December 31, 2008

2008 Year in Review

Well, I tallied 61 books this year, a fair number between 2006's 58 and 2007's whopping 66. I think a list may be overkill with the easily accessible calendar and tags on the right margin there, but I'd like to take a couple of moments to reflect. This year I've been able to guide my own reading much more than in previous years because I am now out of undergrad and not taking any classes. I had an abysmal January, reading only Freakonomics, but I quickly got up to speed and read at least four books in every month except for March, when I read three. Because my goal is not only to read 52 books but to try to average them out, I think I did a pretty good job. I feel a bit like my total is inflated because of the Stephanie Plum series, a series that I was very attracted to in the beginning but which, with the exception of To the Nines, faded considerably into stereotypes and internal cliche; I enjoyed Stephanie's adventures this year but I think I will bid adieu to Trenton in the new year. I am grateful, however, that she has introduced me to the depth present in the mystery novel via The Plot Thickens and that I will continue to read the genre.

My favorite book of 2008 is probably World War Z by Max Brooks, an imaginative and wholly believable zombie narrative told convincingly as an oral history. The narrative form and voices are absolutely perfect and this book, which I chose because I felt I'd need an excuse to read it, ended up becoming permanently imprinted on my brain. This is also the year that I began reading Douglas Coupland, and while his Generation X themes tend to be somewhat dated for me, I enjoy his wit and will continue to read him in the future. Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories opened up my eyes to Japanese literature, and I hope to seek out more in the future. The Godfather was fantastic as well. The best nonfiction of the year was definitely An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, which was informative but had just the right level of snarkiness to keep it interesting; I am so glad that I picked it up in Heathrow.

I had a very successful year this year and I hope that I can keep up the numbers and the quality of the books I've been reading. See you in 2009.

December 30, 2008

Book 61: The Best American Short Stories 2008

The Best American Short Stories 2008
Edited by Salman Rushdie

I always enjoy this annual collection of "literary" fiction and I find it quite interesting to see how the guest editor's personal taste colors the collection from year to year. I was far more impressed, for example, by Stephen King's collection than by Ann Patchett's, for example, but overall I think Salman Rushdie's collection is the most interesting to me, with a higher number of quality stories willing to break out of the litfic mold and surpass any and all expectations of greatness and nuance. There are, of course, a few of the indecipherable but (of course) highly "literary" middle-age sorry-for-oneself stories such as "May We Be Forgiven", which tries to introduce a twist at the end but which fails miserably. "Bible", while interesting and thrilling, cannot resist falling into this trap at its tragically yawn-inducing "conclusion" and exemplifies all that is wrong with the insular litfic world. The story I hated most, however, was "Galatea", a poor excuse for expository writing that made no sense throughout, a fact made even more frustrating by the promise of intrigue and a bit of horror with the introduction (and following complete lack of development) of a character known as the Collegetown Creeper. Heaven forbid anything in the story make sense. So this year's edition, sadly, does fall prey to what Rushdie himself refers to as "creative writingese".

That less than stellar introductory paragraph, however, does not do justice to the collection as a whole, which features many vibrant and intriguing stories that are original and teem with life and creativity. Rushdie does not shy away from that which is fantastic or even science fictional, with T.C. Boyle's creative and clever look at pet cloning ("Admiral") leading the bunch. Also outstanding are Katie Chase's "Man and Wife", which does an excellent job at turning suburbia into the Third World without being overly moralistic or self-righteous, and Karen Russell's "Vampires in the Lemon Grove", which is unapologetically fantasy and which provides a refreshingly original take on vampires in a saturated market. I simply cannot get enough of her work. "The Wizard of West Orange", by Steven Millhauser, is another outstanding example of science fiction that demonstrates flawlessly that genre writing can actually (surprise!) touch on human themes and with excellent, "literary" writing to boot. I am exceedingly pleased that this year's crop of stories included many stories that went beyond the real world and took risks with alternate realities while retaining the quality expected when the word "best" is appended to the work.

Even the realistic stories in this collection are original and fresh. Rebecca Makkai's "The Worst You Ever Feel" is absolutely stunning from start to finish as it successfully harnesses the power of music to drive its narrative. This is also a fundamentally American story without re-hashing the overplayed immigrant narrative- Makkai is able to look at the refreshing promise of the "free world" without resorting to stereotypes and while powerfully evoking Old World tragedy. "The Worst You Ever Feel" is a worthy successor to the American immigrant story because it simply allows those themes to exist within the story without rambling on about the American Dream and other such cliche bull- the story breathes and is one of the most emotionally powerful pieces I have ever read. I eagerly await her upcoming short story collection. "Missionaries", by Bradford Tice, is not as evocative or emotionally moving but provides an interesting look at two young LDS missionaries and their vastly different approaches to their task, again without being heavy-handed or moralizing at all. Tice allows the reader to explore and experience the story, and the reader is richer for it. Christine Sneed's "Quality of Life" is likewise subtle and brilliant, exploring the time-old assertion that we are always in control of our lives in a fresh and ironic way, without being sappy or bitter and allowing the story to confront an uncomfortable truth head-on.

It's a pity that the stories are reprinted in alphabetical order, because the second offering is by far this collection's best and belongs only at the end of anthology (though I will concede that it would be a good opener). "The Year of Silence", by Kevin Brockmeier, is absolutely stunning and fantastic. I was made giddy by the fact that it was include, because it is science fiction through and through and not the kind of story usually respected by the hoity-toity litfic types. Its narrative form is absolutely perfect and shows deliberation and mastery of the craft. The story is of a city that gradually basks itself in silence and its attendant introspection. Told in the first person plural with as much success as Eugenides in The Virgin Suicides and in discrete chunks of plot, the story builds much as the situation within and, like Makkai's, simply allows its prominent themes to breathe and exist without over-exposure.

This collection, despite its (exceedingly small) share of boring and over-wrought stories, shines throughout and continually surprised me. There are at least four stories that vie for my opinion as the absolute best of the collection, and each one shines in an entirely different and unexpected way. Rushdie does an excellent job of selecting original and imaginative stories that illuminate our world by casting subtle shadows instead of showering us with blinding flourescence. This collection offers so much and every reader can be excited by at least one story in the bunch. The Best American Short Stories 2008 is, overall, the best installment that I have read and showcases what I believe must be the best and brightest of American short fiction. There is variety, there is depth, and there is truth in these pages.

Grade: A

December 24, 2008

Book 60: Ten Big Ones

Ten Big Ones
Janet Evanovich

Stephanie Plum returns yet again in this tenth installment (eleventh if you count the Visions of Sugar Plums train wreck) of her adventures as a barely-competent bounty hunter in Trenton, New Jersey. Unfortunately, one book reads just like another and though there is remarkable continuity between the stories, Evanovich is beginning to seem incapable of deviating at all from her tried-and-true formula. The addition of gang warfare to Trenton seems like either an attempt to focus on a real and growing problem or, more often, like a cheap and exploitative way to add suspense to Stephanie's life. At this point, though, readers know that she won't be killed or seriously harmed, so even when her car is blown up within the first few pages there is little suspense or intrigue to drive the novel. Ten Big Ones lacks the charm deployed by the previous installment's hilarious field trip and previously vivid Trenton is beginning to seem contrived and bland. This could be because the Burg is so familiar to readers, but when Evanovich adds an entirely new section of town (Slayerland), Trenton becomes just another gang-ridden, decaying city. Also maddening is the completely unrealistic expository dialogue about gang problems in Trenton, problems that, suspiciously, have never revealed themselves before, right alongside a borderline offensive explanation of gang graffiti that echoes the novel's quiet racist tones. Stephanie's ongoing romantic saga with Joe and Ranger is at its most insipid in this book and is particularly uninspired, with Stephanie quickly going downhill from a humorously confused woman to an immature brat. I am quickly losing my sympathy for the once-spunky protagonist and as strong supporting characters like Lula and Grandma Mazur are tragically reduced to stereotypes and predictable outbursts, the series weakens considerably. Everything that once made this series fresh and interesting is quickly becoming stale and boring and, though there are some good bits to this tale, I think I'm going to quit the series soon before it becomes unbearably cliche. Ten Big Ones is a good effort with some good quick gags and a hilarious (if rushed) resolution, but because it fits so well and so blandly into the established Plum universe it is incredibly disappointing.

Grade: C+

December 21, 2008

Book 59: The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate
Richard Condon

Having never seen either of the movie adaptations of this book, I went into it relatively unspoiled, which I think is a good thing because I was permitted to engage in the novel's big reveal precisely as it was intended, just before the heretofore barely implicit became blindly obvious. Because the political implications of the novel hinge on this plot twist, it is difficult to assess the novel on a first reading. For much of the story, I was somewhat bored and confused by different characterizations and rambling paragraphs of exposition that seemed to add little to the story; in retrospect, some of these bits are useful but some are unnecessarily long and come into play far later for minor plot variations. The book is largely boring but speeds up fairly well in the end, achieving a thrilling intensity in its last hundred pages that would serve it well in the previous parts. The book is also hard for someone in my generation to judge, as it feels most at home in the Cold War and must, therefore, take on a vintage feel to the modern reader. Ultimately, it is a decently written but dated story that raises its interesting issues far too late, and with far too little exploration, to make it particularly politically compelling.

The story itself is quite interesting and should pose interesting philosophical and ethical questions: what would happen if an enemy force could manufacture a Medal of Honor winner and use him as an ultimate, almost undetectable weapon? Unfortunately, a lot of the intrigue gets lost and bogged down by a downright unlikeable cast of characters who are almost impossible to relate to and a whole lot harder to care about, until maybe the very end of the book when it is too late for Condon to manufacture sympathy. Though the plot is driven by an original and well-executed idea, it crams far too much of its intrigue into its final, rushed act and fails to sustain interest throughout. The writing itself is passable and the book as a whole simply interesting, to be read and passed quietly into the "read" pile. Those interested in Cold War literature or brainwashing will probably enjoy this book, and anyone cynical about American politics will appreciate the cold and stark portrait of Raymond's mother as the most coldly calculating of political opportunists and the driving force behind an underdeveloped McCarthyist hysteria. There are hints of interest throughout the book, but they are either woefully overplayed or frustratingly underdeveloped. Ultimately, The Manchurian Candidate is consistently vaguely interesting until its final successful act, by which point readers' ambivalence has gone unchecked for so long that it's hard to get wrapped up in the action and the book is reconciled to a place on the shelves of mediocre dated political thrillers.

Grade: B-

December 14, 2008

Book 58: To the Nines

To the Nines
Janet Evanovich

It's been a while since I've joined Stephanie Plum in her never-ending adventures as Trenton's least capable bounty hunter. To the Nines is a worthy installment in the series, where Evanovich relies on her tried-and-true Stephanie tricks while adding enough new ingredients into the mix to make the book seem original and fresh. Stephanie's narration is again the driving force in the novel, although there are times when it seems tired and gets repetitive. Stephanie's continual comments about her family are generally reliably hilarious but occasionally venture in to the world of slight annoyance. Lula remains painfully stereotyped and almost offensively stupid, at times though her conception of the Atkins diet is, at its core, absolutely hilarious. Joe Morelli and Ranger, the men in Stephanie's life, are surprisingly well-developed in this novel, with their uneasy alliance in full view and beginning to be explored, though Stephanie too often comes across as shallow and immature when it comes to the two male bombshells. The plot itself of To the Nines is what makes it shine in the expanding Plum catalogue- instead of succumbing to the series fatigue hinted at in the past few books, Evanovich livens things up with a well-executed field trip to Las Vegas for several of the main characters. The most exciting development this includes is a further exploration of Vinnie's secretary Connie, who is vibrant and who successfully steps into the role of major back-up character for the trip. Trenton's character is more muted in this volume, but Evanovich's attention to characterization (with the obvious exception of the blatantly racist portrayal of Pakistani McDonald's employee Howie) and an original and haunting central plot line make this installment of the Stephanie Plum series a delightful addition to the collection.

Grade: A-

December 13, 2008

Book 57: Ragtime

E.L. Doctorow

This novel is truly that in the most basic sense of the word: its mode of storytelling feels new and vigorous while retaining enough of the classical mode to hold readers' attention and interest. Ragtime is a fast paced and ever-moving story of a country and a world moving through a period of rapid change and to have its story told through a conventional narrative structure would diminish its power. Initially I was put off by its lack of concrete characters or sensible, tangible plot points; by reading the book, however, I was drawn further and further into its tangled web and the swift current of its portrait of America between 1900 and World War I. Doctorow reveals himself to be an immensely skilled author, able not only to deliver a well-paced and continually interesting postmodern look at our not-so-distant past but also to realize when it is proper to take a step back and allow the reader to get their bearings. It would be easy to be swept away entirely in the constant flood of information that distinguishes and characterizes this novel, but Doctorow nimbly links his stories, his real-life and imagined characters and situations, and creates a story that draws its readers effortlessly into the tune of a different era.

Readers may be at first concerned about the fluidity of plots and hasty character sketches; the use of historical figures such as Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini does, at times, seem like a gimmicky way to give the novel a kind of credibility. What the novel does, however, is draw a large and complex portrait of its setting at its outset, gradually narrowing its focus and refining its plot. At the end of each section, the plot has moved considerably closer to the familiarly-named family that holds the book together. Though its narrator is never revealed and often moves from almost first person (referring to said family as "Father", "Mother," and the like) to an over-arching third person in the span of a sentence or two, the story feels familiar and intimate. Its spell is only broken in its fourth section, where it is revealed that portions of Houdini's story are, for example, drawn from his personal papers. Thematically, however, this drastic break from the book's reverie is particularly poignant as the plot moves into the times of Woodrow Wilson and the impending shellacking that World War I will give to the early century's semblance of 1800s normalcy. The over-arching plot of the novel, intertwined successfully with a multitude of side-plots that reflect the diversity of their New York settings during the period, zeroes in unexpectedly on a subtle yet vibrant discussion of the institutional racism that consistently mars America's record as a bastion of justice and democracy. This topic, however, is handled with remarkable care and calm and presented ironically- and, miraculously, without overt comment- alongside an immigrant success story that somehow only seems stereotypical in retrospect.

Ragtime is a novel that must, as its epigraph suggests, be read slowly and preferably in as few sittings as possible. It succeeds only when the reader allows it to throw them headfirst into its incredibly realistic and richly detailed world, the realism of which is accomplished through masterful use of simple, direct sentences and through a surprisingly effective lack of quotation marks. This novel is a beautiful presentation of the thunderous cachophony that hides beneath our conceptions of the early 20th century. Doctorow manages to take relatively straightforward, time-tested narratives of the maligned but dignified minority, the immigrant working their way up from the Lower East Side tenements, and the WASP-turned-revolutionary and weave them together in a way that is unapologetically realistic and utterly compelling. It is only evident afterward that the plot itself of Ragtime relies on stereotypical reconstructions of its era; this itself is even forgivable given what Doctorow adds to these stories to make them personal and to make them come alive in his chosen and perfectly rendered era. New York itself is the true main character of Ragtime, in which all its other figures operate and with which they interact, and which comes splendidly alive in this unique and compelling book. Ragtime will hook you in without your knowledge and is an invariably exciting portrait of America just after the turn of the last century.

Grade: A

December 2, 2008

Book 56: 20th Century Ghosts

20th Century Ghosts
Joe Hill

I was- and continue to be- intrigued by this set of stories, which is somewhat unlike anything I've read before. While I was expecting a collection of full-blown horror stories, Hill demonstrates his agility and resistance to be pigeonholed by writing on a variety of topics, with varying degrees of success. While many of the stories in 20th Century Ghosts do belong firmly in the horror genre, Hill often tries his hand at more traditional "literary" fiction, with varying degrees of success. One of the best stories of the collection, "Pop Art", is an excellent blend of a tender coming-of-age tale with imaginative and unique fantasy elements and an unapologetically dark tone. It is refreshing to read some of the more "literary" pieces in this collection because they bring much more to the table than the rootless extensialism that plagues many modern non-genre short stories- Hill isn't at all afraid to explore the darker corners of the human psyche and demonstrates that this can be done with a great degree of literary talent and often poetic prose. His prose is, in fact, often quite elegant and holds up to the highest standards set by more mainstream fiction. Hill throws in sly and relevant observations without hesitation or conceit and his sentences are often elegant. Too bad, then, that he seems to lack a bit in story structure.

Doubt and frustration plagued me while I was reading this collection. I often felt that a story was just beginning to live up to its potential, to get interesting, when it would stop suddenly. This kind of surprising sudden halt is done quite well in the very meta "Best New Horror", but seems lazy in "In the Rundown" and leaves the story actually unfinished. Likewise, I quite keenly felt the underlying discomfort elicited by "My Father's Mask", but at the end of the story I was quite unable to determine what exactly had happened. Ambiguity is good when used properly, but when everything in a story is unexplained the lack of development seems juvenile. Many of the stories could have been fleshed out a little more while retaining the terror that comes with the unknown and/or unknowable. Other stories seem to move nowhere for a while or to contain completely extraneous matter- most of the stories in this collection could have been shorter and would not have suffered for it.

That said, however, I did enjoy 20th Century Ghosts at times, both in horror and non-horror stories. "Better Than Home" very nearly made me cry and is a touching story in which almost nothing actually happens. Strange that the story that most closely resembles its "literary" cousins is among the best executed in this often gory collection. "Abraham's Boys" is an imaginative retelling of the Van Helsing story that leaves a little to be desired but which is interesting and thought-provoking nonetheless. Here, as in "Last Breath", the ending is perfect while being a bit abrupt.

"The Black Phone" ends absolutely perfectly, with a zinger that is at once hilarious and incredibly dark; the story requires you to suspend disbelief in the supernatural for a while, but it is totally worth it just to get the unapologetic humor in the last line. This story demonstrates best Joe Hill's strengths as a writer- he is willing to operate within the darker parts of the human mind and experience (and the darker horror genre) but maintains a literary finesse and does not compromise his prose for his subject matter. Hill writes excellently, but I believe he still has some trouble fully executing his plots; many stories left me wondering what the point was or frustrated that I had no idea what had happened, but all were thought-provoking nonetheless. Joe Hill's sheer power of imagination is certainly hard to match- he is unafraid to experiment and comes up with a few quite original and interesting ideas that successfully drive his stories. 20th Century Ghosts holds within it the promise of great talent and has a few definite keepers (heretofore unmentioned but memorable and recommended "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" is a highlight), worth reading if readers can withstand ambiguity and points of frustration- there is more good than bad here even if many stories leave a bit to be desired.

Grade: B

November 24, 2008

Book 55: The Lost Worlds of 2001

The Lost Worlds of 2001
Arthur C. Clarke

To fully complete my immersion in the Space Odyssey series, I decided to check out this book of extras and commentary relating both to the movie and the original book, which are endlessly related to one another. As such, the book has two distinct voices: one is the delightful and often funny Clarke himself, reflecting on the long and exciting process of creating the "proverbial good science fiction film" with Stanley Kubrick; the other exists in the material that didn't make it through the final cut, for good reason but not the kind of "good reason" that mars publication of actual second-rate material. This book is fascinating because of its behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a novel with an eye toward both potential visual aesthetics and plausible scientific credibility. Clarke's accounts of the different stages the project went through are not only well-written, they are utterly fascinating. Through Clarke's light touch and frequent deployment of wit (often self-deprecating), readers get an idea of the challenges that face both traditional novelists and traditional filmmakers, all much multiplied when the creation is bounced like a pinball from one artist and medium to another. Log entries that could have quickly become boring and redudant are instead carefully chosen and enlightening; a personal favorite notes, and in an offhand manner, that Clarke phoned Isaac Asimov to discuss some science.

Clarke comes across as reasonably modest and sheds a lot of light into the creative process, but what is truly fascinating about this book is the stunning fiction it contains. 2001: A Space Odyssey has no shortage of intriguing visions and incredible imagery, and this book only adds to the lore. In addition to being carefully selected and annotated by Clarke to fit into a greater narrative about the development of the novel, lengthy portions of earlier drafts are presented in their entirety, making excellent speculative fiction on their own and providing imaginative readers with several interesting scenarios to consider. As a special bonus, Clarke even reprints his short story "The Sentinel", which provided the initial alien-marker-on-Moon scenario. Though the final novel version is often the best in the context of the final work, Clarke's alternate visions of the first and final contact with the makers of the Monolith and Star Gate provide much intelligent fodder for readers to consider. After all, it is the same talent and mind behind both these preliminary visions and the final polished novel. Though some material falls a bit flat, it is interesting nonetheless to sense Clarke and Kubrick wrestling with different scenarios; it is particularly illuminating, as Clarke notes, to read these earlier fictions with a clear view of the final version in mind- some throwaway lines here and there contain the secrets of the final novel. Most interesting is the way in which the multiple discarded endings, all of which revolve on a theme of actually meeting the makers of the Star Gate, serve to highlight the brilliance of the novel's final ambiguity (though the movie could be a bit more clear on some points).

Full of deep scientific thought and obvious consideration, The Lost Worlds of 2001 is a delightful read for fans of the Space Odyssey series who want to learn more about the creation and evolution of the story as well as indulge in some excellent science fiction. The alternatives presented here provide an interesting hands-on look into the writing and revising that must go into a project of the scale and ambition attempted and achieved by 2001: A Space Odyssey and, to a lesser degree, its sequels. Both the fiction contained within the narrative and that narrative itself are carefully constructed and enjoyable almost down to every last period. My only misgiving about this book is that it often contains fictional material in large, continuous chunks- excellent when readers wish to be thrown into the lost worlds of 2001, but a little confusing when they are introduced as different alternatives instead of as the continuous alternative they seem to be. This, however, is a very minor point and both the nonfiction and fiction bits of this book are every bit enjoyable to Arthur C. Clarke and science fiction fans.

Grade: A

November 18, 2008

Book 54: Generation X

Generation X
Douglas Coupland

I have found myself repeatedly drawn to Coupland's work and picked this book up on a whim after enjoying All Families Are Psychotic and JPod. It turns out that Generation X is the author's first and pivotal book, an homage to the listlessness of the eponymous group of people that gave them their name. The plot, insofar as it exists, accurately captures this feeling of intellectually stimulating apathy and the book's reliance on the stories its characters tell each other characterizes them in ways a more standard plot could not. These features are the novel's strongest selling points but, interestingly, each presents a problem both for reading and for interpretation. The novel moves along at a quite leisurely pace, and almost nothing actually happens until the very end of the book, making it difficult to get into, especially if one reads it in fits and starts. This book is meant to be read in as few sittings as possible, allowing the reader to dive into the minds and lives of its characters and absorb their attitudes and experiences. Its own postmodern style echoes these sentiments and while it becomes absolutely engrossing and hard to put down, Generation X can seem inaccessible and boring without a sense of greater plotting or much of anything concrete to grab onto.

This loose sense of plot and action may hamper the novel's efforts, but it accurately reflects the attitudes of its characters, who are at once frustrating and utterly compelling. The characters that populate the novel are, for the most part, listless Gen-Xers who have dropped out of life and who actively despise the yuppie lifestyle. They have carved their own slice of life out of the desert in California where they spend their time working and doing a whole lot of nothing. It is often unclear what the characters actually want- their disdain for their former lives and for consumerism and other features of modern society are obvious but seem to lack any tangible roots. They are not lazy, per se, but their bad attitude makes them at times unsympathetic no matter how accurate their perceptions are at times. It is easy to relate to them but it is hard to empathize, and perhaps that is the point. Regardless, their stories reveal much about their personalities and a little about their motivations. Their real draw is their pointed and shocking observations about society, which are manifest in their stories but really brought to life by definitions along the sidebar of the novel.

This illustrates the problem and success of Generation X. The book excels in delivering the experience of listlessness that characterizes its main cast, and the notes on the sidebar are piercing, accurate, and often hilarious (who, after all, can't relate to the term McJob?). The book consistently delivers nuggets of wisdom along with a few well-plotted moments and some compelling stories in the mouths of its characters. Even if one isn't of Generation X, this book explains many of its attitudes by example. Unfortunately, the driving force of the novel is, ironically, apathy, and the book often becomes slow or seemingly pointless when nothing happens for long stretches of time. Generation X is most definitely worth reading for 20-somethings of any generation and does a good job capturing the mood of its period, but those looking for a straightfoward or particularly exciting plot should be forewarned that Coupland's book is a testament to dropping out of society, to taking it slow and to defying conventions.

Grade: B+

November 12, 2008

Book 53: Visions of Sugar Plums

Visions of Sugar Plums
Janet Evanovich

Though there's a mystery at the heart of this Stephanie Plum adventure, its clear throughout that Visions of Sugar Plums is intended to flesh out the world of this intrepid bounty hunter a bit. Unfortunately, though there is much fun to be had in this short novella, Evanovich is unable to straddle the line between fresh, interesting ideas and utter absurdity. This book reads throughout as the woefully unfulfilled promise of what it could have (should have?) been. The boundaries of credibility are stretched even for Evanovich's awkward and lovably odd Trenton landscape. Oddly enough, given recent problems of predictable plots and recycled series cliches, Visions of Sugar Plums is frustrating largely because it ignores much of what makes the Plum series so likeable in the first place. Evanovich tries too desperately to integrate Diesel into Stephanie's veritable parade of love interests; the characters have almost no chemistry and the preoccupation with another man is reckless given Stephanie's reconciliation with Joe at the end of Hard Eight. The novella turns in a worthy performance from former FTA and roommate Randy Briggs, but though he is sharp and true to form he cannot save the story. I believe this book would have been an excellent short addition to the Plum canon if it did not contain a mystery at all- developments with Valerie are relevant to the story arc of the series as a whole and the glimpse of a Plum family Christmas is precisely what loyal readers would expect. The book does well when it ignores the mystery at hand- often for unexcusably long sections, considering the book believes itself to be a mystery- and the FTA plot would be best discarded. Not only is it an unwelcome distraction from the thematic matter at hand, it is utterly absurd. Evanovich's Trenton already has a semi-mystical being in Ranger, who can mysteriously unlock doors and who moves silently unseen through all sorts of booby traps; she does not need the unnecessarily supernatural Diesel or the grand-scale superhero plot she attempts to develop. Combine numerous unnecessary elements with sluggish writing, ridiculous and predictable nods to the Christmas season (Stephanie puts off shopping? Scandalous and unexpected! And an FTA named Sandy Claws? Creative!), and a mystery so transparent that no reader will be surprised by its outcome, and what you have is Visions of Sugar Plums, a barely passable attempt at an alternate look at Stephanie Plum that would benefit from some of her characteristic humor and, yes, some of her more useful and interesting cliches.

Grade: C+

November 10, 2008

Book 52: Hard Eight

Hard Eight
Janet Evanovich

Again we find Stephanie Plum, master bounty hunter, hot on the trail of Trenton's most wanted- except this time, she's not out to find a probably-criminal FTA. Rather, Hard Eight has Stephanie working to find her neighbor's missing granddaughter and great-granddaughter, a task whose complexity is multiplied many times by the group that accumulates to help and hinder Stephanie's chase. This book, like the others, moves quite quickly in parts but tends to drag in certain areas, though the detail given to Stephanie's life outside of bounty hunting adds to the intrigue and keeps the series afloat. Stephanie's frequent encounters with the two major men in her life, along with fairly routine (routine being a relative word in Evanovich's delighfully awkward Trenton) dinners with her family contribute to an overall sense that there is more to the Stephanie Plum books than the mysteries they contain. This is good because Stephanie's well-worn trick of being just incompetent enough to be a credible threat is beginning to wear a little thin by this eighth book in her series. If readers had to live on the mysteries alone, the series would have long since fallen flat, but a vivid and imaginative Trenton brings Hard Eight to life. Newer characters enter seamlessly into the pre-existing Plum universe and several old friends reappear, including enough of beloved Grandma Mazur to make us all glad (or, perhaps, sadly regret) that we don't have one ourselves. Albert Kloughn is frighteningly immature and is taken to a bit of an extreme, but Evanovich has wisely toned down Lula and, in doing so, fleshed her out a bit. The two characters, create a balance of cliche and actual characterization that works overall and shows that Evanovich is willing to grow as a writer. The pacing of the book leaves a bit to be desired; though various interludes into Stephanie's life keep the book from becoming another rote mystery novel, they tend to drag and make action sequences seem unduly rushed. The thrilling end of the book is again crammed into just a few pages, leaving a bit to be desired but faithfully and adequately wrapping up the story within. The real draw for Hard Eight is its success in relating a vivid vision of Trenton through Stephanie's spot-on narration and reliable performances from supporting cast members, as well as encouraging growth for Stephanie herself. Evanovich certainly has enough tricks up her sleeve to keep loyal readers entertained, but though Hard Eight fits in well to the Stephanie Plum series, it's a familiar gig, even when the missing person is only an acquaintance and not a criminal at all.

Grade: B

November 3, 2008

Book 51: Seven Up

Seven Up
Janet Evanovich

Stephanie Plum returns in this gung-ho adventure, one full of surprises but true enough to the series to meet and perhaps exceed the expectations of Stephanie's loyal fans. Though the writing is true to form and the mystery at hand full of originality and surprises, Evanovich falls back on some familiar plot devices in this seventh book. It is familiar by now that Stephanie will go after an "easy" capture and discover something much more to the story- the stress on how easy Eddie DeChooch should come in seems old and like a procrastination instead of a worthwhile addition to the story's humor. Readers should know by now that Stephanie is frequently in over her head, and Evanovich may be better served simply cutting to the chase. Once the book settles down, however, and readers are thrown into the story, Evanovich proves that she has plenty of interesting and new tricks up her sleeve. Trenton is rendered with crystal clarity and loyal readers will recognize local hot spots and general geography. This strong sense of setting is mirrored by strong internal consistency within the series- Mooner and Dougie return for a brilliant encore, as well as the familiar cast of characters that surround Stephanie at work and at home. A couple of innovative plot twists as well as a strong sense of humor underlying the book make this one definitely worth reading, but more interesting is the slightly stronger focus Evanovich puts on Stephanie's family and personal life in Seven Up. Little-mentioned sister Valerie makes an appearance that shifts the action to the Plum household more often than usual as a side story develops not as a distraction but instead as a compliment to Stephanie's bounty hunting dilemma at hand. What Seven Up proves is that Evanovich can still spin a worthy mystery but that it is instead her characters that drive the Plum mysteries. Despite some plotting problems that make the resolution slightly unclear in spots, Evanovich's unbelievably strong and reliable supporting cast, as well as her willingness to study Stephanie outside of her job alone, make Seven Up a worthy addition to the Plum canon and a must-read for Plum fans. Halfway through (to date), the series is as strong as ever and I cannot wait to see what lies in store for Stephanie.

Grade: A-

October 29, 2008

Book 50: The Plot Thickens

The Plot Thickens
Edited by Mary Higgins Clark

I picked up this collection because I heard that it contained a Stephanie Plum story and, not one prone to being too picky in story collections, I decided to go ahead and read the whole book. I'm rather glad I did, because this anthology showcases many top mystery writers and gives readers an easy and entertaining look at their often contrasting styles. The variety in this collection is enormous: readers enjoy everything from a typical (and excellent) Stephanie Plum romp to psychological thrillers to stories that have little to do with the mystery genre at all. Though the challenge posed to the writers (each story includes a thick fog, a thick steak, and a thick book) often appears in contrived ways, many writers used these elements in ingenious ways and the collection is overall very enjoyable.

As any collection of stories must be, however, it is somewhat uneven. The first story sets an interesting tone for those expecting a series of typical detective tales; it has almost nothing to do with the mystery genre and seems set to disappoint. Upon further reflection, however, "How Far It Could Go" is an interesting piece that requires a bit of thought. The only really disappointing stories are "Too Many Cooks", by Carol Higgins Clark, and "Thick-Headed", an utterly indecipherable period piece by Walter Mosley that cannot successfully unite a well-rendered but unfamiliar narrative voice with a convoluted series of criminal connections. There are, on the other hand, several gems in this collection which make it worth hunting down. Any Stephanie Plum fan will be well-rewarded with the aforementioned "The Last Peep", which shows that Stephanie shines well on the small stage, possibly being better in the shorter format than in some of the lesser numbers novels. Mary Higgins Clark and Ann Rule deliver a predictable but nonetheless riveting stories that explore the world of the crime victim instead of the detective. The best story in the collection, however, may be "Foolproof" by Edna Buchanan, a story that takes one of the longest standing and best loved foundations of modern crime solving and shatters its credibility, doing so with an incredibly light touch and ending the story just at the perfect moment. The good stories in The Plot Thickens outweigh the bad in number, but the presence of a few absolute gems makes this collection a definite pleaser for mystery fans and for those looking for an introduction to the variety possible in the genre. This collection is definitely worth seeking out and reading.

Grade: B+

October 21, 2008

Book 49: 3001: The Final Odyssey

3001: The Final Odyssey
Arthur C. Clarke

It is fitting that the prologue to this book has been seen in at least one other installment of the Space Odyssey series. This prologue, which describes the alien creators of the giant monoliths and their experiments all over the galaxy, not only sets the tone for the final pages of this final chapter in the epic saga but also highlights one of its most frustrating features as it simply re-states the blindingly obvious while failing to explore new or interesting ground. 3001 does break new ground and in fantastic fashion; its description of the world of 3001 is surprisingly up to date and refuses to become too ridiculous. Clarke takes current trends and multiplies them by the power of a thousand years, arriving at a future that only strains the bounds of credibility as any such leap must. His scientific mind is well evident in this vision as he takes time to explain how future technologies may actually work, grounding them in science and making them seem right around the corner. Though he more or less ignores advances from his previous books (there is an inexplicable absence of any artificial intelligence like HAL's), his future vision is compelling and keeps the book afloat during its meandering, gee-whiz first half. This part of the book is wonderful and compelling even if it is only tangentially related to its three predecessors. Clarke shows time and again in the Space Odyssey series that his is more than capable of delivering an exciting and credible future vision.

Oddly enough, the book becomes less satisfying as it draws further away from Clarke as a visionary and tries to wrap up the real story lying beneath the surface of the story as a whole. The real action of the book, the part that ties 3001 in with its predecessors in theme and overall story arch, comes late and feels rushed, as if Clarke is trying to retrofit the Space Odyssey story into his picture of the future. There are more than the usual plot contradictions- though the timeline of the previous books is pushed forward by real-world events, there is no excuse for allowing spacecraft to land on Europa despite the oft-cited stern interdiction posed in 2010. This is a literary loophole that seems to be not only flaunted but inexplicably celebrated. This is one of several things which just don't make sense. Clarke seems unable to draw an appropriate balance between propelling the story of the new Frank Poole and that of the monoliths lurking throughout the Solar System. When the monoliths do enter, they seem contrived and though the method of story resolution is intriguing and holds within it a useful (if painfully preachy) moral angle, it simply feels rushed and, well, out of character. I was expecting far more pagjes and a sense of resoultion when the book simply ended. The endgame's events are murky at best and do not survive the scrutiny of a first closer reading.

It is hard to judge 3001: The Final Odyssey because it is fundamentally torn between two stories. The first story is the world of 3001 as a continuation of the events in the previous three Space Odyssey books. This tale follows the technological developments of the earlier books and provides a carefully considered foray into the logical conclusions of current technological advancements. This book is engaging and lively, full of a sense of wonder but grounded in scientific reality. The second story is the continuation of humanity's dealings with the monoliths, a race against time correctly placed a thousand years into the future but which only becomes important after the world of tomorrow is described. Clarke spends so much time building up a sense of setting and time that the action-packed part of his narrative is by far the least interesting. Jammed onto the end of the first story, this adventure is interesting and does tie into the world of the monoliths but is ultimately unsatisfying, owing in large part to the rampant repetition of previous material that mars discussion of the monoliths and dominates the new information. 3001: A Space Odyssey is more brilliance from Arthur C. Clarke but unfortunately cannot settle on its theme or concentrate fully on what it needs to to be entirely successful. Overall, this book makes a neat ending to the Space Odyssey adventures, but could show more deliberate planning and even a greater sense of its place in the series. The Space Odyssey novels go out with a bang, but readers' confusion can reduce the effect to an undeserved and disappointing whimper.

Grade: B

October 18, 2008

Book 48: 2061: Odyssey Three

2061: Odyssey Three
Arthur C. Clarke

Clarke returns to his successful and classic Space Odyssey series with this third installment, set a convenient fifty years after the events of the second book and following up on familiar characters and situations from the series. Other than the occasional nod here and there and the general framework in which the narrative operates, however, 2061 can be easily distinguished from its two predecessors. Though it fits seamlessly in to the time frame and general universe of the series at large, incorporating familiar characters, a shared history, and even material from the previous book, 2061 lacks the sense of higher purpose and cosmic destiny that drives the series and makes it so magnificent. The plot is interesting and more than adequate, as is the writing, but as the story glides along without the greater implications readers are accustomed to in the series, it seems increasingly standard. This lack of purpose further handicaps the work when, at the end, the Star Child makes a surprise cameo: instead of seeming like a logical completion to the story, this appearance comes off as a contrived way for Clarke to retroactively insert greater cosmic and series relevance into the preceding plot. 2061 is definitely a novel in the Space Odyssey tradition, but its distinct lack of cosmic scope means that it cannot live up to expectations.

That said, it is still a marvelous work of speculative fiction. Set in the compelling and ever-expanding Space Odyssey future, 2061 takes the world that Clarke has meticulously constructed and expands it in relevant and interesting ways. It is obvious by the middle of 2010 that Europa is the next logical stop for the intrepid astronauts of Earth, and the book's plot is closely linked with the other books thematically and through specific events. Though a couple of chapters get off track, they depict a future vision that is surprisingly realistic in its optimism. Nuclear weapons have been outlawed and Clarke's vision of the development of China (particularly his brilliant skewering of both the one-child policy and the idea that China is a hard-core communist nation in one fell swoop) is eerie as China looms on the horizon as a major global power. Though the revolution of globalization was beginning while Clarke was writing his book, the development of the Internet has led humanity a lot closer to becoming one state than he probably imagined, and because these conclusions seem more like a logical outflow of current events than idle speculation, the book resists becoming outdated in its predictions. Its only really dated prediction is in its references to developments in South Africa, but that country's turbulent colonial and apartheid past makes this vision reasonable enough to escape deep skepticism. Sections of the book describing worldly events are a little distracting from the space-based narrative at large, but Clarke's vision is interesting enough that these diversions are pleasurable and enlightening.

2061 does run into certain construction problems that are more distracting, however. Some of its coverage of future world events appears at random and isn't well integrated into the text at large, and one chapter in particular is interesting but only tangentially relevant to the plot line of a minor, minor character. Additionally, certain elements of the backstory are ill-thought out and explained with an absolute lack of clarity. The end of the book is particularly troublesome as a crucial scene is skipped entirely, completely ruining the pacing of the book and far too easily dispelling tension that had built up through a few previous chapters. The characters that dominate the plot simply take a back seat as Clarke clumsily brings in the Big Picture in the book's final moments, an ending that makes no sense and that blows open a gaping plot hole that contradicts the final warning of 2010, a warning that is echoed and referenced time and again throughout all of 2061. Clarke simply disposes of this, and his major plot threads, at will and makes no genuine attempt to follow up on his excellent sense of character. The ending is enigmatic, sure, but it is too sudden and too unexplained to fit in to the preceding narrative at all except to have its characters allude to recent events. 2061 is, despite its flaws, an excellent work of science fiction that will hold readers' interest as it zooms through the Solar System. Arthur C. Clarke again demonstrates his vast and vivid imaginative powers but is in some ways hampered by the brilliance of his previous work. 2061: Odyssey Three is definitely worth reading for science fiction buffs and anyone who enjoys a good futuristic space story, but be warned that it deviates a bit from the scope and focus of the first two books in the series.

Grade: B+

October 15, 2008

Book 47: 2010: Odyssey Two

2010: Odyssey Two
Arthur C. Clarke

Though the events in this book are said to take place in a parallel universe to that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010 is by all accounts a direct sequel. Though there are a few inconsistencies between the two works, the most glaring of which is the movement of the first book's main action from Saturn to Jupiter, this proves a worthy successor to the sci fi classic. Clarke continues the saga of the failed Discovery mission to send readers on another voyage through space that will reveal new truths about the mission and the history of Earth itself. Clarke does a fantastic job mixing high space adventure with subtle hints of philosophy and even psychology. The interactions between the Russian and American crew members seem incredibly realistic, if a bit too nice considering the vast amount of time they've spent isolated on the way to Jupiter, and each member of the crew has a distinct and interesting personality. Clarke doesn't sacrifice human relationships for action, and though there is plenty of excitement and science to go around in this book, Clarke's focus on humanity highlights the philosophical currents that run throughout the book. His treatment of Dr. Chandra in particular is illuminating: the creator of HAL seems at times less human than his creation and though Clarke can be a bit blunt when dealing with Chandra's inability to engage in human interaction, his presence says volumes more about increasing reliance on technology than an academic paper could. Clarke is wonderful at balancing story, characters, science, and philosophy and blending them together to create an original and stunning work.

2010 stays mainly on track as it follows the crew of the Russian space ship Leonov out to Jupiter to investigate the corpse of the Discovery and a mysterious monolith orbiting near Io. A side journey with new Star Child Dave Bowman seems distracting at first, but is later weaved sufficiently into the fabric of the story of the Leonov. Despite Clarke's love of raising tricky philosophical dilemmas and an again uncanny knack for predicting future attitudes twoards space and technology, his tendency to leave his plots unfinished and unexplained is annoying and sadly plagues this book. Readers latch on to the stories of the Leonov and, later, Bowman only to have the plot explode unexplained at the end of the book. Some ambiguity is certainly desirable when dealing with problems of such cosmic proportions, but Clarke leaves a bit too much open-ended at the close of 2010. Whether this is looking towards a sequel or not I don't know, but this feeling of an unfinished story also hampers the power of 2010 as a sequel to 2001. Overall, Clarke delivers an exellent follow-up that, despite feeling a bit raw at times, fits in perfectly with its predecessor. Nods to 2001 only become ridiculous when Clarke reprints long passages from the earlier book and even then they are at least relevant, if unnecesarily repetitive. Clarke adds new characters at will while keeping the universe and feel of 2001 more or less intact and 2010: Odyssey Two is a worthy addition to the Space Odyssey series, a serious examination of humanity's place in the universe lurking inside a good old-fashioned space adventure. Clarke has plenty of imagination to go around and I look forward to reading the next sequel in this worthy series.

Grade: A-

October 8, 2008

Book 46: 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey
Arthur C. Clarke

I finally got around to reading this classic, and it certainly didn't fail to impress. Magnificent in scope yet relevant to the last, this book truly deserves its status as a classic both inside and outside of science fiction circles. Though its plot pace is slow and its prose doesn't aspire to much in the way of poetry, the book hardly ever drags and in fact consistently ratchets up the pace until it is speeding along faster than light with the character who emerges as its first interest. The greatness of Clarke's novel exists despite the fact that it attempts to reflect upon many vastly different themes. Where there should be discord, however, there dawns a strange harmony, complete with balancing counterpoint. The main action shifts rapidly through time and space with no apparent connections, even after some vague explanation is offered. This should distract the reader's interest but Clarke somehow manages to carry the implications of the novel's first act through to its end; though he telegraphs the plot a bit too often with annoying cliche leading lines (think "little did he know"), the plot always heads in an interesting and fresh direction. This lack of character focus is also reflected thematically, with Clarke tackling everything from international relations to the theory of evolution to interstellar travel to, perhaps most importantly and consistently, the promise and perils of future technology. The novel should feel dense, and it would be easy for a lesser talent to turn it into an uninteresting lecture, but instead it soars, seeking to spur thought instead of stunt it.

It is the success of this wide focus that makes 2001: A Space Odyssey so great. Though its final pages try on a scope a bit too big for size, trading any sort of clarity in for grandiose imagery that doesn't quite translate even given the attempt at vagueness, its vast scope gives it depth and a sense of purpose. Clarke is the master of this technique, carefully crafting a story that is fully self-contained and yet which cannot escape critical interpretations. More amazing than this delicate juggling of exposition and subtler thematic construction and exploration is the book's remarkable accuracy in its predictions. Written before men even went to the Moon, Clarke's visions of interplanetary travel still lie far in our own future but seem plausible and achievable. He has clearly done his homework and his vision escapes the retroactive silliness that so often plagues interplanetary narratives. The book still feels groundbreaking. Though he does not fully predict the prevalence of computers in the real 2001, his vision of HAL's intelligence is haunting and seems to be lurking around the corner, inching closer with every new development. Scarier still is his vision of humanity's evolutionary descendants- he correctly predicts our increasing reliance on technology and carries this trend out to its logical conclusion. This is a haunting future vision in and of itself but the fact that it resonates so well with the real 2001 (or 2008) is scarier in itself.

Clarke is a masterful writer with a firm grip on science and a bountiful imagination. His intelligence is transparently displayed throughout 2001: A Space Odyssey but it is never overwhelming. It comes in his meticulous attention to detail and his uncanny knack for correctly extrapolating contemporary trends, which I choose to chalk up to more than dumb luck. The book itself is somewhat disappointing in its literary execution; dialogue is hardly realistic and plotting is at times agonizingly slow, but this portrait of humanity rises above its need to excel in this arena. What Clarke may lack in technical skill (which is itself very little) he makes up for in vision and pure execution- from the unimaginably prehistoric to the terrifyingly close possibilities we now live with, Clarke weaves a convincing and gripping tale. When the plot begins to unravel, the book does go with it, but this construction parallels the journey it describes. By the end of the book, the story seems to float away and leave the reader looking upon the world as much as its final character does. 2001: A Space Odyssey is an exercise in scope, wonder, and majesty that excels in every way and is delightful for those willing to expand their imaginations and review the scope of their own lives in the vast history of space travel, humanity, and the universe.

Grade: A

October 5, 2008

Book 45: Hot Six

Hot Six
Janet Evanovich

What can I say? These little suckers are addictive, and though it is not quite as strong as all of its predecessors, Hot Six is a fine addition to the ongoing adventures of oddball bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. The opening tone of this book is fantastic as Stephanie knows that she is in entirely over her head. Hot Six also turns in a wonderful set of performances from the supporting cast in and around Trenton. Grandma Mazur hasn't been this spot-on or this funny since she featured prominently in Two for the Dough, and it is nice to see her get some actual plot development. In fact, Hot Six is more a break from the norm than High Five ever was, even though we are back to Plum's familiar territory as a bounty hunter seeking an actual FTA. Because, however, that FTA is her mentor, friend, and possible love interest Ranger, Stephanie does little bounty hunting and allows Evanovich to add incredible depth to the story she weaves in between novels. This book gives readers a peek at Stephanie's life between blowing up borrowed cars and introduces a wonderfully spacey side character known as the "Moon Man." Evanovich uses Hot Six to showcase her incredible ability to draw a complex portrait of a modern Jersey that looks upon itself with as much disdain as the rest of the United States. Everyone and their grandmother packs heat while rude hand gestures outpace car horns as in-traffic indicators of temperament. And in the midst of all this normalcy Stephanie is at the heart of another crime mystery. If Evanovich can be faulted for the depth of her vision, it is only in assuming that Trenton possesses so many intricate crime circles, but they keep the narratives fresh and do, after all, create a nice (if a bit canned) plot for these wonderfully drawn characters to push along. Indeed, Evanovich's greatest fault in this book is when she resorts to painful stereotyping of an Arabic character, giving him dialogue that is downright offensive and really has no place in the printed word, let alone amongst a cast so richly imagined. Evanovich does, however, come out on top with another engaging mystery for Stephanie Plum that leaves readers again wanting nothing but more misadventures in this charming pip of a series.

Grade: B+

September 29, 2008

Book 44: High Five

High Five
Janet Evanovich

The always spirited Stephanie Plum returns in this, her fifth major effort and a book that takes a somewhat different approach than the previous four installments of the series. High Five has Stephanie out of her element not as a bounty hunter per se but rather as a detective of sorts for her family. Though Stephanie is searching for her missing cheapskate uncle instead of a wanted fuguitive (or is Fred wrapped up in some shady business of his own?), she has plenty of mishaps readers have come to expect and, as usual, the missing person is far from easy to apprehend. Though this book takes a bit longer to find its element, and Stephanie's voice struggles accordingly in the first few chapters, it eventually catches up to speed and emerges as a fresh and hilarious addition to the refreshing series. Stephanie herself shows signs of growth and increasing competence that must be coming with her level of experience; though she is a refreshingly incompetent foil to the typical mystery hero(ine), she is no longer quite as inept as she used to be. This development coupled with the return of many previously existing players and a sense of overall plotting that isn't confined to one or two books makes the Stephanie Plum series downright addictive. Evanovich again showcases her snappy style and brings Stephanie to life in wonderful Technicolor, flaws and all. Stephanie is someone readers can relate to, a normal girl in over her head who knows it and yet who comes out again and again on top. Despite the loose ends of the plot that don't get sufficiently wrapped up at the end, High Five is a worthy addition to the tales of Stephanie Plum's unorthodox life as a bounty hunter and leaves readers eager for the next chapter in her ongoing saga.

Grade: A-

September 17, 2008

Book 43: The Fourth Bear

The Fourth Bear
Jasper Fforde

After reading the first book in Fforde's Nursery Crime series, I was a bit disappointed in the execution but entirely enthralled by the conceit driving these mysteries. Unfortunately, this book takes the bad elements of its predecessor and expands upon them, dropping any hints of subtlety or nuance along the way and gloating in the author's cleverness. This book does, like the last, take a familiar childrens'` story and brings it into the real world of murder, mystery, and intrigue; this time the theme is the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, and though the book has its faults its groundwork is far more stable than that of The Big Over Easy. Whether this is because Fforde has more to draw on than four lines of poetry or because he has learned from working within this world is unknown; what is clear is that Fforde has become far more comfortable with his parallel alternate reality and can execute an interesting murder mystery within the confines of that world. Jack, Mary, and Ashley continue to be well-defined and rounded as we learn yet more about their personal lives and, though their side stories are not always relevant to the text as a whole, they are compelling and provide for both depth and laughs.

In fact, this book would be a huge improvement on the last if it stuck to its main plot and slight character side stories, most of which are executed quite well. Where Fforde stumbles is when he becomes too aware of himself and his story. It is charming the first couple of times characters refer to common plot devices by number (along the lines of, "You're not going to pull a plot device twenty-six, are you?"), and it prevents the book from taking itself too seriously, but these asides eventually descend into pure unintelligent farce. Fforde falls back on them for easy laughs time and again, and by the time the characters themselves beat up Fforde on certain aspects of the plot, this breaking of the fourth wall seems only self-serving, a sort of inside joke about how amazing Fforde feels he is. What this book illustrates, however, is that he has the chops, if only he didn't realize it. More frustrating, however, is his absolute waste of an original and hilarious idea. Fforde introduces a used car salesman who promises Jack that the car he's buying will never age or see damage, no matter what he does to it (sound familiar?). Instead of drawing out the allusion and allowing it to build, Fforde names the salesman straight up (shockingly, Dorian Gray) and has him show Jack the car's magic painting. This is a brilliant idea, absolutely hilarious, and instead of running with it Fforde assumes the stupidity of his readers and pleases no one. Even those who are unaware of Wilde's classic would surely find the sub-plot's mystery intriguing, and die-hard readers would be pleased to have their intellect stretched a bit. Instead of a book full of laughs, Fforde gets one cheap groan.

That is the fundamental problem with Fforde's execution of this series: Fforde's propensity for sheer, pointless randomness in his world and the continued explanation of his jokes- it is not just nursery rhyme characters that populate his Reading, an expansion that hurts his narrative but does not sink it, making him look naive and pretentious instead. Certain elements are handled consistently well, and they are the oddball ones. The race of aliens he has created, the Rambosians, are hilarious and serve a purpose within the narrative. Fforde explains at length how they tick and brings them to life without being overbearing or patting his own back too often. The first book's inclusion of a Greek Titan went incredibly well and I am hard pressed to think of a more unique and thought-provoking treatment of the Great War than a theme park based on the Battle of the Somme. Even structurally speaking, the blurbs that begin each chapter, ostensibly from the Bumper Book of Berskshire Records, are hilarious and, as "primary sources," are free of Fforde's overworking. What is most frustrating about The Fourth Bear is that Fforde often allows his talent to simply shine through but doesn't trust it enough to carry a novel. The improvements over The Big Over Easy alone show that Fforde has learned more about constructing a mystery and can operate successfully in this world now that it is fully imagined both in his and readers' minds, yet Fforde is not content to let a good thing simply be. Fforde exhibits that most exasperating of authorial pretentions: he doesn't trust his readers to get the joke unless he holds their hand. There is a good mystery at the heart of this book, and if Fforde would realize that his Nursery Crime Series books are indeed for grown-ups and stop using it as an excuse to showcase how clever he knows he is, they could be classics in modern humor. Instead, they come off as childish and, while worth reading, offer unnecessary exasperation as their brilliant premise and good writing go slowly to waste.

Grade: B

September 7, 2008

Book 42: The Big Over Easy

The Big Over Easy
Jasper Fforde

I picked this book up completely at random, based on my vague recognition of the author's name and the vibrant, happy coloring of its spine. I enjoy a good alternate reality, and Fforde's book concocts a compelling one in which nursery rhyme characters and situations actually occur in a more-or-less realistic modern Britain with a few additional fantastic touches. Fforde intelligently and interestingly intersperses familiar characters and situations into a modern mystery that holds its own as the central plot for the book though it occasionally becomes too silly or abstract for its own good. On the whole, Fforde cannot seem to decide whether to take his world seriously or to gloat in its fantastic delights, and the book oscillates oddly between being straight-faced and becoming a parody. The Big Over Easy does manage to level interesting criticism and subtle jabs at the mystery genre in general, with the police department focused almost entirely on making its crimes and investigations look good in print, a process which has been perfected by the perfectly irritating Friedland Chymes. Fforde uses Chymes and his incredibly inflated ego to parody both ever-popular crime shows and the literary genre's fascination with over-the-top super-detectives who have no basis in reality. The Guild for famous and customer-pleasing detectives is an excellent send-up of the mystery genre and gets good laughs out of the notion that the most venerable Sherlock Holmes was both real and the inspiration for modern detective work. What he lacks in subtlety he makes up for, for the most part, in charm.

Fforde's send-up, however, falters in a few places as his own mystery becomes convoluted beyond recognition. There are many valid reasons why the mystery genre is as vibrant and popular as it is, and he focuses too much energy on lampooning them to pay dutiful attention to his own plot, which spirals out of control at the end of the novel. This may be a purposeful reflection of the genre's propensity to introduce unnecessary complications into its cases, but Fforde is simply careless and throws wrench after wrench into the machine until it grinds to a scraping halt. Even the most cynical parody needs to rest on its own merits as well as the criticism it levels and it is unfortunate that Fforde loses sight of the details in his quest for a bigger critique. The mystery he concocts in his fully-imagined world is compelling and reflects on our shared reality but its conclusion borders on the preposterous and makes it easy to forget what a good and thorough book The Big Over Easy actually is. Equally frustrating is the initial inability of Fforde to suitably plunge his readers into this parallel reality. Though his imagination is unlimited and the world of Jack Spratt and Mary Mary is fully realized, Fforde's opening descriptions of Reading are clunky and fail to offer an engrossing sense of place or time. It is immediately obvious that nursery characters exist, but it is not immediately clear how far they are integrated into the world or what kinds of people notice and interact with them. This is a shame because after a few chapters and a few well-placed fake news clippings the world becomes clear and engrossing.

Small literary missteps such as the unraveling of the late plot and the unaccessible nature of the setting of The Big Over Easy mar what is otherwise an excellent work of an unbounded imagination. Fforde is incredibly thorough and gives his characters interesting and believable character histories that do, in time, help to construct the world in which the novel operates. Despite its flaws and its ridiculous ending, The Big Over Easy is a compelling mystery that is hilarious and does reflect in interesting ways on the mystery genre at large. Fforde has succeeded admirably at taking the stuff of nursery rhymes and translating it into a modern legal context, a translation most vivid in his treatment of the familiar three little pigs motif. The novel reflects on the absurdity of both beloved nursery rhymes and modern police procedures, introducing criticism none-too-subtle but biting nonetheless. Most of all, the book is simply fun, and though it may take a while for readers to get immersed in the world of The Big Over Easy, it is a light and rewarding read that should please fans of the mystery genre, so long as they can take a few jabs here and there, as well as other readers interested in the re-invention of timeless classsics or those just looking for a lighthearted good ride.

Grade: B+

September 1, 2008

Book 41: Four to Score

Four to Score
Janet Evanovich

Trenton, NJ, beware. Stephanie Plum is back and is hot on the trail of a car thief intent on revenge against her slimy ex-beau. Despite the fact that Three to Get Deadly is a relative disappointment and that this is the fourth book in a series, Evanovich keeps Stephanie and her cases fresh and refuses to become too formulaic in a genre that thrives on convention. Sure, the key elements are in place: readers know by now that Stephanie is on a near-impossible case that will somehow turn out to be bigger than it appears and which will be happily resolved after some creative bungling by Trenton's favorite female bounty hunter. That's why we read the books, which are a delight and which make the innovation between installments even more fresh and interesting. Four to Score builds on the Trenton we know and love while introducing a few new and fully rounded characters. Evanovich excels at characterization; hardly any characters fit basic stereotypes and even when they do they have interesting backstory or can function on their own as realistic representations of familiar faces. There is only one consistently disappointing relationship and even that is handled well enough to not clash terribly with the less stereotypical parts of the book. Evanovich's ability to draw intriguing and realistic portraits carries this book as the FTA develops a personality all her own and leads Stephanie on a unique wild-goose chase that is as happily aggravating for readers as it must be for Stephanie. Evanovich comes back from a one-book slump with Stephanie's humor in full force, delivering the rapid and consistently hilarious narration and dialogue readers have come to know and love through the series, recycling old characters in inventive and exciting ways and elaborating on Trenton without anything seeming too convenient or to unfairly stretch the bounds of reality. A sense of reality permeates Stephanie's adventures and her gradual growth and lingering incompetence combine with Evanovich's excellent senses of setting and speech to create a fun and inventive mystery that should delight fans of both Stephanie Plum and the mystery genre as a whole. Four to Score is a return to top form for Evanovich and shouldn't be missed in this wonderful series.

Grade: A-

August 31, 2008

Book 40: Three to Get Deadly

Three to Get Deadly
Janet Evanovich

Stephanie Plum returns in this, her third major bounty hunting case, a little older and wiser but still the same Stephanie readers know and love. The case this time takes some expected twists and turns, but Evanovich keeps things fresh and interesting enough to please readers. This book is, however, a bit less humorous than the first two books in the series, due perhaps to the prominence of Lula in the supporting cast, a somewhat stereotypical black woman who doesn't have the same propensity for utter hilarity as most of the other recurring characters. Stephanie is also somewhat out of sync throughout the book and her narration, while containing its witticisms and clever insights, is relatively plain. Evanovich does get good performances out of the rest of Trenton's colorful characters and the mystery at hand is different and interesting, leading to a moral conundrum refreshing in this typically lighthearted genre. Particularly vibrant is the suspect Stephanie's chasing and the burg's reaction to her job hunting down a beloved neighborhood character- the dialogue here again seems genuine. Three for the Money is a worthy addition to the Stephanie Plum series, though perhaps not its strongest point, and is worth a read on a sunny afternoon.

Grade: B

August 29, 2008

Book 39: Lord Jim

Lord Jim
Joseph Conrad

Though I've studied much history that forms the context for Joseph Conrad's work, I have never until now actually read it. I was pleased to discover that Lord Jim is fundamentally about a sailor, as I've always enjoyed stories of the bounding main, but what I found is that this narrative is fundamentally a character study despite hints here and there of high adventure. Instead of being particularly plot-heavy, Lord Jim focuses on the plight of Jim as he flees a defining act of cowardice and seeks a new start, mirroring perhaps the fundamental goal of many under the age of imperialism and the promotion of travel to distant lands. This novel contains at its heart a story of rebirth and asks about the possibility of reclaiming lost honor without offering a forced conclusion. Initially inaccessible, the book offers an interesting narrative scheme that allows the book to meditate on lost honor without becoming didactic or too leading. Despite the soon-irrelevant opening, which begins directly in the middle of Jim's story both chronologically and thematically, the tale soon moves into the capable hands of Captain Marlow, an old salt who finds himself strangely drawn to Jim and who narrates the remaining bulk of the story. Marlow is interesting because of his sympathy for Jim and his direct involvement in Jim's attempted rehabilitation; the novel would take a very different turn if it were narrated by a character without such attachments, one who saw Jim simply as most of the world sees him: a coward. Conrad does, however, recognize the flaws of first person narration and begins the narrative in the omniscient third person, which allows him to present the novel's climactic incident before realistically restricting the story to things which Marlow knows first or secondhand.

Aside from its inventive and appropriate narrative scheme, which brilliantly shifts when necessary, Conrad's work employs an interesting running metaphor towards the end of the novel that has incredible resonance with the book's central themes, as well as those of its context. Stein, a merchant who offers Jim his final chance for successful obscurity, is obsessed with butterflies. This seemingly insignificant detail is carefully woven into the fabric of the novel when it comes back at the very end of the novel as Stein, aged and inching towards death, makes a final ironic gesture towards the butterflies, which represent not only Jim's own quest to reclaim his honor but also the unique opportunities provided by late 19th century British imperialism to entrerprising gentlemen. Conrad is subtle with the imagery, but the meaning is clear and the symbol painstakingly chosen, shifting the focus of the novel in the last sentence and adding layers of complexity and depth that stretch beyond Jim, a shift shocking because of the novel's intricate knowledge of Jim's inner life. His story, however, takes on greater significance when compared as well to that of Brown, a latter-day pirate who dramatically alters the course of events and who himself has been re-invented in the South Seas. Thus, despite some moments of confusion in the narrative and some long plotless periods in the text, Lord Jim is well worth reading for its construction (and, perhaps, deconstruction) of the responsibilities of an English gentleman and the ways in which he can seek to re-claim a damaged reputation, if such a thing is even possible. Conrad leaves the possibilities open while satisfactorily concluding Jim's story and has provided in Lord Jim valuable documentation of the late 19th century imperial mind that remains vague and complex enough to retain viability and realism into the new century.

Grade: A

August 25, 2008

Book 38: A Short History of Film

A Short History of Film
Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

I picked up this book on a lark, seeing it featured in the library, and I'm glad that I did. My single undergraduate film class left me interested in the developments of film outside of the apocalyptic genre and gave me some background with which to approach this book, as did the book I recently read on the Hollywood Left in the '30s. Though far from perfect, Dixon and Foster have created an interesting and surprisingly readable history of film fairly easily accessible to those outside the know, and though it does succumb to a few flaws both of academic and film writing, it is a valuable resource for newbies looking to introduce themselves to the history of the cinema. It begins well, with the most hilariously disconnected and selective timeline I have ever seen in my life. Seemingly mundane events are thrown in along with the great historical dates we all know so well, and the best entry involves a death going unnoticed by the media at large. The important event in this syntactic display is, of course, the ignorance and not the death itself. Despite the fact that it is relatively useless before reading the text, it is worth a look nonetheless and does give a good sense of some gradual shifts in culture that do resonate in film history. The text itself begins abruptly, without any overt designs on an overarching thesis and diving quite in to the history of moving pictures, a brief overview that ignores the earth-shattering importance of photography but which nonetheless describes the development of motion picture technology well before moving into more specific films and movements.

The abrupt beginning delivers a jolt that is unfortunately repeated several times throughout the narrative. Though the authors do an excellent and, I assume, fairly comprehensive job of describing cinematic movements (especially where they occur in foreign countries), they often lose the sense of the bigger picture. Though readers can come away with a good understanding of the aesthetics of Italian neorealism, for example, its directors and pictures are jumbled together and span different chapters. The book leaves something to be desired in its organization and jumps around inconsistently; one moment, a director's entire body of work is discussed across artistic movements and decades, whereas in the next a director will be split up according to the time periods he or she was active in. Neither approach is necessarily better but a consistent sense of time and place would go a long way in helping uninitiated readers understand the history of the cinema as a whole instead of trying to follow the authors' logic. Likewise, A Short History of Film also succumbs to the uninteresting and boring repetitiveness of listing film after film, often obscure and without any sort of context. Merely listing a director's resume doesn't do much without an explanation of how their films develop or their relevance to the cinema as a whole. This is a consistent flaw of academic writing, and along with the overuse of "moribund" and "Brechtian" often distracts the reader and unnecessarily draws attention to the authors instead of the material presented.

That material, however, is often well treated and is kept fresh and interesting over 300 pages. The book is just about the perfect length, drawing a good balance between being an overview and presenting some depth and promoting actual understanding. Asinine listing aside, the authors seem to respect the fact that their target audience may have not seen many landmark films and do not throw in self-serving references cryptic to all but devoted film majors. Dixon and Foster have created a lively and comprehensive history of cinema that touches on the major films most have heard of (The Jazz Singer, anyone?) but also discusses the often-forgotten work of women and minorities, to say nothing of its comprehensive and intriguing focus on world film, which is often more experimental and interesting than your typical Hollywood blockbuster fare. Not being an expert on film, I can't speak to the academic authority of this text, but as a representative member of A Short History of Film's target audience, I can say that the book delivers on the promise of its title and will give readers a good picture of the history and development of the cinema, leading right up to 2006 and looking beyond as the era of digital filmmaking continues to dawn upon us.

Grade: B+

August 21, 2008

Book 37: Two for the Dough

Two for the Dough
Janet Evanovich

The magnificently incompetent Stephanie Plum returns here for what looks, on the surface, to be an easy pickup for her cousin Vinnie's bail bonding service. In typical mystery fashion, however, there is much more to the story than meets the eye and Stephanie is yet again catapulted far beyond her means into the center of an interesting, if a bit contrived, chain of events and a crime much bigger than a simple friend-to-friend shooting. Evanovich delivers with this second book in the Stephanie Plum series, bringing back many of the lively characters from the first book without resorting to extraordinary measures. The only slightly pushed boundary of character credibility is in the hiring of an old contact, but even this can be ignored because the character in question is too good to pass up. Evanovich can weave an interesting story, but her real strength lies in her humorous and far too real characters and the consistently hilarious voice of her heroine. While characters as bizarre as Stephanie's Grandma Mazur (think Sophia from the Golden Girls) and as stereotyped as Stephanie's parents could easily turn silly or stale, somehow the action is propelled by an underlying sense of reality. The snide comments of Stephanie's arch-enemy no doubt resonate to the victims of middle-aged cattiness everywhere, and Grandma Mazur's portrait is played entirely straight: it is only natural to believe that she is simply going batty in her old age.

These realistic characterizations and Evanovich's accompanying refusal to take her mysteries too seriously make the Stephanie Plum series stand out from the bulk of the genre. Even the mystery at hand is far from run-of-the-mill, and again Evanovich resists the temptation to make Stephanie a hero and keeps her true to (inept) character. Stephanie herself is a lively and engaging narrator and her self-flagellating comments are so in line with readers' thoughts that they never become annoying or seem like cries for undeserved pity. Sure, the novel follows a traditional mystery trajectory, with everything neatly wrapped at the end after one misfortune after another. Evanovich throws enough kinks in the chain to keep the book interesting and the new information fresh and relevant, creating a plot worthy of her steady cast and bringing new corners of her mid-nineties Trenton underworld to light. The scene and players are always interesting, the only thing out of place a slightly gory trend that is far too gruesome for such a lighthearted style. This too, however, seems to fall into place as even Stephanie cannot weather the storm without losing some poise in the process. Overall, Two for the Dough is an excellent continuation of a very good thing, an enjoyable genre book that I could not help but like despite its conventions and which leaves me eager to experience more of Stephanie's misadventures as an ineffective yet charming bounty hunter.

Grade: A-

August 18, 2008

Book 36: Cloudsplitter

Russell Banks

It would perhaps take only a novel of epic proportions to even attempt to do justice to John Brown, a central figure in the American pantheon, for better or for worse. Banks does justice to the great anti-slavery martyr and, more importantly, brings him into vivid historical context by rendering his tale through the eyes of his loyal son Owen. Though the novel is a fictionalized account of Brown's life, it is obvious that Cloudsplitter is meticulously researched and Owen's voice sounds roughly appropriate for its own time and place around the turn of the century. Though Banks often references events that are yet to occur, mentioning Kansas as early as the first couple of chapters, any reader brave enough to tackle this book is likely to have a fairly good background in the general history of events. Banks's assumptions regarding his audience's familiarity with the pre-Civil War history of the abolitionist movement are a little too optimistic at times, but those times when he has Owen briefly explain background are seamlessly blended into the narrative as a whole, due often to its existence as a prolonged epistle to a historian and his assistant. Cloudsplitter is nothing if not epic in scale and thematic ambition, and though it can become a bit too grandiose for its own good, it is an interesting and vivid portrait of the anti-slavery crusade that is often forgotten and ignored in the shadow of Lincoln and the Union's victory in the Civil War. It is vitally important, and never forgotten in the novel, that John Brown was opposed to the United States government and had complete skepticism regarding his fellow whites and their willingness to go to war over the fate of what most saw as a lesser form of humanity. Banks excells when describing this viewpoint, conscious of modern readers and our own prolonged struggle with racial inequality while creating a narrator whose own feelings about slavery and race seem entirely genuine and appropriate given his upbringing.

Owen, closest son to John Brown and a perfectly placed narrator, is not without his flaws, however. The opening pages of Cloudsplitter are boring and elusive, taking too long to jump into the engaging story at the heart of the novel. The least interesting sections of Cloudsplitter are those when Owen descends into a whiny, pathetic mess; appropriate, perhaps, given the trauma he has had in his life (he was present in Kansas and Harper's Ferry and must live with his actions), but still unhelpful to the novel as a whole. These sections, while they seem to validate the narrative by remembering its existence as an epistolary memoir, are unconnected to the whole and often break up incredibly interesting points of the plot. Just as the narrative is reaching its dramatic, present-tense climax at Harper's Ferry, Banks draws back and Owen retreats into his present, jaded, and most uninteresting state. When the narrative finally picks back up, there are only a few pages left in the book and they fall back into the past tense. Banks is on to something with his use of the present to solidify Owen's own journey through his memories, a journey marked by his occasional lapses into the time of writing and one that is, sadly, only a shadow of what it could have been. In this case, it is merely a distraction and disrupts the otherwise intense climax, leaving the novel to finish not with a bang but with a whimper as it meanders off into the pointlessness and inconclusiveness of its final paragraph. It is clear that Owen examines his memories only to elicit pity and because of his whiny presence readers cannot get a firm idea of the true nature of his relationship to his enigmatic and powerful father, perhaps left ambiguous on purpose to expose the faults of first person narration; if this is the case, however, the question is misplaced as the novel has plenty of other interesting and important themes to tackle.

The main fault of the novel is its narrator and arguable main character. Owen isn't particularly likable and is just as weak as he wishes to believe he is. It becomes clear early on that his is putty in the hands of his captivating father and that he is utterly incapable of independent thought. His constant calls to his individuality, instead of being enlightening and ironic in this context, are instead annoying as they come after Owen demonstrates his inability for independent thought. Owen many times refers to certain events as turning points in his life and personality; unfortunately, the narrative he presents hardly ever even offers the possibility of change or real growth. It is ultimately impossible to get a hold on Owen, a fault I feel comfortable allotting to Banks because of his awesome portrait of John Brown. Clearly Banks is capable of rendering a rich portrait of a strong and important character; unfortunately, any talent is spent entirely on John as Owen, the novel's pivotal character, is sorely neglected and refers to events and to pieces of the book that simply don't exist (Banks leaves readers hanging on until the end to finally realize the dark deed constantly referred to as Owen's great confession without providing any sense of closure).

The book, despite these major flaws, is indeed a good one. Its passages that actually see action and movement provide a richly detailed portrait of the pre-war North, a society often ignored in light of the South's rich representation in today's popular culture. Banks does a good job representing pre-war thought, putting abolitionist views in the words of a man who has seen the Civil War and Reconstruction come and go, a man who has lived long enough to feel the effects of his actions and who is conscious of his place in history. It is true, of course, that John and Owen Brown represent the absolute extreme of the pre-war antislavery movement, but their ardent abolitionism puts the state of the nation into a far sharper resolution than a novel about more mild abolitionists ever could. Owen Brown was brought up with the sole intention of outlawing slavery and liberating the slaves by any means possible or necessary and Banks wisely makes Owen aware of the uniqueness of his views and actions, an awareness that only enriches the novel and its quite candid discussion of slavery. Banks's choice of a narrator is spot-on even if his presentation of character is a bit off, and he throws John Brown into such vivid relief that readers should leave feeling eager to dive headfirst into the actual history of the life and times of the great American martyr.

Cloudsplitter is clearly a novel on a mission, and Banks is keenly aware of his talent and of the scope of his work. Unfortunately, this often leads to a cluttered book; its 750 pages present the proper scale for the work but Banks gets confused and meanders into boring territory instead of focusing on or highlighting his incredible abilities. The story of John Brown, where it exists without Owen's presence in the plot or well after, in reflection, is utterly fascinating and provides an entirely new point of view on this most pivotal chapter in American history. Despite its flaws as a novel, Cloudsplitter will richly reward diligent readers who plow through its slow spots and concentrate their efforts on the historical world recreated before modern eyes. The book may not be a hallmark of subtlety or literary restraint, but Banks is nonetheless talented and even Owen's misplaced and misguided digressions contain their nuggets of wisdom (particularly vivid is a discussion of point of view and how it comes across in the perfectly appropriate story of Abraham and Isaac). Overall, Cloudsplitter is an intriguing fictionalization of one of history's most outlandish and interesting characters, a sweeping work of historical fiction that suffers occasional missteps but that will enrich readers seeking perspective on the vast complexities of the American Civil War or the effect of strong individuals on historical forces and those closest to them.

Grade: B