Saturday, November 14, 2009

Dan Armstrong: Prarie Fire

Guest Review by Kit Bradley

September 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When is the movie coming out?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

David Wroblewki: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dan Brown: Angels & Demons

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
July 8, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 8, 2009

Scott Turow: Reversible Errors

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
May 25, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 25, 2009

John Grisham: The Associate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Patrick F. McManus: The Blight Way

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
April 23, 2009

After Nate reviewed Avalanche, another Sheriff Bo Tully mystery, I decided to read a Patrick McManus book. The Blight Way is set in Blight County, Idaho, with the action shifting between Blight City and the small town of Famine. As the story commences, Batim Scragg, a rancher more likely to be on the wrong side of the law, calls the county sheriff, Bo Tully, to inform him there is a dead body draped on one of his pasture fences. Bo picks up his dad, Pap, the former county sheriff, and the two of them drive up to Famine to investigate.

As the story unfolds, we meet each of the quirky members of the sheriff’s department, a couple ranchers, some of the unusual citizens of Famine, and we find a couple more bodies. All the victims appear to be from Los Angeles, which suggests a drug connection. But Famine, Idaho seems an unlikely hot spot for drug dealings or killings. There are just enough incidents and clues to clear up this quandary by the end of the story.

The Blight Way is not a complex mystery. A lot of the interest is in getting to know the characters. Bo Tully, in addition being the sheriff, is a fairly competent artist. He has dated pretty much every unmarried woman in town, and he is always on the lookout for newcomers. (Watch out Susan Parker, the new medical examiner up from Boise!) Pap has a different style, but he isn’t much different.

The other draw to this book and Patrick McManus in general is the wry humor. I did chuckle a few times as I read the book, “’I hear it’s better to stay lost than to have Blight County Search and Rescue find you,’ Pap said.” Well, I guess you had to be there.

In summary, the story line is interesting and comes to a reasonable but not surprising conclusion; the characters are interesting although not captivating; and the book is sort of humorous. It is a good, easy recreational read, but it’s not a book to keep on my shelf to read again in the future.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Janet Evanovich: Plum Lovin'

A few years ago I picked up Three Plums in One, a volume that contained Janet Evanovich’s first three Stephanie Plum novels. I enjoyed them, although I was careful to set it aside between each novel and read something else. I did not want to get burned out. I keep telling myself that someday I’ll start moving forward again from Four to Score.

But in the meantime I ran across Plum Lovin’, a “Between the Numbers” story. It is 164 pages of Valentine’s Day fluff – and thoroughly enjoyable.

For those of you who don’t know, Stephanie Plum stumbled into the job of bounty hunter when she couldn’t find other work. She’s not tough enough for the job, but she is determined and foolish enough. And she develops friends who are tough enough to bail her out of trouble.

In Plum Lovin’, a strange guy named Diesel shows up in Stephanie’s apartment. I’m pretty sure Diesel has been around before, but since I never got past Three to Get Deadly, I can’t say when. In any case Diesel seems to be some sort of disciplinarian in a sub-culture of people with paranormal abilities. He’s trying to find Bernie Beamer, who tends to give hives to people near him when he’s upset. At the moment, he’s upset about problems in his marriage and blames Annie Hart.

Annie is a self-proclaimed relationship expert committed to helping five clients (who don’t happen to know that they are clients) find happiness – or true love – by Valentine’s Day. Annie is also on Stephanie’s list, wanted for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon.

Diesel has Annie hidden away while he searches for Bernie. But he had to promise to help her with her clients so she would stay hidden. If Stephanie will take care of Annie’s clients, Diesel will give Annie to Stephanie when he’s done dealing with Bernie. But in the mean time, there are also some serious bad guys after Annie. (Remember? She’s connected to an armed robbery and assault situation.) To further complicate the story, one of Annie’s clients is Stephanie’s sister’s live in boy friend.

Now if you don’t see the potential for humor in this set-up, you need to stay away from Janet Evanovich’s novels.

Plum Lovin’ is light, easy, and fun. It has no redeeming social value – my kind of book. It won’t last much longer than a TV movie. So stick a bag of popcorn in the microwave and take an evening off.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Joseph Finder: Killer Instinct

I like Joseph Finder because he writes about the corporate world. Although it’s not quite the same corporate world I remember. I found a copy of Killer Instinct on a discount table and bought it.

We meet Jason Steadman, a district sales manager for Entronics, a company that makes flat screen TVs of all sizes. He likes what he does, and is good at it. He has reached a plateau in his career and seems reasonably content. But his wife was raised in an “old but gone money” family, and would like some of the better things back in her life. So when a VP of Sales position opens up, she pushes him to try for it.

Jason meets Kurt Semco, an ex-Special Forces guy, driving a tow truck. One thing leads to another and Jason gets Kurt a job in corporate security, mainly because they need a good pitcher on the company softball team.

Kurt adopts Jason as his new best buddy, and will do anything for him. The problem is with how far “anything” goes. At first Kurt uses his Special Forces contacts to get Jason some inside information to help him close important deals. And, interestingly, at the same time some important deals for Jason’s main competitors for the VP job fall through at the last minute.

Kent “Gordy” Gordon is the Senior VP over the entire sales division. If, well actually when, Jason gets the VP job, he reports to Gordy. And Gordy is a jerk. A lot of the book deals with Jason trying to be true to his own beliefs while dealing with Gordy’s demands.

Jason enjoys the perks and salary of his new role, but begins to realize that he got where he is with more help than he wants from Kurt. But he is still tempted to use Kurt’s help on key deals. Ultimately he understands that Kurt is way out of bounds and needs to be stopped. But Kurt is much worse as an enemy than as a friend. The plot thickens....

Jason is mostly a likeable character. That’s not always a given with Finder’s books. Kurt is a little over the top in his abilities and resources. He seems a bit too omnipotent. That helps the plot line, but at a cost in believability.

Killer Instinct takes a business cliché and pushes it to a literal definition. The result is not pretty from the perspective of working for Entronics. But for the reader, the result is a fast paced thriller set in corporate America.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
April 17, 2009

I found The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time in my shelf of books to be read. It had a Borders “Buy Two, Get One Free” sticker on it. I’m not sure if this was one of the two or the one free, but I’m glad I read it.

Christopher is a unique 15 year old who happens to be out late one evening and sees his neighbor’s dog Wellington lying in the yard, stabbed with a garden fork. He sets out to solve this murder—and write a book about it—so it turns out The Curious Incident is a murder mystery written in the first person by Christopher. Christopher really likes prime numbers, and he used them to number the chapters in this book. There are 233 chapters.

It turns out that Christopher is very, very smart (he can solve most any math problem), but he has very limited social skills and doesn’t like being around people he doesn’t know. “I find people confusing…people do a lot of talking without using any words…people often talk using metaphors.”

Christopher is very honest and very logical, and he will keep his promises—but not always as his father expects if there is any wiggle room in the literal logic of the promise. Christopher hates yellow, won’t eat any yellow food, and if he passes four yellow cars in a row on his way to school, it’s going to be a Black Day.

Christopher’s constraints (both emotional and also promises to his father) make it hard to gather information about Wellington’s death, but he proceeds with great determination and courage. Along the way he discovers a big secret, and that leads him into a long trip on public transportation (passing four yellow cars), and Christopher is forced to deal with crowds of strangers. It’s very hard, but he deals with it.

Mark Haddon does a superb job in The Curious Incident of describing the thought processes of an autistic boy. We understand exactly what is going through Christopher’s mind, and we understand why everything Christopher does makes perfect sense to Christopher, while it is driving his father and other adults crazy. It’s a real challenge for the people who love him to live with him, especially if they lie to him, even white lies. Christopher is very observant and very logical and can easily spot inconsistencies.

The Curious Incident starts off gently in describing Christopher’s cleverness and quirks, but it gets pretty intense when Christopher is challenged. But Christopher and the adults in his life muddle through everything, and life goes on.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
April 12, 2009

Well, it took awhile to get to it, but we finally read J. K. Rowling’s final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I read it aloud to my wife, one chapter an evening. It was quite an experience trying to imitate all the voices and moods, which swung from dull to intensely exciting, and back again.

So, finally after six years we find out – will Harry Potter overcome Lord Voldemort, or, heaven forbid, not? “Neither can live while the other survives.” Harry is strongly challenged numerous times through this story, and things don’t always work out as planned.

There are a lot of questions that weren’t completely resolved in the previous six Harry Potter books, and a few more come up in this book, in particular the question of Severus Snape’s loyalties. As the story unfolds, this and many other questions are answered, and I no longer have to toss and turn at night pondering.

Two central concerns in this final volume are Horcruxes and the Deathly Hallows. A Horcrux is an object in which a person, in this case Lord Voldemort, has concealed a part of his soul. The Deathly Hallows are objects that have something to do with defeating death. Both of these might be used in alternate strategies to overcome Lord Voldemort.

Throughout this book Harry and his close friends Ron and Hermione take on the search for Horcruxes and the Deathly Hallows. Finding them and doing exactly the right things with them requires intuition, quick thinking, and perhaps a lot of luck.

As the story starts, Lord Voldemort’s allies have taken over the Ministry of Magic and control most of the wizarding community. Harry and his two friends are forced to live on the run, and they travel throughout England in their searches. It seems like most of the time they are aimlessly wandering, searching for some clue that will lead them to the next object in their search. These times get a little boring as we listen to the heroes arguing with each other and getting nowhere. But on the next page something drastic happens, like being unexpectedly discovered by Death Eaters, and the story jumps into high-speed action, with a particularly strong climax at the end. Not surprisingly, it reads like a movie script.

Up through the final events, Harry (and we) gradually learn Professor Dumbledore’s complex strategy for prevailing over Lord Voldemort. Harry is frustrated that Dumbledore didn’t just tell him all this directly, but perhaps that couldn’t be. Harry’s parents and most of the friends and enemies in their generation of wizards all play roles in the great unfolding. There are a bunch of heroes and a similar number of villains, and both the good and the bad have plenty of successes.

There are numerous sad parts to this book, and not everyone survives. I was very sad when the Death Eaters killed some of my favorites. By the end of the story things are resolved, and we know whether the wizarding world is going to be run by good or evil witches and wizards. Now I don’t have to lie in bed at night wondering about it.

Sigh, the end.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Jeffery Deaver: The Bodies Left Behind

I know I’ve read Jeffery Deaver before, but I’m not a regular. I’m not sure why. I was attracted to The Bodies Left Behind by its Book-of-the-Month Club review.

A call comes in to 911, a man’s voice says, “This”, and the call ends. The phone goes to voice mail when the operator tries to call back. Sheriff Tom Dahl of Kennesha County, Wisconsin learns that the call came from Lake Mondac in Marquette State Park in the remote northern part of his county. The phone is owned by a pair of lawyers from Milwaukee who own a vacation home at the lake. They were to meet a friend of theirs from Chicago at the lake. Dahl doesn’t like unresolved issues, so he sends Deputy Brynn McKenzie to investigate.

Just before Brynn arrives at the lake house, Dahl calls to let her know it was a false alarm, so she should come back. (A man returned the Sheriff’s calls and explained it was an error with his speed dial.) But Brynn is closer to the lake house than to the nearest gas station, so she decides to go on and borrow the bathroom. While there she finds two bodies on the floor, is attacked by a pair of thugs named Hart and Lewis, and finds a scared woman named Michelle hiding from the thugs.

To keep the book interesting, Brynn loses her phone, gun, and car in the lake before letting anyone know what is happening. (She’ll have quite a story to tell about that experience.) She and Michelle escape into the woods of the State Park with Hart and Lewis in pursuit. Meanwhile, everyone back at the office thinks she’s on her way home with plans to stop for dinner, and take the next day off. Oops!

Eventually, Dahl figures out that something is wrong and rallies the troops. He also finds the bodies, but by then he is hours and miles behind. Brynn and Michelle have been surviving on pluck and wits, while Hart and Lewis press on with a determination to leave no loose ends behind.

Deaver gives us plenty of plot complications and major twists that I did not see coming. But they all fit logically. The characters are pretty well developed, and I like Brynn.

The Bodies Left Behind is a good adventure romp with all the excitement and surprises I could ask for. I clearly need to read more Deaver.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Patrick F. McManus: Avalanche

For a rip-roarin’ good time, read Patrick F. McManus. I first encountered him years ago when I heard someone reading from The Grasshopper Trap on public radio. I bought the book and enjoyed it. But I could not read it out load because I would start laughing too hard. At the time, all his books were collections of outdoorsy stories that were simply hilarious.

Then a couple years ago, I found out that McManus had written a novel, The Blight Way. So I bought it; read it; loved it. Now I’ve finished Avalanche, his second novel. Sheriff Bo Tully of Blight County, Idaho, returns for a new mystery.

Mike Wilson, the owner of a fancy lodge is missing, and his wife asks Sheriff Tully to come investigate. She offers to feed and house him in the lodge during the investigation. He jumps at the case to spend a couple days in luxury. He asks his quirky tracker, Dave Perkins to meet him there. He invites Pap, his father and retired sheriff, to ride out with him. Things initially get complicated when an avalanche closes the highway behind him. No one can get in or out.

As the missing person case turns into a murder case, Tully is facing a deadline. He needs to solve the murder before the road is cleared and suspects can disperse. He gets the National Guard to fly his CSI Unit (a guy named Lurch) out to help.

Lurch seems to be afraid of most things, starting with flying, which gives McManus plenty of fodder for humor. Perkins and Pap are excellent characters to play off of Tully’s straight lines.

We have a murder, but that’s hardly important. Mostly we have outdoors misadventures and Pap, Perkins, Lurch, owner, staff, guests, and folks back at headquarters all irritating Bo Tully. Tully steps through his investigation in a very folksy but competent way. He’s sort of like a back-woods Columbo. As the mystery comes together, all the pieces fit, and the conclusions work.

Avalanche can be a bad book to read on a plane or other public place. People look at you funny when you start laughing out loud by yourself. I have no doubt that I’ll grab the next Sheriff Bo Tully mystery that I see.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mark T. Sullivan: Triple Cross

I have signed up for several “Early Reviewer” books through my LibraryThing account. I finally got one from St. Martin’s Press that is due to be published soon – April, 2009. I don’t feel obligated to give it a good review, but I do feel obligated to give it a prompt review. So I have jumped it ahead of my unconsciously long backlog of completed books.

Triple Cross by Mark T. Sullivan is a fast paced thriller – my kind of book. Although Sullivan has written six other books, this is the first I’ve read. I will not avoid his books in the future, but neither will I go out of my way to find more.

Mickey Hennessey is head of security at the Jefferson Club, a private resort in Montana for super-rich and super-celebrity clients. Conveniently for the bad guys, the seven richest men in the world, as well as the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, have gathered at the Jefferson Club for a New Year’s Party. Hennessey’s three fourteen year old triplets (two boys and a girl) are also visiting while their mother is off on a honeymoon with a new husband.

A paramilitary force of about 50, led by “General Anarchy” attacks the resort, killing all the guards except Hennessey. They call themselves the Third Position Army, opposed to extremes on both the left and right. They embrace the message of the “anti-globalists” who are opposed to large international corporations and their political supporters.

In the early part of the book, I found myself thinking about a chapter from Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. In that chapter, a group of terrorists wanted the secret codes that let the rich make more money than anyone else. When the hostage could not produce the codes, the terrorists got angry. Clancy’s point was that the situation was dangerous, because there are no such codes. But I found myself thinking that maybe Sullivan does believe in the secret codes for the rich.

The bad guys proceed to put the Senator and super-rich on trial one at a time. “Judge New Truth” presided, “General Anarchy” served as prosecutor, and “Citizen’s Defender Emilia” provided entirely inadequate defense. The trials were broadcast over the web, with millions of viewers casting “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” votes. “General Anarchy” had incredibly detailed dirt on each defendant, although the explanation for how he got the information was not very satisfying. Needless to say, the defendants are not sympathetic characters.

Beyond the initial attack, the action centers on the hostage rescue efforts. Hennessey is injured and watching helplessly with the FBI outside the compound, while his triplets are trapped inside. The triplets put their vast experience as teenage troublemakers to use causing problems for “General Anarchy” and his troops.

Once the book got going, it became hard to put down. Many of the twists and turns were interesting, although some major twists were predictable. Hennessey, though flawed, and the triplets were likeable characters. The hostages and Third Position Army members were caricatures.

On one level, Triple Cross is an enjoyable, mindless action story. On another, it appears to be a vehicle for espousing the anti-globalist perspective. All powerful and wealthy people are ruthless, greedy, and evil. Otherwise they would not be rich and powerful.

I have to admit that I did enjoy Triple Cross once the action really started moving. But it left me with no feeling of substance. The characters and plot were shallow, and the message left a sour taste in my mouth. The cover of my review copy includes a glowing quote from Douglas Preston. Interestingly, my complaint about Triple Cross is very similar to my complaint about Preston’s Blasphemy.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
March 28, 2009

I like Neal Stephenson’s science fiction books. And I also liked volume one of The Baroque Cycle, a three (or eight, depending on how you buy it) volume narrative of historical/scientific fiction set in the 17th and 18th centuries. A book named Cryptonomicon was mentioned there, so I bought it. Well, this isn’t it, but the book Cryptonomicon is mentioned in this book too.

A little confusing? A lot of the passages in this Cryptonomicon book start off like that, but you just have to keep reading, and all becomes clear. The narrative develops two stories, one that plays out during World War II, and one in “present day.” The major present day characters are children or grandchildren of the World War II characters.

With 918 pages, Stephenson has plenty of time to fill in the background and develop the story. A lot of his narrative goes into very detailed descriptions of the technologies central to what the characters are doing, ranging from cryptography to mining to digital communications. Unfortunately, “present day” is 1999, and the Internet has spawned a lot of interesting technology since then, making Stephenson’s descriptions feel a little dated. Also, the reader needs to have a nerdish streak to find the detailed descriptions interesting. I loved it, and I would have been happy if the book was half again longer!

The story jumps around between the two time frames and between multiple characters, making Cryptonomicon a little challenging to read, but fun so long as you stay alert. The characters are mostly men, engaging in various physical or intellectual adventures, often missing female companionship, which leads to a few R-rated passages. There were just enough women in the story to produce the characters for the present day story.

And what is this story about? It seems to me that it’s about the characters and the extensive quirkiness each one expresses. Bobby Shaftoe is a very gung-ho Marine who endures without complaint a wide range of adventures during the big war. Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe is Bobby’s son, a Vietnam vet, and runs a sort of marine salvage company in the Philippines. Lawrence Waterhouse is a math whiz who meets Alan Turing before the war and gets involved in cryptography then and during the war. And Randy Waterhouse is Lawrence’s grandson, a computer geek who is helping set up a data haven in the Philippines. And then there’s the puzzling Enoch Root, who shows up when needed—both during the war and in the present day, and also in The Baroque Cycle.

Oh yes, the story is about hiding treasures (World War II) and finding treasures (present day). And inventing cryptographic codes and cracking them. It was fun to read. I’m looking forward to reading my next Stephenson book.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

David Liss: The Whiskey Rebels

The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss is the best historic novel I’ve read in a long time. I wasn’t expecting that. I expected it to be interesting, and informative, but not this much. On the other hand, it was not quite as much about the Whiskey Rebellion as I expected.

The 1790s were an important time in the establishment of the United States. The Constitution was still new, and Washington was still serving as the first President. Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, was trying to establish a firm financial base for the new country, specifically through strong banking. Thomas Jefferson, as a perpetual debtor farmer, hated banks. He thought banks, and a requirement to repay loans to wealthy people, represented everything the Revolution fought against. He and Hamilton were bitter enemies.

Hamilton wanted to fund his financial reforms with a tax on whiskey. That was fine in most of the country, but devastating on the western frontier. With bad roads between East and West, and the rivers still blocked by the Spanish at New Orleans, the western settlers had no way of moving bulk produce to market. Their only solution was to distill their crops into whiskey, which could be shipped east and converted to cash. Ultimately Washington had to dispatch troops to Western Pennsylvania to put down a small revolt – The Whiskey Rebellion.

The Whiskey Rebels is about this situation, but stops short of the actual rebellion. We have two main characters whose paths cross, and stories intertwine.

Ethan Saunders is a former spy in George Washington’s service. Just before the end of the war, he was falsely accused of treason. Alexander Hamilton made him resign from the Army and disappear rather than face charges. Now, in 1792, Saunders is a drunken womanizer with a ruined reputation, and a strong grudge – no hatred – for Hamilton. He lurks in the darker corners of the nation’s capital, Philadelphia. As the story unfolds, he becomes a more likeable character. He cuts back on the drink, and we start to see the quick thinking that kept him alive behind British lines. But he is still better at taking a beating than at fighting his way out of a problem.

After a chapter with Saunders, we flash back to 1781 to meet Joan Maycott. She is a very strong minded, decisive woman. She really is a powerful and inspiring character. Just before Hamilton’s Treasury Department starts redeeming old war debt, her husband trades his presumably worthless paper pay for land in Western Pennsylvania. Once the Maycotts get out there they learn that they’ve been cheated on both ends. They only have a lease, not title to the western lands. And the land is not the civilized Garden of Eden that they were promised. But they persevere through a variety of hardships.

Saunders is dragged into current political struggles, and reluctantly, is helping Hamilton defend his new Bank of the United States. Maycott ultimately is drawn back to Philadelphia looking for revenge against the speculators who cheated her and her husband, including, in her mind, Hamilton and his Bank of the United States.

The use of flash back between the Saunders and Maycott chapters is very effective, but also quite unusual. We are following along with Saunders in 1792 “real time”, while following Maycott in flashback through 1791 and into 1792. Ultimately the Maycott strand and the Saunders strand unite in “real time”. But the unusual twist is that the stories don’t join until well after the two have met. So we see Saunders interacting with Maycott from his perspective. Then several chapters later we see the same interactions from Maycott’s perspective as the flash backs approach “real time”. I just loved it.

The Whiskey Rebels gives us a very good look at an interesting, but little explored part of US history. Based on other reading, I believe the history is accurate. The characters are exceptional. The story of the country going through financial crisis is more relevant than the author could have expected. Obviously I need to read more books by David Liss.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Gerald Rottman: The Geometry of Light: Galileo’s Telescope, Kepler’s Optics

Guest Review by Kit Bradley

The United Nations and the International Astronomical Union have declared 2009 to be the International Year of Astronomy, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of a telescope to study the skies, and Kepler’s publication of Astronomia Nova. Through my membership in the Eugene Astronomical Society, I learned of a book self-published by Gerald Rottman, The Geometry of Light: Galileo’s Telescope, Kepler’s Optics, and I ordered a copy. This is a good year to learn about optics as Galileo and Kepler understood it in 1609.

Kepler published his work on optics in a short book titled Dioptrice. Rottman’s book presents the ideas in Dioptrice in a form accessable to us today. He explains refraction, convex lenses, concave lenses, what happens as we look through a lens, and how to put it together to make a telescope that magnifies objects.

Early on, Rottman recommends we read the Appendices first if we’re rusty on high school geometry. I am, and I did. I appreciate his including the math refresher.

It is interesting tracing rays of light through a lens and understanding the refraction that occurs. This all made sense to me until I got to the section that explains what happens when your eye is in the picture. Now you have to deal with the aperture of the eye (pupil), an internal lens, and focusing on the retina. I read one paragraph three or four times, gave up, and read the rest of the chapter. At the end of the chapter Rottman tells us to pick up any lens we have lying around (huh? oh yes, a magnifying glass), and he has us prove to ourselves that things work as he described. I went back to that paragraph, and this time it made sense!

We’re now ready to learn how to put two lenses together to make a telescope. It’s straightforward to understand how to magnify objects, but keeping the objects in focus requires more thought (at least for me). Galileo used a convex lens for the objective (the star end of the telescope) and a concave lens for the ocular (the eye end of the telescope). This works pretty well, but it has a very narrow field of view, that is, you see only a tiny section of the sky through the telescope. Kepler came up with a better design that uses convex lenses at both ends and has a much wider field of view. But it turns the images upside down (which is not much of a problem when looking at things up in space).

I went to a local star party last night, right after I finished reading this book, and coincidentally someone brought his homemade Galilean telescope. It was not much more than a cardboard tube and two lenses he had lying around. And indeed, the field of view was tiny – we could see only about half of the moon at a time through the telescope. And the edges were sometimes colorful (more on that in a moment).

Today I came across an International Year of Astronomy project that is producing an educational and very low cost “Galileoscope,” which can be configured for either the Galileo design or the Kepler design. Only $15 plus shipping! I ordered one (

I had to read The Geometry of Light very carefully to learn what was there for me to learn, and I’m glad I did. Rottman achieved his goal of explaining Kepler’s understanding of optics. Perhaps beyond the scope of this goal, however, there are three additional areas I would have liked to see discussed.

First, I wondered the whole time I was reading how things have changed since Kepler’s time. Is the information in the book still relevant today? Rottman partially answers this in the last section of the last chapter, where he shows the difference between Kepler’s approximation and the math used today to calculate the angle of refraction. They’re close.

Second, I wondered if Kepler had any understanding of chromatic aberration, in which a simple lens acts like a prism and refracts the different colors contained in white light by different amounts, which results in extraneous colors around the edges of objects. This wasn’t discussed in the book.

Third, I wondered if Galileo and Kepler understood the importance of the size of the objective lens for gathering light—the bigger the lens, the more light gathered, and the better the image. This wasn’t discussed in the book.

Given the limited mathematics of the day and the limited technologies for forming clear glass and grinding it smoothly, these three topics might have been beyond Kepler’s capabilities to address.

I had fun mastering this little book, and it will lead me into more explorations. It’s available from Gerald Rottman at his web site,

Monday, March 2, 2009

Professor S. James Gates, Jr: Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
March 2, 2009

I recently finished an astronomy course that re-ignited my interest in physics, and so I decided to learn about something that wasn’t taught in physics way back when I was in college – string theory. I went to The Teaching Company and ordered their course Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality, by Professor James Gates. The course contains 24 half hour lectures on DVDs.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity does a pretty good job of explaining what we see on a macro astronomical scale. And quantum physics explains what we see and deduce in the smallest micro scales. But apparently these two theories are incompatible, at least mathematically. The proponents of string theory claim it unifies these two theories, finally achieving what Einstein spent the second half of his life trying to do.

One of the first things Professor Gates tells us is that string theory is a very complex mathematical construction, and that nothing in string theory has been proven in experimental physics. It’s just math and theory! He then makes the commitment to teach this course about string theory without resorting to complex math and equations. But if it’s all mathematics, what’s left to teach? Professor Gates intends that his various graphics and animations will make things clear to us non-mathematicians and non-physicists.

The course starts with an overview of the quantum world and the “denizens” that inhabit it. We learn about a lot of subatomic particles that are smaller than the more familiar electrons, neutrons, and protons in atoms – like quarks and leptons and photons and gravitons and many more. All the particles have corresponding anti-particles. And later in the course all the particles are paired with superpartners.

Until the superpartners came up, I enjoyed getting to know all these particles, most of which can be seen or deduced in lab experiments, so they seem real, even if rather small – around 10-16 meters. But then we learn that the strings that underlie these particles (visualized as little vibrating loops or wiggly strings) are only 10-33 or so meters. I would be okay with strings that are a few orders of magnitude smaller than quarks, but not 17 orders of magnitude. Surely there must be something in between!

The course now proceeds through a detailed history of the development of the initial string theory in 1968, and on to the first, second, and third string revolutions, where the older theories are updated with newer mathematics that solve various problems, which ultimately leads us to M-theory. (M could well stand for Magic.) And we learn many new names along the way – superstrings, supersymmetry, supergravity, and much, much more.

One of the unsettling facts about this sequence of string theories is that the mathematics only works well when it describes many more than the four dimensions in our universe (three in space and one time). Eventually we get down to ten dimensions. That was in 2005. I suspect string theory has evolved since then.

My major learning from this course is that string theory is extremely complicated. Professor Gates describes a few dozen particles, the contributions of a few dozen physicists with their few dozen theories, accompanied with zero lab-proven results. As he says repeatedly, this is mathematics, not physics. Physics requires both theory and experimental validation.

I now know a few more terms and a little about a few particles, but I’m a long way from understanding string theory. I believe that a lot more of this material will stick if I listen to the lectures a second time. But first I’m going to read a book that both Professor Gates and my daughter (a physics major) recommend to me, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene. But it doesn’t look like an easy read either.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Wilcomb E. Washburn: Red Man's Land - White Man's Law, 2nd Edition

After berating myself for waiting so long to read Washburn’s Red Man’s Land - White Man’s Law, I found a used paperback Second Edition. This edition is from 1995, and I did not wait 37 more years to get around to it. But even a 1995 edition is dated when compared to the 2008 American Indians and the Law by Bruce Duthu.

I probably appreciated some of the historical background more this time around, even though it did not change any. I have gone to work for an Indian Nation since reading the First Edition. So my perspective has changed considerably.

I was not happy with the way Washburn brought the story up to date. He still ended a lot of his sections with an “only time will tell how the Nixon policies will work out”, sort of message. The only thing new in the Second Edition is a two page “Preface”, and a 30 page “Afterword”. He took each of his 1970 hanging endings and updated them to 1995. That was moderately interesting, but felt cheap. I would have preferred that the new endings be placed in the original chapters.

I can give Red Man’s Land - White Man’s Law, Second Edition a qualified recommendation. The historical background is pretty interesting. But the relationships among Indian Nations, the Federal Government, and various State Governments are still evolving. The Bruce Duthu book highlights the contradictions and reversals of the last thirteen years since the Second Edition was published. And my job experience is showing me that the Duthu book will be dated soon.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

J.K. Rowling: The Tales of Beedle the Bard

If you are a Harry Potter fan, you need The Tales of Beedle the Bard. No Harry Potter collection is complete without it. That being said, if you are not a Harry Potter fan, stay away. This won’t make you one.

Beedle’s tales are cute, moderately fun. But Dumbledore’s commentary is better. Dumbledore explores the prejudices of “pure blood” wizards against those of mixed heritage. It seems that by twisting the message of Beedle’s tales, the “Pure Bloods” think they can prove their point. Dumbledore shows how the tales really teach lessons of tolerance and acceptance, rather than bigotry.

For anyone who is disappointed that the Harry Potter story came to an end, The Tales of Beedle the Bard does not help much. There just isn’t enough there.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

N. Bruce Duthu: American Indians and the Law

I was a little put out with myself for taking so long to read Washburn’s Red Man’s Land, White Man’s Law. So I picked up a newer book, American Indians and the Law by N. Bruce Duthu. This book was published in 2008 as part of the Penguin Library of American Indian History. And I read it right after buying it.

American Indians and the Law left me confused about the state of Indian sovereignty. But I don’t think that Is Duthu’s fault. I think he accurately described the current situation. While the Congress and the Executive Branch over the last twenty years have been doing much to recognize and respect sovereignty, the Supreme Court has been handing down decisions eroding sovereignty. The result is that Duthu describes a very unsettled and confusing legal situation.

Unlike other minority groups, Native American’s are given a special status in the US Constitution. Their tribes are recognized as sovereign entities. The Constitution grants Congress the power to “regulate Commerce … with the Indian Tribes”. A key point, one reinforced by the Supreme Court under John Marshall in the early 19th Century, is that individual states do not have authority to regulate or deal with Indian tribes.

As sovereign entities, Tribal governments hold a status similar to State governments. They are subordinated to the Federal government in matters of international relations, and inter-governmental relations. But they historically have not been given the same respect as State governments.

It is routinely accepted that a State can enforce its laws on citizens of another state. If I am caught speeding in Texas, I can expect to pay a fine even though I am a full voting citizen of Oklahoma. Not so with Indian governments. Generally the Supreme Court only allows a tribe to enforce its criminal laws on members of the tribe.

The situation is fuzzier with civil actions. In general, Tribal courts have been denied jurisdiction involving commercial matters. On the other hand, they have generally been granted jurisdiction when enforcing their environmental laws and regulations. Duthu believes that this is because society has given Native American’s a special image (perhaps well deserved) reflecting respect for nature.

Duthu believes that there are two main causes for the Supreme Court’s eroding of tribal sovereignty. First is what he calls “A preferred creation story about nation building”. His theory is that George Washington, Chief Justice John Marshall, and other founding fathers believed that Indians were a savage, primitive and dying race. Their belief system encouraged replacing the dying race with Western legal systems, philosophy, religion, and social structure. Duthu sees a problem. Although the Indian culture has not died out, the current Supreme Court is acting like it should have. The second cause according to Duthu is a persistent strain of racism.

There is no doubt that American Indians and the Law helps expose the issues related to Indian tribes as sovereign nations. Most of non-native America is completely oblivious to the whole issue. Even after living in close proximity to numerous Indian nations in Oklahoma for the last 34 years, I can’t say that I understood anything about their governments. So Duthu’s book has done much to awaken me. The confusion I still feel is much more associated with the legal ambiguities, than with Duthu’s writing.

Friday, January 9, 2009

David Guterson: Snow Falling on Cedars

Back in December, someone named Donna left a comment on my review of The Other by David Guterson. She said some things that made me think that I would like Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. Although it is still not my standard fare, I did like it. And it reminds me that I need to move off my traditional Mystery/Suspense thriller once in a while.

On one level, the year is 1954 on San Pedro Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. Kabuo Miyamoto is on trial for the murder Carl Heine. Ishmael Chambers owns, writes, and prints the island’s only newspaper. Hatsue Imada Miyamoto is the accused’s wife, faithfully attending the trail. Outside the worst winter storm in decades is raging.

But much of the book is told in flashback, dealing with cultural and family relationships. The economy of the island is dominated by fishing and strawberry farming. Kabou and Carl were friendly as teenagers, both strawberry farmers, playing on the same high school teams. Hatsue and Ishmael were very close friends, but kept their relationship secret. Neither family would approve a connection between their “Japanese” and “American” children.

Pearl Harbor shattered the uneasy balance between the two cultures coexisting on the island. The Miyamoto’s and Imada’s were set away to internment camps, with eight days notice. Carl and Ishmael left to fight Japanese in the Pacific. Ishmael lost an arm in the process. Kabou ultimately left camp to fight Germans in Italy.

At the close of the war, Hatsue is married to Kabou, Carl and Kabou are fishermen, and Ishmael has taken over his father’s newspaper. Old high school friendships are over.

Central to the alleged motive during the trial is a land deal between the Carl’s family and Kabou’s family. The Japanese interment comes along when the Miyamoto’s owe two more payments on strawberry land they’ve bought from the Heine’s. Carl’s mother cancels the deal, and resells the land to a neighbor. Kabuo is determined to get his family’s land back.

Snow Falling on Cedars is a many faceted book. It is a story of forbidden teenage love. It’s a war story. It’s a murder mystery. But I think it is mostly a story about prejudice and community. The characters are well developed and believable. The relationships and interchanges are well explored. There are certainly dark undercurrents running through the book. But there is hope in the story as well. It’s not as much fun as what I usually read. But it really is good.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Joseph Garber: Vertical Run

I recently re-read Vertical Run by Joseph Garber. It is another of my favorites where someone’s life is suddenly and inexplicably turned upside-down. The protagonist is left trying to survive, while wondering what changed.

In this case, Dave Elliot goes to work as an executive running a few divisions for the conglomerate, Senterex. As he is preparing for his day in his 45th floor Manhattan office, his boss, Bernie Levy comes into his office and tries to kill him. And then his day gets worse. When he steps out of his office, two men he has never met also try to kill him.

As the story evolves, it turns out that someone going by the name John Ransome is leading a paramilitary team whose apparent mission is killing Dave Elliot. They have his building sealed off, and have no intention of his getting out alive.

But Dave Elliot has a violent background of his own. He has very specialized training from his service in Vietnam as a member of a team trained to track and kill the enemy on his own turf. In fact his background reminds me a lot of David Baldacci’s Oliver Stone. To Garber’s credit, I could not make that comparison if I had reviewed Vertical Run the first time I read it in 1995. Oliver Stone did not appear until the Camel Club was published in 2005.

It turns out that Elliot is a hard man to kill. But although Ransome is losing troops, he seems to have call on an unlimited supply of backups. Watching Elliot’s improvisations and quick thinking is probably the best aspect of the book.

In Vertical Run the story flips between Elliot’s maneuvers in his office building and his background learning his skills in Vietnam. Apparently he did not like the man he was becoming in the military, and stepped back just before going over the line. He left hard feelings behind, so wonders if his Vietnam background is at the core of his current situation.

As a re-read, I knew why everyone was after Elliot. But I was able to observe that Garber did not cheat. He told us the pertinent facts within the five pages it took Elliot to go through his morning routine and arrive at his office. But he cleverly presented the information in such an off hand way that we did not attach any more significance to it than Elliot did.

The action gets going within twenty pages, and hardly slacks off for the rest of the book. Talk about had to put down. The climax is suitably intense. But in some ways the post climax wind down does not feel quite up to the cohesiveness of the rest of the book. But that’s a pretty minor complaint.

I love Vertical Run for its intensity, mystery, and plot twists. All the parts work together well. Dave Elliot is a fun good guy. And John Ransome is a cold, calculating bad guy.

David Baldacci: The Christmas Train

In the spirit of the season, I recently re-read The Christmas Train by David Baldacci. I remembered liking it better than Grisham’s Skipping Christmas. In fact this was my third reading. And I do indeed prefer it to Grisham’s book. It’s got humor, a couple plot twists, interesting characters, romance, and Christmas spirit. What’s not to like?

Tom Langdon is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has left the international scene for more mundane pursuits – like writing articles about mulch. Do to a recent disagreement over the indignities of post-9/11 airport security, he has been banned from air travel in the US for two years. He has a bi-coastal relationship with Lelia Gibson, the successful voice of Cuppy the Magic Beaver and other cartoon characters. But the great regret of his life was losing Eleanor Carter, the love of his youth.

So Tom decides to take the train from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, to spend Christmas with Lelia. While he’s at it, he plans to write an article on the experience.

The story gets underway on The Capitol Limited from Washington to Chicago. As a reported on a story, Tom immediately gets to know several of his fellow passengers, as well as the Amtrack staff. His trip is significantly shaken up when he discovers that Eleanor is aboard. She is working as a writer for Max Powers, an Oscar winning producer. Interestingly, they are working on a movie script related to taking the train for Christmas. Max decides that Tom and Eleanor should collaborate, since they are both working on the same thing. And he’s used to getting his way.

We also meet Julie and Steve who are eloping, planning to get married on the Chicago – LA leg of the trip. Max decides to take charge and produce a wedding worthy of his movie.

Most of the passengers that we have met transfer to The Southwest Chief in Chicago. But we naturally pick up new Amtrak staff. We also start hearing about an approaching winter storm. But a winter storm is nothing compared to the complications offered by Lelia.

The characters are great. Tom’s wit and confusion are lots of fun. The Christmas spirit exhibited by Amtrak staff and passengers alike are perfect for a holiday book. My only regret reading The Christmas Train is knowing how expensive train travel can be. I’m ready to go!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Jan Brett: Jan Brett's Christmas Treasury

My wife has had a copy of Jan Brett’s Christmas Treasury for several years. I can’t remember if she got it for herself, or if either my mother or brother’s wife gave it to her. I’m vaguely remembering a coincidence where she gave one away, and got one the same Christmas. In any case she has been a Jan Brett fan for years.

This year I pulled Jan Brett’s Christmas Treasury down from the shelf to read to my granddaughter. I’d never paid much attention to it before. It was fantastic! The illustrations are absolutely spectacular. The stories were cute and entertaining for my granddaughter.

The book is a collection of seven stories: “The Mitten”, “The Wild Christmas Reindeer”, “Trouble with Trolls”, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, “The Hat”, “Christmas Trolls”, and “The Night Before Christmas”. All are illustrated by Jan Brett. She adapted “The Mitten” from a Ukrainian folk tale. She used the standard texts for “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and “The Night Before Christmas”. She wrote the rest. My granddaughter already had board book versions of The Hat and The Mitten. But I was interested to see that this volume has fuller text for the stories.

All of you who have been exposed to Jan Brett already know how beautiful the illustrations are. So what can I add? I suppose the only new information I have is that my granddaughter’s favorite was “Trouble with Trolls”.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

David Baldacci: Absolute Power

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
December 24, 2008

After reading Nate’s enthusiastic reviews of several Baldacci books, I decided to read one, and with Nate’s advice I started with Baldacci’s first novel, Absolute Power.

Lord Acton, a British historian, said “Power tends to currupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As I read the book, I wondered if I would see “absolute power” in practice. Would that mean that the people weilding the power would get absolutely what they intend? And at what cost of corruption?

As the story begins, Luther Whitney witnesses a killing and a cover-up by the President of the US and his most trusted staff. The tension that carries the rest of the story develops between Luther and a few associates on one side against the White House on the other side. Does the White House have “absolute power” to control the outcome?

It doesn’t help that Luther is a convicted burgular and was practicing his trade at the time of the incident. Will anyone believe him? Luther’s daughter, Kate Whitney, is very put off by his profession and doesn’t like him much. Her one time boyfriend, Jack Graham, is more inclined to help Luther. Unfortunately, anyone who gets involved in this matter is very likely to fall to the “absolute power” that will do anything to protect the President.

Absolute Power kept me turning the pages. Some novels have an exciting climax towards the end that gets my adrenalin going. This book had three or four such exciting episodes. And it was never clear whether the “good guys” or the “bad guys” would win. Is the “absolute power” absolute? It might well be.

Which brings me to another observation. The plot of this story many times could easily have turned either direction, leading to the success of one side over the other. At least four times the plot turned on a matter of tight timing that felt contrived to me. Like when the bad guy was about to pull the trigger just as someone burst into the room and saved the good guy’s life. No skill there, just luck. I prefer the situations where the good or bad guy does something very clever or athletically challenging to turn the tide in his favor.

Overall Absolute Power was fun to read, a good story with plenty of tension. At times it seemed predictable, but I admit things didn’t always turn out as I expected. I’ll need to read another Baldacci book, but so far I like Tom Clancy better. His stories also build up tension and excitement, but I think they are more complex with more unexpected turns.