Monday, May 28, 2007

"Pop Goes the Weasel" by James Patterson (Thriller, some spoilers)

This is another Alex Cross thriller. The plot follows a structure similar to an earlier Cross novel, "Along Came a Spider." Both novels involve the tracking down of a villain followed by an actual trial.

In this case, the villain is the "Weasel" of the title, a killer given this nickname by police. The Weasel's real name is Geoffrey Shafer, and it turns out that he works for the British Embassy. Which gives him an easy way to avoid justice, since he can claim diplomatic immunity for any crimes committed on American soil.

The killings committed by the Weasel are motivated by his insanity and his involvement in an on-line role-playing game, which crosses over into real life. Heh, I remember when I was a kid and "Dungeons and Dragons" became popular, there was some controversy over it because some parents got the idea that kids might take it too seriously and end up hurting themselves or some such thing. I don't think it was ever proven to be that dangerous, though.

Shafer's killings have an appearance of randomness at first, making it hard for the police to discern any pattern behind them, but Cross does start to suspect some of the seemingly disconnected slayings may be the work of the same person.

It turns out that Shafer's insanity is likely compounded by the cocktail of drugs he takes, supplied to him illegally by his mistress, a psychotherapist.

The story takes a very personal twist for Cross when his girlfriend, Christine Johnson, is abducted.

I did some net-surfing and found that this novel gets mixed reviews. Some people really liked it, others point out some logic glitches, which are possibly valid complaints. Like, in one part of the novel, when a police officer is on a stakeout, keeping an eye on Shafer by herself. Would any real police officer do such a job alone, with someone known to be as dangerous as Shafer? Also, a close examination of Shafer's crimes show possible ways evidence would have been left at the scene that isn't even mentioned or discussed.

I'm not an expert on police work or forensics, so I'm not in a position to comment, but I guess questions like that could undermine the book's credibility for some readers.

It's still very entertaining, though, with Patterson's trademark fast-paced plot, a nasty villain and lots of twists and turns.

"London Bridges" by James Patterson (Thriller, spoiler warning)

This is another one of Patterson's stories about FBI agent Alex Cross.

This novel take Cross into a realm in which the crimes are, in a sense, larger. The criminals he's trying to track down this time around are not just committing murders of individuals. They are threatening large-scale acts of terror, in which a lot of people could be killed at one stroke.At the novel's beginning, a small town in America is destroyed. Literally reduced to rubble by a powerful explosive. This does not happen until a group of people, pretending to be U.S. army soldiers, forcibly evacuate the town. The terrorists don't actually want to kill people.

At least, not this time - this is just to serve as a warning for what will happen next.

The mastermind behind the scheme is someone who goes by the name of "The Wolf." The identity of The Wolf is a mystery, that gives rise to much speculation. Is The Wolf male or female, what is The Wolf's motivation...there are a lot of questions about this mysterious villain, but few answers to be found.

The main plot is, in some ways, a typical terrorism-type plot. After the "warning" incident, law enforcement agencies are told that something far worse will happen - terrorist attacks in America, England and France are all planned. These will come about if certain demands aren't met, which include the payment of a large sum of money and the release of various criminals from prison.

The governments of the nations involved do not wish to be blackmailed in this way, and Cross and his colleagues end up making a frantic effort to try to get to the bottom of the conspiracy and bring the Wolf to justice.

But the Wolf is very smart, constantly using intermediaries and deliberate ruses to throw the police off the trail and make them waste time. This makes Cross frustrated.

As is often the case in Patterson's novels, different parts of the story are told from different points of view. We have some of the story told in the first person from the vantage point of Alex Cross. Then other parts of the story are told in the third person, from the points of view of the villains.

Incidentally, not only does Cross have to fight the Wolf, but it turns out that the Wolf has in his employ one of Cross's old enemies - The Weasel. I guess Patterson has a liking for animal names for villains, or did during this phase of his career.

The scenes told from the points of view of The Weasel or The Wolf are riveting for there sheer brutality. The Wolf is one hell of a mean fucker, even by the standards of Alex Cross novels. And his use of the Weasel, along with some of the things he says, seem to suggest The Wolf has something personal against Cross, as if he's tempting Cross, or leading him on.

But I'm not sure if that ever gets explained adequately. As a matter of fact, my only major beef with this novel is the lack of a clear resolution to a lot of the storylines - it seemed as if near the end, Patterson wanted to end it with even more twists and turns that would lead to confusion about who The Wolf really was, and whether the police had found the right person or not. I did some net-surfing and found that I'm not the only reader who felt this way about the book's ending.

But, all in all, most of the book is still an exciting, riveting read. Patterson knows how to write thrillers that keep one's eyes glued to the page - I freely admit I've become a Patterson addict since the beginning of this year, when I first started reading some of his stuff.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

"The Silence of the Lambs" by Thomas Harris (Thriller/Horror, mild spoilers)

First off, I should probably mention the fact that this novel isn't what you'd call light, easy entertainment. I'd say it's not for the faint or heart of weak-stomached.

The story involves Clarice Starling, who is a trainee at the FBI academy. She becomes involved in a case involving not one, but two killers. The first is in custody in a mental institution, Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter. Lecter's crimes are mentioned, and they're gruesome.

But it turns out that Lecter may know something about "Buffalo Bill," an unknown killer the FBI has been trying to find. But Lecter won't just give out information quickly and easily. He makes Starling dig for it, and gives her clues somewhat cryptically, that she has to follow up on and interpret.

The case is urgent, because Buffalo Bill has kidnapped another victim. If he holds true to his pattern, it will only be a matter of days before he kills her.

The novel actually shows what happens in Buffalo Bill's home, and how he treats his captured victim. I found that sickening - Bill is very twisted.

One of the highlights of the story is the exchanges of dialogue between Starling and Dr. Lecter. Lecter is intelligent, and a trained psychiatrist himself, and seems to be digging for information as much as Starling is, he's constantly trying to figure out what makes her tick. For Starling, it can be unnerving to go through this.

As creepy and horrific as some of the violence in the book is, it's very compellingly written, and I found it a tough one to put down.

And the ending has an interesting twist, leaving the story open for more possibilities. I believe Harris did write some sequels.

Supporting characters, like Jack Crawford, a more senior FBI agent, are well thought out and developed, as well as the major characters.

And, of course, the film version with Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster was a big hit, I actually did see it years ago, and still remember some scenes vividly.

But the book is good, if you can cope with the violence - consider yourself warned.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

"Startide Rising" by David Brin (Science Fiction, Spoiler Warning)

My edition of this novel is around four hundred and sixty pages long - and none of it wasted. There's a lot of stuff in here - lots of characters, including aliens, lots of plot lines, alien settings - quite a bit of material to cram into one novel. Heck, some of the individual stories, or background stories could easily be developed into books themselves.

The actual story does, however, centre on a particular idea, something called uplift. Uplift is the process by which an intelligent, sentient species helps another, pre-sentient species achieve sentience/intelligence. In exchange for this, the uplifted race is indebted to those who uplift them, at least for a time. Relationships between the uplifters and the uplifted vary in how harmonious or conflicted they are, depending on the cultures involved.

The main characters here are the crew of a ship called Streaker. The crew includes a small group of humans, several uplifted dolphins and an uplifted chimpanzee.

The plot involes the crew of the ship trying to hide on a planet called Kithrup, after making a discovery that might provide a link to the identity of the progenitors. The progenitors are the race that allegedly became sentient first, and started uplifting others, although nobody is sure about how it all started.

But, the possible existence of progenitor artifacts touches a nerve, and several alien races - Galactics - enter the scene, fighting amongst themselves as well as causing problems for the Streaker crew.

I think Brin took on a hefty challenge with this novel. Throughout, he covers the idea of uplifted dolphins and chimpanzees, how their distinct cultures work as influenced by their own biology and the effects of uplift. He shows things about how this plays out in the interactions between the dolphins, humans, and Charlie Dart, the chimpanzee. And he introduces the galactics, and shows some even more alien cultures. And he includes all this while discussing the uplift concept, and how humans might be an exception to the usual uplift rules. And he does this against an imaginary setting which he has to describe. should come as no surprise that this is one of those books that comes with a glossary of terms and characters at the beginning. I think this is the type of book with a lot of fascinating ideas in it, but so many, that you have to be prepared to concentrate and pay very close attention as you go along. This is not what I'd call light, easy reading. Which is fine, but I know it's not to everyone's taste. For those of us who don't mind a challenging read, by all means give it a try.

I did find there were times when I would have liked a bit more detail on certain points - maybe more visual detail about what some of the alien creatures looked like, for example. But to get through the amount of material he wanted to cover in the book, I guess Brin had no choice but to be very selective in how much detail to include on any particular point.

But what he did find room for, he does well; the interactions among different species are nicely worked out. I don't actually know enough about dolphin biology to comment on the scientific accuracy of those parts of the story, but it was definitely well thought out, and made all the characters - human, dolphin, alien, chimpanzee - good characters.

And the plot moves at a quick pace, with plenty of action.

All in all, a good read, just be prepared to concentrate and pay close attention to keep track of everything - there are a lot of alien names and words that aren't part of everyday English - so if that's to your taste, you'd enjoy it.