17 February 2014

Books: The Prisoner of Heaven By Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2012)

“For Fermín Romero de Torres, who came back from among the dead and holds the key to the future 13.”

With those words written in the pages of Semperes & Sons copy of The Count of Monty Cristo, the mystery of Fermín Romero de Torres is about to begin. In the third book of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, the book is once more narrated by The Shadow of the Wind’s hero Daniel Sempere – now married to Bea and with a young child, and who is running the bookstore alongside his father.

It’s 1957 and business is not good and the two Semperes are struggling to make ends meet. Happiness is on the horizon though, as their close friend Fermín Romero de Torres is about to wed Bernarda, the love of his life. But there is something bothering Fermín and he is not his usual upbeat self. And when he learns of the visit of the mysterious man who left the note in the Dumas book, Fermín recounts to Daniel his involvement with David Martín, the man who was a dear friend of his late mother, Isabella, and who (might) be his actual father some 17 years earlier. The vast majority of this book is his account of his prison time at the infamous Montjuïc castle where during the days of Franco’s dictatorship (in the 40s), political prisoners where held and “disappeared”. The depiction of the prison and how the prisoners suffered was horrific and affecting. It is also here where de Torres encounters David Martín, who narrated The Angel’s Game

I’ve read a few reviews that criticize Ruiz Zafón of connecting all the characters together like this, that Fermín Romero de Torres (always the most enjoyable rouge) has been part of Daniel’s life forever. That it also brings into more questions about the unreliable narrator aspect of David Martín’s tale told in The Angel’s Game.  

I don’t know. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by reading too much, that I’m fine with Ruiz Zafón’s attempt at linking the narrative of this four-book series like he’s done. Some reviews say he cheapened the series by doing this (which calls into mind from me, how George Lucas tinkered with his Star Wars saga), but I think this may have been his intention all along. After all, you don’t write a quartet of tales set in the same universe –connected by Cemetery of Forgotten Books- and not interact with characters from the other books. Perhaps they were expecting something else? Still, I can understand some peoples criticism of this short, almost novella, type book. Perhaps when the author was outling this series, he saw a flaw and tried to course correct it with this book? Or maybe, in some pulpy way, this was his intention all along, that despite his love for literature, he is writing popular fiction that tends to live on the corner of Convenience and Consequence?

I do feel that Ruiz Zafón treatment of women is very old school annoying; they’re prostitutes with the heart of gold or beautiful women who must be pursued by other men, making their husbands jealous. The subplot about Daniel suspecting his wife of extramarital affair is dubious at best and really, it seems, designed to add another mystery for a concluding book.

Still, the writing remains captivating and Ruiz Zafón’s love of literature endures. If anything, a reader might be tempted to forgo the rest of this author’s tales and pick up the tomes of Alexandre Dumas, Dickens and Balzac and discover their own variation on a cemetery of forgotten books.

10 February 2014

Books: Red Rising by Pierce Brown (2014)

Though in his debut novel, Red Rising, author Pierce Brown cobbles together themes from Ender’s Game, Gladiators, The Hunger Games, Captain America and even 300, the idea that it could be horrible is far from the truth. 

And while found in the science fiction section (instead of Young Adults), most of the book reads like it’s set in some variation of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones universe –with castles, horses and one betrayal after another. 

Red Rising is set about 700 years or so in our future, where the inner planets and outer moons have all been terraformed (which also reminded me of James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series). But somewhere in the past (and borrowing another sci-fi trope) while  technology has progressed, humanity has regressed back to almost Roman times (Brown uses many Roman and Greek names for characters and cities); the solar system is ruled many powerful families, and all are competing to be on top. 

And like all those born with a silver spoon in their mouths, they don’t go into the difficult task of terraforming themselves, but use other people, low-born folks (frontline workers I would say), to build your world. The gist of the story is set on Mars and we learn early that society is graded by colors (which is not a new plot element either, but I believe Brown chose this particular color-coding for a reason that is not fully explained until you learn about the authors background), Gold are at the top and Reds are at the bottom (author Jasper Fforde does a variation on this in his 2010 novel Shades of Grey). 

Our hero is 16 year-old Darrow, who is a Red. Worse, he's a lowRed, working the mines of Mars, never allowed to see the surface. LowReds are told they are pioneers working to make the planet bloom, but it's a lie. The planet has bloomed already. But like Ender, like Katniss, Luke Skywalker, Darrow is the Chosen One, though he –of course- does not know that. He’s better and quicker than all of his fellow workers and family, and he’s smart and asks all the wrong questions, which puts him on the radar of the Rebel Alliance; I mean the Sons of Ares, a mysterious group of freedom fighters who have deep pockets and plans to over throw the ruling families of the solar system. 

With the death of his wife (yeah, life in the mines is short –mid 30’s is considered old), Darrow loses what happiness he had, and with one little rebellious act, he’s hanged (and like The Expanse, Brown pays a bit of attention to science and ignores a bunch of other stuff), but  due to Mars low gravity, a hanged person must be pulled by the ankles to complete the neck breaking. 

But, as you can guess, this was all a ruse. Now in the hands of the Sons of Ares, Darrow goes from skinny, but swift emo teenager into a Captain America body that screams Aryan (which means no actor of color will be cast in the movie version of this book). The idea is that with the boys temperament and his idea of hurting the ones who allowed his wife to die, they can disguise him as a Gold and make him eligible to compete in games for promotion. 

As plans move forward, Darrow (which is an unusual name for a Gold apparently, as it’s mentioned by others many times through the book, and I wonder if there is pay-off in subsequent books) must fight and kill, first in a cage-fight called The Passage (which really is another word for culling) then an epic game on the surface of Mars where dozens of Houses fight for control of a wilderness reserve. 

I liked the book, even though it gets off to a clunky start. The last half, however, moves very fast. And as it’s the beginning of a trilogy, Brown does not explain much about how society fell backwards. Of course, either he’ll explain this in later novels or maybe he’ll just assume no cares about that tedious aspect and just get wrapped up in the story. 

Still, what bothers me –again this is not explained- if the games (which lead to apprenticeships and other high-end goals) are not about wholesale slaughter of rich and powerful Golds –then what is the endgame (beyond what Sons of Ares want)? I mean we see these teens acting ruthless, being treacherous and trying to enslave others, but Fitchner (this novels variation of Hunger Games Haymitch Abernathy) keeps pointing out that while torture is deemed okay, wholesale murder is not. Yet that goes on multiple times throughout the book. 

Then again, perhaps we can find some of what Pierce Brown is foisting on us by looking at his background, especially his time as an aide on U.S. Senate campaign (along with stint as a page at NBC and a “peon” on the Disney lot). Perhaps he’s taken those years working for these sometimes ruthless people and upped the ante here. It makes some sort of sense. But in the in the end, if one person has to go all through this shit just to be an apprentice to some high and mighty folk, the person who hires them has to be more evil than them.  

02 February 2014

Books: Every Dead Thing By John Connolly (1999)

Since Thomas Harris sort of created the serial killer novel with Silence of the Lambs back in 1988, readers have been inundated with many, many people hopping the bandwagon to fame. And like Tolkien and Grisham, who both are credited for creating a popular genre, the many books that have been released in those categories go from badly written (James Patterson) to gruesome, yet well written literature (Gillian Flynn, Stephen King) thrillers.

The reason I picked up John Connolly's Every Dead Thing was I just finished his young-adult series featuring Samuel Johnson and his trusty dog Boswell as they battled demons trying to kill him and take over Earth. And wanted to see what his adult fiction was like. 

And to be honest, I was rather turned off at first. Part of it was violence, something I have a huge issue with, and the detailed description of what serial killers do. While the profiler's who deal with these folks need to see all the details, I sometimes feel as a reader, the authors take too much joy in describing the butchery. And in Connolly’s debut here, death appears on almost every page and it’s like watching a Quentin Tarantino movie where all the deaths are shown and all accompanying story aspects have been excised. But eventually I got caught up in the story.

We meet Charlie “Bird” Parker, a former NYPD Detective, who is searching for the killer of his wife and young daughter. Parker is filled with guilt as the night of the killing, he had had a fight with his wife (police work was talking its toll on him and their marriage, and he was on the verge of becoming a full alcoholic) and had ventured to a bar to hide the pain. What comes clear after he discovers their bodies is that his wife Susan and his daughter Jennifer were victims of serial killer - their faces removed and their mutilated bodies arranged in a position that (Parker would later discover) is meant to mimic Estienne's Pieta.

But months later, Parker in no closer to solving the crime, though he has made contact with Tante Marie Aguillard, a New Orleans mystic who tells him the killer, whom she calls the Traveling Man, has struck before, and has buried a previous victim in the bayou near her home. And while many –including some of Parker’s former police officers –don’t think he should get his hopes up, he believes her. Still, frustrated, he is given a missing persons case by an old police friend. Catherine Demeter is the girlfriend of a wealthy Manhattan socialite, and his leads eventually bring him to the small town of Haven, Virginia, where (predictably) his outsider status and insistent questions open wounds long thought closed. 

As he comes closer to solving that case, he realizes, however tenuously, that Demeter’s disappearance and murder of his wife and child are connected. And as wheels move forward, Parker is confronted by the evil in the world and one killer who believes a nation, a world, does not understand death.

What I liked about the novel was the grasp Connolly –an Irishman who lives in Dublin- had on America. He certainly did his research and it may surprise some that he is Irish. Also, some have called his style in the vein of Ross McDonald, Andrew Vachss and Thomas Harris, in which we meet mean, unapologetic people (both good and bad) who represent a side of America most generally never see, but understand exist.  

Still, Connolly does not stray too much from the typical expectations of private eyes in this genre, as Parker is sullen, often depressed, but, even so, is always ready with a witty comeback (which was shown in the Samuel Johnson books; Connolly is pretty funny). And even though he trudges into the same area that James Lee Burke made famous, New Olreans (and a witty, throwaway line about Ann Rice), Connolly makes this thriller his own. 

And while I could do less with deep description of death (and it’s cheapness of life his characters seem to subscribe to) his closest allies are two tough, black gay men. Which is, for me anyways, interesting. There are many more novels featuring Parker out there, and I may, from time to time, pick one up. He’s a good writer, and Every Dead Thing is more literate than most in this genre, so we’ll see.