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-