Sunday, December 21, 2008

Jim Fay & Charles Fay: Love and Logic Magic® for Early Childhood

I’ve got a three-year-old granddaughter living with me. That can raise the occasional (or frequent) challenge. My wife’s school (she’s a teacher) has been offering “Love and Logic” training to their parents this year. She thought the program looked interesting. So we ordered some of the materials from the Love and Logic Institute. I’ve watched the first DVD, and just completed reading Love and Logic Magic® for Early Childhood by Jim Fay and Charles Fay.

I am by no means an expert from having read the book – would that it were so. But the Fay’s actually expect me to change things in how I respond to my granddaughter before I can expect any improvements. The book is short and simple, with a great deal of repetition. The Fay’s make their points with great clarity.

The “Love and Logic” program described in the book offers four principles in dealing with children:
• Build the self-concept.
• Share the control or decision-making.
• Offer empathy, then consequences.
• Share the thinking and problem-solving.
They also offer two rules:
1. Take care of yourself by setting limits in a loving way.
2. Turn every mistake or misbehavior into a learning opportunity.

As you can imagine, the book elaborates on these principles and rules far more than I will. A very simplistic shorthand is that we should empathize with our children for the consequences that are about to befall them, and that we should never let them see us angry or frustrated. They give countless examples of their recommendations working. They also give countless dire examples of the failures of people who fail to follow their advice.

The subtitle of this book is Practical Parenting from Birth to Six Years. The promise is that if we follow their advice, we will have loving, responsible, respectful teenagers. What a goal! The threat is that if we take the wrong path at this age, we will live with monsters as teenagers. Although I assume my granddaughter will go home before becoming a teenager, I don’t want to send back a monster.

I started the book three days ago, so I’ve barely dabbled in putting it into practice. I’ve been giving my granddaughter lots more choices. This morning she got to pick which jogging suit to wear. Tonight she got to choose her water glass. She’s had lots of choices like putting on shirt or pants first, or doing it herself or having me help. I’ve given her a lot of hugs and empathy before consequences drop. And I hope to get better after my wife finishes the book and explains things to me more.

Overall I’m pleased with Love and Logic Magic® for Early Childhood. In limited application, I think my granddaughter is responding well to its lessons.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

John Grisham: Skipping Christmas

I read Skipping Christmas by John Grisham many years ago. Probably in 2001 when it first came out. I remembered the basic story line, especially after being reminded by watching previews for Christmas with the Kranks. The movie previews turned me off on the prospect of a re-read. Plus I remembered that there were aspects of the book I did not like. But this year I thought, “It’s Christmas! Why not?”

Luther and Nora Krank’s daughter, Blair, goes to Peru with the Peace Corps a month before Christmas. Luther is a tax accountant, a notoriously unsentimental profession. He calculates that last year they spent $6,100 on Christmas for too much to eat, too much to drink, and gifts no one wanted. They also are under pressure and fight over decorating, last minute shopping, and all the other stress factor of Christmas. With Blair gone, why go through it all? For half the price and none of the hassle they can go on a 10-day Caribbean cruise. So why not go someplace warm? Why not skip Christmas?

Luther convinces Nora, and the book is on. But skipping Christmas is not so easy in the Krank’s town. Their neighborhood is proud of its success in Christmas decorating contests. Luther’s undecorated home sticks out badly. Police and Firemen don’t like hearing about skipping the whole things while they are selling calendars and fruitcakes to help the needy. Luther’s co-workers are alternately envious and upset about his plan to skip the office parties and other trappings of the season. But Nora’s friends are just horrified.

The first half of the book is a pretty harsh look at the commercialization and petty bickering of the modern American Christmas. And I felt pretty glad not to live in Luther’s neighborhood. There were sparks of humor, although some was dark humor. Mainly, I did not like the bickering between Nora and Luther.

But around the middle of the book, Luther’s plans go awry. And the humor and Christmas spirit picks up. Yesterday, I found myself chucking while reading in line at the Post Office. This morning I caught myself laughing out loud while reading alone in the house.

Skipping Christmas is not a typical Grisham novel – it’s a Christmas book. But Grisham is a good writer, so it’s a good Christmas book. It’s a short, easy read in the busy season. By the end, it puts you in a good mood. And it was well worth my time on the re-read.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Daniel Silva: Moscow Rules

How refreshing! After just two more serious books, it felt good to read another fun, hard-to-put-down story. If you don’t know Gabriel Allon, then you have never read Daniel Silva. Allon is an art restorer, restoring great masters paintings in various settings around Europe. He’s the best, and he loves it. But he never uses the name Allon when he is working on old paintings.

Gabriel Allon got his start with Israeli intelligence as part of the elite assassination team that tracked down and killed all the terrorists involved in the Munich Olympics massacre. His boss form those days, Ari Shamron, keeps calling him back, book after book, to deal with some crisis requiring his special skills.

In Moscow Rules, an independent Russian journalist has information he wants to pass to the West. But he will talk to no one but Gabriel Allon (who made the mistake of getting his name in the paper in a previous book). I don’t think I’m tipping the story too much to say that the journalist is killed while Allon is setting up the meet. Obviously, he did not get his message through, but Shamron and Allon are both convinced it was important.

It turns out that independent journalist in Russia is a very hazardous profession. Three are attacked in this book alone. It is especially dangerous to cross Ivan Kharkov, an unscrupulous arms dealer, bent on making as much money as possible from unused Soviet munitions. Generally he sells to Third World countries – either the government or the rebels – but now he may have an especially dangerous shipment destined for al-Qaeda.

Allon goes to Russia to learn what the journalist failed to tell him. While there, he operates under “Moscow Rules”, chief of which is, “Never look back. You are never completely alone.” Essentially the rules say that everyplace you are is bugged, everyone you meet is a counter-spy agent, everywhere you go you are being followed. So, challenging as it is, run your operation accordingly.

As the plot unfolds, Allon works with an expanding team, including Israeli, American, British, and French agencies. He gets much better cooperation than anyone in a Le Carré novel could ever hope for. But the situation remains complex and dangerous.

Gabriel Allon is a likeable character. I enjoy his reluctance to be drawn back into the fray balanced against his obvious expertise when he is. And I also like the fact that he is not an infallible super-hero. He does get into trouble. He does need help.

Gabriel Allon develops as a character across his many novels. But Silva does a good job keeping the books stand-alone. In Moscow Rules, we see occasional references back to successful operations from previous books. The references add a touch of depth, but are in no way critical to the current story. But mentioning many of them could tend to reveal some outcome from a previous book.

I loved the pure adrenaline rush of accompanying Gabriel Allon through the pages of Moscow Rules.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wilcomb E. Washburn: Red Man's Land - White Man's Law

I bought Red Man’s Land – White Man’s Law by Wilcomb E. Washburn before going into the Army in 1971. It has languished on my bookshelves, or in a box, ever since. At the time, my intentions toward non-fiction were much greater than my actions. At the same time I bought (and read) Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I had thought Washburn’s book would be another look at American history from the Native American perspective.

It turns out that Red Man’s Land – White Man’s Law is more a “current affairs” sort of book. And I waited 37 years to read it. Oops! Think of waiting 37 years to read Friedman’s The World is Flat, or Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Big mistake.

Actually, the book does have a lot of historical background, although at a summary level. His “Theoretical Assumptions” chapter gives a pretty good view of the religious underpinnings of European attitudes toward Native Americans in the early years after discovery. As I read “From Discovery to Settlement” I found myself thinking how poorly the analysis stacked up to newer books like Charles C. Mann’s 1491, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, or David A Price’s Love and Hate in Jamestown. And his chapters on the Eighteen and Nineteenth centuries do not compare at all well with Allan W. Eckert’s contemporaneously written The Winning of America series. Of course Eckert used five 600 page books to tell the story of the Eighteenth and first third of the Nineteenth centuries.

Washburn goes to some effort to allay the “myth” that American’s unfairly stole land from Indian tribes. He points out that they were always meticulous in paying for land acquired through various treaties. I was stunned! As Eckert would point out, yes, they did always find someone to pay. But they did not always try hard to find someone with the authority to sell. From Washburn’s apparent perspective, you would be perfectly justified in buying my neighbor’s house from me, and be pleased with the bargain price I gave you.

Washburn does a good job describing the see-saw effect of vacillating federal policy toward the Native American tribes. Some years they were trying to destroy the tribes and assimilate the members. Others they were trying to bolster the tribal government. I had a pretty fair understanding of the creation of tribal rolls, allocation of individual plots, and sale of “surplus” lands that took place at the time of Oklahoma land-runs and statehood. I did not have as good a feel for the how the Indian lands were still held in trust by the federal government after allocation.

I was surprised to see the swings in policies taking place as recently as the Roosevelt (FDR), Kennedy, and Nixon administrations. Interestingly enough, Washburn showed a lot of optimism for the changes planned by Nixon. He showed a very strong (pre-Watergate) appreciation for Nixon. But this was where my mistake in waiting so long to read the book really came home hard. I’ve got a whole string of 37-year-old unresolved issues. I know they’ve been resolved, and probably reversed a time or two. But I don’t know how they really came out.

One area of Washburn’s book really struck me as hilarious. (Not that he meant it to be.) He makes a big point of a significant segment of White America adopting Indian values. He points to the growing movement of Hippie Communes sprouting in the Southwest, often in close proximity to Native American communities. Funny, I think of Hippie Communes as a silly anecdote in recent history, not a major social movement.

Much of my negative feeling toward Red Man’s Land – White Man’s Law is my own fault. I obviously waited way too long. But it also makes me question the value of saving other “current affairs” books for very long. I should probably try to find the 1995 Second Edition, both to see how Nixon’s policies worked out, and to give Washburn to same opportunity to apply hindsight that I used in reading his book.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

John Le Carré: A Most Wanted Man

As I was reading A Most Wanted Man, I kept asking myself, “Why do I keep reading Le Carré?” John Le Carrré’s books certainly are not as much fun as David Baldacci’s. Any yet, he has the reputation as being the premier writer of espionage fiction. In hindsight, it occurs to me that I enjoy about half of Le Carré’s stuff. I bought A Most Wanted Man because I was interested in seeing Le Carré’s take on the “War on Terror”.

In A Most Wanted Man, we see the interactions among several interesting characters. Issa Karpov is a Muslim, in Hamburg illegally, taken in by a Turkish family, who happen to be trying to achieve German citizenship. Annabel Richter is a civil rights lawyer who works for Sanctuary North, an organization dedicated to the protection of stateless and displaced persons in northern Germany. Tommy Brue is the senior banker in the British bank, Brue Frères operating in Hamburg. Günther Bachmann heads the Foreign Acquisitions Unit of Hamburg’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Issa appears to be devout, naïve, young, and innocent. He also bears obvious scars of torture. It turns out he is the Chechen son of a Russian Army officer. He has apparently been in prison in both Russia and Turkey. How did he end up in Hamburg? How could an innocent young man get across the numerous borders involved?

Annabel contacts Tommy on Issa’s behalf. Apparently Issa’s father had deposited considerable cash, of questionable origin, with Brue Frères through Tommy now deceased father. Is the bank complicit in money laundering? Is Annabel perpetrating a blackmail scheme? What does Issa want to fund? Annabel’s last client was deported to certain torture and death. To what lengths will she go to avoid a repeat of that outcome?

Günther’s organization is caught up in a power struggle between the Federal Police and the Federal Foreign Intelligence Service. Who will take primacy in the “War on Terror”? Will the new Joint Steering Committee be effective, or just a new forum for in-fighting?

The international community has a warrant out for Issa. Günther finds him. Günther’s background leads him in the direction of wanting to recruit agents-in-place, to gain intelligence on terrorist plans. Other factions are more interested in headline grabbing arrests. What are British and American agents doing on German soil? Who is in charge?

All these conflicting issues intertwine throughout the story in A Most Wanted Man. Le Carré leads us to a believable conclusion.

There is something about Le Carré’s writing style that can grate on me some. And to a large extent, I really don’t care what happens to all his characters. He doesn’t get me emotionally involved. So A Most Wanted Man is not that much fun. It is not a hard-to-put-down, gripping page-turner.

But in the week since I finished the book, I cannot stop thinking about it. I cannot stop thinking about what the US and its allies are doing in the “War on Terror”. Are we doing the right thing? That’s probably why I keep reading Le Carré. His books leave you thinking. And that’s a good thing.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gore Vidal: Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
November 23, 2008

Over the years I’ve been attracted to books on the formation of our nation and biographies of the leaders who did it. I’ve been intriqued by that period in our history when a few dedicated people were able to do such apparently great things. Given what I’ve seen of national-level leaders and politicians over the last few decades, it seems almost miraculous that a group of intelligent and well-intentioned men were available at the time our budding nation most needed them. So when I saw Inventing a Nation on the table at Costco a few years ago, I had to take it home. It looked like a book I’d want to read.

The book sat on my to-be-read shelf for a while, and eventually I started it. I got through 75 pages and found myself confused and bored. Perhaps it’s because I often read myself to sleep at night, and this book is too highbrow to be read that way. So I lost interest and set the book aside…until I picked it up again a couple weeks ago, this time committed to finishing it. I started over on page one.

Well, this is not a history book, at least not what I expected. It’s a 189 page rambling essay on our founding fathers, focused on the presidencies of Washington and Adams. It describes the aspirations and relationships of a dozen or so prominent men of that period, including Hamilton, Madison, and Marshall. Through the narrative we learn of their conflicting convictions, which led to the formation of political parties—concurrent with the birth of our constitutional government. The Federalists (led by Hamilton) wanted an expansive central government and were pretty much ready for war with whoever seemed aggressive at the moment—France, England, Spain. (You can always make more heroes and money during a time of war.) The Republicans (led by Jefferson) focused more on holding the central government to the constraints of the Constitution and protecting citizens’ rights. A key conflict arose after the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 by the Federalists. The Republicans saw that as violating the first amendment right of free speech, and they fought to overturn it.

This was indeed a period of exploring and inventing. How does the chief executive relate to the houses of Congress? How does the Supreme Court relate to the other two branches? The Constitution says who declares wars, but how does it really work? Vidal gives us a view into the personalities and relationships of the men feeling their way into a new realm. For the most part I found his descriptions to be not very complimentary, although he was more forgiving of Washington’s faults.

Throughout the book Vidal injects comparisons to government and politics in the twenty-first century. Today’s Republicans are sort of like the Federalists, and today’s Democrats like the early Republicans. Our founding fathers seemed to be working to their own agendas, gathering support behind the scenes, and sometimes acting duplicitously. Hamilton, for example, tried to lead President Adams’ cabinet to war with France, while Adams found other means to thwart Hamilton. Vidal implies things haven’t changed much today.

Inventing a Nation was a little hard for me to read, even when I was wide-awake. Vidal rambles a lot, although he sticks more or less to the timeline of the first twelve years of our Constitution-based government. There are a lot of backwards references to what I had read already, but maybe forgot. And I needed to have (but didn’t) a dictionary by my side as I read the book.

Did I get what I expected out of Inventing a Nation? Vidal portrays our earliest politicians as not a lot different than today’s leaders. Perhaps human nature hasn’t changed much in the last 200 years. Perhaps the true success was the work of a few truly altruistic leaders—Jefferson, Franklin, others—who set the stage for the Constitution and our new government. But that’s not what this book was about. It was the story of a bunch of very human men figuring out how to get our nation rolling. I guess they succeeded.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Alan Siporin: Fire's Edge

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
November 16, 2008

Hannah is a middle-aged white school teacher, who happens to be Jewish. Fil is some sort of investigative researcher, who happens to be black. Billy (“The Kid”) is a teenager, a Nazi skinhead who hates everyone, including his friends. These three meet by chance in a Portland, Oregon courthouse, and the encounter would have led to violence if there weren’t so many police around. The story line, such as it is, develops in Portland and moves to the Cascade foothills of southern Oregon. But Fire’s Edge is less a story than a book about hate crime and its perpetrators and victims.

And that made it hard to read. Every time I turned a page, I was worried something awful was going to happen. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t.

The book paints an ugly picture of the living conditions and attitudes of a class of people who have very little in life beyond an automatic hatred for everyone who isn’t just like themselves. Animosity and violence could erupt from any encounter—no matter how trivial and innocent. Billy is one scary kid, with no ability to control his emotions, and with a street fighting capacity greater than most of the tough adults in his world.

Hannah, on the other hand, is a good middle class citizen, a good schoolteacher, and a lover of the outdoors. Oregon suits her. Fil is a Eugene counter-culture sort of guy who is investigating Nazi hate groups and their activities. These are nice people, but how will they fare as the story line moves to rural Oregon?

Well, things happen, good and bad. I’m not sure what Siporin had in mind with his choice of “Fire’s Edge” for a title, but to me it fits. These people and their friends are unintentionally living on an edge. Some are leading comfortable and constructive lives, and some are leading pretty bad lives, but things can change for any of them without much warning. That edge tension made this book unsettling and hard for me to read.

Why, then, did I read it? Alan Siporin is another of the authors I met a year ago at the Eugene Library Authors and Artists benefit fair. We chatted about the problems of hate crime in the Pacific Northwest, and I bought the book. I felt I should learn more about this aspect of the community I live in. Thank goodness it doesn’t seem to come too close to home. We have quite a variety of types of neighbors in our rural Oregon locale, but every one of them seems pretty friendly. I’m not too worried. But I’m not black, Jewish, gay, disabled, female, elderly, or foreign in any way. And I’ve got a shotgun, assault rifle, and three handguns stashed around the house. (At least that’s what I hope the bad guys think.)

David Baldacci: Divine Justice

I started David Baldacci’s Divine Justice, and six pages into it I felt like I was missing important background. Well, duh! It picks it seconds after Stone Cold ends. We literally start with the first breath Oliver Stone takes following the end of the last book. So it’s going to be hard to say very much without spoiling the last book. I went back and re-read the whole series from the beginning.

I think it is fair to say that Oliver Stone has problems – perhaps more than even he can handle. But he does not want to drag his friends down with him, so he leaves the Camel Club behind and goes on the run by himself. Ultimately he ends up in the small coal-mining town of Divine, Virginia. (Hence the title of the book.) He gets involved with some interesting characters in Divine, and discovers that something sinister seems to be going on. He is drawn into the mystery and the corresponding dangers.

Baldacci excels at intertwining multiple story lines. So we meet Joe Knox, an expert at finding people for the government. He is tasked to find Oliver, but is pretty sure that when he does, General Macklin Hayes will send in a new team that will not bring Oliver to trial. And Hayes is so ruthless, Knox is more afraid of him than he is of the man he is tracking.

Oliver’s friends in the Camel Club are determined to help, regardless of his wishes. They don’t know how to find him, so instead they start to follow Joe Knox. Annabelle pulls off some delightful little scams, Reuben is his normal big, intimidating self, and Caleb shows some surprising talent as a wheel man. Everyone is pretty sure that Oliver has committed some serious crimes. Most of his friends don’t care, but Alex Ford is torn between his friendship and his sworn duties as a law officer (Secret Service).

As always, Baldacci’s multiple story lines mesh well. His new characters are either good fits with the Camel Club, or really nasty folks. His returning characters continue to develop in rational and satisfying ways.

Divine Justice is a delightful continuation (maybe conclusion) of the Oliver Stone series. I just loved it. Baldacci has done a really good job ending each volume at a clean and satisfying point. So you can stop reading at any point. (Why would you want to?) But the books do not start cleanly. So for heaven’s sakes, start at the beginning! Otherwise you will never really know who all these people are, and what’s going on.

David Baldacci: Stone Cold - Again

I read (and reviewed - Stone Cold by David Baldacci when it first came out. I enjoyed it, but I can’t believe I read it without first re-reading The Collectors. Big mistake! Stone Cold picks up a few days after The Collectors leaves off.

We meet Harry Finn, a really fascinating character. He is a doting father and husband who tries to never miss a school or sports event with his kids. His career involves elaborate, and successful penetration tests on contract to Homeland Security. And in the rest of his free time he is killing former CIA operatives.

Carter Gray was a pretty unsavory character in The Camel Club, but Oliver Stone dealt with him. Gray sees an opportunity to salvage his political/power career in this third book. In doing so, he makes life difficult for Oliver and his friends.

As I said in my first review Annabelle Conroy is back with her nemesis on her trail. Baldacci does a good job intertwining her problems with Oliver’s. In doing so, he brings the Secret Service agent, Alex Ford back into the story.

I think I may have enjoyed Stone Cold on the re-read more than the first read. I’m sure that’s because I had the continuing story clearly in mind.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

David Baldacci: The Collectors

The Collectors by David Baldacci is the second Oliver Stone novel. He is still the leader of the Camel Club, a group of conspiracy theorists. And they are all still about as quirky as before. This book includes memories back to the first book, The Camel Club. Those memories add richness to the characters, but are not critical to the plot. So it would be OK to read this book without first reading The Camel Club. On the other hand, why not start at the beginning?

In The Collectors we get to know Caleb Shaw much better. A lot of the plot takes place at the Library of Congress, where Caleb works in the Rare Books reading room. Jonathon DeHaven is (or was) the Director of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division, and Caleb’s boss. Caleb finds his body in one of the vaults, and the story is on. As a book lover, I enjoy seeing the Library of Congress worked into a thriller. As the son of a librarian, I’m pleased to say that no rare books are seriously damaged in the development of the plot.

A parallel story line introduces a new character, Annabelle Conroy. She is an expert con artist setting up “two shorts and a long”. We watch as she recruits a team, and runs two short cons to raise funds for a big score. The target of the long con is Jerry Bagger, the extremely dangerous and nasty owner of an Atlantic City casino. Annabelle is trying to take Bagger for enough money to hurt. But what she really wants is revenge for Bagger’s killing her mother years ago.

The con artist story is a great story. Then it gets better as Baldacci draws Annabelle into the Oliver Stone story, as US secrets are being sold, and bodies are dropping. It is interesting to see how much Annabelle and Oliver have in common, one as a con artist, one as a former government operative. They keep impressing one another, but are also reluctant to reveal their pasts.

Alex Ford, Oliver’s Secret Service friend comes back for a small, but critical role in this story. Baldacci spins a complex plot for Oliver and his friends to navigate, or perhaps more accurately, to try to survive.

The Collectors comes to a solid, satisfying conclusion to the main plot lines. In other words, we are not left dangling waiting for the next volume. So the book can stand on it’s own. But there is still an unresolved issue. As it turns out, it is prominent in the next book, Stone Cold.

I had planned to take a break from Oliver and his friends by reading new ones from Le Carré and Silva, but I can’t.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

David Baldacci: The Camel Club

I got six pages into David Baldacci’s latest Oliver Stone novel – Divine Justice. But I just felt that I was missing something. It seemed to be assuming that I should remember information from the previous episode (Stone Cold). So I backed off and decided to reread from the start.

Oliver Stone and his friends are introduced in The Camel Club. They are four friends who believe in government conspiracies, and believe that citizen vigilance can make a difference, and joined together as the Camel Club to watch. Oliver Stone has a permanent protest permit, and has maintained a tent in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House. He has been there long enough for the Secret Service to consider him essentially harmless. Agent Alex Ford has even gone so far as to enjoy playing chess with him.

Oliver has a hidden past under a different name. In that past he was very good at things he no longer believes in. That past help fuel his distrust of the government.

The basic premise of the book is that even conspiracy theorists can occasionally stumble across a real conspiracy. In this case, The Camel Club accidentally witnesses a murder that is intended to look like a suicide. Unfortunately for them, the killers know they’ve been seen. All the members of the club are quirky, and realize no one will believe them – except of course the killers that are now searching for them. Oliver leads them on the aggressive path of trying to uncover the killers, rather than simply trying to hide.

The dead man had a loose connection to the Secret Service, so Alex Ford gets involved in the investigation, although he is inclined to believe the suicide findings. Oliver gets him wondering if there is more.

As the story unfolds the murder leads to a much larger conspiracy involving high levels of America’s anti-terrorism forces. And we learn more about Oliver’s past. His old skills become critical in unraveling the conspiracy, and in keeping the club members alive.

Some books with the same characters are unabashed sequels in a series – like Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle or John Twelve Hawks’ Fourth Realm Trilogy. Others can be pretty stand-alone, like Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher stories. But others, like Rowling’s Harry Potter books, depend on the characters and backgrounds evolving across the volumes. The Oliver Stone books fall into thins last category. I like any of these approaches, but I do not like picking up a book when I never knew, or have forgotten the back story.

I like Baldacci’s stories and characters well enough that I do not object to his continuing the story line. But that’s largely because I have read them from the beginning. And as I’ve just confirmed with The Camel Club, I still like them on the re-read.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Katherine Neville: The Fire

I’ve been looking forward to reading The Fire by Katherine Neville since hearing that she was writing a sequel to The Eight. In preparation, I re-read The Eight ( ), and I think I’m glad I did. In the sequel we don’t get a lot of background on the Montglane Service or The Game, but both are important to the story. Again we have two intertwined narratives, taking place in 2003 and the 1820s.

It’s hard to say too much about The Fire without revealing tidbits from The Eight. I’ll try to limit the damage, but some points are too fundamental to the sequel. So, if you have not read The Eight and plan to ---- STOP!

Alexadra Solarin is the daughter of Catherine Velis and Alexander Solarin, key players from the first book. (And you now know they get together by the end of the first book.) Alexandra is invited to her mother’s birthday party, along with a surprising list of other characters. All seem to have a role in a new awakening of The Game. Most surprising is having a party at all. Catherine Velis’ birthdate figured prominently in her participation in The Game, and so she has refused to acknowledge it in any way. Anther surprise is that when Alexandra and the guests arrive, Cathering Velis has disappeared.

Back to 1822, Kauri and Haidée are entrusted with smuggling one of the chess pieces out of Albania, just before Ali Pasha is crushed by the forces of the Ottoman Empire. Just how this piece came to be in Islamic hands after being hidden in Monglane Abbey for a thousand years is unclear. Kauri and Haidée are captured by corsairs before they can deliver the piece to Haidée’s natural father, the British Poet, Lord Byron. Charlot (Mireille’s son from The Eight) joins the adventure in rescuing Haidée and the chess piece.

Meanwhile, back in the twentieth century, Alexandra returns to her job tending fire at a fancy restaurant in Washington, DC. Suddenly, it appears that her boss, the Basque nationalist, Rodo, is also involved in the maneuverings. It turns out to by significant that Monglane Abbey, located in the Pyrenees, was located in the French portion of the Basque homeland.

In The Eight we sometimes had trouble telling who was on the White team, and who was on the Black team. But White was bad, and Black was good. In The Fire, we still have trouble telling who is White and who is Black, but good guys and bad guys seem to be intermingled between the teams. What’s that all about?

The Eight bounced between the 1790s and the 1970s. But by the end of the book, there did not appear to be any secrets from the 1790s that were not know to Catherine Velis in the 1970s. But The Fire introduces information from the 1820s that is only resolved in 2003. I kept feeling that the 1820s information really should have been included in the resolution of The Eight. It just felt inconsistent to me.

It took three readings of The Eight before I finally started feeling that everything made some sense. After one reading, I do not feel that everything makes sense in The Fire. I was actually disappointed. I didn’t think the pieces fit together well, and I did not think the conclusion concluded well.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Frederick Forsyth: The Deceiver

I just re-read The Deceiver by Frederick Forsyth. Forsyth has been one of my favorite authors since Day of the Jackal came out in paperback as I was graduating from college. (I did not buy many hardbacks in those days.) I love the meticulous detail he goes through to explain, believably, everything that his characters do. (It may have been too much detail in Dogs of War, but I’ve lost my copy over the years, so can’t easily re-read to find out.)

The Deceiver may be a little less detail oriented than many of Forsyth’s books. But his plot lines are still intellectually complex. As I was reading this book, especially the first two parts, I was reminded of John Le Carré. In the espionage world, no one really knows everything that is going on. The book is really four short novellas, loosely connected by “interlude” pages. They work well together with a common protagonist. But they would have worked equally well with four different protagonists.

Sam McCready has been a field operator for the British Secret Intelligence Service. At some point a new desk was created – Deception, Disinformation, and Psychological Operations. In the vernacular of the service, the head of the desk was referred to as the Deceiver. McCready became that head.

With the end of the cold war, higher politicians saw a need to downsize the SIS. They specifically wanted to make a point in the downsizing by forcing McCready into early retirement. Not surprisingly, McCready did not feel that all the dangers of the world were ending with the demise of the Soviet Union. In a typically uncooperative, insubordinate vein, he insisted on a formal hearing as allowed by office regulations. McCready’s deputy and close supporter, Dennis Gaunt, spoke on his behalf, reviewing four specific cases from the files. Thus the four novellas.

In “Pride and Extreme Prejudice” we have a story of a Russian general – a long time agent – wanting to pass critical information across through a personal contact in East Germany. The KGB is strongly suspicious, but has not gotten solid evidence. McCready has been identified in the past, and is no longer allowed to cross into East Germany. So he must find someone else that the General will deal with. Complications ensue.

In “The Price of the Bride” a full colonel of the KGB, Pyotr Alexandrovitch Orlov defects to the Americans. He is giving a lot of information. But McCready has reason to suspect he is part of an elaborate disinformation plot. But how do you prove such a thing? The Americans are especially proud of their prize, and aren’t interested in British sour grapes.

“A Casualty of War” deals with IRA terrorists, and weapons supplied by Lybia’s Qaddafi. After the Americans bombed Tripoli, Qaddafi is out for revenge. He wants to hurt America at home, but also in England. He wants to hurt England as well because they allowed bombers based there to participate in the raid. If you want to hurt the British, who better to delegate the task to than the IRA? When the British get wind of the plan, they task McCready to stop the weapons before they can be delivered to the IRA. McCready in turn does some unexpected recruiting of his own to get an agent into the game to track the shipment.

“A Little Bit of Sunshine” is a delightful bit of fluff, not really representative of Forsyth (or Le Carré). It relies on too much coincidence and near omniscience on McCready’s part. But it is flat out fun. A small Caribbean island is approaching independence. The population does not really want to be independent, but the British cabinet does not like the expense of subsidizing them. There are two candidates for Prime Minister, one representing business and prosperity, the other representing the lower classes. Both are recent returnees to the island. Both have outside professional organizers that lean a lot to the thuggish side. The leading citizens are petitioning the Royal Governor to request a referendum on independence rather than an election for Prime Minister. Things start coming to a head when the Governor is murdered, and Sam McCready leaves his Caribbean vacation to change islands and look into things.

My only complaint about the book is that McCready did no deceiving. Gaunt is trying to protect his position as the Deceiver, but none of his examples show McCready involved in any kind of deception, disinformation, or psychological operation. He is a completely delightful character, and obviously very good in his line of work. I bet he could have done a really good job tricking someone. But we never see it.

The Deceiver is yet another in a long line of great Frederick Forsyth books. It is a little out of his norm, but I loved it all the same. As time permit, I need to re-read some of my other Forsyth books, or even to replace my long lost ones.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lee Child: The Enemy

In my continuing effort to understand the source of Jack Reacher’s financial independence, I picked up a copy of Lee Child’s The Enemy. It is the prequel to the Reacher books. Unfortunately, it did not resolve the mystery. Fortunately, it was still a fun book – as I knew it would be.

In this case Reacher is still in the Army as a Major in the MPs. The Berlin Wall is coming down; Reacher has been in Panama trying to catch Noriega. But shortly before the book begins, Reacher was transferred to Fort Bird, North Carolina. Neither he, nor his boss know why.

When Reacher is notified that a soldier has died of a heart attack off post, he assumes that it is routine. But he quickly learns that the soldier was Major General Kramer, and that he died in a sleazy motel, apparently in the act of intercourse. With a briefcase missing, things stop being routine. Worse yet, the general’s wife is killed at their home in Virginia a few hours later. The general is stationed in West Germany, apparently en route to a conference in California. What was he doing in a sleazy motel in North Carolina?

Just as the investigation gets going, Reacher’s boss is transferred and replaced by the incompetent politically slick Colonel Willard. Willard orders him to drop the investigation. Further, when a Special Forces sergeant is found, obviously murdered, on post, Willard orders Reacher to write it up as a training accident.

Internal politics abound as various factions anticipate big changes in the Army as the Cold War is winding down. Two of General Kramer’s aids are running around sticking their noses into everything. Civilian authorities are interested in both off post deaths, although particularly the Mrs. Kramer’s.

So we have Jack Reacher bulling his way through political minefields, civilian relations, and direct orders to leave things alone. But Reacher is not much of a “leave it alone” sort of guy. As always, Child’s dialog is terse and blunt. Reacher is unstoppable, but does make bad turns and wrong assumptions along he way. He also manages to find some female companionship along the way.

I’m glad I read The Enemy. It was fun to see Jack Reacher in uniform. It was unique to see him carrying luggage and owning spare uniforms. But I still don’t understand how he meets his expenses in later books. I can’t see a military severance lasting that long, even though his tastes are rather simple.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Katherine Neville: The Eight

When I saw that Katherine Neville’s new book, The Fire, was to be a sequel to her first book, The Eight, I decided to re-read The Eight. I think this is my third time through, over a twenty year time span.

The Eight is a complicated book, told across two time spans, with many flashbacks. Our main characters are Catherine Velis, a musician and a computer expert at a Big Eight accounting firm in New York in the 1970s, and Mireille de Remy, a novice nun in France in the 1790s. Catherine’s story mostly takes place in New York and Algeria. Mireille’s story takes place mostly in Paris and Algeria. For those of you not up on your French history, this timing places Mireille in Paris during the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror.

At the core of the story is a chess set, once owned by Charlemange, reputed to have mystical powers. The set was hidden in Montglane Abbey for a thousand years, because it’s powers were considered too strong to be trusted to secular rulers. But the Abbess decided to scatter and hide the pieces when the revolutionary government closed the abbey and was coming to search for its treasures.

Initially, Mireille’s role was to help scatter the pieces. But as the story progresses, events cause her to try to find them before more sinister people can find them. That also seems to be Catherine’s role.

The mystical story of the power of the chess set is told through flashbacks. Neville drops historical names liberally as she brings different characters in to tell parts of the story:
• Helene de Roque, Abbess of Montglane, tells the story of how the chess set was presented to Charlemange in the year 782, its origin in Moslem lands, and of strange events that ensued.
• Maurice Tallyrand, Bishop of Autun, tells a story of the ghost of Cardinal Richelieu revealing a secret buried with Charlemange, and of Voltaire studying Richelieu’s private journals.
• Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, tells of things she learned from the mathematician, Leonhard Euler at the Prussian court of Frederick the Great.
• The French chess master André Phildor tells of things he learned from Johann Sebastian Bach and Leonhard Euler, also at the Prussian court.
• Letizia Buonaparte (Napoleon’s mother) tells of how Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to learn parts of the secret on Corsica.
• Maximillien Robespierre tells of things he learned from Rousseau, and that Rousseau had learned from Giovanni Casanova in Venice.
• William Blake and William Wordsworth tell of a meeting between Voltaire and Isaac Newton, where Newton tells of what he has learned.

As the mystery unfolds across the continents and the centuries, many characters are killed, and many events surprise us. The chess analogy runs throughout, with black pitted against white. The problem is that the players do not know who all the opposing players are, or what their roles are, or even where the board is.

Who is the black queen and who is the white queen? And why does it matter? I found the plot line to be very complicated, well really, confusing. But engaging all the same. I think I followed it better this third time through.

The first two times I read The Eight, I was satisfied that the book came to a logical conclusion. This time, I have to say that it is clear that there is room for a sequel. And I look forward to reading The Fire.

Sandra Brown: Smoke Screen

After seeing Sandra Brown awarded an honorary doctorate, I read a randomly selected paperback. I liked it, so now I’ve read her latest, Smoke Screen. (No similarity to a book with the same title by Kyle Mills. This is a mystery. Mills’ book is about the tobacco industry.)

Britt Shelley, a prominent Charleston TV news personality wakes up in bed with Detective Jay Burgess, a police hero. She can’t remember how she got there. Worse, she can’t remember why Jay happens to be dead. Britt immediately falls under suspicion, and can’t offer much defense with no memory of the night.

Years ago, Jay and three others became heroes when they rescued a number of people from a fire when the old Charleston police headquarters burned down. Their hero status helped most of them in their subsequent careers in the police, politics, or commerce.

Jay’s childhood friend, Raley Gannon was investigating the fire. But his investigation was cut short when he was found in bed with a dead woman – in Jay’s apartment. He also had no memory of the event. He was hounded out of the Fire Department by innuendo and suspicion, mostly promulgated by sensationalized reporting by Britt Shelley.

The similarities between their stories makes Raley the only person who believes Britt. But after what she did to his career he is not real fond of her. Sandra Brown brings them together in an alliance to reach the truth in a delightful manner. I won’t describe it, but it’s pretty unique, and it works.

So obviously bad things are going on. And the old police headquarters fire is at the heart of it. We get to see what various potential bad guys are doing while Britt and Raley don’t. But we don’t get enough extra views to reveal various plot twists before their time.

I’ve noticed that Sandra Brown’s characters can be an amorous bunch. And she can get pretty specific as they romp around. But it all fits well with the story.

Smoke Screen is another fun, fast-paced, escapist mystery. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Christopher Reich: Rules of Deception

I recently re-read Christopher Reich’s Numbered Account, which took place in Switzerland. Now I’ve read his new book, Rules of Deception, in which he returns to Switzerland. I did not remember all his books being Swiss, so I checked my shelves for a couple of his other books. I was right. One of them took place across Europe, the other in Washington, DC.

Rules of Deception follows one of my favorite approaches for a thriller. A man learns one fact, which then unravels a whole long line of discoveries that changes everything he believed. In this case, Dr. Jonathan Ransom is an American doctor with Doctors Without Borders. He is an avid, world-class mountaineer, currently serving at headquarters in Switzerland. His world is shaken when he is unable to rescue his wife from a crevasse following a skiing accident. But it is turned upside-down a day later when a letter arrives for her. Inside he finds two baggage claim checks.

When he picks up the luggage, he finds false identities, uncharacteristic clothes, and a great deal of cash. But worse, two men try to kill him to get the luggage. So what’s going on? Ransom certainly does not know.

As with other Reich novels, multiple threads of plot slowly draw together from widely separated beginnings. I’ve already mentioned Ransom discovering that his wife had a secret second life. In the mean time an American agent is hiding a terrorist suspect as they pass through Switzerland en route to letting the Syrians interrogate him. An assassin is killing Swiss businessmen, and the police are investigating. And further in the background, the Israelis are becoming very concerned about dramatic progress in Iran’s attempt to build a nuclear weapon.

As I said, these story lines start out very independently. But Reich draws them all together as the story unfolds. And I might add that as the lines come together, Ransom’s life become more complicated.

Ransom is a well developed, likeable character. So we care as he tries, first to find out what’s going on, and second to find a way out. Some of the bad guys are less well developed. I was especially disappointed that Reich relied on stereotypically rogue US intelligence operations to make the whole story work. I’ve never been able to buy into the kind of conspiracy cover-ups required to make those schemes work.

But overall, Rules of Deception provides everything I look for in a thriller. It is full of fast paced action, surprising twists and turns, and a character we care about. I was able to figure a few things out before Reich explicitly revealed them, and way before Ransom did. Of course Ransom did not get to see all the other plot lines unfolding, so I had a clear advantage over him. I loved the book and had a hard time putting it down.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Christopher Paolini: Brisingr

I’ve been looking forward to Brisingr by Christopher Paolini. So I picked up a copy not long after it became available. And then it jumped to the front of my line. Eragon and his dragon Saphira continue their adventures in Alagaesia, helping the rebel Varden, and their allies the dwarves and elves to overthrow the evil King Galbatorix. The ancient word for fire, brisingr, takes on special meaning as the story unfolds. Not surprising given the title.

We resume the story not long after we left off in Eldest. Eragon and his cousin Roran are trying to rescue Roran’s finance. That mission is not politically important in the grand struggle against Galbatorix, but is important to Eragon. In fact it represents one of the promises made by Eragon reflected in the subtitle The Seven Promises of Eragon Shadeslayer and Saphira Bjartskular.

One of the interesting themes of the book centers around the potentially conflicting promises made by Eragon as he tries to balance fragile alliances, family ties, and a sense of rightness and honor. He walks a fine line between political expedience and political necessity.

Again, as in Eldest, Roran gets the bulk of the action, while Eragon gets the political intrigue and travelogue. We don’t get as much travelogue as in Eldest, but we do get a good look at dwarvish politics and clan relations.

It’s hard to say too much about the plot without spoiling the plots of Eragon and Eldest. So I won’t say much. But I will say that I think Paolini’s writing has matured since Eragon. I think we get much better depth in the characters, and much more complexity in their inter-relationships. I like it.

By half way through the book, I thought we sure had a long ways to go to get rid of Galbatorix. By three quarters of the way through, I thought we would have to really hurry. In fact I thought drawing to a close in the time left would be anti-climatic. By the time I finished I realized that the Inheritance Trilogy had become the Inheritance Cycle. It is scheduled to conclude in Book Four.

I hate waiting, but I’m glad the story is not over. I’m especially glad it was not rushed to a conclusion. I probably could have known that there would be a fourth volume if I had paid more attention to the pre-release publicity. But I didn’t. I just knew the third volume of a trilogy was coming. So I will bide my time and look forward to the next installment.

I thought that Eldest stopped at an inopportune point in the story. I feel that Brisingr came to a better pause point. So I would not discourage anyone from reading the story through the first three books. In fact, I would encourage it.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Ellen Morris Bishop: In Search of Ancient Oregon

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
October 6, 2008

The last book I reviewed was Oregon’s Greatest Natural Disasters, which, if you think about it for a moment, is a geology book. So it is not surprising that I would be attracted to Ellen Morris Bishop’s In Search of Ancient Oregon: A Geological and Natural History, which is a much more detailed geology book, but still targeted at the interested layman.

I came upon this book in an unusual way. I was swimming in a pool with my mother-in-law in an adult trailer park, when I looked out the window and saw the local library bookmobile drive up. I dried off, got dressed, and went to see what they had. Almost immediately I picked up In Search of Ancient Oregon, and the pictures fascinated me. Every geological formation or event was illustrated with a picture of a place in Oregon. (The author took all of the pictures.) It is fascinating that many of the pictures are of places I have seen in my travels, and the rest I could easily see if I made the effort. This ability to see with my own eyes the evidence of the many geologic events that formed today’s Oregon is captivating.

So I went home and bought the book from Amazon. And a couple weeks later I met Ellen Bishop at a lecture and got a belated autograph.

In Search of Ancient Oregon has a chapter for each of the major geologic eras and epochs from about 400 million years ago through to today. A lot happens in ten million years, and a lot disappears in ten million years. It is very interesting to read how geologists follow the most obscure and unlikely of clues to reconstruct the history behind the terrains and rocks we can all see. And it’s all far more complicated than anything I can summarize here.

The oldest rocks in Oregon are limestone created during the Devonian epoch, roughly 400 million years ago, but the rocks weren’t in Oregon at the time. It’s a story of plate tectonics. Subduction zones in the middle of what is now the Pacific Ocean created arcs of volcanic islands (like the Hawaiian islands). In the course of a lot of time the Pacific plate containing these islands moved eastward and eventually ran into the North American plate. The ensuing subduction scraped off random sections that ended up as “exotic terranes,” large masses of rock that have no relationship to the land surrounding them. These 400 million year old rocks are found today in the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon.

There is a lot to be learned from fossils, and each chapter of Ancient Oregon includes a section on the flora and fauna of the period. The climate impacts the flora and fauna, and thus the fossils tell a lot about the climate. But something happened 248 million years ago that killed 96% of all living species—the Permian extinction that ended the Paleozoic era.

We now enter the Mesozoic era, the time of the dinosaurs. The island volcanoes were still active and were starting to drift into the Oregon coast, and by 100 million years ago Oregon was firmly joined with the Blue Mountain island arc. The formations we see today are varied and jumbled, and many of the early volcanic rocks are not on mountaintops, but are buried and only visible where exposed, as in Hells Canyon.

This was the era of dinosaurs, but apparently none lived in Oregon. One duck-billed dinosaur was found in southern Oregon, but it turns out it was a migrant from California (the first of many Californians to come)—when the bedrock containing its remains faulted and drifted into Oregon. The Mesozoic era ended abruptly 65 million years ago when a meteor (probably) caused the extinction of 70% of all species, including the dinosaurs.

Now comes the Cenozoic era, where the mammals we know today appeared. Oregon’s first “native” volcanoes erupted and grew around 50 million years ago. Around 30 million years ago the first grasses appeared. (Who would guess grass wasn’t part of the originally evolved flora?) And this enabled early horses to evolve from brush eaters to grazers, and to live in herds on open prairies.

15 million years ago, eastern Oregon sat over a hot spot in the earth’s mantle (which today is under Yellowstone National Park), and this caused extensive basaltic lava flows that covered a vast area of Oregon, reaching all the way to the Pacific Ocean. And over the next 10 million years much more volcanic activity and faulting and moving of plates occurred, forming the Oregon of today.

Finally 1.8 million years ago we entered the great Ice Age, and this is also when the high Cascade volcanoes we can see today were formed. This was a time of battle in Oregon—between the volcano building forces and the glaciers’ destructive forces. Only a few volcanoes (like Mt Hood and the South Sister) won—by erupting again after the last glaciers receded.

It has been hard to summarize this 288-page book, since there are so many interesting and complex events that formed today’s Oregon. I apologize to any geologists reading this for all my inaccuracies and over simplifications. To get it straight, read the book! It contains a minimum of technical jargon, and every geological term is defined in the glossary—which I referred to very frequently!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Thomas L. Friedman: Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Wow! I’ve read fun books, exciting books, and informative books. Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded just might be an important book. I enjoyed his The World Is Flat, although I was way behind the world in reading it. I thought he made some very clear and coherent points about the international market place, and how silly some politicians sound railing against forces of economics and free enterprise. So when I heard him pitch his new book on Good Morning America, I thought I ought to pick it up.

Freidman’s subtitle for the book is “Why we need a green revolution – and how it can renew America.” I’d summarize it as a discussion of global warming and the energy crisis in a context of a global economy. I’ve always been skeptical of global warming. Taking Michael Crichton’s perspective (in State of Fear), it seems that if you keep adding concrete and asphalt around measurement sites, you will record temperature increases, regardless of what is happening globally.

Freidman starts by making his case for five major problems we face today. First, the global economy is creating too many countries just like America, consuming resources as Americans do. Second, our dependence on oil increases power of dictators in oil rich nations, shutting down democracy movements, and incidentally funds anti-American terrorism. Third, global warming is impacting more than just polar bears, it is affecting weather patterns accentuating both droughts and flooding in different areas. Forth, the loss of biodiversity is accelerating, and can only be stopped locally, taking into account local economic impacts. Fifth, in today’s global economy, an area cannot climb out of poverty without access to reliable electricity.

After Friedman discusses the seriousness of our current state, he starts making suggestions about solutions. Off the top he spends a chapter saying that the solutions won’t be easy. Then he describes what he calls the Energy Internet – ideas about smart appliances optimizing energy use, and flexible utilities buying surplus user power. One of my favorite quotes (and a chapter title) is “The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.” I take his point to be that we don’t have to wait to run out of coal and oil to move to renewable energy sources.

Renewable energy sources are the point of Friedman’s book – why we need them, how to get them. The two points that were most convincing to me were reducing the expansion of global warming, and de-funding petro-dictators. I thought his most telling argument on global warning was to look at it from both sides. If global warning is real, and we do nothing we can agree that the consequences could be disastrous. If global warming is a false alarm and we take action anyway, we could take leadership in a new industry, and de-fund sponsors of anti-American terrorism. That’s not really such a bad consequence.

I have a couple of complaints. He referred to the formula “RE < C – renewable energy cheaper than coal”, and said it was too simple a goal. He offered a new formula “REEFIGDCPEERPC < TTCOBCOG – a renewable energy ecosystem for innovating, generating, and deploying clean power, energy efficiency, resource productivity, and conservation < the true cost of burning coal, oil, and gas.” He said he offered the new formula “tongue in cheek”, but then he kept using it throughout the rest of the book.

Friedman also is a big believer in heavy gas taxes to drive changes in our behavior. I already don’t like what it costs to fill my tanks. I could compromise on price floors that he also suggested. The idea is that with a guarantee that prices won’t drop back down like they did in the 1980s, investors and inventors can better predict a market for renewable energy technologies. Of course that’s an easy compromise for me. Considering the global economy described in The World Is Flat, it’s hard to imagine oil prices going back down.

Obviously I can’t make all of Friedman’s points in a relatively short review. Suffice it to say that with Hot, Flat, and Crowded he came a long ways toward converting a skeptic. I can see his point that we are on the cusp of a major market in new technologies. America can lead or fail. Failing does not look attractive from an economic perspective, even if we did not have an ecological perspective.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Robert A Heinlein: Friday

I’ve had a copy of Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday since it came out in paperback in 1982. I’m sure I read it back then, but as I re-read it I remembered absolutely NOTHING. Normally I would remember major plot lines, or significant events, just not contextual details. Maybe the difference this time is that there are no major plot lines or significant events.

Miss Friday is a genetically enhanced and engineered “Artificial Person”. As she says, her mother was a test tube and her father was a knife. (Actually in her time, that is considered an insult.) She works for a crotchety old man, Boss”, as a courier. She is skilled at crossing borders, and kills easily when necessary.

Friday is caught out of the office on vacation when a global disruption known as “Red Thursday” breaks out. She traces a route from British Canada, to the California Democracy, the Texas Republic, the Chicago Imperium, and then back to British Canada and the California Democracy trying to get back to the office. She overcomes a variety of obstacles at the borders.

Another series of adventures involve Friday trying to make her way to an off-world colony. Should she go to an existing colony? Or should she join a group pioneering a new planet?

This being a Heinlein book, we get a lot of pre-AIDS, 1960s style “free love” attitude. Friday is a pretty friendly girl. Fortunately we do not get too descriptive past a lot of kissing.

We follow Friday through her many adventures, but the main theme seems to be dealing with racism. She is an “Artificial Person” passing as human. She deals with a lot of prejudice against “APs”. We also get a healthy dose on the declining stages of civilizations.

To me the plot of Friday wanders almost as much as the character Friday. She is pretty interesting, but most of the supporting cast is pretty shallow. Although there was quite a bit of action, it was easy to put the book down, because I didn’t care too much about what would happen next. I was confident that Friday could handle it.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

W. S. Nye: Carbine & Lance

I bought Carbine & Lance The Story of Old Fort Sill by Colonel W. S. Nye a long time ago when I was stationed at Fort Sill. I started it back then, but did not get more than a few pages into it. I was not really very good with non-fiction in those days. I finally read it a few months ago at a time that I was applying for a job with the Oklahoma Historical Society. The first edition was written in 1937. I have the third edition, published in 1969.

The establishment and development of Fort Sill certainly figures in this history. But the book is much more a description of the conflict between Native Americans and the US Cavalry in Southwestern Oklahoma during the 19th century.

In the early 1800s the area around the Wichita Mountains, north of the Red River, and into the Texas Panhandle was primarily inhabited, or controlled, by the Kiowas and their close allies the Comanches. They feared the Osages to their northeast. They liked to raid to the northwest against the Utes and travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. They also liked to raid the White settlements south of the Red River in Texas. This last tendency is what really brought the attention of the U.S. government.

Indian raids picked up considerably during the Civil War years because the White Men were busy fighting each other. In 1864 Kit Carson led a force of cavalrymen, Utes, and Apaches against the Kiowas in the Texas Panhandle. The Kiowas repulsed him with heavy losses. Carson was saved in his retreat only by his light artillery. White response tended to be to attack and kill any Indians they could reach, especially women and children of tribes uninvolved in hostilities. That tended to make the survivors more hostile.

After the Civil War, General Sheridan and Colonel Custer led veteran cavalry into the region. They were somewhat successful in controlling the area for a few years.

After U.S. Grant was inaugurated as President he began the “peace policy”. A delegation of Quakers had convinced him to let them take over the Indian Agencies. They wanted to substitute brotherly love for the sword. During this period Fort Sill and its associated Indian Agency were established. The Kiowas and Comanches learned that they were free to raid south of the Red River at will. If they simply agreed to return to the agency lands all was forgiven.

Obviously the history moves on through many other policies as the book progresses. Nye’s book clearly predates “political correctness” as he freely uses terms like savages and barbarians to describe Native Americans. In his preface he writes, “Living today within a few miles of Fort Sill are human beings who, in a single life-span, have passed from the stone age to the era of the eight-cylinder motor car and the low wing monoplane. Here are men who in fierce exultation have torn reeking scalps from their enemies. Here are women who, while their village moved to evade soldiers, have know the anguish of childbirth on horseback.”

The establishment of the Artillery School, and the Fort Sill I remember shows up only in the Appendix.

I appreciate reading Carbine & Lance, despite its outdated attitudes, for giving me a sense of what was happening in Southwestern Oklahoma in the 19th Century. The history of Oklahoma certainly is rife with the clash of different cultures. It is unfortunate that the clash was so violent, and ultimately so unfair.

Brad Meltzer: The Book of Lies

How do you tie Cain’s murder of Able, the creation of the Superman comics, and a modern day thriller together? That’s the challenge Brad Meltzer accepted in The Book of Lies. Apparently he has wanted to write this story for years. I suppose his success with earlier books gave him the courage to write, and his publisher courage to accept this story.

We already know that early in Genesis Cain kills Abel. But is he really the bad guy history makes him out to be? Or is there another interpretation? What was the murder weapon? Now fast forward a few millennia. Mitchell Siegel was shot and killed in during a robbery in Cleveland. The murder was never investigated, much less solved. Shortly afterwards his teenage son Jerry Siegel, creates a cartoon about a bullet-proof man – Superman. How do these events relate? I certainly won’t tell you; it’s woven through to plot of The Book of Lies.

So now jump forward another three quarters of a century and we meet Cal Harper. Cal is a former (disgraced) officer with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now he works for a homeless shelter. He drives around Fort Lauderdale in a beat up old van picking up indigents and taking them to the shelter. His life gets complicated, and our plot takes off, when he is called to pick up a man with a fresh gunshot wound. Turns out the man is Lloyd Harper, his father whom he has not seen in 19 years, since Lloyd left for prison after killing Cal’s mother. I bet you can guess that we have some family issues.

In the mean time Ellis Belasco is on the track of an ancient lost artifact. Since the first thing we see him do is murder a man, we pretty well know Ellis will be a bad guy. But we also learn pretty early that Lloyd Harper is a truck driver, making a pickup of a shipping container for Ellis. Is Ellis smuggling something? What might it be?

Cal has helped Lloyd get the container through customs. But he pulls favors from old friends that are not strictly by the book. So we also meet Special Agent Naomi Molina of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

From this point the book turns into a treasure hunt, with multiple parties following clues, tracking the prize and/or each other. But no one really knows what the prize is. As the story unfolds we learn more about Cain, and more about Jerry Siegel.

Meltzer also takes this opportunity to explore the relationships between parent and child in a number of contexts. Although I suppose none of the relationships are stereotypically “normal”.

The Book of Lies unfolds with all the twists and suspense that you would expect from an accomplished thriller writer like Meltzer. He does a good job of relating the Cain and Abel story with the Superman story. And he does close out the story with an acceptable conclusion. But I can’t say that I completely bought the whole premise. The story requires a certain suspension of reality. Not as much as a fantasy like Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings, but still a suspension. But I don’t mind that. After all, I’m looking for a good story, and got one.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Lee Child: Killing Floor

Lee Child wrote the Jack Reacher novels in a way that it does not matter what order you read them in. At least that’s what his web site says. And I mostly agree. But after reading several, I still had some questions about Reacher’s background – why he lives the way he does. So I picked up a copy of Killing Floor – it seemed to have the oldest copyright date.

I did learn more about Reacher’s past, and I appreciate that. And I was sort of right about it being the first Jack Reacher novel. But I now realize that there is a prequel, The Enemy, written a few years later. I may have to pick it up some time, because I’m still curious about some of Reacher’s back story. I am tempted to say what was still unanswered, but in a way that could be a spoiler for Killing Floor.

If you don’t know, Jack Reacher is a loner who travels around the country by bus, hitchhike, or foot. He deals only in cash, owns nothing that he isn’t currently wearing or carrying in his pockets. In short he is a pretty independent character. He is also a pretty competent, resourceful former-MP.

Killing Floor starts with Reacher walking into Margrave, Georgia. Before he can even finish his breakfast, four police officers come in to the diner and arrest him for murder. Margrave is a small town somewhere between Atlanta and Macon. But it is a remarkably clean and prosperous looking town.

We meet a competent police sergeant named Baker, a Boston raised black chief of Detectives named Finlay, an attractive police officer named Roscoe, and a fat worthless Police Chief named Morrison. We also meet a prominent town benefactor, the mayor, an Atlanta banker, and miscellaneous other characters.

It’s hard for me to say too much about the story because after about five pages things start to surprise both Reacher and me. I can say that it is a fast paced action story, as you would expect. A lot of people end up dead. To some degree Reacher did not seem quite as well developed to me as he does in later stories – perhaps because this was the first.

I can’t say that Killing Floor is any better than any other Reacher novel. In fact it probably is not my favorite. But then neither is it significantly worse than any other. I still want more of the history, hopefully from The Enemy, but I think I better wait a while. I suspect that I could burn out if I take too much Reacher too fast.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Douglas Preston: Blasphemy

I bought Douglas Preston’s Blasphemy because I was interested in the context. It deals with a fictional US supercollider and the friction between science and religion. I was disappointed when the real US supercollider lost funding, so I was interested to see what Preston would do with the theme. This is my first Preston book, so I was not sure what to expect.

In this story, Gregory North Hazelius is a brilliant Nobel laureate who has driven the 40 billion dollar project to completion in the Arizona dessert. We join the story on the first trial run. With project delays, and little information coming from the scientific team, the President’s Science Advisor recruits Wyman Ford to go in and find out what’s happening. Ford’s background is unusual: ex-anthropologist, ex-CIA, ex-monk. Supposedly he is to go deal with community relations and try to head off a protest by the local Navajo population led by Nelson Begay. But maybe Wyman’s main qualification is that he has a past with the Assistant Director of the project, Kate Mercer.

Spicing up the story, we have lobbyist, Booker Crawley. Crawley is counting on a continuing revenue stream from the Navajo Nation even though the task of getting the project built is done. When they cancel his contract, he decides to show them that they need him. So he makes a large donation to the televangelist, Reverend Don T. Spates, to preach against it. Spates launches his attack, accusing the government of spending taxpayer dollars to try to disprove Genesis. The political fallout ((in another fictional election year) is immediate. Add Pastor Russ Eddy, who preaches at a struggling mission on Navajo land near the supercollider, and our cast is mostly complete.

I think it’s fair to tell you that I like Wyman, Mercer, and Begay. The rest of the cast comes off pretty badly. The plot moves in ways I was not expecting, but definitely explores the debate between science and religion. Does the government fund Secular Humanism as a new state religion? Does religion still address the needs of society? Do charlatans in all camps undermine the good offered by government, religion, and science? Is Native American spiritualism viable in today’s society?

Blasphemy carries a lot of serious undertones in a rollicking good story. But I can’t decide in hindsight whether the book was an attack on religion, or an attack on science. Maybe it’s a call for moderation, an attack on extremism from all sides.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

David Guterson: The Other

The Other by David Guterson came highly recommended by Book of the Month Club. And it actually is pretty good. I suspect my brother would love it. But even though it is relatively short (256 pages), I have to give it credit for helping me catch up on my reviews – because it is so put-downable.

John William Barry and Neil Countryman meet in high school on opposing teams at a Seattle track meet. John William comes from old money and goes to a private school. Neil comes from a line of carpenters and goes to public school. But surprisingly, they develop an enduring friendship. Neil becomes a high school English teacher. John William withdraws from the world, ultimately becoming known as “The Hermit of the Hoh”.

The book is narrated by Neil and jumps back and forth between his 50 something persona and flashback with wild abandon. We’ll be reliving a college experience, and then in the next paragraph something like “my son came over with fresh bread last night”. There really seems to be no discernable plot. I’m reminded of a training program I wrote in COBOL years ago. I assumed it would be easy, but it was hard to get it going because it had absolutely no purpose besides demonstrating various table handling techniques. So where to start and where to go?

The Other deals with characters, primarily Neil and John William, but also parents, girl friends, children. There is a lot of wilderness and hiking in the book as well. The book takes place mostly in Washington, although it includes a chapter in the Italian Alps. Ringing true to me was a brief mention of a sojourn to Oregon to see Fort Clatsop and to tour the Tillamook Cheese Factory. (Both of which I’ve done.)

John William and Neil seem to prefer off trail wilderness travel with no maps. One episode involved getting lost in the North Cascades for two weeks as high school kids. What struck me as strange is that no one seemed to miss them, or launch any kind of search for them.

John William and Neil discover a special place on the South Fork of the Hoh River in Olympic National Park. It ultimately figures prominently in the book.

A few years ago I spent some brief time in both Olympic National Park and the North Cascades National Park. Both these parks are extremely inaccessible to the casual hiker. So I can really appreciate the level of outdoors expertise demonstrated by John William and Neil. And the book has intensified my desire to go back to both.

My biggest complaint about the book is the amount of casual drug use. But I suppose it is central to the characters. I found myself turning to Wikepedia to learn a little more about Gnosticism. And I also turned to the internet to see just how out of the way the Hoh River is from Seattle.

The Other is a much more literary work than my normal fare. Normally I’m into the book just for the story. But although it was easy to put the book down to take care of other chores, I could not just walk away from it. I really did want to know what happens with John William and Neil. And Guterson does ration out the information, with different characters appearing to explain different aspects of their lives.

On balance I’d say that The Other is better than what I normally read, but not as much fun.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Brad Meltzer: The First Counsel

My first Brad Meltzer book is The First Counsel. I re-read it, partly to see why I started buying his books. I’ve read three more since the first reading. As a matter of fact, I’ve been doing quite a bit or re-reading lately because I have slowed down on buying new books. Besides, if you never re-read, what’s the point of owning books in the first place.

We meet Michael Garrick on his first date with recent college grad, Nora Hartson. He is a young lawyer working in the office of the White House Counsel. She is the First Daughter, the only child of the President of the United States. Nora has convinced Michael to let her drive his car. And after an incredibly reckless car chase, she manages to ditch her Secret Service escort. She is certainly no meek child. Is Michael in over his head?

They end up at some bar where no one recognizes her. Then Michael notices that it’s a gay bar, which Nora thinks is hilarious. Much to his surprise, Michael sees his boss Edgar Simon, The White House Counsel. Simon is married with a family. What’s he doing in a gay bar? He leaves right after receiving a sheet a paper from another man. Is Michael over his head yet?

Remarkably enough, Michael and Nora decide to follow Simon. Ultimately they find where he leaves $40,000 cash under a tree. All that happens within the first twenty-seven pages. So I don’t feel too guilty revealing it. But I’d better stop now. But with an opening like that, you can imagine that life gets complicated for Michael Garrick. In fact, he may be in over his head.

Remarkably, despite that first date, Michael and Nora continue to see each other. But work relations between Edgar Simon and Michael become very strained. Throw in an office murder, an FBI investigation, and a notorious drug dealer and things become truly precarious. And worse, this is an election year, with President Hartson slipping in the poles, and his campaign terrified of a major scandal.

Helping Michael are Trey and Pam, his best friends at work. Trey works for the First Lady and has the inside scoop on everything. Pam is a fellow lawyer who shares the office suite with Michael. (I really enjoy Trey’s role as a supporting character.) Michael is also befriended by Deputy Counsel Lawrence Lamb. Lamb’s more important titles are Presidential Friend, and Nora’s Godfather.

Michael is trying to balance his career, loyalty and friendship with Nora, political infighting, and election politics. Meanwhile the FBI wants information he does not want to give, and a drug dealer he suspects of murder is trying to contact him. Michael’s easiest solution would probably be to dump everything on Nora. But that would ruin his relationship with her, and cause the scandal he would like to avoid. And having the other party win the White House would obviously end his White House career.

My only frame of reference for White House intrigue is the TV series, West Wing. The First Counsel is also an exciting romp through the corridors of power, although in a much darker sense. But most aspects of the story rang true. The characters were interesting, and fit well in the plot. I can see why I bought more Meltzer novels.