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The Gray Man

The Gray ManThe Gray Man by Mark Greaney is the ninth novel that I have read that was originally published in 2009.  Its not purposeful. It is, however, the first in the Gray Man series of novels and the first I have read by Mark Greaney.  Greaney has been the collaborator/writer for the Tom Clancy (1947 – 2013) franchise of novels. I have read none of those.

Let it be said from the start that this novel is not great literature. This is pure entertainment.  In a different era, such a novel would be referred to as pulp. Now, “pulp” originally meant the low-quality paper that was used to print magazines and novels in the first chunk of the twentieth century. This cheap paper was used to print entertainment fiction for the masses.  Increased literacy, cheap entertainment, increasingly efficient methods to print all contributed to the proliferation of what is now known as “pulp fiction.”  None of it was ever intended to be wholesome, scholarly pondersome literature.

Nowadays, we have changed the quality of paper and the multitude of media entertainment is humongous. However, I still refer to certain “genres” of novels as pulp. Because much of the pulp fiction found in that long ago era was science fiction, detective stories, action/adventure stories, boys’ fiction, and smut.  While the paper is a bit crisper now, some novels are still pulp.

The thing is, just because it is pulp does not mean that readers should snub it, act righteously indignant around it, or treat it as sub-par.  Novels, all novels, are meant for entertainment. If, in any novel, there is a secondary by-product of moralizing, or sharing a plight, or drawing attention to some social/moral issue – that is still secondary. Otherwise, well, it would be a thesis, an article, a commentary, a letter. (Of course, this is not a complete universal, but try not to be extremist.)

I like pulp novels, since I like all novels – more or less. There is something very much like brain-candy in these fluffy, superficial, fast-reading, over-the-top, wild, outrageous novels. I think the word is “fun.”  So, I do own a large collection of Doc Savage, The Executioner, Fu Manchu, The Saint, and Nick Carter novels.  Not all pulp novels are also good novels. Some are horribly written and even their novelty as pulp is thin.

Luckily, The Gray Man is a very good pulp novel. Its a whole lot of fun in 465 really fast-turning pages. Why? Because even though this novel should be slushy and aggravating – it just is not. I do not know how, exactly, Greaney is able to withhold from crossing into the whole “takes it too far” – but he does. And we are left with a quite polished novel that – oddly enough – respects the reader enough not to stereotype them.

Because there exists the stereotype that all readers of action/adventure thrillers are over-testosteroned, barely literate, ultra-patriotic, simple-minded buffoons. Scarily, some of the readers are comfortable accepting this as their type…in stereo. It is easy to see which books follow that stereotype – the writing talks down to the reader. There is nothing complex at all, yet everything is repetitive. The sentences become clipped phrases. The amount of gore, sex, foul language is amped up. And, finally, the plot is weak but at the end of the day the flag waves around a pile of spent rifle shells and the hero goes home with at least two buxom blondes on his arms.

If at gunpoint, I would tell you the truth, and that is:  I was highly entertained by this novel. It is such a fast read! Hey – there is not. one. typo. This is exceedingly rare these days. Also, I think the author knows he is not competing with Calvino or Nabokov – and he is okay with it, but that does not mean he does not write this genre novel to the best of his ability. It’s action, but somehow not slushy as one might expect.

Totally a non-stop action thriller. It has some cussing, a bunch of gore, but no sex. So, its definitely rated-R.  The main character sustains an injury during a fight that made me cringe in my seat and I instinctively was holding my hand over my side for awhile. This is good:  it shows the author writes convincingly.  Now, the fact that the character continues onward and does anything he does after that?  Well, let us say that in pulp novels, like in movies, you have to suspend disbelief.  The Gray Man is nearly indestructible, I guess. But you knew he would be. We like to grind our heroes up – a lot – in these sorts of stories. Why is this? Heroes are also, apparently, gluttons for punishment and can endure damn near anything. (Cp. Batman, Wolverine, et al.)

The author balances a lot of characters fairly well.  They are not multi-faceted and heavily nuanced, but they do play their rôle consistently.  The main character is oddly likeable… even if he seems indestructible. And the plot of the novel, well, it feels familiar. I mean, there are a LOT of plot points that we have already seen in a variety of movies, novels, and newspaper headlines. Yes, one would expect this to make this novel an eye-roll inducing mess of tropes and tired stories.  Somehow, though, Greaney does enough balancing to make it fun and interesting – if not new. New, I reckon, really is not always better.

Lastly, Greaney’s lines on page 400 ratify him as someone who knows something about these topics.

Justine had seen fistfights on television action shows.  This was nothing of that.  The movements were faster, more brutal, crueler.  There was no ballet or poetry in the relationship between the adversaries, no choreography. No, it was unyielding surface on unyielding surface, the jerking reactions and the grunts and cries of wild beasts, labored breathing from exertion and panic. The sounds of cracking impacts and the frenzy of a combat so pitiless, she was sure all the men would tear to pieces in the street in front of her.

Lots of people take martial arts as a hobby. Many have learned CQB and H2H in the military. But I think Hollywood and MMA/UFC have really changed how people view combat. Have you ever – truly – been in combat where your life was actually on the line? Not point-sparring, not sport fighting, not cage matches. Not for pay. Because yes, real hand-to-hand combat is ugly and gross. Real kung fu is not acrobatic or flowery. The fact that Mark describes a fight thusly verifies to me that he does know a little something about it. I gave Mark a star for this paragraph alone.

Overall, readers can burn through these pages! Fast reading full of action and double-crossing and excitement. Fans of Batman, Transporter, Wolverine, The Executioner should enjoy this one. But, I think, many folks not normally into reading this “genre” would find some entertainment here, too.

4 stars

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The Rook

the-rookThe first novel that I finished in 2017 is The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. It was originally published in 2012, but I still see it on group reads lists and in general circulation among readers. I watched one of the “trailers” (not sure how I feel about books having these) and it neither intrigued me, nor discouraged me. This not a perfect novel, but these days, there are so few truly good books that it should not be surprising. It was, however, one of the better novels that I have read in months. This is not deeply intellectual literary fiction, but it is quite a bit of fun and entertainment.

The thing about this book that most struck me was that the author is male (raised in Australia, educated in the USA) and this is his first published novel. However he writes a very convincing and likeable female main character. I think this would be difficult to do – to write a main character of the opposite gender – and do it without it seeming patronizing or stilted. I would have assumed the author was female if I had not known otherwise prior to reading the book.

Myfanwy Thomas is the name of the main character and much has been made of her first name. It has been said that this name is Welsh and is pronounced similar to “Tiffany.” I’ll be honest, with names in novels, I have never actually read them. I read them once or twice and then the whole name just becomes a block item – pattern recognition. That shape is the main character.

So, a secret government organization called The Checquy exists.  They deal with (all aspects) of the supernatural/unnatural all in the service of The Kingdom.  They are run by The Court, which consists of their senior leadership members – who are ranked in accordance with the standard pieces of chess. Why? No real reason other than “it is cool” – because chess is cool. The main character, Myfanwy Thomas, is a Rook. Since I know you know your chess, you know that the Rook is the “lowest” ranked non-pawn piece. (Let’s not expand into the supposed values of the chess pieces.)  In this story, she’s having a rather rough time of it.

Another item that really impressed me about the author’s efforts here, is how he manages info dumps. First of all, he created an exceedingly likeable main character. The Myfanwy character is convincing, intelligent, and has a completed personality. Also, she is definitely one of the wittiest characters I have read in a long time. And by “witty,” understand that I do not mean snarky or cutting. I mean actually witty. Part of developing this character so well was giving her a unique and powerful voice.  I think this, too, is a challenge for many writers. Making sure that the character has her own voice and is recognizable and realistic makes it infinitely better when we have heaps of information that the main character is going to spew at us.

“I just received information that the Americans are coming.”

“All of them?” asked Myfanwy. (pg. 167)

The format is the second aspect that helps the author manage info dumps.  He has his main character write “letters” that delineate the backstory and background information. Because she has such a strong voice, these letters come across a lot better than if they were droll, tedious letters being written from Locke to Leibniz (sorry, fellas). Now, the letters are printed in Italics – which did vex some readers – but I am from the generation where we read and write beautifully in cursive, so I did not mind that at all. But this formatting helps  bridge the gap between past and current in the storyline and allows us to follow along with the main character in almost a book-within-a-book method. Very nice and not so easy to pull off in your first novel, I would think.

Ultimately, this is urban fantasy.  It has supernatural/unnatural elements in it. However, it definitely takes place in the real world, more or less as we know it. The fantastical elements are treated as if normal to this world, but hidden from us – especially because of activities of The Checquy.  However, this novel is not really about vampires and werewolves and their melodrama. It is, more or less, a mystery novel.  In fact, this is such a mystery novel that the fact that there are supernatural  goings on really does not matter as much as the mystery at hand that the main character is thrust into right at the start.

It would be enough to write a successful contemporary urban fantasy novel for one’s first published work.  To also make that novel a very interesting and engaging mystery novel does deserve a chapeau. And so, in the midst of a plotline focused on the main character and her suddenly acquired career in The Checquy, we are also following clues in a mystery case.  The mystery, by the way, is who/what is trying to kill Myfanwy Thomas?  There are a lot of possible suspects, motives, and red herrings.  The author does a superior job keeping the reader in the loop with the many options for suspects.  I did not guess the guilty…. though… I never do….

In fact, right until the end I was in suspense as to who was a good guy and who was a bad guy.  All of the characters, and there are a bunch, are distinct and interesting. I mean that, I do not mean that they are filler characters made out of cardboard. The author did a lot of work to make the supporting characters developed. Most of these characters would have successful spin-off series novels without any trouble.

Generally, the book is very enjoyable and has a lot of good things going for it. I do think it is a tad bit too lengthy, I would like to see this around 400 pages – excising about 80 pages. However, it is still a solid read and I would recommend it to everyone. Especially because this is a novel without ridiculous sex scenes, absurd romances, and blathering agendas.  There are some scenes with some seriously well-written descriptive violence – but its, as they say, “fantasy violence.”

Finally, I think one of the things that most appealed to me about this book was the concept of tossing the main character into a world in which they are clueless and overwhelmed, but yet expected to perform successfully with aplomb. This was very engaging and gave the storyline a bit of dramatic tension not solely built on the mystery or the supernatural stuff.

4 stars

Steelheart

SteelheartSteelheart by Brandon Sanderson was first published in 2013.  It is the first (of three) novel in Sanderson’s The Reckoners series for so-called young adult readers.  Having recently read another famous “young adult” novel, I decided to zip through a second while I was at it and this Sanderson book has been on the list for quite some time. I had heard good things about it and I figured after the recent disappointing read, my expectations were pretty low.

Frankly, this one was better than I ever expected. I got the copy on the clearance shelf at the local (ONLY!) bookstore. I really enjoyed this novel because it is one of those action-packed, tension-dripping, pulse-pounding stories that make for fun reads and easy movie-making. It is a  futuristic dystopian novel told from the viewpoint of David Charleston – the eighteen year old main character. (I wondered if Sanderson selected “Charleston” as a nod to the late Robert Jordan.)

“Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary people extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics. Epics are no friends of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man, you must crush his will.”

In a city bank, young David witnesses an attack on Chicago by a superpowered humanoid named “Steelheart.”  David’s father is killed in the attack.  Ten years later, David is looking for revenge.  Ever since the event at the bank, the world has fallen into pseudo-states ruled by a loose grouping of epics. Epics are specially powered people – who universally seem to use their powers as license to abuse and manipulate the non-powered normal citizens.  Naturally, a dystopian society develops.

What is good about all of this?  I really appreciated the creativity and effort that Sanderson put into the diverse and unique characteristics of all of the epics. I am really impressed with the hierarchies and levels of these powered individuals.  I know that Marvel Comics and DC Comics have a long history of scores of creators working to devise and analyze their pantheons of characters, so having as many as developed as Sanderson does is neat.

Of course the comparison with superheroes/supervillians is inevitable. If readers dislike this category of fiction, then they will probably not love this series. However, for anyone who likes the superpowered world of comics – but wants to read something other than graphic novels/comics – this is a really fun read.  And, at the end of the day, everyone (yes, even you!) is a fan of Batman and Superman, Spider-Man and Thor. It is okay, I promise not to give away your daytime alter ego: “literary fiction” reader. *wink*

David, however, is such a charming and realistic character that I could not help rooting for him. Sanderson nails the teenage-kid-who-wants-to-fit-in stereotype. David is no weak sap, though. He is a dedicated hard worker – even if he has the most comical difficulty with metaphors.  We get a lot of inner monologue from David – but it is not droning and hapless. His interactions with all of the other characters is extremely well done and his motivations are reasonable and consistent.

Also, one of the better aspects of the novel is how Sanderson allows the characters to question what they are doing and how they are doing it. This novel is about the resistance fighting the established tyrant.  It is a dystopia – people work in factories, live underground, and supplies are limited. Yes, this is all a very VERY well-tread plot.  However, along the way the characters question if what they are doing is, ultimately, a benefit to society. The characters do question their motives and their actions. David develops a more nuanced and significant view of his world throughout the novel.

David does seem to have a slight preoccupation with guns. Throughout the novel he talks about them and identifies them and debates their various components. A number of readers have expressed their dislike of this aspect.  They suggest that David (Sanderson?) has too much “gun-love” in the story.  Well, he is an eighteen year old kid on a revenge mission in a dystopia wherein he is fighting with the Resistance forces.  He is not going to talk about bonbons or potpourri, right?  David also discusses the tech pieces that the characters utilize. Much of the gun talk is in the same vein – tools to be used.

Even though the storyline is generally familiar, there is a lot of suspense and intense action that make the story a fun and exciting read. Impressively so, actually.  I mean, David’s improvisations, the Reckoner’s plans and schemes, the characters and their foibles, all occur with a natural pacing inside a huge action thriller. There is not a lot of heavy literature here, but I think the majority of readers will enjoy this one. Yeah, I’m reading book 2!

4 stars

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Rosemary and Rue

Rosemary and RueRosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire is the first novel in the October Daye urban fantasy series.  It was first released in 2009, I read the DAW paperback edition with cover art by Chris McGrath.  April is a busy month for a lot of reasons and I have been running into articles, blogs, and media highlighting the author, so I figured this was a good novel to read in between denser, meatier books.

The main character is October Daye.  She is considered a changeling, which is the term used for the offspring of pureblood Fae and human parents. One of the things that is attractive about this novel (and, presumably, the series it begins) is that it is about Fae/Fairies/Faerie.  I am under the impression that urban fantasy novels are heavily focused on creatures such as:  werewolves, zombies, and vampires.  So, reading a novel in this subgenre that does not involve the usual suspects seemed a bit more interesting.  To her credit, the author does build up a world of Fae in which it does seem to matter that these are Fae and not some other mythical being.

The fact is:  with urban fantasy there is a very obvious paradigm that gets followed.  The inhuman world is structured nearby or parallel to the human world.  There is magic, which generally we learn about practically, but never theoretically. By this I mean, the reader learns that magic operates because the characters use it.  However, the novels never really seem to take this activity beyond that superficial level. Characters are magic users or they are not.  As a comparison, so-called Epic Fantasy novels tend to flesh out their magic concepts a bit more. By not developing the concept at all, it tends to make all the urban fantasy novels seem similar, making magic just a stock element of all stories.  Further, the majority of inhuman societies are always feudal or medieval or courtly.  I do not know if this is some holdover from authors/readers attending too many Renaissance Fairs or having romantic ideals, but I find it too common and obvious in this subgenre.  Finally, urban fantasy seems to really want to meld with the noir detective novel. A lot.

Rosemary and Rue is no different, in many ways, from all the other urban fantasy I have read. I mean, the setting, plot, and main character is very similar to what I have read before. This is no great literature – however, the story was entertaining and comfortably distracting from daily stressors.  In other words, this will read like all other urban fantasy, more or less. And, I suspect, readers will enjoy this one just as they enjoy other urban fantasy novels, more or less.

That is not to say I do not appreciate some things in this novel. As I mentioned above, the usage of the Fae mythology is relatively unique. But also the author seems to have woven a few interesting threads of Shakespeare and his mythos into this series.  That is fun and I liked it. Another key thing is the prologue of the novel is a rather unique way to introduce readers to the character and setting; I was surprised by it!

As a main character, October Daye, or Toby, manifests all the usual personality traits readers have come to know and love. Their actual life is a messy struggle. They are aloof, sullen, snarky, and/or impatient.  They think they are more independent than they are, but yet are constantly seeking assistance from people. I liked October well enough, she struck me as an honest personality…..even though in the beginning she really did seem to be trying too hard to be too snarky.  (The best example of forced snark, for me, is Ben Aaronovitch’s series.)  However, I have to tell you, I did laugh at a couple of her lines…….. like I said:  entertaining!

Still, the villain is probably quite obvious from the start – although the author really does try to give us a nice selection of options to pick from.  The reason the villain is so obvious, though, is that they are also a yucky character. So, even if they were not the villain, they are still the yuckiest in the novel. The end scenes are also very stereotypical and standard “end of story” scenes. Almost so much so that it was ridiculous.  I could have written out what was about to happen next. Anyway, the scenario is resolved.  Unlike a lot of fiction these days, I really appreciated the closure that this novel gives. No loose ends, no mysterious groan-worthy hangers-on, no sickening setups for future novels in the series.  I have to give props to the author for ending the novel tightly.

For fans of Grimm tv series, urban fantasy readers, fans of the Faerie realm.

3 stars