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.