For a while, I thought Dark Places might end up being my favorite of the three. It starts with an intriguing hook, and builds with a desperation like the last point of a winner-take-all tennis tournament. Dark Places is the story of Libby Day, a woman in her early thirties; her life has been defined by the grisly murders of her two sisters and her mother. Libby survived, and famously testified in court against her older brother, sending him away to prison for life.
Libby is a broken woman, guilt-ridden, lazy, listless, unfocused, physically and mentally stunted. She's also becoming increasingly desperate as her sympathy fund, which has carried her through her wasted life, is nearly depleted. She connects with a loose organization of true crime nerds and decides they might be her ticket to a few more months of dodging the world, but in order to play ball with them, she has to dig into her past, into her tragic family, and most of all, into that fateful night.
Dark Places tracks both Libby's quest for answers as well as the events of the day and night the murders took place, swapping points of view between current-day Libby, her teenaged brother Ben in 1985, and her mother Patty leading up to her infamous death. Along the way, familiar themes are hauled out and examined in a cruel, flickering flourescent light of Flynn's twisted prose: money and poverty, family and regret, self-loathing and unlikely alliances.
The progression and escalation of the plot are pitch-perfect, each dark revelation coming fast and with furious thrills of revolting intrigue, and it's a formula that works except there is a veneer of a mystery novel here. But, because mysteries tend to hinge on their resolution, Dark Places struggles at the climax to make good on the promise of the chilling investigation phase. Perhaps it is because every significant revelation plays a part in the overwrought conclusion. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the book's answers are telegraphed early on but obfuscated with an unlikely coincidence that strains disbelief.. Perhaps it has more to do with the fact that what I cared most about—the developing emotional connections between several key leads—fizzles in the final few chapters instead of stepping up to center stage as I felt it should.
Ms. Flynn is a remarkable writer, and her pacing, plotting, and unsettling characterizations have created in three books a wonderfully dark canon. This book isn't the sickening takedown punch it could have been, but it comes close.(less)
- Exhausted from a 12-hour day at work, I try to read long after I should be in bed....moreSome scenes of my life while reading Marisha Pessl's Night Film:
- Exhausted from a 12-hour day at work, I try to read long after I should be in bed. I nod off, snap awake, read a few lines, nod off again. I can't bring myself not to fight my way to the end of the chapter. - At roughly the halfway point, I discover the interactive elements of the book, including a smartphone app. I try to go back to find the pages that unlock new extended content, but find they are too distracting. Any time spent fiddling in this way is time I'm not spending making progress. - Given a block of uninterrupted reading time, I drink two pots of coffee rather than waste the time dozing or being too sleepy to continue reading. - Home alone as I read a partiuclarly harrowing scene, my upstairs neighbor slams her front door. Startled, I yelp and convulse so badly the Kindle flies out of my hand and falls on the floor. - My only thought as I collect the reader is, "That sceen better at least still be legible or I'm going up there." - At the 75% mark I sit down, still 200 or so pages from the end, and begin to read, thinking I'll make as much progress as I can and probably finish in two or three more days (I read very slowly). Four hours later, I finish the book, well after midnight.
Granted, not all of these moments are incredibly unique when I get captured by a book. But Night Film crept around me like a shadow from behind so quickly and smoothly I didn't realize I was standing in it until it blocked out all the light. I had Night Film dreams. I concocted reasons to go back to reading it. I felt, at times, as if I were a character in the book, as if somehow Pessl had accomplished the impossible and written a story that went beyond the odd obfuscation of second-person and reached out through the pages and pulled the reader by the shirt into the narrative. By the end, I'm still not entirely convinced that isn't true.
Night Film is the kind of book about which I don't want to reveal too much plot information. It starts with discgraced reporter Scott McGrath jogging in Central Park late at night. He sees a woman in a red coat and black boots on several of his laps, but he can never quite get a glimpse of her face. She seems, perhaps, to be trying to send him a message of some sort, but she unnerves him. She's in places she shouldn't be, moving in ways that don't seem quite possible. Scott finishes his run, heads to the subway. Just as the train pulls away from the platform, he sees black boots coming down the steps, and the hem of a red coat.
When the news hits that reclusive underground filmmaker Stanislaus Cordova's troubled young daughter, Ashley, has committed suicide reaches Scott, he realizes from the accounts that the woman in the red coat was Ashley. Aside from the odd encounter at the park, Scott's history ties into the Cordovas in another way: researching the Cordova films and auteur is what directly led to Scott's fall from grace. But something doesn't sit right about Ashley's death and Scott decides he needs to finish what he started and re-open the case on Cordova.
Pessl tells the story with a narrative that switches gears subtly several times. She uses screen captures of online news articles (artfully recreated from actual sources like Rolling Stone and Newsweek), photographs (several of the characters have actors associated with them who re-appear throughout the mixed media narrative), websites, evidence, and the aforementioned extended material in the associated app. The story reads at times like a great mystery/caper, other times it becomes a research thriller like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and occasionally it dips into pure horror or psychological terror. Pessl takes her time getting to the satisfying end without ever getting dull or overstaying her welcome.
This is not a flawless book, though. Pessl insists on using a ridiculous amount of italics, many of which actually detract from the flow, rather than add to it. It gets incredibly annoying. The ending, while satisfactory, has a meandering quality that feels a bit—especially considering the contextualization leading up to it—as if it's occasionally trying too hard to tie up the loose ends.
But I'm happy to overlook these and heartily recommend this gripping, engaging, affecting book. When I finished it, I felt like I'd experienced something, as if I'd had a memorable real-life encounter, an enigmatic if fleeting moment I'd turn over and over in the days to come. Pessl creates a world that is so close to our own while being tantalizingly remote, it's oddly more horrible than reality and yet has an allure. The threads this winds through the narrative, beyond the words and into the reader's mind is enchanting like a bad dream you don't want to wake from.(less)
Sometimes I pick up a book or graphic novel for reasons I can't really explain. Maybe later I'll try to retroactively ascribe meaning to it: "Oh, I he...moreSometimes I pick up a book or graphic novel for reasons I can't really explain. Maybe later I'll try to retroactively ascribe meaning to it: "Oh, I heard the writer's name in passing" or "The [cover|title] really grabbed me" or "It was a staff recommendation and I just went with it." Whether those things really had an impact on my decision to try the book in question or not is probably immaterial. Occasionally I'll just give something a random chance, just to see.
I did that with Fatale. I knew nothing about it, or its creative team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Maybe I should have known Brubaker since he's done a lot of comics work that I might have heard of, but I've only gotten back into comics again (after a decade-and-a-half hiatus) in the past year or so. Anyway, I didn't know really what to expect going in.
What I got was a gripping, classic hard-boiled noir story with a heavy coat of Lovecraftian weirdness. That alone probably would have hooked me, even if the execution was hackneyed, but fortunately Brubaker belts it out of the park here. Phillips's art is tonally appropriate, skirting the line between modern and classic pulp expertly, and what really struck me is how cohesive the whole thing feels. These two have worked together in the past and it's pretty impressive to see a professional relationship gel into something tangible in a final work. This is the kind of thing that was most hit-and-miss with, say, Neil Gaiman's Sandman run: as good as it is, that show belongs to the writer. The artists just try to keep up. Here it feels like a collaboration, and that elevates the work overall.
I will admit I had some trouble keeping track of the characters sometimes. Phillips's character designs aren't quite sharp enough to make every one (except for sort-of title character Jo, and then only because she's lamentably the only real female character) easily distinguishable, but it made me read a little more closely which was to my benefit anyway since this is a complex story that gets even tricker very fast.
My biggest complaint is in the area of Brubaker's portrayal of women. He succumbs to the women in refrigerators syndrome and even Jo is, in spite of her intentionally archetypal trappings, kind of one-note through the five issues collected here. I get that with the time period and types of characters the story needed to focus on it makes a sort of sense to be a little dude-heavy, but I mean, c'mon, can't even a few of the evil cultists be women?
Still, there are two more collected volumes and the story is still ongoing in monthlies so I'll spare the heavy judgment until there's at least two arc's worth of stories under my belt. And that should be taken as a given that I'm going to continue to read this series.(less)
Both my wife and my mom have read and enjoyed plenty of Mary Higgins Clark books in the past. So when I scoured the bargain bin for low-cost audiobook...moreBoth my wife and my mom have read and enjoyed plenty of Mary Higgins Clark books in the past. So when I scoured the bargain bin for low-cost audiobooks to rescue me from a tedious commute, this one stuck out as a chance to catch up on an author people close to me enjoy but I have never tried before.
I think I can best summarize my feelings by saying I hope this is just a poor example of MHC's plotting and her other books are better.
The set up here is that a girl who was accused and acquitted (but not exonerated) of killing her mother and wounding her stepfather as a ten year-old child is given a gift of a house bought for her by her husband, twenty-five years later. That house happens to be the same house where the she grew up, the one where the shootings took place. Supposedly this woman (Celia Nolan) hasn't revealed the truth of her past to her current husband; her deceased first husband swore her to secrecy from the past she has tried so hard to escape.
Here's the problem with such an improbable, suspension-of-disbelief crushing premise: in any other genre of book, this would be a deal-breaker. There are coincidences and then there are odds-defying happenstances that define the phrase "truth is stranger than fiction." Fiction's rules are stricter because this kind of one-in-a-trillion chance, in the context of fiction, highlights the strings being pulled by the author. In a mystery novel, it makes the circumstances so highly suspect as to ruin the suspense.
Perhaps if it were just this fault, I could forgive No Place Like Home. But throughout it continually reeks of authorly intervention. Characters make spectacular leaps of logic as it suits the narrative, or respond to evidence staring them in the face with remarkable dimwittedness, also as necessary for the narrative's needs. As such, few characters are believable. Even Celia, who has the benefit of being the sole first-person narrator, can't come across as believable when the audience is privy to her inner monologue and rationales behind her often criminally stupid decisions. To me, this all just says poor writing.
I get the impression that Ms. Clark's problem here may have been a hackneyed premise that she couldn't let go of and forced into a finished novel despite it being flawed on the face of it. She's actually good at creating plausible red herrings and her pacing is impressively snappy (though perhaps some of that is due to the audiobook's abridgment), so with a different core idea I might give another one of her books a chance to see if this was a fluke.
Unfortunately, I can't find enough positive to say about this book to recommend it to anyone.
In a brief aside for the audiobook, the narration provided by Jan Maxwell is reasonable, though a few of her "guy voices" are just shy of comical. I did appreciate that the chapters matched up to the disc tracks (helped by the short chapter breaks, I'm sure), and each was padded by a few seconds of dead air that made pausing the player at natural stopping points much easier than other CD-based audiobooks I've tried. However, I don't modify ratings based on non-book aspects like production values for audiobooks, so while I thought this was a very good quality production, it isn't reflected in the low final rating.(less)
When I was in junior high school, I started reading Stephen King novels. I was a timid, easily frightened little kid and I think in part my interest i...moreWhen I was in junior high school, I started reading Stephen King novels. I was a timid, easily frightened little kid and I think in part my interest in the creepy stories of King's early work was part of an effort to deal with the anxieties I labored under. Books were safe, salvational, and though titles like It, Carrie, and Pet Sematary were terrifying, there was something about them that I could confront where trips to the Halloween store and VHS copies of horror films were overwhelming. I read a lot of King's work between the ages of about 12 and 19, basically everything he published under his own name (I think the only Richard Bachman work I've read is The Regulators) up through 1996 (the only major novel release from that time period I skipped was Rose Madder). Since then, I've drifted from King's work, with a few exceptions like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and On Writing.
The reasons for me branching out don't have all that much to do with the quality of King's work (although the Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne era found me not really loving what he was putting out toward the end of my obsession there), and more to do with the fact that I no longer needed to prove myself capable of conquering literary fear and I transitioned to getting my chills and thrills from a long back catalog of horror movies while my reading preferences drifted into epic fantasy and other genres. Eventually my fascination with all sorts of macabre stuff faded along with my sense of invincible youth and the prospect of gaining entertainment value from death and terrestrial horror (regular humans doing despicable things, as seen in trash like Hostel and Human Centipede, perhaps influenced by similar subject matter in the less effective King novels around the time I stopped lining up for each new release) so I never really went back to the Stephen King well. And admittedly a big part of my inability (or unwillingness) to keep up was tied to the copy of The Dark Tower IV Wizard and Glass, which came out so long after I had finished the previous entry that I had trouble keeping up and frustrated me.
11/22/63 then is the first novel I've read by King, then, since probably 2000, and there are two key factors that did it: time travel and JFK. I don't think it mattered who wrote a novel that incorporates these two elements, I would have been intrigued either way; the fact that it represented an opportunity to re-visit an old favorite author was just a happy coincidence. So I picked up a copy of the 850-page brick that is 11/22/63 and re-acquainted myself with Mr. King.
The first thing that stood out to me—something I had forgotten—was what an easy, natural storyteller King is. His prose isn't jump-off-the-page spectacular, but he has such a way of drawing the reader along through even his epic tales that it never feels like you're reading a near-thousand page monster. He's particularly great about doing this kind of baldfaced foreshadowing thing where he doesn't allude to the significance of an early event, he plainly spells out that it matters, but he doesn't connect the dot right away, instead circling it in yellow highlighter so that the tension mounts as the chapters fall toward the front cover leaving the reader anxious to discover why that particular event matters.
11/22/63 is the story of Jake Epping, a divorced high school English teacher who stumbles across a sort of wormhole in the back of his friend Al's diner that he can pass through and come out in the same spot only in 1959. Each time through the portal, the world in 1959 is reset, but the effects of Jake and Al's actions in the past can have ripple effects so that when they return to 2011 (always two minutes later than when they went in, no matter how long they stay in the past), things may be different. Initially, Jake tests this theory by saving a family doomed to a horrific fate he knows about from a janitor pal at the school he teaches in, and though he is successful, he realizes there is sufficient uncertainty in the outcomes due to the oft-cited butterfly effect. But Al is convinced that the risks are worth it for one big intervention, one key opportunity to improve the past and create a better future: Stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Yet Al is dying of lung cancer and his final attempt sees his illness progressing too rapidly for him to make it to 1963, so he implores Jake to take up the cause. Thus begins the main thread of the narrative where Jake travels to the past for a four-year stint in which he is determined to find Lee Harvey Oswald and stop his plans. Under the guise of his past (King refers to it often as The Land of Ago) alias, George Amberson, Jake returns twice, once to stop the janitor's fate and check the outcome, and once to push all the way through to 1963 (if necessary) and do whatever it takes to prevent the death of the president.
The principal antagonist in the story is what Jake (and King) refer to as "the obdurate past," which in the world of 11/22/63 means that the past resists efforts to change it. And though Jake/George is determined to succeed in his mission, the obdurate past requires careful planning and patience to execute any sweeping ripple effects. As Jake's time in the early sixties drags on, he makes his way through by carefully manipulating the details he knows about, betting on sporting events to provide cash, lying smoothly to most everyone he meets, and he begins to sort of fall in love with the simpler times of Ago. Then, he falls in love with a woman, Sadie Dunhill.
The threads of Jake's existence in the past begin to twist themselves together, propelled along by that not-foreshadowing trick, the careful pacing squeezing tension deliberately like a snake slowly wrapping itself around prey, only tightening uncomfortably at the moment when it is too late. Sadie and George (Jake) have a cheer-them-on kind of romance, though George's secretiveness threatens their happiness, you see the bond they share working behind the scenes in what has got to be Stephen King's best depiction of love and tender romance that I've come across. Of course, this is Stephen King, so an ominous cloud hangs over them throughout, further dragging readers through the pages wondering how it will all work out.
There is an awful lot to like about 11/22/63, from the clever but simple mechanics of his time travel, the fun fanservice-y tie-in with his earlier novel (and one of my favorites), It; even the portrayal of life in the 60s through the lens of a modern man is impressive. Jake himself is a likable character, full of self-doubt and occasionally self-importance, but with a sharp wit and a not-too-schmaltzy big heart.
Late in the book there is a point at which the mounting tension hits a break point and King makes a specific decision that sets the stage for the dramatic climax and it was here that I remembered the other thing about Stephen King: he really struggles to find endings that leave readers—or at least me—feeling satisfied. I've wondered for a long time if King's books tend toward the epic in length because the author doesn't really want the stories to end, that he has more fun creating the worlds than making them change. If you've read a few of his novels, you can start to recognize where this process begins and King tends to make a particular decision that will define the context for the final push to the end and in 11/22/63, the point comes at just past the three-quarters mark in the 842-page book, (view spoiler)[when Jake's association with shady bookies catches up with him (hide spoiler)].
From that point on the book is not quite as delightful, and the event comes across as an obvious writer-tool to set up a race against the clock to try and avert the assassination. I didn't hate the turn the story took, but I felt it could have been executed more subtly or at least in a less formulaic fashion. Another side effect of this choice is that a book that has been... well, not exactly light-hearted, but at least fairly upbeat until the turning point. From there, the last quarter of the book passes by under a grim, dark shadow. I can't quite decide if this is an effective note to hit or if it feels uneven, though I lean toward the latter. There is something off-putting about the hasty final chapters that doesn't quite spoil the experience of the whole thing, but left me with a sense that at some point King decided the party just needed to end so he shut off all the lights and screamed, "Get Out!" It's not a bad ending, it's merely one that falls short of the promise shown in the first half. For a book that I loved for that long, to end with sort of a depressing sense of, "Yeah, sure, okay" was a disappointment.
(view spoiler)[One thing I did appreciate about the ending is the way that King—without stuffing it into your throat—points a spotlight on the fact that while it's easy to find people who bemoan the present, who wistfully speak of "the good ol' days," to even get the sense from reading a daily news site that things are tough all over, modern society has a lot going for it. There is a hard-to-spot undercurrent of hope in the bleak closing chapters which has no bearing on Jake at all, but says something larger about the way that we view the past and the way we might be best served when looking at the future. I liked that. (hide spoiler)]
In spite of a lukewarm sense about the end, I will say that it shouldn't stop anyone from reading the book. Stephen King may not be my favorite author anymore, but he remains a master storyteller and this book is a showcase for what happens when you give a great storyteller a great story to tell.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
An unreliable man squares off against skeptical police officers. In question, an imperiled wife. The framework is set from which a series of indictmen...moreAn unreliable man squares off against skeptical police officers. In question, an imperiled wife. The framework is set from which a series of indictments on love and, particularly, marriage are cast. Yet these observations and astute, hot-knife blows on the impenetrable institution are so coiled and twisted on themselves that they wrap back around to something like a terrifying celebration of the act of union. This set up could easily be applied to Adam Ross's Mr. Peanut, but here Gillian Flynn takes a different track, speeding off in a forking direction that is thrills and genuine mystery where Ross's approach is convoluted and laden with digression.
I much prefer Flynn's book.
Gone Girl follows the twin narrators of Amy and Nick Dunne, their spiraling and often contradictory tales leaping off from the day of their five-year anniversary in which Amy is found to be missing from their troubled home in Missouri under what appear to be suspicious circumstances. Signs of a struggle, an afternoon interrupted. Nick is concerned, worried, uncertain and fearful. He is also lying to the police. He is the most unreliable of narrators, skimming important details both to the authorities and to the audience. At almost precisely the halfway point, Flynn rips the mask away from the narrative and sucker-punches her readers in the most delicious, sado-masochistic way.
This is a blistering read, let's not dance around it. A not-slight volume that my laborious reading annihilated in a couple of days, I found it impossible to get away from. I read whenever I could and when I could not, the book sat on my mind like an oversized centerpiece on a tiny, wobbly card table. For 95% of the voyage through these pages, I was in love with Ms. Flynn's cruelly compelling creation.
And then. Oh, and then. I blasted Mr. Peanut for Ross's indecisive, indulgent conclusion. Gillian Flynn again swerves the opposite direction, building, building, hauling the reader along by the lapels until suddenly and vindictively dropping the reins and cutting to black. It is the short story ending to the consuming epic, written either out of a lack of true resolution or to send book clubs into riotous disagreement, a puppeteer's finale of defiance and verve: I dare you to fill in the blanks! You write the epilogue, sucker!
It isn't a broken ending; it's not a cheat or a failure. It's just unsatisfactory to the point that I groaned, "Nooo!" This isn't a fling-it-across-the-room conclusion. It's a, "why oh why couldn't it be what I wanted? It was so good up until then!" I wanted something brutal, one final gotcha, even a cheat would be better. I wanted Defending Jacob's shattering end. I got Raymond Carver's premature exit. At least Carver usually had the courtesy to keep the beginnings short so as to avoid allowing over-investment by his readers.
I'm sitting here, a few minutes from finishing, feeling somewhat betrayed by Gone Girl but finding it impossible not to still sing it's praises. This is a razor blade of a book, beautiful and deadly to pre-conceptions, caveat emptor. The writing is so sharp, so delicious and full of pointed insights, delightfully flawed characters, twin protagonists you both love and loathe, a wonderfully portrayed setting and so many thrilling moments. Here you have a textbook thriller: It thrills, it chills, it delights in it's malevolent way. I was positive this was a top-shelf book, a five-star with a bullet nail-biter. And then the end.
Not everyone will loathe the conclusion, I'm certain of that. This is a book worth reading even if you suspect you may share my dismay at the closing chapter (which I reached and then eagerly turned to the next page looking for what I assumed was the coming zinger, only to find it just... over). You have to know, you have to get there so you can find someone to talk it over with. Let's start some conversations with "Can you believe...!?" Let's just sit for a minute afterward and shake our heads lightly, "Oh my god. Wow. Just wow." Whether those are the exclamations of disbelief and disappointment (me) or admiration and giddy awe (you?), it deserves to be experienced. Bravo—I hate you, Gone Girl, but—bravo. (less)
William Landay's searing, crafted novel, Defending Jacob, is by far the most unexpected book I've read in a while. It struck me as particularly intere...moreWilliam Landay's searing, crafted novel, Defending Jacob, is by far the most unexpected book I've read in a while. It struck me as particularly interesting that while I don't read a ton of legal thrillers (and I'm not sure this counts as one), those that I have read don't really seem to cross with mysteries very often. In Defending Jacob, there is a distinct mystery at the core of the book, though it is framed in the context of the trial proceedings and not principally within the initial investigation.
The book follows Andy Barber, Massachusetts ADA, who is called when the body of a young boy is found murdered in a woodsy park in his own Boston suburb of Newton. Initially there are no suspects, but as the investigation proceeds, two possible perpetrators emerge. One is a convicted sex offender and the other is Andy's own son, Jacob. The District Attorney's office makes the decision to pursue Jacob as their suspect, pulling Andy off the case and setting off a sequence in which the largely circumstantial but nevertheless compelling evidence mounts against Jacob.
The central thrust of the plot is the twin spires of the case. One is the draining effect it has on the Barber family, with the secrets it unearths, the questions it raises and the way it re-casts the entire family in the eyes of the community. The other is the mystery of the case itself, the particulars and the "what if" elements: what if the jury convicts? What if the actions of the parents are called into question? And mostly, what if Jacob actually committed the crime, regardless of what the jury decides?
Landay uses a narrative structure that has the majority of the case being recalled by Andy some time after the initial trial and investigation as part of a grand jury hearing in which the weight of suggestion is heavy that there are events that take place outside or after the initial trial that are as, if not more, significant than the trial and its outcome. In these sequences, mostly told via court transcripts of contentious examination by Andy's understudy at the DA's office, the cloud of these events are palpable but believably obscured (for the most part).
What unfolds then is a series of examinations between crucial trial moments where the nature of family, fatherhood, belief in the inherent goodness not just of children but of your own actions are dissected, drawn out, examined, and re-defined. A central theme is the concept of nature versus nurture, of psychology and the revelations of genetics, as well as the definitions of self. There is a secret about Andy that affects (or perhaps does not affect) Jacob which casts a particular glow across the whole proceeding, paving the way for Landay (through Andy) to muse on the topic of which comes first: the murder or the murderer.
As the book artfully sets the stage with a languid sense of the reader not having the whole story but the tale being told compellingly, eventually the trial begins and the tension begins to mount. Landay paces himself so that what seems at first to be a meandering, thoughtful study of a family in crisis begins to ratchet up, the crescendo suddenly maximizing until the final 100 pages or so become so engrossing that a book I felt confident in my ability to take my time with out of nowhere became a page-turner so engrossing I had to stay up ridiculously late just to finish.
And oh, the finish.
But I'll come back to the finale in a moment. First let me pause to discuss the few flaws the book has. Primarily, I found it frustrating that the question of genetic predisposition toward violence is never satisfactorily pursued. Particularly, Andy, as the narrator, seems to occasionally hint toward a confession about his own, personal, sense of morality or his possible predilection to violence. A few times he seems to act as if he believes that he does have a draw to anger and/or unthinking action, which could easily include violence. But the exploration of this topic feels incomplete, even in a novel that is unafraid—admirably so—to leave questions unresolved. The other small but nagging annoyance is that Landay (or Andy, though I don't think you can write this off as a character element) repeats and rehashes certain topics to drive home their significance rather than expanding the discussions. This is particularly noteworthy when the topic of those genetic or nature-based propensities to do harm to other comes up, but also he revisits the concept of the "unknowable other" several times without really diving into what that means or what that says about the characters and events that take place. It's a missed opportunity because it could really enhance the narrative, but Landay leaves it on the mantle, unfired. There are a few other minor examples as well.
A large concern is that the central framework is a fabrication. Obviously the narrator and the ADA cross-examining him in the transcript interludes know more than the audience is privy to up until the closing chapters. In almost any other hands I'd probably cry foul and declare it a cheat, but I think Landay does as good a job as I've seen in making this work, in not having it feel terribly artificial, at least during the initial read. I admit that after the fact it was so glaring that it buffs some of the luster off the polish of the book, but I can't say that I protested during the subterfuge. It's a weird pseudo-flaw then: a contrivance that works until you become part of the informed, at which point it reveals itself as a cheat, though one that is forgivable if you can admit how exhilarating it was to be blissfully unaware.
My veiled hints refer to the book's final pages—literally the last twenty—which flip the central tenets of the story to that point once and then just as you are in the midst of the mindwarp provided there, the whole novel is re-cast as the brutal, unflinching and pointedly unresolved final sequence unfolds. I can see how some people are going to read this and want to fling the book across the room. I checked mine out from the library so that wouldn't have been an option for me. But it was never a danger anyway because I was among those who wanted to immediately find Mr. Landay and shake his hands for having the stones to drop such a pitch-perfect ending onto an already gripping book. It's messed up, yes. It's hard to deal with, sure. But it's so effective, I just can't imagine it ending any other way.
In the end, I highly recommend Defending Jacob to people who like thoughtful family dramas, people who like thoughtful crime or legal dramas and people who can say they don't mind being duped as long as it's for a worthy cause. I liked the book very much and I can't wait to find some other people who've read it so I can discuss it with them, because the real power of the novel, I suspect, will be in the ensuing conversation.(less)
Here we go again on another Stephanie Plum... well, I was going to say "mystery" but that isn't really accurate, and I think I need to stop thinking o...moreHere we go again on another Stephanie Plum... well, I was going to say "mystery" but that isn't really accurate, and I think I need to stop thinking of this series as a collection of mysteries, regardless of where they're shelved in the bookstores. Let's go with "caper" instead.
Janet Evanovich's half-awesome, half-bumbling heroine is back, this time tracking down a beloved neighborhood candy store owner who skipped bail after a gung-ho cop booked him for carrying a concealed weapon. Now Stephanie's social circle is cross with her for sullying the reputation of a local saint and she still has to navigate her way through the parade of zany characters in her trademark falling-with-style panache. I've said in earlier reviews in the series that the plots aren't really the point here, these ridiculously readable novels are much more at home giving backdrop to the fun predicaments and set pieces Evanovich likes to throw at her hapless protagonist.
I was happy to see that Grandma Mazur, a force in Two For The Dough steps back and Lula, the sassy hooker-turned-fileclerk gets sidekick billing this time around. We also get to learn more about Ranger and Morelli and Stephanie continue their funny series of near misses—or maybe more accurately near hits. Plum still has about as much luck with cars as with men, she's witty and funny and likable as ever.
It's going to get old if I keep reviewing each of these books with the same caveats, basically reiterating how breezy and silly and fun they are while offering very little in the way of substance. But it's hard to have much more to say at this point. Three books in and we're still in "establish the formula" territory, so I don't expect much in the way of serious character development just yet. The questions I'm starting to ask are when is the formula going to wear thin for me? I suspect that if there isn't a bit of evolution to Plum or the growing cast around her by about book five (High Five to be exact), my moderate enthusiasm for the series is going to wane. These are reasonably written, fast-paced, escapist reads but there is only so much repetition that a novel-reader should be asked to endure.
I have the next two on my to-read list already. I'm not sure that the review of Four To Score will have much more to say than this or the previous one had. But if I'm still giving three tepid, apologetic stars to these by book five, I think I'm going to have to take a break from the series (at least) so I don't become an embodiment of insanity's definition.(less)
I guess the benefit of having your heroine be a bounty hunter and not a private detective or an amateur sleuth is that the traditional whodunnit myste...moreI guess the benefit of having your heroine be a bounty hunter and not a private detective or an amateur sleuth is that the traditional whodunnit mystery format doesn't necessarily have to apply. After two of Janet Evanovich's numbered Stephanie Plum novels, it's pretty clear the star of the show isn't the corpse du jour and the method by which the perpetrator is discovered, the star is Plum herself and the revolving cast of colorful, over-the-top supporting characters.
The plot here isn't even really that interesting: A cousin of Plum's antagonistic sort of half-crush, vice cop Joe Morelli, skipped bail on an assault charge for shooting a friend in the knee. After Plum misses a chance at an apprehension, the friend ends up dead and the chase is on. What is interesting is Plum's falling-with-style approach to her job, where she ineptly channels her uncommon luck/unluck into a sort of passable career. That, and Evanovich's knack for writing memorable characters.
One For The Money was pretty good, but this one showcases where Evanovich is going with the character and the stories, which is into a breezy, funny, quick read territory. The plot of the first novel was better than this one, but the humor and characterization are superior in this follow up which means they're about a wash in comparison. I'm tempted to boost the final rating of this one just because of the laugh-out-loud ludicrousness of Grandma Mazur, who steals the show in this book. I'll refrain though because Grandma is the kind of Fonzi/Urkel-esque character who can easily crowd the spotlight, so I hope Evanovich doesn't feature her to this degree in every subsequent book. Still, she may be the un-quantifiably best elderly character I've yet encountered in fiction.
These books are empty literary calories, and there's nothing wrong with a little mindless fun. I'm certainly putting Three To Get Deadly on my to-read list and I'm not even feeling guilty about it. I do hope as the series goes on the plotting gets a bit stronger while the zany tone and witty dialogue stay consistent, but even at the current quality level, I'm game for a half dozen or so, no problem.(less)
Some people are just genre fiction devotees, sticking to their romance novels or science fiction paperbacks or westerns more or less exclusively. I'm...moreSome people are just genre fiction devotees, sticking to their romance novels or science fiction paperbacks or westerns more or less exclusively. I'm not one of those people, which means that I try to sample a bit from wherever sounds interesting. But I have unique relationships with a number of specific genres, such as my wary approach to epic fantasy or my conceptual preference (that doesn't quite hold up in practice) to science fiction or my exhaustion with horror novels from a binge in my early teens. When it comes to mysteries, though, I find myself returning to the well with a pretty regular frequency which makes my relationship to mystery novels pretty consistent. The funny thing, though, is that I rarely ever love the mysteries I read.
As I read Sue Grafton's 'A' Is For Alibi, I realized that part of the problem is that I'm never sure what exactly I'm looking for in a mystery story. It occurred to me for the first time when reading Kinsey Millhone's inaugural adventure that perhaps the problem I have with rarely being really enthusiastic about mystery novels is that I'm bringing impossible expectations to the table. Take Grafton's book: To a certain extent, I felt unimpressed because I kind of figured out the killer about halfway through, round about the time Millhone was scratching her head and saying she was getting frustrated at not making much progress. And as the evidenced tightened around my prime suspect, I felt a surge of triumph for being so much smarter than Grafton's heroine.
What I realized is that I approach mysteries as a sort of an intellectual challenge, as if each book were egging me into a contest to see whether I could figure out the culprit before the character could. The theory I'm starting to work from now is that such is not the point at all. Which might explain why, unless a book really surprises me without cheating (that is to say, reveals the culprit in a way which no reader could possibly have solved either because there was no link between the perpetrator and the narrative until the unveiling or because the perp is not introduced until they are shown as the villain), I always feel somewhat let down by a mystery.
The cementing point in 'A' Is For Alibi came when I realized that Grafton had masterfully orchestrated a book that met my exacting standards in that a certain component of the truth of Millhone's case was a surprise to me, but I still had that smugness because the central mystery of who Kinsey Millhone killed (that's not a spoiler; the information is given in the book's second sentence) figured out relatively early on. So on finishing the book I realized I had to admit that it was a very good mystery; that even if I was able to deduce some of the facts ahead of time, it wasn't so transparent as to be dull and predictable. In fact, that word "predictable" I think is the cornerstone of how I erroneously have been approaching most mystery novels up to this point. I think what I need to start doing to really enjoy them more is stop being so hung up on whether or not I can guess what's going to happen next and enjoy the ride. After all, to a certain extent all novels are mysteries and I don't necessarily discount a book just because I can predict it's climax or resolution if it comes from another shelf in the bookstore.
So taking a more non-mystery analytical approach to Grafton's introductory Millhone novel, I can say that overall I really enjoyed this book. It's a taut, well-crafted novel that manages to squeeze an impressive amount of tone and atmosphere out of little over 200 pages and the central mystery is engaging and exciting. I read the book very quickly because I was truly absorbed in it (although circumstances kept me from really knocking it down in a sitting or two which is probably what I would have preferred) and that speaks to Grafton's circumstantially appropriate style. What I mean by that is that she is able to adjust the pace of the prose to match the intensity of the situation, playing with description the way a director might play with different lighting effects or camera angles to evoke specific moods for various scenes. There are a lot of characters in a small space in this book, but Grafton does an admirable job of keeping them all straight in the reader's head without too many obvious author-y tricks.
There are a few niggling complaints here and there. Millhone herself takes a while to get a voice, coming across as a sort of generic PI heroine for the first third to half the book, though she does develop more of an identifiable personality toward the end. Unlike obvious comparison point Stephanie Plum from Janet Evanvich's numbers series, Millhone doesn't make much of an initial splash. Also, the ending sequence is sort of awkward and abrupt, leaving the whole novel with a particularly unsatisfying conclusion that is only lessened somewhat by the knowledge that there are (at this point) plenty of sequels to develop the character further. And in an admittedly petty but sincere gripe, the paperback edition I read contains a mystifying and aggravating number of typos, mistakes and misprints which started to distract me badly during one of the books very few low points, narrative-wise.
If I were judging 'A' Is For Alibi on my usual scale for mysteries, I'd probably be waffling between two and three stars for having some potential as a series starter and being capable and well-paced. But I feel compelled to act on my newfound insight and realize that I liked the book a little bit more than just that, making me wonder if this is maybe even a four-star book. For a series book I usually find that my assessment hinges on how urgently I find myself wanting to dive into the follow-up, though. And while I definitely will be putting B Is For Burglar up on my to-read list as soon as this review is posted, I don't think it will be my very next book which means I can live with a break from Kinsey Millhone for a bit and that probably means I didn't love the book. Don't let the middling three-star review fool you, though, I really enjoyed Grafton's novel and I'm happy it taught me something about mystery novels, something that will hopefully make future mysteries all the more enjoyable.(less)
Stephanie Plum is, at first blush, kind of a cookie-cutter feisty heroine, the kind who appear in mystery novels and television shows often as the kin...moreStephanie Plum is, at first blush, kind of a cookie-cutter feisty heroine, the kind who appear in mystery novels and television shows often as the kind of safe pushback against the damsel-in-distress archetype. But the thing Janet Evanovich does that I like is she starts her series with Plum green and soft, just getting into the boys club that other authors would have their protagonists waltzing through as old hands. It is this trial-by-fire atmosphere where readers share in Stephanie's alternately terrifying and hilarious mishaps as well as her triumphs, both minor and major, that make her an interesting character.
One For The Money follows the down-and-out Stephanie Plum as she finds herself six months out of a job, selling off her last few possessions to pay her bills and running out of options. In a moment of desperation she goes to her cousin, Vinnie the bail bondsman, looking for work. All he has to offer her is a longshot job as a bounty hunter, dragging in bail jumpers. She accepts, at first not sure at all what she's getting into, and then she realizes her first target is a cop by the name of Joe Morelli, a heartbreaker from her neighborhood she has a short if rather checkered past with. Before she knows it, Stephanie is neck deep in the murder case against Morelli where it appears he killed an unarmed man. Mixed up in the whole deal is a sinister prize fighter who locks his eyes on Plum, another bondsman who goes by the name of Ranger, and a couple of plus-sized hookers.
Evanovich grants Plum's first-person account of her inaugural stint as a bounty hunter a solid dose of humor, sass, humility, honesty and thrills to make for a race of a read. Plum feels authentic, going from adrenalized self-satisfaction to terrified near-victim regularly and offering plenty of plausible explanations as to why she doesn't give up, revealing herself to be tenacious and endearing without being moronic. Moreover, the assorted cast of characters are perhaps not as well-realized but just as relatable and the interactions between the principals all feels genuine.
As a mystery, One For The Money is pretty good, although it isn't difficult to tell which tidbits of information are important to the end sequence well in advance, at least the specifics of the plot aren't readily obvious. Evanovich strikes the right balance between levity and gravity, ratcheting up the tension and the stakes through the course of the briskly moving novel until it gets pretty real by the end, but fortunately only in that sort of surface-level, Hollywood type of heft. What this does is make the book feel very escapist which is a positive thing, but it also makes it feel kind of lightweight and frivolous as well, which is perhaps not so good, depending on your disposition. This is a tough line to walk for mysteries: Too dark and you end up with Thomas Harris or John Sandford; too light and you end up with Nancy Drew. For the most part this beach-read vibe works in Evanovich's favor, but I wonder if this kind of disposable sensibility can persist through a whole series?
All said, I enjoyed One For The Money quite a bit, and a lot more than I expected to. I'd pick up the next book in the series without hesitation and while it certainly isn't going to be on any must-read list or be something I press on all my friends to read, the sort of lovable disaster that is Stephanie Plum is a character I'd be happy to revisit when I'm looking for another fun read.(less)
For the first half of The Godwulf Manuscript, I had a hard time understanding why I was reading the book. I had been recommended the series as being s...moreFor the first half of The Godwulf Manuscript, I had a hard time understanding why I was reading the book. I had been recommended the series as being solid detective stories featuring a wise-cracking protagonist and a good example of how to craft snappy dialogue. But for the first 100 pages or so I just couldn't get a handle on Spenser as a character. His "wit" seemed to be a casual sneer in the direction of everyone he encountered—most of whom he could have gotten to be much more cooperative if he'd not been such a tool right off the bat—and it wasn't even all that witty to me anyway.
But then, curiously, Spenser started to grow on me. By about halfway through the book I was appreciating his sense of humor more, and his disregard for the kinds of social convention like assigned parking and not beating puffed-up bullies senseless endeared me a little. Robert B. Parker never does a great job at describing Spenser physically so in part I think my inability to connect with him early on was that I couldn't get much of a mental picture going, but eventually this straightens out.
A more pointed critique for The Godwulf Manuscript is that, as a mystery, it's only so-so. There's an economy of characters problem throughout in that very few individuals (left alive) could possibly be the guilty party meaning the reveal is less whodunnit but whydunnit. That's okay, I suppose, except very early on the mystery stops having anything to do with the titular manuscript and becomes about (view spoiler)[drugs and a series of murders (hide spoiler)]. In fact, I was never terribly clear on what the manuscript had to do with anything at all, other than to conveniently get Spenser involved in something that otherwise would have been a routine police matter. Maybe that's all it was, but by the end it felt a bit like Fridge Logic.
The real question, I suppose, is whether this book made me want to continue reading Mr. Parker's novels, because by most accounts I've seen, the series gets better as it goes along. I guess the highest praise for The Godwulf Manuscript I can muster is that it was interesting enough to put the series on come-back-to status: I haven't entirely written off Parker as a novelist and Spenser as a character so I can see going back and trying book two at some future point. But, this certainly didn't have me racing out to see desperately what happens next. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Introducing a world like the one in Fables is the lynchpin of the overall execution of the series. The concept itself is fairly simply described: "Rea...moreIntroducing a world like the one in Fables is the lynchpin of the overall execution of the series. The concept itself is fairly simply described: "Real-life fairy tale characters take refuge in modern day New York after their homelands are overrun by a tyrant. Here they must try to blend in and survive without revealing their true nature." Such a concept is one of those with plenty of potential, including the potential for dreadful execution that results in stupid or syrupy stories.
Williamson mostly manages to avoid all the possible pitfalls by creating a world that, like fairy tales themselves, is by turns dark, scary, silly, funny, ironic, bitter, light and corny. The end result works very well. It even manages to put just enough edge to the whole proceedings to make it hip and cool in the process.
Volume one centers around the disappearance and potential death of Snow White's sister, Rose Red. The Big Bad Wolf, going by the name of Bigby and disguised as a human while he acts as sherrif of Fabletown, investigates the crime in this first volume, bringing a sort of Thomas Magnum sensibility along. Snow White follows him around and they develop a kind of half-combative chemistry; she's a suspect in the disappearance having a well-known feud going with Rose, but she's also strong-willed and hands-on, needing to be a part of the case in order to feel like she's doing something to find her sister.
Along the way we're introduced to the egocentric Jack Horner, the scoundrel Prince Charming, mistrusted Bluebeard, a bickering Beauty and the Beast and more. It's fun and energetic and the central mystery in this volume is well-crafted and doesn't cheat the reader, letting Bigby shine without overshadowing the others or the setting in this character-heavy book. The art is clean and classic, revealing the action but perhaps not breaking any new ground.
It is definitely a strong introduction to the world of Fables and inspires further reading, marking it a very successful graphic novel.(less)
For someone who devours Preston & Child's (basically Pendergast-exclusive) novels, I've been surprisingly picky about their solo work. I picked up...moreFor someone who devours Preston & Child's (basically Pendergast-exclusive) novels, I've been surprisingly picky about their solo work. I picked up Death Match on a whim from the library because I needed something breezy along the lines of Christopher Pike's Falling to go along with the end of summer while I trudge through Crime and Punishment on DailyLit.
Death Match is the story of Christopher Lash, an ex-FBI profiler who has moved into private practice following a life-shattering encounter with a tricky serial killer that left six people dead, some of whom he knew, and his marriage destroyed. He is called in by top-level people at the secretive high tech dating firm Eden to investigate some unusual double suicides involving their top rated couples.
The investigation ratchets up as Lash profiles the victims and finds the probability of suicide highly statistically unlikely leading him to suspect a very clever and unusual killer may be behind the deaths. He dives deeper into Eden's elusive depths hoping to find the key to the case while things begin to unravel in his personal life. As he uncovers more evidence, he begins to suspect that the killer may be powerful enough not only to kill with impunity, but to erase any threats, including Lash himself.
First, the good: Death Match is blisteringly paced and reads very quickly. The central set-up is unique and Mr. Child does an excellent job teasing tidbits that hint at the connections to come without broadcasting the overall direction. The best thing about the book is that it locked in my imagination and pulled it smoothly along toward the end that I just had to reach.
Of course it is this popcorn sensibility that makes it so easily devoured which also lends to most of its principal weaknesses. Lash is sort of a snoozer as a protagonist, lacking any real memorable personality traits, and many of the supporting characters suffer from lack of clarity as well. Meanwhile the mystery inherent in the plot isn't exactly broadcast or clumsy, but the economy of characters limits the number of genuine possibilities and the result is what I think of as half-predictable: Early on it seemed obvious the reveal could only go one of two ways and the remaining mystery was which would be chosen.
The principal complaint I had was that the ultimate motivation was very sketchily presented as if it didn't matter though I felt it was the pivotal question that begged to be answered once the truth became apparent. For it to be so glossed over left the premise feeling somewhat flimsy and I think led to it being less memorable than it might have, for to explain why things happened as they did might have left some lingering, haunting questions in the reader's mind.
Overall the book is enjoyable: A pleasant mix of WarGames, The Mentalist, Dan Brown's Digital Fortress and any number of corporate conspiracy yarns. But some of the technical details (both the realistic and the fantastic) bog it down and the characterizations are lacking enough that it can't really elevate itself past disposable beach novel status.(less)
Continuing my foray into Christopher Pike's young adult novels so beloved by my wife, I picked up Remember Me because the back cover copy sounded intr...moreContinuing my foray into Christopher Pike's young adult novels so beloved by my wife, I picked up Remember Me because the back cover copy sounded intriguing. The premise of the story is that it is told from the perspective of Shari Cooper, an eighteen year-old who is dead and wanders the world as a ghost, following the friends she left behind, her family and the world-weary detective assigned to her case who doesn't seem to believe she actually committed suicide.
Remember Me is fabulously paced; unlike Final Friends there aren't any wasted scenes here. Shari comes through as a flawed but likable protagonist and though his introduction is brief and somewhat awkward, Peter, Shari's deceased friend from earlier in high school and guide to her afterlife, eventually becomes a likable character as well.
It struck me that some of the conceptual topics that come up are fairly heady dealing as the book does with life after death, but Pike manages to skirt them with a minimalism that works to the story's favor. The book is, I suppose by its nature, very melancholy at times although it's nearly always deftly handled and manages to even be somewhat moving in places.
What holds the book back from greatness are two principal elements: One is that the marquee sequence in the book seems to be the part where Shari wakes up after the accident in her bed and goes downstairs to breakfast, not realizing she's dead or incorporeal. Her family naturally ignores her and she has to watch and listen as they receive the call from the hospital, share the bad news with each other, visit the morgue to identify the body and begin their grieving process. It's supposed to be a highlight sequence but because there's been so much exposition leading up to this point, we can't share in Shari's confusion and growing horror since we know already what has happened and that deflates what could have been a powerful opening sequence.
The other thing is that the ending, while satisfying on some level, is shamefully overwrought with practically every writer's tool and contrivance tossed in all at once to create what still amounts to a flimsy motive for Shari's untimely death. Even the epilogue that tries to ground the story with a twist—maybe intended to be chilling, maybe not—is unnecessary. It's not a bad conclusion by any stretch, but you can see how hard it tries to package everything up and that's kind of a turn-off.(less)
**spoiler alert** At last the Final Friends gets a conclusion and finally the work done in seeing the crafting of the many central characters unfold i...more**spoiler alert** At last the Final Friends gets a conclusion and finally the work done in seeing the crafting of the many central characters unfold is richly rewarded with this clever and wonderfully paced climax. As I said in my review of Book 1, this is really a single novel split into three parts.
The Graduation begins as Book 2 did, skipping a few months ahead from the end of the previous and finding the entire book's action taking place in a single day, the last day of school. Granted, I don't know of many schools that have a day of school, a graduation ceremony and a grad night party all on the same date, but whatever. It works for the sake of the plot.
Michael Olson stands out here as an 18 year-old investigator, determined to make the puzzle fall into place. You see his potential as a detective even before the characters in the story point out to him how good he is at this, and I would be amused and interested to see a follow-up story written that features Michael as an adult detective (perhaps amateur sleuth). His narrowly-missed relationship with Jessica is in full scream-at-the-book "Just get together!" mode here, triumphantly. Bubba is at his most sleazy, Nick feels justifiably redeemed from his early misfortune, even as he exerts nobility in his struggle with Maria's wheelchair-bound condition. Secondary characters like The Rock, Bill and Clair pass in and out of suspicion as the revelations come quickly throughout the book and the twin enigmas of Clark and Polly are become even more mysterious and, perhaps, sinister.
The final confrontation below decks in the cruise ship is pure whodunnit gold: Accusations, revelations, connect-the-dots reconstruction and the perpetrator lashing out once backed into a corner. It's taut and so well done it makes up for any sluggishness that may have plagued the first two novels. There is one minor nitpick in that the whole graduation party yacht felt a bit forced, as if it existed just to be a more potentially dangerous situation than, say, a cabin party. It felt very much like a writer's construct as opposed to something the characters would have actually done, but that little gripe aside this sequence was a huge highlight and an excellent way to cap off a somewhat surprisingly good tale.
The pat ending may have been a bit schmaltzy (a bit of gravity could easily have been added by having either Bill or The Rock find escape impossible, even a small hook for a later story could have been added if one of the bodies was never found) for my particular taste, but it's hard to complain when you finish a book with a smile on your face.(less)
**spoiler alert** As with Book 1 of the Final Friends series, The Dance isn't actually complete in itself, even as much as second volumes in trilogies...more**spoiler alert** As with Book 1 of the Final Friends series, The Dance isn't actually complete in itself, even as much as second volumes in trilogies tend to be. Rather, it's part two of a longer novel that was split for some reason into three separate units. As such, there's really no conclusion to be found here, just a cliffhanger that demands the third chapter be read to understand what's happening.
The Dance does one thing wrong and one thing right. First, what it does right is get the majority of the characters introduced in Book 1 fully fleshed out so that readers can really relate to and care about them which sets the stage nicely for the drama of the possible killer stalking the Tabb High students to have some real resonance. Characters that were sketches in The Party become fully realized like Sara, Bubba and Maria. Most impressively, the second protagonist Jessica gets some genuine flaws and impressively begins to act like a real person with all her self-centered decisions and poor judgment. This isn't a syrupy hero mistake that is really all misunderstanding, Jessica knows what the right thing is and does the wrong anyway on a couple of occasions because she can't bring herself to ignore her base tendencies. In many ways it makes her character more endearing since it rings so true.
Where the book stumbles a bit is in having pretty much nothing of consequence happen compared to the first book. Michael is still trying to figure out what really happened to Alice, but only inches forward in his investigation, another tragedy strikes but it isn't as devastating as Alice's "suicide" from Book 1 and doesn't really change anyone's perception (except for the victim's) or motivations. Other than developing our sense for who the characters are, the time in The Dance passes fairly inconsequentially.
It's still difficult to judge a book that isn't complete in itself, but the 200 or so pages in this book felt a bit like a chore necessary to complete in order to arrive at the final chapter in Book 3.(less)
**spoiler alert** It needs to be noted up front that Final Friends may be billed as a trilogy and split into three books, but it is actually a single...more**spoiler alert** It needs to be noted up front that Final Friends may be billed as a trilogy and split into three books, but it is actually a single 650 page novel scored into thirds, I suppose for the sake of the target audience and perhaps some publisher's notion that kids don't want to read anything longer than a couple hundred pages. It's significant though because The Party (Book 1) doesn't have even a partial conclusion and is not self-contained, ending on an egregious cliffhanger. If you don't want to read a 650 page book, you can't just read this one and shrug off the other two.
That being said, The Party was my first Christopher Pike book, which I read on the recommendation of my wife who devoured these books in her youth. I decided to check them out on her behalf and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it didn't feel particularly dated to me. Granted, I went to high school in the early 90s which is more or less around the time period depicted so I remember high school without cell phones and Facebook and such. Still, the story isn't a period piece, it's about a group of students at Tabb High School who are doing the things High School students have been trying to do since time immemorial: Juggle social conflicts, manage school work and GPAs, get a sense of themselves and look forward to the future.
The majority of Book 1 is fairly slow moving. Plenty of characters are introduced, many of them somewhat sketchy at first, but not much really happens. There are a few chilling passages that hint at the conflict to come, many of them involving the shadowy character of Clark, but the party of the book's title doesn't even begin until close to the last 50 pages or so and the plot's central death doesn't occur until the tail end of the party, when only a few key characters remain in the house.
It's an effective set up, but the hasty epilogue grates a little since, as I stated, it's not even a half-hearted conclusion it's actually a pointed set up for the second act. The principal character, Michael Olson, really comes most sharply into focus during this book and especially during the epilogue, and his junior sleuth vibe begins to take form here in a wonderfully personal way.
It is a bummer that this isn't more of a first volume, but it certainly captured my attention and guaranteed I'd finish the next two books.(less)
The core mystery/adventure in the book is solid and entertaining as nearly all the Pendergast novels are. Unfortunately this entry in the expanding se...moreThe core mystery/adventure in the book is solid and entertaining as nearly all the Pendergast novels are. Unfortunately this entry in the expanding series suffers many of the same pitfalls as other recent entries have, namely that the side plots are what carry the "series" and create the continuity while the main action remains mostly standalone. And, worse, most of the serial bits aren't even resolved in the course of the novel.
For now I'm content to continue following along, but sooner or later the formula is going to wear thin (I've already stopped racing to pick up the latest installments the moment they're released) and without some format changes I'm not sure there will be enough left to propel these stories forward. Perhaps the new character and new line of novels (forthcoming) will help reinvigorate the authors' core stories?(less)
**spoiler alert** The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is sort of a rambling, character-centric research mystery that centers around the reclusive hacker (...more**spoiler alert** The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is sort of a rambling, character-centric research mystery that centers around the reclusive hacker (pedants would prefer the label "cracker") Lisbeth Salander, she of the titular Dragon Tattoo, and a shamed financial journalist named Mikael Blomkvist. After being convicted of libel, Blomkvist is hired by an aged businessman named Henrik Vanger to help solve the mystery of his niece's disappearance forty years prior amid very unusual circumstances. Needing a bit away from the limelight to give his magazine Millennium a chance to recover from the damage from the suit, he takes the assignment reluctantly but soon finds himself drawn into the curious world of the Vangers, determined to find the answers he had assumed weren't able to be found.
The strength of Larsson's novel is in its ability to casually introduce the reader to the fascinating Swedish setting and to present a number of complex and multi-dimensional characters over a backdrop of a compelling if not exactly clever mystery. The book blazes through 644 pages which is quite an accomplishment considering how much of the time is spent describing various research methods and discussing the processes behind computer crime, financial racketeering and the publishing business. Most of the central topics in the sprawling novel don't seem on the surface to be very gripping but Larsson's straightforward style carries them through and elevates them into something that is, in fact, frequently exciting.
That doesn't mean there aren't some problems along the way: Several key scenes are spelled out in a literal "telling" style such as the description of the encounter that ultimately led to Blomkvist's conviction and Henrik Vanger's tale of the day his niece disappeared. These passages, while not exactly dull, seem hurriedly told without much of the drama that is so well crafted elsewhere. Another issue is that the maze of Vangers, while arguably necessary to avoid the economy of characters problem that is central to many failed mysteries, struggles under its own weight as characters go unmentioned for fifty to a hundred pages and then suddenly crop up as central figures in the plot, referenced flippantly as if their identity were obvious. Blomkvist's repeated grousing about his own struggle to maintain a sense of the family tree does little to diffuse the annoyance of having to repeatedly flip back to the chart provided at the beginning of the book.
Perhaps the biggest fault is that while the mystery is reasonably well crafted and a climactic revelation some five hundred pages in provides some potentially intriguing context, the central question is readily answered within the first several chapters, especially as the significance of a key event goes unexplored for 90% of the book. None of which would necessarily undo the strength of the tale except that it seems whenever Larsson was presented with an opportunity to buck convention and cliche he rejected these notions, choosing instead to hit just about every thriller trope of the past 30 years: The separate but simultaneous discovery, the last-minute rescue, the unlikely love between protagonists, the monologuing villain, the vindication of a previous wrongdoing, the complicated revenge scenario, and so on.
Fortunately the main characters are all well-crafted (although Salander's curious behavior comes across as erratic and inexplicable unless the character is contextualized with Autism or Asperger's Syndrome, which either Larsson or the translation by Reg Keeland fail to effectively convey) and the hefty novel is painless to plow through. Enjoyable and worthy of a plane ride or a beach read but too conventional to be highly recommended.(less)
I've no idea if this was a good place to start reading Agatha Christie books, but I found myself very much enjoying it. This far removed from the poli...moreI've no idea if this was a good place to start reading Agatha Christie books, but I found myself very much enjoying it. This far removed from the political climate The Secret Adversary relies on for its setting required some independent research to make full sense of, but once engaged the mystery is as gripping today as it was 87 years ago.
The story revolves around two young friends with more pluck than prospects, Tuppence and Tommy, who decide to become adventurers for hire. Quite by accident they find themselves blundering into a national conspiracy plot where the existence of damaging documents were last seen in the hands of a beautiful American girl who has since disappeared. Everyone wants to get their hands on the documents and the girl, Jane Finn, from the Labour party extremists hoping to use the information as part of a plot to incite revolution to a strange American millionaire claiming to be Jane's long-lost cousin to the British government themselves.
Lurking like a shadow over the entire affair is an enigmatic Mr. Brown, a mysterious figure whose true identity no one quite seems to be sure about.
I thought for a while that the book was perhaps clearly written for a much less sophisticated mystery-story-reader than I, maybe owning to the age of the novel. However, in spite of how clever I thought I was I found myself questioning the conclusion I'd come to in the chapters leading up to the climax and even though my initial hunch proved correct I had to admit that The Secret Adversary is as well-crafted as any of the modern thrillers I originally wanted to compare it to.(less)