Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

Based on this first book in a five book series, I won’t be seeking out the rest. The overly casual narrative and generalizing descriptions made for dull reading.

Durnik had been right when he’d spoken of frost. The ground was white with it the next morning, and the horses’ breath steamed in the chill air as they set out.

Very little happens and nothing Eddings describes goes beyond first draft quality. Observations like the air was crisp, the sun was hot, and the day was overcast are simply not worth reading.

Their route skirted the edge of the foothills through rolling and sparsely settled country, and the sky hung grey and cold overhead.

That’s as detailed as it gets. And I don’t recall a single simile or metaphor.

Even the plot itself is thin and caricatured. The archetypal villain has no real motivation apart from lusting after a magic object that later maims him, making him only more obsessed over said object.

Eddings devotes lots of attention to a number of different races in his invented world, each race said to possess one trait or to practice one vice that defines that race. One race is dishonest, another is sly, yet another gullible, and so on. Good stories rely on striking personalities and individuals who stand apart. These sweeping generalizations minimize Eddings' storytelling efforts and, incidentally, render his characters cartoon-like.

The dialogue is the type Sol Stein warns against: surface remarks, first draft quality, verbal interaction that achieves nothing. I’ve written about this before in previous book reviews. Reams of common pleasantries, while wonderful in real life, make for yawn-inducing conversations in novels.

None of the characters is particularly interesting, either. The only character to root for is a passive teen left in the dark as to his true purpose or destiny throughout the entire tale. When occasionally thrown a bone about his role, he pursues it with a curiosity uncharacteristic of teens, meaning he accepts the first explanation given by the very people he knows withhold information from him. Not recommended.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Rick Riordan

Rick Riordan is one of my favorite living authors. He has a distinct voice and it suits his protagonist Tres Navarre for what has become a stellar crime fiction series. If you enjoy following the exploits of an iconic hero throughout an ongoing number of novels – whether it’s Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, or, I don’t know, James Bond – this series is for you. Riordan delivers engaging plots, snappy dialogue, three-dimensional characters, and the rich tapestry of San Antonio, Texas, with a grit and attitude as genuine as real snakeskin chaps. Just wished mine didn’t chafe so much. Would probably help if I wore pants.  

I’ve met Riordan twice at annual Book Festivals in Austin. He spoke each time to a large room filled to capacity. (He used to teach high school, and he's a great, charismatic speaker. Won a Master Teacher Award in 2002.) Many had to stand in the back. The following year they gave him a much larger space. It too was overfilled. Afterwards, he autographed books. The friend I stood in line with had taken an oath of silence and as the heat and the halitosis swelled, I grew progressively impatient. When we finally reached Riordan’s table, he asked how I wanted him to sign my copy of his latest Percy Jackson & the Olympians novel, The Titan's Curse. I said, “If you could just put: ‘We’ll always have that wonderful weekend in Maui.’” His chuckle seemed genuine.

Riordan established his writing credentials many years ago with his debut novel Big Red Tequila. The book earned him both the Shamus and the Anthony awards. He has since won the Edgar award as well. All before he began publishing his young adult fiction, Percy Jackson & the Olympians and his Kane Chronicles, though these latter series have contributed more to his popularity, not to mention showing off his versatility.

Big Red Tequila is told first person by Tres Navarre, a Ph.D. in medieval studies and English, T’ai chi master, tequila fan, and unlicensed P.I. As if the case or the scenes aren’t intense enough, Tres has a smart mouth which frequently gets him into trouble and adds an extra layer of tension as well as humor. The writing is superb and worth your time.

The Widower’s Two-Step is his second novel in the series and another great read. Riordan knows how to make scenes and characters come alive. In a single sentence, he elevates even the most minor character to ‘unforgettable’ status, at least for the duration of the story, and he touches all five senses at least once every few pages. But his most appealing feature is his lean, unobtrusive prose. The book is full of one liners that just make you want to call a friend and say, “Listen to this!”

The Last King of Texas is even better. Riordan’s got a real knack for plot twists and pithy narrative. His economy of words and punchy descriptions are a testament to his craft. Even if crime fiction isn’t your favorite genre (it’s not mine), this guy knows how to hook you in and keep you turning pages. He has a keen eye, a good ear, and incidentally, nice abs. What more could you ask for?   

His first three novels were surpassed only by his fourth installment, The Devil Went Down to Austin. Again, I’m not even a mystery/crime fiction fan and yet I can’t keep away from this guy’s writing. Some quotes…

Lars’ hairline had receded since I’d seen him last, but he still sported the earring, the Willie Nelson beard. His shirt, vest, and jeans were faded to the color of a dust storm, and his eyes gave the same impression – dry and turbulent.

He unzipped his wet suit to the waist, peeled his arms out of the sleeves. The warm neoprene let off its unmistakable smell. If car tires had armpits, they would smell like that.

His hair was a short black cloud that moved in the water the way smoke boils over a petroleum fire.

Cold Springs is a departure from Riordan’s Tres Navarre crime fiction in a number of ways. For one, it’s told third person omnipresent, meaning we hop around inside a number of characters’ heads. I thought Riordan handled this expertly. For two, unlike the lean and quick moving Navarre stories, here the narrative lingers on moods and motivations, exploring the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters more fully. Which I enjoyed. For three, the novel sports a brand new cast of characters, characters more grim than what you’ll find in the Navarre stuff, too.

As usual, the writing is excellent – intense scenes, motivated, broken characters, and a compelling plot. And of course some excellent lines:

Hunter’s face could have been crafted from stealth bomber material – smooth hard contours, bald scalp so dark it seemed to drink the light. His eyes trapped you, studied you, released you only when they were good and ready.

Hunter looked out toward the hills. He sighted a deer over the tips of his combat boots, as if calculating the best shot.

…loading his gun at the kitchen table, pushing nine-millimeter cartridges into the magazine with the care of a pharmacist counting pills.

Riordan understands the importance of visualization so that even his characters’ abstract thoughts are paired with images …

          But it was hard. It was like forcing his hand to touch a hot stove plate.

          …but something about her drew it out of him, like snake venom.

He was going to shake to pieces. He was a test plane at the edge of the sound barrier, the bolts of his wings starting to rattle loose.

Spoiler Alert:

Only one thing bothered me. The primary villain, Samuel, appears in several scenes with a number of characters, and these scenes are told from either their point of view or Samuel’s. Yet near the end of the novel we learn that Samuel isn’t Samuel, that Samuel has been dead for years. The character Riordan had been referring to as Samuel all this time is actually Kindra, Samuel’s sister, a murderous schizophrenic bent on vengeance for what others in the story put her brother through before Samuel was eventually murdered.

If it weren’t for this one gimmick, I’d give the novel five out of five stars. But since at no time during these scenes is Kindra wearing a disguise, standing behind a wall, or augmenting her voice, there’s no reason for Riordan to deceive the reader in this way. The characters who interact with Kindra know they’re dealing with Kindra. Riordan simply omits this fact, conceals it from the reader. I found this plot device disingenuous. It went beyond misdirection. To keep up this pretense only to save it for the big reveal at the end struck me as unnecessary mischief.

I hesitated to mention this after reading comments on Amazon and conferring with a friend who read the novel a decade ago since no one else seems to have had a problem with it. One of the pitfalls to scrutinizing a writer’s artistic decisions is that sometimes our impressions are less than fawning. I won't stop reading Riordan. His writing is too good. And I can certainly forgive this one transgression in lieu of his many other satisfying novels. Besides, if all else fails, we’ll always have that wonderful weekend in Maui.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Living End by Lisa Samson

I consider myself open-minded. My reading habits embrace all genres and a broad variety of authors. But a writer's command of the language is my primary concern. Diction appeals to me more than a particular faith or philosophy. So when a friend gave me a novel by a Christian writer I wasn’t familiar with, I set the book aside. Not that I’m opposed to reading fiction that affirms my faith, but the Christian market, like a lot of genre-based markets, frequently focuses on the creed at the expense of the writing quality. The good stuff is so rare I generally don’t bother. Turns out my reluctance was misplaced. The writing quality was actually pretty good. It was just about everything else I had problems with. 

Samson’s novel is a first person perspective of the protagonist Pearly Laurel, a woman in her mid 50s who never had kids. As the novel opens, her husband has suffered a massive stroke. He dies shortly thereafter and Pearly is so inconsolable, she entrusts the funeral arrangements to a close friend and then flees the familiar environs of their life together to take up shelter in their vacation home elsewhere. This bothered me as a reader and did nothing to help me empathize with Pearly.

Her deceased husband Joey was a devout Christian. Pearly wasn’t even religious, much less devout. The reason Pearly gives for the couple marrying in the first place is that her husband didn’t really subscribe to that whole ‘be not unequally yoked’ verse in the Bible. For those not familiar, as Christians (and I’d extend this to political affiliations, personal philosophies, and health club memberships), if your spouse-to-be takes exception to views or beliefs that you not only cherish but consider paramount to moral, wholesome living, you might not want to tie the knot. After all, marriage is a bond, a union that transcends a physical coupling or a legal document. It’s about a meeting of both the heart and the mind. Not to say all couples share a passion for cats or football, but there’s a covenant made, an intimate, personal expression of giving oneself to another that is supposed to epitomize things like loyalty, trust, commitment, and above all love. So say I, a celebrated bachelor.

After Joey’s death, Pearly rummages through his things and discovers his journal. Reading it, she learns that her indifference toward his religion forced him to keep his personal insights and observations to himself. This angers her but shames her somewhat as well. She also finds a bucket list he’d made and decides to fulfill it. After which time, she tells the reader, she’ll commit suicide since she can’t bear to go on without Joey in her life.

This struck me as odd. First, she rejects the faith the man she loves above all else embraces. Second, so distraught over his passing, she flees their home and refuses to attend the funeral (doesn’t visit his gravesite until toward the end of the novel). Third, though wracked by guilty feelings for disavowing his cherished faith she, rather than choosing to relish what joys the two had together, decides to end her own life … but not before completing his bucket list. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t understand women, but Pearly’s motivations struck me as wildly contradictory. I found it impossible to root for her.

Over the course of the novel, thanks in part to Joey’s journal, Pearly learns about other people Joey had a positive influence on, some of whom Pearly had never met. After eventually meeting and befriending one such person, Pearly begins to examine her past apathy over her husband’s faith. She grows more comfortable with the precepts and virtues Joey’s faith espouses. Yet meanwhile her decision to kill herself or find a professional to aid her with an assisted suicide doesn’t change.

One of Pearly’s cousins is on dialysis and needs a kidney transplant. Without telling her cousin that she, Pearly, has only one working kidney, Pearly offers to supply her cousin with one of hers. The cousin has reservations but eventually accepts. Pearly contacts a doctor in Switzerland to perform the operation and, unbeknownst to her cousin, later have him administer a dose of something Pearly can ingest to ease her own passing.

The last 20 pages of this 300 page novel are heart-wrenching and a worthy pay-off. However, I couldn’t buy the idea that this woman would’ve resisted her husband’s faith throughout the 35 years of their marriage. For one, she’s intellectually plain for lack of a better description. Had she been an academic type who refused religion based on some modern idea about supposed superstitions or irrational convictions, I’d understand. Had she resisted on some proposed moral grounds – namely the notion that given the religion's long history of abuses or misconduct, she felt the faith had done more harm than good or some such rot, again, I could understand. Or what about the more common and generally denied emotionally charged objections that prevents other non-believers from converting? For example, was Pearly bitter about her past? Did she blame God for obstacles in her youth? Had she considered these pains personal slights directed at her from Providence?

The only thing that comes close is Pearly’s account of her brother. If memory serves me, he suffered from a variant of elephantitis. She tells us her brother was ridiculed and ultimately scorned by both his peers and, to some degree, their father. But again, Pearly doesn’t seem bitter over this. Just the standard fare of regret, pain, and remembered frustrations one would associate with a family braving these hardships. As a result, I couldn’t believe her refusal to convert throughout her marriage to Joey was genuine.

Yes, the story is written first person from Pearly’s point of view, but this shouldn’t prevent Samson from exposing Pearly’s real reasons for rejecting her husband’s faith, assuming there were any. For those who’ve read Nabokov’s Pale Fire or P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie & Jeeves stories, you know first person accounts don’t prevent the protagonist from unwittingly revealing what he might otherwise prefer to keep secret.
  
On the up side, the writing is as smooth as samite. Plain prose throughout. This isn’t a left-handed compliment, either. Simple, clear writing is hard to achieve. You’ll race through the story faster than a movie version could render it on screen. I just wished as much attention had been devoted to the characters, particularly the protagonist’s motivations. I’ll close with my favorite quote from the book. Pearly remembering her husband:

But there were times when he’d sit out on the deck overlooking the gardens, and he’d stare at the sliver of water visible through the next block of houses, and the sun would penetrate the leaves like strips of bridal veil, and he’d look as though he weren’t really there at all.

The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies (1988)

Should I ever become rich and famous (insert laughter here), this is one of the many posts some readers might wish to use against me for ...