Saturday, November 14, 2009

Dan Armstrong: Prarie Fire

Guest Review by Kit Bradley

September 20, 2009

Readers of my contributions to this blog, at least those with very good memories, will have noticed that I went a little crazy at the annual Authors and Artists Fair (benefiting the Eugene Public Library) in December of 2007 and bought eight books written by local authors. I bought Prairie Fire by Dan Armstrong that day, and then gave it away as a Christmas present, intending to borrow it back and read it. This summer I met Dan at another fair and bought a sequel to Prairie Fire, and that prompted me to finally borrow the book back and read it.

Wow! This is a great novel! After the first fourth or so, the action picks up, and it becomes very hard to put the book down. I think the typical novel goes through about three quarters of the book building up background elements for the story, and then builds to an exciting climax in the last quarter. Prairie Fire is the opposite; the story is set in the first quarter, and the excitement builds up and holds for the rest of the book.

Dan Armstrong no doubt has a political agenda in writing this book. In the story we are very concerned about the damage industrial farming is doing to the land, the political efforts to control global oil supplies, the ability of industry to influence government in furthering its agenda, the free-wheeling antics of the CIA, and the list goes on. In Prairie Fire, however, there is an also all-inclusive sense. Republicans and Democrats collaborate, environmentalists and right-wing militia work side-by-side. On the other hand, while the government, the military, the CIA, and big industry have somewhat complimentary agendas, they are not as visibly cooperating.

Prairie Fire is a story about grain and oil, and it has a bunch of sub-plots that develop over the story. Linda Bennett is a political columnist who is investigating government, financial, and industry handling of various oil and grain issues. Ex-Colonel Nathaniel Cromwell is a highly awarded military hero who has returned to a quiet life of farming. Linda is attractive and single; Nate is handsome and single; you just have to assume something will come of that.

Early in the story Forest Mahan, president of the national farmers’ grange, talks Nate into leading a new farmers’ union, which will immediately make some demands to the agriculture industry and the government. They are prepared for a radical strike if need be. And General Vincent Hayes, head of the Montana Militia (with links to all the states), agrees to provide the sort of support his militia can uniquely give.

There are quite a few other players and sub-plots, which keep the story more complex and interesting. James Kenaghy, the President of the United States, is important to the story, but he is so powerless in Washington that we continually wonder about his ability to deliver. Kenaghy was elected to office with a popular liberal mandate, but in three and a half years he has been out-maneuvered and out-voted by the power interests in Washington.

As the story proceeds, there are successes and disasters. The good guys are sometimes smart, sometimes not. The CIA is never far from the surface and is uncannily prescient. Warning: There are some very X-rated scenes.

Prairie Fire is a very timely book, and as I read it, I felt like most of the story could really happen, indeed, parts may be happening right now. Our current president was elected with a popular liberal mandate. Is he succeeding? Or is the Washington power structure fully in control, running the country for the benefit of big industry? (Think about health care reform.) This added to my motivation to keep reading the book. And to check out Dan Armstrong’s website ( to see what else he has to say (a lot).

When is the movie coming out?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

David Wroblewki: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski is a pretty impressive first novel. In many ways it is not my kind of book, not the least of which is that it is an Oprah’s Book Club selection. That’s normally too artsy, emotional for me.

But I was attracted by the story line. Edgar Sawtelle is growing up on a farm in Northern Wisconsin where his family breeds dogs. Edgar was born mute, and communicates with his parents and the dogs through sign language. As things urn bad at home, Edgar runs off into the woods with three young dogs. While there, he has to learn to take responsibility for himself and his actions.

The dogs are pretty special. They are not any specific breed. They seem to be a cross of many dogs that demonstrate characteristics that Edgar’s grandfather or father like. The resulting dogs are very intelligent, and take training extremely well. They are very well socialized. The description of the rigorous training is impressive. Obviously, I did not work that hard training my golden Retriever.

Edgar’s uncle, Claude, returns to the farm where he grew up with Edgar’s father, Gar. They seem to have a very strained relationship. I’m not giving away more than the dust cover when I say that Gar dies. That’s pretty tough on Edgar, but things get worse when Claude starts showing romantic interest in Edgar’s mother, Trudy.

As the story unfolds, it’s always difficult to tell if we are getting the “narrator’s truth”, or an adolescent boy’s perspective. And every now and then we get a chapter from the perspective of one of the dogs.

The story is well written and captivating. Edgar and his dogs are entirely believable. It’s sometimes hard to decide if Claude is evil, but Edgar certainly believes he is.

Although The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is well written and convincing, it is far from a light hearted romp. It’s a good book, but I needed something fun when I was done reading it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dan Brown: Angels & Demons

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
July 8, 2009

I bought Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons a couple years ago but never got around to reading it. Now that the movie is out, I decided to read it right away. I’m now looking forward to seeing the movie and comparing it to the book.

As the story starts, some violently explosive “antimatter” has been stolen from CERN, a physics lab in Switzerland, and the scientist that created it is murdered. (Years ago I visited CERN and gave a product presentation to that famous research institution!)

Anyway, since the dead scientist was branded with a strange symbol, Robert Langdon, a famous symbologist, has been called to CERN to help discover who did it. It appears the Illuminati are responsible, but Robert, an expert in such things, thought the Illuminati faded out of existence a couple centuries ago.

The Illuminati are an ancient fellowship of scientists dating back to Galileo, and they have always been antagonistic to the Catholic Church, which they believe is anti-science. Faith and science are frequently contrasted throughout this book.

Well, we learn that the Illuminati are planning to use the antimatter to blow up the Vatican in less than 24 hours, so Robert and Vittoria Vetra (the daughter of the murdered scientist, his new side kick) jet off to Rome for the rest of the story.

Robert, Vittoria, and security people from the Vatican now chase all around Rome looking for clues that will help them catch up with the Illuminati “hassassin,” a really bad guy. Robert is very knowledgeable, but working under pressure he needs a high dosage of luck to succeed. Predictably he solves the puzzles, but not always fast enough. At first he is trying to save the lives of several cardinals, and later he is trying to save the whole Vatican. I don’t think he contributed very much, but at least he kept the action going. Vittoria didn’t add a lot either, although not surprisingly she got into a fix that required heroic action from Robert to save her.

By the way, I was never able to form a clear image of Robert Langdon in my imagination. I kept seeing Tom Hanks.

As the story nears its climax, we get a surprising twist that explains a lot of things, but the 24-hour deadline is fast approaching, and the Vatican is likely to be destroyed. How far will Dan Brown go in his story telling? Can he get away with killing high-level Catholics? Can he blow up the Vatican? You’ll have to read the book (or see the movie).

As thrillers go, Angels & Demons didn’t captivate me. Early in the book you could deduce and summarize the rest of the plot. At each mini-crisis the good guys and bad guys had predictable successes and/or failures. And I figured Dan Brown would never blow up the Vatican, so I thought I knew the ending. Of course there was that plot twist near the end…

Also the characters felt shallow and didn’t grow on me. Except the hassassin, who was very dedicated in his evilness.

Angels & Demons is a good story, somewhat more complex than I’ve summarized here, but it’s not a book I’ll be in a hurry to read again.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Scott Turow: Reversible Errors

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
May 25, 2009

I don’t seem to settle on a favorite type of book, so this time it’s a legal thriller. I’d read Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow years ago, and I was a little surprised to find Turow’s Reversible Errors on my to-read bookshelf recently. It has a sticker on the back identifying it as an “ Bargain Book.” It must have caught my eye once. Well, fortunately it was a good read!

I’ve read a few complex novels with dozens of characters and multiple story lines, where I sure wished the book included a summary of the significant characters. (Some Neil Stephenson novels come to mind.) Well, Reversible Errors has only one story and only a handful of characters, but they are all listed just ahead of page 1. So there’s no excuse for forgetting who Genevieve is! Actually there is one character missing from the list. I wondered why for quite a while.

In summary, Rommy Gandolph was sentenced to death for a triple murder in 1991, and in 2001 he is making his very last appeal. Arthur Raven has been court-appointed to represent Gandolph, and Gillian Sullivan, the judge in the 1991 trial, gets involved, but not in that role. On the other side, Muriel Wynn, the prosecutor in 1991, and Larry Starczek, the detective who arrested Gandolph in 1991, come back to defend the original conviction.

As the story unfolds, Erno Erdai, another convict who knew Gandolph in 1991, comes forward at the last minute and asserts Gandolph is innocent. But do you believe someone like Erdai? The story takes us step by step through revelations from the various characters that help us learn what actually happened on that Fourth of July night in 1991 when three people were murdered. It’s a good story with a reasonable (albeit not “thrilling”) ending.

But wait, that’s perhaps less than half of the excitement and tension in Reversible Errors. The observant reader might have noted I listed two male/female pairs above – Arthur and Gillian on the defense side, and Muriel and Larry on the prosecuting side. Aha, will there be chemistry between them? Arthur has always been sort of geeky and unsuccessful in relating with women. Gillian has personal problems that have kept her out of relationships. Muriel and Larry have been hot for each other for years, but Muriel has ambitions and married a man that will help her succeed. And Larry has a faithful and overly patient wife. Did they or will they make the right choices?

The attraction between Arthur and Gillian, and Muriel and Larry, builds as the story goes on, and often overshadows the fate of poor Gandolph. Eventually we reach two emotional climaxes, each quite different in style and outcome. And then their lives go on, either on new paths or on the same old paths. You’ll have to read the book to see if Gandolph’s life goes on.

It’s a good story. The characters are well developed and act out their roles as you’d expect. You get to think like a cop, and like a lawyer, and like a prosecutor, and sometimes like a judge. I’ll read more Turow novels if they come my way. (And now I’m going to quickly read Angels and Demons while it’s still timely! It’s been sitting on my to-read shelf for quite a while.)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

John Grisham: The Associate

Kyle McAvoy is the top law student at Yale at the beginning of John Grisham’s new book, The Associate. As he is ready to graduate, an unpleasant episode from his drunken undergraduate years surfaces. Although Kyle’s involvement was more embarrassing than criminal, he would like to keep it buried.

So Kyle succumbs to blackmail and accepts a job in New York at the world’s largest law firm. His mission? To worm his way onto the biggest lawsuit of the times, and steal privileged client information.

The background story is of Kyle and other young associates grinding through long hours of tedium, generating unconscionable hours of billable time, at outrageously high salaries. Boredom and burnout are at astronomical levels among associate lawyers trying to make partner. But Grisham does not make the job of Partner at a large law firm sound much better. I think we finally see why he writes novels instead of practicing law.

The foreground story is much more exciting. Can Kyle find a way out of his predicament? If he does what the bad guys want, can he avoid getting caught, disbarred, and maybe sent to prison? If he refuses, will he be disgraced, disbarred, and become an embarrassment to his family? Or is there a third way?

The first two choices would lead to short boring books. So naturally there is a third way. Kyle is feeling his way through the minefields. We learn his partial plans as fast as he thinks of them. He doesn’t know where his ideas will lead, and neither do we. But the longer he can avoid a full ethical breach, the longer he can keep his options open.

As I read The Associate I found myself thinking that full and open honesty up front sounds like the path of least resistance in the long run. But by not taking that route, Kyle McAvoy took us for a good ride. Grisham still delivers a great story, and this one is above his average.