Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, 2003

Your whole life, you wished for something like this. You told yourself you didn't, but you did. To be involved in a drama. And not the drama of unpaid bills and minor, shrieking marital squabbles. No. This was real life, but bigger than real life. This was hyper-real. Her husband may have killed a bad man. And if that bad man really was dead, the police would want to find out who did it. And if the trail really led here, to Dave, they'd need evidence.

She could see them sitting at the kitchen table, notebooks open, smelling of coffee and the previous night's taverns, asking her and Dave questions. They'd be polite, but scary. And she and Dave would be polite back and unruffled.

Because it all came down to evidence. And she'd just washed the evidence down the kitchen sink drain and out into the dark sewers. In the morning, she'd remove the drainpipe from under the sink and wash that, too, douse the insides with bleach and put it back in place. She'd put the shirt and jeans into a plastic trash bag and hide it until Tuesday morning and then toss it into the back of the garbage truck where it would be mashed and chewed and compacted with rotten eggs and spoiled chickens and stale bread. She'd do this and feel larger, better, than herself.

"It makes you feel alone," Dave said.

"What's that?

"Hurting someone," he said softly.
---(pages 68-69)

Although you would be hard-pressed to find two novels less alike in style, tone, setting and story than Mystic River and Case Histories, the two do have something in common. They are both written by authors with strong prose and a "literary" bent who have chosen to tell their stories through the prism of so-called "genre" fiction. In the case of Histories, that genre is the classic private-eye mystery, while Mystic River is a superb homage to the hardboiled police procedural, although it's also a classical tragedy and a character-driven story of loyalty, family and violence.

Growing up in a rundown Boston neighborhood, Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus and Dave Boyle were friends. Their world changes when Dave is abducted by pedophiles, a catastrophic tragedy that will irrevocably impact all three of them.

In adulthood, echoes of the past interfere with a shocking new crime: the brutal murder of Jimmy Marcus's daughter. Sean, now a state policeman, struggles to solve the case, while Jimmy, a reformed criminal, contemplates revenge upon the prime suspect: Dave Boyle, whose average-guy facade masks dark demons.

Lehane handles the novel's twin genres incredibly well: it's a glorious character study, but also a rousing and shocking murder mystery. His plotting is so deft that most of the time you don't even realize that clues are being carefully dropped. The solution to the central mystery is absolutely perfect and completely shocking, even though Lehane leads up to it nicely.

But Mystic River is a lot more than just an effective crime novel. It's a bleak portrait of three very different men and the effect that one act of evil has had on them. Lehane's characterizations are absolutely dead-on. Dave's descent into madness, Sean's wildly dysfunctional marriage, Jimmy's attempt to deny his own inner darkness, all are simply, but powerfully drawn. A scene near the end of the novel provides an incredibly scorching, riveting sequence of drama that could be matched by very few writers. A scene like that brings to mind Shakespeare or Faulkner faster than Hammet or Leonard.

When Lehane's prose is on a roll, he operates at an incredibly high level. Admittedly, I found the hyper-macho tough-guy dialogue to be a bit wearing at times, and I don't think that his portrait of the close-knit urban neighborhood was as effective as some of the other elements, but the moments of literary brilliance more than make up for it. There is some really superb writing going on here, as well as some fantastic plotting.

Not only is Lehane good at high drama and Shakespearean tragedy, but also at the more mundane details that make his world convincingly real. The logistics of dealing with enormous amounts of forensic evidence, the difficulty of lying to a police officer, the need for grieving people to surround themselves with food. Most thriller/mystery authors present a glossier worldview; Lehane's is recognizable, material and human, which only serves to make the crime-fiction elements of the story realer and scarier.

By the end of Mystic River, Lehane has thoroughly fulfilled the novel's promise, delivering a tight, masterful plot along with gobbets of gorgeous prose and some moments of character arc resolution that are jaw-dropping in their perfection, such as Jimmy's chilling acceptance of himself as an evil person. None of these moments could have been reached as effectively in a "standard" literary novel with no violent conflict. When it comes to literary versus genre fiction, Mystic River definitively proves that you can have your cake and eat it, too.

NEXT UP: A Storm of Swords, the third Song of Ice and Fire novel.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, 2006

The concession stand in the center of the tent had been flattened, and in its place was a roiling mass of spots and stripes--of haunches, heels, tails and claws, all of it roaring, screeching, bellowing, or whinnying. A polar bear towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It made contact with a llama and knocked it flat--BOOM. The llama hit the ground, its neck and legs splayed like the five points of a star. Chimps screamed and chattered, swinging on ropes to stay above the cats. A wildeyed zebra zigzagged too close to a crouching lion, who swiped, missed, and darted away, his belly close to the ground.

My eyes swept the tent, desperate to find Marlena. Instead I saw a cat slide through the connection to the big top--it was a panther, and as its lithe black body disappeared into the canvas tunnel I braced myself. If the rubes didn't know, they were about to find out. It took several seconds to come, but come it did--one prolonged shriek followed by another, and then another, and then the whole place exploded with the thunderous sound of bodies trying to shove past other bodies and off the stands. The band screeched to a halt for a second time, and this time stayed silent. I shut my eyes:
Please God let them leave by the back end. Please God don't let them try to come through here.

I opened my eyes again and scanned the menagerie, frantic to find her. How hard can it be to find a girl and an elephant, for Christ's sake?
---(page 4)

It's highly appropriate that Water for Elephants takes place in a circus since it itself is a sort of freak show, with many disparate elements working together in a frantic attempt to entertain. It's a period drama with inside information on the workings of Depression-era circuses, as well as a swoon-y Harlequin romance with a thriller-like plot, all framed by the present-day reminiscences of the main character. It's colorful, jumbled and messy, sporadically fun, but marred by severe writing errors.

As a young man, Jacob Jankowski runs away from veterinary school after the death of his parents and joins up with the Benzini Brothers circus, a rather grim outfit peopled by the usual oddballs--dwarfs, fat ladies, prostitutes, even a quirky elephant. Quickly put in charge of the animals, Jacob stumbles into trouble when he falls in love with Marlena, wife of the borderline-psychopathic animal trainer. In the present, a greatly aged Jacob looks back over his life and struggles to maintain his sanity.

It's clear from a brief plot summary that there's a lot going on here. Sara Gruen seems to be throwing in all of the devices, characters and plot ideas that she can come up with. Some work, but so many don't, and Gruen's prose is far too generic to support the chaotic story.

Admittedly, she's quite good at describing life in an old-time circus and she's unearthed lots of fascinating historical tidbits that would liven up a book with a better plot and more interesting characters. Unfortunately, cool information about trains, circus hierarchy and Prohibition can't make up for the book's other faults.

For starters, the book's structure makes no sense to me. The "frame story" of ninety-year-old Jacob thinking about his past is bizarrely disconnected from the main plot and contributes absolutely nothing to the novel, which is not really about aging or the gaining of maturity. The two versions of the character are so different that they don't even seem to be the same person. All old Jacob does is whine about his circumstances and helplessness. The whole frame story is just a very odd interlude that never matches up (thematically or tonally) with the main narrative.

The main narrative is at least more engaging, but not much more sophisticated. The romance between Jacob and Marlena is not interesting because both characters are paper-thin and one-dimensional, particularly Marlena, who is literally given no real personality traits. Jacob is a by-the-numbers Hero type who never really compels. August, Marlena's schizophrenic husband, is the only character that's truly interesting or layered, and even he has only two sides: nasty and charming.

In general, Gruen's world is a very simplistic one. People are pretty much exactly what they appear to be: fuzzy animals are sweet and gentle, villains are vile and boundlessly cruel, heroes are brave and noble. Gruen attempts to distract readers from the novel's incredibly simple story and characterization with an interesting setting and a weird structure, a strategy that just ends up further complicating the book's problems.

Even with all of that, I had a good time. Water for Elephants is definitely an agreeable novel, even when it's clumsy or cliched. It's unsophisticated entertainment, fun at times (you have to love people running around on the top of a moving train) and infuriating at others (the old-Jacob chapters). No one is going to nominate this one for a Pulitzer or put it on their top ten list, but it's worth a read, if only for the scenery.

NEXT UP: The exact opposite of Water for Elephants: Dennis Lehane's Mystic River.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Strip Jack by Ian Rankin

Strip Jack by Ian Rankin, 1992

Rebus was more than halfway there before he realized he was headed not for Stockbridge comforts and Patience Aitken, but for Marchmont and his own neglected flat. So be it. Inside the flat, the atmosphere managed to be both chill and stale. A coffee mug beside the telephone resembled Glasgow insofar as it, too, was a city of culture, an interesting green and white culture.

But if the living room was growing mould, surely the kitchen would be worse. Rebus sat himself down in his favourite chair, stretched for the answering machine, and settled to listen to his calls. There weren't many. Gill Templer, wondering where he was keeping himself these days. . . as if she didn't know. His daughter Samantha, phoning from her new flat in London, giving him her address and telephone number. Then a couple of calls where the speaker had decided not to say anything.

"Be like that then." Rebus turned off the machine, drew a notebook from his pocket, and, reading the number from it, telephoned Gregor Jack. He wanted to know why Jack hadn't said anything about his own anonymous calls. Strip Jack. . . beggar my neighbour. . . Well, if someone
were out to beggar Gregor Jack, Jack himself didn't seem overly concerned. He didn't exactly seem resigned, but he did seem unbothered. Unless he was playing a game with Rebus. . . And what about Rab Kinnoul, on-screen assassin? What was he up to all the time he was away from his wife? And Ronald Steele, too, a 'hard man to catch.' Were they all up to something? It wasn't that Rebus distrusted the human race. . . wasn't just that he was brought up a Pessimisterian. He was sure there was something happening here; he just didn't know what it was. ---(page 74)

Strip Jack is the fourth novel in the Rebus series and it's clear that, with this volume, Ian Rankin is settling in for the long haul. Recurring characters and storylines are being tied together, and the world of John Rebus's Edinburgh is becoming clearly defined. It's nice to see that the groundwork is being lain for the series to have an increased level of continuity. The previous three books in the series--all fantastic--were perhaps a bit uneven in terms of recurring elements.

I mention this development because I couldn't be happier with how the Rebus books are progressing. Wikipedia informs me that the series runs no less than seventeen books, which makes me feel like a drug addict who's just wandered into a massive marijuana greenhouse.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: these books are So Freaking Good. As I've finished each one, I've thought, Well, the next one can't possibly be this good. Strip Jack, with it's whodunit-style plot and marginally lighter tone, represents a slight change of pace from its predecessors--but then, each book has taken things in a new and invariably exciting direction.

When a raid on a high-class Edinburgh brothel reveals that beloved MP Gregor Jack has a dark secret, the public is shocked and the tabloids thrilled. John Rebus can't help but be fascinated by Jack, a man who is either a cold-hearted schemer or an innocent victim of a frame job, so when Jack is implicated in a close-to-home murder investigation, Rebus sets out to uncover the real killer and figure out who wants to strip Gregor Jack of his career.

Knots and Crosses brought emotional revelation and intense, psychological drama, Hide and Seek brought a tangled plot and dark horrors and Tooth and Nail brought grisly, fast-paced suspense. Strip Jack is altogether lighter fare ("lighter" being a highly relative term), more of a cerebral, character-based puzzle, more of a classic mystery than the previous three.

Rankin handles the plot beautifully, with a wide suspect pool of quirky characters and plenty of clues and clever misdirection. I absolutely love the fact that he has Rebus deliver the standard unraveling-and-deduction at the end, which turns out to be totally wrong. The eventual solution is a singularly satisfactory one, especially after the ingenious "false climax," which has always been one of my favorite literary devices.

But even though the plotting is excellent, it's Rankin's consummate skill with characterization and those small, lifelike details that makes the novel so enchanting. Rebus deals with the annoying realities of everyday life: a difficult romantic relationship, lack of sleep, a terrible car, a dumb boss, bad food, bad weather, his own impending middle age. Rankin knows that the mystery elements become more compelling when they're grounded in such a recognizable world.

The Rebus of Strip Jack is definitely in a better place than the Rebus of the first few books. Even though he's still gloomy and cynical, he has a fairly steady romance going (for him, at least) and none of the sexual hang-ups that have plagued him in the past. It's interesting to see him in a better place, although it's already clear that he will sabotage his relationship with Patience with his loner tendencies and obsessive work habits.

Ian Rankin novels are hard to review, because it's difficult not to just rattle off a laundry list of things I liked. Strip Jack is another winner, another little masterpiece of mood and pacing and satisfying resolution, shot through with fantastic characters and knife-sharp dialogue. And now let the wait for number five begin.

NEXT UP: Sara Gruen's blockbuster, Water for Elephants.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child

Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child, 2007

The boxer Muhammad Ali's reach was reckoned to be about forty inches and his hands were once timed at an average eighty miles an hour as they moved through it. Reacher was no Ali. Not even close. Especially not on his weaker side. His left hand moved at about sixty miles an hour, maximum. That was all. But sixty miles an hour was the same thing as a mile a minute, which was about the same thing as eighty-eight feet per second. Which meant that Reacher's left hand took a little less than thirty-thousandths of a second to cross the counter. And halfway through its travel it bunched into a fist.

And thirty-thousandths of a second was way too brief an interval for the guy to pull the Python's trigger. Any revolver is a complex mechanical system and one as big as the Python is heavier in its action than most. Not very susceptible to accidental discharge. The guy's finger didn't even tighten. He took Reacher's fist in his face before his brain had even registered that it was moving. Reacher was a lot slower than Muhammad Ali, but his arms were a lot longer. Which meant that the guy's head kept on accelerating. It kept on accelerating through a whole extra foot and a half before Reacher's arm was fully extended. And then the guy's head kept on accelerating. It kept on accelerating right until it crashed against the wall behind the counter and shattered the glass over the gun dealer's license.

At that point it stopped accelerating and started a slow downward slide to the floor.
---(pages 289-290, UK edition)

Let's face it: when it comes to pure, kinetic, kick-ass thriller reading pleasure, no one beats Lee Child. The Jack Reacher series is pure fun and even though I love the classic formula, I also like it when Child gives it a little twist.

Bad Luck and Trouble changes things up by making lone-wolf Reacher part of a team. Everyone loves Reacher as a one-man military, but it's refreshing to change the dynamic a bit and it adds an unexpected--and amusing--bit of depth to Reacher's character.

As the book begins, Reacher is in Portland, Oregon, when he is contacted by Frances Neagley, a member of a special military police task force that he once headed (soon after the events of The Enemy, in fact). It seems that a member of the old team has been found dead and Neagley is calling in the cavalry in an attempt to find the perpetrators to justice. Together, the remaining team members go to war with a mysterious, powerful enemy, only to find themselves battling against a shocking and lethal terrorist plot.

Most Child novels have peripheral characters who help Reacher on his quest, but there's never been so much emphasis on them. It's extremely amusing to see Reacher operating as the leader of a team, and the way that that changes his usual strategy. Even better is the subtle comparison of Reacher's drifter lifestyle and his friends' prosperous, structured lives. Is Reacher embarrassed? Jealous? A bit of both? Child never quite tells us, but it's fantastic to see the man of steel express a few new emotions.

The plot is fairly standard for a Jack Reacher adventure: not completely ingenious, but lively and with several nice twists. There aren't any of the jaw-dropping shocks that punctuate the very best Child novels and the villains are boring compared to Gone Tomorrow's Lila Hoth or One Shot's The Zec.

To make up for it, we get fun character interaction and snappy dialogue between the special investigators. The non-Reacher investigators do lack some depth, but they're likable and well drawn, and since there's some sexual tension between Reacher and petite brunette Karla Dixon, we get to skip Reacher's obligatory love interest. That device has certainly worn very thin over the course of the series.

Perhaps most importantly, we get the incredible action scenes and the explosive climax we've come to expect from Jack Reacher. No one--and I mean no one--can grab you during those last fifty pages like Lee Child can. In this installment, we get a particularly delightful, multi-layered orgy of violence and Reacher-induced mayhem. The final confrontation with the Big Bad is a sadistic delight (are those two things mutually exclusive?).

Bad Luck and Trouble is not a work of great literature by any means--although we do need more great works of literature where cars are driven through glass walls--but it is a work of great thriller writing, like all of the Jack Reacher books are, a masterpiece of suspense and action, as well as being just about as much fun as you're likely to have reading. This is one series that just never stops giving pleasure.

NEXT UP: Strip Jack by Ian Rankin.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, 2007

The ghost came to his feet, and as he rose, his legs moved out of the sunlight and painted themselves back into being, the long black trouser legs, the sharp crease in his pants. The dead man held his arm out to the side, the palm turned toward the floor, and something fell from the hand, a flat silver pendant, polished to a mirror brightness, attached to a foot of delicate gold chain. No, not a pendulum, but a curved blade of some kind. It was like a dollhouse version of the pendulum in that story by Edgar Allan Poe. The gold chain was connected to a ring around one of his fingers, a wedding ring, and the razor was what he had married. He allowed Jude to look at it for a moment, and then twitched his wrist, a child doing a trick with a yo-yo, and the little curved razor leaped into his hand. --- (page 56)

Heart-Shaped Box is a finely wrought gem of a novel. The dust jacket proclaims it to be a book of spine-tingling horror, and it is, but it's so much more. It features a complex, unusual, incredibly likable protagonist and a surprisingly sensitive and beautifully drawn love story, as well as being highly thrilling and uniquely scary. To top it off, the novel is wrapped up in idiosyncratic, intricate, chilling, funny, occasionally gorgeous prose.

The concept begins with pure simplicity: a ghost is offered for sale on the Internet. Aging heavy-metal rock star Jude Coyne buys it for a joke, only to find the ghost all too real--and now it's out to claim his soul. From here, the plot gently unfolds, twisting, turning and deepening with ever chapter, as Joe Hill cheerfully ignores the constraints of genre and structure. "Original" is a word that gets bandied about a lot in book reviews, but Box is as starkly original as it gets.

I began the novel expecting a traditional ghost story, which follows a fairly simple pattern: Ghost is introduced, ghost haunts main character, scary things happen, ghost is destroyed in deus ex machina ending. There's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of pattern, but it's rarely conducive to a really memorable read. Hill throws the classic pattern (and the much overused single-location trope) out the window. His ghost is more of an aggressive thriller villain than a creepy specter.

It's a poorly kept secret that Joe Hill is the son of horror master Stephen King. Frankly, King hasn't written a novel this good in many years and, despite the shared bloodlines and genre, there are no similarities between the two. Hill's lean, agile, playful, dialogue-heavy style bears no resemblance to King's rambling, galumphing prose. Hill's powers of characterization and sense of humanity far outstrips his father's. King has never created a character as totally believable and multi-dimensional as Judas Coyne.

It's Jude's journey that really elevates the novel. Hill lets him develop slowly, filling in his back story gradually. He goes from being an unlikable antihero to a courageous, flawed, redeemable hero. What a fantastic progression. His relationship with the woman he calls "Georgia" (her real name is Marybeth) is layered and surprisingly sweet. Hill's dialogue in their scenes together is as sharp as Craddock's deadly razor.

Hill, like his father, doesn't focus too much on the how and why of the supernatural world and there are a few plot points that he basically ignores and doesn't explain (say, why Jude's dogs are the only reliable protection against Craddock). A few guidelines to govern the rules of ghosts and hypnotism would have been nice. Still, you can't fault him for originality: you have to love Craddock literally cramming himself down the throat of the man he's possessing.

So what do we have here? A twisty, unpredictable plot, two highly memorable main characters, excellent dialogue, beautiful writing, some true jolts of horror. Box is, on the surface, a simple ghost story, but it's really an exploration of death and redemption and a smart, literate examination of Judas Coyne. A wonderful book on several levels, and especially amazing when you consider that it's only Joe Hill's first novel.

NEXT UP: Lee Child's Bad Luck and Trouble.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 2008

The Hunger Games gleefully and literately mixes together several genres (sci-fi, dystopia, action, romance) and then wraps it up in fairly standard YA prose. Like Twilight, it's struck an immediate chord with teenagers, and there's a big-budget Hollywood movie already in production.

Like a big-budget Hollywood movie, Games is sleek, swift and suspenseful, but somewhat lacking in finesse and subtlety. The basic premise (a deadly reality show) is actually the best part of the novel, a timely, cuttingly funny allegory. The teen romance segments are somewhat less inspired, although even that is perfectly fine, as far as those kinds of things go.

Games begins in a post-apocalyptic America--now called Panem--which is comprised of twelve Districts and a Capitol. Once a year, two teenagers are selected from each District to participate in the Hunger Games, a lethal reality show in which the contestants kill each other on live television.

Katniss Everdeen, a born survivor from the poorest District, isn't selected to join the Games: she volunteers in order to save her younger sister from certain death. She finds herself an early favorite, but she'll have to use all her skills to survive against her bloodthirsty fellow contestants.

There's a really fantastic sci-fi thriller in here. The fact that it's a young-adult novel means that (despite a fairly graphic amount of violence) the concept is never allowed to really take off. It could have been dark, edgy, grim, maybe a little twisted. Instead, it's glossy and fun, but not much else.

Collins' writing style is fairly generic, get-the-job-done YA, heavy on emotional description, light on description of pretty much anything else. The budding romance between Katniss and fellow "tribute" Peeta (yeah, I know, unfortunate name) is given more attention than anything else. The main--and admittedly somewhat ingenious-- twist is that Katniss and Peeta have to keep up their relationship to stay alive, since their pairing is incredibly popular with the audience. It's a shame that Peeta is so much less interesting than Katniss, who is herself a fairly generic protagonist.

The novel's best sections are definitely the action scenes and the amusing skewering of reality television (tributes are sent important gifts like weapons or food by "sponsors"). If Collins was a subtler author (or if the book was written for adults), the satire could have been sharper and more complex. But because the book is far more preoccupied with dewy-eyed teen romance, it's a throwaway element.

The action is fun, though, and marvelously inventive. Collins throws a lot of amusing challenges at her characters--psychedelic wasps, fireballs, booby traps, mutated monsters and even weather manipulation. The book's latter half is almost nonstop suspense, like an entertaining action movie that thrills the senses and allows the brain to sit back:

The game has taken a twist. The fire was just to get us moving, now the audience will get to see some real fun. When I hear the next hiss, I flatten on the ground., not taking time to look. The fireball hits a tree off to my left, engulfing it in flames. To remain still is death. I'm barely on my feet before the third ball hits the ground where I was lying, sending a pillar of fire up behind me. Time loses meaning now as I frantically try to dodge the attacks. I can't see where they're being launched from, but it's not a hovercraft. The angles are not extreme enough. Probably this whole segment of the woods has been armed with precision launchers that are concealed in trees or rocks. Somewhere, in a cool and spotless room, a Gamemaker sits at a set of controls, fingers on the triggers that could end my life in a second. All that's needed is a direct hit.

Whatever vague plan I had conceived regarding returning to the pond is wiped from my mind as I zigzag and dive and leap to avoid the fireballs. Each one is only the size of an apple, but packs tremendous power on contact. Every sense I have goes into overdrive as the need to survive takes over. There's no time to judge if a move is the correct one. When there's a hiss, I act or die.
--- (page 175)

Despite the entertaining plot and cool gimmicks, the flaws are serious enough to be distracting. The only characters with any real development are Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch (a crusty, alcoholic mentor for the District 12 tributes), and they're all strictly two-dimensional. The other characters are flimsy stereotypes and the tributes are barely sketched at all. The arena scenes would have been more dynamic if we had actually known who these people were.

Dialogue is also a big problem. The characters' lines are always just a little awkward--they either say exactly what's on their minds, or they clumsily hide it. I don't know why, but dialogue in young-adult novels is often very dumbed down, as though kids aren't smart enough to pick up any subtleties on their own.

Games is an entertaining diversion and it's just original enough to warrant some attention. It's just too bad that Collins couldn't have gone further with her concept, although maybe that's what she does in the two highly popular sequels that have been released. I definitely liked the book enough to read the second one, which will hopefully feature better character development and an improved style. And maybe Peeta can change his name.

NEXT UP: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill.

A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon

A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon, 2005

Diana Gabaldon is unchallenged by any other author when it comes to the things she does well. Her ability to connect readers to her characters, and to create a completely convincing and vivid world, is staggering. There are few pieces of literature as emotionally convincing or as utterly involving as the Outlander saga at its best.

The fifth book, The Fiery Cross, was the first disappointing entry in a series that had previously only topped itself. Book six, the even heftier A Breath of Snow and Ashes, is a return to form for Gabaldon. Cross's main faults--a slow pace, meandering plot lines, repetitive scenes, editorial mistakes--are mostly absent from Breath, which is about as tightly plotted as a 1,000 page romantic/historical/fantasy epic can be.

It's 1772, and the American Revolution is right around the corner. Jamie and Claire Fraser know what's coming and that they have to throw their lot in with the rebels, but the trick is how to do it when the backwoods of North Carolina are seething with violence and political discord, and the smallest move could set off a firestorm. Perhaps most troubling, a newspaper clipping from the future prophesies a violent death by fire for the entire Fraser clan.

Unlike the rather sluggish Cross, Breath seems determined to keep things moving--indeed, it sometimes seems like Gabaldon is intent on dismantling the Frasers' hard-earned sense of security, piece by piece. Over the course of the novel, half of the recurring cast is either killed or scattered to the wind, and the ending--rather abruptly-- features another seismic change in the series' direction.

Like all of the books in the series (but particularly the last few), Breath has many interlocking subplots and rambling dicursions. While this rather unconventional narrative technique sometimes becomes a little bit tedious, it paints a wider and more fully realized universe. Seeing what happens in the little nooks and crannies of Gabaldon's world increases the feeling of intimacy and reality.

Her four main characters are by now so fully developed and multi-faceted. It's pretty damn impressive that we can still find out new and interesting things about Jamie and Claire after so many volumes of emotional upheaval. The hold these characters have on my mind is borderline creepy. We've seen Gabaldon build them with care since the very first book. It's amazing to think about how much they've changed and grown, while still remaining true to who they were in their early twenties.

Roger and Brianna have likewise matured immeasurably. In this volume, Roger struggles with his calling to become a minister, while Brianna--well, Brianna is still the least-featured of the quartet, which isn't particularly fair, since she's as intriguing a character as Roger is. A key action that she takes late in the novel immediately made it onto my list of favorite-ever scenes from the series.

And how amazing is Ian's journey in this book (this entire review could just devolve into gushing about all the characters I love)? His spiritual struggle after returning from the Mohawk's village is vintage Gabaldon; she's always in her element when tormenting her characters in some way. The Tom Christie storyline is another fantastic example of this.

Thank goodness, there are no extended sequences like Cross's Scottish Gathering or Jocasta's wedding. There's also more action, both in terms of adventure and conflict, and in terms of several huge milestones reached in the long journey to the Revolution. As always, Gabaldon pulls back the curtain on a fascinating and little-known period of history. She expertly captures the turmoil and uncertainty of the years leading up to the war. Few authors are capable of immersing their readers in a time and a place like Diana Gabaldon.

The juxtaposition of the actual history and the time-traveling recollections of the future makes for an even more layered, nuanced approach to historical fiction. The time-travelers in the cast (Claire, Roger and Brianna) discuss the morality of war, the difficult situation with the Indians, the possibility that they might change the past. Brianna even tries to give the Ridge running water, and in one moving, funny scene, tries to explain the concept of Disney World to her eighteenth-century father:

"And you'd hear music everywhere, all the time," she said, smiling. "Bands--groups of musicians playing instruments, horns and drums and things-- would march up and down the streets, and play in pavilions. . . ."

"Aye, that happens in amusement parks. Or it did, the once I was in one." She could hear a smile in his voice, as well.

"Mmm-hmm. And there are cartoon characters--I told you about cartoons--walking around. You can go up and shake hands with Mickey Mouse, or--"

"With what?"

"Mickey Mouse." She laughed. "A big mouse, life-size--human-size, I mean. He wears gloves."

"A giant rat?" he said, sounding slightly stunned. "And they take the weans to play with it?"

"Not a rat, a mouse," she corrected him. "And it's really a person dressed up as a mouse."

"Oh, aye?" he said, not sounding terribly reassured.
--- (page 449)

If Gabaldon has a flaw as a writer, it's a tendency to repeat herself and the slightly jumbled order of her novels. She writes individual scenes and then patches them together, and it shows. Two similar chapters might be right in a row, or an important detail may be skipped over entirely. For devoted fans who are used to this quirk, it's little more than a slight irritant.

And believe me, the reward is worth it. The Outlander saga has been tremendously enjoyable since its first page and even after six mammoth books (all of which range from eight hundred to a thousand pages), I haven't tired of the characters or their world. A Breath of Snow and Ashes doesn't feel like set-up for the End. By the end it feels like a new beginning. And if there are six more, I'll be only be too happy to continue being lost in Diana Gabaldon's web of words.

NEXT UP: Suzanne Collins' smash-hit The Hunger Games.