10.23.2011

The Affair, by Lee Child

The Affair
The Affair
It's weird how I sometimes end up reading books that you would think are completely different from each other, but end up being linked thematically. If I had to boil it down to one thing, I would say that Lee Child's The Affair is about justice. (The last book I read, Snuff by Terry Pratchett, also covered justice.) While this book is the 16th in the Jack Reacher series, it takes place chronologically before the first book in the series (Killing Floor). Interestingly, we get to meet Reacher before he's become the wandering knight errant of the later books. In this book, he's even more violent than usual. Where the main character of Snuff, Sam Vimes, has created very rigid rules for himself about what he will and will not do in serving the law, Reacher (at least in this book) has few qualms about serving his brand of justice.

The novel begins with Reacher being sent to a remote corner of Mississippi to not so much solve a murder, but to keep the situation under control to protect the Army. All we know at this point is that woman was found murdered near a base that house two companies of Rangers. Once he gets down there, Reacher finds out that not only is the local sheriff's office unequipped to solve murders but the sheriff herself doesn't seem all that motivated to investigate. It also becomes readily apparent that the first murder was really the third in a series. Unfortunately for Reacher, all the evidence points to a Ranger and not just any Ranger--a Senator's son.

After 16 novels, it seems to me that Reacher doesn't solve crimes based on the evidence so much as with his fearsome intellect and knowledge of human behavior. Sure, he follows the evidence because he's a good investigator. But he links the evidence with the events based on how he knows that people will react. Though Reacher is a mostly solitary character, he's been keenly observing people all his life. Granted, he seems to have observed people so that he knows how to fight people, but it works with criminal investigation just as well.

What struck me about this book was how willing Reacher was to step into the roles not only of cop, but also judge and executioner, too, even though he was still operating as a military policeman here. I know that MPs have more leeway than civilian cops, but surely there are some limits. I was very shocked at some of Reacher's actions in this book. But I think I was even more shocked that other characters let him get away with it.

After I finished the book, I ended up meditating on the question of what should someone do when criminals are, for whatever reason, beyond the reach of ordinary justice? First, no one should be untouchable. You break a law, you deserve to pay the penalty for it. But in our world, there are some people who the law just can't seem to touch: the rich, the connected, the rich and connected. So, if you can serve justice, should you? Religion aside, is there a higher set of ethics that we should adhere to? Reacher certainly seems to think so. He also seems curiously unafflicted with guilt about his actions, too--which is something else to ponder.  

The Affair is a surprisingly deep book. You go in expecting another adventure with Reacher, some fistfights, a little romance, and an exit into another sunset. I think that Child is growing as an author. On top of the ethical questions, Child also give you several deft and effective plot twists that keep the tension up until the end the of the book. This is one of the best books in the series.

Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

Reading Terry Pratchett's books is a bitter sweet experience now. I love the stories. The setting is so rich, and the tone is uproariously funny and smart. But I know now that every book that comes out is one book closer to the end of the series. Sure, the stories are lively enough that you can easily imagine the characters carrying on--but I won't get to read about them once Pratchett dies. No one can write the way he does.

Snuff
Snuff

Snuff is the 39th Discworld novel (and I hope like hell there are a more than a few left) and features the terrific Sam Vimes, Commander of the City Watch. Vimes is a copper; he quite literally lives for his job. But in Snuff, Vimes is forced to go on holiday. Vimes being Vimes, however, he sniffs out murder and smuggling and injustice. And Vimes being Vimes, he doesn't let something like jurisdiction stop him from hunting down the criminals.

Pratchett always satirizes something from the real world in his books, and it was fun to see the "Jane Austen" cameo. But Pratchett really goes after racism in this book. He's tackled the idea before, but this book has a different angle on the issue. What if there were a group of people who everyone knew was bad, filthy, stupid, and incapable of bettering themselves? In Snuff, that would be the goblins. They're used to being killed or kidnapped, but they long for justice, for a chance to be treated like the intelligent beings they are. It's a little surprising that in a world as diverse as the Discworld, there is still anti-any sentient being feelings floating around. But the thing you learn is that people are people everywhere you go and it takes a lot of time for old prejudices to die.

Once I heard about Pratchett's diagnosis, it was hard to me to not look for its effects in his work. In this book, I thought I maybe detected fewer jokes, maybe fewer cultural references. But the plot is intricate, logical, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch play out--especially the heart-stopping scene on the river. And this book still has enough funny to keep me chuckling and snorting from beginning to end.

10.09.2011

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere
Neverwhere
One of the things I love about Neil Gaiman's work is that you can read them as modern day fairy tales. They have something of the Grimm brothers about them. Things aren't quite real, which magic and mysterious creatures. The world of the book is governed by unexplained rules, and the characters are playing for high stakes. And there's a better than average chance more than one character will die. It continually amazes me how Gaiman can bring elements of folklore and history to play in a modern setting. In Neverwhere, the protagonists are on a quest to avenge a family and save London Below, the dark flipside of the everyday London. Along the way, they have to fight the Beast of London, face the Black Friar's ordeals and the earl of Earl's Court. There are characters like Old Bailey and the marquis de Carabas. I love books where I spend almost as much time on Wikipedia looking things up as I do reading the book.

The book begins with Richard Mayhew, an ordinary bloke with a fiancee who is trying to mold him into a titan of industry. Richard just muddles along with his life until a bleeding girl drops into his path one day. Since he possesses some hidden heroic qualities, Richard takes her home and patches her up. His assistance, however, causes him to drop out of his ordinary life and become a part of London Below. Made up of forgotten things and people and old time, London Below is much more interesting than its counterpart and a lot more dangerous. The girl he helped, Door, turns out to be the center of a big conspiracy. Her family has been killed and the assassins are after her now. The only people she can trust are Richard (who is clueless about London Below) and the so-called marquis de Carabas (who seems even more dodgy than the rest of the underside's denizens).

 What really makes this book for me, other than the bits of folklore and history, are the villains: Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar. They're both terrifyingly violent and they seem to be around every corner. Mr. Croup is the voice of the pair, and his archaic and erudite way of speaking make him even more frightening. Mr. Vandemar, the muscle, is a barely controlled psychopath who hurts anything that he can in the most painful way possible. Even though they're a pretty fantastical pair, they make the danger Richard and Door and their group face seem more real.

I can't say much more about this book without giving away the conspiracy. Like The Night Circus (by Erin Morgenstern), the setting really makes this book. But unlike that book, the characters stand up to the setting. They grow and change and we really get to learn who these characters are. The transformation in Richard is particularly spectacular. He grows from a regular Joe into a fully fledged hero.  

Neverwhere is one of the reasons I wish Gaiman publishes more novels. I love this book and American Gods and Good Omens and the rest. He's truly original.

The Damned Busters, by Matthew Hughes

The Damned 

Busters I love comic novels that involve religion. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens and Christopher Moore's Lamb are permanently in the my top ten favorite novels list. So I really enjoyed The Damned Busters by Matthew Hughes. It takes the Faust premise and twists it into a 400 page running gag about heaven, hell, free will, demonic deals, and superheros. I'm really looking forward to the next installments in the series.

 The novel opens with a demon trying to convince young Chesney Anstruther to sign a contract and Chesney trying to convince the demon that he summoned it purely by accident. The dispute escalates to the point where Chesney ends up in negotiations with the devil and a representative of heaven with the help of a TV preacher. The upshot of it all is that Chesney gets to moonlight as a superhero for two hours out of twenty four without having to pay the eternal price. The whole thing had me snorting with mirth.

 I'll admit that the middle of the book doesn't quite match up to the fantastic beginning and thrilling ending, but it's still a lot of fun reading Chesney's misadventures trying to be a superhero. (He gets maced by a woman he attempts to save from muggers.) Keeping up the level of hilarity is Chesney's demonic sidekick, Xaphan, who talks like people did when he was last topside and sounds like a stereotypical gangster from the 1920s. He completely steals the show. Things do drag a bit in the middle while Hughes moves characters into position for the surprisingly thrilling ending.

This was a very, very fun read. I hope the next installments come out soon.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus
The Night Circus
Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus is one of the most beautiful books I've read. More than anything else, I was struck by the elegance of the prose and the setting. While the characters are a bit sketchy, you sink into the atmosphere of the book like a warm bath. If nothing else, I would recommend the book for the sheer wonder of it.

While the book centers on the actions of Celia and Marco, the plot is really put into motion by a pair of cold-blooded magicians: Hector and Alexander. Hector pushes at the boundaries of magic and believes that innate ability is the key to greatness. Alexander believes that it can be taught. And for centuries, they have been pitting their students against each other to fight it out to the death. Celia and Marco are the latest combatants, and their arena is the Cirque des RĂªves. But in spite of the efforts of their teachers, Celia and Marco fall in love and start trying to find a way around the parameters of the contest. Further complicating matters is the Circus itself. The Circus is like the best parts of every circus put together, with all the bad parts--the animal cruelty, the stink, etc.--taken out. Instead, each visit to the circus is like stepping safely into a fairy tale. There's the Ice Garden, the illusions that are really real, the Cloud Maze, the acrobats that work without nets, the Wishing Tree. After a while, the Circus develops a corps of followers that travel everywhere the circus goes. The competition between Celia and Marco is what drives the magic of the circus. For every one of Celia's creations, Marco creates something new. The circus is their love letter to each other, and it's a lot of fun to watch it all play out and see what they will come up with next.

Celia and Marco's story skips forward through time, from the 1870s to the early 1900s. Along side it, we get Bailey and Poppet's story. Poppet and her twin were born on the circus's opening night. Bailey is a local kid who snuck into the circus on a dare and fell in love with it, and with Poppet. It's hard to see how this tread will tie into the main one, but Morgenstern wraps them together into a fairly spectacular and very satisfying ending. The reader also gets pulled in, with short second-person vignettes that highlight different attractions. Normally, second-person bugs the hell out of me, but worked for this book.

The setting really is the best thing about this book. But I have to agree with Stacey d'Erasmo's review in the New York Times about the characters. It's as though Morgenstern has spent so much creative capital on the setting that there wasn't much left for character motivations or even personalities. Morgenstern tells you the characters are in love with each other, but doesn't show why they're in love with each other. The circus really is the best part of the book and by the end, I was more worried about its future than the future of the characters. Granted, this is a debut novel. It shows so much promise that I'm very interested to see what Morgenstern comes up with next.