Friday, November 29, 2013


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume I by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, 1999

I'm fairly sure that Alan Moore wrote The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen expressly for me. The premise alone hits so many of my buttons it's not even funny. I adore Victorian literature (I was pretty much raised on nineteenth-century British novels). I love literary mashups featuring characters from different universes interacting. I love pulp fiction and pulp fiction pastiches. I love superhero stories. The first volume of League is all of those things wrapped up with a bow. It's clearly been crafted with exquisite care and enormous affection for (and knowledge of) Victorian pulp. What an absolute blast. This is, hands-down, the most fun I've yet had reading a graphic novel.

The story begins in 1898, with government agent Campion Bond - presumably the grandfather of James - sending Dracula's Mina Murray on a quest to locate and recruit a misfit group of literary characters for a special taskforce. Murray hunts down Allen Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, and the Invisible Man, though not without a few bumps along the way. The team is charged with an important task: the recovery of a substance that enables flight that has fallen into the dastardly hands of Fu Manchu. Tension runs high within the group, but they'll have to pull together if they want to save London from a terrible plot.

What I love about League is that it walks this really fine line between being goofy and self-referential and taking itself too seriously. There's such affection to the way this world is established, and such a deep understanding of what the source material was all about, and yet Moore still finds a way to put a fresh spin on the characters. League is far more of an adventure romp than it is a character study, but I love how distinctive these people are. Mina is frigid and sharp-tongued, Quatermain is struggling to regain his old heroism after opium addiction, Griffin is cheerfully psychotic and glibly nasty. The Jekyll/Hyde dynamic is great, too; Jekyll's palpable depression and exhaustion is beautifully contrasted with Hyde's foul-mouthed, bloodthirsty depravity. Nemo gets maybe the least development of any of the main characters, but what development he does have is great. There aren't really any majorly complicated character arcs per se (aside from Mina and Quatermain's romance, which anybody could see coming) but the members of the League have such a wonderful texture to them that it doesn't matter all that much. It's huge fun just to have all of these people in the same room.

For a literature geek like me, it was a complete delight to spot familiar characters (everyone from the Artful Dodger to Pollyanna gets a cameo) and search for little nods and tributes. Alan Moore clearly knows the penny dreadful, because League is dripping with authentic Victorian touches: the casual racism, the bombastic narration, the overblown adventure. He's smart enough to not make the book a simple nostalgia-fest, though: there's a real plot here, full of derring-do and with a couple of genuinely terrific twists. Like I said, the emphasis is more on a rousing, pulpy adventure than major character development, and that works well. This is a great big Hollywood action movie in graphic novel form, which doesn't leave a whole lot of time for navel-gazing.

Oh, and the art? Best art I've seen in a comic book yet. Just astonishing. The book feels absolutely bursting at the seams with life and detail. The pages are packed with delightful in-jokes and Easter eggs and little visual gags; I really look forward to re-reading and picking up on all of the stuff that I undoubtedly missed. Kevin O'Neill gives us a stunning steampunk London, where fog billows, rusted machinery pumps and blimps sail overhead. A trip to a Jules Verne-inspired Paris is equally eye-popping. The texture to this world is simply gorgeous: this really does seem like a place where Sherlock Holmes, Captain Nemo and Dracula could conceivably coexist. O'Neill's action scenes are extraordinary, as well. They feel huge, and overblown in a completely delightful way. That climax is just gloriously enormous. He hits a good balance with the characters, too: they seem convincingly larger than life while still remaining somewhat grounded.

So yeah: League is tailor-made for me, and I enjoyed every page with giddy abandon. Moore and O'Neill are clearly a perfectly matched pair for the task of bringing this world to life - Moore's firm grasp of his subject and his arch, clever dialogue compliment O'Neill's bold, beautiful artwork perfectly. League doesn't try to be especially deep, nor does it try to make some big statement about the works it's borrowing from; it's just a concentrated blast of Victorian awesomeness, and seriously, what more does it have to be?

Thursday, October 24, 2013


The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon, 2011

As far as I'm concerned, Diana Gabaldon can basically do no wrong. My list of favorite literary characters essentially begins and ends with Jamie Fraser, and the Outlander series is as near and dear to my heart as any work of literature I've ever experienced. I wasn't absolutely blown away by the first novel in the Lord John spin-off series, but it was still a great read. For a Gabaldon worshipper like me, then, The Scottish Prisoner is a magnificent little gift, like finding an elegantly wrapped box of chocolates in a broom closet. It's not the next Outlander novel – that's An Echo in the Bone, which is still on my shelf waiting to be devoured. No, Prisoner is a hybrid novel, straddling both series, starring both Jamie and Lord John in an all-new adventure.

It's 1760, many years after the end of the Highland Uprising, and Jamie Fraser is still basically a prisoner of the English, working on parole as a groom on a horse farm. Jamie's life is both complicated and enriched by the presence of his illegitimate son, Willie, being raised as the heir to the Dunsany title. Meanwhile, Lord John Grey comes into possession of a packet of documents accusing a senior military officer of corruption and treason. Lord John enlists Jamie's help in translating a mysterious poem that hints at a full-scale Jacobite conspiracy, and the two are soon reluctant traveling companions on a journey to the muddy and dangerous land of Ireland, where murder, treachery, and dark plots await them.

The Scottish Prisoner is interesting in part because it's incredibly inessential. There's no crucial, plot-y reason for it to exist at all. It takes place in a small gap in the Outlander timeline already covered in Voyager, so nothing terribly important occurs, either in the story or in the character development. It's a novel that exists simply because Jamie and Lord John are two incredible characters, and their fans would hungrily read a novel in which they went to the grocery store together. Gabaldon is an absolute genius at piling layers upon layers of development on these two men while still keeping them consistent and recognizable. The Jamie Fraser we see in this novel (angry, bitter, still mourning the loss of his wife) is very different from the man we see in, say, The Fiery Cross, but that's because the progression of these characters is so logical and so painstakingly real. This Jamie is sad and worn down by life, but he's also not without hope, and the way Gabaldon depicts that is a master class in character.

It's the tenuous, burgeoning friendship between Jamie and Lord John that forms the heart of Prisoner, a friendship that's strained by their conflicting national loyalties and polar-opposite personalities, not to mention the fact that Grey is still in love with Jamie. It's a testament to Gabaldon's immense skill that she's able make the relationship even work at all, let alone make it leap off the page the way she does. The way these two men navigate the unimaginable gulfs between them – personal, political, cultural, sexual – and still manage to find mutual respect and affection is incredible. I can't imagine a newcomer to the series would understand their relationship at all; it takes knowledge of both their shared past and their shared future to properly put together the mosaic. It's an unbelievably rich tapestry of storytelling that gains even more dimension when Gabaldon uses the relationship between John and Jamie to explore the turbulent connection between England and Scotland. This is what psychologically compelling historical fiction should look like, people.

The problem with The Scottish Prisoner is that, as a hybrid novel, it's neither a slim historical mystery like the other Lord John books nor a vast, sweeping family saga like the other Outlander books. Prisoner doesn't really have an easy label or a clear structure, and since it clocks in at over five hundred pages, this leads to a somewhat sleepy, erratic pace, full of meandering subplots and lots of beating around the bush. And that's fine! Gabaldon has never been a writer who gets right to the point; it's one of the things I love and adore about her work. The side stories and little discursions are part of the fun. It does make sections of the book a slog, though, and I never managed to work up much sustained interest in the plot.

Short-term plotting has long been a weakness for Gabaldon, as it is here; every time the mystery seems about to go in an interesting direction or a bit of tension is introduced, it's quickly undercut. There's a neat twist late in the novel, and a nifty action scene or two (Gabaldon's depiction of a critical duel is as breathless and sensate a portrayal as you'd expect), but you never get a cathartic moment of "Ah-ha!" and the central conspiracy is dealt with off-screen with a minimum of fuss. Gabaldon's portrait of the desperate, ragged Jacobites hanging all of their hopes on a crazy scheme is haunting and affecting, though, especially when Jamie sides against them with the English. It's just too bad that there isn't a little more suspense to the storytelling, and some tougher editing.

None of this is really all that much of a problem, though, since the plot is just a slender frame on which to hang the real meat of the story, which is the two main characters interacting against a beautifully realized historical backdrop with some dollops of action and a spine-tingling dash of the paranormal. Nobody does that combo better than Gabaldon, and even if The Scottish Prisoner isn't her best work, it's still a totally worthy addition to the ever-growing Outlander cycle.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


California lawyer Evan Delaney has survived an insane religious cult and a death-fetishist serial killer, and in Jericho Point, the third novel in Meg Gardiner's crime series, she has another set of very deadly problems to deal with. The trouble begins with the gruesome murder of a young girl at a Santa Barbara party attended by Jesse's immature, wayward brother P.J. Turns out the dead girl was an accomplished identity thief, and Evan was her last victim. Sucked into a dangerous whirlpool of crime, violence, and rock and roll, Evan and Jesse must outfight a pair of vicious loan sharks, navigate some fresh wrinkles in their incredibly complicated relationship, and identify a demented killer within the ranks of Santa Barbara's would-be celebrities.

Mission Canyon, the last Evan Delaney novel, was one of my favorite thrillers in forever (the first installment, China Lake, had problems, but was still pretty great overall). Jericho Point falls somewhere in between its too predecessors. It's an extremely fun read, a propulsive hybrid of mystery and thriller, with expertly drawn scenes of tension and suspense and some truly fantastic character-building. And Gardiner's spiky, sassy prose is, as ever, a delight. I do have some issues with the novel that prevent it from reaching the heights of Mission Canyon, though.
Problems first: Jericho Point's Achilles Heel is that the plot keeps slipping out of Gardiner's control. It's not poorly constructed at all, but it's labyrinthine and convoluted to the point where the pacing gets jerky as different parts of the story get focus and other fall into the background. There's a lack of cohesion, especially in the middle segments where the book – like so many mystery novels before it – sags under the weight of so many rapidly intersecting plot points. The final quarter of the novel really gets back on track, as things start clicking into place in time for the action climax. I like big, complicated plots, but they're awfully difficult to consistently maintain over three hundred and fifty pages. My only other significant gripe is that Gardiner's tendency to slip into cartoonishness – the grab-bag of sneering baddies, Evan careening from one over-the-top encounter to another – sometimes undercuts the serious stuff a little.

A couple of plotting snarls don't make this a bad novel, though. Not by a long shot. Jericho Point, like all the Evan Delaney books, is inventive and funny and quick, but there's a dark undercurrent to it that sets it apart from other exciting thrillers. When Evan is horrifyingly assaulted by two thugs by the side of the road, she suffers from realistic post-traumatic stress. She doesn't shake off such a harrowing experience and bounce fresh-faced to the next adventure like Nancy Drew. Jesse is still haunted by the events of the last book and beyond, even to the point where he seriously considers suicide. Evan's flirtation with sexy fighter pilot Marc isn't a cute subplot, it's a very real and frightening threat to Evan and Jesse's relationship. Gardiner's characters go through insane stuff, but they remain human. That, for me, is perhaps Gardiner's greatest strength as an author: following through on the psychological toll that being protagonists in a crime series takes on her characters. Evan and Jesse are rich, complex characters, and they resonate. I do wish Evan was a bit more flawed at times; she can feel a tiny bit Mary Sue-ish at times, always ready with the perfect quip.
The supporting cast are somewhat flimsier than the two protagonists, but there's plenty of depth there, too. Jesse's passive-aggressive family, for example, are so sharply portrayed it seems like they just walked out of a Jonathan Franzen novel (P.J. in particular will make you want to give him a hug and punch him in the face, at the same time). The book's villains are a little too uniformly psychotic for my taste, although the vile Murphy Ming is memorably grotesque. I would have liked more of Sin Jimson, the snaky, manipulative stepdaughter of an aging rock star; she's a character I could imagine popping up again to wreak fresh havoc.
Characters aren't the only things Gardiner can write: Evan's narration is laden with pop culture references, playful wordplay, quirky, poetic descriptions and loads of delicious snark. Her dialogue is usually crisp and pleasingly screwball, although when events takes a heavy turn, it hums with tension. And the woman can write suspense and action like nobody's business: the huge final sequence, set on an oil rig, is a nightmarish tour de force of escalating terror. I like my thrillers to go big and wild for the climax, and Meg Gardiner always delivers on that front. She even dispatches one of the novel's bad guys in as gruesome and creative a manner as I've ever encountered in a novel.
Jericho Point is not a perfect thriller (it's just a hair too chaotic in its plotting), but it is an absolutely top-drawer one, with strong prose and deeply compelling characters. Meg Gardiner is slowly getting more visibility as an author (particularly after Stephen King's article praising the Delaney series in Entertainment Weekly), and hopefully she'll eventually receive all the attention and accolades she deserves. With Jericho Point, the Evan Delaney series continues to delight, and I'm already looking forward to seeing what Gardiner will throw at Evan and Jesse in the next volume.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Essential Amazing Spider-Man (Volume 1) by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, 1962-1965

Comics, by their very nature, seem nearly impossible to break into. With a television show, you can usually start at the beginning with the pilot. With a book series, you simply track down the first volume and go from there. Marvel superhero comics, on the other hand, are part of an incredibly complicated fictional multiverse spanning some eighty years, hundreds of different titles and publications, and dozens of alternate timelines, reboots, do-overs and continuity snarls. To top it all off, it's very hard to get your hands on an a reliable, affordable omnibus of sequential stories, let alone a series of individual comics. What's a geek girl to do?

For me, the solution to all this mess was the first volume of Essential Amazing Spider-Man, an extremely handy series of books collecting every issue of the original run of The Amazing Spider-Man. Volume one of the Essential was perfect for me, both hefty and relatively inexpensive. It collects the first twenty issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, as well as the character's debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, and Spider-Man Annual #1, a sort of bonus season finale.

The Essential is probably as close to a complete, cogent "beginning" as you're likely to get from a comic-book character. Everyone knows the story: Peter Parker, a high school science whiz and total nerd, gets bitten by a radioactive spider and turns to crime-fighting after the death of his uncle. As Spider-Man, Peter faces down nefarious supervillains while also fighting to make enough money to support his Aunt May by selling "crime pictures" to the volcanic J. Jonah Jameson. Much of the classic Spider-Man characters are introduced here (Mary Jane only gets a mention, though) and most of his rogues' gallery, including the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Vulture, Kraven the Hunter, Sandman, Electro, Lizard and Mysterio.

The important thing to know about these first twenty issues is that they're fun. Stan Lee's writing style (a mixture between circus-showman bombast and squeaky-clean pulp) is aggressively cheesy, building up suspense through goofy, breathless narration. The villains have delightfully creative and often bizarre powers, and the fight scenes, energetically depicted by artist Steve Ditko, are a campy delight. Lee and Ditko take the characters and their struggles seriously, but never too seriously. There's a true sense of childlike enthusiasm to the storytelling that's entirely infectious.

People with superpowers yelling dopey insults and punching one another is all well and good, but what makes Spider-Man work as a character is that he's genuinely complicated and interesting. Bruce Wayne isn't just Batman; he's also an incredibly rich playboy. Peter Parker, on the other hand, is given a raw deal in every area of his life other than superpowers. He's lonely, poor, unpopular, shy, reserved and seriously unlucky when it comes to the ladies. Just like any other teenager, he has a lot of anger and rage boiling just under the surface (I was surprised to find how close he comes to turning to a life of crime himself). No one in Peter's life understands him at all, a situation that kid readers must have identified with immediately. As I understand it, before Spider-Man, superhero stories were about how great and virtuous your life would be if you had unlimited power. The story of Spider-Man is about just how difficult such a life would be, and how many sacrifices you would have to make. Ultimately, though, Peter still always does the right thing. Lee's great accomplishment in creating the character was writing a superhero who always seems like he could be you, but who was a still an entirely heroic and noble character.

The supporting cast is also drawn quite well from the beginning, even if the female characters are fairly one-dimensional and display plenty of antiquated, sexist traits. The breakout star of the series is clearly J. Jonah Jameson, the vitriolic, cigar-chomping editor of The Daily Bugle. In a world where morality is still pretty much black and white, Jameson is a true antihero. He's devoted to bringing down Spider-Man and he's willing to play very dirty to do it. His motives are complicated, though; in one of the most memorable moments in the collection, Jameson admits that the reason he hates Spider-Man because the superhero makes him feel weak, makes him feel cowardly and inferior. That's some pretty nuanced character work from a story about a guy who dresses up in a unitard and fights bad guys with mechanical limbs. JJJ, as depicted by Lee and Ditko, is a figure who's a serious character and a legitimate threat to Peter while also being very funny.

I do love the format of serial fiction - which the Spider-Man comics definitely were - but having multiple linked narratives that aren't all one big story means some will be weaker than others. Some of these issues are absolutely rock-solid bursts of smart, colorful entertainment. Others are. . . not. Villains like the Living Brain or (God help us) the Tinkerer are obscure for a reason. And while I appreciate the inventiveness on display, I'm always going to enjoy the soap-y stuff more than the sometimes endless action. Not to mention that Lee's style is charming, but limited: the dialogue is so wooden you could build a cabin with it, and the villains all have basically the same blustering, menacing personality. If you were in the mood, you could have a lot of fun tearing these comics down.

A few flaws, however, don't change the fact that the story of Spider-Man is one of the most enduring pop-cultural narratives of the twentieth century. These first twenty issues are only the very, very beginning of that story, and it's a remarkably confident and clear-eyed opening. After the first couple of issues, I found myself getting genuinely sucked in by the stories and emotionally involved by the characters. These old comics were silly, absolutely, but that doesn't make them bad, by any means, and it doesn't make the genuinely great storytelling any less effective. Too often in today's fiction, we correlate darkness and seriousness with quality; these goofy, glorious tales of good guys and bad guys prove that that's a fallacy. Although I initially started reading the Essential as a bit of an experiment, I find myself genuinely looking forward to volume two. Like all good serialized stories, The Amazing Spider-Man makes you want to find out what happens next.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Divergent by Veronica Roth, 2011

It's pretty impossible to read Divergent (or any recent dystopian YA novel, for that matter) without feeling the influence of the mega-successful Hunger Games trilogy. Just like the boom of magic-school sagas after the success of the Harry Potter books, the young adult market is currently awash with post-apocalyptic adventure, plucky young heroines and tyrannical governments.

So it's a testament to Veronica Roth's considerable skill as a storyteller that I didn't think much about any of the similarities between the two after the first fifty pages or so. I was just swept up in the story.

Divergent's dystopian gimmick is fairly clever and reasonably original: at some point in the relatively near future, the city of Chicago is split into five factions - Abnegation, Erudite, Candor, Amity and Dauntless - each one representing a different virtue or characteristic. At sixteen, sheltered Abnegation teen Beatrice Prior must choose which faction to join for the rest of her life. To everyone's surprise, Tris joins Dauntless, the faction of strength and bravery. But she has a deadly secret: she's Divergent (which means she's suited for more than one faction), and there are those in her faction, and in others, who would kill her if they find out.

From the first chapter, Divergent is a propulsive, perfectly paced read, with a great heroine, plenty of thrills and an interesting setting. It's absolutely to Roth's credit that she sells the concept of the five factions, an idea that seems pretty hard to swallow at first. She does a nice job of subtly showing what could have led the people of Chicago to this seemingly bizarre form of government. She doesn't dwell too much on the post-apocalyptic elements, though - a good move, I think, especially for a first book - instead focusing on Tris and her character arc.

Make no mistake: Tris is the novel's top draw. I loved this character. Her journey from repressed, shy schoolgirl to tough, gun-toting soldier is hugely compelling, and well portrayed. Roth puts us right in Tris's head, and then throws crazy challenge after crazy challenge at her, and it makes for some really thrilling stuff. Roth doesn't pull punches because this is a YA novel (there was some stuff even I found unsettling, and I was brought up on Stephen King) and it makes the book that much more exciting and visceral. The other characters are all less memorable than Tris, but most of them have at least a couple of dimensions, some of them quite surprising.

I'll admit, Tris's obligatory romance with her Dauntless instructor Four wasn't my favorite part of the novel. I liked the odd, adversarial chemistry between them towards the beginning of the story, but by the time they get together mid-book, complete with swoony makeout sessions, it had become a little routine. Not a bad plot thread, by any means, but not as strong as Tris's journey towards self-awareness (and abruptly changing Four's name to Tobias was not helpful to me, as an Arrested Development fan).

In all, Divergent delivered just about everything I would have wanted it to: a memorable and kick-ass heroine, a thought-provoking dystopia and a gripping plot. While I don't think the novel is likely to go down as a classic, it's a smart, quite well-written page-turner that made me lose sleep more than once. I can't wait to pick up Insurgent and see where the story goes from here.

Payment in Blood by Elizabeth George, 1990

What continually irritated me about Payment in Blood - and Elizabeth George's first novel, A Great Deliverance - is that it came so close to being great. I mean, great. George is clearly capable of a novel that will vault her to the top of my list of favorite mystery writers. Blood isn't quite it, but it's close enough to still be one hell of a well-put-together novel.

The book opens, of course, with a murder. Author and playwright Joy Sinclair is found gruesomely stabbed to death in her bed at a lavish Scottish bed-and-breakfast. Among the suspects are most of Britain's foremost actors, as well as a powerful lord and his mysterious family. Sent out into the brutal Scottish winter to nail the killer, Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers contend with an incestuous web of deadly connections - a web that includes the woman that Lynley is in love with.

I'll deal with what annoyed me first. The book's biggest flaw is that George's pacing is uneven at best. The novel's first half feels cluttered to the point of claustrophobia; like in Deliverance, she throws so much exposition and backstory at you that the novel feels stalled from the beginning. The connections between all of the suspects are complicated enough that it sometimes feels like coming into a soap opera three seasons in. Wait, he slept with her and her? She's married to him? He's her brother? George's talents don't lie in relaying necessary information in a clear and entertaining way.

My second big problem is with the novel's central relationship between Lynley and Lady Helen Clyde. If you recall, Lynley spent pretty much the entire first book mooning over Deborah, his best friend's wife. Rather abruptly, we're informed early on in Blood that the woman Lynley truly loves is Helen (who, to make matters even more complicated, is the best friend's ex). Helen, however, is cheating on Lynley with an alcoholic stage director. Cue a whole lot of drama. Trouble is, for all the overwrought histrionics, George never really sells on us on the romance, or on Lady Helen, who seems a little too prissy and high-maintenance for Lynley (of course, I'm a Lynley/Havers shipper, so what do I know).
It might sound like I'm a little down on Blood, but the truth of it is, that what's good about the book is very, very good. Once George has all of her pieces on the board, the real fun begins, as she picks apart the psyches of every suspect, and our heroes, too. Her psychological approach is what sets her apart from her peers, and with good reason: she excels at it. Blood is at its best when one of the characters starts really peeling back layers, and we can fully appreciate just how skilled George is at what she does.

As the book goes on and the plot gets into gear, things really start to pop, and I found myself really getting into it. The subplots in particular take a while to heat up, but when they do, they reveal George's incredible capacity for complex, heart-wrenching human drama. Her dense, lavish prose suits her style well and sometimes rises to the level of beautiful, even if her reliance on ten-dollar words can be a bit much.

 I did correctly guess the identity of the killer about two-thirds of the way through the novel, but that's more a symptom of how logically constructed the plot is than an indictment of George's skills of deception. Payment in Blood eventually ends on a satisfyingly melancholy note, and it's a testament to how much I ended up enjoying the book that I couldn't stop thinking about it for days after. It's not a perfect mystery by any means and, honestly, the structure left a lot to be desired, but I know that the day will come when Elizabeth George will knock my socks off. And I'm looking forward to it.

Dead Witch Walking by Kim Hamilton, 2004

Starting a new series is always an exciting proposition, especially when the series comes as highly recommended as Kim Hamilton's Rachel Morgan books. The Hollows series has a small, but extremely devoted fan base, and as soon as I heard about it, I knew I wanted to check it out. I love a good urban fantasy, vampire detectives, werewolves driving cabs, all that stuff. I figured Dead Witch Walking would be right in my wheelhouse.

And. . . well, it kind of is. To be honest, there was a lot that I liked about Witch, and a lot that I thought was kind of awful. On the whole, I enjoyed the book more than I probably should have, and I think Harrison has some obvious talent when it comes to her characters and world-building. But why is the plotting so strange?

The novel follows Rachel Morgan, a witch who works as a sort of bounty hunter/federal agent for the supernatural equivalent of the FBI, the IS. When Rachel leaves the IS to set up a private-detective agency with a motor-mouthed pixy and a sensual vampire, her former boss puts out a hit on her (this is where the plot gets weird). Dodging fairy commandos and assassins armed with spell-loaded paintball guns, Rachel and her gang must bring down a mysterious drug lord in order to get the IS to call off the hit.

What I liked a lot about Witch was the characters. While Rachel is a fairly typical heroine for this kind of story, predictably feisty and sarcastic - think Stephanie Plum with magical abilities and leather pants - her sidekicks are a lot more interesting. Jenks, the wise-ass pixie, could have been a goofy comic relief character, but he has more nuance than you'd think. And while Ivy, the aristocratic, sexually ambiguous vampire, is responsible for some of the novel's more uncomfortable scenes, she's also the most complicated and fascinating character. Even Nick, the bookish human who shows up late in the book, seemingly as a classic love interest, has some dimension. Harrison succeeds at making these characters the kind of people you could easily imagine reading ten more books about: a nice mix of likable and dynamic.

The setting, an alternate Cincinnati populated by both humans and supernatural creatures, is relatively standard as far as urban fantasies go, but I liked Harrison's take on pixie/fairy relations, her clever magic system and some rather ingenious little concepts (like the magical "splatballs") that help immensely to flesh out her world. I was less taken with her vampires, who are your standard Anne Rice-y sex machines, The vampire-related erotic segments fit rather uncomfortably alongside anything else, especially the distinct lesbian subtext between Rachel and Ivy. Maybe Harrison has a clever plan on where to take that particular relationship, but in this book, it's just awkward.

For the most part, though, so far, so good. Engaging characters, a relatively interesting world, writing that's not half-bad, in a rote, chick-lit kind of way. Where Harrison really stumbles, though, is plotting and pacing. The plot is lumpy, half-baked and overly simplistic, and the pacing is just weird. Harrison founds the whole story on the idea that a government agency would put out a hit on an agent who quit. I get that it's an alternate timeline and not our world, but there's not nearly enough attention given to this far-fetched plot point.

The Big Bad of the story, Trent Kalamack, is actually a little bit compelling, but there's no real mystery to unravel, and no stakes. Again, the story is predicated on a plot point that doesn't make much sense: Kalamack running biodrugs is made out to be a huge deal, but it isn't even clear what he's using them for. And the pacing, like I said, is distinctly odd. Scenes tend to stretch out way too long, with conversations getting tedious and circuitous. The bursts of action are refreshing (especially a very creative wizard's duel towards the end), but they get repetitive and tend to be sandwiched in between long, dull stretches. There's some good stuff here, and lots of smart and funny and exciting bits, but the plot just never coalesces into anything especially coherent.

That said, I see tons of potential in this series. You could definitely tell some great stories in this world, with these characters. Dead Witch Walking is too full of plot holes and labored pacing to be a true success, but there's every chance that this could end up being a really entertaining series. It just needs the right story.

Thursday, June 27, 2013


What's Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges, 1991

I'm a book-before-movie kinda gal, without question. I delayed seeing the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice specifically because I hadn't read the book - that's right, I didn't want to be spoiled for a novel that was published more than two hundred years ago. So it's kind of unusual that I actually saw the movie version of What's Eating Gilbert Grape before reading the book (of course, I didn't know there was a book until recently). I loved the film, a lyrical tragicomic slice-of-life with astonishing performances from Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio. But I loved the book even more.

Gilbert Grape is a quiet young man living with his family in the tiny town of Endora, Iowa. The Grape family is still shattered after the suicide of its patriarch many years before. Gilbert's mother, Bonnie, is enormously overweight and entirely sedentary, his youngest sister Ellen is a self-obsessed teenager on the cusp of adulthood, his younger brother Arnie is mentally retarded and his frazzled sister Amy is barely able to hold them all together. As for Gilbert, his dream is to leave Endora - and his family - behind forever.

Taking place over the course of a summer in Endora, Gilbert is a small, delicate miracle of a novel. It's narrated, in a loose, unstructured, Holden Caulfield kind of way by Gilbert, and the narration could so easily have become maudlin, grating, or overly explanatory. Instead, it is just about pitch-perfect. Gilbert's thoughts are such a delightfully human jumble of wry humor and deep pain and observations both loving and cruel. Gilbert is invoked incredibly well - I feel like I know him personally, and yet, his motives and inner feelings are often as oblique to the reader as they are to the other characters. Peter Hedges simultaneously puts us right in Gilbert's head and makes us question his every thought. An incredibly difficult balance to get right, but Hedges nails it again and again.

The other characters are just as sympathetically drawn as Gilbert. The various broken members of the Grape family could easily have become flat stereotypes based on their overarching personalities, but every one of them is given incredible depth. Hedges mines some great black comedy out of Arnie and Bonnie in particular, but they're both given so much depth and a twisted kind of respect. Hedges makes these people deeply fascinating and appealing; I can't remember the last fictional character I wanted to hug as badly as Amy Grape. The various quirky minor characters are all a lot of fun, too; I've got a particular soft spot for Gilbert's dumb, gullible best friend Tucker.

The only character I didn't care for all that much is Becky, the wise-beyond-her years teenager that Gilbert falls in love with. I appreciate the role Becky plays in the story - it's her who helps Gilbert come to a series of important epiphanies towards the end of the novel - but I feel like she's a bit too untextured as a character in her own right. She's there as a sort of precocious guardian angel for Gilbert, a beat that's not especially original, which is jarring in a novel that is nothing but original (also, the age discrepancy between her and Gilbert really bothered me, for some reason). Anyway, that's my only real complaint, because I loved just about everything else.

There's an incredible sense of atmosphere to the novel, which is doubly impressive considering that there's not a ton of outright description. We feel like we're standing in Endora not because Hedges describes every lamppost and mailbox, but because he gets the people who live there so right. Likewise, there's not much plot to Gilbert (or rather, there are a lot of largely unconnected subplots); the novel is loosely structured around Arnie's landmark eighteenth birthday party, but most of the novel consists of vignette-like mini-plots that all contribute to Gilbert's sense of malaise and self-loathing. But the novel is weirdly addicting, despite the lack of urgency and the leisurely pacing. It's a testament to Hedges's writing that the novel sucks you in so deeply to the world of Endora and the people who live there.

Disillusioned, cynical young men as narrators have become a bit of a cliché in fiction since The Catcher in the Rye, but Gilbert Grape sidesteps almost every possible convention, instead delivering a story both bewitching and disarming, both subtly poignant and bizarrely hilarious. I doubt I'll read a book that moves me more this year than this one. And I know I won't read a more luminous, tragic, uplifting climax in a very long time. This is one novel I'll be coming back to.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding, 1999

Bridget Jones, that mixture between Carrie Bradshaw, Mia Thermopolis and Bertie Wooster, is one of the most beloved fictional characters of the last twenty years or so, especially in the UK. A painfully neurotic single woman in her mid-thirties who obsessively writes down the details of her wacky and embarrassing life, Bridget is the star of a hit newspaper column, two hugely successful novels and two blockbuster Hollywood movies.

I read the first novel, Bridget Jones's Diary, quite a few years ago, and enjoyed it a lot. The sequel opens a couple of weeks after Bridget embarks on her relationship with nice-guy lawyer Mark Darcy. Predictably, misunderstandings and miscommunication interfere, and Bridget finds herself single again. From soul-searching in Thailand to disastrous first dates to humiliating run-ins with Colin Firth, Bridget is out to find herself and find a man - not necessarily in that order.

The central conceit of the Bridget Jones novels is a really solid one: Bridget's diary entries are endearing and funny, and it's a clever, if not especially original, way to tell a romantic comedy story. Bridget's voice is definitely the best part of these books. She's so relatable in her insecurity and her desire to find poise and self-confidence, and so totally funny in her inability to do so. Fielding has the character's voice down absolutely cold, and Bridget's skewed, acidic perspective on her daily life are frequently hilarious. I don't know a woman who couldn't identify with Bridget's obsessive tendencies and her painful fallibility. I particularly like the way Fielding uses Bridget's naiveté as a way to poke fun at her. There's a pretty nice mix of Bridget being the butt of the joke and Bridget relating the joke to the audience herself.

But (and there's always a but) that's about all there is to Edge. Like its predecessor, Edge is memorable only for its distinctive protagonist, and for having some really funny writing. Everything else is so damn fluffy that it ends up being ephemeral.

Take the supporting characters, most of whom have an amusing central idea behind them (Shaz is both a dogged feminist and completely guy-crazy, Bridget's mother is flighty and self-centered, etc), but how many of them display any further dimensions? Mark Darcy, our romantic lead, is clearly a nice, normal guy, but he has precious few identifying characteristics. Or Tom, the stereotypical gay friend, who's just like every gay friend in every romantic comedy ever. Or Rebecca, Bridget's man-stealing archenemy who's as nasty - and as complicated - as a cartoon character. There are just too many one-joke characters in the Jones universe, and very few of them really get more than the one joke.

Or what about the plot? Or more accurately, plots. Since the novel is adapted from a year's worth of newspaper columns, it makes sense that the story would be fairly episodic. But do the stories all have to revolve around contrived coincidences and dopey misunderstandings that a toddler could see through? I get that the occasional Idiot Plot makes for good comedy, but at a certain point, it becomes clear that Fielding has no interest in introducing any real stakes into the story. I did enjoy the story of Bridget's disastrous sojourn in Thailand, if only for the mental image of her performing Madonna songs in a Thai prison to an adoring crowd of female inmates.

Ultimately, though, the book is supposed to be funny, and it definitely delivers the comedy. It's extremely funny, and perfectly readable in a breezy kind of way. No, I won't be able to remember the plot or most of the characters in six months, but I will remember Bridget and the v. amusing way she looks at the world of being a single woman in a big, scary world.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, 2006

Oh, man. How long has it been since I've read a novel that was this well-written, this sharp, this thrilling, and this much fun? A really long time. The Lies of Locke Lamora is fantastic, y'all. It's the kind of book where just about everything works just as it's supposed to, where you can find yourself excited, horrified, amused and shocked all in a row. The fact that this is author Scott Lynch's first novel is kind of staggering, because Lies is a crisp, vivid, perfectly calibrated read from start to finish.
The novel is set in a sprawling, fantastical city called Camorr that's a mix between Venice and London. Our (anti)hero is Locke Lamora, a silver-tongued conman who leads a group of thieves called the Gentlemen Bastards. The Bastards gleefully plunder from the nobles of Camorr, right under the nose of the city's most formidable crime boss. Locke's life of merry derring-do is plunged into chaos with the arrival of the Gray King, a mysterious figure who starts a deadly war in the city's underworld – and he wants Locke's help.
Where do you even start with a book like this? Every just worked, start to finish. The novel is fat, over seven hundred pages long, but the pacing is so good that it just zips by. The plotting – my God, the plotting is fabulous. It's somehow completely straightforward and deftly complex, a mixture of fantasy thriller and crime caper that's so logical you wonder why you don't see it more often. Lynch is as good a conman as his protagonists; he's got a real knack for smooth plot twists and tricky authorial maneuvers that always took me by surprise (seriously, be ready to yell “No!” out loud at least twice). And I know I already mentioned the pacing, but seriously: absolutely top-notch. It's a common gripe, especially when dealing with a long fantasy novel, that the pacing is “off” or “slow.” Not here. This novel is perfectly calibrated. Even the constant flashbacks interspersed throughout the narrative fit without bogging things down. There's the odd tangent that strays from the main plot, but nothing like the myriad of subplots that clog the novels of Jordan or Martin. Lynch's plot is clean and crisp.
Lynch's worldbuilding is terrific, too. His fictional universe is a complicated and fascinating hybrid of medieval fantasy, steampunk and even an intriguing dash of sci-fi. The mythology and politics of Camorr are integrated into the story perfectly (no artificial info-dumps for Lynch). Instead, he builds his world in a natural way, while still keeping the story front and center. His lavish and tactile descriptions of the city are superbly handled, for the most part; there's plenty of description, but the pace of the story never lags because Lynch is busy describing a church spire or something.

His writing is self-assured, smooth and excellent. Great facility with language, and a Diana Gabaldon-like talent for immersion through careful description. You can see, hear and smell his world – which, thanks to his Quentin Tarantino streak, is not always pleasant. His dialogue is a huge highlight, too. It's incredibly colorful, nimble, often laugh-out-loud funny and features some of the most creative and lyrical vulgarity I've ever read. There's the occasional stylistic hiccup, but nothing that would rise above the level of a personal preference.
Most novels, in my opinion, live or die based on the characters, and thankfully, Lies has a cast jam-packed with great ones. At first, I thought Locke and his fellow thieves might end up a bit too cookie-cutter to be compelling protagonists. Nope. I was very, very wrong. Locke is one of my new favorite characters. He's devious, short, quick on his feet, incredibly proficient at all forms of deception, fiercely loyal, and completely useless in a fight. I ended up totally adoring him. And I loved Jean, the badass bruiser with a gentle heart. Even the supporting players get fully developed characteristics. The main villain is perhaps a bit mustache-twirl-y, but he's appropriately formidable, and he gets a nice dash of development towards the end of the novel.
If I have a nitpick about the novel as a whole, it would be the lack of introspection on the part of the main characters. The novel has so much forward momentum that it seems like we don't often slow down to get inside Locke's head. Of course, Lynch makes up for this with flashbacks that illuminate the characters' pasts, but I still would have liked a bit more internal narrative. Also, there are a few super minor plot shortcuts taken throughout the book, which are acceptable, but sometimes a tad noticeable. But yeah, those are both very, very minor issues in an otherwise stellar novel.
In summary, Lies is wickedly clever, often hilarious, and cruel enough to make George R. R. Martin proud. It's one of the most purely entertaining books I've read in a long time, and it's crafted with incredible skill. Most exciting of all, there are more adventures to come; although Lies could stand on its own well, it's just the first in a projected seven-book series, thank God. I'm not sure I could have let this world and these people go after just one novel. Bring on book two.

I'd Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman, 2010

I'd Know You Anywhere begins with Eliza Benedict, a seemingly ordinary suburban mother in her late thirties, receiving a letter. It's from Walter Bowman, the man who kidnapped her and held her hostage when she was fifteen. Now on death row for the rape and murder of another girl, Walter is about to executed. And he wants a favor.
From this simple, chilling premise, Laura Lippman weaves a novel of incredible psychological tension and astounding depth. The book isn't quite a thriller (there's no action or pyrotechnics, no real mystery to be solved), but it reads like one, a white-knuckle journey full of subtle horror. This book gave me a genuinely sleepless night, I was so involved in the story. It's horrifying because the characters are so well drawn and the emotions so expertly evoked - not because Lippman splatters blood and gore all over the place.

A novel like this can only work if the author is exceptionally talented at sketching complicated and interesting characters. Lippman is. In Eliza, we have a very unusual and very complex protagonist, and in Walter, we have a chillingly realistic and strangely sympathetic villain. The interplay between these two characters provide the bulk of the novel's tension, but the pages are also crammed with colorful supporting characters, all realized with enormous sympathy, balance and intelligence. Even walk-on players like Eliza's liberal parents or a put-upon attorney have multiple dimensions.

Lippman is an extremely well-regarded crime writer, and it's easy to see why: she manages the very difficult trick of creating prose that is resoundingly literary (you would not mistake this novel for an airport mystery) while still being completely readable. She rarely uses flourishes or fancy devices to show you that she is writing, dammit. She just draws you in with the force of her storytelling; this novel is definitely a page-turner. If I have a critique - and it's extremely nitpick-y - it's that Lippman's dialogue sometimes has a touch of sameness to it.

The central question of the novel is the true nature of Eliza and Walter's somewhat twisted relationship. It's a complicated question with a complicated answer, and Lippman deals with it beautifully. It's an incredibly suspenseful device, and it's absolutely to Lippman's credit that she doesn't make it into a big twist at the end. The solution to the mystery - if you can even call it a mystery - is that Eliza and Walter understand each other in ways that no else does. To paraphrase Lippman's gorgeous title, they'd know each other anywhere.

Honestly, I wish there were more thrillers like this - novels that used emotion and character development to shock and thrill us, rather than cheap plot twists and gunfights. Ultimately, this is a novel about people who have a limited ability to understand their own emotions. What makes it amazing, in my opinion, is not only Lippman's deep understanding of grief and pain, but her equally great knowledge of strength and grace. For a novel as deep and dark as this one, it ends on a surprising moment of melancholy, deeply earned triumph.

Friday, April 26, 2013


City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare, 2008

I pretty much enjoyed City of Bones, the first novel in the popular Mortal Instruments series, despite some pretty glaring flaws and some underwhelming prose. It was a fast, entertaining read - typical YA urban fantasy, but just original enough to keep your interest.

The sequel, City of Ashes, picks up where the first book left off: Clary and Jace are horrified to discover that they are in fact siblings, despite their strong mutual attraction. While they struggle with their difficult relationship – and a hard-nosed Shadowhunter investigator known as the Inquisitor – their wicked father Valentine gathers a demonic army and prepares for an all-out war with the Shadowhunters.

The fact is, there are a lot of problems with this book. A lot. Perhaps my biggest complaint is that the pacing is surprisingly poor. Whatever else you could say about it, City of Bones at least moved at a good clip. As soon as you tired of what was going on, there would be an action scene, or a plot twist, or something to grab your interest. There are long stretches of City of Ashes that are just plain boring (and this is not a typical gripe of mine - I have a long attention span). The story is not nearly as intricate as the previous book's; nor does it rely much on backstory or character development. It's a very straightforward supernatural narrative that plays out like an episode of Buffy or Supernatural stretched out to novel-length. Valentine has a – relatively simple – evil plan, which he. . . implements. Not a lot of complexity there.

What's really infuriating about the plot (for me, anyway) is that none of our heroes seem very proactive about hunting down the Big Bad and putting a stop to his fiendish designs, at least not until the climax. In time-honored YA tradition, the adults and authority figures are utterly useless, and waste all their time being nasty to the kids, when they should be out doing something useful. Unlike a Harry Potter novel, there's no real mystery going on; it just seems like the characters are too self-absorbed to put two and two together.

So for most of the book, we get a ton of character interaction, which is. . . a mixed bag. Clare has really only written two genuinely three-dimensional characters: Jace and Simon, both of whom get quite a lot to do in Ashes. Jace spends most of the book angsting, torn between the Clave and his newfound father. Not to mention his conflicting feelings about Clary. Clare deserves credit for using an extremely tricky concept - incestuous feelings - as the framework of her story, but she doesn't handle it especially well and you know that she'll eventually use an easy out to deal with the situation.

Simon, in what is arguably the novel's most interesting plot thread, goes from being the regular guy to becoming a powerful and blood-hungry vampire. Since Clare is far from a marvelous writer, neither Jace's nor Simon's character arcs is incredibly well-done, but they're both competent, and decent enough to hold your interest. I dig Magnus Bane, the smart-aleck, bisexual warlock, too; he brings a welcome sense of color to the cast, even if his romance with Alec is oddly handled.

On the other hand we have Clary, ostensibly the protagonist, who is a truly dull and tiresome character. She has very little personality and not much of an arc, and yet the rest of the characters are all obsessed with her. Textbook Mary Sue, in other words. Although she does develop an unusual power - which is, full disclosure, pretty cool - she spends most of the novel be so useless. The supporting cast is okay for the most part; just kind of same-y. Characters like the grandiose Valentine or the (seemingly) malevolent Inquisitor should jump off the page, but instead they come across as fairly flat copies of more interesting characters in more interesting books.

Clare's writing is still readable enough, I suppose, in a crappy kind of way. The constant stream of overblown similes and metaphors is grating - by the end of the book, I was gritting my teeth every time I came across one. She uses all the clichés you can think of: dopey adverbs, over-the-top descriptions of things like eyes and sunsets and light, emotions described as physical sensations, generally in the stomach, heart or throat. The one big bright spot in her writing is her one-liners. I'm not gonna lie: the woman can write verbal humor very well. A lot of the character's lines are laugh-out-loud funny or close, especially Jace and Magnus. I just wish the rest of her writing was as good as her quips.

The climax, which is a big faux-Harry Potter finale complete with a huge battle and numerous dramatic revelations, is definitely the most entertaining part of the book; it's a mess, but there's so many rampaging demons and operatic confrontations that it's at least really fun to read. It almost made the long slog of the novel's bloated second act worth it. Almost. Honestly, if I didn't already own the next two books in the series, I might not have bothered seeking them out. Since I do have them, I will probably read them. I can only hope that City of Glass is a step up from this one.

61 Hours by Lee Child, 2010

Honestly, Lee Child is so good it's almost boring. While I could rank his Jack Reacher novels in some semblance of best-to-worst (at least, what I think are best-to-worst), but there's no denying that I've never read a bad Reacher novel, or even a truly weak Reacher novel. 61 Hours is another gem, a finely honed thriller by a man who seems incapable of writing a bad novel. Sure, the series pretty much always follows a clear formula, but it's a formula that I happen to adore, so if it ain't broke, why fix it?

Hours finds our hero onboard a tour bus when it crashes in a small town deep in the frigid South Dakota winter. Reacher quickly finds out that sleepy little Bolton is in the middle of a crisis: a respected local woman, the key witness in an upcoming trial, is being targeted for assassination by a group of methamphetamine-peddling bikers. Reacher naturally can't resist helping out, but unbeknownst to him, a criminal mastermind is coming to town and Reacher has only sixty-one hours before something very big goes down.

61 Hours is fairly conventional in terms of plot. The small town, the criminal organization, quirky villain, local cops, military connection, etcetera. It's fairly standard for Child at this point, but he's so confident and his storytelling are so finely honed that the boilerplate nature of the story didn't really bother me. The novel is a bit of a slow burn for a Reacher book - not much action until the climax, a lot of rising tension during the middle section There are the requisite twists and turns, but most of them are fairly predictable, by Child standards. The two things that really set it apart from the pack are the ticking-clock set-up and the weather.

The ticking-clock thing was fine (I neither loved nor hated it, and while I don't think it added a ton to the book, it didn't annoy me either), but the weather descriptions were kind of fantastic. Child makes the elements - in this case, unbelievable cold - a real character in the story. This is a book that truly makes you shiver while you read it, and the weather serves a real function in the plot, as it brings Reacher down to earth a little bit. He may be superhuman, but even he can't do much against minus-thirty temperatures. Child's hard-bitten prose is more than up to the challenge of describing the frigid South Dakota environment. As always, he nails the little details that make it convincing.

One of my stock complaints about the Reacher series is that the supporting characters are often flat and lifeless. While that is still somewhat the case here, Reacher has some great interactions in 61 Hours. There's a lot of Child's incredibly subtle character development going on here; Reacher is confronted with not one, but two people who can see through his veneer of unflappable competency. There's one phone conversation late in the book that might be Reacher at his most vulnerable. And hey, I actually enjoyed the Obligatory Love Interest, and I kind of hope she shows up again. The villain, a calculating ,diminutive drug lord nicknamed Plato, is a lot of fun, too. I'm an avowed fan of over-the-top Reacher villains, and Plato is definitely that. His final confrontation with Reacher is awesomely creative and deliciously nutty.

That actually applies to the climax as a whole, too, which might be the biggest-scale conclusion that Child has dreamed up yet (if not the most thrilling). I loved the fact that we got an honest-to-God cliffhanger that seems to offer up the possibility of Reacher's demise. While I know that he's not dead (two more books in the series have been released) Child sells it straight-facedly enough to make it work. I look forward to seeing how Reacher got out of a dilemma that Wile. E Coyote would have a hard time surviving. Maybe a refrigerator?

Complaints? Well, there's the supporting character thing (I just wish they were more colorful, that's all!). And the fact that were some noticeably far-fetched contrivances in the plot, even more so than usual, as well as some time-wasting detours that are obviously just there to fill up space, or provide a phony, end-of-chapter cliffhanger. In Reacher novels with busier stories, this is rarely an issue. Overall, though, 61 Hours is just another awesome entry in an increasingly awesome series. Not, perhaps, my favorite, or even in the very highest echelon, but it does carry the distinction of being the Reacher novel that has made me shiver the most.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts, 2010

Honestly, when I read Vision in White, the first book of the Bride Quartet, I did not expect to enjoy it much. As anyone who follows this blog can tell, I read a lot of different genres, but romance has never been one of my favorites. I actually love fictional romances, and I'm definitely not immune to mushy-gushy stuff (hey, I'm a chick, give me a break). But romance as a genre just doesn't appeal to me all that much. In a romance novel, any conflict keeping the couple apart is typically just an engine designed to create drama until the end of the book, when everything works out perfectly. This is a pretty boring and predictable set-up for an entire genre, but Nora Roberts side-steps this problem by simply avoiding melodramatic conflicts.

Seriously. Neither Vision in White nor Bed of Roses has much conflict. There are no silly devices keeping the characters apart, just internal issues, such as trouble with commitment, or a desire to keep a friendship alive. The lack of melodrama is what makes these books so enjoyable: there's a just-hanging-out atmosphere. There are long stretches where nothing much happens at all. No purple prose, no sense of urgency, just characters that you like living their lives and falling in love. There's a genuine fairy-tale quality to the Quartet that's hard to nail down; the characters are round and three-dimensional, but their world is subtly and enchantingly idealized.

Bed of Roses centers again around the Vows wedding company, and the four best friends who run it together. Emma, the voluptuous and kindly florist, is our heroine this time around. She falls hard for Jack Cooke, a local architect and a longtime friend of the Quartet. Jack feels the same way, and after some initial hesitance, their relationship begins. The only true obstacle is Emma's romantic nature and Jack's unwillingness to settle down. I don't want to spoil anything, but this doesn't prove to be much of an obstacle in the long run.

Bed, like Vision, is a straightforward tale of courtship with a classic happily-ever-after ending. There's next to no plot as such, just a lot of conversations and encounters between the main characters, with a sprinkling of some very sexy sex scenes. While there is a fairly major dramatic crisis near the end of the book to serve as a climax, it's been built up to so neatly that it doesn't feel shoehorned into the story (the fact that it's a slightly clunky crisis is another matter entirely).

The two lead characters carry the majority of the novel, and they're both well-drawn, if not especially complicated. I preferred Mac and Carter from Vision to be honest: Mac's smart-ass spunk and Carter's geeky-but-sexy routine is just more inherently interesting to me. That said, Jack is a pretty great leading man, both a wisecracking guy's guy and a surprisingly sensitive and attentive boyfriend. Emma's fine, too, but she is my least favorite of the four main characters. Her mixture of sweetness and sensuality gets a little boring after a while; she lacks the edge that the other three have. Still, the relationship between the two is definitely strong enough to hold your interest, and complex enough to warrant the focus.

Contrary to clichés about romance novels, Roberts is really a pretty good author. Her dialogue flows well, even if it's sometimes just a bit tone-deaf, and her prose has a pleasing snap to it. Not the greatest writing ever, but more than adequate for the story. Bed of Roses is not anything show-stopping, but it's not supposed to be. It's intended to be a light, fun read, and it is definitely both of those things. It's sweet and good-hearted, and executed with tons of wit and charm. I, for one, am looking forward to Book Three (Del/Laurel forever, am I right?).

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, 1939

I've always loved Agatha Christie novels. They are, in many ways, the template for the mystery novel as we know it. Christie was very much a pulp writer, and the tropes she employed (locked-room murder, multiple suspects, multiple ending twists) were far from new; it was the way she combined those tropes together, and her devilishly ingenious plotting, that makes her such a classic author.

As a whole, I much prefer her Poirot novels to her standalones (Miss Marple is pretty awesome, too). Christie's big draw is not her characterization; she basically cycles through the same ten or eleven character types, giving them different names each time. Poirot is a long way from the most complex literary detective of all time, but at least he's got entertaining and consistent idiosyncrasies to enjoy. Christie's standalone mysteries, on the other hand, tend to be populated by boring cyphers. Needless to say, her non-Poirot novels tend to be the least acclaimed and the least well-known of her books. Except for And Then There Were None.

The novel has one of the most famous and enduring premises in the history of the mystery genre. Ten strangers are separately invited to a mysterious island off the rockbound coast of northern England. All the guests have checkered pasts that they think are hidden, but at dinner, a disembodied voice accuses them each of murder. And then, one by one, they begin to die. Stranded by a storm and haunted by a creepy nursery rhyme, the guests are forced to hunt for the murderer, before the count goes down to zero.

Because I have no desire to rip into one of my favorite authors, I'll put this upfront: Agatha Christie is a bad writer in a lot of respects. Her prose is pure dime-novel pulp, skeletal, unimaginative and punctuated with more italics, ellipses and exclamation points than a comic book (seriously, those ellipses are absolutely out of control). Even at the time the book was written, her style was criticized; from a modern perspective, it's downright cheesy. Her dialogue is often laughable, and always painfully on-the-nose. Her characters don't act like people, they act like, well. . . characters in an Agatha Christie novel. Their stiff-upper-lip reactions to all of the gruesome killings happening around them provides the novel with a great deal of unintentional comedy. These people are, by and large, classic Christie stereotypes: the young doctor, the nasty old crone, the emotionless butler, the bluff ex-military man, and so on. There's a tiny bit of depth to one or two of them, but for the most part they're just there to be suspects and victims.

Okay. All that said, this is a great mystery. It's absorbing, completely baffling and surprisingly terrifying in places. The concept has been aped countless times (perhaps most famously in the board game Clue), and there's a simple reason why: it's just a really excellent concept. It's the mystery-on-a-train idea taken up to eleven. In places, the novel almost feels more like a work of psychological horror than a true murder mystery. It's to Christie's credit that this works as well as it does. Her many failings as an author aside, she nails the skin-crawling terror of knowing that someone sitting next to you is a dangerous psychopath. She shifts suspicion between the characters so constantly, and so artfully, that the reader is left feeling as confused and claustrophobic as any of the victims. There are some segments in the middle of the novel which are shockingly tense and weirdly uncomfortable. The sensation of quiet dread and mounting hopelessness is palpable, and genuinely unsettling.

You'd think, with a premise as seemingly simplistic as this one, that the murderer would become fairly obvious, or that at least the killer's motive would start to dawn on you. Nope. Not at all. All remains entirely murky until the epilogue, which is a masterpiece of sleight-of-hand plotting. Christie is so good at hiding clues in plain sight and leading readers down false trails that even an experienced Christie reader like me was taken almost totally by surprise (although I did have a theory that proved to be correct). What's perhaps most incredible is that the solution isn't convoluted or impenetrably complicated. It's actually quite simple and straightforward - if you can spot it. Christie seems to be trying to tie together some thematic threads about guilt and justice towards the end. An admirable attempt, but, like most of Christie's attempts at high-mindedness, it really doesn't work. That final twist, however, works just fine. Whatever her other faults, nobody is as good at bamboozling readers as Agatha Christie, and ATTWN is one of her most perplexing and terrifying mysteries. This one is a spine-tingling classic for a reason. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013


The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, 2007

In the wake of the phenomenally popular Harry Potter series (followed by the similar successes of the Twilight books and The Hunger Games trilogy), imitators have popped up everywhere. The young-adult market is totally flooded with thick fantasy sagas hoping to be the next massive success. Obviously, a lot of them are good books in their own right, and a lot of them are derivative copies of whatever is working in the genre. City of Bones, the first volume in the Mortal Instruments series, starts out as one of these, and over the course of the novel, turns into something else.

For someone like me (who has read a lot of this kind of thing over the years), the first few chapters of City of Bones are agreeable enough, but awfully familiar: a normal teenage girl, smart and mildly geeky without being aware of her own beauty, stumbles onto a strange world hidden just beneath the surface of her own. Turns out that there are monsters, demons, vampires, werewolves and warlocks living in NYC, concealed from ordinary humans by magic. There are, of course, huge secrets in the protagonist's home life, an arch-villain thought long dead, and, perhaps most importantly, a sexy, sarcastic demon hunter named Jace to serve as a love interest.

To say that Bones starts out as a cookie-cutter Potter clone is almost an understatement. The three most obvious influences on the novel are the Harry Potter books (style, story structure, world-building), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (dialogue, characterizations, supernatural concepts) and the Twilight saga (breathless romance, writing style). At times, the book's opening chapters feel like such a hodge-podge that there's little room for any kind of originality. Thankfully, once past the standard "call to adventure" segments, the book starts to get really, really fun.

You can tell that Clare is eager to get into the meat of the story, and for all that it's a little derivative, it's a solid one. Bit by bit, she fleshes out her fictional universe, which gets more interesting and unusual as the mythology develops. The concept of the Shadowhunters is actually fairly original, and the way she ties in various different myths and legends from all over the world is impressive. There is a lot of exposition in the book, some of it on the clunky side, but I enjoyed it anyway. Clare is not a great writer or anything; she got her start in Internet fan fiction (not that writing fan fiction is bad or uncreative), and it shows in her style: overuse of adverbs, plentiful, awkward similes, lots of clichés and near-clichés. Her secret weapon is her dialogue, which is usually snappy and fun, with a Joss Whedon-y flair for quirky humor.

Her characterizations overall are good. Clary is your standard YA heroine, although she gains a little dimension towards the end of the book. She's not irritating to read about (except when she conveniently forgets that her mother is being held hostage by an evil warlord), which is pretty much all that I ask. The other two points of the central love triangle are way more interesting. Jace is definitely the most well-realized character in the book; while some parts of his personality seem cliché, he's actually quite well-rounded--and genuinely funny, too. Simon, Clary's best friend, is not just the fifth wheel to Clary and Jace's budding romance, but a real character in his own right. The supporting cast, while not especially colorful, are a pretty well-developed bunch, too, with intriguing little internal conflicts of their own. The Big Bad, Valentine, is something of a let-down, though. When he finally shows up, he's your standard mustache-twirling Magnificent Bastard;

The plot is not especially creative (in fact, it's standard), but the pacing is lightning-quick and once past the halfway mark, the action comes fast and furious. By the end, a surprising amount of tension has been created. The climax is more a set-up for the rest of the series than a proper ending, but it's still tremendously entertaining, with a twist that I found genuinely shocking. Sure, the next book will probably find a way around it, but that doesn't diminish the immediate impact. Overall, I enjoyed the book more than I expected to. It's a fairly typical piece of post-Potter YA fantasy with just enough originality and verve to make it worthwhile. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to the next volume.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, 2006

Serial killers are bad. I think everybody pretty much agrees about that. The dastardly, mass-murdering psychopath is one of the classic fictional archetypes, and there are few permutations of the character, even in today's literature. Until I read Darkly Dreaming Dexter, I assumed it would pretty impossible to have a psychopath as the hero of a series of mystery novels. Certainly not a likable one.

Well, I was wrong about that. Dexter Morgan, the charming, wry narrator of the novel, is definitely one of the most unique protagonists I've ever read about. On the surface, he seems like a normal, affable guy. He works as a blood-spatter analyst in Miami, he's close with his foul-mouthed sister, Deb, he has a sweet relationship with his long-term girlfriend. But he's also a serial killer who spends his free time tracking down victims and chopping them up.

The masterstroke on Jeff Lindsay's part is this: Dexter has a code, instilled in him by his foster father, Harry. He only kills bad people, like rapists, pedophiles and other serial killers. Now, this doesn't mean he's a dogged vigilante, trying to rid the world of evil. Far from it. He's not much different from the people he kills. He's a true psychopath who loves murdering others and gets great pleasure from stalking his prey and then torturing them to death. Yet his deadpan humor, dry self-awareness and odd flashes of humanity make him bizarrely likable, even sympathetic. Dexter's narration is ingenious: funny, chilling, subtly off-kilter. There are sentences that elicit both a chuckle and a shudder, moments where I was torn between rooting for Dexter and hoping that he gets caught.

The book's main plot concerns a copycat serial killer operating in Miami who seems to be leaving clues specifically for Dexter. As the cops close in, Dexter is torn between helping his sister Deb solve the case and finding the killer himself so he can join in the fun. As good as the title character is, the book's actual story is a little thin. The mystery is straightforward and kind of dull, right up until the end, when it really starts to pick up steam. I'm not gonna lie, the climax is some fine white-knuckle tension, and very nicely structured around the question of just how much humanity Dexter has in him. That said, the identity of the Ice Truck Killer is more than a little far-fetched, and the use of prophetic dreams to push the plot along is overdone.

As is often the case with books as protagonist-centered as Dexter, the supporting characters are not especially interesting. Deb is the most developed, and while I liked her well enough, she's pretty two-dimensional. Lindsay is good at describing a character in an interesting way - LaGuerta is beautiful, ambitious and stupid, Doakes is obsessed with justice and suspicious of Dexter - but then doesn't really follow up with any kind of development. This is Dexter's novel; pretty much all of the story's conflict and color comes from his own internal narrative. Dexter's lack of analytical ability when it comes to "normal humans" would probably make it difficult to have a three-dimensional supporting cast anyway.

Despite the less-than-top-notch plotting and a supporting cast that didn't do much for me, there's no doubt that Dexter is an effective thriller, both hair-raising and thought-provoking. Dexter himself is one of the most striking and memorable protagonists in a long time. Is it wrong to root for him? Is he truly a monster, like he himself thinks, or is there a decent human being somewhere inside him? The novel never tells us outright (although there are some strong hints), which just makes the mystery more fascinating.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian by Eoin Colfer, 2012

I've been a fan of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series for years; at its best, these books are light, terrific fun with really endearing characters and goofy, James Bond-meets-Brothers Grimm plots. The first few installments are definitely the best ones; the series has been getting progressively weaker for a long time now, so I was rather pleased to hear that Colfer was finally wrapping up the series with Guardian. And I was even happier when Guardian proved to be a smart, satisfying conclusion to a sometimes troubled saga.

The plot revolves around the apocalypse, Fowl-style. Naturally, the engineer of this cataclysm is Artemis's arch-enemy, Opal Koboi, who escapes from prison using a brilliantly diabolical and bizarre trick. Her next step is unleashing ancient fairy magic that will destroy the world, if Artemis, Butler, Holly, Foaly and Mulch can't stop her in time. It's a something of a boilerplate plot for the series, but Colfer makes it clear from the get-go that the stakes are higher than ever. The action is completely relentless, and it's the classic mixture of exciting and entirely absurd that fans have come to expect. I mean, any book that has the Abominable Snowman pushing a small plane down a runway with a dwarf on his back, being pursued by fairy warriors possessing forest animals has to be awesome, right?

Colfer is not a phenomenal writer by any means; he never has been. There are plenty of awkward sentences and plenty of cliches, but there's generally enough genuine wit to counterbalance it. Gotta love the dialogue, too, even if it's often more cheesy than snappy. And hey, Colfer doesn't go too far with his usual ecological tangents, either, which is certainly a mercy.

The important thing about a finale, of course, is wrapping up character arcs, and for most of Guardian I was afraid that Colfer would shortchange Artemis (I was also a bit afraid that Artemis wouldn't have an opportunity to out-think his final foe). For the series to be at all satisfying, Artemis's redemption arc has to come full circle. Thankfully, Colfer makes the last few chapters one last classic Fowl gambit, with an emotional twist. For someone who's followed Artemis's journey from villain to hero for years, the ending has real impact. Everybody else gets a chance to shine, too, particularly Foaly, who gets his own subplot for the first time. And yes, Artemis's final sacrifice really got to me (I may have cried just a tad). It was a near-perfect conclusion to the series, as was the final line, where Holly, telling Artemis's clone his own life story, finishes the series with its very first sentence.


Let It Bleed by Ian Rankin, 1996

Let It Bleed is, in my opinion, the best John Rebus novel since Tooth and Nail. It's the longest in the series so far, a dense, intricate tale with both shocking intimacy and stunning scope. This is probably the most complex plot Rankin has yet attempted, but it's also one of his crispest and most logical. More important than the plot, of course, is John Rebus, and he's in fine form here--which is to say that he's an utter mess of a human being, and yet impossible not to love. Let It Bleed is the work of an author at the top of his game, and it's glorious.

As is usual with Rebus novels, the plot is impossible to succinctly describe, since it's tangled and twisted and looped back on itself. Suffice it to say that the novel opens with a stunning car chase that ends in tragedy and sparks an unofficial investigation that leads Rebus to the highest level of the Scottish government. As usual, his search for the truth could easily cost him his job, if not his life. The strands of plot, which are many, all tie together neatly here, something which caused Rankin trouble in previous books. The story may be devilishly complex, but it all comes together well (a couple of slightly over-stretching moments aside).

A blurb on the back of my copy compares Rankin to Charles Dickens, and it's an astonishingly insightful and apt comparison. Rankin, like Dickens, tells vast narratives that encompass people from every level of the socioeconomic strata. He keenly observes not only what makes them different, but what makes them similar. Rebus--and Rankin--is above all an observer of human nature, and he's a brilliant way to tell a story about people from all different backgrounds through just one narrator. Rebus is contemptuous of everybody; he's an equal-opportunity snarker.

His own life has perhaps never been worse. Not only has he broken up with Patience, but his estranged daughter Sammy is now living with her, complicating two already terrible relationships. His arch-enemy Flower is trying to get him off the force, and may know more than he's letting on. On top of everything, Rebus's alcoholism is getting steadily worse. Rankin's portrayal of Rebus's quiet desperation and whiskey-soaked melancholy is genuinely haunting. Though he fights against it, ennui and loneliness are always close to consuming him. The only thing that helps is his work, and yet even that only serves to drive him further into depression. Anybody who's read my reviews of Rankin's previous novels will know that I have been crazy about John Rebus since day one, and he remains one of my favorite literary detectives ever. He's an incredible character, period.

In a very real way, Let It Bleed's main dramatic action is not Rebus hunting down a murderer or a terrorist, but Rebus going head-to-head with a far more powerful group of opponents. He's never been more isolated or more out-classed, but instead of giving up, he digs in and puts up a fight. Choosing the side of the angels is hard, however, when you seem to be surrounded entirely by demons. Ultimately, Rebus doesn't defeat all that's wrong with his screwed-up world (not even close), but he does the best he can and has to hope that that's enough.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, 1999

I sort of wanted to resist The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Its reputation as a "banned book," its supposed wisdom and beauty, its popularity among teen readers, all of it kind of turned me off to it a bit. I imagined the book being gimmicky and cliched, the kind of YA novel that gets acclaim without being very good.

And then the book made me sob my eyes out. So, yeah. I misjudged it from the outset.

Perks does a lot of difficult things very, very well. It's a virtual minefield from start to finish, and Chbosky navigates it with incredible confidence. A YA novel narrated by a quirky, innocent protagonist (in epistolary format, no less)? A main character whose sunny outlook on life is an inspiration to others? A narrative about the first year of high school, complete with first dates, lunchroom fights and all-important dances? And let's not forget that the novel deals with a laundry list of hot-button social issues, like abortion, homophobia, date rape, mental illness and sexual abuse. These are the ingredients for disaster, or at least generic blandness, when it comes to a novel like this.

Perks is not a disaster. It's actually kind of a masterpiece. It gets to the heart of adolescence better than just about any book that I can think of off the top of my head. It's straightforward without being pedantic, simple without being simplistic. Its main character, Charlie, is an endlessly kind and sensitive boy and he should be completely irritating. But instead, he's one of the most beautifully realized characters I've read about in a YA novel. Even a last-minute revelation about his past is a genuine gut-kick rather than a hokey device. Writing a character that good had to have been incredibly difficult, but it completely works.

Charlie's commentary on the more cynical world around him is both incredibly insightful and endearingly naive. One of Chbosky's most effective concepts is peopling Charlie's world with complicated, multi-faceted characters that he doesn't fully understand. The reader only gets to truly understand the supporting characters gradually; Charlie is not an especially reliable narrator, even with his moments of startling insight.

Complaints? I really don't have any. It takes a while to settle into the novel, but that's more because of the idiosyncratic nature of the narration than any fault in execution. There were a few moments that reminded me of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief: beautiful and well-observed, but a tiny bit manipulative, as though the author knows just how thoroughly he's grabbed hold of your emotions, and takes the opportunity to twist the knife a bit. Still, it's pretty hard to accuse an author of manipulating your emotions too successfully.

In a lot of ways, Perks is not a complex novel. The story is not the point; the book has little plot, and even the central framing device of Charlie's letters goes entirely unexplained. What it is is an enchanting character study, and a look at the messed-up ways in which people relate to each other. Charlie makes observations about families, friend, love and growing up that are understated and simple, but sometimes gut-wrenchingly true. How many first kisses have I read about in novels? A lot. But how many are as sweet and gorgeous and memorable as Charlie's first kiss with Sam? Very few.

The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman, 1989

My second foray into the world of comic books was trickier but ultimately more rewarding than my first. The Sandman is one of the few comic book sagas to have a distinct beginning, middle and end. Unlike most others, it's actually possible to read it all the way through. The first eight issues, collected in Preludes and Nocturnes, are sometimes a little awkward, as you can see Gaiman getting his footing. By the end of the collection, however, the series starts to take form, and I realized that I was in for quite a journey.

Preludes and Nocturnes is a charmingly mixed-up narrative, hopping around genres, tones and locales with merry abandon, while keeping the main thread front and center. Some issues read like straight-up horror, others like elegant fantasy, others like DC superhero tales. The Sandman, Morpheus, is not a character nailed down to anything in particular; as is fitting for the Lord of Dreams, he is fluid and complex, and can pretty much end up anywhere, a storytelling device that's both handy and downright inspired.

The collection follows Morpheus as he escapes from a long imprisonment and returns to his realm to find that things have fallen apart in his absence. In classic form, he must go on a quest to reclaim three of his lost treasures, items that will give him back his power. This relatively simple frame enables Morpheus to travel to Hell, ally himself with a paranormal detective and go up against an escaped supervillain planning to take over the world.

For my money, the more down-to-earth material is where Gaiman really shines. Cosmic metaphysics are all well and good, but I prefer the genuine characterization to the nutty comic-book action (call me crazy, but I prefer stories where people actually interact to stories where every other pages has BOOM or KRSHEESH). Luckily for me, there's plenty of Gaiman's trademarks: dry wit, smooth narration, brilliantly off-the-wall imagery. The series' main character, Morpheus, is obviously a tricky one to write: he's a literal force of nature, as well as a person in his own right. Overall, I found him interesting--detached, but not unkind, ballsy, but ultimately insecure--and I look forward to more development in the future. The last issue, and the best, introduces his sister, Death, who's easily the most interesting and poignant character in the book. Their interaction is absolutely fascinating; I can't wait to see more of the Endless (they must have some interesting Christmas dinners).

The standalone elements are more hit-or-miss for me. Dream's trip to Hell left me pretty cold, and the Doctor Destiny storyline (while creating a nice framework for the book) ends rather anticlimactically, despite some great moments along the way. The "24 Hours" vignette is a particularly chilling interlude, like a Stephen King novel compressed into just a few gruesome pages. Doctor Destiny definitely has his moments as a villain, but like I said, the end of the storyline basically amounts to "Okay, everything's fine again due to comic-book physics." The final issue, however, is what has me really excited to get my hands on the next collection: it's a spare, surprisingly sweet tale about moving on, in various ways. It's very funny in places, and moving, and it's drawn with an impeccable eye for mood and characterization. Hopefully, as the series moves on, it will continue to mature in new and astonishing ways. With Gaiman at the helm, it seems impossible that it wouldn't.