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Going, Going: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl cover
I had heard so much praise for this book (and one interesting demurral from an Internet friend) that I was prepared to be seriously disappointed by it. Yes, it would be a decent crime thriller, but like most decent crime thrillers it was probably being praised less because it was good and more because it didn’t totally reek.

God, was I wrong!

Gone Girl is one of the two or three best books I’ve read since I started writing these book reports three years ago and is quite possibly the best crime/mystery/thriller I’ve read ever (unless you count The Silence of the Lambs, which I don’t think will ever be surpassed). Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways:

Plot: The plot of Gone Girl is a clockwork mechanism that unfolds so naturally that you never sense that it was outlined or planned in advance and yet so perfectly that Gillian Flynn must have plotted it within an inch of its life before ever putting words on her hard drive. It’s a continuing miracle of ingenuity and I was impressed again and again by the way Flynn develops the story. And did I mention that it’s utterly gripping?

Character: The two main characters, Nick (the husband) and Amy (the wife), are so well drawn that Flynn is actually able to turn characterization itself into a plot twist, something I’m not going to further explain. The minor characters, while not always depicted with depth, are always believable and almost always interesting. Nick’s sister Go, short for Margo, is the most fully realized and the most important to the plot, but Flynn’s portrait of the press corps is especially vivid, with a particularly venomous depiction of Nancy Grace, here referred to as Ellen Abbott.

Style: Every line of the novel is written with such incisive wit that, even when I wanted to swipe my finger across the screen of my e-reader to find out what happened next, I forced myself to read slowly just to enjoy the prose. Not only does it crackle, but it occasionally made me laugh out loud. And Flynn neatly avoids the cliched tone of the crime genre, producing something that reads like Jonathan Franzen could have written if Jonathan Franzen would lower himself to writing genre fiction.

But most of all I love it because, somewhere in the midsection of the book, Flynn pulls off the greatest plot twist I’ve seen since the TV show Lost switched from flashbacks to flashforwards. It’s the kind of twist that snaps your head around and makes you rethink everything that’s happened up until that moment. I love it when that happens in a book and I haven’t seen it happen that much lately (or at least the great plot twists seem to have moved from books to serial TV shows). There used to be writers — I’m thinking specifically here of William Goldman, Ira Levin and John Farris — who could do 180 degree turns in the middle of a novel and leave you gasping at the sheer audacity of their literary stunt work, but I was beginning to think that this was a lost art.

I guess I should do a brief plot summary, but I’m not going to dwell on it. Gone Girl is the story of a marriage gone sour, the marriage between the aforementioned Nick and Amy, and it turns on the disappearance of Amy on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. Flynn rather ingeniously tells the story in double first person, with Nick and Amy narrating alternating chapters. Nick’s chapters are set in the present time (which is some point in 2012, when the book was published) and Amy’s chapters, which are couched as diary entries, fill in the expository details, giving the reader the back story that led up to the present situation. This works amazingly well, once again reminding me of Lost in the way that Amy’s flashbacks illuminate Nick’s present time action, and it’s this narrative technique that makes the stunning plot twist possible.

If Flynn falters anywhere it’s in the final chapters, where the novel becomes a kind of chess game with players alternating moves and I began to sense that Flynn didn’t know which move to end on. I think she chose the right player to end with, but there’s a sense that she ends the story more because she has to than because she found the right moment to do it. At the very least I wish the final chapter had left more of a sense of what was going to happen after the book was over; there are hints, but I found them rather weak.

But the 95 percent of the book leading up to the end is so brilliantly conceived that I’ll happily forgive Flynn for any imperfections in the way she sums things up.


Lost in the Library of Life: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an absolute delight from first page to last, one of those rare books that I never had the urge to put down for even a second. It reminds me of two other books that I’ve read this year, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and John Scalzi’s Redshirts, in that it has a distinct meta-interest to geeks. Yet it goes well beyond either of those books and offers reading joy to a much wider audience. Unlike those books, it isn’t even science fiction, yet it possesses the same wide-eyed sense of wonder that gives that genre its greatest appeal.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore doesn’t really belong to any distinct genre, yet at its heart it’s a kind of puzzle, a book with a secret at its center that needs to be unraveled. Note that I don’t call it a mystery, because it doesn’t belong to any known variation on the mystery genre. In a way it’s a very old-fashioned book, yet at the same time it lies at the cusp between Gen-X and Gen-Y fiction. It’s about dusty old books with fraying bindings, but it’s also about computers, smartphones and Google.

Beyond that, here’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot, because this is a book you really ought to discover for yourself: It’s about an out-of-work young graphic designer wandering the streets of San Francisco, unable to find a job in the crashed economy, who sees in the window of a bookstore that most old-fashioned technology for gaining employment: a help wanted sign. He talks to the owner, Mr. Penumbra, and gets hired for the middle-of-the-night shift. (This is, as the title reminds us, a 24-hour bookstore.) Our hero, Clay, spends most his time with nothing to do, because entire nights pass by without a single customer entering the store. And when they do they are usually older people, identified by cryptic combinations of letters and numbers, who have borrowing rights for books in the rear section of the store, a collection of one-of-a-kind books, many of them quite ancient, also identified by cryptic combinations of letters and numbers, that Clay dubs the Waybacklist, arranged alphabetically on towering shelves mostly accessible from a sliding ladder.

Bored to tears, Clay (who has some computer programming skills) starts using the computer at the front desk to create a 3D computer model of the bookstore and to graph the pattern formed by the positions of the books returned by the customers and the books that they borrow next. And when he looks at the graph he discovers…

Okay, I’m not telling you any more than that, but when Clay’s friends who work for Google and Industrial Light & Magic get involved, the real mystery of the bookstore begins to reveal itself. Although I won’t tell you what it is, I’ll say that the solution to the mystery is nothing like you suspect it will be and is surprisingly touching when revealed. In some ways this is a book about the intersection of old technology and new technology and how they aren’t really as different as we tend to think they are. But it’s also a book about life and human beings and the patterns we all make through time.

Finally, it’s a book about a font that’s almost as old as printing itself. And if that doesn’t make you want to read it, I can’t imagine what will.

(Incidentally, for those who might wonder why I haven’t filed one of these book reviews in such a long time I can only say that I haven’t stopped reading, but the books I’ve been reading are entirely work related and, for reasons I don’t want to go into, I have no interest in offering my opinions of them in print. Sorry for being so cryptic, but sometimes life is like that. And because I’ve stopped listing all the books I’ve read, I’ve dropped the numbers from the headers of the posts.)

Stranger in a Strange Body: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Book #17 for 2012: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Cover of Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Reading Redshirts by John Scalzi made me curious to see more of his work. According to something I read either on Scalzi’s blog or in his Twitter feed, Old Man’s War is his bestselling book to date and it was the inaugural volume in a series of books that so far includes four titles with a fifth on the way. (I’m going to guess that Redshirts has had such a strong roll-out in the media, complete with a profile of Scalzi in the New York Times, that it will eventually be the better seller of the two, but Old Man’s War has a seven year lead on it in sales.)

Old Man’s War is essentially a book-length shout-out to Robert Heinlein, something that Scalzi acknowledges in the endnotes, and since there are probably people reading this who don’t know (or remember) who Heinlein was, I’m going to talk about him first. Heinlein dominated the science fiction field from the late 1930s through the 1960s as no writer has before or since. Heinlein’s work was marked by vigorous, no-nonsense (and distinctly non-literary) prose, a gift for projecting the intersection of science and politics into future centuries, and a strong libertarian philosophy that was expressed in books as varied as Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. Ironically, the latter book, with its philosophy of free love (sex being a topic that either increasingly appealed to Heinlein as he grew older or that publishers increasingly allowed him to write about), became something of a cult phenomenon among the 60s counterculture, a group for which the relatively conservative Heinlein had little use. (The short version of that story is that Heinlein supported the Vietnam War while the counterculture didn’t.) Heinlein continued writing until his death in the late 1980s, though his later books were increasingly rambling and idiosyncratic, with only a trace of the vigorous writing he was capable of when younger. For more than one generation of readers, Heinlein was known as the author of what used to be called the “Heinlein juveniles,” a series of YA novels written mostly in the 50s that served as a gateway drug for budding science fiction addicts. Scalzi mentions elsewhere that one of these, Starman Jones, is a particular favorite of his. (It’s also my personal favorite of the Heinlein juveniles, though I didn’t read it until I was in my 20s.)

One of Heinlein’s recurring topics was war, in particular the duty of individual citizens to serve in the military, a theme he explored most thoroughly in the 1959 novel Starship Troopers. I don’t know that Old Man’s War is an attempt to rewrite Starship Troopers, but it explores many of the same themes, even while managing to invert some of them. The most interesting innovation that Scalzi brings to the table is that in his future society (probably centuries from now, but I’m not sure he ever mentions a date) anyone may voluntarily join the military on their 75th birthday and fight in the wars between humans and aliens over the dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of colonizable star systems that have by then been discovered by the human race. The incentive for joining the army is that there are rumors that the colonial army has acquired advanced alien technology that will give old people young bodies again, a rumor that turns out to be — I hope I’m not spoiling anything here — true.

The main character is a retired writer named John Perry who could be a stand-in for Heinlein himself. Heinlein spent much of his life disappointed that he was not able to serve in World War II because of tuberculosis and it’s pleasant to think that Scalzi saw this book as a way to imagine a technology that would have given Heinlein his wish, or something very much like it. Much of the fun of Old Man’s War, as in Starship Troopers, is seeing how many wildly different alien races Scalzi can pit humanity against, each with its own personality, physical form, culture, technologies, but all with a single motive — expanding to new planets with minimal competition from other races. Scalzi writes about this as vigorously and entertainingly as Heinlein ever did.

But after reading two Scalzi novels I’ve noticed that there’s one thing he writes about much more effectively than Heinlein did: love. And not the intense romantic and sexual love of young people (though both Redshirts and Old Man’s War have a little of this), but the deeper companionate love of married couples, a subject not often explored in science fiction, at least not in the moving way that Scalzi explores it. Maybe this is just a sign of my own increasing age and experience with longer term relationships, but it’s this theme that most draws me to Scalzi’s work. If I had to make a wild ad hominem guess, I’d say that Scalzi is a man who loves his family very much and understands what it would be like to lose them, a feeling he conveys quite powerfully (and in unexpected ways) in his fiction. Redshirts surprised me at the end by leaving me in tears and Old Man’s War comes very close to doing the same.

Of course I’m generalizing based on two books, always a risky thing to do, but I’m guessing I’ll find this theme recurring in his other works. At least I hope I do. Without that theme Scalzi would be just a very good Heinlein clone — not necessarily a bad thing to be — but with it he becomes something a great deal more.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing the above, I read an interview with Scalzi on the Wired Web site where he says that all of his books are essentially humorous, but that the novels haven’t been packaged as such because publishers are afraid that humorous science fiction won’t sell. (He hopes that Redshirts’ recent appearance on the New York Times bestseller list will be a “kind of a wake-up call…that the science fiction audience — regardless of the long-held superstitions or beliefs of those who publish the stuff — is more than happy to entertain the idea of humorous science fiction.”) I see his point, but I’m not sure that he realizes the degree to which the impact of his books depends on the reader’s realization (or at least on this reader’s realization) that his works have a deep and not at all humorous core; they touch, in fact, on deep emotional truths.

I also realized, when reflecting on the way I’d been affected emotionally by both Old Man’s War and Redshirts, that both books have essentially the same ending, or at least depend on very similar plot developments for their emotional impact. I wouldn’t dream of giving away what that plot element is — it would be waaaaay too much of a spoiler — but it makes me wonder if Scalzi isn’t something of a one-trick emotional pony. Okay, that’s based on two examples out of, what, maybe a dozen or so books that Scalzi has written and is therefore almost certainly wrong, but even if it turns out to be correct I don’t think it’s to Scalzi’s detriment, because it’s one hell of a powerful emotional trick.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jim: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Book #16 for 2012: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Cover of Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts by John Scalzi

So, not surprisingly, my enthusiasm for Project Bestseller List is already flagging. It’s not that 11th Hour by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro, the book I began reading after The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown, is all that bad — actually, it’s neither especially bad nor especially good — but that The Storm, a novel so turgid and plodding that it could be used as cement mix, stomped on all the enthusiasm that I’d built up for discovering what it is that keeps novelists like Cussler and Patterson (and Grisham and Sandford and Baldacci) selling books at such a consistently high level on the best seller list. I’d still like to read Baldacci at some point (at the very least his plots sound intriguing), but the prose in this sort of bestselling fiction is so uninspired that about halfway through 11th Hour I found myself desperate for something more interesting, something with a genuine creative spark in it, something worth reading not just because it appeals to the lowest common denominator of American readership. That’s how I wound up reading John Scalzi’s Redshirts.

First, a few words about Scalzi: He’s a science fiction writer with one of the two or three most enjoyable Twitter feeds (@scalzi) that I follow, especially when he gets into humorous insult wars with Stephen King’s son, writer Joe Hill (@joe_hill). His blog, Whatever, is so brilliantly written (and long running) that it’s produced two published books of essays, the most recent of which is entitled Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded. His blog entry from Christmas Eve 2011 (“8 Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite Holiday Music“) was such a clever hoax that I posted it to my Facebook timeline. What makes it so clever is that if you actually know something about the history of modern Christmas music, you’re more likely to be suckered in by the hoax than if you know nothing at all, because Scalzi has peppered in just enough factual information to lend a certain credence to the utter bullshit. For instance, Frank Loesser really did write “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to perform with his wife as a duet at parties, but I seriously doubt that Paul McCartney wrote “Wonderful Christmastime” because he’d bet someone that he could write a song in the amount of time that it took him to move his bowels.

But I digress. Scalzi’s Redshirts can be looked on as a kind of Star Trek novel in the same way that Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead can be looked on as a kind of rewrite of Hamlet: It’s the same story but told from the viewpoint of its minor supporting characters. “Redshirts,” as some of you are doubtlessly already aware, is a Star Trek fan term, one that’s spread to the wider world of TV melodrama, that describes those anonymous characters, usually wearing red shirts and only contracted to be in the cast of the show for one episode, who seemed to exist purely to be killed during away missions, thus sparing leading characters like Kirk and Spock, who had long-term contracts on the series, from being violently eliminated during alien encounters.

In the novel Redshirts, a group of ensigns on the Starship Intrepid (read: Enterprise) begins to notice an odd pattern of deaths on their ship. There are five people — Captain Abernathy (read: Kirk), Science Officer Q’eeng (read: Spock), Lieutenant Kerensky (read: Chekhov), Chief Engineer West (read: Scotty) and Medical Chief Hartnell (read: McCoy) — who never get killed (though Kerensky has a penchant for getting horribly injured then springing back to such perfect health that he can be on another away team mission a week later), but whenever unimportant ensigns, especially those recently assigned to the ship, accompany these officers on away missions, they commonly wind up dead.

One of these “redshirts,” named Jenkins, is so stricken by the death of his wife on one of these missions that he becomes a hermit and takes up residence in one of Intrepid’s storage rooms, hacks into the ship’s computers and starts compiling evidence that leads him to the inevitable conclusion that the members of the ship’s crew are in fact characters in a TV show, one written by hack writers who repeatedly utilize cliched melodramatic tropes that require minor characters to be killed off in about three-fourths of the episodes. He gradually convinces the other minor characters that what he calls “the narrative” is the only way to explain the absurdity of much of what goes on around them.

Scalzi acknowledges within the text that Redshirts, the novel, is part of a tradition of media metafiction that includes movies like The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Last Action Hero. But it also clearly falls into the postmodernist vein of the Scream films, where the characters are aware of the cliches that they’re acting out yet powerless to protect themselves from the often gruesome demands of those cliches. Well, almost powerless: the redshirts come up with a solution that they think might save them from what they’ve come to fear is inevitable death and when they begin to implement this solution the novel goes almost totally meta (or, as one of the characters puts it, “recursive and meta”).

For approximately the first three quarters of its length Scalzi’s novel is light and entertaining fun along the lines of Ready Player One, though a bit deeper and with perhaps less of the whiff of YA novel about it. It’s a hoot to read and you don’t necessarily have to have seen Star Trek to enjoy it (though a knowledge of one-hour TV melodrama in general doesn’t hurt). But then he makes the unexpected decision to follow the main body of the novel — which by itself is more than a novella, but perhaps not quite long enough to be a published book — with three fairly lengthy codas set almost entirely in the book’s meta level and the tone of the writing changes significantly, becoming both more serious and ultimately more moving. These codas give the novel an odd structure and an extended denouement that would seem anticlimactic if it weren’t the most fascinating and readable part of the book. It’s almost as though Scalzi wants the reader to know that this isn’t a Star Trek novel and that he’s up to something far more substantial, a meditation on the meaning of life, fiction and personal choice. It’s here that I think Redshirts goes from being a very entertaining piece of humorous science fiction to being a very good novel, period. And it’s here that Scalzi proves that he’s more than just a brilliant practical joker who can very nearly convince you that Paul McCartney once wrote a song in the time it took to move his bowels.

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.

Back From Hell and Seriously Pissed: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Book #14 for 2012: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Cover of Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

There’s a certain kind of hardboiled crime story that practitioners of the genre, both writers and filmmakers, turn to when they want to tell a story that’s particularly violent and has a strongly motivated protagonist. It’s the one where the main character — you wouldn’t exactly call him the hero — is a guy who hung around with a rough gang of criminals when he was younger and was betrayed by them when they abandoned him to the police or just left him for dead. Now he’s back and he wants to get revenge on those bastards in especially gruesome ways.

Movie fans will recognize this as the plot of John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank, which starred Lee Marvin. Point Blank was based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, one of my favorite crime writers ever. The protagonist of The Hunter was a guy named Parker, no first name, who went on to be the protagonist of a whole series of books that Westlake wrote under the Stark pseudonym.

It’s also the plot of Richard Kadrey’s novel Sandman Slim and you can tell that he was influenced by Westlake’s novel because he names his protagonist Stark and one of the villains Parker. And to remind us that he’s not the only person who’s ripped off this plot — heck, even Westlake was probably ripping off this plot, possibly from Shakespeare — he makes reference in the text to other variations as well, like the Clint Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales.

The difference in Sandman Slim, which is written in the tough-guy noirish style pioneered in the 1920s and 30s by writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, is that the thugs are sub rosas, magic casters who live among human beings but aren’t entirely human themselves, and they didn’t send Stark to prison or leave him for dead. They literally used magic to banish him to hell — alive. While there, he fought monsters in Satan’s arena for the amusement of Satan’s generals and learned the skills of hellion magic, which is a lot nastier than the sub rosa kind. Now, with the help of the demon Azazel, his sponsor in the arena, he’s back on earth, mad as, um, hell and prepared to tear his former friends into eternally damned pieces.

Sandman Slim (the name our protagonist somehow acquires) manages the not inconsiderable feat of being both what is currently called an urban fantasy novel (to distinguish it from the Tolkien kind of fantasy) and an extremely violent hardboiled crime novel. Having once been a huge fan of this sort of novel in its more conventional form, I enjoyed it, though I have to say that the genre doesn’t hold as much interest for me now as it did when I was in my 20s and used to gobble down books by people like Hammett, Chandler, Westlake and Ross MacDonald like they were popcorn. Still, Kadrey (who has also written more conventional science fiction and fantasy) comes up with an interesting enough fantasy take on the genre to keep the book readable and inventive throughout. (There’s even a touch of Lovecraftian horror as the story goes on.) I especially like the way he uses my adopted hometown of Los Angeles as the prime setting for a war between heaven and hell (neither of which seems much nicer than the other) and a major gathering place for the sub rosa. Peacekeeping in the heaven-hell war is performed by a group of supernatural cops called The Golden Vigil, who have been around longer than civilization itself and now work with Homeland Security, and by the end of the book they’ve recruited Stark, who is both a nasty fighter with conventional techniques and an even nastier fighter with magic techniques, to do some freelance work for them. This gives Kadrey an excuse to turn Sandman Slim into a series, and he’s already written two more volumes with more presumably on the way.

I’d recommend Kadrey’s work less to people who enjoy fantasy and more to those who like their crime novels fast-moving and violent. Kadrey does a very good job of combining the fantasy and crime genres, but Sandman Slim will go down a lot easier if you’re less into hobbits and more likely to enjoy seeing a wiseass crimefighter covered with ugly hellion scars decapitate a man who goes right on talking and making wiseass comebacks while unattached to his body. Yeah, it’s that kind of book — and, yeah, I guess I’m the sort of person who enjoys it.

Lost in the 80s Tonight: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Book #13 for 2012: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Cover of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is pure pleasure and pure fun. It reads like a YA novel for people who were YAs in the 1980s, very nerdy YAs who were raised on a diet of early video games, Dungeons & Dragons, the geekier movies of the period and 80s rock groups like Rush. Although the action of the book takes place in the 2040s, Ready Player One is steeped in 80s pop culture through and through.

Here’s the premise: Back here in the early 2000s, there lived a computer genius named James Halliday, who along with his business partner Ogden “Og” Morrow founded one of the most successful video game companies of all time: Gregarious Simulation Systems or GSS. (The name is something of a joke, since Halliday is a pure Asperger’s geek, far more comfortable with computers than with human beings.) Not long in our future, GSS will announce its greatest achievement, a stunning virtual reality simulation called OASIS (Ontologically Anthroprocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) that contains a vast universe with thousands of planets. OASIS is so big that it contains other massively multiplayer games, like World of Warcraft and Everquest, as tiny pieces within it. Anyone who can afford the wraparound 3D goggles and haptic gloves (which allow you to manipulate and feel objects within the virtual universe) can enter OASIS and effectively take up residence there. You can even go to school there, because one of its planets is devoted entirely to education. Other planets are devoted to things like shopping for virtual merchandise, but most are devoted totally to fun. Each planet is stunningly detailed, with a vast environment to explore, and many of them contain puzzles, dungeons and infinite opportunities for role-playing. Given that the world economy has continued the downward spiral that it began in 2008, by the 2040s a lot of people would rather spend their lives in the OASIS universe than in the real one, coming out only for biological and economic necessities.

What triggers the book’s plot, though, is the death circa 2040 of OASIS co-founder Halliday. In his lifetime he had amassed a vast fortune somewhere in the hundreds of billions of dollars and, never having married or fathered children, has no one to leave it to. So in his final will and testament — which he records on 3D video, of course — he announces to the world that he’s set up an immensely complex puzzle quest within OASIS and whoever solves it first will inherit every cent he owns.

You can see, of course, the problems such a quest could cause. A lot of people are going to want Halliday’s fortune and will be willing to do almost anything to get it, including cheating (though there are no real rules, so cheating isn’t really possible), stealing and even killing. But when Halliday’s fortune isn’t discovered within a few years a lot of people decide that it was all a big practical joke and quit looking for it, all except a dedicated (and decidedly nerdy) group of diehards who call themselves “egg hunters” (because the object of Halliday’s quest is what video game players like to call an “easter egg”), a term that rapidly finds itself abbreviated to “gunters.”

The hero of the story is an 18-year-old male gunter named Wade Watts (his late father, also a geek, wanted his son’s name to sound like a superhero’s secret identity) who lives with his malicious aunt and her violent series of boyfriends in the 2040s equivalent of a trailer park — stacks of old, rotting trailers piled like skyscrapers on the outskirts of cities and abandoned as homes for the homeless. To get away from his own relatives, Wade finds an unoccupied trailer hidden away at the bottom of one of these stacks, sets up his virtual reality rig there, and spends his days either going to high school in the virtual world or working on the Hunt, as the search for Halliday’s easter egg is called. Like all gunters, Wade knows that solving the clues that Halliday has left to the location of his treasure will require a voluminous knowledge of 80s trivia, especially regarding the sort of 80s pop culture that Halliday himself was immersed in during his adolescence, which includes movies like War Games and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, arcade games like Joust and Tempest, and text adventures like Zork. (One suspects these things were also youthful obsessions of the book’s author, Ernest Cline.)

And though most of the world has written off the Hunt as a joke, when Wade solves the series of puzzles that leads to the first of the three keys that will literally unlock the treasure, everyone becomes interested again, because a giant scoreboard (like the High Scores board in a video game) appears on virtual reality displays around the planet and the name of Wade’s OASIS avatar is right at the top. (His avatar is named Parsifal, after the knight who found the Holy Grail.)

Ready Player One is a little slow off the ground in its opening pages because there’s a lot of exposition to be gotten out of the way (as should be apparent just from the fraction of it I’ve given in this review), but once Wade finds the first key the book takes off like a combination of 80s trivia contest, open-world computer game and Alfred Hitchcock chase thriller. Everybody wants to know who Wade is and how he found the key — and “everybody” includes Innovative Online Industries or IOI, a vast and malevolent corporation put together for the express purpose of finding Halliday’s easter egg. If IOI finds out who Wade really is — and, of course, they do — they’ll be willing to kill him and everybody he knows in order to beat him to the next key in the set.

Ready Player One isn’t a deep novel, though author Cline includes a touching romance and a nice little moral at the end, but it’s a fast read and a highly entertaining ride — especially if you were around, or even know anybody who was around, in the 1980s.