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.