Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline ($14)

Ready, readers? Go.

I stayed up most of the other night obsessively reading this book. Although the book takes place in 2044, it has a ton of references to the 1980s pop culture. Why was I mesmerized by the book? I don't even remember what happened in the 80s, apart from episodes of  Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. (I did own an Atari, however, and can attest to the magnetic power of Space Invaders.) Music, movies, games of that era, for the most part, blew right past me. I only have a dilettante's memory of the references made in Ernest Cline's first book, Ready Player One.

The hero is a geeky, geeked-out 17- or 18-year-old boy. America has a bad case of dystopia, and Wade Owen Watts is one of its victims. He lives with his cold-hearted aunt in a mobile home tower. I say "tower" because habitable land is valuable and mobile homes are stacked one upon the other in a tower-like structure held together by scaffolding and a prayer.

Wade attends school via sensory-immersion virtual reality gear. He actually sits in a rusted-out van, but he attends school as his avatar, Wade3, on a virtual planet filled with schools. Outside of school, he's "Parzival," a gunter and avid OASIS participant. What does that mean, you ask?

Remember Second Life? It is a computer program designed to provide an on-line community. People are assigned, can design, or can buy an avatar, a digital representation -- and not necessarily an accurate one --  of themselves. Their avatars would interact in real-time with other peoples' avatars. People could buy virtual land, build virtual homes, make virtual friends, listen to real-time political speeches made by avatars of politicians, shop in virtual representations of real life businesses. The fictional OASIS is like that, only on steroids. OASIS makes it feel as though a person is truly in the virtual reality.

James Halliday, one of the founders of OASIS, died and left a game to be played. The winner of that game would win his substantial fortune and his company. Gunters are avid hunters of this prize. Parzival is a cool dude in this virtual world and a strong contender for the prize, whereas in the real world, he's sort of schlumpy and shy.

Ernest Cline -- who claims he was named after a muppet -- has created the ultimate book for fanatic collectors of minutiae of the 1980s. Can you recite each line of "War Games"? Apparently Cline can. Can you play almost the entire repertoire of home Atari games, and blast your way to the high score at 80s arcade games? Cline can. Can you play Dungeons & Dragons? Cline can. If you can, too, this is your book; it is calling your name, and you will put your life on hold to read it.

For the rest of us, it's still very entertaining. Geared perhaps more towards that now Holy Grail of reader groups, "Young Adult," Ready Player One nevertheless holds universal truths about friendship, honor, and valor for all of us.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Skeleton Box, by Bryan Gruley (hardcover, $25)

Starvation Lake, Michigan is like Cabot Cove, Maine, home of  television's redoubtable Jessica Fletcher. It's hard to believe such a small place can harbor so many dark secrets and daring killers. Gus Carpenter is the center of the storm and, unlike Jessica Fletcher, he doesn't have a cozy cottage and bumbling but lovable sidekicks. And as the name implies, Starvation Lake is not abundantly blessed.

Bryan Gruley has set his book in March of 2000. Gus has returned to his hometown after having left a big-time reporting gig in Detroit in disgrace. He returns to a town that unfortunately remembers another disgrace, one that took place when he was just a kid. As the goalie for the high school ice hockey team, he let through the winning goal for the other team, causing his team to lose the state championship. Gus can't win.

Gus can't win in many respects. His hometown newspaper, which he edits, is in trouble. His new reporter seems to have a big independent streak. He's in no-man's-land with the love of his life. Someone has been breaking into homes in Starvation Lake but taking nothing. Then a tragedy befalls his mother, a woman already beset by a faltering memory. Once again Gus finds himself investigating events that happened in the distant past in order to bring justice to the present.

Gruley captures small-town life very well. Everybody sticks a nose into everybody else's business. And secrets. It doesn't take much to make a small town falter, and Gruley shows us the intertwined interests of such a community.

All three of Gruley's books have revolved around Gus and his family. Each subsequent story has built upon the revelations in the prior book. His stories aren't so much mysteries as they are chapters in Gus' life. At the end of each book the question is, Can Gus be happy? He is carrying so much baggage, it's a wonder he doesn't crack through the ice when he takes to the rink. It's hard not to cheer for Gus, for his hope for redemption, forgiveness, love. Starvation Lake is the best of the bunch so far, primarily because we heard Gus' engaging voice for the first time.

Gruley has been quoted extensively about his three-book deal with Touchstone. Does that mean that this, the third Gus Carpenter book, is the end of the series? I hope not. There must be loads of skeletons still buried somewhere in Starvation Lake.

Dead Scared, by S. J. Bolton (hardcover, $25.95) (due 6/15)

Although S. J. Bolton doesn't usually do series, this is the follow-up to Now You See Me. Series characters Lacey Flint and Mark Joesbury are police detectives. They shared a case that left both of them physically and mentally injured. At the time this story opens, they haven't seen each other in a few months. They apparently have complicated personal and professional relationships.

Dead Scared is sometimes difficult to read because it frequently changes narration points of view and time periods. However, Lacey's first person narrative has a good sense of character. She exhibits intriguing personality dichotomies; she is strong and vulnerable, smart and gullible. (Don't go in that dark room, Lacey!)

Bolton crafts her tale around a clustering of suicides in Cambridge. Is there more to them than meets the eye? It is a professional counselor, Evi Oliver, who first inspires the police to consider that there might be a malevolent force behind the statistical anomaly. (Evi appeared in Blood Harvest, making this a follow-up to that book, too.) Unfortunately, Evi herself may be the victim of a nasty prankster. Or she may be mentally unstable. Bolton does a good job of dangling the various permutations of truth and lie and craziness. It's hard to guess just what the red herrings are.

The plot is outlandishly elaborate. The suicides are different and sometimes macabre, and there is no clearcut evidence of manipulation by anyone else. It  turns out that it is Bolton who is the manipulator, and she is audaciously manipulating her audience. Everyone is a suspect, everyone is a victim. If the suicides are actually murders, why are they so venomously and intricately plotted? 

This is an entertaining book but, as noted above, if Lacey says to you, "Hey, let's go down this dark hallway," head the other way!

There are two additional things you need to know. The first is that this is more of a romance than the police procedural framework might suggest. The second is that you will have the catchphrase, "make sure all your boxes are ticked," running through your head like an annoying pop song.

Amped, by Daniel H. Wilson (hardcover, $25.95)

Daniel H. Wilson has one of the most creative minds around. He crafts a story good enough to be scientifically valid and adds human elements to make it relatable.

Wilson's last book was Robopocalypse, a book I thoroughly enjoyed and apparently so did Stephen Spielberg because he's making a movie out of it. In that book it was mostly man versus machine or machine versus machine. In Amped, man and machine are one. Science has advanced enough that many human ailments are alleviated by brain implants. The hero of Amped, Owen Gray, has epilepsy. His implant suppresses the seizures; his natural system has been amplified.

It's not just people like Owen who have been amped to control physical disorders. Others have been amped up because they were slower mentally. The cruelty, Owen informs us at the start, is that it replaces one problem with another. Children who have been amped to be intellectually competitive are still ostracized, but this time for their smarts.

"We're tool-makers born and bred and even if you don't believe in anything else, you'd better believe in that. Because that's human nature," Owen, the narrator of Amped, says. For better or worse. And the scales are being tipped towards worse.

A terrifying movement is picking up steam across America. Led by Senator Joseph Vaughn, President of the Pure Human Citizens Council, amped citizens are becoming targets of discrimination. How can un-amped humans, they ask, compete with the superior implanted monsters? It's just not fair. So Amps are being herded and contained in a not-so-subtle twinning of what happened to Jews during World War II. Furthermore, a scary group of ex-military men are fighting back. These men possess military-related, state-of-the-art enhancements, courtesy of the government. Somewhere along the line something went wrong, the men were released, and they now are accused of terrorist acts against "Reggies," i.e., "regular" people.

So why doesn't Owen simply have the hardware removed:

"These tools we love so much have burrowed under our skin like parasites. They're in our brains now, our joints and organs. Crouching behind our eyeballs and clinging to our sinuses. Making us smarter and stronger and always, always more dependent."

Owen's father, a doctor who performed implant surgery, is dead. One of his last messages to Owen was that if anything happened, he should head for Oklahoma and Jim Howard. Owen finds Jim in a run-down trailer park inhabited by Amps and their families. Jim is a genius-level programmer and scientist, but each day he does construction work to survive. Along with the other residents of the trailer park, they try hard to keep a low profile. Then Lyle Crosby, one of the ex-soldiers appears, and he brings havoc with him.

The emphasis is not on action, although there's a lot of that. It's on what a "good" person would do versus what he could do. The same philosophical question is posed here as in Robopocalpyse: What does it take to be a person -- an individual, sentient being, capable of deciphering right and wrong and making choices from that point? It is the way Wilson poses the question and the way he depicts Owen's dilemma that elevates this story.

I enjoyed the fact that Owen is a regular person, a teacher on the run from a false accusation. He doesn't know a kung fu kick from kung pao chicken. He has a tender heart and is earnest.

The story isn't overloaded with "tech-speak." You don't have to learn a new language, labor to relate to the setting, or try to spot red herrings. This story is what it seems: one man, with an implant that simply makes him more of who he is, trying to stop the craziness.

The 500, by Matthew Quirk (hardcover, $25.99)

This is a smart, clever, well-written book. It's a horror story of sorts because it hypothesizes (or reveals?) the inner workings of how influence is peddled and how the real decision-making process works in the hollow (certainly not hallowed, according to this book) halls of government.

Michael Ford is a young go-getter with a shady past. It reminds me of one of the best books I've read over the past couple of years, The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton. In that book the young narrator begins by admitting that he is telling his tale from jail. In a similar fashion, The 500 begins with Michael in tremendous trouble of some sort, and both stories proceed backwards in time from there. Both Michael Ford and Michael Smith, the protagonist of The Lock Artist, are street-clever and talented. They try to escape their pasts, and their struggles provide the story-telling spine for their respective books.

In short, the story is that Ford, fresh out of Harvard Law, is recruited by the best influence-peddling firm in DC. Callow in the ways of politics and idealistic, Michael sets out to show his bosses he can bring in the goods. The goods being ways to get the people in power to do what the firm's clients want.

There is a well-balanced amount of action and cerebral stuff. As the main story proceeds, stories from Michael's past surface. His relationship with his imprisoned father, his dead mother, his wayward brother are all blended into the mix to provide the explanation to who Michael was and what he has become. In the best hero fashion, Michael must decide where his loyalties, interests, and ideals lie, and once having decided, how to make sure he survives the fall-out of his choices.

As captivating and moving as Matthew Quirk's writing makes his characters, it is the addition of the insights into the grift, the con, the soft spots in our structured and fortified society and its elected representatives, and the nuts and bolts of being a burglar and thief that produce an extraordinary book.

Although there were a couple of brief moments when I thought, "Well, isn't that convenient" or "That'll play well in Hollywood," The 500 is an original, well-paced, and thoughtful book.

I am pleased to give it an MBTB star.

Midwinter Blood, by Mons Kallentoft ($25.99)

It is February and the Swedish town of Linköping "is paralyzed, the city's streets draped limply upon the crust of the earth, the condensation on the windows making the houses blind." No one wants to go out in the terrible cold, but someone has and a body hangs from a tree. Perhaps it is a midwinter sacrifice, but for what reason? To quickly bring about the end of winter and its isolation? To appease the gods for past sins?

Detective Malin Fors is 33 years old, is divorced, and has a 13-year-old daughter. She works too hard, drinks too much, and has no idea what thoughts run through her daughter's head. She often wonders who she has turned out to be and how she lost touch with everything that mattered to her. She and her partner Zeke Martinsson may be looking for who murdered poor Bengt Andersson, the hanging man, but they also look for signs that happiness is possible, that there is a place where no evil exists. Zeke finds it in music, and Malin is still looking.

Very heavy-duty stuff. It takes over 400 pages to ponder it.

There is a lot of beauty in Mons Kallentoft's writing. For instance:
[Pathologist] Karin Johannison…is flapping her arms around her heavily padded body, elegant even though making an inelegant gesture. Small fragments of feathers fly up in the air like misshapen snowflakes.
…as if people in their despair and fear and anger are capable of doing anything to each other. As if more and more people feel that they're somehow out of reach, beyond their own and that of everyone else as well.
The book is often elegant, but it is incredibly slow-moving. It pretends to be a police procedural, but it isn't in the truest sense, especially not when part of the narrative is an imagined soliloquy by a corpse, i.e., Bengt Andersson. There's a lot of interior chatter because several characters' thoughts are transparent, not just Malin's. Sometimes the action gets going, only to be pulled back to observe some facet of Malin's life that needs patching up. It's a literary dysrhythmia on loneliness and alienation more than a mystery. And don't get me started on what the resolution was all about.

This is a book for people who like big servings of character development and the setting, who don't mind hearing about the minutiae of some inconsequential things side-by-side with only slight glimpses of major elements.