Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Bancroft Strategy - Robert Ludlum (kinda)

2006; 708 pages. Genre : Spy Novel. Author : anybody's guess. Overall Rating : B..

    Robert Ludlum died in 2001, but five years later, using a ouija board and a magic marker, he communicated The Bancroft Strategy to his Estate. I know this, because his name is plastered on the cover of the book in huge, gold letters.

.    Todd Bellknap is no Jason Bourne, but when his mentor and best friend in the Consular Operations agency is kidnapped, he is forced to go rogue to go to the rescue. Meanwhile, Andrea Bancroft suddenly finds herself 6 million dollars richer, with just one catch. She has to sit on the board of her estranged family's Bancroft Foundation. When their two paths inevitably cross, they have to learn to trust each other in order to track down the sinister and elusive "Genesis".

What's To Like...
    It's the classic Ludlum storyline - one lone agent up against a sizable and mysterious conspiracy, on the run from his agency, and never knowing who's good and who's bad. There are lots of plot twists, lots of action, and lots of worldwide settings. The overall ending surprised me (although in retrospect, it shouldn't have), and at the very, very end, there's a neat little ethical twist that will make you smile.

.    OTOH, the book is 700+ freakin' pages long. Where was the editor in all this? And if you've read one-too-many Bournish "one agent beats all the other trained killers in the world" books, you might find this a slow go.

.I'm as paranormal as the next guy.
    Okay, I lied. Despite the bookcover, Robert Ludlum didn't write TBS. In small print, on the credits page, it says, "Since his death, the Estate of Robert Ludlum has worked with a carefully selected author and editor to prepare and edit this work for publication."
    Most of the criticism of this book has to do with the authorship. Some people felt suckered in by Ludlum's name splashed across the cover. Others felt this was a poor copycat of the Bourne plots. Those points have merits, I guess.

.   Personally, I enjoyed ths book, despite its length. Most people who read this genre know Ludlum passed away a while back, so one shouldn't feel duped. And if you can forget about the Bourne trilogy (all six books of it), and read The Bancroft Strategy for its own merits, it's pretty good. I even have some sympathy for the unknown author. He writes a good book, and no one will ever know.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Road - Cormac McCarthy

2006; 287 pages. Genre : Contemporary Literature. Awards : 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; 2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (Fiction); Oprah's Book Club selection for April 2007. Soon to come out as a movie, starring LOTR's Aragorn. Overall Rating : B+..

   "He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone."

   .In a post-apocalytpic world (most likely done in by a hit from a comet), a dying father and his son struggle just to survive another day. Ash is everywhere; all plant life is dead, as are most animals; the weather is unchanging : cold, rainy, and blowing ash; and the few remaining humans scrounge desperately for whatever scraps of food might still be found.

What's To Like...
    The father and son are two great character studies. The former remembers "the world before", but refrains from telling the son about it, for fear of depressng him about their current lot. Ironically, the son (who apparently was born right around the time of "the event") has a lot more hope and humanity within him than the dad. Yet the father's stoniness is driven by his love for the son, and his resolve for the boy to somehow survive.

    .Then there's the concept of Character Development, something almost unheard of in stories anymore. The father gradually succeeds in instilling in his son the skills and the mindset to cope with the bleak world, and in the end, their roles are almost reversed.
    The "e.e. cummings" literary style takes some getting used to, and some of the technical details are hard to believe - such as a dog somehow managing to survive for 10 years or so without anyone eating him. Also, if you're not in the habit of watching The History Channel's "end of the world" shows, you may find some of the horrors of this foodless world repulsive. Such as the "shish-ka-baby" scene.

"Mankind is only about three missed-meals away from degenerating into savagery."
    Cormac McCarthy is 75 years old, and this book is dedicated to his 8-year-old son. The Road seems to me to be a message to that son from a father who recognizes he won't be around for most of his kid's life. The fact that McCarthy weaves that message into an end-of-the-world setting and writes it in a unique style makes this book worthy of its Pulitzer Prize. The book offers much to think about in this world where most of us would starve in a couple days if the supermarkets and Circle-K's disappeared. But in the end, you will enjoy The Road more if you focus on the people, and not the post-apoc events.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Eyre Affair - Jasper Fforde

2001; 374 pages. Genres : a whole slew of them. Overall Rating : B+..

    "I was born on a Thursday, hence the name. My brother was born on a Monday, and they called him Anton - go figure. My mother was called Wednesday, but was born on a Sunday - I don't know why - and my father had no name at all - his identity and existence had been scrubbed by the ChronoGuard after he went rogue. To all intents and purposes he didn't exist at all. It didn't matter. He was always Dad to me."
    This is a unique and ambitious book. It incorporates at least eight genres - Romance, Alt. History (okay, "Parallel Universe" if you want to split hairs), Time Travel, Action-Thriller, Dimension Travel, Literary Fiction, Vampires, and last but not least, Satire.

.What's To Like...
    First of all, you don't need to have read Jane Eyre to enjoy this book. For us unread yokels, Fforde gives a brief synopsis of JE as the storyline heads "into" that book. If any of the aforementioned genres appeal to you, you'll find TEA a delight. And there's four more in the series (maybe five now), all involving classic literature rewrites.
    Other highlights : pet dodo birds; an independent Republic of Wales, a bunch of likeable good guys along with some interesting bad guys, some really kewl inventions by Thursday Next's Uncle Mycroft, and Shakespeare's Richard III done in a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" fashion.
    There are a few weaknesses. When you have eight genres and maybe a dozen plots and sub-plots flowing through the story, it is well nigh impossible to give enough attention to all of them. The time-travel seems superfluous, as does Wales' being an independent nation. Perhaps these are more fully developed in the sequels.

    .My gut feeling is that Fforde's ultimate goal in writing The Eyre Affair was to rewrite the ending to Jane Eyre. One can't just up and do that; people would call you presumptuous. So he invented an incredibly complex universe and storyline, and used them as a vehicle to alter the ending. Was Fforde successful in this? In my opinion, yes.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

One for the Money - Janet Evanovich

1994; 320 pages. Genre : Crime Fiction. Overall Rating : B-..

    Stephanie Plum needs a job, so she schmoozes her cousin Vinnie and gets hired on as a bounty hunter. Unfortunately, she knows nothing about the vocation, so she needs a gun, needs to learn how to shoot it, and needs to figure out how to haul someone in. Most of all, she needs the $10,000 finders fee for bringing in Joe Morelli; who's a cop accused of murder, a hunk, and who as a kid, conned Stephanie into playing the New Jersey equivalent of "doctor".

What's To Like...
    Evanovich has created a strong, female protagonist in Plum. She can use her brain, which comes in handy as she learns her new profession. Indeed, it was refreshing to see her outfox Joe Morelli in order to bring him in, instead of having to resort to her feminine wiles or (worse yet) romance.

.   There is vein of light humor that runs throughout the book, and wonder of wonders, we're not dealing with someone who suffers from job burn-out. It's also a nice change to follow a bounty hunter instead of a cop or detective in a crime novel. Morelli is another good character study, although it is evident early on that he's not really a murderer.

   .Unfortunately, the great character studies come at the expense of a humdrum storyline. Stephanie gads about, searching for Morelli and bringing in easy, but low-paying bail-jumpers. Meanwhile, no progress is made on the main murder until the tail-end, when the real killer of course blabs all the details to Stephanie right before he intends to kill her. Don't bad guys ever watch Austin Powers movies?
    There are believability issues. The entire New Jersey police force can't find Morelli, but Stephanie manages to do so - not once, not twice, but four times. Then there's her visit to a boxing gym, where the "champ" decides to attempt to sexually assault her for no particular reason and in front of everyone else working out at the gym. Yeah, like that happens all the time.

Cogito, ergo Plum...
    The Stephanie Plum series has been highly successful for Evanovich, and I noted that the latest one (something like #15 or so), "Plum Spooky" was #1 on the NY Times best seller list last week. It may be interesting to see how her character develops along the line. Presumably, she gets more adept at bounty-hunting with time.
    If you're looking for an entertaining story, with a bit of humor and a good, strong, thinking female lead, One For The Money may be your cup of tea. OTOH, this isn't the book to read when you're wanting spine-tingling suspense or wish to solve a whodunit alongside the protagonist. As long as you're more interested in what happens to Stephanie and her bounty-hunting than who-killed-who and why, this is a pleasant read.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Good Omens - Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

Full Title : "Good Omens - The Nice And Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch". 1990; 398 pages. Genre : Fantasy Satire. Overall Rating : B+.
Armageddon is coming! Aliens are descending, Atlantis is rising, and Tibetans are tunneling. Far beneath the abyssmal sea the kraken stirs, and ten billion sushi dinners cry out for vengeance. The 4 horsemen of the Apocalypse (War, Famine, Death and Pollution. Pestilence retired when penicillin was discovered) have gathered and there's just one small problem - the Antichrist seems to have been mislaid.
What's To Like...
This is delightful silliness with a bunch of very likeable characters. Among them are the eventually-found Antichrist and his playmates; Newton Pulsifier (witchfinder), and Anathema Device (professional descendant and occultist). The main stars are two angels - Aziraphale (who moonlights as a rare-book collector) and Crowley (who did not so much fall as to saunter vaguely downwards). These two have counterbalanced each other for 6,000 years and 15 minutes. Over time, a friendship has developed and neither one is very keen on the End of the World happening just now.
The storyline is well-structured. There are a slew of threads that converge nicely at the end. Gaiman and Pratchett make a good team, although I think Pratchett wrote the majority of Good Omens. You can find his trademark mangled metaphors here, and his always-witty footnotes. And Death, who always speaks in UPPERCASE LETTERS, is a direct import from Discworld.
"It was going to be a dark and stormy night."
As good as Good Omens is, it didn't fall into the "couldn't put it down" category for me. I think the weakness is the subject matter itself. Armageddon is just not that funny of a topic. It's kinda like Monty Python doing a movie about the Bubonic Plague. Yes, you can come up with some nifty one-liners ("Bring out your dead!"). But not two hours' worth of wit. The same applies here - it's very ambitious, yet well nigh impossible to write 400 pages of zaniness about Armageddon.
Nevertheless, Gaiman & Pratchett do an excellent job. Underneath all the satire, there are some very good eschatological (jeez, I've always wanted to use that word in a review) issues addressed here. So we'll give it a B+ rating and recommend it to anyone who isn't in deathly fear of the Book of Revelation.