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Sunday, July 31, 2016

What I'm reading (#17)

This week I read a book that brings to mind Dorothy Parker's acerbic quip, "This wasn't just plain terrible.  This was fancy terrible.  This was terrible with raisins in it."

The book was The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury, and I really, really wanted to like it.  For one thing, it weaves together modern thriller elements with medieval European history, something that (when done well) is one of my favorite tropes.  (Just a few weeks ago, you may recall, I sang the praises of Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason's novel The Rule of Four, which does the same sort of thing, only does it well.)  And The Last Templar starts out with a bang; four horsemen, in armor with Templar insignia, raid the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the opening day of an exhibit of treasures from the Vatican, and steal a bunch of it -- including a mysterious machine called a "multi-geared rotor encoder."


From there, however, it does a complete face plant.  Starting in chapter two, I began to notice some things that made me wonder how this manuscript survived the editing stage: a point-of-view that jumps around like a hyperactive kangaroo, sometimes in the same paragraph; overuse of turgid words like "stygian" and "vertiginous;" dialogue tags such as the following:
  • "I'm fine," she winced.
  • "I'm on my way," he smiled.
The latter gave me a flashback to my long-ago college Creative Writing professor, Dr. Bernice Webb, saying, "You don't 'wince' or 'smile' words!"

The problem is, bad editing isn't the only problem.  There are pages and pages (whole chapters, in fact) that are the author telling us historical backstory.  The dialogue and the narrative feature cheesy lines such as, "Reilly looked at her and smiled, and, at that very moment, he knew with utter certainty that he would spend the rest of his life with this woman."  (A thought, it must be noted, that occurred to Reilly while he and said woman were confronting a crazed murderer intent on killing them both.)

Worse, the characters are caricatures.  We have the beautiful divorcee archaeologist, trying to balance a career and caring for a child as a single mom.  We have the tough-yet-sensitive FBI man who we know from the moment of introduction is going to be the male love interest.  We have the has-been academic who has more or less gone crazy trying to reestablish his place in the world of scholarship.  Worst of all, we have the villain, a ninja priest who alternates pious talk with breaking people's fingers, and who was so obviously the bad guy right from the get-go that he might as well have worn a tag on his shirt saying, "Hello, My Name Is Father Evil McSatan," and who despite this gets to sit in on FBI meetings discussing the case.

And then said cast of characters start doing incredibly stupid and/or implausible things.  If there's one thing I hate, it's when I as a reader sit back and think, "Okay, there's no way that could happen."  It jerks me out of the story, reminds me that I'm reading fiction -- exactly what (as a writer) you wouldn't want.  And in The Last Templar, this happens every damn page.  Here is a short list of such events:
  • Three of the four horsemen who conduct the raid on the museum turn out to be small-time crooks who were hired for the job.  Only one has any knowledge of horses.  None are trained in handling medieval weaponry.  Despite this, they are able to ride their horses, in full chain mail, up steps into a museum full of people, behead one of the guards with a longsword, wreak havoc, steal stuff, and get away.
  • The FBI agent is able to have one of his men make an exact working replica of the rotor encoder -- using nothing but a photograph of the x-ray taken when the thing was brought through customs on its way into the United States from the Vatican.
  • The has-been scholar goes over to the archeologist's apartment, implying that if she doesn't bring certain documents she's stolen along with her, he's going to harm her mother and/or daughter.  The archaeologist thinks, "You know, I should let my FBI agent boyfriend know about this.  I really hate it when people in movies go blundering in when they could have told the police and gotten some back up."  Immediately afterwards, she goes blundering in without telling the police and getting some back up.
  • The ninja priest walks right into a hospital room where one of the four horsemen (now gravely injured) is being held, and despite the fact that the FBI were guarding the room and there were presumably some medical staff on duty, kills the guy and ninjas his way back out of the hospital without being seen.
  • Meanwhile, the tough-yet-sensitive FBI agent is chasing the beautiful divorcee archaeologist, who has decided to go to Turkey to pursue pieces of this puzzle.  He (1) gets into the boarding area without a boarding pass; (2) gets onto the plane without a boarding pass or a passport; and (3) somehow ends up in the seat right next to the archaeologist.  Once in Turkey, he passes through customs with no problem despite #1-3 above, and in fact, a Turkish guy shows up and offers them food, a tent, a car, and a gun, and basically tells them to have a nice time wandering around the Turkish countryside, and if they end up shooting anyone, well, you know, not to worry about it because that kind of stuff happens sometimes.
  • They find out that the archaeological site they're after is at the bottom of a man-made lake.  A guy nearby just happens to have scuba gear.  With no apparent prior knowledge of scuba, they dive 120 feet down, are able to find a stone that was placed there seven hundred years ago, pry it up, and pull out the miraculously undamaged leather pouch underneath.
  • In the middle of two storms (one coming down from the north and one coming up simultaneously from the south, because apparently that's the way weather works), they bring up the figurehead of a ship from the bottom of the Mediterranean that has also been there for seven hundred years, and out of a secret compartment in the figurehead, they extract a book, which is not only miraculously undamaged, but isn't even damp.
Okay, you get the picture.  This book makes Dan Brown's Angels and Demons sound plausible.  To quote the inimitable Dorothy Parker once again, "To call this plot wafer-thin would be an insult to wafer makers."

Want the kicker?  This book has been made into a made-for-TV miniseries, and was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 22 weeks.  This is the kind of thing that makes writers like me suspicious of how the whole big-name publishing industry works.  The fact that this poorly-edited, poorly-conceived, poorly-executed hash even got a contract in the first place is baffling, considering how many truly fine novels there are out there languishing in obscurity.

All right, enough with the screed.  I'm mostly mad at myself, honestly, for soldiering on for 523 pages to get to the ridiculous, contrived ending.  But I figure if I can warn one person away from making the same mistake I did, it's worth it.  At least the book was given to me -- I can't imagine how irritated I'd be if I'd paid $9 for a new paperback.  There are many better uses for $9, and in my opinion that includes using it to start a fire.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

What I'm reading (#16)

Knowing my interest in all things paranormal, a friend of mine recently gave me a copy of Christine Wicker's Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead, about the village (not so far away from where I live, actually) that is completely populated by Spiritualists.  Founded 120 years ago, it is the longest continuously occupied Spiritualist community in the United States, and is the home to dozens of self-styled mediums.

As anyone who follows my other blog, Skeptophilia, knows, writing about the paranormal when you're a skeptic yourself can put you on a tightrope between sounding credulous and sounding scornful.  I don't always walk that line so skillfully myself -- I have a regrettable tendency toward scorn -- but Wicker does an admirable job of presenting the mediums she interviews as interesting, sane humans, not dupes nor charlatans nor loons.  In the interviews she presents here, she does her very best to be fair both to the people into whose homes she was welcomed, and to the general principles of skepticism.


Interestingly, she is confronted over and over with the basic problem that most of us skeptics have with the paranormal; that it's unverifiable.  Like religion, evidence only gets you so far (in my opinion, not very far at all, actually), and after that, it becomes a matter of faith.  So if you don't have the faith to begin with, it becomes a frustrating matter of pulling yourself up by your own shoelaces -- which Wicker ultimately has to admit doesn't work for her.

So if you're hoping that reading Lily Dale will convince you of the truth of the afterlife, you'll come away disappointed.  Wicker meets a lot of faith-driven Spritualists in the little village -- and more than a few outright hoaxers.  But as an even-handed look at a community whose raison d'ĂȘtre is communicating with the spirits of the dead, it ranks right up there with Mary Roach's Spook as a thoughtful and entertaining read.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

What I'm reading (#15)

I love reading, and most of the books I start are at least pleasant reads and worth finishing.  But it is seldom that I pick up a book that completely blows me away.

I had that experience last week reading The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason.  This pair of authors -- who according to the back of the book, have been best pals since they were eight years old -- have turned out a book that has rocketed into my top ten reads ever.

No mean feat.

This story is about four friends at Princeton University -- introverted, academic Paul; outgoing athlete and pre-med student Charlie; worldly, wealthy Gil; and the narrator, Tom, who is torn between the world of academics and the practical world of jobs and friends and lovers.  Paul is working on interpreting the mysterious (real) document Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which dates to the Renaissance, and has never been decoded (if, indeed, it contains a hidden message, which some scholars doubt).   Studying the Hypnerotomachia -- the name means "Poliphilo's Struggle for Love in a Dream" -- destroyed the career of Tom's father, and Tom believes contributed to his early death in an automobile accident.


When Paul's obsession with the mysterious document embroils him with the nasty-tempered history professor Vincent Tate and the has-been academic Richard Curry, he is drawn into a web of scheming, backstabbing, and murder that eventually ensnares not only Paul, but his three friends.  The book gains momentum throughout, and by the end I was hoping like hell not to be interrupted so I could read "just one more page."

(True story: I had twenty pages left when I was told to put my book away because the plane I was on was getting ready to land.  When I found out that the person who was picking me up at the airport was going to be a half-hour late, I was elated, because it meant I could sit on a bench in the sunshine outside the terminal and finish the book.)

A review in the San Francisco Chronicle says that The Rule of Four is a cross between Umberto Eco, The DaVinci Code, and A Separate Peace.  It's an apt characterization.  It is also a complex, twisty, totally gripping tale, which has the additional frisson of being about an actual historical mystery that has never yet been solved.

In any case, I now have a new contender for my Top Ten Novels list.  But enough about that.  Stop reading this, and go buy this book.  You will not regret it.