Wednesday, April 23, 2008

John Lescroart: Betrayal

I’ve only read one John Lescroart novel before – The Hunt Club. But I enjoyed it, so I decided to try his latest – Betrayal. As it turn out, Wyatt Hunt makes a cameo appearance in the new book.

The book opens with a Prologue set in 2006. Dismas Hardy is a San Francisco lawyer who agrees to clean up the open cases of a lawyer who has disappeared. The only interesting case deals with the National Guardsman Evan Scholler and the ex-SEAL, contractor Ron Nolan, and an apparent dispute over the beautiful teacher Tara Wheatley.

Oddly enough, after the Prologue we drop back in time and place to 2003 in Iraq. Scholler and his platoon end up providing security for Allstrong Security, a private contractor in Iraq. Allstrong tends to play fast and loose with rules and cash. Nolan is one of their principle trouble-shooters – pun intended. Scholler and Nolan become friends of a sort in Iraq.

Scholler ends up with a traumatic brain injury, and most of his platoon end up dead. Nolan returns to San Francisco, and after his recovery, so does Scholler. But in the mean time Nolan has made a move on Tara Wheatley. She is somewhat confused over whether she is Scholler’s girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend. Nolan plays fast and loose with the truth in making his move. He also still works for Allstrong Security, a company we don’t particularly trust.

Nolan ends up dead; Scholler ends up accused; one of Scholler’s lawyers ends up missing. The rest of the book follows trials, investigations, and theories. There are enough complexities to keep us interested.

The book paints a pretty bleak picture of contractors in Iraq. But it tells a pretty good story of court maneuverings, spun around interesting characters. All told very enjoyable.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Christopher Paolini: Eragon

I recently saw an email announcing Brisingr, Book Three in the Inheritance cycle by Christopher Paolini. So to bring myself back up to speed on the story, I decided it was time to re-read Eragon, the first book. After I finished, I noticed that the announcement was earlier than I expected. The new book is not due until September 20. So obviously I jumped the gun. I’ll re-read Eldest in August or so. And since I’m re-reading and planning to buy the third book, I’ve tipped my hand on the conclusion that I enjoy the book. (On the other hand, I thought the movie was awful.)

Paolini is spinning a good tale, although he is obviously influenced by others in the genre. I can’t help but think his dragon riders are influenced by Anne McCaffrey. His dwarves and elves seem to draw heavily on Tolkien. His country of Alagaesia reminds me a lot of the terrain of Middle Earth, although the forests don’t seem quite as dangerous.

Paolini’s approach to magic was new, at least to me. Different forms of magic require personal energy and can leave the wielder exhausted and vulnerable. Magic beyond your limits can kill you.

Eragon is a simple farm boy who finds (or is found by) a polished blue stone. The stone hatches into a dragon. The two of them, Eragon and Saphira, must grow and learn together to face the evil in the empire. Brom, who becomes Eragon’s tutor in the ways of magic, combat, and honor, is an interesting character. Murtagh who teams with Eragon later in the story also adds some depth and mystery.

In some ways, the story has a young reader feel to it. There’s not much nuance to his good versus evil. Some of the plot twists are pretty obvious. But like Harry Potter, Eragon is still a fun escape.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Kate Wilhelm: Sleight of Hand - A Barbara Holloway Legal Thriller

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
April 19, 2008

My wife Sue meets Kate Wilhelm each year at the Eugene (Oregon) Library Authors and Artists fair, and each year picks up another one or two of Kate’s mystery novels. Wanting some relaxing, easy reading, I grabbed Sleight of Hand off our to-be-read bookcase and gave it a go. It was what I hoped for, a good murder mystery that was easy to pick up and keep reading past when I should be going to sleep.

As the story begins, Wally and Meg Lederer have been to visit his childhood acquaintance, Jay Wilkens. A valuable collectable disappears, and Jay is sure Wally, a professional but now reformed pickpocket, has taken it. Looks bad for Wally, but then Jay is found murdered, and it looks even worse for Wally.

Enter Barbara Holloway, a successful trial lawyer, who agrees to take up Wally’s case, and he’s open and charming enough that she’s sure he’s innocent. As things unfold, Jay’s current wife, Connie, disappears, and his former wife, Stephanie, and kids come into the story. As she learns more, Barbara becomes committed to protecting and helping the “good guys,” which include Wally and Meg and Stephanie. But she learns things that create significant moral dilemmas for her in two different areas.

The story leads us through Wally’s trial and Barbara’s handling of her dilemmas while defending Wally. It was interesting to see how the prosecuting and defending lawyers could draw completely opposite conclusions from the same set of facts, both sounding very plausible. The tension builds as we wonder how the jury will go, and as Barbara deals with the moral problems. And then the jury comes back and the story winds down.

Sleight of Hand was fun to read and a good relaxation. There are some relationships between Barbara and her father, and her clients, and her want-to-be boy friend, all of which add interest. But the story is not very complex, and there aren’t a lot of things for us to guess about, and then watch unfold to surprises at the end. I’m not very comfortable with how the moral dilemmas worked out, but then neither was Barbara. Life sometimes requires compromises.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Alexandre Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo

After being disappointed by Alexandre Dumas’ The Last Cavalier, I needed to find out if my fond memories of The Count of Monte Cristo were justified. Did The Last Cavalier suffer from bad translation, lack of polish due to Dumas’ death, or overly high expectations based on my faulty memory.

I remembered absolutely nothing from my reading 40 years ago. In his introduction, the interpreter, Robin Buss, gives the simple synopsis: “innocent man imprisoned, meets fellow-prisoner who directs him to a buried fortune, escapes and plots revenge.” I still remembered nothing.

This translation was completed in 1996, so obviously it is not the same one I read before. It would be easy to leave a lot of description and rambling out of the story and abridge the book to a fairly simple plot. But at 1,243 pages Buss left out nothing – which I appreciate. Dumas wrote the book in 1844, and he was French. So a lot of attitudes about honor, behavior of gentlemen, bankruptcy, marital relations, drug use, sexual orientation, etc. all are a little strange to the modern reader. But love is still love, and betrayal is still betrayal.

At the opening of the book, Edmond Dantes is a young man who has it all. He is in love with a beautiful woman, Mercedes, who agrees to marry him; he is about to receive command of a merchant ship; and he has a strong supportive relationship with his father.

Unbeknownst to Dantes, he has enemies. The supercargo on his ship, Danglars, is jealous of his impending command. And Fernand is jealous of his impending wedding to Mercedes. And the times are trecherous. The story starts in a brief period of restored monarchy while Napoleon is in exile on Elba. Napoleon is about to come back to France to restore his empire. Danglars comes up a plan to denounce Dantes as a Bonapartist, and maneuvers Fernand into making the denunciation.

The denunciation comes to the local prosecutor, Villefort, who can quickly see that Dantes is innocent. But there is a letter involved that ties Villefort’s father to a Bonapartist plot. In order to protect his own political ambitions, Villefort destroys the evidence and has Dantes locked in a dungeon in an island prison.

Years later, Dantes escapes from prison, with the knowledge of a fantastic treasure. He becomes fabulously wealthy, buys a title, and becomes the Count of Monte Cristo. He re-enters society to fulfill his revenge. But revenge must be better than merely killing his enemies. He needs to accomplish their complete downfall.

While Dantes has been away, Fernand marries Mercedes, goes to war, switches sides as needed, and has been rewarded with the title Count de Morcerf. Danglars funded the right people at the right times and became a wealthy banker. Villefort dodged artfully though the troubles of Napoleon’s return, downfall, and subsequent restoration of the monarchy to become the chief crown prosecutor. They have all become prominent in Parisian society.

Dantes’ enemies also all have children with complicating romances and friendships. They provide subplots that impact on Dantes’ decisions.

It took less than 250 pages to destroy Dantes world, and then to restore him to fabulous wealth. But revenge is to be savored. Revenge takes 1,000 pages. At times, revenge became hard to put down.

There is a lot of description of social mores of the times. But it all fits. The social maneuvering is critical to the destruction of Dantes’ enemies. There was not much swashbuckling adventure here, just a little every now and then. But setting up Fernand, Danglars, and Villefort for their fall – exquisite.

So my conclusion is that my fond memory of The Count of Monte Cristo was well founded. And the translation was very complete, leaving out nothing. So I have to conclude that The Last Cavalier suffered either because Dumas did not write as well at the end of his life, or he did not edit the story as needed because of his untimely death.