under wraps might have seemed like a good idea early on in the series, but the strategy ends up being Inheritance's major weakness.

Still, the climax is far from disappointing. Paolini neatly combines several plot threads to provide an ending that's both cathartic and reasonable from a plot standpoint. I might have liked a more personal confrontation between Eragon and Galbatorix, but it's still a perfectly suitable and fitting conclusion to the series' main storyline. Paolini then makes the dubious choice of following the climax with over a hundred pages of falling action. And this is where I start having problems.

For one, it feels as though he's raising as many questions as he's answering in the final stretch. Several important characters get open-ended fates that will probably end up getting addressed in a companion novel, which feels like a slightly lazy way to deal with them. Despite the length of the final chapters, not much happens in them until Eragon makes a crucial decision. Which is where my second problem lies. This decision makes little sense from a plot or character standpoint; it only occurs so that the book can have a dramatic ending that fits in with a prophetic dream Eragon had in the first volume. It's a gutsy ending, one that Paolini knew would be guaranteed to anger his readers, and I can't help but respect him for taking a risk like that. The ending also breaks up the Eragon/Arya relationship for good, a highly unusual choice considering the fact that their relationship has been one of the central points of the entire series. I was actually surprised how much I cared about the outcome, so I suppose he accomplished what he set out to do. It is not perhaps the perfect ending for the series (or for the characters), but it's one that I can accept.

Inheritance itself is an excellent conclusion to the cycle: gripping, moving and weighty. This is a more mature work than anything that's come before, with fewer plot holes and less contrivance. Characters that have grown up before our eyes get fitting final arcs and mysteries that have been in place since the beginning are paid off. It's not a perfect novel or a perfect ending, by any means, but it's enormously entertaining and mostly satisfying. The journey of Eragon and Saphira has been greatly enjoyable for many years, and I'm sorry to let them go, although I'm pleased that their final adventure is also their finest.

NEXT UP: More YA fantasy, with Catching Fire.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Three Witnesses by Rex Stout

Three Witnesses by Rex Stout, 1956

I crossed to the switch and used my knuckle again, got out my handkerchief to open the door and pull it shut after me, took an elevator down to the lobby floor, found a phone booth and dialed a number. The voice that answered belonged to Fritz. I told him I wanted Wolfe.

He was shocked. "But Archie, he's at dinner!"

"Yeah, I know. Tell him I've been trapped by cannibals and they're slicing me, and step on it."

It was a full two minutes before Wolfe's outraged voice came. "Well, Archie?"

"No, sir. Not well. I'm calling from a booth in the Churchill lobby. I left the clients in the bar, went up to Karnow's room, found the door unlocked, and entered. Karnow was on the floor, dead, shot with an army gun. The gun's there, but it wasn't suicide, the gun was muffled with a wad of towels. How do I earn that five grand now?"

"Confound it, in the middle of a meal."

If you think that was put on, you're wrong. I know that damn fat genius. That was how he felt, and he said it, that's all.
--- (pages 86-87)

The Nero Wolfe series is one of the most delightfully structured universes in mystery fiction. Wolfe's scheduled life is as predictable as his quirky passions, which consist of beer, orchids, food, solitude and crime. The colorful cast of supporting characters revolve around Wolfe and life in the brownstone like planets circling the sun. Stout's formula may be cast in stone, but it's a formula that's absolutely perfect for a mystery series. Into the orderly world of Wolfe's New York, a crime and a group of suspects is introduced. Archie will interview those involved, do some legwork, take--and give--a few punches; Wolfe will sit at home, like a fat spider at the center of a web, and eventually solve the baffling case to the astonishment of the NYPD, as personified by the cigar-chomping Inspector Cramer, the Lestrade to Wolfe's Holmes. Though there are plenty of mysteries that are smarter, darker and richer than Rex Stout's, very few are as totally enjoyable and satisfying.

The novella is the format that best suits the series; the novels tend to get overly complicated, but the plots are not quite straightforward enough to make a good short story. Three Witnesses, like many of the Wolfe books, contains three novellas, all of them excellent examples of what makes the series so appealing.

"The Next Witness," the first novella and my personal favorite of the three, is the most atypical in the collection. Wolfe never sets his foot in the brownstone and he spends most of the novella on the run from the law with Archie. This is enough to make "Witness" a pretty big departure from the usual formula, but it also has a more complex plot than the typical Wolfe whodunit. Suffice it to say that finding the actual murderer is not the main goal here; it's unraveling an ingenious little conspiracy. It's a puzzle that's more like Doyle than Christie, whose influence with Stout is usually stronger. The gambit that Wolfe uses to unmask the conspirators is masterful, a terrific venue for Wolfe's smugness and superiority to shine through. To top it off, the story revolves around old-timey telephone operators, a career with which I have always had a really weird fascination--I think it's a job I would personally excel at, in the unlikely event that I ever time-travel back to the 40s (yeah, I know, I'm strange).

"When a Man Murders. . ." is a more typical Wolfe mystery: limited number of suspects, a universal motive, Wolfe as the armchair detective. I appreciated the fact that the story unfolded at a pretty leisurely pace: the case at first appears to be nothing more than an odd three-way marriage (a device that would only work in Stout's New York, since a simple divorce and remarriage would solve the whole problem in today's day and age). Ultimately, the love triangle storyline is shunted offstage in favor of a less interesting murder mystery plot, which has some nice characterizations, a fine bit of authorial misdirection and a reasonably satisfying conclusion. There's nothing here that isn't done better elsewhere in the canon, although the telephone conversation between Archie and Wolfe, quoted above, is pretty much solid gold.

The last novella, "Die Like a Dog," has the best opening, but like its immediate predecessor, quickly devolves into a fairly simple whodunit with a small cast of suspects. The bizarre little comedy of the abandoned dog is priceless. The awkward way both Archie and Wolfe desperately try to keep the dog while trying to remain casual and indifferent is one of my favorite moments in the series so far. I just love that Wolfe, a man with no patience for frivolity, mess or affection, is so completely taken with an eager-to-please black Lab that he'll solve a murder just to be able to keep him. The murder plot isn't as much fun as the dog-related interludes; it relies on the tired device of a small group of possible murderers and the coat-switching deus ex machina that allows Wolfe to crack the case is too far-fetched, even for Stout. It doesn't help that the unravelling is virtually identical to the one at the end of "When a Man Murders. . .," right down to the crucial misdirect and Inspector Cramer and Purley Stebbins looking on in astonishment. The dog subplot definitely stands out more than the main storyline.

Three Witnesses, like most entries in the Nero Wolfe series, doesn't shake up the accepted formula much, and that's fine by me. I've only read a relatively small segment of the series (there are seventy-three books, after all) and the books' dependability is one of their charms. I hope that at some point Stout puts his considerable talent into doing something mind-blowing, but you know what? Sometimes I don't need my mind blown. The Wolfe novels are really well-written comfort food, and even though Stout's rhythm is offbeat, it's easy to drop back into once you're used to it. Despite a certain lack of originality, Stout can spin a very fine story, and, like Doyle, he's created a pair of characters whose strange partnership is endlessly entertaining.

NEXT UP: The conclusion to the Inheritance Cycle, the aptly titled Inheritance .

Friday, November 25, 2011

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich, 1994

"Damn court hearings are a waste of time," Earling said. "I'm seventy-six years old. You think they're gonna send some seventy-six-year-old guy to prison because he flashed his stuff around?"

I sincerely hoped so. Seeing Earling naked was enough to make me turn celibate. "I need to take you downtown. How about you go put some clothes on."

"I don't wear clothes. God brought me into the world naked, and that's the way I'm going out."

"Okay by me, but in the meantime I wish you'd get dressed."

"The only way I'm going with you is naked."

I took out my cuffs and snapped them on his wrists.

"Police brutality. Police brutality," he yelled.

"Sorry to disappoint you," I said. "I'm not a cop."

"Well what are you?"

"I'm a bounty hunter."

"Bounty hunter brutality. Bounty hunter brutality."

I went to the hall closet, found a full-length raincoat, and buttoned him into it.

"I'm not going with you," he said, standing rigid, his hands cuffed under the coat. "You can't make me go."

"Listen, Grandpa," I said, "either you go peaceably or I'll gas you and drag you out by your heels."

I couldn't believe I was saying this to some poor senior citizen with a snail dick. I was appalled at myself, but what the hell, it was worth $200.
--- (pages 266-267)

Stephanie Plum is in trouble: she's been laid off from her job as a lingerie buyer, the repo men have taken her car and her rent is almost due. In desperation, Stephanie calls on her cousin Vinnie, the owner of a bail bond firm in Trenton, New Jersey. Thanks to a little blackmail, Stephanie now has a new job: bounty hunter. With no experience and no idea how to gain any, she has to track down Joe Morelli, a local cop accused of murder. Stephanie has a history with Morelli, but she assures herself that it's just business. She gets ten grand if she can arrest Morelli in a week--and stay alive on the mean streets of Trenton, amongst criminals, cops, hookers and one very nasty prizefighter.

Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series has, over the last ten years or so, become hugely popular despite getting relatively little critical attention, either negative or positive. She's one of those authors (like James Patterson or Nora Roberts) who's pretty much ubiquitous on the bestseller lists and bookstore shelves. Her Stephanie Plum series has a cool premise and a devoted fan base, so I zipped through the series' first volume, One for the Money.

I didn't expect much, but I was mildly surprised. The novel is a little dopey in places, the beginning is sort of terrible and Evanovich's writing is just okay, but overall it's a surprisingly solid blend of chick lit comedy, romance novel and mystery/thriller. A shaky start notwithstanding, Evanovich is good enough at the three main areas of interest to put together a highly readable novel that introduces a series that could be a lot of fun.

Evanovich's main success is definitely her protagonist. Stephanie Plum is the kind of character that a lot of romance novels are built around (plucky, sarcastic, secretly vulnerable, just quirky enough to be interesting, Everygirl enough to be relatable). Mysteries and thrillers, however, usually have darker, moodier heroes, which is why Stephanie is so much fun to read about--think Kinsey Millhone with less experience and more lip gloss. She's the kind of comfortable character that a book like this needs to center it. Her progression from novice bounty hunter to gun-wielding badass is, for the most part, pretty believable and there's usually enough balance between her competent moments and her doofus ones to be satisfying.

Stephanie's motives are more problematic than her characteristics. Evanovich works hard through the first fifty pages to convince us that Stephanie is truly desperate and the only reason she takes the bounty hunter job is for the money. Evanovich never really sells the idea that an ordinary woman would risk her life repeatedly for a mere ten thousand dollars, and then keep working as an apprehension agent even after she is shot, beaten, attacked, bombed and almost raped. Obviously, for story purposes Stephanie has to keep working for Vinnie, but the motivation and circumstances seem highly contrived, especially during the beginning chapters, where Evanovich tries to make way too many implausibilities sound reasonable.

The series' humor is probably its most-hyped element, but Evanovich seems unlikely to topple Helen Fielding or Terry Pratchett any time soon. Humor and wit is a central part of the novel's appeal (most of it because of Stephanie's wisecracking narration), but for the most part I found it more charming than hilarious. Evanovich seems to be at her funniest when she's breezy and not trying too hard; the sequences that are calculated displays of sitcom-y madcappery, like the Plum family's inappropriate behavior, or Grandma Mazur accidentally shooting a turkey at the dinner table, feel kind of forced.

The romance-with-Morelli plot is not the novel's strongest point, either. Again, we have contrivances that are very old and tired, like the man and woman who supposedly hate each other working together. It's a device that still succeeds sometimes, but Evanovich plays it pretty straight. It's a good thing for her that their dialogue is genuinely amusing, and that Morelli walks the line between being a nice guy and being a real jerk. It's an agreeable storyline, but not a highly compelling one. My favorite moment is near the end, when Stephanie grows tired of Morelli's condescension and one-ups him in a highly satisfying way. I'm less enthusiastic about hints that a love triangle will develop between Stephanie, Morelli and Stephanie's bounty hunter mentor, Ranger. The will-they-won't-they thing is already hackneyed enough.

Better than the romance is the mystery/thriller element. Due to the emphasis on the series' comedic and romantic angle, I expected a flimsy, lightweight main plot. Evanovich instead delivers a pretty well-constructed story that's equal parts whodunit mystery and action thriller. Despite the book's overall light tone, the book's Big Bad, Benito Ramirez, manages to be fairly scary, injecting a real sense of danger in what otherwise have been more of a romp. The whodunit mystery segments are weaker overall than the more action-oriented parts-- it's not too hard to guess the evil mastermind, though the whole dastardly plot is a little more difficult to piece together. In any case, the main plot provides a terrific frame for everything else to rest on.

Perhaps the book's most impressive achievment is its ability to balance the seemingly opposing parts of the story. For a mix of comedy and thriller to work, there has to be a succesful blend of the light and the dark. Too much light, and there's nothing at stake. Too much dark, and the light elements seem uncomfortable and awkward. For the most part, Evanovich nails the tone, finding a happy medium between the extremes. While One for the Money is not shooting to the top of my list of favorite guilty-pleasure novels, it's definitely a smooth, entertaining read with a memorably unusual heroine.

NEXT UP: A trio of Nero Wolfe novellas.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald

The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald, 1964

I am tall, and I gangle. I look like a loose-jointed, clumsy hundred and eighty. The man who takes a better look at the size of my wrists can make a more accurate guess. When I get up to two twelve I get nervous and hack it back on down to two oh five. As far as clumsiness and reflexes go, I have never had to use a flyswatter in my life. My combat expression is one of apologetic anxiety. I like them confident. My stance is mostly composed of elbows.

Lew, faithful dog, wanted it over right now. He hooked with both hands, chin on his chest, snorting, starting the hooks way back, left right left right. He had fists like stones and they hurt. They hurt my elbows and forearms and shoulders, and one glanced off the top of my shoulder and hit me high on the head. When I had the rhythm gauged, I counter punched and knocked his mouth open with an overhand right. His arms stopped churning and began to float. I clacked his mouth shut with a very short left hook. He lowered his arms. I put the right hand in the same place as before and he fell with his mouth open and his eyes rolled up out of sight.
--- (pages 128-129)

John D. MacDonald, while an accomplished writer of standalone crime noir novels, is best known for his Travis McGee series, a loose cycle of mystery/thrillers with a hard-edged, philosophical Fort Lauderdale beach bum/private eye as the central character. Travis McGee (who could be The Continental Op's son and Jack Reacher's father) tangles with a colorful rogue's gallery of freaks, killers and evildoers (and saves more damsels in distress than James Bond), all while waxing poetic about Florida and life in general. The series is a great vehicle for MacDonald's talents and McGee is a terrific character, as offbeat and quirky as the villains he goes up against.

Although The Deep Blue Good-By is chronologically the first in the series I've read others and, like Lee Child's books, there's not too much continuity. Other than an uncharacteristically awkward little saga sell in the first chapter, there's no sign that Good-By is the first book in the cycle. MacDonald jumps right into things as though Travis McGee has been having adventures in print for years.

One night, while relaxing aboard his houseboat, the Busted Flush, McGee has a visitor in the form of a scared young dancer with a problem. Her father, a WWII veteran, left an unspecified treasure hidden on her family's property when he died in prison. Now his psychotic cellmate, a "smiling man" named Junior Allen, has absconded with the loot. She wants McGee to retrieve it for her. Ever the knight in shining armor, McGee enters into a dangerous game with a sexually twisted opponent who uses his new found wealth to prey on women.

The basis for the series is clear from the start: McGee as the reluctant, somewhat reclusive hero with a kind heart and a harsh sense of justice. From a basic description, his character sounds like most of the crime-fiction heroes of the last sixty years, but MacDonald makes him a strange and compelling figure. He's not invulnerable, not invincible, capable of making rash decisions and bad mistakes. It's not really clear why he pulls away from the world the way he does, but he seems happy that way. His trademark bursts of impassioned and wordy commentary do take some getting used to, and at first they seem unnatural coming from someone who's supposedly a rough-and-tumble private eye. After a while though, they just become part of McGee's off-kilter charm.

Good-By has a pretty bare-bones plot, even for a John D. MacDonald novel. There aren't a lot of conceptual twists or complexity, just a simple crime story that uses familiar tropes. There's only one villain, one McGuffin, one central quest without subplots or discursions. What sets it apart from the crowd is MacDonald's twin gifts for creating suspense and generating rich, evocative prose.

Before the praise begins, I have one big criticism, which especially applies to the book's first half. MacDonald is a pretty flagrantly sexist author and he has an exhausting habit of creating paper-thin female characters that literally throw themselves at McGee in droves. None of his female characters have any real characteristics of their own; they exist to provide McGee with someone to talk to and go to bed with. Most of them are whimpering victims who need his protection; the rest are slutty imbeciles who have no control over themselves. MacDonald describes all of his female characters with loving, sexualized detail, and after a while it gets incredibly tiresome and exaggerated to the point of interfering with the story.

I'm not saying MacDonald was a horrible person and I'm not saying there aren't a few female characters in his whole body of work with a little more complexity, but in this particular book the constantly sexualized imagery and characterization is wearying. This probably says more about the time the book was written in and the target audience than anything else, but it's one of the only aspects of MacDonald's writing that I'm not crazy about.

What I am crazy about is MacDonald's use of language. His rhythm is offbeat, but once you're used to it his prose just pops off the page. A bootlicking assistant answers the phone in "a young, hushed and earnest voice." A man is "hunched, seamed, cadaverous [. . .] with dusty-looking black hair[.]" One of McGee's contacts is a "jouncy, leathery little man who punctuated each comment with a wink and a snicker, as if he had just told a joke." At one point in the action, while surrounded by "[d]apper little fellows. . . making shrill little cries of consternation[,]" McGee "grabbed the nearest handful of silk blazer and lifted it onto its tippy toes[.]" There's something unique and delightful about MacDonald's writing, something that elevates the novel well above typical pulp fiction.

He's also a master at creating suspense and tension. Like all the best storytellers, he knows how to pace and how to set up a story that whizzes like a roller coaster to a big finale that pays everything off. MacDonald gets a lot of mileage out of Good-By's relatively simple story just by keeping Junior Allen off-stage for most of the book. As we hear more and more about his depravity and animal cunning, he becomes more intimidating without showing up until just before the climax--which, I must add, is everything a thriller climax should be. MacDonald, of course, follows up the action finale with one of the sad, deflating revelations that he does so well. The novel is more than just a breezy tale of adventure; there's a little depth here, a little soul, as there always is with MacDonald and McGee.

NEXT UP: Janet Evanovich's One for the Money.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

The Godfather by Mario Puzo, 1969

Hagen had taken the call in the kitchen, with Mama Corleone bustling around preparing a snack for the arrival of her daughter. He had kept his composure and the old woman had not noticed anything amiss. Not that she could not have, if she wanted to, but in her life with the Don she had learned it was far wiser not to perceive. That if it was necessary to know something painful, it would be told to her soon enough. And if it was a pain that could be spared her, she could do without. She was quite content not to share the pain of her men, after all did they share the pain of women? Impassively she boiled her coffee and set the table with food. In her experience pain and fear did not dull physical hunger; in her experience the taking of food dulled pain. She would have been outraged if a doctor had tried to sedate her with a drug, but coffee and a crust of bread was another matter; she came, of course, from a more primitive culture.

And so she let Tom Hagen escape to his corner conference room and once in that room, Hagen began to tremble so violently he had to sit down with his legs squeezed together, his head hunched into his contracted shoulders, hands clasped together between his knees as if he were praying to the devil.

He was, he knew now, no fit
Consigliere for a Family at war. He had been fooled, fake out, by the Five Families and their seeming timidity. They had remained quiet, laying their terrible ambush. They had planned and waited, holding their bloody hands no matter what provocation they had been given. They had waited to land one terrible blow. And they had. Old Genco Abbandando would never have fallen for it, he would have smelled a rat, he would have smoked them out, tripled his precautions. And through all this Hagen felt his grief. Sonny had been his true brother, his savior; his hero when they had been boys together. Sonny had never been mean or bullying with him, had always treated him with affection, had taken him in his arms when Sollozzo had turned him loose. Sonny's joy at that reunion had been real. That he had grown up to be a cruel and violent and bloody man was, for Hagen, not relevant.--- (page 236)

Few 20th-century novels have become ingrained in cultural consciousness as quickly as The Godfather. Most of its popularity is due to the wildly successful and highly lauded film adaptation, but the book is where all of the indelible images and ideas come from: "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse." The horse's head in the bed. Don Corleone's awesome power and influence. The bloodbath in the diner. Michael's journey to taking over his father's business. Even though I've never actually seen the movie (yes, I know, it's embarrassing), I had a rough idea of what to expect from Mario Puzo's original novel, storywise. But I didn't know what to expect from the actual storytelling, and the novel ended up surprising me with its uninspiring prose and meandering narrative.

The Godfather begins on the day of Connie Corleone's wedding. Don Vito Corleone, one of the most powerful Mafia bosses in New York, is a brilliant, ruthless leader tactician. Two of his sons have joined him in the "family business," but the youngest, Michael, is a peaceful college graduate who only wants to marry his girlfriend. On Connie's wedding day, events are set in motion that will result in carnage and bloodshed: an up-and-coming underworld businessman offers the Don a risky deal, which he refuses, setting off a vicious Mafia war that will ravage the Family and set its members on a violent date with destiny.

The plot is absolutely bursting with possibilities from the start, and if nothing else, Puzo has come up with a killer premise. The hidden world of the Mafia, the unshakable Family loyalty, the power structure, the constant danger and double-crossing: it's a setting that just cries out for a story. Puzo has created an incredibly compelling world; it's no wonder that the novel has gripped the public imagination so feverishly (even real-life gangsters are reputed to have been influenced by the book and film's portrayal of the Mafia). The novel's central structure is equally solid. Michael's journey from innocent bystander to ruthless Don is the stuff classics are made of. There's a Shakespearean feel to his arc that Puzo, to his credit, sells.

My main problem with the book is simple. Puzo may have come up with a wonderful premise, but he's not the right writer to carry it out. His prose is actually rather bad--flat, stilted and awkwardly oscillating between pulp-novel purple prose and an inept literary style. He's an inveterate violator of the show-don't-tell rule, which makes many passages feel like colorless exposition. His dialogue is not terrible, just a little tin-eared at times and, in the tradition of a lot of 1960s-era novels, the characters talk a bit too much to be believable. Puzo does believably capture an Italian accent and Italian diction without going over-the-top, though.

His characters are mostly interesting (at least in theory), but for the most part they're inadequately drawn, exhibiting fairly one-dimensional personalities. Don Vito, I have to admit, is a memorable creation: prickly, cerebral, subtly eccentric. It's a shame that the other figures in the book aren't better-realized. In the hands of a subtler and more accomplished author, this is a cast that would offer incredibly rich and layered characterizations. I'm guessing that this is probably an area the movie improves on. Characters like Sonny, Kay, Fredo, Tessio and Sollozzo would benefit a lot from closer attention.

One of the oddest things about the novel, to me, was the stagnant pacing, frequent discursions and lengthy, useless subplots. Puzo has storytelling gold in his hands in the form of the main plot, yet he wastes huge chunks of time on baffling side-plots. One of them involves Hollywood star Johnny Fontane, formerly a singing sensation, now a has-been with a throat condition. It's just an odd story, strangely distant from most of the goings-on, and not highly interesting in of itself. Likewise, the story of Lucy Mancini, Sonny's ex-lover with the genital birth defect, is seemingly added to provide padding to a novel that definitely doesn't need it. Puzo's main story is way too strong for this kind of device to be necessary, and the fact that the subplots are both mildly boring doesn't help.

Considering the fact that the Godfather was written as pulp fiction, the pace is hardly fast. The first hundred pages move fairly steadily, but there are big sections with little forward momentum or relevant action. Puzo is not a good enough writer to justify some of the meandering segments and he seems largely uninterested in delving into the emotional and moral lives of his characters. I would have liked to know how the various members of the Corleone family justify their crimes, how they live every day with the knowledge of the atrocities being committed for their sake. Puzo does dip into these themes towards the end of the book.

Although I was surprised by the book's messiness and lack of narrative drive, there are unquestionably some moments of pure inspiration. Moments like Sonny's murder by tollbooth, or the Don making a false peace with the Five Families, or the masterfully choreographed revenge plot that serves as the novel's climax. Puzo's writing may lack polish and finesse, but there's a strong imaginative force behind his storytelling that almost makes up for it. The world he's created and the characters that live in it are somehow indelible, one of those feats of creativity that has grabbed the imagination of millions. Conceptually, The Godfather is a work of genius. It's the execution that's somewhat lacking.

NEXT UP: John D. MacDonald's The Deep Blue Good-By.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Without Fail by Lee Child

Without Fail by Lee Child, 2002

"Better just to walk away now," he said.

They didn't, like he knew they wouldn't. They responded to the challenge by crowding in toward him, imperceptibly, just a fractional muscle movement that eased their body weight forward rather than backward.
They need to be laid up for a week, he thought. Cheekbones, probably. A sharp blow, depressed fractures, maybe temporary loss of conciousness, bad headaches. Nothing too severe. He waited until the wind gusted again and raised his right hand and swept his hair back behind his left ear. Then he kept his hand there, with his elbow poised high, like a thought had just struck him.

"Can you guys swim?" he asked.

It would have taken superhuman self-control not to glance at the ocean. They weren't superhuman. They turned their heads like robots. He clubbed the right-hand guy in the face with his raised elbow and cocked it again and hit the left-hand guy as his head snapped back toward the sound of his buddy's bones breaking. They went down on the boards together and their rolls of quarters split open and coins rolled everywhere and piroutted small silver circles and collided and fell over, heads and tails. Reacher coughed in the bitter cold and stood still and replayed it in his head: two guys, two seconds, two blows, game over.
You've still got the good stuff. He breathed hard and wiped cold sweat from his forehead. Then he walked away. Stepped off the pier onto the boardwalk and went looking for Western Union.--- (page 19)

One of the things that kept cropping up in my mind while reading Without Fail was the durability of Lee Child's formula. After reading six or seven of his Jack Reacher novels, recurring patterns clearly start to form. In truth, most of the Reacher thrillers are pretty similar in structure. The setting, characters and details all change, but there's usually a comforting sense of familiarity to the way things are going to go down. We know from the start that it's going to end with Jack Reacher kicking some ass and then riding off into the sunset. It speaks to Child's grasp of storytelling and his terrific sense of pacing and tension that the ending is always white-knuckle anyway.

Another sign of Child's superiority is his ability to do new things with his basic formula, keeping the series feeling fresh even when very little about the novel's skeleton changes. Without Fail, like all of its predecessors, is a fantastic thriller/mystery with a twisty plot, lean writing and terrific action scenes. But it also contains some very finely wrought bits of character development and world-building that Child sneaks in with such finesse that it's easy to overlook, what with all the shooting and punching and such.

The plot: Jack Reacher is in Atlantic City when he's approached by an old ex-girlfriend of his brother's: Secret Service agent M.E. Froelich. Froelich has an unusual proposition for Reacher. She wants him to assassinate the Vice President-elect, Brook Armstrong. Froelich is running a security audit and wants to see if her system can be breached by a professional. However, a team of real assassins are closing in on Armstrong, and it falls to Reacher and Froelich to foil their plan and save the Vice President-- who knows more about his would-be killers than he's letting on.

The novel's basic premise is a little rickety, especially when the Secret Service takes on Reacher as a consultant, immediately making him privy to all of their classified intelligence. The novel's midsection is also a bit humdrum-- a lot of running around between the Secret Service office and various hotels and restaurants, not a lot of action, a couple of too-convenient plot devices. Having Reacher actively working for law enforcement is an interesting and atypical move, but it also makes us wait until the end for the usual sense of vigilante justice.

A slower pace isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it gives the novel time to develop a highly interesting subplot: Reacher dealing with the death of his brother and coming to terms with their difficult relationship through the lens of Froelich's memories. Reacher's family is a thematic undercurrent that has subtly run through the series (most notably in The Enemy) and Child prises apart Reacher's emotional armor with exceptional delicacy and understatement. Like many good writers, he lets the moments of emotional revelation come in dialogue rather than in description, and there are several conversations between Reacher and Froelich that are surprising in their emotional impact. The storyline's main Achilles heel is that Froelich herself is a fairly bland character, and having her serve as the Obligatory Love Interest feels both boring and a little cheap.

Much more interesting than Froelich is Frances Neagley, who makes her first appearance in the series here (she also shows up in Bad Luck and Trouble, a few books into the series). Violent, damaged, smart and insightful, Neagely is my favorite recurring character so far. She's one of the rare characters that is truly presented as Reacher's intellectual and tactical equal. It's a lot more interesting to give Reacher a potential love interest who, like him, is an emotionally scarred warrior (he's had way too many tough-but-vulnerable flings over the course of the series). Child keeps their relationship fairly low-key, not hinting too strongly at a romantic connection. Hopefully theirs is a relationship that will be explored further.

Without Fail is not the most dynamically plotted of the Reacher novels; the clues and twists are well-placed and deployed with Child's usual verve, but there's little that's highly shocking. Child seems to be setting up his bowling pins a bit too carefully in the opening segments. The novel hums along entertainingly until a big twist in the narrative about three-quarters of the way through. From there, things get kicked into high gear and yes, the finale is, as always, something special. This time the showdown takes place in a remote, snowbound Wyoming town. The last forty pages are a little masterpiece of building tension and the climax, while not as over-the-top as some, is masterful. I don't think I've ever read an author as accomplished at this kind of sequence as Child. I also liked the fact that the villains were not professional killers or assassins (although they're certainly deadly enough).

The parameters of the series are a bit too clear for my taste, it's true. I would love it if Child branched out a little more, exploring different stories and trying different methods of telling them. He could also work on more interesting supporting characters; there are several in Without Fail who make next to no impact, including the crucial character of Froelich. There have been encouraging signs throughout the series that Child is indeed trying out different things, such as Without Fail's surprisingly emotional subplot.

But let's face it: with a formula this rock-solid he doesn't really need to try new things. Child has already found a structure that more or less guarantees excellent thrillers, and Without Fail is another great one, despite a couple of saggy sections. I suppose the old ain't-broke-don't-fix-it adage applies. When the you-know-what is hitting the fan, very few writers can deliver the pulse-pounding tension and suspense like Lee Child. And even though I usually talk up the action and thriller elements, his writing is sometimes disarmingly sharp and insightful, even a bit poetic, in a hard-boiled sort of way. Good suspense doesn't really work unless you care, and Child does a wonderful job of making you care about where it all ends up, even though you know it'll end the way it always does: the victorious, lonely Jack Reacher taking a bus out of town.

NEXT UP: Mario Puzo's modern classic The Godfather.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin, 2011

Before them a pale lord in ebon finery sat dreaming in a tangled nest of roots, a woven weirwood throne that embraced his withered limbs as a mother does a child.

His body was so skeletal and his clothes so rotted that at first Bran took him for another corpse, a dead man propped up so long that the roots had grown over him, under him, and through him. What skin the corpse lord showed was white, save for a bloody blotch that crept up his neck onto his cheek. His white hair was fine and thin as root hair and long enough to brush against the earthen floor. Roots coiled around his legs like wooden serpents. One burrowed through his breeches into the desiccated flesh of his thigh, to emerge again from his shoulder. A spray of dark red leaves sprouted from his skull, and grey mushrooms spotted his brow. A little skin remained, stretched across his face, tight and hard as white leather, but even that was fraying, and here and there the brown and yellow bone beneath was poking through.

"Are you the three-eyed crow?" Bran heard himself say.
A three-eyed crow should have three eyes. He has only one, and that one red. Bran could feel the eye staring at him, shining like a pool of blood in the torchlight. Where his other eye should have been, a thin white root grew from an empty socket, down his cheek, and into his neck.

"A. . . crow?" The pale lord's voice was dry. His lips moved slowly, as if they had forgotten how to form words. "Once, aye. Black of garb and black of blood." The clothes he wore were rotten and faded, spotted with moss and eaten through with worms, but once they had been black. "I have been many things, Bran. Now I am as you see me, and now you will understand why I could not come to you. . . except in dreams. I have watched you for a long time, watched you with a thousand eyes and one. I saw your birth, and that of your lord father before you. I saw your first step, heard your first word, was part of your first dream. I was watching when you fell. And now you are come to me at last, Brandon Stark, though the hour is late."

"I'm here," Bran said, "only I'm broken. Will you. . . will you fix me. . . my legs, I mean?"

"No," said the pale lord. "That is beyond my powers."

Bran's eyes filled with tears.
We came such a long way. The chamber echoed to the sound of the black river.

"You will never walk again, Bran," the pale lips promised, "but you will fly."
--- (pages 177-178)

For many fans of the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance With Dragons represented a crucial moment for the cycle. Dance could either deal with the problems of its predecessor or succumb to the same issues (an overcrowded narrative, missing characters, too many loose ends) that made Feast a disappointment. Personally, I enjoyed Feast despite its failings, but I still hoped that Dance could return the series to the insanely high level of quality that the first three books exhibited. Having just finished the massive volume last night (some time around midnight), I can say that it's an improvement on Feast, but not without some serious missteps and some of the most aggravating cliffhangers that Martin has yet put to paper (and that's saying a lot).

While the Westerosi attempt to unite their shattered kingdom, trouble is brewing in the east and the north. Daenerys Targaryen, exiled dragon queen of Westeros, has settled in the vicious slaving city of Meereen, hoping to reform Slaver's Bay and bring peace to the troubled Ghiscari. Her well-intentioned efforts set off a chain reaction that makes her thousands of enemies, both within and without her city. As war claims the continent of Essos, several westerners make their way to Daenerys, including Tyrion, who fled from King's Landing after murdering his father with a crossbow, and a Dornish prince who wishes to honor a secret marriage pact made between his country and the Targaryens.

In the north, the combined forces of the Freys and the Boltons are trying to subjugate Robb Stark's old allies and force them to accept Tommen as king. Stannis hopes to use the turmoil to his own advantage and wage his war on the Lannisters with the northmen. Behind the Wall, however, another, deadlier foe is gathering, and Jon Snow, newly made Commander of the Night's Watch, must unite his men and their old enemies, the wildlings, if any hope to survive before the onslaught of the Others.

Meanwhile, Arya continues her bizarre training in Braavos, Davos attempts to sway the Manderlys to Stannis's side, Cersei faces up to the consequences of her actions, Ser Barristan struggles with his sense of honor, Jaime encounters someone unexpected in the riverlands, Victarion Greyjoy hunts for Daenerys, Asha is captured by Stannis's forces, Bran undertakes a highly unusual journey beyond the Wall, a broken man named Reek (who was once Theon Greyjoy) tries to find the courage to defy his sadistic master and, most surprising of all, a new contender for the throne of Westeros arises in the East, one long thought dead.

I could go on (and on, and on). There's an insane amount of plot in Dance, all of it labyrinth and entwined. The backstabbing, double crosses, secrets and lies are so thick on the ground that it's hard to remember what anyone's agenda is. It's this kind of plotting that Martin excels at. In fact, he's so good at it that he lets it run away from him, leaving the readers with too many names and too many details. At the same time, the main plot moves forward fairly slowly, with little significant action. Many pieces have been moved into play and rearranged on the board, but we haven't seen much gameplay. To boot, Dance's main narrative runs parallel to Feast, picking up where A Storm of Swords left off, and then continuing on past the end of Feast, a messy chronology that creates a stopping-and-starting feel, particularly to the book's last third.

A certain unevenness is to be expected in a book of this size and scope. Keeping his hundreds of narrative threads straight must be a huge challenge for Martin, and he does a very good job of it, for the most part. What's frustrating is when he seems to continue adding more and more and more plotlines and character arcs when he already has an enormous number to work with. Martin can't seem to stop creating: cultures, races, religions, creatures, cuisine, vehicles, social structures, each one more bizarre and fantastic than the last. Martin is a great writer and a staggeringly talented world-builder, so it's hard to complain about having too much of a good thing. Very few of the new inventions are boring; most of them are fascinating. But particularly in Dance, his seemingly limitless powers of invention are working against him, and preventing him from serving the series' core story as well as he could be.

There are some fabulous character threads in the book, the very best dating back to the first book. Jon's experience as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch is terrific payoff for all of the time we've spent with him on the Wall (and beyond it). I especially like how Martin ensures that Jon's time with the wildlings in Storm remains critical to the storyline, since it seemed as though it might get brushed under the rug. Jon's storyline ends, however, with a truly irritating (albeit nicely done) cliffhanger which we'll probably have to wait another six years to complete.

The book's other MVP is probably The Artist Formerly Known As Theon Greyjoy. Now Reek, a mutilated product of unspeakable torture at the hands of Ramsay Bolton, Theon goes through what could be the darkest plotline in the series so far--which is saying a lot, considering Martin's propensity for the nasty and brutal. The storyline, like Jon's, beautifully pays off Theon's arc in Clash, an interlude that could have been written off as filler. As usual, I have no clue where Martin is taking the character, but Theon/Reek's journey to redemption is the most bleak, haunting, beautifully written storyline in the novel.

I wish the other characters had gotten plots as good. Tyrion, usually the highlight of any scene he's in, is not in top form in Dance. His story is too meandering and seemingly random, and Martin seems to be trying a little too hard to make him entertaining (he still gets all the best lines, of course). Dany, too, has a bit of a hit-or-miss arc. I really like the moral complexity of the choices she's continually faced with, but the ins and outs of Meereenese politics is too far from the series' main action to be really absorbing, The scene where Dany confronts Drogon in the fighting pit definitely stands with her emergence from the fire in Game in terms of awesomeness, though.

Characters like Arya, Jaime, Cersei and Davos get annoyingly scant coverage, with only a chapter or two apiece (Sansa, Samwell and Undead Catelyn don't appear at all and one of my personal favorites, Brienne, only pops up for a mysterious cameo). Melisandre, a cipher since her first appearance, gets a single chapter to herself that, infuriatingly, leaves more questions than answers. And don't even get me started on Bran, whose storyline is undoubtedly the oddest in the entire series. No idea where Martin is taking that one. Due to the novel's unusual structure, the character's storylines are not very evenly distributed, a problem that was probably more or less unavoidable.

Overall, most everything in Dance is at least good. The elements that are frustrating are frustrating not because they're bad, but because they're confusing and seemingly unrelated to the major plotlines of the story. Sure, Martin does a good job describing the personalities of the Yunkish commanders or the political system of Volantis, but these things aren't really necessary, nor are they relevant to the story I'm invested in, which is about Starks and Lannisters and Westeros. Martin always wants to challenge the reader's assumptions about who or what is really the center of the story, a device which is both kind of brilliant and highly irritating.

Speaking of highly irritating, the cliffhangers that end the novel have got to be the most aggravating yet, partly because they're not even that good. Tyrion's is completely random and not all compelling and Dany's is even more random--and comes at the end of a long, draggy chapter that kills the book's pace dead. Jon's is the most exciting, and horrifying, but for the most part the novel just stops abruptly. Even an epilogue with a fairly big twist can't help the fact that most of the momentum that Dance builds up over its 1,000-page length goes nowhere. It's a middle book, a transitory volume that gets the series out of the sticky character-divide that started with Feast.

Middle books are great, too, of course, and Martin's extraordinary gift for storytelling and his fantastically rich, layered prose are very much in evidence. Dance may not be the most satisfying reading experience, but it's certainly as enthralling, thrilling, moving and complex as its predecessors. Hopefully the best is still yet to come. In a pre-book note, Martin promises that the characters "will all be shivering together" in the next volume. Personally, I can't wait to see where he goes next.

NEXT UP: Without Fail, another Jack Reacher novel from Lee Child.