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+