Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cross Country - James Patterson

2008; 406 pages; 158 chapters. Genres : Action-Crime; Airport Novel. Overall Rating : C.

   .When two families in Washington D.C. are hacked to pieces with machetes, it's up to Detective Alex Cross to track down the killers. And he's determined to do so, since one of the victims is his ex-GF. The trail leads to Africa, where the tables are turned, and Cross finds hinself treading on the home turf on a lethal, well-connected foe.

.What's To Like...
    Not enough action in the last book you read? Then this one's for you. It's no exaggeration to say that every page has some sort of killing, beating, shooting, chase, or other assorted danger.

.It's also obvious that Patterson wanted to write about the plight of Africa, a continent that seems to be cursed by God. He manipulates the story to take Cross to places like Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Darfur. He also manages to avoid blatant stereotyping. Our hero is a black cop, raising two kids, and living together with his GF. And Al-Qaeda terrorists don't get blamed for any of killings.

.OTOH, there are some serious lapses of believability. Two families get the benihana treatment, and the CIA says, "Back off; we'll handle this"? Sorry, but that would never happen. Then Cross decides to handle it on his own (cliché!) and flies to Nigeria, but without seeing any need to contact the authorities there for help? Uh-uh; not a chance.
Finally, there's the Ultimate Evil himself. Most of the foes in the earlier Alex Cross stories are complex, crazy, and diaboloically clever. Our UE here has all the personality of Idi Amin.

.The Bane of Authors - Airport Novels.
The best way to read this book is as an airport novel. Pretend you're boarding a plane; shut down your brain; and go with the flow. You'll be done in no time - the PCQ ("Patterson Chapter Quotient") here is about 2½ (406 pages ÷ 158 chapters), and half of each Chapter Title page is blank space. If you try to read it as anything else (say, as a piece of literature), you'll rate this book very low.

.So I'm giving Cross Country a "C", because it was enjoyable escapism, and because Patterson deserves kudos for trying to give us a glimpse of the horrors going on in Africa. But if you've never read one of Patterson's Alex Cross books, this is not the one to start with. Instead, pick up Pop Goes The Weasel, Jack And Jill, or Along Came A Spider to see how good of a story he used to write.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Well of Lost Plots - Jasper Fforde

2004; 373 pages. The third book in the Thursday Next series. Genre : Literary Fantasy. Overall Rating : B+..

    With Spec-Ops, Goliath Corp., and Aornis Hades after her; and since she's with child and without her husband; Thursday decides to get into a book. Literally. It's a great place to hide. Caversham Heights is an atrocious yawner of a novel that no one in his right mind will ever read.
Of course, the peace and quiet is short-lived. Murder and mayhem are afoot, and Aornis implants a memory worm in Thursday's head, meaning all her recollections about her hubby Landen are fading fast.
What's To Like...
    98% of the book takes place in the literature world that Fforde's created. And what a world! The generics (minor characters initially without any character development) are cool. Grammasites run rampant, not to mention a 420-pound, 7'4" feral Minotaur. There's murders to be solved and lots of book-jumping.

.Splitting hairs over loose ends...
    Fforde manages to tie up most of the plotlines he creates in WOLP, but no progress is made on any of the loose ends carried over from the first two books of the series. Landen is still MIF (Missing In Fiction); Thursday's dad is still on the run, and her brother Anton's death promises to be a major topic at some point in the future. About all that's changed by the end of WOLP is that Thursday has trouble buttoning her pants.
The 923rd Annual Bookworld Awards ("Bookies")...
   The book culminates with this spoof of the Oscars. Dastardly deeds are laid bare, and the murderer is unmasked, but it's the awards that steal the show. Among the hundreds of Categories are : Most Implausible Plot in SF; Most Creepy Character in a Dickens Novel; Most Troubled Romantic Lead; Best Talking Cat; Most Incomprehensible Plot; The Shakespearean Character You'd Most Like to Slap; and Best Dead Person in Fiction. Hey, I'd certainly tune in to watch this Awards Ceremony.
.In summary, WOLP is good, but not great. The plot takes a while to get going, and the book has the overall feel of existing merely to set up the next one. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, what with all its book-jumping and literary allusions. Perhaps the whole series will only appeal to a dyed-in-the-wool bibliophile.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Fifth Elephant - Terry Pratchett

2000; 370 pages. Genre : Satiric Fantasy. 24th book in the Discworld Series. Awards : #153 in the "Big Read". Overall Rating : C+..

    The Dwarfs' "Scone of Stone" has been pinched by miscreants unknown. For that matter, a replica of the Scone of Stone has also been pinched. The newly-elected Dwarven King of Uberwald can't be crowned without it. This is a job for Sam Vimes of the Night Watch, although he doesn't think so. So the Patrician deftly appoints him Ambassador to Uberwald, and Sam finds he has to go to there, and has to learn something called "Diplomacy" to boot.

What's To Like...
    It's Discworld; it's Terry Pratchett; it's cool. There's a sharp, talking dog named Gaspode who is probably the brightest bulb in the book. There's a slew of Frankensteinish Igors who prove to be useful servants in all sorts of roles. There are werewolves, and vampires, dwarves and trolls, humans and DEATH. Only the Hobbits and Treebeard are missing.

   .OTOH, there's a lot less zaniness and wordplay here than in the earlier Discworld books. It's certainly darker than Guards! Guards!, and there's a lot of killing going on. The themes of T5E are rather serious : diplomacy, racial prejudice, and interspecies dating.
And for the first time for me, there were some irritations. All the Igors speak with a lisp. "Ith thith yourth, mathter?" and all that. Funny the first time; tiresome the thousandth time. Then there are the vampires, who replace W's with V's. "Ve vill vant you to vatch our vishing vells." Here's hoping you are enamored by Sergeant Schultz on Hogan's Heroes.

   .Finally, there are the plot lines themselves, normally a forte of a Discworld book. Sam deduces what happened to the true Scone of Stone, but never really proves it. And the subplots just sort of fizzle out into oblivion. The Night Watch office is plagued by disappearing sugar cubes. By the end of the book, they're down to only one. But if Pratchett ever gave an explanation for this, I didn't catch it.

   .Still, a mediocre effort by Pratchett is better than most fantasy books, and the insight he gives on the three themes listed above will make you sit back and re-evaluate your opinions about them. I think I've read somewhere that the Discworld series gradually evolves from silly spoof to a subtler shade of satire as it goes along, and I guess I'll have to get used to this. We'll give T5E a "C+". but recommend that your first Discworld book be something else, like Guards! Guards!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

2001; 588 pages. Genre : Contemporary Fantasy. Awards : 2002 Hugo Award; 2002 SFX Magazine Award; 2002 Bram Stoker Award; 2004 Geffen Award. It cleaned up, man. Overall Rating : A..

    The story follows Shadow, a somewhat naive and sunny-dispositioned chap, after he gets out of prison and falls in with a bunch of long-forgotten gods, the main one of which is named Wednesday, and whom we quickly figure out is an incarnation of the Norse god, Odin. Wednesday's rallying lots of old, forgotten gods and legends (like Johnny Appleseed) in preparation to a war against the "new" American gods - such as the Internet; the Media, etc.

What's To Like...
    There's a slew of complex plotlines, all of which Gaiman manages to deftly tie up by the end of the book. The plot-twists will leave you mumbling, "I didn't expect that". I found almost all the characters - whether they were major or minor; good or bad; humans or gods - to be 3-D and interesting. Finally, it's a mythology-lover's smorgasbord. Gaiman pulls in gods and folk characters from all sorts of nationalities - German, Norse, Egyptian, Slavic, American Indian; India Indian; Arab, and more.
Can't you say anything negative?...
    Not a lot. The book reads like a mini-trilogy. The first 200 pages are fantastic; and so are the last 200. The middle 200 pages (where Shadow is hanging out in Lakeside) drag just a bit. And call me a prude, but the sex scenes were a tad raunchy and unnecessary. They could've been edited out, and Gaiman would still have a bestseller on his hands, but it would now be something that a High School Lit class could read and discuss. I didn't need to know the lurid details about how Salim and the Ifrit managed to meet and swap identities.
What kind of plotlines are there?
    #1 : Shadow is on a quest to figure out who he is.
    #2. : Shadow is trying to find out who his father was. Mom never talked about him.
    #3. : Shadow's wife passes away (in a most Garpian manner) right before he's let out of prison. She's now a ghost (insert plug here to watch 'Ghost Whisperer' on Friday nights); and Shadow is most persistent in trying to find a way to bring her back from the dead.
    #4. : Why are kids disappearing at the rate of one a year from Lakeside?
    #5. : How can Odin (or any other god) be hanging out in America and at the same time have people still believing in him back in Scandinavia?
    #6. : How can the new American gods be overcome?
    #7. : That whole Armageddon/Ragnarok thing.

    .And they all get resolved by the end of the book. No 11-part series here. We'll give American Gods an "A" and look forward to reading the kinda-sorta-but-not-quite sequel, Anansi Boys, in the near future.