Monday, December 31, 2012

Best of 2012

Best of 2012

Hello, faithful readers! If anybody out there has been paying attention, they will have noticed that I haven't been posting reviews for quite a few months now. I've got quite a few drafts stored, but I haven't gotten around to posting. To tell the truth, writing full-length reviews has gotten to be a bit of a chore. I've loved writing this blog, but it's started to be more time-consuming than I would like. Much as I enjoy writing reviews, it's gotten to be too much work to write an individual review for every book I read.

This does not, however, mean the end of this blog! Instead, I'm going to change up the format a bit. At the end of each month, I'm going to post a list of the books I read that month, with a capsule review of each one, which should be quite similar to the reviews I've written for the past few years. This will keep the blog running with as little change as possible, while still keeping me from having to write a new review every week or two.

Before we get to the traditional end-of-year awards (God, I sound pompous), here are the books I read during the end of November and December of 2012:

All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, 1963

Dense, hefty and lyrical, All The King's Men was not an easy read. It's not an inviting book, in the sense that it has no easy hook. It's the story of the complex politician Willie Stark, but it's truly the story of his pressman, Jack Burden, and Burden's relationship to his troubled past. It's a political novel, a philosophical tract, and a family saga, with dashes of romance and noir. It's a difficult book to encapsulate, because it's far too ambitious to be straightforward and too tightly constructed to be sprawling.

Warren's writing has a fascinating quality to it, difficult to pin down. His dialogue is sharp and keenly observed, and yet much of the novel is internal, the thoughts and recollections of Jack Burden. Warren's prose can be luminous, or bleak, or wryly comic. You never quite know what to expect. I was particularly fascinated by some of the philosophical concepts that Burden comes to believe in, and the way that Warren handles his ultimate conclusion.

Even more fascinating is Willie Stark, a character so perfectly drawn that I can see him even now in my mind's eye. Willie is a classic antihero: he's not a good man, not truly, and yet I rarely felt contempt for him. His journey up from poverty is characterized by lying, cheating and dirty tactics, yet there's something oddly admirable about it, too (although his long-suffering wife would certainly disagree).

I had problems with some parts of the novel. The Cass Mastern interlude, while illuminating in many ways, can be a hard slog, and I found Jack's endless longing for Anne incredibly dreary after a while (in general, I would say that Warren was far more comfortable writing three-dimensional male characters than three-dimensional female ones). These flaws are pretty minor, and do little to overshadow the brilliance of Willie Stark's descent into corruption and Jack Burden's search for a truth that he can live with.

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, 1988

I've always been a little wary of the comic book medium, especially when people claim that it's an art form on a par with film or fiction writing. I've read very few comics (and most of the ones I have read are the genially goofy superhero comic books of the fifties and sixties), so I'm really not in any position to judge. It's easy, from an outside perspective, to write off comic books as cheesy and their devoted fans as shortsighted nerds. I knew that I would eventually have to read a graphic novel and see what it was like.

While I don't know much about comic books, I am pretty familiar with most of the major superhero characters thanks to the glut of movies based on them (superhero movies are one of my guilty pleasures). My all-time favorite movie superhero, hands down, is Batman (I'm a huge Christopher Nolan fangirl), so it made sense to start with him. Even though I'm fluent in the basics of the Bat-verse--billionaire, murdered parents, Gotham City--I decided to start with the beginning, or at least with the most highly-regarded retelling of the beginning.

And all I can say is, wow.

Year One may be a comic book, but it's not inane, ridiculous or juvenile in the least. It's a red-blooded crime story, with clipped, noir-ish writing and some genuinely beautiful artwork. While the comic format took a little while for a virgin like me to get accustomed to, soon I was flipping pages without thinking about it. The way the action moves between panels is a work of art, the timing incredibly precise. Mazzucchelli's art is gorgeous--moody, dark, classic. He draws people who--for the most part--look like people, rather than caricatures (I especially like the way he draws Gordon for some reason). The level of detail present in the artwork is sometimes astounding, and I particularly liked the way Mazzucchelli uses little details to set a scene, provide characterization and sometimes to foreshadow the plot.

Miller's story, split between Batman and James Gordon, is a terrific piece of crime writing. I was actually shocked by how suspenseful and exciting I found it. Some of the set-pieces, like the showdown between Batman and a SWAT team in a derelict building, are truly gripping, thanks to the marriage of Miller's terse narration and Mazzucchelli's art. I particularly enjoyed the way that the internal narrations of both protagonists manages to be authentic and distinct, without becoming cheesy or overly explanatory--although I will say that I don't care for comic writers's need to make every other word of dialogue bold. It's a device that seems clumsy and outdated, especially in a comic book as sophisticated as this one.

The influence of Year One on the Nolan film trilogy is clear. This isn't the jokey Adam West Batman; this is a young man with some serious demons--in one of the comic's most harrowing scenes, he comes very close to essentially committing suicide. Gordon, too, is a far more interesting character than he usually is: an essentially good cop struggling against the corruption and evil that surrounds him.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, 2012

There is no doubt in my mind that no author had a bigger impact on my formative years of reading than J. K. Rowling. The Harry Potter series is, gun to my head, quite probably my favorite piece of writing of all time. And no, I'm not crazy enough to think that it's a masterpiece of beautiful wordsmanship, but Rowling is an incredible storyteller. She's actually a much better writer than she gets credit for, too; she does some truly amazing work in the final chapters of Deathly Hallows. Naturally, I was thrilled by the news that Rowling was releasing a new novel, and a standalone literary novel for adults, no less. Like a lot of Rowling's fans, I was slightly bemused by the fact that the book was a low-key piece of black social comedy with no speculative elements. I was also a bit discomfited by the fierce love-it-or-hate-it dialogue that popped up immediately after it came out. It would have been a huge disappointment for me if Rowling had messed up her crucial first step into standard fiction.

Most of my fears were assuaged once I got a hundred pages or so into Vacancy. Reading Rowling's tart, clear-eyed prose again is an almost physical pleasure for me after a few years with no new Potter, and it didn't take long until her skill at drawing you into a world had me engrossed. Vacancy is a pleasingly complex novel, a mature, entertaining and thoughtful book with some deep flaws and a troubling conclusion, but overall it's an impressive work.

The plot is almost shockingly quiet and low-concept: beloved family man Barry Fairbrother dies of a hemorrhage one evening, sending the provincial town of Pagford into disarray. Barry's death leaves an empty seat (a 'casual vacancy') on the parish council, sparking a massive power struggle between the town's two principal factions. Pagford's residents are a pretty sorry bunch, from jolly tyrant Howard Mollison to new-in-town social worker Kay Bawden. All of them are struggling against private demons, and by the end of the novel, none of their worlds will ever be the same.

The thing that hits you first about Vacancy is just how many character perspectives there are. The Harry Potter novels are almost entirely limited to Harry's POV, but Vacancy switches between narrators like a Stephen King doorstopper. Rowling has always been adept at characterization, and it's a skill that serves her well here. Her cast is big, but distinctive; it's easy to remember who everybody is. Sure, some of the characters are a bit thin, but it's a forgivable flaw with a story this sprawling.

Unfortunately, Rowling can't quite stick the book's ending; while it works thematically, it comes off as mawkish and contrived. Rowling has some interesting and thought-provoking points to make, but she uses a jackhammer to make them when a light tap would have been more effective. The conclusion of the character arcs are likewise a mixed bag. There are some surprisingly satisfying resolutions, and some extremely unsatisfying ones. Still, I enjoyed the book as a whole, which is well-written, acidically funny and sometimes surprisingly moving, even if it doesn't come together perfectly. It's no Harry Potter, but then, what is?

Horns by Joe Hill, 2011

One of the many things I liked about Horns is how difficult it is to classify. Heart-Shaped Box, Hill's first novel, was a pretty straightforward supernatural thriller, at least as far as the plot was concerned. Horns defies any easy labels. It is, at its core, a character study infused with religious theology and a streak of pulpy horror. It's at times a supremely uneven read, with the individual segments stitched together almost haphazardly. But it's also fresh, scary, exciting and diabolically clever.

The premise--a man wakes up with horns--sounds like an old Twilight Zone episode, and at first it seems like the novel will be a surreal black comedy about perception and honesty. Then, the plot twists again, and seems to set up a murder mystery. This conceit gets tossed out pretty quickly, too, as we learn the identity of the killer quite shortly.The book's final stretch reads like a hybrid of gory revenge thriller and theological treatise (I'd be hard-pressed to decide which element is more entertaining).

Hill is a very strong writer, capable of writing sentences of surprising beauty, and some that raise the hair on the back of your neck. Once in a while his prose can become a bit pretentious, and there's the odd bit of clunky dialogue, but these are the exception to the rule. The two segments I had the most trouble with are both flashbacks--the lengthy discursion about Ig as a child and a sequence from the perspective of the main villain. Both sequences run too long and have too little new information in them to justify their length. Interestingly, the only time I actually thought about Hill's parentage (Stephen King is his father) was during the childhood flashbacks; there was a strong flavor of "The Body."

Once the slightly clunky expositional segments are out of the way, though, Horns gets far better. The novel's final third or so is a seriously intense revenge thriller, with much bloodshed and savage humor. Like Hill's last protagonist, Judas Coyne, Ig is a character with a whole lot of layers. Is he ultimately a good guy gone bad, or a bad guy gone good? Does his transformation into a devil (a very literal transformation) represent a descent into evil or a rise from powerlessness to empowerment? It's a shame the novel's antagonist doesn't make for a more complex foil for Ig. The third main character, Merrin, has been murdered before the novel begins, but the reader gets to know her through flashbacks. In one of Hill's neatest narrative tricks, we find out who Merrin is in bits and pieces, only getting the (shocking) full picture at the very end.

What surprised me most about the novel in the end was how moving it was. The book's tone jumps around so much, particularly at the mordantly funny beginning, that the emotional power of the final stretch comes as a bit of a shock. For a book that is basically about evil, it has a surprisingly humanistic streak to it. Yes, humans do horrible things to one another, but they have a surprising ability to redeem themselves, too.

Okay. On to the best-of list.
Anyone following this blog could see that there was a steep drop in the number of books I read this year versus last year. Last year, I read forty-five books. This year, I read twenty-one books, less than half (and a lot of the books I read this year were short). For various reasons--and I'm ashamed to admit that one of them is a Netflix subscription, I just haven't spent as much time reading this year, something that kind of makes me sad, to be honest. One of my New Year's resolutions is to make 2013 a more productive year, book-wise.
But while I may not have read many books this year, I read plenty of good ones. Here are the top six:
6. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
In my review of The Magicians, I made it clear that I had mixed feelings about some of Grossman's choices, both plot and stylistic. I still am, to an extent, but boy, this is a book that stays with you. Grossman has some occasionally profound things to say about fantasy, young adulthood and growing up, not to mention the fact that The Magicians breathes life into tired tropes like the school for magic and makes them feel fresh again. The Magician King is definitely on my reading list for 2013.
5. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
Like I said above, ATKM is not an easy read. It is, however, an enriching and fascinating one. Warren's meditations on morality and accountability are sometimes spellbinding. Plus, it's a finely honed political novel with a subtle wit, written with enormous talent.
4. Mission Canyon by Meg Gardiner
A near-perfect thriller, in my humble opinion. Evan Delaney is a terrific protagonist, and the novel is a synthesis of everything great about the genre: hilarious, scary, twisty and exciting as hell. More than that, though, the novel is a remarkably nuanced and sympathetic portrait of a relationship put through extraordinary circumstances.
3. Macbeth by William Shakespeare
It's by Shakespeare; they'll revoke my Pretentious Reader card if I don't include it on the list! But seriously, this is an amazing play, even if it's not one of my favorites. Nobody does tragedy like Shakespeare.
2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
TBT is not just a beautiful and daring YA novel, it's a beautiful and daring novel, period. The fact that it is, technically, aimed at kids is astounding. Its complexity and thoughtfulness is as striking as its playful, ghoulish wit. The ending may be engineered to make you cry, but it certainly works, doesn't it? Beautifully written, and hauntingly illustrated, too.
1. The Code of the Woosters/The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
I will contest to my dying day that P.G. Wodehouse is one of the most under appreciated geniuses to ever put pen to paper. His talent is absolutely mind-boggling. His sentence construction alone ought to be studied with the same reverence afforded to Shakespeare or Keats (and let's not forget his incredible gift for dialogue). Code and Inimitable are two of his finest Jeeves-and-Wooster books (I especially adore the episodic pacing of Inimitable). I definitely didn't read any other books this year that were both this brilliant and this much fun to read.
Honorable Mentions: Horns, Smoke and Mirrors, Savages, Mockingjay, The Shadow Rising.
Well, that's it for 2012! Hopefully 2013 will be even better. Keep checking in for my January report, which should be up soon!

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James


The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, 1898

I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down at his interlocutor with his hands in his pockets. "Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It's quite too horrible." This, naturally, was declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: "It's beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it."

"For sheer terror?" I remember asking.

He seemed to say it was not so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. "For dreadful--dreadfulness!"

"Oh, how delicious!" cried one of the women.

He took no notice of her; he looked at me, but as if, instead of me, he saw what he spoke of. "For general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain."

"Well then," I said, "just sit right down and begin." ---- (page 4)

Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898), like many classics of apprehension and horror, relies on uncertainty and shadowy, mysterious occurrences to wind up the story's tension and suspense. The novella begins as a fairly straightforward Victorian ghost story, following familiar patterns (the uneasy young governess, the mysterious old mansion in the country, the hushed-up family secrets) to the point of being a pastiche. The main narrative is even framed by a prologue in which the story is read aloud at a Christmas gathering devoted to the telling of horror stories. Although the first sighting of a ghost certainly takes the protagonist by surprise, the reader knows exactly what to expect. James has lured his audience into a certain level comfort and complacency; at first, the story's suspense comes not from the question of whether a supernatural threat will be revealed, but when it will be revealed.

As the tale progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that it is no simplistic bump-in-the-night horror story. The governess at first appears to be merely a sensitive, slightly daffy young woman with a strong sense of drama, but as time passes, her narration becomes dense, claustrophobic, paranoid, almost breathless in its sense of rising terror. The central question of the novella only emerges towards the end: is the governess simply insane, is she truly seeing the ghosts or is she perhaps the one terrorizing the children herself?

James offers no obvious answers; the conclusion of the novella is entirely ambiguous. Miles, the small boy in the governess's care, dies in the very last sentence, after a conversation that the governess sees as a battle between herself and Peter Quint for possession of his soul. The governess seems to attribute Miles's death to Quint's influence leaving his body, but it's an entirely subjective analysis. Likewise, Miles seems to finally see Quint's ghost at the end of the story, but again, this is just the governess's reading of the situation. Nearly all of the novella's text is the protagonist's own narration of the story; only a small fraction is dialogue, and the dialogue that is related can be interpreted in any number of ways, assuming that the governess's point-of-view is unreliable. Depending on which way you read it, Miles's words could be those of an innocent, carefree little boy, or thinly disguised threats from a malicious fiend. Either version fits in perfectly with the evidence presented in the text.
Another example of James's refusal to spell anything out is the novella's constant sexual references, innuendo and insinuations, none of which are explicitly stated. The thinly veiled references to Quint and Jessel's inappropriate relationship, the governess's embarrassing and unrequited crush on her new employer, the sinister hints about Miles's behavior at school and, worst of all, the possibility that one or both of the children were sexually molested by one or both of the ghosts. The atmosphere of unhealthy, perhaps perverted sexuality permeates the story, and yet the theme is so cloaked in Victorian manners that it's almost possible to imagine that it's not there. But it is, and James perhaps intended the work to be a bit of a satire of the sexual repression of the age. Would the governess have been able to more effectively deal with the situation if she had been able to admit to herself that there was a sexual element? Could her own repressed attitude towards sex (shown by her unwillingness to openly acknowledge her attraction to her employer) be playing some role in the events—for instance, could her belief that the children's innocence is being destroyed be some commentary on her own view of sexuality? There are even some subtle suggestions that it is she, not the ghosts, who is corrupting and terrorizing the children, possibly in a sexual way.

The actual text of the novella offers no solid answer to any of these questions; what makes the tale frightening is the uncertainty, which James has no intention of clearing up, even at the climax. Both readings of the story (that the governess is crazy, or that she's right and no one believes her) are horrifying in their own way, which is what makes it effective. Whichever side you take—and readers have been taking sides since the novella was published—the end result is unsettling and sinister.
Personally, I think the governess truly is seeing ghosts, and that they do have some sort of hold over the children. Her narration and interpretation of events is, of course, entirely unreliable, but there are several solid pieces of evidence that she is truly seeing something supernatural. For instance, she is able to perfectly describe Peter Quint to Mrs. Grose without having any way to know what he looks like. Douglas, the guest in the prologue who reads the story, seems genuinely disturbed by it, and describes the governess affectionately (perhaps because he is in love with her), which isn't something he would likely do if he thought she was insane. And to me, the idea of a normal, albeit quirky, woman being driven crazy by something no one else will acknowledge is even more insidiously frightening than if the governess was simply psychotic.

The point of the story, of course, is that we are entirely dependent on the governess's deeply subjective version of events. In her own eyes, she is a hero, selflessly protecting the children from the hellish influence of unnatural spirits. James gives us no other window into the situation, no other point of view to see the story from. It seems that the question of whether the governess is good or evil or either is up to the reader to determine. That uncertainty is the core of what makes the story frightening. To be honest, I found analyzing the novella after the fact more interesting than reading it. The dense, gimmicky prose is a bit boring after a while. This is one classic that, in my opinion, is more interesting to discuss and consider that it is to read.

NEXT UP: One of the hottest books of the fall, J. K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse, 1923

I don't know if  you know that sort of feeling you get on these days round about the end of April and the beginning of May, when the sky's a light blue, with cotton-wool clouds, and there's a bit of a breeze blowing from the west? Kind of uplifted feeling. Romantic, if you know what I mean. I'm not much of a ladies' man, but on this particular morning it seemed to me that what I really wanted was some charming girl to buzz up and ask me to save her from assassins or something. So that it was a bit of an anti-climax when I merely ran into young Bingo Little, looking perfectly foul in a crimson satin tie decorated with horseshoes.

'Hallo, Bertie,' said Bingo.

'My God, man!' I gargled. 'The cravat! The gent's neckwear! Why? For what reason?'

'Oh, the tie?' He blushed. 'I - er - I was given it.'

He seemed embarassed so I dropped the subject. We toddled along a bit, and sat down on a couple of chairs by the Serpentine.

'Jeeves tells me you want to talk to me about something,' I said.

'Eh?' said Bingo, with a start. 'Oh yes, yes. Yes.'

I waited for him to unleash the topic of the day, but he didn't seem to want to get going. Conversation languished. He stared straight ahead of him in a glassy sort of manner.

'I say, Bertie,' he said, after a pause of about an hour and a quarter.


'Do you like the name Mabel?'




'You don't think there's a kind of music in the word, like the wind rustling gently through the tree tops?'


He seemed disappointed for a moment; then cheered up.

'Of course, you wouldn't. You always were a fat-headed worm without any soul, weren't you?'

'Just as you say. Who is she? Tell me all.'

For I realized now that poor old Bingo was going through it once again. Ever since I have known him - and we were at school together - he has been perpetually falling in love with someone, generally in the spring, which seems to act on him like magic. At school he had the finest collection of actresses' photographs of anyone of his time; and at Oxford his romantic nature was a byword. ---- (pages 10-11)

It's difficult to find anything new to say about The Inimitable Jeeves that I haven't already said about others in the series. P. G. Wodehouse is one of the most brilliant writers I've ever read, and the Wooster saga has to be one of (if not the) funniest pieces of comedy writing ever produced.
I can't say I've ever read a bad Jeeves book, but there have been weaker entries (generally the ones written later in Wodehoue's career). The Inimitable is definitely not one of the weak ones. As I've said before, the short-story format is perhaps best-suited for Wodehouse's gifts; his plots, if expanded to novel-length, can sometimes become a little labored. Inimitable is, ingeniously, composed of a dozen or so short stories that are linked together. The overall effect is like that of a season of television, composed of episode rather than chapter. It's a format that work brilliantly for Jeeves and Wooster, and the result is a fantastically enjoyable book.
The common thread running through all of the stories is Bingo Little, Bertie's haplessly romantic school chum. Over the course of the collection, Bingo falls in love with girl after girl, always with some bizarre obstacle impeding their union. Bertie inevitably ends up roped into some half-witted scheme, and naturally, Jeeves is the only person who can save his employer's best pal from catastrophe.
I've always enjoyed Bingo's presence in the Wodehouse 'verse: he's hilariously described as "the hero of a musical comedy who takes the centre of the stage, gathers the boys round him in a circle, and tells them all about his love at the top of his voice." No one can write a well-meaning, but ridiculous buffoon like Wodehouse, and Bingo is in rare form in The Inimitable. The thing I enjoy most about his presence is that he gives Bertie a chance to (occasionally) act as the voice of reason rather than the source of lunacy. Wooster's habit of calling his friend "young Bingo" is not just an affectionate figure of speech; it's a reminder that Bingo is one of the few people that Bertie can legitimately feel superior to. It's quite an accomplishment to be more insane than Bertram Wooster, but Bingo manages it. I think it was the false beard that put him over the edge.
As usual, other recurring characters from Wodehouse's stable pop in at various points in the book. Bertie's fearsome Aunt Agatha makes a particularly memorable appearance when, during a trip abroad, Bertie gets a rare opportunity to put her in her place. His tirade is a goofy, glorious masterpiece and probably the closest he's ever gotten to being triumphant in a struggle against his diabolical aunt.

There are some truly brilliant comic setpieces in the book, including an uproariously disastrous Christmas pageant with Bingo at the helm that brings to mind Gussie's iconic prize-giving scene from Right Ho, Jeeves (1934). The sequence where a group of bored small-towners begin betting on the lengths of their pastor's sermons is another gem. And let's not forget the interlude where Bingo joins up with a group of radical Communists. The whole book runs like a Wodehouse highlights reel. The fact that the main storyline is artfully and hilariously tied up at the end is just icing on the cake.

NEXT UP: Henry James's classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Savages by Don Winslow

Savages by Don Winslow, 2010

Lado and Hector take them to a big date farm out near Indio and put them in a shed where they keep tractors and shit. The two sit on the dirt floor leaning against the corrugated-tin wall and they develop verbal diarrhea. Keep shitting on and on about how there were two of them, a shotgun and two pistols, real pros. . .

Lado already knows they were pros-- they knew when, where, and what, and they knew to look for the GPS.

"Two of them? You sure?" Lado asks.

They're really sure.

Two tall guys.

Lado thinks that's interesting.

Wearing masks.

"What kind of masks?"

Yanqui television hosts.

Jay Leno and. . .

"Letterman," the driver says.

The other one got the car make and license plate.

"It's a wonder," Lado says, "that neither of you two got hurt at all."

Very fortunate, they agree.

Yeah, well, that ain't gonna last. ---- (page 182)

Savages is a wickedly twisted and brilliant piece of crime fiction, and a sick little experiment on readers to boot. I love amorality and antiheroes, novels where good and evil are varying shades of gray. To say that Savages' morality is gray is to a massive understatement. I'm not sure I've ever read another book where every single main character is, to some extent, a villain, or at least someone who has made terrible choices. Winslow's style can only be described as unique and his plotting is brutal, intricate and complex. Here's a book that you have to chew on for a while before you can decide how you feel about it.

The protagonists (not heroes, but protagonists) of the novel are Ben and Chon, best buddies who run a massive marijuana ring in southern California. Their aim--well, Ben's aim, really--is to run the most peaceful operation they can. When a powerful Mexican cartel looking to expand its business instigates a hostile takeover of their business, Ben and Chon are faced with a choice: give up or wage war against a far larger and more powerful enemy.

The plot quickly becomes much more twisted than that, as both sides begin a riveting game of chicken in order to feel the other out. Dirty tactics, power plays and some highly spirited negotiations ensue. Winslow gives every character dimension and complexity, from the brutal head of the Baja Cartel to a corrupt and pathetic DEA agent. As hard as it is at first to root for a band of marijuana dealers, Ben and Chon are hard not to empathize with, even as they are forced to be more and more ruthless and cruel. O, their shared girlfriend and a pot-smoking hipster, is likewise both difficult to like and difficult not to like. Winslow is damn good at that--forcing you to understand or even admire some truly bad people. Grey morality is the name of the game in Savages.

Winslow's prose is bizarre: a hybrid of gonzo poeticism, clipped Elmore Leonard-style dialogue and terse, action-movie bursts of violence and action. Some chapters are only a word or two long (seriously), and some are in script format. And the amazing thing is, it works. Sure, there are a couple of times that Winslow goes too far into stylized nonsense and comes off as pretentious, but for the most part the story and the style complement each other perfectly. Winslow can be a damn funny writer, too; his humor is as dark and sharp as the rest of the story.

The climax, when it comes, is moving, riveting and oddly graceful. The biggest plot twist is completely terrific-- surprising, but obvious in retrospect. By the end, Winslow has elevated the novel into a surprisingly affecting tragedy. Ben, Chon and O are not heroes by any means, but they were people looking for some modicum of peace in a savage world.

NEXT UP: Plenty of new reviews coming, starting with a brand-new Jeeves novel.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Tripwire by Lee Child

Tripwire by Lee Child, 1999

The danger had ebbed and flowed like a tide for years. He had spent long periods certain that it was about to wash over him at any time. And then long periods certain it would never reach him at all. Sometimes, the deadening sensation of time made him feel safe, because thirty years is an eternity. But other times it felt like the blink of an eye. Sometimes he waited for the first call on an hourly basis. Planning, sweating, but always knowing he could be forced to run at any moment.

He had played it through his head a million times. The way he expected it, the first call would come in maybe a month before the second call. He would use that month to prepare. He would tie up the loose ends, close things down, cash in, transfer assets, settle scores. Then when the second call came in, he would take off. Immediately. No hesitation. Just get the hell out, and stay the hell out.

But the way it happened, the two calls came in on the same day. The second call came first. The nearer tripwire was breached an hour before the farther one. And Hook Hobie didn't run. He abandoned thirty years of careful planning and stayed to fight it out. ---- (pages 2-3)
Tripwire is the earliest Jack Reacher novel I've read so far (only the third), and although I have yet to read a bad Lee Child thriller, it's in the top tier of the series. It's not Child at his most rip-roaring, but it features perhaps the finest villain he's written yet, a huge chunk of character development for Reacher and a plot that, while not lightning-fast, ramps up the tension to nearly unbearable levels.

The story begins with Reacher digging pools in the Florida Keys, saving up money and enjoying his anonymity. When a private investigator named Costello comes looking for him, Reacher's inclination is to hide. Until Costello turns up dead. Feeling responsible, Reacher follows Costello's trail back to New York, where a woman from his past, a deadly secret and a vicious, hook-handed moneylender await him.

Child's plots are usually big, sprawling and complicated, but he tries a somewhat different approach with Tripwire, which has a basically simple structure with only one major twist. A big piece of the book is told from the perspectives of characters other than Reacher, so the reader is nearly always in the superior position. Instead of intricate plotting, Tripwire winds up the story like an old-fashioned noir thriller, the suspense generated by the strong undercurrent of menace and unpredictability that comes from the book's villains.

Hook Hobie, the sadistic, intelligent, one-handed villain, is definitely the most memorable thing about Tripwire. It's nice to see one of the more over-the-top villains again, since the later books in the series have had more generic baddies. Hobie is anything but generic: he's both terrifyingly larger than life and strangely human. Most importantly, he feels like a genuine threat, which is hard for Child to pull off with a hero as infallible as Reacher.

While I initially had my reservations about the lengthy subplot in which Hobie abducts and terrorizes a CEO and his wife, I ultimately found it to be an excellent way to make Hobie seem powerful and competent. Many thriller villains spend the entire novel always just failing to kill the hero or carry out their wicked plot; Hobie spends the book succeeding at nearly everything due to his common sense and meticulous planning. Child seems to almost admire his efficiency and ability to get things done. He's not afraid to make Hobie just a tiny bit sympathetic, too. The sequence in which he narrates Hobie's one-handed routine for getting ready in the morning is absolutely devoid of any obvious appeals to pity, but it's impossible not to see Hobie as a human being rather than a cardboard psychopath.

Reacher sort of does his own thing for most of the novel, crossing paths only rarely with the villains. His main arc has to do with his increasing discontent with the drifter lifestyle. Tripwire takes place only two years after he left the service, and he's not quite as disconnected and solitary as he is in later installments. His relationship with Jodie Garber, the daughter of his commanding officer, shows him a new option: stability, normalcy, an ordinary life with a car and a job and a lawn. The romantic subplot--which is, as always, inevitable--is fine, and I would probably have enjoyed it more if I hadn't already read what feels like the same storyline half a dozen times. Jodie is the usual Reacher love interest: intelligent, mature, spunky, beautiful (I'm starting to suspect that Lee Child himself has a type), and most importantly, a good foil.

What sets the Reacher/Jodie relationship apart is the way it gradually becomes more normal and open as the book progresses, eventually culminating in a shocker ending of sorts: they stay together at the end of the book. That is correct. Jack Reacher ends the book with a house and a steady girlfriend that he cares about. While this state of things obviously doesn't last, it's still the first major break in formula that I've encountered in a Reacher novel. Between the spellbinding final duel between Reacher and Hobie (one of the most intense scenes in any Reacher book ever) and the cliffhanger-ish ending, Tripwire has one of the strongest conclusions to a Child novel that I've read yet. I can't wait to find out what happens next, even though it'll all eventually end up the same as always. There's something comforting in that, I think.

NEXT UP: Things have been slow around here, and will probably continue to be a bit slow; I've been busy writing my own novel and haven't had much time to read. But the next book up is an interesting one: Don Winslow's Savages.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman, 1998

Benjamin Lassiter was coming to the unavoidable conclusion that the woman who had written A Walking Tour of the British Coastline, the book he was carrying in his backpack, had never been on a walking tour of any kind, and would probably not recognize the British coastline if it were to dance through her bedroom at the head of a marching band, singing "I'm the British Coastline" in a loud and cheerful voice while accompanying itself on the kazoo.

He had been following her advice for five days now and had little to show for it except blisters and a backache. All British seaside resorts contain a number of bed-and-breakfast establishments, who will be only too delighted to put you up in the "off-season" was one such piece of advice. Ben had crossed it out and written in the margin beside it: All British seaside resorts contain a number of bed-and-breakfast establishments, the owners of which take off to Spain or Provence or somewhere on the last day of September, locking the doors behind them as they go.

He had added a number of other marginal notes, too. Such as Do not repeat do not order fried eggs again in any roadside cafe and What is it with the fish-and-chips thing? and No they are not. That last was written beside a paragraph which claimed that, if there was one thing that the inhabitants of scenic villages on the British coastline were pleased to see, it was a young American tourist on a walking tour. ---- ("Shoggoth's Old Peculiar," pages 147-148)

As a general rule, I'm not a huge reader of short stories. My ideal reading experience is a nice hefty novel, not a series of insubstantial tales that oftentimes end up feeling like a series of unsatisfying nibbles. That said, there are a handful of authors whose short stories I really enjoy, Stephen King probably being foremost among them. King's tendency to ramble and take forever to get to the point is nicely curtailed by the short story format, and you could make an excellent argument that his short story collections represent his best work.

Neil Gaiman is a very different writer (and a better writer; sorry, Stephen), but his work is often similar to King's. Smoke and Mirrors resembles King's story collections in a lot of ways: it's a jumbled, quirky collection of stories, poems and experimental odd bits, most of them in some way related to fantasy or horror, with explanatory notes on each piece. Like all story collections, Smoke is sort of a mixed bag, the diversity of its offerings making it rather inconsistent, but it contains some truly fantastic stories and certainly more good than bad.

The stories run the gamut from comic to tragic, from amusing to terrifying. Gaiman's poetry is sometimes hair-raisingly haunting and sometimes a little thin. Every single piece, even the weaker ones, are imbued with Gaiman's particular brand of the bizarre and the gleefully wicked black comedy that is his trademark. Some of these stories are absolute gems and even the ones that aren't as good are at least entertaining.

The award-winning "Snow, Glass, Apples" is arguably the most well-known story in the collection, and it's definitely one of the finest. A razor-sharp retelling of the tale of Snow White, it's a great example of Gaiman's ability to find a unique way to tell old stories, as well as his tendency to find spine-tingling horror in the oddest places (seriously, if you don't shiver at least once while you read this story, there's something wrong). One of my other favorites, "Chivalry," is a complete contrast, a light and funny story that's actually a sneakily sad tale of loneliness. Whether it's emotional impact or a gruesome reveal, Gaiman is very good at narrative sleight-of-hand: keeping us focused on one idea or concept before pulling another one out of thin air.

Overall, Gaiman's prose is better than his poetry, although he is a pretty accomplished poet, too. A few of the poems, such as the haunting "The White Road" or the bizarre Beowulf-meets-Baywatch mashup "Baywolf" are highly memorable; whereas I could take or leave "Vampire Sestina" or "The Sea Change." In general, Gaiman is better at a more protracted narrative than a fleeting impression (this definitely holds true for his prose as well). His shorter pieces tend to be less interesting, and some of them feel a little half-baked.

Gaiman is unapologetic about the way that other authors and literary works have influenced him. "The Daughter of Owls" is a straight pastiche of John Aubrey's distinctive voice and "One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock" was originally published in an anthology of stories celebrating legendary fantasy author Michael Moorcock. Several stories bear the mark of Gaiman's love for H.P. Lovecraft. The best of them is "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar," a sly little satire with some really excellent jokes. "Only the End of the World Again" has some arresting imagery, but an esoteric and impossible to follow plot. "Mouse," which according to Gaiman is his attempt at a Raymond Carver story, is another of the weaker tales in the collection, despite an intriguing central metaphor.

The least successful stories in the anthology are probably the underwritten sci-fi fable "Changes," "Foreign Parts," an icky and somewhat puzzling story of an unusual disease, "Tastings," the least erotic piece of erotica imaginable and, perhaps most of all, "When We Went to See the End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, age 11¼," an utterly cloying and poorly done story of the Apocalypse. The first of these three all have to do with sex in some form, which is an indication that it's not Gaiman's strongest subject. The last story is definitely the worst in the entire book; I can't help but wonder if its inclusion is a practical joke of some kind.

But the good far outweighs the bad. "We Can Get Them For You Wholesale" is a diabolically brilliant little piece of black comedy. The long-form poem "Cold Colors" is an eye-popping journey through a world where Hieronymus Bosch meets the iPad. "The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories," an unusually long and non-fantasy story of a writer attempting to sell his novel to Hollywood, goes from a bitterly funny diatribe to a moving mediation on fame. When Gaiman is at the top of his form, he can knock a story or poem completely out of the park.

Perhaps my very favorite story in Smoke and Mirrors is "Murder Mysteries," a sprawling tale that goes from modern-day Los Angeles to the origin of the universe, when an angel committed the very first murder. Parts of the story are astonishingly brilliant, even if the frame story never quite comes together. Very few writers could come up with a concept as mind-bogglingly original and still fewer could execute the story with the grace, wit and thoughtfulness that Gaiman does. He is truly one of the most arresting writers working today, and probably one of the finest fantasy authors of all time. Smoke and Mirrors is not without its flaws and weak spots, but the overall impression is that of a master carefully crafting miniature versions of his longer works that sometimes pack just as much (or more) of a punch.

NEXT UP: Lee Child's Tripwire, because my Jack Reacher addiction is still ongoing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot

The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot, 2002

And I know what you are going to say now, and no, it was not a date, Nadine. For God's sake, it was only Chinese food. In his aunt's kitchen. With Paco sitting there, waiting for one us to drop something so he could vacuum it up.

And no, he didn't make a pass at me. Max, I mean, not Paco. Although I don't see how he could resist, seeing as how I'm sure I was quite stunning in my it's-Saturday-night-and-I-don't-have-a-date sweats.

The fact is, Dolly has to be wrong about Max. He's no ladies' man. It was all very casual and friendly. It turns out we have a lot in common. He likes mysteries and so do I, so we talked about our favorite mysteries. You know, he's quite literary, for a photographer. I mean, compared to some of the guys in the art department at work. Can you picture Larry conversing knowingly about Edgar Allan Poe? I don't think so.

Oh, God, a horrible thought just occurred to me: What if all that stuff Dolly said about Max is true, and he IS a ladies' man? What does that mean, seeing as how he didn't make a pass at me?

It can only mean one thing!

Oh, God, I'm hideous!

Mel ----- (pages 80-81)

I spent a pretty reasonable chunk of my misspent youth reading Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries series (a series I still intend to finish one of these days). Although they were the definition of light reading, Cabot's sure hand with characterization, breezy first-person narration and her infectious and sometimes hilarious humor made the series a ton of fun. The Boy Next Door is the first adult Cabot novel I've read, and it's very similar to the author's YA work, just a little bawdier. It's also every bit as much fun.

The Princess Diaries, as the name suggests, is told through Mia's diary entries, and Boy is similarly narrated entirely through through the  characters' e-mails to each other. The-- rather thin--plot concerns gossip columnist Mel Fuller, a quirky, wide-eyed Midwestern transplant to the Big Apple. When Mel's elderly neighbor, Mrs. Friedlander, is assaulted, her playboy nephew Max Friedlander moves in to dog-sit. Mel and Max quickly fall for each other, but there's a complication: Max is really John Trent, a crime reporter who's been talked into posing as Max.

Like I said, what plot there is is wafer-thin and sort of beside the point. The novel's mystery element is so slight that Cabot seems to forget about it for long stretches, only to toss an occasional reminder that it exists. The fact that the solution is somewhat surprising is more a testament to how minor an impression the storyline has made than to any clever plotting. The climax is one of the book's most belief-suspension-requiring sequences, which doesn't help matters.

But the mystery plot isn't the point. Boy is a funny, clever romantic comedy in book form. Cabot's sprightly style is perfect for this kind of simple, gimmick-driven novel. We've seen the story in a million movies and sitcoms: boy meets girl, boy lies to girl, boy and girl make up. The plot may be nothing special in and of itself, but the execution is solid. Mel is a likably goofy chick-lit protagonist and John a lovingly drawn hunk with a heart of gold, and their romance is fluffily adorable (is 'fluffily' even a word?). There's no suspense about whether or not there'll be a happy ending (spoiler alert: there is); the fun is in the journey.

The e-mail format works quite nicely for a light novel of this kind. While he device absolutely stretches credulity--do these people even own telephones?--it also enables Cabot to let all of her characters give their side of the story without resorting to having twenty-five narrators. The characters are slightly cliched, it's true (the gossipy office sexpot, the bimbo supermodel, the flamboyant gay guy), but they're also very funny, even the broad caricatures like Mel's overbearing small-town mother or Mel's gruff boss. I do think some of John's e-mails represent the far edge of Cabot's abilities as a writer; too often his writing comes off as slightly feminine. 

Cabot's particular brand of smart-aleck humor is definitely in fine form here (just try not to giggle at the idea of a pair of cats named Mr. Peepers and Tweedledum). Most of the characters are deadpan snarkers in the grand style of Mia Thermopolis and the one-liners come fast and furious. I especially enjoyed Aaron, Mel's pompous hipster ex-boyfriend, whose pathetic brand of jerkiness is the butt of many of the best jokes. Max's dumb-but-endearing supermodel girlfriend is also kind of a fun character, and just a shade deeper than you might expect.

There's really not a lot to say about The Boy Next Door: for Cabot fans, it's a fast, refreshing read, heavy on humor and romance, light on suspense and drama. It's a good example of well-written chick lit, even if it's not about to end up on the Pulitzer shortlist.  

NEXT UP: Neil Gaiman's short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan

The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan, 1992

Outside in the darkness, a cock crowed. Mat shifted uneasily and told himself not to be foolish. No one was going to die.

His eyes dropped to his cards--and blinked. The Amyrlin's flame had been replaced by a knife. While he was telling himself he was tired and seeing things, she plunged the tiny blade into the back of his hand.

With a hoarse yell, he flung the cards away and hurled himself backward, overturning his chair, kicking the table with both feet as he fell. The air seemed to thicken like honey. Everything moved as if time had slowed, but at the same time everything seemed to happen at once. Other cries echoed his, hollow shouts reverberating inside a cavern. He and the chair floated back and down; the table floated upward.

The Ruler of Flames hung in the air, growing larger, staring at him with a cruel smile. Now close to life-size, she started to step out of the card; she was still a painted shape, with no depth, but she reached for him with her blade, red with his blood as though it had already been driven into his heart. Beside her the Ruler of Cups began to grow, the Tairen High Lord drawing his sword.

Mat floated, yet somehow he managed to reach the dagger in his left sleeve, and hurl it in the same motion, straight for the Amyrlin's heart. If this thing had a heart. The second knife came into his left hand smoothly and left more smoothly. The two blades drifted through the air like thistledown. He wanted to scream, but that first yell of shock and outrage still filled his mouth. The Ruler of Rods was expanding beside the first two cards, the Queen of Andor gripping the rod like a bludgeon, her red-gold hair framing a madwoman's snarl.

He was still falling, still yelling that drawn-out yell. The Amyrlin was free of her card, the High Lord striding out with his sword. The flat shapes moved almost as slowly as he. Almost. He had proof the steel in their hands could cut, and no doubt the rod could crack a skull. His skull. ---- (page 71)

I have read many better authors than Robert Jordan, and many better books than The Shadow Rising. At best, Jordan's writing is workmanlike; at worst, it's absurd. There is not a page of Shadow that isn't goofy in some way, or a little bit dumb, or derivative of other, better novels. The Wheel of Time books are not good books, to put it bluntly.

But it's been a few days since I finished the latest tome, and I still miss it. I've moved on to other books, but I still keep turning to pick it up again, and I feel nothing but disappointment when I remember that I won't be reading the next one for a while.

I think it's the sheer force of Jordan's storytelling that makes the books so much damn fun. He's not poetic like Tolkien, or brilliantly complex like Martin. The Wheel of Time series is extremely enjoyable, and I'm not saying it has nothing to say, but it doesn't come close to some of its peers in scope or import. What it is is pure storytelling goodness. Like Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle, the Wheel of Time draws you in by wedding tried-and-true fantasy tropes to solid world-building and fun character development. Shadow may be the longest, messiest entry yet in an already long and messy series, but it's my favorite so far.

The Dragon Reborn ended with our heroes all reunited once again inside the impregnable Stone of Tear. No longer running from his identity, Rand must shoulder the burden of being the Dragon, pulled in different directions by competing factions. Making the unpopular decision to journey into the uncharted Aiel Waste, Rand has to face a nation of hostile, alien people who may not want him as their new leader--as well as more than one deadly enemy hiding in plain sight.

Meanwhile, Perrin and Faile travel back to Emond's Field to help the villagers in their war against a horde of bloodthirsty Trollocs (and an equally dangerous force of Whitecloaks), Nynaeve and Elayne hunt the Black Ajah in the troubled city of Tanchico, Egwene learns more about Dreaming from the Aiel Wise Ones, a shocking schism occurs among the Aes Sedai, and Mat--well, Mat doesn't have a lot to do, but he's still awesome.

There's a lot of plot crammed into Shadow, and dozens of plot threads and characters being introduced and reintroduced. Other than a ponderous, saggy stretch at the very beginning, the book is rarely boring, and although the pace is not exactly breakneck (the book is a thousand pages, after all), events unfold at a pretty good clip. Jordan is not a world-class plotter, but he's more than competent at winding up tension and some of his clue-dropping is downright sly.

Jordan has never been very good at evenly distributing storylines, and the intersection of the various narratives and character perspectives is choppy, to say the least. However, every main story in the book is solid. After being largely MIA for Dragon, Rand gets a decent chunk of Shadow to himself, though his motivations tend to be murky even when we're sharing his head. Jordan has so far been doing a nice job of showing his slow descent into semi-madness, which could be as a result of the Dark One's taint or just because he's lonely, isolated and has no one to trust.

Perrin's story is the longest in the book, and probably the best overall. I will go on record as really disliking Faile at the beginning of the novel, and hoping to hell that she and Perrin wouldn't fall madly in technicolored Wuv. Naturally, they do, and by the end of the book I was actually enjoying their relationship. Perrin has grown a lot as a character, and seeing him inadvertently take command of the Two Rivers is a blast, even if it is Fantasy Cliche 101. It's also fun to see some of the Emond's Field characters that we haven't seen since The Eye of the World, as well as getting some genuine forward movement with the Whitecloak storyline, which has been snailing along for a while now. The final battle between the villagers and a massive army of Trollocs is one of the most viscerally satisfying sequences in the series so far, for my money. Even a rather tepid mystery subplot can't stop this storyline from being a standout.

The Nynaeve/Elayne/Egeanin story in Tanchico is choppier, but still worthy. Elayne gets her largest amount of character development since her introduction, and Egeanin (a character who had one brief scene in The Great Hunt) emerges as one of the more nuanced figures in the series so far. Jordan is not known for his brilliantly depicted character interactions, but the different-worlds friendship between Elayne, Nynaeve and Egeanin is one of the more interesting and effective dynamics in the book. And let's not forget Thom, who is emerging as one of the best, but least-used, characters in the saga.

Even though it's arguably the most important storyline in the novel, the White Tower schism gets only a few chapters. This surprised me, since Jordan is usually fond of stretching out key events, not abridging them. Still, it's an exciting development, and one that promises to bring an interesting conflict to the later installments. The Aes Sedai are arguably the largest and most powerful group in the WoT universe, and seeing them turn on each other is going to be exciting.

Throughout the novel, the classic Robert Jordan flaws are all very much in evidence (almost endearingly so). The man cannot write a compelling villain to save his life. Shadow is overflowing with baddies, all with the complexity of cardboard. Okay, Liandrin is a little creepy, but she's the only one I can think of. Several Forsaken show up over the course of the book, and they're all almost comically toothless. For all of her supposed power, Lanfear does nothing but sneer and Nynaeve singlehandedly defeats Moghedien with little trouble (granted, this is a very satisfyingly badass moment for Nynaeve). Jordan's device of throwing in a Trolloc attack whenever things get dull is getting very old, too. Not to mention his gender-politics motif, which can be utterly exhausting in its tenacity.

But there are flashes of something else in Shadow; brief moments where Jordan truly shines. The sequence in which Rand relives the history of the Aiel is almost certainly the best piece of writing I've seen from Jordan so far. Those two chapters are almost exquisite in the way they fit together like a backwards puzzle, providing a jaw-dropping glance at the Age of Legends. It is moments like that when you can truly see the staggering scope of what Jordan has created. It's moments like that when you see the Wheel of Time for what it is: a true saga, one that sucks you in and holds you spellbound, even for a thousand pages. And goodness knows, there's a lot more to go.

NEXT UP: The Boy Next Door, by Meg Cabot.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, 2006

Wading through, a soldier was soon at the scene of the crime. He studied the kneeling man and Papa, and he looked at the crowd. After another moment's thought, he took the whip from his belt and began.

The Jew was whipped six times. On his back, his head, and his legs. "You filth! You swine!" Blood dripped now from his ear.

Then it was Papa's turn.

A new hand held Liesel's now, and when she looked in horror next to her, Rudy Steiner swallowed as Hans Hubermann was whipped on the street. The sound sickened her and she expected cracks to appear on her papa's body. He was struck four times before he, too, hit the ground.

When the elderly Jew climbed to his feet for the last time and continued on, he looked briefly back. He took a last sad glance at the man who was kneeling now himself, whose back was burning with four lines of fire, whose knees were aching on the road. If nothing else, the old man would die like a human. Or at least with the thought that he was a human.


I'm not so sure if that's a good thing. ---- (pages 394-395)

It seems odd that a book as flagrantly unusual as The Book Thief has such a seemingly pedestrian premise. YA tales of little girls who find solace in books are pretty thick on the ground, and stories of the Holocaust are equally common. It's not Zusak's subject matter that makes his novel such an arresting and fascinating read; it's his lyrical, idiosyncratic prose, his ability to build characters, his willingness to deliver an emotional gut-punch and his bizarrely effective choice of narrator.

It's the eve of World War II, and Death is about to be very busy. Yes, that Death, a strange, funny, melancholy being doomed to carry out his difficult task for eternity. Death is obsessed with the tale of one particular human: a little German girl named Liesel Meminger.

Liesel, abandoned by her mother for reasons that are never quite clear to her, lives in the small town of Molching with her foster parents. She becomes fascinated with books and words at a young age, and soon graduates to stealing books from various places. Her world is turned upside down when her father, repaying an old debt, hides a young Jewish man from the Nazis in the family's basement, setting Liesel and her town on a collision course with disaster.

The Book Thief is a long and lovingly crafted novel, each character, incident and plot point carefully developed. From the start, Zusak makes no secret of where the book is heading; there's so much foreshadowing that it almost becomes annoying, but the incessant foreshadowing both creates a creeping feeling of inevitability and softens the final blow a bit. He did warn you what was coming, after all.

Zusak's writing is unique, without a doubt. Death is a wonderful narrator, a mix of creepiness, pathos and surprisingly funny black comedy. Death sees the world in colors and metaphors, some of them a tiny bit overblown, some of them achingly beautiful. I've never read prose quite like this; Zusak alternates poeticism with bursts of terse, rat-a-tat-tat narration. For the most part, his style works magnificently. As with any highly stylized prose, there's always a risk of coming off as forced, but Zusak only falls into this trap a few times.  Death addresses the reader directly, sometimes in separate segments separated from the main text, and there are several pages of haunting black and white illustrations, too. These devices are playful, but as quietly dark as the rest of the book.

It's a testament to Zusak's skill as a writer that he can make you care so much about characters that you know are doomed from the start: Hans Hubermann, Liesel's gentle stepfather, Rosa Hubermann, her strong-willed, profane stepmother, Rudy Steiner, her neighbor and best friend, Ilsa Hermann, the emotionally fragile mayor's wife, Max Vandenburg, the guilt-ridden Jewish fist-fighter. Liesel herself could have easily been a bit of a cliche (the tomboyish girl who loves books), but Zusak paints her as an unusual YA protagonist: angry, hurt, strong but needy, smart but not brilliant. Her quiet friendship with Max is the heart of the book, and it's as affecting and honest as the rest of the novel, although I have to admit that my favorite character is definitely Rudy. He's so hopeful and kind, a bit of a loser, but perhaps more intelligent and mature than Liesel herself.

The rather brilliant cover doesn't lie, though; Zusak has carefully set up his dominoes for the express purpose of knocking them down. The final sequence is not suspenseful--it has been too broadly hinted at it to hold many surprises--but it is utterly devastating and tragic, almost Shakespearean in its aura of tragic inevitability. There is something a little manipulative about creating such well realized characters only to kill most of them off, but at least it's emotional manipulation of the highest order. Although Zusak wears his heart on his sleeve, he's anything but maudlin. Even a moment as dramatic as Liesel finally giving Rudy's corpse a much-sought-after kiss doesn't come off as cheap. Absolutely heartbreaking, but not cheap.

The Book Thief has some themes that are hard for any novel to handle, let alone a young adult novel. The book's grimly humorous look at humanity's capacity for both incredible good and catastrophic evil is surprising in its intensity. Perhaps even more surprising is Zusak's refusal to parcel out a simple, comforting conclusion. No one seems sure whether humanity is really worth it after all, although nearly every character searches for justification in some way: Liesel through literature, Max through art, Hans through music and even Rudy in his idolization of Jesse Owens. Death, of course, hangs on to Liesel's story as some scant proof that all the evil he's witnessed has a counterpoint. His final statement (the last line of the book, too) is as dark and ambiguous as the rest of the narrative, and as beautiful.

NEXT UP: The Shadow Rising, the most massive volume yet in the Wheel of Time series.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Mission Canyon by Meg Gardiner

Mission Canyon by Meg Gardiner, 2008

People ask me whose fault it was. Who caused the accident? Where did the blame lie--on reckless driving, blinding sunlight, a sharp curve in the road? Hidden in their questions is a deeper query. Did Jesse bring it on himself? Was he careless? Perhaps he rode his bike into the middle of the road. Perhaps he insulted God. Maybe that's why he won't be walking me down the aisle, they imply.

What people want to hear, I think, is that the accident was fate, or foolishness. The hit-and-run killed Isaac Sandoval outright. It left Jesse Blackburn broken on the hillside, struggling to reach his friend's body. And people wanted me to tell them that yes, it was the victims' fault. Jesse should have done something different, should have looked over his shoulder or flossed his teeth every day. What they want me to say is no, of course it could never happen to them. They want reassurance, and I can't give it to them.

When they ask me whose fault it was, I've always said: the driver's. It was the fault of the man who sat behind the wheel of a satin-gray BMW, arcing up a narrow road into the foothills of Santa Barbara, with one hand on the steering wheel and one hand caressing the hair of the woman whose head bobbed above his lap. It was the fault of the man getting the blow job. It was the fault of the guy who got away.

That's what I always told people. Until now.---- (page 1)

I hesitate to say that Mission Canyon is a perfect thriller, but for me, it comes darn close. It ticks every single one of my boxes, fulfills every one of my requirements for what makes a great thriller. Gardiner is one sharp, funny, incisive writer, and she knows how to spin a twisty, nail-biting plot. Her characters are a terrific mixture of quirky and totally human, and unlike China Lake, the first book in the Evan Delaney series, the villain is both unexpected and truly scary. This is one of the best mysteries I've read in a long time.

The book's plot stems from a seemingly simple incident: while biking in Santa Barbara, best friends Jesse Blackburn and Isaac Sandoval are mowed down by a reckless driver. Isaac is killed and Jesse is paralyzed from the waist down. Years later, the driver, a white-collar criminal wanted for embezzlement, returns to Santa Barbara, dredging up Jesse's guilt and desire for revenge. As strange new facts come to life and a pack of ruthless gangsters come to town, Jesse's fiancee Evan is drawn into an impenetrable and deadly tangle of shocking secrets, far-reaching cover-ups and cold-blooded murder.

I'll get my only main criticism out there at the start: the opening chapters are a slippery info dump. Gardiner introduces too many characters with too many unlikely connections in a small space of time, and it comes off as a little frenzied. That's okay, though, because once the clumsy introductions are past, the plot takes off like a rocket and never lets up.

Like all good mysteries, Mission Canyon's center is layers of character interactions. Jesse's barely controlled rage, his intense survivors' guilt and his burning hatred of the man responsible for his paralysis comes across beautifully, as do Evan's complex feelings about marrying someone who is handicapped. Their relationship, nicely established in China Lake, is really put through the wringer in this installment; their no-holds-barred arguments are truer and deeper than you might expect from characters in a thriller. Jesse's friendship with Isaac's brother Adam is another example of Gardiner's ability to depict strikingly real relationships in the middle of a blisteringly fast-paced, high-concept narrative.

Not all of Gardiner's characterizations are as true to life; she's not above writing a caricature. In China Lake, the caricatures were the villains, a device that just didn't work well. Here, we have Evan's cousin Taylor, a glitzy, loud-mouthed lingerie saleswoman from the Midwest. Taylor may be cartoonish, but she's a lot of fun, injected in the narrative both as comic relief and as a sly way to display the kind of reaction that Evan's family might have to her marrying someone disabled. Thankfully, most of the novel's characters have more depth than Taylor; in fact, most of them have multiple layers that are peeled away before the end. Perhaps most importantly, for a thriller, the villains are all believably threatening and scary. Mickey Yago, the cold-blooded leader of i-heist, would have been an effective Big Bad, but in a book as packed as this one, he's merely a decoy.

The real villain is only unmasked at the novel's end, and there are a hell of a lot of twists before that revelation. This is one of those great plots that only clicks together when we have all the facts. Gardiner doesn't do predictable, and it's been a long time since a mystery writer has made me jump through so many hoops. I'm usually fairly adept at figuring out the structure of a story, but Mission Canyon had me on the edge of my seat nearly the entire time. And I did not see the endgame coming, even though everything fit together close to perfectly. Putting together a plot that good must have been incredibly difficult. While not everything in the story is completely plausible (a chase scene set in an old church is a bit of a stretch), Gardiner accomplishes the thing that every high-concept writer has to do: convince us that it is. Her characters are so well drawn and her pace so breathless that I rarely considered how delightfully nutty the book is in places. Her action scenes can be over-the-top, but she sells her characters so well as real people that they work anyway.

By the end, Gardiner has woven a complex and perfectly paced thriller with both an emotional punch and a serious funnybone. The way she blends the light and the dark, the pulse-pounding suspense and the quiet, searing emotion, is absolutely masterful. Mission Canyon is without a doubt one of the best mysteries I've read in a long time, and I can't wait to see where the series goes next. The further adventures of Evan and Jesse are looking awfully enticing.

NEXT UP: The cheerful hit YA novel, The Book Thief, which is a real knee-slapping good time. Not.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion by Dan Simmons, 1990

"All right," said the Consul, "we vote. Our first decision relates to M. Weintraub's suggestion that we tell the stories of our past involvement with Hyperion."

"All or nothing," said Het Masteen. "We each share our story or none does. We will abide by the will of the majority."

"Agreed," said the Consul, suddenly curious to hear the others tell their stories and equally sure he would never tell his own. "Those in favor of telling our tales?"

"Yes," said Sol Weintraub.

"Yes," said Het Masteen.

"Absolutely," said Martin Silenus. "I wouldn't miss this little comic farce for a month in the orgasm baths on Shote."

"I vote yes also," said the Consul, surprising himself. "Those opposed?"

"Nay," said Father Hoyt but there was no energy in his voice.

"I think it's stupid," said Brawne Lamia.

The Consul turned to Kassad. "Colonel?"

Fedmahn Kassad shrugged.

"I register four yes votes, two negatives, and one abstention," said the Consul. "The ayes have it. Who wants to start?"----- (pages 22-23)

Hyperion is a frustrating novel. It's written by the author of several excellent sci-fi/fantasy novels. Simmons's Drood is a massive, magnificent tome of creepy historical suspense, and his Ilium/Olympos duology is one of my favorite works of science fiction (although I'm admittedly not a huge fan of the genre). Simmons is fully capable of writing a really good sci-fi novel, but Hyperion is alternately boring and arresting, saddled with an awkwardly utilized literary device, a novel's that kind of coming apart at the seams. There's a lot of things that I really liked about the book, a lot of elements that really work well. And then there were a lot of parts that had me yawning.

The novel is set thousands of years after the death of Earth. The human race has formed a vast society called the Hegemony, spanning thousands of planets and dozens of solar systems. A highly evolved group of artificial intelligences called the TechnoCore aids the Hegemony in its quest to expand its borders by installing farcasters (big teleportation devices, essentially) on non-Hegemony worlds. When Hyperion begins, a group of evolved humans called the Ousters are preparing for an all-out assault on the independent planet of Hyperion. Hyperion is home to the world's greatest mystery: the Time Tombs, strange, ancient structures that appear to be moving backwards in time. The Time Tombs are guarded by the Shrike, a deadly, omnipotent creature that some see as a god, others as a serial killer and others as an avenging angel.
Phew. Everybody with me so far?

At the beginning of the Ousters' attack on Hyperion, seven pilgrims (a detective, a priest, a soldier, a political official, a scholar, a poet and a Templar tree-worshipper) set out on a journey to see the Shrike and demand something from it. Each one tells their story throughout their trip, with the book ending just as they reach the Valley of the Time Tombs, with an interstellar war of massive proportions looming.

Simmons is not an author to scrimp on scope, that's for sure. For a medium-length book (450+ pages) Hyperion covers the stories of six main characters--some of whom have other people's stories embedded within their own--and establishes a hugely complicated fictional universe with a long backstory. Oh, hey, and throw in a galactic apocalypse while you're at it, as well as Simmons's customary literary metatextual references. Dan Simmons is the only author I know of for whom the inclusion of a cyborg version of John Keats is typical. Simmons is at his best when he's creating wild fusions of science-fiction and Greek poetry, or rewriting Shakespeare characters as genetic mutants or AIs. Given the right story, Simmons can wreak merry havoc with the reader, spinning out his trademark insanity with an exhilarating freshness and originality.

Like many writers, however, Simmons has an Achilles heel: characters. What he does best are plot-driven books where the character arcs are basic and simple (yes, Drood is something of an exception to this rule). Hyperion plays right into his weaknesses as a writer because so much of the book relies on the framing device of the characters' backgrounds. For a device like this to work, the character arcs need to be surprising, well-told and relevant to the larger story. Instead, the individual stories vary widely in quality from moving and suspenseful to just plain boring. While the six protagonists are certainly a quirky bunch at first glance, they turn out to be pretty flat as the book progresses. None of them are wildly different than they seem from their first appearance. Simmons is clearly having fun with Martin Silenus, the ancient, foul-mouthed poet whose abrasive personality puts him in conflict with the other pilgrims. Silenus is kind of entertaining at first, and his grandiose narration makes his story rather amusing, but his shtick wears off quickly, especially when it becomes apparent that he doesn't have any depth. Comic relief characters work the best when they're more than flat joke machines.

Other than Silenus, the main characters are certainly a grim bunch. They all have predictably painful backstories, which are kind of boring, for the most part. Father Hoyt's story isn't really his own--most of it is taken from the diary of his mentor, a disgraced priest who encounters a bizarre tribe of natives in Hyperion's flame forest. It's an intriguing, if overlong, interlude, and will no doubt have importance to the series's endgame, but it does nothing to illuminate Hoyt's character. Kassad's story is superficially interesting, and there are some extremely cool scenes (the simulation of the Battle of Agincourt, the fight with the Ousters aboard the destroyed medical spinship), but again, the emotional through-line is lacking. I suppose I feel bad that the love of his life is an evil, metal-toothed harpy, but his character remains thoroughly one-dimensional.

Brawne Lamia, the hardboiled detective of the group, is another character with an intriguing, unsatisfying storyline. The sci-fi-noir gimmick is clever at first, but Simmons isn't good enough at the voice to keep it from getting old. Brawne herself is kind of an irritating character, and her love affair with the John Keats cybrid doesn't do a whole lot for me, emotionally. Dan Simmons, I'm sorry, but you can't write an effective romance to save your life. I did enjoy some of the nutty concepts and ideas in Brawne's story--the gun battle in the multi-level complex was really something--but I didn't really care. The relationship between Brawne and Johnny was rote, and the mystery was not very mysterious (or fair), since it takes place in a science-fiction universe with rules that readers don't necessarily understand.

The best storyline in the book is probably the tale of Sol Weintraub and his daughter. Rachel Weintraub, a bright, vivacious archaeologist, was touched by the Shrike during an expedition to Hyperion. She contracts a strange disease from the monster: she ages backward, one day at a time, her memory erasing itself and her body regressing.  Sol's desperate quest to save his daughter is probably the only emotional beat in the novel that Simmons absolutely nails. The concept of someone aging backward is not new, but the heartbreaking way that Rachel slowly loses her identity feels fresh, and it's portrayed with surprising sensitivity. It probably says a lot that the most successful backstory is the one with the least to do with the main plot of the novel. Sol probably has the least to do of all the characters in the present, but it's his story that really resonates.

The final backstory is the most unusual. It's the story of the Consul, the mystery man who is basically the novel's de facto protagonist. The first part of his narrative is the story of his grandfather, a man caught in a romance with a woman's who aging much faster than he is (yeah, this plotline basically reads like an amalgam of the other stories in the book). The whole interlude was actually published as a standalone short story prior to the writing of Hyperion, and it shows. It's not exactly a bad story: the concepts are solid and Simmons's imagination is, as always, fascinating to see at work, but once again, the emotional backbone is lacking. It's also too long, considering its level of relevance to the larger arc of the novel and its position at the very end of the book. A dicursion of that length might have been acceptable closer to the beginning; at the end, it's just a momentum-killer.

Then we get the whammy: the Consul tells his own story, and many separate threads from throughout the book are bound up together in one fell swoop. This is the kind of thing at which Simmons excels: an epic rug-pull that completely shakes up the story. I have to say, for all that I sort of dragged my feet through the novel's weaker spots, Simmons does justify the disparity of the book's many plotlines by tying them all up at the conclusion. It's the best kind of ending for a first book: an ending that feels like a beginning. A truly enormous stage has been set for Book Two, with several mysteries resolved, and many more still hanging.

I still can't call Hyperion a true success. There's too much sci-fi gobbledygook (for my taste anyway) and characters that aren't deep enough to be the leads in a series this immense. For a science-fiction epic of this scope to be really excellent, there needs to be at least a couple of characters worth rooting for, or against. Hyperion's characters have not yet proved themselves to be compelling protagonists, nor has the Shrike really done anything extremely terrifying. I enjoyed all the book's spectacle and its wild ideas, but the stakes don't seem very high. Hopefully, the second book will get rid of the tiresome flashback structure, bone up the character development and fulfill the first book's promise of heady space opera.

NEXT UP: Meg Gardiner's Mission Canyon.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Affair by Lee Child

The Affair by Lee Child, 2011

I have arrested many people, often in groups larger than the one in front of me, but I have never been very good at it. The best arrests run on pure bluster, and I get self-conscious if I have to rant and rave. Better for me to land an early sucker punch, to shut them down right at the very beginning. Except that shouting freeze freeze freeze makes me a little self-conscious, too. The words come out a little tentative. Almost like a request.

But I had with me the best conversation-stopper ever made: a pump-action shotgun. At the cost of one unfired shell, I could make the kind of sound that would freeze any three men to any three spots in the world.

The most intimidating sound ever heard.

Crunch crunch.

My ejected shell hit the leaves at my feet and the three guys froze solid.

I said, "Now the rifles hit the deck."

Normal voice, normal pitch, normal tone.

The sandy-haired guy dropped his rifle. He was pretty damn quick about it. Then went the older guy and last of the three came the wiry one.

"Stand still now," I said. "Don't give me a reason."

Normal voice, normal pitch, normal tone.

They stood reasonably still. Their arms came up a little, out from their sides, slowly, and they ended up a small distance from their bodies, where they held them. They spread their fingers. No doubt they spread their toes inside their boots and sneakers and shoes. Anything to appear unarmed and undangerous.

I said, "And now you take three big paces backward."

They complied, all three guys, all three taking exaggerated stumbling steps, and all three ending up more than a body's length from their rifles.

I said, "And now you turn around."
---- (pages 309-310)

The last Jack Reacher novel to deal with Reacher's background as an MP was The Enemy, a fine thriller in its own way, but probably one of my least favorite of the Reacher series (if not my least favorite). Cool insight into Reacher's character, but kind of a snoozy plot without any of the fireworks we expect from Reacher's civilian adventures. The Affair is a direct follow-up to The Enemy and its ending leads directly into the very first book in the series begins. This is the one that fans have been waiting for, the book that shows Reacher's initial estrangement from the military and the beginning of his life as a mysterious nomad.

For an installment with such significance attached to it, The Affair is a surprisingly typical Reacher novel. Unlike in The Enemy, Reacher is on his own for most of the book like he is in the rest of the series, and the basic plot could have been easily transposed to his post-military days. The ingredients that we expect to see--strange murder, weird little town, thuggish locals, flavor-of-the-month local love interest--are all present, and despite a neat in media res opening and the saga-begins ending, everything goes down pretty much exactly the way you'd expect.

Several years after the events of The Enemy, Jack Reacher is called in to investigate a sensitive matter: a woman has been brutally murdered in a town bordering an Army base in Mississippi. The base and its soldiers are crucial pieces in a secret military conflict (Kosovo), and the Army can't afford to have the cover blown by an investigation. Reacher will pose as a homeless ex-Army drifter (!) and attempt to uncover the killer. If it's a civilian, that is. Naturally, things get complicated fast and the bodies begin to stack up, and Reacher, never one to follow orders, sets out to topple the massive conspiracy that someone has set in place. Even if it costs him his career, or his life.

So, yeah. Business as usual for our boy Jack.

As always, Child has written a real page-turner and the book is solidly constructed, despite a premise that borders on flimsy. The opening couple of chapters do a good job of establishing suspense and the way they meet up with the narrative halfway through is cool. As usual, the pace is actually fairly slow, ratcheting up the tension to nearly unbearable heights by the end. There's not much that's shocking or particularly original about the conclusion to the mystery, but Child is always good at obscuring the obvious truth until the very end.

The Love Interest Subplot is a tiresome and expected element of nearly every Reacher novel. I've gotten heartily sick of Reacher always running into some runway-ready cop or lawyer. The relationship only ever lasts a single book, so there's no lasting effect on Reacher. I will admit that The Affair's love interest, former MP and sheriff Elizabeth Deveraux, is a likable character and a good match for Reacher. The relationship is well-written and engaging enough, yet the fact that we know it goes nowhere makes it feel like irrelevant filler. I started to get excited when, mid-book, we began to get hints that Elizabeth was the serial killer Reacher was tracking. Having the love interest be the villain would be a series first (at least for the books I've read so far) and would be a very interesting end to the book. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a cleverly planted misdirection, and the actual killer is a lot less unusual. Reacher and Elizabeth part ways at the end, and that's that.

Although the small town is a common Child setting, he still does a good job of painting the world of Carter Crossing. It's a tired, dusty little place that depends entirely on the military base to sustain its fragile economy. Even though its an isolated small town, it still has a wealthy part of town (predominantly white), and a poor part of town (predominantly black). The quiet way that Child deals with the racial issues simmering underneath the town is a good example of just how effortlessly he nails the weird little corners of America that the series inhabits. I can't help but wish his approach towards the military was as subtle. I don't think his portrayal of the Army is one of the strong points of The Affair. He paints the Army as a vast, secretive, vaguely nefarious organization run by a bunch of trigger-happy assholes who don't hesitate to either commit or cover up crimes. While I don't think this is an accurate picture of the real-life military, I would be willing to accept a negative portrayal if it was more skillfully or convincingly written.

Furthermore, I think that the extent of Reacher's cynicism and disillusionment with the Army is too far along by the time The Affair begins. The novel should have shown how Reacher's faith in the military was betrayed, how he discovered that the organization he had spent his entire life serving was not the place for him. Some of that comes through, but Reacher's forced resignation at the end feels inevitable and lacks the emotional punch it should have, considering its importance in the series overall.

Better are the little touches of origin story mythmaking that are laced throughout the book: Reacher discovering the joys of public transportation, setting up a Western Union account, buying a folding toothbrush. These moments are pure undiluted awesome. The Affair could perhaps use a bit more of this at times, but it's an overall solid outing--satisfying, absorbing and as well paced as always. No thriller author I've ever read keeps the pages turning as reliably as Child, even when he's not in top form. The Affair is not a top-notch Reacher adventure (not quite twisty or exciting enough), but it's fairly satisfying both as a prequel to the main series and as a thriller in its own right.

NEXT UP: Dan Simmons's Hyperion.