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.