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02-27-09: Barry Eisler Keeps it Simple, but not Stupid : 'Fault Line'

Barry Eisler's new novel, 'Fault Line' (Ballantine Boks / Random House ; March 10, 2009 ; $25) is not just another 'Rainfall.' In his latest novel, Eisler leaves his iconic John Rain character behind, to focus on two men, one women and an encryption application. The books that get described as "thrillers" often tend to conflate complexity with quality. The motto seems to be the more conspirators and characters, the better. Eisler takes a different tack, finding his complexity within the personalities of his characters, rather than their number. At the heart of 'Fault Line' is a classic triangle, two brothers and a woman. Ben Treven is a spook, a fixer for the government who takes out selected targets at the behest of those in power. The spook life is all he knows. He hasn’t seen his brother, Alex Treven, since their mother died. Alex hasn’t been idle. He's wrangled his way to become a partner in a legal firm that's handling a new encryption gizmo. It's all good until the shooting starts — and the dying soon thereafter. Alex stoops to calling Ben in for help, but then is forced to reveal the third corner of the triangle; Sarah Hosseini, an Iranian-American lawyer who Alex lusts for and Ben distrusts. More bullets, more death and no clues. What’s a bro to do?

What differentiates this novel is Eisler's stripped down casting and taught plotting. Rather than working the numbers, he works the psyches, giving readers three deeply explored characters and yes, a hail or two of bullets. A hail of bullets is a fine thing in a thriller, but even finer are characters whose lives we care about. Eisler's able to get inside the minds of the two men in particular because he's been a covert operative for the CIA as well as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. But he does well with Sara too, and uses her to add a lot of gray to an already slate-colored plot. 'Fault Line' also benefits from vivid locations in Northern California. It's clear that Eisler's done his time on the 280.

Readers looking to check out the work of an established thriller writer without investing in a series need look no farther. Eisler doesn't just cut the character count, he cuts the word count as well. 'Fault Line' clocks at a smooth 300 pages, so pace yourself. We live on a fault line here in Northern California. Sooner of later, everyone will get shaken.

02-26-09: Paul Melko and Catherynne M. Valente Melt the World : Just Another Breakdown of Reality

Science fiction readers are occasionally chided for the escapist nature of the fiction they read, generally by those who think that a novel not set in the present is not about the present. Of course, science fiction readers know that's not the case. But it is true that science fiction writers like to break down the world, to break down the barriers between our world and their imagination in a variety of ways. Paul Melko and Catherynne M. Valente both have new work out that accomplishes similar goals in the genre of "speculative fiction." But the books themselves are very different.

Troubles in this world got you down? Well, just walk through
'The Walls of the Universe' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates : February 3, 2009 ; $25.95) with Paul Melko in a very nice latter-day Heinleinian jaunt through parallel worlds. And when I say "Heinleinian," I'm talking about the juvies, the true gold, not the blathery-big stuff that put me off the author long ago in the moments before time. Or if you prefer a more dream-like and intuitive mental vacation, you can ask for the able literary assistance of Catherynne M. Valente, who will escort you a couple of realities down the hallway into 'Palimpsest' (Bantam Dell /Random House ; February 24, 2009 ; $14). Both books take you away to alternate realities, but do so in unique and very different styles.

Melko starts here and to a certain extent stays here; but he messes with things. The premise is classic SF; John Rayburn is a high-school senior who is still smarting from the after effects of having beat up the class bully and in so doing having pissed off a bunch of people. Stomping into the woods, he meets his double, who comes round to 'splainin' that he's John from another universe, that there an infinite number of Johns, and that all you need to get from here to there is the handy device he's got stuffed under his shirt. Before you can say the name of anyone of a number of science fiction books or television shows that have made use of this same ever-helpful premise, you've got an E-ticket out of this world and into the next. Melko's alternates are low-key remixes of our world and the shenanigans are entertainingly character-driven. It's like getting away to home.

Catherynne M. Valente, on the other hand has something much more surreal up her sleeve. 'Palimpsest' unfolds in a city that is the sum of all cities and exists as slices of life, as stories within stories, folded into the spaces between out thoughts, dreams and lives. Valente has an utterly unique style that will appeal to readers of Clive Barker, China Miéville and Clark Ashton Smith, though her work is not really like any of theirs. In 'Palimpsest,' four characters find themselves and lots of things they long suspected to be true, even though these things seemed too dreamlike to be true. Valente is a master of ambiguity, of letting the reader create the world. She offers all the right lines and shadings with elegant language and an amazing imagination. She'll take you right out of this world and when you return, you'll still see Palimpsest in the shadows as well as the bright sunlight. Beware the temptation to read some of the stories-within-stories to those around you. Let them experience this world on their own two feet.

And while both books create worlds that are ours-but-not-ours, they also help us refocus on our world. You get so stuck in the now you can't even tell what the hell it is anymore beyond battling sound-bytes and bills that need paying. Yes, these books create other worlds, and yes, they help you escape this world, only to surprise you with a round trip ticket back to where you sit reading. But it's no longer the same world, and you’re no longer the same person. Books are a threshold into worlds that ensure the world you read them in will never be the same again.

02-25-09: Alan Campbell Chimes in with 'God of Clocks' : Boom Times for Weird Fantasy

The world is going to hell in a handbasket, so it shouldn’t surprise us that fantasies about worlds that are already in hell are popping up. But what is surprising are the qualities of these fantasies as well as the quality of their writing. Not only are we getting well-written fantasy, we're getting really weird, almost experimental, weird fantasy. Take for example, Alan Campbell, already on the third book of his "Deepgate Codex." 'Gods and Clocks' (Spectra / Bantam / Random House ; May 5, 2009 ; $28.95) portrays a world a bit further down the path to hell than ours, a not insignificant feat.

The world is going to hell in a handbasket, so it shouldn’t surprise us that fantasies about worlds that are already in hell are popping up. But what is surprising are the qualities of these fantasies as well as the quality of their writing. Not only are we getting well-written fantasy, we're getting really weird, almost experimental, weird fantasy. Take for example, Alan Campbell, already on the third book of his "Deepgate Codex." 'Gods and Clocks' (Spectra / Bantam / Random House ; May 5, 2009 ; $28.95) portrays a world a bit further down the path to hell than ours, a not insignificant feat.

Series fiction presents challenges to readers and writers, and there are a couple of ways to overcome those challenges. Until recently, the default setting was that writers would craft enormous tomes that came out at irregular and distant intervals. While that gives writers and readers a perhaps fuller story, the lengthy waits between books can become series-killers. But on the other hand, if you leave your readers with series entries that are too short, readers may become fed up with cliffhangers. If you choose the latter path, you'd better have a follow-up close to hand.

As a reader, I prefer the latter path, because I think the discipline of writing shorter books generally results in better books. Alan Campbell seems to be taking this tack with his "Deepgate Codex." It's been just about a year since he dropped us off at the end of 'Iron Angel,' and now ''God of Clocks' comes along just in time before our patience and memories run out, bringing back Rachel Hael and Mina Greene who find themselves in the middle of a battle between gods, demons, and pretty much everyone else.

One of the things I like about these books is the lack of spurious love affairs. There seems to be a rule in the world of publishing, and more so in the world of fiction, that every novel has to be boilable-down to "boy meets girl." Campbell has other objectives, and to my mind his greatest plus is his ability to slide through genres — science fiction, fantasy and horror — to create a uniquely weird world that manages to seem like a coherent whole, not just a hodge-podge of this and that. Campbell, a video game designer and programmer, offers readers a world mired in surreal violence that does more than move the plot. He takes advantage of the fantastic elements to enhance character and quite surprisingly, lend humor to his work without turning it into pure satire.

It's easy to think of these super-weird fantasies as merely escapist fiction, but to my mind they tell us quite a bit about not just our world, but our preoccupations within this world. I think it's important to note that even when the world is going to hell, we still retain our human values and our human interests, that morals and meaning don’t get tossed to the wind in the pursuit of some sort of temporary safety, that how we see the world — with an imaginative eye — matters.

02-24-09: Travelling Backwards : Iain Pears and Brian D'Amato Reverse the Clock

Every day seems to bring another story about scientists either dismissing time travel as impossible or suggesting it's just around the corner. It's easy to forget that "just around the corner" is indeed itself time travel. Every second we move another second into the future. And seemingly every second the publishing industry wrings its hands and wishes it were in the past again. But thankfully, that doesn't stop them from publishing some pretty damn thick books that involve time travel — strictly fictional, of course.

Literary time travel need not be literal – and yes, that statement will get some explanation as we talk about two big books and big releases in the upcoming months. March brings
Brian D'Amato's 'In the Courts of the Sun' (Dutton / Penguin ; March 26, 2009 ; $29.95) while in May, Iain Pears, author of 'An Instance of the Fingerpost,' brings us a hewft serving of history with 'Stone's Fall' (Spiegel & Grau / Random House ; May 5, 2009 ; $28.95). Both novels offer detailed historical settings and time travel, and lots of room to explore. Travelling in time apparently is going to take some time. And while they share all these similarities, they’re really quite different, with D'Amato's book, the first of a projected trilogy, working in the science fiction adventure genre, while Pears returns to the dense, detailed, layered literary styles of 'An Instance of the Fingerpost.'

Brian D'Amato first showed up some seventeen years ago with a novel called 'Beauty' which may have escaped my notice but was a bestseller nonetheless. In it, D'Amato presaged recent advances in facial reconstructive surgery and turned them to question our notion of beauty. 'In the Courts of the Sun' takes a rather different subject, looking at that ol' darn Apocalpse that's just around the corner now, in 2012. We all know the story; the Mayan calendar ends in our year 2012, and just get the numerologists really happy, we're all looking at 12/21/2012. Now I really enjoyed Whitley Strieber's '2012', and while this looks quite different in content, it does get us back to blowin' up the world not so far down the line. The premise is pretty straightforward. Jed DeLanda is a Mayan descendant and computer game geek who is asked look at a little codex. (We quickly learn to avoid looking at all codices, unless they're the Codex Seraphinianus.) This one proves to be more than a little disturbing, as it confirms what so many already believe, or at least want to read books about — that the world is going to end on, you guessed it, 12/21/2012. But Jed gets his chance to save the world. All he has to do is travel back in time to the Mayan kingdom, use his game-playing skills and voila — Apocalypse averted. Alas, time travel proves be a little less accurate than it was sold to be, and Jed's simple task gets pretty complicated — trilogy complicated to be precise.

D'Amato writes excellent adventure and fills the book to bursting with details about the Mayans. If you ever wanted to live in Mayan times, now is your chance. Not only does the character time travel, the reader does as well. It takes a few pages to click into D'Amato's style (and some readers simply m ay not be able to do so), but if you do, it's really quite impressive. History gets in your face, and maybe threatens to rip out your heart.

Meanwhile, Iain Pears is time travelling as well in a rather different fashion. Taking a cue (sort of) from Martin Amis and 'Time's Arrow', Pears travels in time by telling his story backwards, starting with the death of one William John Stone, aka Baron Ravenscliff, in London in 1909 and then tracking backwards to Paris of 1890, thence to Venice in 1867. Where D'Amato offers the thrills and details of a lost civilization, Pears offers the dense literary pleasures of intricate plotting, shifting narrators and our Victorian heritage. It's precisely 800 pages of machinations by flawed, fascinating characters playing their parts against the grand backdrop of the origins of our world today. There's a strong theme of financial shenanigans that resonates quite nicely with our current Great Depression, and given the page count, it's really quite an entertainment bargain. And a fascinating demonstration of non-literal literary time travel. Sure, when these kinds of coincidences crop up, they are just that, coincidence. But no matter what era a novel is set in, it's always being written in the present. Writers reach into this world to create the worlds they writer about and when they come up with something resonant, that's no coincidence.

02-23-09: Thoughts on Dan Simmons' 'Drood' : Ego, Art, Aptitude and Invention

Dear Readers, it's always a pleasure to kill twice with one blow; in this case to write the review that doubles as commentary, and thus save precious time for more reading. And time is of the essence when presented with a tome such as Dan Simmons' 'Drood.' The review will offer my answer, at least, to the question as to whether or not the tome is worth the time. This commentary shall address one of the themes, one of the conundrums that the novel presents, to wit: "What happens when the man with the imagination to invent a technology does not have the talent to best use it?"

Surrounded by machinery, we tend to equate machines with technology. But technology ("application of tools and methods") is present in many places where one might not expect to find it; to wit in words written on a page. Not only the letters and language, the form of prose itself is a technology, subject to invention and imagination. But the inventor may not be the best user of the invention.

Dan Simmons' novel 'Drood,' among many other pleasures, offers a look at literature during a time of actual invention. Many of the fictional conceits and formats we take for granted were not yet in existence, most particularly, the novel of the "Great Detective." Simmons' novels offers a writer's-eye view of the race to invent the mystery novel, and for readers who like their literary technologies brought to life, it's juicy, nasty and wonderful.

In 'Drood,' Simmons puts readers right in the middle of dueling egos. Wilkie Collins, the opium-addled narrator, is clearly (at least in Simmons' view), the lesser writer. He's just not gifted with the artistic skills that possess Charles Dickens, his competitor and collaborator. But Collins himself is not without talent. He's the one who unknowingly, almost creates the first "Great Detective" mystery novel. (Literary scholars will mention both Bulwer-Lytton and Catherine Crowe, but they're not on-stage in Simmons' 'Drood' ; and ultimately their work is not as important.) Collins comes up with the character — Sergeant Cuff — and the central theme of solving the commission of a crime. He has all the pieces, and he has enough ego to assert himself in the face of a true force of nature, Charles Dickens.

But it is Dickens who is the force of nature in Simmons' novel, and Collins is unfortunate enough to recognize his own limitations. Where Collins strikes the flint and lights the fire, it is Dickens who figures out how to cook the meat of the matter, to turn that great detective into the central character. But alas, Dickens was never to complete his work ('The Mystery of Edwin Drood'), leaving Wilkie Collins' 'The Moonstone' as the incept point for Great Detective fiction. Readers who appreciate seeing the development of literary technology excitingly and often quite humorously turned into a plot point will find 'Drood' a satisfyingly complicated delight. The creation of Sherlock Holmes still to come is entertainingly foreshadowed throughout the narrative, even in the way that Dickens speaks to Collins, often saying, "My Dear Wilkie," in an echo of Holmes condescending attitude towards Dr. Watson; there's even a similar alliteration.

We now live in a world overrun by the technologies that Collins, Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton and others created. It's easy to think that we've perfected the form, and indeed that there are no more forms to perfect, but that's clearly not the case. Simmons' 'Drood' is a palpable (and eminently entertaining) reminder that the collision of ego, art, invention and aptitude is never simple or straightforward.

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