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.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Christopher Paolini: Eldest

With the approach of the publication of Brisingr, final volume of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle, on September 20, I have re-read the second volume, Eldest. (I re-read and reviewed Eragon in April.) I mainly wanted to get back up to speed on the story line.

A quick observation is that either I was in a better mood with Eldest than Eragon, or Paolini’s writing has improved as he has added a little more age to his young years. I felt that the characters had a little more depth, and the plot twists were not quite so predictable.

Following the climax described in the first volume, action around Eragon has settled down considerably. It is time for him to leave the dwarves in the Beor Mountains, to complete his training with the elves in their forest capital of Ellesméra. He is guided to the capital by the beautiful elf, Arya, and accompanied by the dwarf, Orik.

To a great extent, the book’s time with Eragon takes on the nature of a travel log. We get detailed description of the hard rock wonders of dwarven engineering. Then we get descriptions of the magical forest beauty wrought by the elves. As immortals, elves can be very patient. It shows in their craftsmanship.

Through Eragon’s training we learn much more about the nature of magic. My exposure to magic is mainly limited to Tolkien, Rowling, and McCaffrey. (Well there’s also Susanna Clarke’s Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell, but that’s in a category of it’s own.) In my experience, Paolini’s description of the inner workings of magic is his main contribution to the genre. And with Paolini’s version of magic, it is not an unlimited resource. It is dangerous, difficult, and wearing.

With Eragon’s travels and training, we don’t get much action. But we still have the revolutionary group called the Varden resisting the evil King Galbatorix. And we get to know more about the King of Surda as his alliance with the Varden becomes more open and active.

But the real action in the book starts back in Eragon’s home of Carvahall. Galbatorix sends forces to apprehend Eragon’s cousin Roran. Roran becomes a main character in this volume, and an enjoyable one at that. Again we have a simple country boy growing into rapid manhood as he faces challenges that he does not understand. After all, no one in Carvahall knows what became of Eragon, or what he’s been up to. Roran’s accomplishments and growth are impressive, and occasionally a little too fortuitous. But by flipping the story back and forth between Eragon and Roran, with an occasional stop with the Varden, Paolini keeps the action strong enough to keep us reading.

Eldest ends with another climax, reminiscent of Eragon. But we still have unresolved issues; more that last time actually. So I look forward to finishing the story soon with Brisingr.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Christopher Reich: Numbered Account

I’ve read several books by Christopher Reich, but Numbered Account was his first. I decided to re-read it. I figured it must have been good, or I would never have bought any more. I was right.

Nick Neumann is a top grad from Harvard Business School, and gives up a prestigious job on Wall Street to move to Zurich and work for the United Swiss Bank. Nick has dual US /Swiss citizenship, because his father had been Swiss. Nick’s father came to the US when Nick was very young to open the Los Angeles Branch of the USB. Nicks father had been murdered in LA in a crime that had never been solved. After Nick’s mother died, he found some evidence linking his father’s death to his work at the bank. So he took the USB job with the ulterior motive of finding out what happened.

All the bank top officers remember Nicks father. The Chairman, Wolfgang Kaiser, takes a special interest in Nick because of the relationship. Other main characters that befriend Nick at the bank are his boss/mentor Peter Sprecher, and the HR manager Dr. Sylvia Schon. But as the plot thickens, how much can Nick trust them?

Shortly after Nick’s arrival, business becomes complicated when Klaus Konig, Chairman of the Adler Bank, launches a hostile takeover attempt against the USB. Kaiser appears willing to do anything to thwart him.

A significant amount of business in Nick’s department is funds passing in and out of a specific numbered account. No one seems to know who the owner is, but they call him “The Pasha”. What we learn, although Nick does not know, is that The Pasha is building a small army at his compound in Lebanon, with plans for a dramatic incident in Israel.

Further complicating Nick’s situation is that the US DEA is trying to penetrate Swiss Banking secrecy to track drug money. They gain an agreement with the Swiss government that allows obvious laundering activity to be reported.

When The Pasha’s account number appears on the official watch list, Nick has to confront his loyalties to the bank, the US, and to his own quest. How do you balance dealing with a potentially dangerous client, the US government, a hostile takeover, personal relationships, and a family mystery?

Numbered Account lives up to the “thriller” classification. The problems are challenging, the characters compelling, and action fast paced. It’s hard to put the book down. Ten years after the first read, I was still on the edge of my seat, since I could not remember how it all came out.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Michael Crichton: The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery was the first Michael Crichton book I ever read. In some ways that probably helps explain why it was eighteen years before I read another. Before re-reading it this summer, I remember almost nothing. About all I could tell you was that some folks robbed a train, and that at some point in the preparations a boy was sent through a small window to let other conspirators through a door.

The book deals with what the Victorians described as “The Crime of the Century”, or The Great Train Robbery” of 1855 in England. The time was very different than what we see today. Nothing moved faster than a train. Safes were mostly invulnerable. Dynamite and nitro-glycerin had not been invented. Steel was stronger that gunpowder. There were no high-speed drills or combination locks. The only way into a safe required a key, or keys. Victorian society was very stratified. Upper and lower classes did not mix. New social attitudes held that crime was a function of poverty, therefore it was inconceivable that a gentleman would commit a crime.

Within this environment we meet the apparent gentleman, Edward Pierce. He is interested in stealing the gold being shipped by rail to fund the payroll of British troops fighting in the Crimean War. As he explained it, “I wanted the money.” To succeed he needs access to the safe on the moving train. More importantly, he needs copies of the four keys required to open the safe. Most of the book details the year he and his confederates spent preparing for the crime.

The books main asset is also its main detraction. Every step of the way is described in archaic Victorian criminal jargon. Pierce is planning a “ream flash pull”. Some of the key players are the “putter-up”, the “screwsman”, and the “snakeman”. To gain access to one of the keys, they executed a “carriage fakement”, with the aid of a “crow” and a “stall”. All these terms are explained when first used, but not always when they reappear.

We get a very realistic picture of Victorian England. The language really imparts a sense of the times. The crime is intellectually challenging and well executed. Contingencies appear, and are overcome. We know from early in the book that Pierce will get the money, bit also will go to trial. But unless you are already an expert on the historical events, the book still holds surprises to the end.

The Great Train Robbery is not as ‘edge of your seat” captivating as many of Crichton’s other novels. But it is intriguing in its own way. I think I appreciate it more now, with my more mature tastes, than I did on the first read.

Robert B. Parker: Resolution

Robert B. Parker’s Resolution is a follow on to his first western, Appaloosa. It features the same main characters, Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole. Although in this case Hitch is in the town of Resolution for quite a while before Virgil Cole drifts in to hang out with him.

Everett Hitch takes a job in Resolution as “looout” in a saloon owned by Amos Wolfson. His eight gauge shotgun proves to be an effective counter to handguns, and he quickly establishes control within the saloon. Ultimately he is seen as a protector by many of the less advantaged in town. Protector was not in his job description, but there really isn’t much Wolfson can do about it.

It turns out that Hitch has stepped into a rivalry – ultimately violent – between Wolfson and Eamon O’Malley, the owner of the local copper mine. Other factions include a group of homesteaders, loosely organized by Bob Redmond, and some lumbermen working at Fritz Stark’s sawmill.

O’Malley hires a pair of gun fighters, Cato Tillson and Frank Rose, know as Cato and Rose. It’s clear that O’Malley does not need fighters to operate his mine. Pretty soon both Wolfson and O’Malley are hiring more fighters, but none on a level with Hitch and Cole, or Cato and Rose. I’m not giving much away to say that fighting ensues.

Based on a sampling of two, I’m deciding that a signature attribute of a Parker western is that the traditional western conflict gets resolved early. Everything points to a building conflict between Wolfson and O’Mally leading to a climax at the end of the book. But not with Parker. The Wolfson/O’Malley issue is resolved early. Where Parker excels is in the exploration of the aftermath of the conflict.

Do Hitch and Cole take actions because it’s the law, because it’s right, because they can, or some combination? When a non-shooter hires shooters to gain control, who ultimately ends up in control? What is the value of understanding your personal limitations?

With its terse dialog, interesting characters, and action Resolution is a fun book. With its emphasis on the time past the normal western’s climax, it is a uniquely interesting book.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Judy Mercer: Fast Forward

I enjoy stories where an unusual event changes the life of an otherwise normal person. Fast Forward by Judy Mercer falls into this category.

The book opens with a woman waking up, the room is a blur, and she does not recognize it. She also does not recognize the face in the mirror. The blurring cleared up when she found a pair of glasses. She found a German Shepard in the house, who seemed to be friendly. And she realized that she did not know who she was. To make matters worse, her face was cut and bruised, the house has been ransacked, she finds a bloody shirt, and a gun.

It doesn’t take long for her to figure out that she is probably Ariel Gold, a producer for an investigative TV show. But she does not know what a TV producer does. And she does not know what is going on. Did she hurt someone, or did someone hurt her. Assuming someone attacked her, who could it be? Why? Who can she trust when she no longer knows anyone? She decides to hide her amnesia and improvise as she goes along.

It really is interesting to see the things she does to cope with re-establishing her life. It is also fun to watch her dormant investigative skills come to life as she tries to find out what is happening. Suspense builds as she discovers aspects of her past, and as current life proceeds on. She is in a dangerous position. Although she does eventually get some help, she really has to work things out for herself.

As readers we know more about what is going on than Ariel does. But we don’t know who, among several suspects, the bad guy really is. But the pieces all fall together in appropriately believable ways.

Ariel is a great character as a strong, independent woman standing on her own. And many in supporting cast are interesting characters. But I don’t want to say too much about them. You should learn about them while Ariel does.

Fast Forward was a re-read for me, but it’s been thirteen years. So I couldn’t remember whom she should trust. I find myself wondering why there’s nothing else by Judy Mercer on my shelf. I may have to correct that.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lee Child: Nothing to Lose

I first met Jack Reacher in Lee Child’s One Shot. He is quite a character, so I’ve joined him for several more of his escapades. The latest one is in Nothing to Lose.

Jack Reacher is an ex-major in the Army Military Police. But he has dramatically simplified his life. He has no encumbrances, no home, no luggage, no vehicle. But he does have an ATM card that seems able to take care of most of his needs. (I probably need to read the first Jack Reacher novel to find out more about his bank account.) He does no laundry. He buys clothes, wears them three of four days, throws them away and buys more. He keeps no schedule.

As Nothing to Lose opens, Reacher is traveling from Calais, Maine to San Diego, California. He has no particular reason to do so. It just occurred to him that since Calais was the last major town in the Northeast, he might as well go to San Diego because it was the last major town in the Southwest. Depending on what was available, he traveled by bus, hitch hike, or walk. He had caught a ride that left him in Hope, Colorado. He set off on foot to Despair, Colorado simply because it was generally in the correct direction, and he was intrigued by the contrasting names.

When Reacher goes into Despair’s only restaurant, he is surprised that no one will serve him. Instead four men come in to make him leave the restaurant, and the town. As Reacher is prepared to take on the four guys – well actually only the three left standing after his initial move – the police arrive. Rather than rescuing him from his would be assaulters, the cop arrests him. Ultimately they send him back to Hope. But Reacher is a stubborn man, and his route runs west through Despair, so the story is on.

Reacher finds an ally in Officer Vaughn of the Hope Police Department. She has some mysteries in her past that come out as the tale unfolds.

Reacher finds an enemy in Jerry Thurman of Despair. He owns the largest metal recycling plant in Colorado, owns every building in Despair, and is the lay preacher of the only church in Despair. He owns the town, and he doesn’t like strangers poking around.

Obviously something is going on, in fact there are several threads of secret things going on. Reacher leads us to an understanding, and resolution, or all of it.

Lee Child’s Nothing to Lose may not be the most intellectually stimulating book around. But it sure is fun!

Robert B. Parker: Appaloosa

I recently saw an announcement for Robert B. Parker’s new western, Resolution. As I added it to my wish list, I decided to re-read his first western, Appaloosa. Parker is best known for he Spencer detective novels, as well as his Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall mysteries. As far as I know, Appaloosa is his first foray into the western genre.

The story is told from the perspective of Everett Hitch, the side-kick Marshal Virgil Cole. Cole seems to wander the West taking marshalling jobs in different towns that need help. Hitch follows along, serving as his deputy. It’s a very informal arrangement between them, but it works. Cole has developed a set of rules that he posts when he takes a job. If the town leaders won’t accept his control and his rules, he refuses the job.

The town of Appaloosa, Colorado has a problem with a local rancher named Randall Bragg. He and his men do and take whatever they want. They “buy” supplies from the local store and never pay. The take horses from the livery stable and don’t bring them back. They eat and drink in the saloons without paying. After killing a man and raping his wife the town marshal went to arrest the men responsible. They killed him. So the town aldermen, who own the store and saloons, sent for Cole and Hitch. The aldermen accept Cole’s rules and hire him. If they hadn’t the book would have needed a different name.

Randall Bragg is plenty of trouble, but Cole’s life becomes more complicated with the arrival of the widow, Mrs. Allison French. She takes a job playing the piano in a saloon, and takes an interest in Cole.

The first half of the book could be pretty standard western dealing with stopping Bragg’s rampages. Getting things under control takes about as much time as it would in a Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey western. But then Parker throws us a twist, and the second half of the book gets better. But I really can’t say much about it.

Everett Hitch is a fun character. Cole less so, but playing off Cole is what makes Hitch so enjoyable. Mrs. French is complicated and complicating. And Randall Bragg is great as a bad guy. He’s nasty, but surprising.

It’s only been three years since I first read Appaloosa, but I had forgotten most of it, even the second half plot twist. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward to eventually trying Resolution.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Nelson DeMille: Spencerville

I enjoyed Nelson DeMille’s Spencerville fourteen years ago, so decided to read it again. It is pure escapism, and enjoyable for that. I remembered a guy, a girl, a romantic attachment, and a corrupt cop that they were trying to get away from.

Well, the guy is Keith Landry. After 25 years of service as a “Cold Warrior” he is forcibly retired as part of the “Peace Dividend”. So he leaves Washington and returns to his family farm outside Spencerville, Ohio. He has recently been on the staff of the National Security Council, but has background as an infantry officer and an undercover intelligence operative. So we can assume he is resourceful.

The girl is Annie Baxter, currently married to Cliff Baxter, the Spencerville Chief of Police. Her son is in college, and her daughter is just leaving to start college. Cliff is an unpleasant husband. He is a domineering controlling type who does not trust her, and monitors her every move.

Cliff Baxter is also unpleasant as a Chief of Police. He is completely corrupt, and maintains tight control on the town. He controls the upper levels of society with illegal files and blackmail. He controls the lower end through intimidation. He has a hand-picked staff of cops who are almost as sadistic as he is. They enjoy their part in intimidating and harassing the public.

The romance is an old story. Keith and Annie were high school and college sweethearts. They drifted apart when Keith went to Vietnam and Annie went to grad school. Ultimately Annie returned to Spencerville, and as we have seen, married Cliff Baxter. But Keith and Annie still care for one another after all these years. But there are obvious roadblocks, like marriage to a jealous man, keeping them apart. But Keith does decide to help Annie leave Cliff. And this drives the action to a thrilling climax at the end.

A fun bit part is played by Jeffrey and Gail Porter. They are 60s radicals, recently retired after being left-wing college professors. Jeffery and Keith were good friends until the politics of the Vietnam era drove them apart. It’s fun to see them reconcile as mature adults.

There are two parts of the story that I have a hard time with. First, why hadn’t Annie gotten out of town and filed for divorce long ago? And how does a police chief really recruit officers that will be willing to flout the law any time he asks. It's obvious that he is using them to watch his wife, why don't they object? But if you just accept those areas and get on with the story, Spencerville is a good read. By the second half, it is hard to put down.

Jeff Shaara: The Steel Wave

Since I’m running so far behind on my reviews, I might as well do The Steel Wave now. As I said in the review of The Rising Tide, this is the second volume in Jeff Shaara’s World War II trilogy. This volume covers the D-Day landing in Normandy, and the Allied breakout from their beachheads.

Key characters again include Erwin Rommel, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Bernard Montgomery, and in an increased role, Omar Bradley. We also continue to follow the exploits of Sgt Jessie Adams of the 82nd Airborne.

The first half of the book deals with plans and preparation. Again Eisenhower’s biggest challenge seems to be keeping the peace between his British and American subordinates. Rommel’s biggest challenge is incompetent meddling from higher headquarters. Patton again causes almost more trouble than he’s worth by shooting off his mouth in front of reporters.

Shaara gives us a good view of the invasion. The paratroop drops go better than in Sicily, but still prove to be a very disorganized way to fight a war. Obviously the landings succeed, but Omaha Beach does not go well, and is very costly.

We get a good view of the final breakout from the beachheads. The British forces do not advance as well as Montgomery has promised, but are facing the stronger enemy. The Americans under Bradley, and with a drive by Patton do break through German lines. Rommel is still hampered in his defense by inane orders from Berlin.

The D-Day story has been told many times in books and movies. The gold standard for years was probably S.L.A. Marshall, until he was displaced by Stephen Ambrose. The Steel Wave complements Ambrose by portraying the personal, emotional side of the events. As with the rest of Shaara’s novels, this is not light fiction. It is interesting, accessible history.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Jeff Shaara: The Rising Tide

I re-read The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara since I was about to read the second volume of his World War II trilogy, The Steel Wave. Jeff Shaara made his success with Civil War novels, picking up where his father (Michael Shaara) left off. The Shaara approach is to pick key players, particularly opposing generals, as well as representative small players, and to tell the story in their words.

These books are barely fiction. They are thoroughly researched. As well as can be told by any historian, events happened exactly as described. But Shaara invents dialog based on memoirs and letters, or in the case of the WW II, interviews. When Alan Eckert did this in the 1960s and 70s, he called it non-fiction, although that was controversial.

The Rising Tide covers the North African campaign, the Sicilian campaign, and the Allied invasion of Italy. It stops short of the grueling fighting in Italy. I was interested in the overlap with Rick Atkinson’s first two WW II non-fiction works, An Army at Dawn (North Africa) and The Day of Battle (Sicily and Italy through Rome). Both authors address the inexperience of American forces, and the rivalry between British and American commanders. Atkinson probably paints a starker picture of Allied screw-ups and near-criminal competition. But Shaara probably gives a better feel for the emotional context.

Some of Shaara’s main characters are Erwin Rommel, Dwight Eisenhower, Bernard Montgomery, and George Patton. He introduces us to a tanker named Jack Logan, and a paratrooper named Jessie Adams. Through these perspectives he tells of the fight across North Africa and Sicily.

The Americans were especially concerned about what kind of opposition they would have from the French when they landed. For the most part, landings were unopposed, but progress to reach and fight the Germans and Italians were slowed by French fighting. In all our nostalgia about Allied forces liberating France, it’s hard to remember that at this point of the war, the Vichy French forces were allied with Germany.

At the time, the Americans wanted to launch a cross-channel invasion of France, rather than fight in North Africca, Sicily, and Italy. The British insisted on the southern strategy. I think that both Shaara and Atkinson make it obvious that the Americans needed these fights as a bloody, costly training experience. Through these campaigns they weeded out incompetent commanders, inadequate equipment, and unrealistic tactics. It is easy to believe that an invasion of Northern France in 1942 would have ended in disaster.

The Rising Tide is not a fun escapist novel. But it is interesting and accurate history. Shaara’s style of putting words into the mouths of real people in real events makes the history accessible.

Friday, August 15, 2008

David Baldacci: The Winner

I remembered The Winner as being one of my favorite David Baldacci books. So I decided to re-read it. I did not remember much. But I did remember that it was about someone fixing the lottery. And I remembered that someone caught on because for a twelve month period none of the winners went bankrupt. I always thought it was in interesting commentary that most lottery winners lose everything within a couple years, and end up worse than when they started. But then I’ve never been a big fan of the lottery – a tax on people who are bad at math.

So the mysterious Mr. Jackson approaches LuAnn Tyler and offers her a guaranteed $100 million lottery win. She is down and out, with a baby girl and abusive boy friend. Ultimately she accepts, but due to a pending murder charge, she needs to change her identity and leave the country.

Jackson’s only stipulation is that he gets to manage the money, with a generous guaranteed return to her, for ten years. Then she gets the principle. Jackson agrees to help her change her identity and escape, but she has to agree to never file taxes, and never return to the United States.

Not surprisingly, considering that this is a Baldacci novel, Jackson is a thoroughly ruthless character. Ten years later, when LuAnn violates her agreement, and returns to the US, although under her changed identity, Jackson decides to take action. At this point we also meet Matthew Riggs, who also seems to have a shadowed past. Can LuAnn let him help? Can someone with $100 million and no past find romance? Can she survive long enough to enjoy wealth or romance?

The Winner has plenty of action, an interesting heroine, and a memorable bad guy. It’s a good story and a fun read. And it’s hard to put down.

Monday, August 11, 2008

William L Sullivan: Oregon’s Greatest Natural Disasters

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
August 2, 2008

The Cascadia subduction zone lies a few miles off the Oregon coast. Every three to six hundred years the Pacific Plate and Juan de Fuca Plate slide, and Oregon gets a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami. The last event was in 1700, so we’re due any time now for the next. Unfortunately, those beautiful 1930’s coast river bridges I mentioned in an earlier review are not likely to survive. Advice for Oregonians: Don’t live in a brick building, and on the coast don’t live farther than a ten-minute walk to high ground.

I chatted with Bill Sullivan at the Maude Kerns Art and the Vineyard festival a few weeks ago, where I was helping my wife, Sue, sell things at her fused glass art booth. After he told me the story above, I couldn’t resist buying the book.

Oregon’s Greatest Natural Disasters is a little history, a little science, a little politics, and a little advice. It describes a whole spectrum of natural events starting with the ice age floods, and then on to tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, windstorms, landslides, and forest fires. To a non-Oregonian this would likely be dry reading. To an Oregonian it is pretty interesting, since we’ve all heard stories of the major natural events that occurred here—before our time, or when we were young, or even five years ago. There is no plot to keep us engaged, but Sullivan works in personal stories of people impacted by many of the disasters. He describes the events in some depth, giving us both a technical understanding of what happened and a personal sense of its impacts.

I was interested in learning about the Vanport flood of 1948, since we later bought a house that had been recovered from the flood. And the Columbus Day storm of 1962, since my wife has told me stories of living through it. And the ice age floods that possibly lapped at our farm in the hills at the south end of the Willamette Valley. And the Tillamook Burns in the 1930’s and 40’s, which was still evident when I moved to Oregon in 1971. And even the Biscuit Fire of 2002, which led to challenges to conventional wisdom on how to manage a forest after a major fire. “Post-wildfire logging hinders regeneration and increases fire risk.”

Each chapter includes some historical data, like the chart showing the history of eruptions of each of Oregon’s major peaks. And the chapters contain predictions for future events and suggestions for surviving them. Interestingly, after reading this book I don’t feel terribly threatened. But I don’t live at the coast, near a volcano, downhill from a clear-cut, or in a floodplain. I do live adjacent to a forest that is pretty dry in August.

The book includes some surprises about the impacts of the works of man on natural disasters. Damming all of Oregon’s major rivers was supposed to reduce flooding, but has it? In a 1975 survey of 245 landslides that occurred in one coastal forest district, 91% were in clear cuts or road cuts. Wow!

Harlan Coben: Hold Tight

I’ve been reading Harlan Coben since Just One Look. I love the turmoil he causes ordinary people through a simple incident.

In Hold Tight, Tia and Mike Baye install a spy program on their 16 year old son’s computer. Adam Baye has been acting strangely since a good friend, Spencer Hill killed himself. They find a message “It’s long over. Just stay quiet and all safe.” So what’s going on with Adam? What kind of danger is he in? What can his parents do to help?

But we have a lot going on besides Adam’s toubles. Mike Baye is a surgeon, and the boy next door, Lucas Loriman needs a kidney transplant. Betsy Hill has still not learned to live with her son’s suicide. Loren Muse is newly Chief of Investigations and his having trouble with one of her detectives. To make matters worse, a couple, Nash and Pietra, are killing people. We’re not sure why. And finally we have a school teacher who carelessly humiliated one of his students, and did not get the punishment the girl’s father though he deserved.

The plot is mainly driven by Adam Baye’s troubles, but all these issues weave together. We really don’t understand how until the end of the book.

Hold Tight does not disappoint. It’s another thriller from Coben full of twists and surprises.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

William L Sullivan: The Case of Einstein’s Violin

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
July 31, 2008

Bill Sullivan is a Eugene author, best known for his 100 Hiking Trails In… genre of books. In recent years he has been expanding his repertoire with various travel books, some history, and now fiction. The Case of Einstein’s Violin is his second novel. I’d read his first novel, and it was interesting, but largely because of its Eugene and Oregon historical content. I wasn’t sure I’d like another novel by Sullivan, but he gave me such a convincing pitch (at last December’s Authors and Artists Fair, of course), that I decided to give it a try.

Wow, this is a fun story! It has it all—mystery, travel, adventure, romance, action, and good dialog. And comedy; I laughed a lot. (I wonder if that’s what Sullivan intended.) The story starts in Eugene, Oregon, and then travels to Greece, Italy, and Germany. The plot is interesting and complex enough to keep me fully engaged. Instead of my usual habit of reading in the evening until I get sleepy, this book put me into the opposite mode, read in the evening until enough exciting things have happened that I have to stop to let it settle in (and prolong the enjoyment of reading).

Ana Smyth and her friend Harmony, both young school teachers, are trying to raise enough money for Ana to travel to Europe. Years ago Ana’s great aunt left Ana all the stuff in the attic, and so they decide to sell some of it on eBay, including an old violin case that they think might have belonged to Einstein. This leads to a lot more interest than expected and an accelerated trip to Greece for Ana (and a planned trip to Italy for Harmony). In Greece Ana meets Gilberto, an Italian man sent to help her in a quest, and later meets Peter, a German who seems to have been spying on her since the eBay sale. The adventure leads Ana to Italy, where she doesn’t quite cross paths with Harmony, although Gilberto does. Things get a little exciting, Peter shows up again, and Ana and Peter have to run, this time to Germany. Several unsavory characters have been chasing the two women, but we can’t figure out just what they want…until the very last pages of the book.

I really enjoyed the blending of personalities and travels and mystery as the story unfolded. Sullivan does a great job of introducing unexplainable tidbits throughout the book, and letting them dangle until the last few pages, where everything finally makes sense. My only complaint is that the resolutions were too quick and not as deep as I had expected. I wanted to keep reading for another hundred pages!

I talked with Bill Sullivan recently at another fair (where I bought another book), and it sounds like he had as much fun writing The Case of Einstein’s Violin as I did reading it. He wrote much of the book while traveling with his wife, covering the same paths as described in the book, and writing chapters in his hotel room in the evenings. Oh, the life of a successful author!

I’m very impressed that this is just Sullivan’s second novel. I’m ready for the movie!

Kyle Mills: Rising Phoenix

Can we eliminate the drug problem in the US by poisoning the supply of illegal narcotics? That’s the central theme of Rising Phoenix a first novel by Kyle Mills. I recently re-read the book. And reminded myself of why I have bought several of his later books.

According to ex-DEA agent, John Hobart, poisoning the narcotics supply is the secret dream of many law-enforcement officers. It certainly seems that more traditional measures are not working. He convinces a “do-gooder” to fund the attempt, while maintaining his distance. It turns out that poisoning the drug supply is not a trivial matter. What poison will work, and not be noticed as drugs are distributed throughout their network? How can it be infiltrated high enough in the chain to make a significant difference? It turns out that John Hobart is about as cold and ruthless a character as we need to meet. He can solve these problems.

As the body counts start to rise, the FBI brings Mark Beamon back to Washington to head up the case. Although he is a top notch investigator, the Director of the FBI hates him. He may be more useful as a scapegoat if the FBI fails to stop the poisonings, than as a hero saving the day. The politics of the Federal Government trying to protect drug users is pretty interesting. Things get particularly dicey when the FBI gets a tip with details on an upcoming plan to poison a shipment in New York. Do they work with the Mafia Don to protect an illegal shipment?

If anyone wants to stop John Hobart more than the FBI, it’s Luis Colombar, a Columbian drug lord. The poisonings are seriously disrupting his profit margin. And he is every bit as ruthless as Hobart.

There is plenty of room for irony and strange bedfellows in Rising Phoenix. Drug use is down. Public support for poisoning is high enough to be politically challenging. So what’s a maverick FBI agent to do?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Joe R Blakely: Lifting Oregon Out of the Mud: Building the Oregon Coast Highway and Kidnapped…On Oregon’s Coast Highway

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
July 28, 2008

If you read my earlier reviews, you can guess where I met Joe Blakely… Yes, at the Authors and Artists fair last December, benefiting the Eugene Public Library. I am an easy mark for authors that I meet in person, and I bought quite a few books that day, including these two from Joe Blakely.

I was intrigued with Blakely’s two-book effort. First he researched the construction of the Oregon Coast Highway in the 1920’s and 1930’s and wrote Lifting Oregon Out of the Mud. And then he wrote Kidnapped…On Oregon’s Coast Highway, a novel that is set in the same timeframe, in which three people chase each other along the incomplete coast highway.

Lifting Oregon Out of the Mud starts with a description of the sorry state of coast roads in the 1910’s. There are few roads interconnecting coastal cities, and the roads that do exist are often deep mud in the rainy season. Coastal communities are just starting to band together to sell the idea of a north/south coast highway to the politicians in the state capital, Salem.

This one photograph moved me to buy the book. I couldn’t resist the expression on the man’s face as he dealt with the realities of coastal travel.

At the beginning of the narrative we were at war with Germany, and the Pacific Coast Defense League argued for a military highway stretching from Washington to California, which they named the Roosevelt Coast Military Highway. The idea was well received, but… How to pay for it? Oregon passed its first gas tax, a penny a gallon, making some funds available. But political interests in Portland and eastern Oregon pressured to spend the money on inland north/south roads. During the 1920’s some money made it to the coast, and short segments of the Roosevelt Highway were built each year.

By the early 1930’s, most of the roadway was complete, but there were still several big bridges to build, replacing the original, somewhat unreliable ferries in use across the coast rivers. The resulting bridges are the most stunning man-made structures on the coast, still fascinating to us travelers today.

Finally in 1936, seventeen years after the first funding, the highway was completed, 420 miles from Astoria to Crescent City, California. This short, 65-page book was easy to read, and provided interesting history. It did, however, get a little tiring reading the construction details for every segment of road and for every bridge. None-the-less, I am now well primed for…

Kidnapped… On Oregon’s Coast Highway, is a fun adventure that takes place in 1926, when the coast highway was only partly complete. Ben Cooper, a young reporter for The Oregonian, has been told to drive the entire Oregon Coast Highway from Crescent City to Astoria, and to report on what he sees. He’s looking forward to it—until his editor tells him to pick up Eva Barton, a young conservationist, who is to tag along and write about the destruction of old growth forests. That will probably lead to ideological conflicts, but nothing like the conflict with Tom Bigalow, Eva’s ex-fiancĂ©. Tom can’t get over losing Eva, and he will do anything to get her back.

That’s the setting for a sometimes scenic, sometimes muddy, sometimes exciting drive up the coast, with Ben and Eva in the lead and Tom not far behind. Ben is modest but gallant and braver than he knew. Eva is sweet but relentless in her quest to save the old trees. And Tom is evil, shockingly so as the story unfolds.

The story is predictable, the relationships develop as you might guess, and the dialog is a little stiff. But the people they meet, the places they go, and the drama of the chase are all very captivating. I thoroughly enjoyed Blakely’s Kidnapped, especially after reading Lifting Oregon Out of the Mud.