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.