Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, 1990

Between them, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett account for a huge chunk of all significant fantasy fiction in the past twenty years or so. I've actually only read one book from each author (Gaiman: Stardust, Pratchett: The Color of Magic), but I enjoyed them both. Pratchett's wacky wordplay and Gaiman's mordantly dark humor don't seem like they would mesh well; nevertheless, they collaborated on a comic fantasy novel, Good Omens, that's gained a reputation as the next Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Books written by two authors tend to be a tad messy and Good Omens is no exception, but with two authors as accomplished as Gaiman and Pratchett, it turns out to be a damn funny mess.

The novel concerns the rise of the Antichrist and the coming of Armageddon, classic horror-novel cliches. Since it's Gaiman and Pratchett at the wheel, horror turns into comedy, as Crowley, a demon who did not fall so much as Saunter Vaguely Downwards, and Aziraphale, a book-loving angel, team up to find the Antichrist before he can bring around the end of the world. It's a wacky universe where the Four Horsemen have motorcycles, Famine is a crash-diet guru and Pestilence has been replaced by Pollution ever since the discovery of penicillin.

Since it's a comic novel, the most important thing is whether it's funny. And it is. Extremely funny. A lot of the humor is incredibly witty, a lot of it is just completely bizarre and some of it is simple bonk-on-the-head physical comedy. At least 70% of the jokes hit home, and there are a moments of comic invention almost as inspired as Douglas Adams' infamous Marvin the Paranoid Android. In this segment, amateur witchhunter Newt is approached by aliens who have just landed beside his car:

The other two ignored its frantic beeping and walked over to the car quite slowly, in the worldwide approved manner of policemen already compiling the charge sheet in their heads. The tallest one, a yellow toad dressed in kitchen foil, rapped on Newt's window. He wound it down. The thing was wearing the kind of mirror-finished sunglasses that Newt always thought of as Cool Hand Luke shades.

"Morning, sir or madam or neuter," the thing said. "This your planet, is it?"

The other alien, which was stubby and green, had wandered off into the woods by the side of the road. Out of the corner of his eye Newt saw it kick a tree, and then run a leaf through some complicated gadget on its belt. It didn't look very pleased.

"Well, yes, I suppose so," he said.

The toad stared thoughtfully at the skyline.

"Had it long, have we, sir?" it said.

"Er. Not personally. I mean, as a species, about half a million years. I think."

The alien exchanged glances with its colleague. "Been letting the old acid rain build up, haven't we, sir?" it said. "Been letting ourselves go a bit with the old hydrocarbons, perhaps?"

"I'm sorry."

"Could you tell me your planet's albedo, sir?" said the toad, still staring levelly at the horizon as though it was doing something interesting.

"Er. No."

"Well, I'm sorry to have to tell you, sir, that your polar ice caps are below regulation size for a planet of this category, sir."
---(pages 183-184)

There's an unquestionable unevenness to the novel. The individual segments and jokes are mostly solid, but they don't sync up. It's often easy to identify who was writing what section; the two authors rarely seem to meld together in a streamlined way. There's a choppiness that just never translates to a smooth read.

The novel's scope also contributes to its odd sense of disconnectedness. There are several separate subplots going at once, and they're not all equal. The dynamic between Crowley and Aziraphale is easily the funniest in the book; frankly, the novel might have been better if it focused more on them.

The subplot involving the Four Horsemen is also hilarious and marvelously creative. Anyone who doesn't find the scene with the copycat bikers marvelously funny needs a checkup. Shadwell, a borderline-insane witchfinder who runs a one-man army, is also a creative hoot. It's stuff like this that happens when you get geniuses like Pratchett and Gaiman together.

It's the sections involving Adam, the eleven-year old Antichrist, and his gang of neighborhood kids that really weighs the novel down. These segments are just awkward--they don't fit with the rest of the novel, tonally, and are highly grating to boot. The kids' exaggerated speech and overly "cute" mannerisms make for the novel's only groan-worthy scenes.

Okay, the ending is a bit of a groaner, too, since Pratchett and Gaiman seem unsure whether to go dramatic or comedic, so they seem to compromise on an uncomfortable mixture. It's sort of an off note for the book to end on, even though I did like Crowley and Aziraphale casting their lot together.

Good Omens is a mess, no doubt, but it's the kind of mess that's acceptable because its high point are so high. It's a book that was probably a blast for the authors to write and some of their obvious enthusiasm seeps through. GO is a lot of fun and even though it could have been cleaner, it's still worth it, if only for the Four new Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Grievous Bodily Harm, Cruelty to Animals, Really Cool People and Things Not Working Properly, Even After You've Given Them A Good Thumping.

NEXT UP: Gritty crime, with George Pelecanos's The Turnaround.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan, 1990

The Eye of the World was a fun book, comfortingly derivative of The Lord of the Rings and highly readable even when it was a bit goofy or stale. The Great Hunt, the second part of the enormous Wheel of Time series, retains its predecessor's charms (and some of its faults), but it's also weightier, darker and more original It's a whole new ballgame.

While Eye was a little awkward and relied too heavily on cliches, Hunt sees Jordan becoming more comfortable in the world he's created and branching out a bit with his concepts, characters and creatures. Actually, make that branching out a lot, since there are more races and societies in this saga than you can possibly keep straight without the help of a glossary.

After discovering that he can channel the One Power at the end of the first book, Rand finds himself forced to embrace or reject his destiny as the Dragon Reborn, a figure who will stand against evil during the impending Armageddon. To complicated matters further, the all-powerful Horn of Valere has been stolen and it's up to Rand and his friends to recover it. Meanwhile, Nynaeve, Egwene and Elayne travel to Tar Valon to study with the Aes Sedai, only to find themselves in as much danger as Rand.

Eye's main plot followed a fairly straightforward quest pattern. Hunt has multiple narrative threads, several different narrators and a far more nuanced, complex storyline. Jordan is definitely ramping up the intensity and putting his characters through a lot more pain and hardship.

Rand's journey from farm boy to leader of men is expected and a somewhat overly classic device, but hey, bad stories don't become classics. Jordan does a fairly subtle (for him) job of turning Rand into a hero, Bildungsroman style.

The book's second main thread (following Nynaeve and Egwene) is less successful, although still good fun. I've found Egwene chronically dull since Eye, but Nynaeve and Elayne are interesting enough to make up for it. The fact that the Aes Sedai remain a morally ambiguous group also adds a nice layer to the story.

The fact is, Jordan is a good storyteller, maybe even a great storyteller (note that I didn't say writer). Despite his many flaws, he manages to really draw you into his world. It doesn't hurt that he's a deft pacer who keeps the action and adventure coming at all times.

Okay. Now for the bad. Much as I have enjoyed both Wheel of Time books that I've read, particularly this one, there can be no denying the fact that Jordan ain't Shakespeare. His writing tends towards the clumsy at times and there's the odd flash of banality, too. His dialogue is not routinely awful, but it's not his strong suit. Don't even get me started on Bayle Domon, the sea captain who never uses contractions of any kind ("the sea do be rough").

Jordan does better with action scenes or really, any scene in which there isn't too much human interaction:

Saidar was a torrent racing through her. She could feel the rocks around her, and the air, feel the tiny, flowing bits of the One Power that suffused them, and made them. And she could feel Aginor doing. . . something, as well. Dimly she felt it, and far distant, as if it were something she could never truly know, but around her she saw the effects and knew them for what they were.

The ground rumbled and heaved under her feet. Walls toppled in front of her, piles of stone to block her way. She scrambled over them, uncaring if sharp rock cut hands and feet, always keeping Aginor in sight, A wind rose, howling down the passages against her, raging till it flattened her cheeks and made her eyes water, trying to knock her down; she changed the flow, and Aginor tumbled along the passageway like an uprooted bush. She touched the flow in the ground, redirected it, and stone walls collapsed around Aginor, sealing him in. Lightning fell with her glare, striking around him, stone exploding ever closer and closer. She could feel him fighting to push it back at her, but foot by foot the dazzling bolts moved toward the Forsaken.
---(pages 286-287)

Jordan also has a very 1950s-sitcom view of gender relations (Men! They're so bull-headed and dumb! Women! They're so shrill and shrewish!) that wears on you after a while. He has no understanding of female relationships; the all-female interactions in the book tend to be eye-rollers.

And then there are the logical errors. Jordan constantly bends logic and dumbs down his characters to make the plot work. Oh, sure, Nynaeve, follow the woman that you hate blindly on a dangerous journey. She isn't going to betray you or anything (hint, hint)! It's a loophole-closing device that a lot of authors use, but Jordan definitely relies on it too much.

I could get into some of the other problems--such as the fact that Jordan still has yet to write one really creepy villain--but that would give the impression that I didn't enjoy the book, which was a blast to read. In this case, pure storytelling trumps the writer's other flaws. The story of the ordinary boy with a great destiny is a very old one, and it's been told a thousand different ways, but it's still compelling.

Even though I'm not far into the series yet, I don't yet see the faults that many fans have accused Jordan of in later years: being dull, slow-moving and ponderous. So far, the books have seemed anything but, especially Hunt, which easily tops Eye in all ways. Eye was a fine introduction, but Hunt gets into the meat of the story and ensnares the reader in its flawed, but enormously entertaining, web.

NEXT UP: A rather lighter piece of fantasy fiction: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Life Support by Tess Gerritsen

Life Support by Tess Gerritsen, 1997

Medical thrillers are a genre that I've always been aware of, but not much interested in (this might have something to do with my general aversion to blood and guts). I've just never come across any that really appealed to me. I read Tess Gerritsen's Life Support in large part due to the reccomendation of Stephen King, who's generally right about these things and, sure enough, Life Support is a highly entertaining, smooth read with an intriguing dash of bizarre science.

ER doctor Toby Harper is a woman with a lot on her plate: a stressful job working nights at a Boston hospital, a lackluster love life and a mother with Alzheimer's who takes up all of her free time. When a naked, raving man is brought into the ER and promptly disappears, Toby's complicated life takes a turn for the worse when she accidently stumbles on a far-reaching medical conspiracy that will stop at nothing to silence her, even if they have to destroy her career and her family to do it.

Gerritsen, herself a former doctor, has a snappy, clear prose style with believable dialogue. She is definitely at home when describing medical procedures and theories; the book's best sections are her propulsive descriptions of medical emergencies:

"We've got sinus rythmn," said Toby, glancing at the screen. "Stop compressions for a second."

The driver stopped pumping on the chest.

"I'm barely getting a pulse," said Val.

"Turn up that IV," said Toby. "We got any pressure yet."

Val glanced up from the arm cuff. "Fifty over zip. Dopamine drip?"

"Go for it. Resume compressions."

The driver crossed his hands over the sternum and began to pump again. Maudeen scurried to the code cart and pulled out drug ampules and syringes.

Toby slapped her stethoscope on the chest and listened to the right lung field, then the left. She heard distinct breath sounds on both sides. That told her the Et tube was properly positioned and the lungs were filling wirh air. "Hold compressions," she said and slid the stethoscope over to the heart.

She could barely hear it beating.
--- (page 31)

Gerritsen's brand of scary science is a highly effective and fairly original plot device that borders on sci-fi at times. One particularly nasty element are the stomach-churning results of some rather unusual pregnancies. Gerritsen could probably write very good Crichton-style scare-your-pants-off science fiction.

Her actual plotting is not ingenious, but it reads well. She's not a writer of whiplash twists and turns; her narrative has a more straightforward progression that, while entertaining, is not up to the level of the upper tier of thriller writers. The bad guys are a little too easy to spot and their wicked plans a little too underdeveloped.

The book's characters and emotional underpinnings are also less succesful than the medical details. Toby is a likable protagonist and her main love interest, hunky medical examiner Dan Dvorak, is likewise engaging, but neither character has a lot of depth. The supporting cast also tends to elicit a shrug, maybe because of Gerritsen's habit of introducing characters and then forgetting about them. It's a novel where you're more likely to remember the gore and weird science than the characters. For instance, a subplot concerning a prengant teenage prostitute that should be hugely affecting goes by without leaving much of an impression.

I hesitate to say that the whole book does the same, but Life Support is a fun read (and sometimes a scary read), but it's not distinguished enough in characterization or plotting to be really memorable. Like Anno Dracula, there's a spark missing.

NEXT UP: Book Two of the Wheel of Time cycle, The Great Hunt.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Outer Banks by Anne Rivers Siddons

Outer Banks by Anne Rivers Siddons

I would like to claim to be immune to the considerable power of Anne Rivers Siddons. When looking at her novel, Outer Banks, from a detached perspective, you can find a lot of problems: plot holes, shallow characterizations, overblown prose, cheap emotional gimmicks.

But who am I kidding. I was still up until midnight reading and was completely unable to get the book and its characters out of my mind. Siddons is an unsophisticated storyteller and shamelessly manipulative, but it works, dammit.

Outer Banks is the story of four women who meet as Southern sorority sisters in the early '60s: Kate, the depression-prone narrator, Cecie, her devoted best friend, Ginger, a sensual, childish heiress and Fig, a strange, overeager girl with a sinister side. They part after college only to reunite thirty years later under the weight of old betrayals, new secrets and mysterious circumstances.

Siddons is a good storyteller, no question. Her style is inelegant and a lot of her choices are questionable, but she pulls you into her world from the first chapter and keeps you there. She's highly accomplished at convincing readers that she's subtler and more profound than she really is.

Her characters, for instance, are not really very deep or complicated, but they are drawn with such strength and clarity that they sometimes appear to be. Cecie, for instance (my personal favorite of the four), doesn't really develop much beyond her initial characteristics. It's the forcefulness of the characterization that makes her so lovable, not its psychological complexity.

The story can get pretty soap opera at times, particularly in the segments involving the Kate/Ginger/Paul Sibley love triangle. Siddons balances the soap with certain realistic touches, which distract us from the fact that she's using every emotionally manipulative trick in the book to get a reaction out of the reader.

You could argue that emotional manipulation has been a part of storytelling since Homer realized that his audience loved the phrase, 'rosy-fingered dawn' and it is. All good storytelling is the manipulation of emotions, but Siddons is far too un-subtle, about it. She'll use suicide, cancer, dead children, stolen loves and alcoholism in her slightly shameless attempt to get her readers to feel something.

This is a tactic that a lot of terrible authors use, but Siddons is just good enough to make it work. Her prose can be overblown and melodramatic (and the woman has an unholy love of ellipses), but there's enough truth and honesty in her story to make it work. Nobody is going to nominate her for a Pulitzer any time soon, but she gets the job done. One of the few truly lovely ideas that she puts forth is her stirring concept of 'the abyss':

I had no name for it then, but I already knew the awful hollowness under my feet that meant bottomless emptiness, and I knew the smell of it. It was like the cold wet air that coils up from a dead black well. I could smell the breath from my own private pit and I could even smell it about others. There is a fraternity of us, the abyss walkers. In our eyes, the world is divided by it, made up of those who walk frail, careening rope bridges over the abysses and those who do not. We know each other. I do not think it is a conscious thing with us, this knowing, at least not most of the time, or we would flee from each as from monsters. It is an animal thing. It is only on that wild old neck-prickling level that we meet. It is only in our eyes that we acknowledge that our twin exhalations have touched and mingled. Sometimes, though not often, one of the others, the non-abyss people, will know us, too. You may even know the feeling yourself; you may have met someone about whom otherness clings like a miasma; you can feel it on your skin though you can't name it. When that happens, you have met one of us. You may even be one of us, down deep and in secret. As the old women in Kenmore say, it takes one to know one. Being able to feel it is not a good sign. The other half of the world, the solid, golden half, the non-abyssers. . . they feel nothing under their feet but solidity. They inherit the earth. We inherit the wind. --- (pages 26-27)

Siddons may have a few moments of beauty or true insight, but her true gift is her ability to make you care. Despite the novel's many flaws and errors (including a faux-thriller ending that doesn't really fit), she makes you genuinely care about her characters, and to truly believe in their struggles, overdramatic and overstated as they may be.

In fact, Siddons rather reminds me of Stephenie Meyer, another author who tells good stories with a strong streak of romance, without technically being very good. Outer Banks would not hold up to intense scrutiny and wouldn't win any writing prizes, but it grips you with its strength and conviction, and doesn't let you stumble into the light until it's all over.

And no, those are not crumpled-up Kleenex in my trash can, dammit.

NEXT UP: Tess Gerritsen's medical thriller Life Support.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin

Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin, 1992

It's always a shame to see a superior series go down the toilet. Ian Rankin's two previous John Rebus novels were brilliant, but Number Three, Tooth and Nail, is just not operating on the same level. The story is stale, the prose unreadable, the characters shallow and poorly characterized.

Ha. Just kidding. Tooth and Nail is every bit as eye-poppingly wonderful as its two predecessors. Ian Rankin has a seemingly bottomless arsenal of writing weapons: riveting plot twists, razor-sharp prose, fabulous characters and the best sense of place this side of Diana Gabaldon.

After successfully bringing down a serial murderer in Knots and Crosses, Inspector John Rebus has unwittingly gained a reputation as an expert on the subject. So when a vicious serial killer dubbed the 'Wolfman' begins haunting London, Rebus is called away from his native Edinburgh to a huge, foreign city of red herrings, hidden motives, secret connections and a deranged killer who eludes detectives at every turn.

Rankin is an undisputed master of his form, equal to any mystery writer I can come up with. His novels have weight and complexity and some truly fantastic writing coupled with wonderful plots. Tooth and Nail, like the previous works in the series, works on many levels at once. It's a spine-tingling mystery (and a great one), but it's also the story of a man cursed with hardship and solitude, and the uncomfortably close relationship between good and evil.

As always, Rebus is a mesmerizing main character, capable of being pathetic, prickly, cruel and lovable all at once. I'm fairly certain I could read a book like John Rebus Goes to the Grocery Store or John Rebus Waits at the Dentist's Office and still be entertained and involved just because of his presence in the story.

The other characters are all just as fascinating. In London detective George Flight, Rankin has created a character that I would gladly read a second series about. Ian Rankin has the rare gift of being able to instantly and subtly establish a character from their first appearance. This is an indispensable talent for a mystery writer, since the suspect pool feels so vital and fascinating.

A good plot is even more important to a good mystery than the characters, and Tooth and Nail has a fantastic plot. Rankin sends the reader on another ingenious roller coaster ride, where everyone's a suspect and everything's a clue. He had me convinced that half a dozen different characters were the Wolfman before the final reveal, and I still never guessed it. And the action climax? Perfection. Rankin is an amazing master of suspense, tension and, most importantly, satisfying resolution.

His prose is still amazing, crystal-clear, alternately funny and haunting. He will always find the offbeat, the quirky, the human in any situation, even during the chilling sections written from the Wolfman's perspective or the details of a gruesome autopsy:

Soon enough, the whole mess of matter was being put together again, and Rebus knew that by the time any grieving relatives viewed the mortal remains of Jean Cooper, the body would look quite natural.

As ever by the end of the autopsy the room had been reduced to silent introspection. Each man and woman present was made of the same stuff as Jean Cooper, and now they stood, momentarily stripped of their individual personalities. They were all bodies, all animals, all collections of viscera. The only difference between them and Jean Cooper was that their hearts still pumped blood. But one day soon enough each heart would stop, and that would be an end of it, save for the possibility of a visit to this butcher's shop, this abattoir.
---(page 35)

Not only is the novel's main plot fabulous, but its main subplot (a Rankin staple) is good, too. Rebus's rivalry with his daughter's motorcycle-riding boyfriend Kenny is yet another example of why Rankin is so excellent. The subplot works beautifully on its own as a funny, moving study of Rebus's relationship with his daughter Sam, but it also serves to further muddy the waters of the book's main story, since Rankin subtly hints several times that Kenny is the Wolfman.

Really, the overpowering awesomeness of Tooth and Nail can be summed up in one simple statement: I read it in less than twenty-four hours. The plot is propulsive in the best kind of way. You're not reading like crazy because there's a gunfight every other page, but because you care so much about what's going on.

I don't think any mystery author I've ever read leaves me quite as fully satisfied on as many levels as Rankin. Why this man isn't touted as the new king of crime fiction is beyond me. Tooth and Nail is more proof--as if any is needed--that the John Rebus series is something special. And if it keeps being this good, I'm going to run out of superlatives to use in these reviews.

NEXT UP: A novel where no one is likely to be shot, stabbed, blown up or strangled: Anne Rivers Siddons' Outer Banks.