Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The 2010 - 2011 Book Reading Project -- Part Two (The Fluff)

     I would have preferred that I had made it through my first year of serious reading without having any "fluff", but that would have been unrealistic.  I have a tendency to read a fair amount – by my lean standards of reading – of material that cannot be regarded as literature.  Traditionally this has been genre fiction, and this year is different only in that there is a new type of genre to add to that list.  I would also note that the titles under this heading would be the ones with the least general knowledge about them.

     Pirate Latitudes (2009) is the fourth Michael Crichton novel I've read.  I read Jurassic Park (1990) in early 1993; back then – when there were bookstores – there was a display of Jurassic Park paperbacks out in front of the Walden Books in Orland Square Mall for months.  Clearly there must have been something to this book if it needed to be the lure to get people in for almost half a year.  I was excited to read it, and then colossally disappointed by the Spielberg film that opened on my 18th birthday.  After Jurassic Park I got around to reading two other Crichton books that had less than appealing film adaptations: Congo (1980) and Timeline (1999).  Crichton may have been a good writer, but I didn't make much of an effort to seek out and read his stuff.  I was given a copy of Prey (2002) as a Christmas gift some years back, but it sits unread on a bookshelf.  Perhaps as some kind of follow-up, a copy of Pirate Latitudes showed up one day, a gift from the warrens of a local Costco.
     I ended up reading Pirate Latitudes because it looked like it would be a light, fun read.  At times, it is exactly that.  However, Pirate Latitudes is very much an unfinished book.  Reportedly, the manuscript was discovered on one of Crichton's computers after his death in 2008.  But instead of it coming across as a novel, it reads as the outline to an over-blown miniseries or much too ambitious movie.  Characters are underdeveloped, and some have little defining characteristics other than being present in the company of others.  The action takes place over a handful of islands and a few ships, but becomes ridiculous when a giant squid attacks the hero's ship while he is attempting to return to the safety of an English port.  There is a hint of witchcraft that goes nowhere, and some real world politics that aren't explored in any kind of honest fashion.
     It isn't a bad read, and it does have enough in it to consider it a novel of sorts.  The paperback copy I was given is of odd dimensions and surprisingly large font, so the reader can feel like they are making great progress through the book with minimal effort.  Unfortunately, it is far from a realized project.  The romantic subplots feel as though they were tacked on for an on-screen project, an effort to give any actress attached to the material something to do.  The level of detail varies widely from chapter to chapter – and sometimes within them as well.  Crichton has been both lauded and chided for just how accurate his terminology and understanding of privateers is in Pirate Latitudes.  I cannot offer any commentary on that.  What I can say is that lackluster Michael Crichton is still better than many authors out there.
     Of course, there will be a film adaptation of this.  When that hits the big screen – okay, when it gets to DVD, because it is rare for me to be motivated enough to see a movie at the theatre – I'm sure I will feel what was worthwhile in the story has once again been given the short shrift by less clever scribes.  Crichton, in what little I've read of him, writes his novels as though they are movies.  Pirate Latitudes needs more help than Jurassic Park, Congo, and Timeline did (they didn't really need any, and each was mangled in making it to the screen), but history suggests it will be worse in the hands of somebody else.

     I had somehow managed to avoid a lot of licensed fiction since my brief flirtation with the Dragonlance setting and Michael A. Stackpole's BattleTech novels.  There wasn't any kind of need to read them, and too often the books didn't look particularly interesting.  Then, after the Living Arcanis campaign ended and I turned to Paizo's Pathfinder Society for OP opportunities, I was drawn back in.  Paizo has a clever little deal, here.  Buy the book – you don't need to read it, they don't care once the money is in the bank – and you can get extra benefits for one of your characters in their campaign.  This isn't anything new.  PCI had players eager to shell out $20 for t-shirts that advertised Arcanis because those same shirts enabled the players to negate adverse consequences during play.  It is just how the synergy works.
     Still, Paizo usually puts out quality products and given the fact I could take $5 off the cover price (an outrageous $9.99 for a 350 page paperback), I thought I would take a chance on the licensed fiction for the Golarion setting.  Plague of Shadows (2011) had the benefit of being set in a region where my primary character would soon be adventuring, so maybe there would be some useful information.  And there was some kind of in-game benefit from just owning the book, so even if it were horrible it could be worth it.
     Plague of Shadows, in the end, is genre fiction at the median level.  The references to the world come across as forced, as though author Jones had imported an existent story into a company's setting.  He also does a less than admirable job of making the reader feel any sense of distance, which makes the journeys seem somehow less important than the brief spasms of conflict.  Jones also has one of the worst in-book references to a game mechanic I have ever read where he has a bard actually say, as he plucks his musical instrument, "How about a little inspiration".  I burst out laughing, and had it happened in the first third of the book, that might have been enough to make me put it down and never return to it.  As it was, the story was near its climax and Jones had built up enough good will for me to forgive such an awkward placement. 
     Jones isn't an untalented author, but there isn't anything new or original in this tale.  It is predictable, and somehow doesn't even neatly fit into the world for which it was commissioned.  There is nothing world-shattering happening in the novel; it is a small, self-contained story that does little to illustrate where Paizo is steering their world.  Still, Paizo recently featured Jones at one of their panels at GenCon, so he is undoubtedly in their plans for future novels.  I don't have any immediate interest in reading him again, but if I heard some good word of mouth, I could be convinced to give him another chance.  That would still presuppose I could cut the price of the book in half.

     A Word to the Wise (2009) is the debut novel of Chicago Tribune report David Heinzmann.  I know him through my brother (who also wrote for the Trib in years past), and was aware that his book had been published.  Still, I made no effort to read it.  I hadn't really read any crime/detective genre novels, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to start with one authored by an acquaintance and set very locally.  On the other hand, if and when I saw a book published, I would be all over everyone I know to read it.  Seemed to me I owed Dave.
     I bitched about the $9.99 price of Plague of Shadows, but A Word to the Wise is priced at a sales-crippling $25.95 (the kindle version is more reasonably priced at $7.99).  Indeed, it is as though there was an effort to keep sales low.  Now, I borrowed my mother's copy, so it cost me nada; this is the ideal situation, where Dave still gets a sale and I get to read for free. If I were paying cover price, I would almost want Dave to come over and read it to me. 
     From what I understand of the genre, A Word to the Wise follows the conventions pretty faithfully.  Protagonist August Flood isn't a mere private investigator, but rather a former FBI agent who graduated to being a lawyer.  Well, a type of lawyer.  He has some quirks and ghosts that haunt him (that area was a little bare bones, but I could have done without any of it), and a loyal assistant (shunned by others at the firm for being gay).  Flood gets assigned a case that could have been a Spencer TV-movie and he needs all of his skills – including being a self-taught cook – and contacts to make it through in one piece.  He also picks up a love interest along the way, though she serves as a part-time plot device and person to whom more exposition can be told.
     The only part of A Word to the Wise that grated on me was the geography of it.  While I was often questioning if Dave's descriptions of places and towns was in keeping with how I remember them, I was thoroughly drawn out of the story when he took it to Orland Park.  First, he consistently referred to it only as Orland Park, and never just Orland (as any native SW suburbanite knows to abbreviate Palos Park and Tinely Park by dropping the Park, so too it goes with Orland).  Then he has an extended scene happen about a mile and a half away from where it would have to be located; this is only an issue if the reader has more than a passing familiarity with the specific area.  Still, I'm not sure how well any of the descriptions would work with readers not familiar with the suburbs Flood visits.
     From what I understand, there are two more manuscripts written featuring Flood.  I would definitely give them a chance as Dave has an easy writing style and isn't big on the regular clichés (he can't avoid them all, and I imagine the genre expects them to make it in at some point) and seems to have an affection for his characters that makes them more than disposable devices to inhabit a cookie-cutter story.  I hope the price point comes down for these future stories, as I'm sure Dave does as well. 

     How did I end up reading Stephen Woodword?  My aunt had sent a bunch of books she had finished with to me and one of his books was in the collection.  At the time I had just started reading The Trial and Death of Socrates: Four Dialogues and I wasn't going to take that with me to read on the train.  Actually, the Plato book didn't conveniently fit in the shorts I was wearing to watch a Sox-Tigers game and With Red Hands did.  That started me on the Violets tetralogy, though not in order.  I would recommend reading them in order as Woodword makes frequent references to what has happened in past books.
     Through Violet Eyes (2004) introduces the notion of people – violets – who have the ability to channel dead souls.  In America, they are subject to the control of the North American Afterlife Communications Corps (NAACC).  Not enough of this possibility is explored – surely this would have a huge impact on religion – but Woodword does posit that violets have existed throughout time in this alternate world.  The heroine of the series, Natalie Lindstrom, works as a conduit to summon up the dead to testify in court or other legal matters.  Then somebody starts killing off violets and the FBI needs Natalie both Natalie's help and to protect her from danger.  Through Violet Eyes serves a nice mix between low-level thriller and almost science fiction, but it isn't the strongest in the series.
     Woodword hits his stride with With Red Hands (2004).  Picking up a few years after Through Violet Eyes, Natalie Lindstrom has left the confines of the NAACC but still faces danger.  Compounding her problems, she now has a daughter who is also a violet, and the NAACC is desperate to get their hands on the child.  Woodword has not just one, but two compelling and intersecting stories at work in this novel.  A little heavier on the thriller/quasi-horror angle, With Red Hands feels less constrained than the other three efforts in the series.  There are a couple of characters who are introduced without sufficient explanation (and don't appear in the next two books), but on the whole the characters are well realized and given understandable motivations.  Natalie is a more compelling character here, not in near constant need of being rescued or helped by more capable people.  The endings are both haunting and fitting, leaving the plot lines tied up but acknowledging the scars that will endure.
     If I had to guess, In Golden Blood was written with an idea towards it being made into a movie.  Natalie Lindstrom goes off and has an Indiana Jones-like adventure in the Andes.  Much of what made With Red Hands compelling is ignored here, but Woodword brings another dimension to the resources the violets have at their disposal.  Think Chuck (2007-11), but with souls instead of an intersect, and real world skills instead of fancy martial arts.  Natalie falls for a guy a little too easily – this is repeated in the subsequent book as well – and ends up in severe danger because she has been blacklisted by the government until she returns to the NAACC.  Woodword does not do a great job of explaining the action in the climax; he almost seems a little disinterested in it.  Still, he does keep the story moving at a good clip and continues to build the continuity of his world.
     From Black Rooms (2006) is a little disappointing as the final installment of the violets series.  Woodword finally puts the violets to what I would imagine being their best use – to channel the souls of dead artists in an effort to get new masterpieces.  Natalie is allowed to act as a surrogate for this, but not being a member of the NAACC, she can't make top dollar and live high on the hog.  Still, it pays the bills and is safer than wandering about South American mountains looking for lost treasure and trying to avoid getting killed by her employer.  This book brings back the primary villain from Through Violet Eyes, but he is just kind of sullen and moody when not violently acting out.  The plot about manufacturing new violets through a type of gene therapy is light on the science but a compelling fit into the world Woodword has been building.  Natalie meets an artist/forger and, of course, almost immediately develops feelings for him.  That plays a little false, but I think that is more telling of the genre being mimicked with the series.  The ending leaves something to be desired; I would have liked a more compelling conclusion and a better story to showcase it.  Still, the entire series is a fun, quick, and mildly engaging read.

     I believe it took me about a week to read Pirate Latitudes.  It took me exactly one week to finish Plague of Shadows.  The others – A Word to the Wise, Through Violet Eyes, With Red Hands, In Golden Blood, and From Black Rooms – were all two day reads.  There is something to be said about a book that isn't too demanding and doesn't leave the reader feeling as though they have wasted time with them.  I would recommend finding better Crichton to read, avoiding Plague of Shadows unless one was getting heavily involved in the Golarion setting, but giving the rest a shot.  Woodword straddles a border with his violets and that may not appeal to everyone.  For those who want something more traditional, I say give Heinzmann a chance.  But don't spend $26 on the book.

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