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Category Archives: bestsellers

Too Smart for Their Own Good: Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

It’s only fair to say this up front: Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance reviews itself right in the title.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

Brilliance — Well, yes.

Not that it’s likely to win the Man Booker Prize or whatever the top book award is these days — it’s a popular thriller, after all — but the brilliance of Brilliance is that a lot of people are unlikely to notice just how good it is because they’ll be too busy enjoying it. It’s ironic that my favorite whipping boy, Lee Child, has the novel’s cover blurb, because Brilliance is written in the kind of fast-paced, muscular prose that Child’s Jack Reacher novels reach for (sorry) but never manage to get any weight behind. Brilliance’s prose has so much weight behind it that, ironically, you won’t be able to put it down.

It’s hard to say exactly where Brilliance excels, because Marcus Sakey doesn’t wear his talent on his sleeve. It doesn’t excel in style, though the writing is strong and sufficiently subtle in both metaphor and syntax that you won’t notice it being subtle. (Shouldn’t subtlety always be subtle?) Sakey specializes in crime novels and Brilliance has the lean, stripped-down prose of a detective novel without quite being one. It doesn’t have an extraordinarily original plot. When I tell you, in a couple of paragraphs, what it’s about, you’ll mutter that you’ve heard this one before and you probably have. It doesn’t excel in characterization. The characters have just enough depth that the reader cares about them — especially the protagonist, who has the most at stake — but not enough to bog the novel down in description. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, George R.R. Martin.)

Where Brilliance excels is in structure. Sakey has an uncanny sense for the moment at which the reader’s attention is going to flag and fires off a revelation or plot twist just in time to keep his hooks in you. And, believe me, he sinks the hooks in early and deep. Sakey’s novel is so beautifully structured that the story always feels fresh, with perfect pacing and no scene held for even a beat too long — at least until the end, when the reader gets the denouement the book deserves, tying up loose ends so nicely that I was surprised to discover that this is the first book in a series. Believe me, it functions perfectly well as a standalone story.

Brilliance is what I like to call science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction, a genre I’ve come to enjoy more and more as I’ve gotten older. Here’s the plot: Brilliance takes place in an alternate version of our present, where back in the early 1980s special children called brilliants (or abnorms if you don’t like them) began to appear, mutants with unusual mental powers that manifest themselves in various and unexpected ways. By the 2010s these mutants have begun dividing up into two groups, those who live separately from the rest of the human race and those who just want to get along. And the U.S. government is starting to become disturbed by the possibility of an abnorm terrorist underground that could destroy normal society as we know it.

If you’re muttering that this sounds like a lot like the X-Men, both in comics and in movies, I’m with you. It does. And it’s to Sakey’s credit that this doesn’t feel the slightest bit like an X-Men film. Part of that is Sakey’s crime novel background, which makes this feel more like an action thriller played out on a large scale than a comic-book movie (which is not to knock comic-book movies, something I very much enjoy when they’re done well). Another thing that keeps this from feeling like the X-Men is that Sakey’s mutants don’t have what one would think of as superhero powers. None of them can fly, cause objects to burst into flame with their eyes, or shoot adamantium claws out of their fingertips (though there is a little girl who can pick up on body language cues so well that she can effectively read minds, a marvelous throwaway touch about halfway through the book). Sakey’s brilliants can do things like calculate cause and effect so rapidly that they know what’s going to happen two seconds in the future or distract your attention so deftly that they become effectively invisible. Sakey makes this all so thoroughly convincing that you never feel like like you’re reading science fiction, even when you notice the technological differences that brilliant inventors have introduced into consumer technology, like holographic televisions.

The protagonist is Agent Nick Cooper of the DAR — Department of Analysis and Response — a government agency founded to keep an eye on brilliants and given extraordinary powers by an equivalent of the Patriot Act inspired by this world’s abnorm equivalent of 9/11. The irony is that Cooper is a brilliant himself and he makes no attempt to conceal it. He’s sincere in his desire to keep the peace with normal human beings and even has two children, one normal and one brilliant, by his non-brilliant ex-wife. Cooper is searching for John Smith, a brilliant terrorist responsible for a heinous act of mass murder in the nation’s capital. But he’s also worried about his brilliant daughter, who he suspects has abnorm abilities so powerful that she’ll soon find herself under the watchful eye of the DAR, which makes him uneasy. And it’s this uneasiness that provides the subtle impetus behind much of the plot.

It’s not hard, even in the opening chapters, to see where this novel will wind up in the end. The fun is in figuring out how it will get there and Sakey is always one step ahead of you. It’s no surprise that the novel has a big reveal, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t see how big it was going to be. Still, it’s the little reveals and wonderfully unexpected moments that keep this novel in almost constant motion, pulling the reader along like a monstrous wave yet rarely feeling overhurried or frenetic. Sakey tells this story so perfectly that, even though I was reading it during a period when I had neither the time nor the focus for a lot of reading, I never considered putting it down for a different book. And now I’m psyched for the next book in the series, A Better World, which Amazon says is coming out on June 17. You might want to read this book now so you’ll be ready to buy that one the day it comes out. Believe me, I’ll be buying it with you.

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Manly Men, Feisty Women and Comma Splices: The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown

Book #15 for 2012: The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown

Cover of The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown

The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown

I can barely understand the New York Times Best Seller List anymore. It’s ceased to be a list and become a veritable library of lists — for fiction, for nonfiction, for e-fiction, for e-nonfiction, for self-help books, for mass market paperbacks, for trade paperbacks, for Children’s Bestsellers: Fiction, for Children’s Bestsellers: Series, for…oh my holy God! In the latest issue of the New York Times Book Review I counted 15 separate bestseller lists and some books seemed to be on at least a half dozen of them. It made me want to go into a seizure from sheer information overload.

Then, not long ago, I picked up a copy of Entertainment Weekly. (Yes, I subscribe to Entertainment Weekly. It’s full of light, readable articles on movies, TV, books, music, occasionally video games — roughly half the things I love on this planet.) They also have a bestseller list, which they call The Chart. It covers hardback fiction (10 titles) and hardback nonfiction (10 titles). Bless you, EW! A bestseller list I can make sense of!

And then I read it. What I saw kind of scared me. Here are the top five fiction titles from that list:

1. The Storm – Clive Cussler and Graham Brown
2. 11th Hour — James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
3. Stolen Prey — John Sandford
4. Calico Joe — John Grisham
5. The Innocent — David Baldacci

What do all these books have in common? They’re all by authors who have been publishing fiction for more than a decade, most of them for several decades. Baldacci, the youngest of the group, published his first novel in 1996. Cussler, the oldest, published his first in 1973. Patterson started in 1976, Grisham in 1984 (though he didn’t have his first bestseller until 1991), and Sandford in 1989. There are plenty of good new authors around. Why then, for that one week in 2012, did these five relative geezers (yeah, I should talk!) have the same kind of lock on the EW bestseller list that the Beatles had on the Billboard Top Ten in early 1964?

A lot of people, especially authors who don’t have books on the best seller list, will tell you that it’s because the publishing industry is collapsing under the weight of a sagging economy and because younger people are increasingly moving away from reading books, leading to a desperate reliance on tried and true brand name authors. I think there’s some truth to that, but not as much as some people want us to believe. Books don’t sell only because the publishing industry is pushing them. Books sell because the authors are delivering something that the public wants to read. I decided I wanted to know what that thing is.

Thus began Project Best Seller List.

My plan, if I have the endurance to go through with it, is to read through all five of those titles in order and figure out what the authors are doing right. I already have some idea of what they’re doing wrong. I read Cussler’s Raise the Titanic back in the 70s and thought that all inspiration in the book began and ended with that brilliant title; the writing itself was stiff and the characters flat. I read Grisham’s The Firm when it came out in the early 90s; portions of it were clever and the ideas were good, but it made a much better film than novel and Grisham’s writing style gave me a bit of a headache. Patterson and Baldacci never looked interesting enough for me to bother to read. Even a quick skim of their opening chapters suggested that they wrote about cliched premises in mechanical prose. I started reading John Sandford’s first novel when it came out and thought it looked promising, but my attention span was shorter then and I never picked it back up, which suggests that I didn’t find it that promising.

So now I want to give these guys another chance, see what they’ve learned since I last checked them out, and with luck discover virtues in their writing that I’ve overlooked before. I want to find out why they have that lock on the bestseller list.

We’ll start with The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown, because it’s the only one I’ve read so far. The Storm is an action novel. I hesitate to call it a thriller, though I suppose it has its thrills, but it’s mostly about manly men and feisty women doing manly, feisty things and cracking the kind of wiseass jokes that comic book superheroes crack while punching out villains. It’s really what I call a stealth science fiction novel, inasmuch as it’s based on a science fictional premise (microscopic nanobots being used to alter global weather patterns) but isn’t labeled as science fiction on the cover. I have no problem with that. Genre labels are based less on a novel’s premise and more on which genre’s cliches are being deployed in the text. This one deploys far more action-adventure cliches than science fiction cliches.

Does it have a good plot? Well, let’s just say that Cussler and Brown have some interesting ideas here. They aren’t all new — nanobots have been all the rage since K. Eric Drexler published his seminal nonfiction book Engines of Creation back in the 80s — but Cussler and Brown have come up with an interesting new use for them. And they keep the plot moving at a brisk pace, dividing the book’s multiple heroes into multiple story threads, throwing obstacles, complications and plot twists into their characters’ paths at nicely timed intervals. It is, I think, this aspect of the book — pitting resourceful heroes against resourceful villains and capricious fate as they, yes, try to save the world — that has put it on top of the best seller list. There are even some mildly clever scenes, like the one where a trio of characters trapped on a sinking raft find themselves washed up on an island occupied by a native cargo cult left over from World War II.

But what Cussler and Brown never managed to do was to make me care. Good fiction is character driven and The Storm doesn’t so much have characters as it has templates for characters, archetypes like the muscular hero, the treacherous beauty, the eccentric millionaire inventor, the gloating villain, who exist merely to fill necessary positions in the plot. The Storm is driven more by Cussler and Brown’s need to have gainful employment than by any trace of humanity in the people caught up in its action.

And the writing style is barely serviceable, perhaps not even that, which is pretty much how I remember the writing in Raise the Titanic being. And someone should tell Cussler’s editors that comma splices (by which I mean sentences like “Kurt found the key and twisted it, the motor rumbled to life”) aren’t yet acceptable in American English. Or maybe by now they are. I feel old.

So the moral from Book One of Project Best Seller List is this: What makes a particular type of Number One Best Seller work is manly men and feisty women fighting against a long parade of obstacles and plot twists while they save the world. What isn’t necessary is decent writing and believable characters.

Remember that when I report back on Book Two.

The End of the World Ain’t What It Used to Be: Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse

Book #14 for 2011: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

A science fiction novel by a relatively unknown writer hitting the New York Times bestseller list? And Stephen Spielberg has not only bought the rights to it but plans to direct the film version himself? WTF? Science fiction is supposed to be a dying genre, at least in book form, so how exactly did this small miracle happen? I have some suspicions, but more about that in a moment.

Daniel H. Wilson is an expert in robotics and has previously written some whimsical “nonfiction” books on the subject, with titles like How to Survive a Robot Uprising and How to Build a Robot Army. I haven’t read them, but I assume they speculate, rather humorously, on how someone (or something) could go about doing precisely those things. Robopocalypse, the novel at hand, shows the theory that must have been in those books being put into practice, as an artificial intelligence named Archos hacks its way into the global computer network a few decades in our future and starts using robotic devices, which by then are rather common, to slaughter the human race.

The book takes the form of a kind of literary documentary of the resulting human-robot war, transcribed by a soldier in that war named Cormac Wallace based on holographic records that Archos has stored in a datacube discovered underneath arctic permafrost. This conceit allows Wilson to write the novel as a series of vaguely connected scenes linked together by brief descriptions of what happened in between them. The novel follows several recurring characters in different locations and ultimately documents both the events leading up to the war and the war itself. The story, as you might guess, has elements of 2001: A Space OdysseyAI: Artificial Intelligence, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines and the Terminator films, though I’ll give Wilson credit for thinking the technical details of the story through more thoroughly than most writers do.

Is the novel any good? Well, let’s just say that I think it will make a good movie. Wilson is a decent enough writer and his prose occasionally even achieves a kind of elegance, but the choppy nature of the narrative nicely destroys the chief advantage that novels have over films: the ability to flesh out background detail and give the characters believable lives. Having just finished four volumes in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, I couldn’t resist comparing Martin’s writing with Wilson’s. Martin loves to give the reader a voluminous amount of detail. Much of it is extraneous to his plot, but the result is that his characters and their world have such a dense sense of reality that the reader can’t help believing in them and even believing that the world goes on existing after the book is closed. Wilson sketches in so few details that I barely believed his world existed while I was still reading about it. Whenever I would start to get involved with a character, Wilson would cut away to someone else’s story.

In the Acknowledgments section at the end, Wilson says that “[t]he filmmakers at DreamWorks SKG expressed inspiring enthusiasm and support for this novel from the very beginning,” which leads me to suspect that Spielberg was behind this novel from the start. It certainly has all the requisite Spielberg scenes: a touching ending involving a nonhuman intelligence, a couple of suspense scenes with people trapped in tight spaces while being tracked by malevolent creatures. (Remember the raptors chasing the kids through the kitchen in Jurassic Park or the Martian eyeballs stalking the survivors through the basement in War of the Worlds? Substitute robots for raptors and, yeah, that scene is here too.) The choppy documentary style has the advantage of allowing Wilson to write only those scenes that are likely to be in the movie while skipping over all those pesky details that come in between. I think Wilson wrote the novel pretty much to order and the publisher, aware of the Dreamworks tie-in, pushed the book hard with its publicity department. Presto: the minor miracle of a science fiction novel on the bestseller list.

Of course, there also seems to be a trend for apocalyptic thrillers lately. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggested that last summer’s bestselling vampire apocalypse novel, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, had something to do with this. And to give Wilson his due, Robopocalypse isn’t quite the weak cup of tea that The Passage turned out to be. But, as apocalyptic novels go, it also isn’t likely to eclipse anybody’s fond memories of Stephen King’s brilliantly apocalyptic The Stand.