Rob Ryan is a veteran homicide detective with the Dublin police along with his best friend and partner, Cassie Maddox, and the twThis book is tricksy.
Rob Ryan is a veteran homicide detective with the Dublin police along with his best friend and partner, Cassie Maddox, and the two start working a case involving a young girl found murdered at the site of an archaeological dig. Sounds like it could be the cold open of an episode of CSI: Ireland, right?
Ah, but that’s only part of the story. Rob is actually from the area where the girl is found, and 22 years before he and two friends went to play in the nearby woods and something very bad happened. Rob was found with blood covered shoes and no memory of what happened to the other kids. They were never found, and Rob has done his best to disassociate himself from the event. When they find a piece of evidence that seems like it could link their fresh murder to the disappearance of his friends, Rob and Cassie decide to keep this under wraps so that they can investigate without potentially dragging up Rob’s history while they determine if the two crimes are related.
But that’s only part of it. As the case progresses it sprawls to also involve a hot button issue of a new motorway being built through the archaeological site, potential political corruption and indications of child abuse while Rob and Cassie find themselves under extreme pressure to solve the crime. The added burden of Rob’s secret takes an increasing toll on them as they have to find ways to include his knowledge without admitting how they got it.
I told you it was tricksy…
This is a really nice piece of work and a solid debut novel from Tana French that starts off like a crime thriller with the twist of Rob’s history, but there’s more going on here than that. I particularly liked the way she portrays Rob and Cassie’s close relationship in the early stages of the investigation, and then how it the plot tests it. French also has a nice way of leading a reader down a path that seems somewhat familiar to any fan of crime fiction, but then zigs and zags into different directions. It was a particularly nice touch that with his first person narration that Rob would typically be the most sympathetic character, but French doesn’t hesitate to have him do things that make him downright unlikeable at times. I had three or four occasions where I was seriously hoping that someone would punch him in the balls.
However, there are some pacing problems where things seem a bit repetitive and slow that probably could have been hurried along a bit. I’ve also seen a fair amount of complaining about the ending, but I actually loved it. (view spoiler)[French pulls off a nice two-fer here. First, decoying us into thinking that Cassie and Rob got their killer only to pull the rug out from under them, and it’s even worse that she gets away with it because it was one of Rob’s numerous fuck-ups that really enabled it. As for not knowing what happened to Rob’s friends, I’m OK with that. The story wasn’t so much about what happened to them as it how effected Rob, and how his failure to ever really face and deal with what happened leads him to disaster here. I also give French credit for not giving into a temptation that a lot of writers would have and having Cassie forgive Rob. He was pretty much a bastard, and her dumping of him as a friend, partner and lover then moving on without him was a powerful statement about how badly he managed to botch his life, not just the case. (hide spoiler)]
I was leaning towards 3 stars when it seemed that things slowed down in the middle, but some of the clever twists and turns at the end got it back to 4 for me. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This book certainly isn’t abominable, but it doesn’t exactly soar to the height of the peak of Mount Everest either.
In 1925 young Jake Perry is an AmeThis book certainly isn’t abominable, but it doesn’t exactly soar to the height of the peak of Mount Everest either.
In 1925 young Jake Perry is an American mountain climber who has been knocking around the Alps with his new friends, Richard Davis Deacon and Jean-Claude Clairoux. Deacon is a veteran English climber who had been on a previous expedition to scale Mount Everest. After the men hear about the deaths of several people attempting to summit Everest, Deacon comes up with a plan to get funding for another Everest expedition by telling the mother of a young English lord that they will try to find and recover his remains
With Deacon’s experience and several new climbing innovations, the three men hope to become the first to climb Everest, but the addition of a new member to their party is just one of many surprises they’ll get as they try overcome all the obstacles that come with a high altitude climb.
Dan Simmons threw me for a bit of a loop by starting with an introduction in which he describes how he met Jake Perry as an old dying man who inadvertently inspires his Arctic horror story The Terror. This is supposedly an account that Perry wrote that Simmons received after his death and arranged to have a published. The inclusion of Simmons into his own story made me think for a minute that Perry was real until a bit of research showed that Simmons was doing his historical fiction thing again like The Terror, Black Hills, and The Crook Factory.
If you’ve read any of those books and you know that a big chunk of this is about trying to climb Mt. Everest in the ‘20s then you might guess that there’s going to be a massive amount of detail about mountain climbing techniques and equipment from that era. And you’d be absolutely right!
Some people would probably be bored to tears by this, but most who have read any of those other books by Simmons probably had a pretty good idea that there would be long explanations of the terrain, food, clothing, equipment, etc. etc. The question for many readers will be is if the detail helps sell the experience of the book or if they think that it just turns into Simmons showing off his research skills.
The problem for me wasn’t so much the infodumps. I’m a Simmons veteran so I knew what I was getting into, and I knew that I’d be getting an education in mountain climbing by reading this. It was that not only did Simmons give you that much detail, he’s awfully damn repetitive about it. For example, Simmons writes that Deacon has come up with a new kind of rope and exactly how it’s breaking strength is superior to the other ropes of the time. OK, so they’ve got better rope. Easy enough to understand. Yet Simmons feels the need to repeatedly remind us every time a hunk of rope is used that the Deacon’s ‘miracle rope’ is much better the old ‘clothes line’ rope. I got it after the first 20 times, Dan Simmons. You didn’t need to keep telling me.
And it isn’t just the rope. Perry’s team has acute future vision because they manage to use groundbreaking new ice climbing methods as well as improved equipment in every phase of their expedition. Even their tents and clothing are such a quantum leap above the gear of the day that I was wondering why they bothered trying to climb Mount Everest when they could have just founded North Face and made a fortune instead.
Maybe this wouldn’t have been quite such an irritation to me if the main part of the story would have kicked in a little earlier and been a bit more believable. I was invested in finding out if they were going to be able to summit Everest when Phase Two begins late in the book, and everything goes in another direction. (view spoiler)[There’s a lot of teasing all the yeti stuff, and since this is a book by the guy who wrote The Terror it certainly seemed like some abominable snowmen would be making an appearance so it turning out to be Nazis seems to come out of left field despite the earlier scenes in Germany.
Also, after so much detail about how exhausting it is to be in the death zone, the plot of being chased by Nazis up the mountain seems completely unrealistic. Plus, the idea that all of this was because of pictures showing that Adolf Hitler was a pedophile doesn’t really work for me either. If the British really had blackmail material like that, wouldn’t they have used it to derail Hitler’s career earlier when he was becoming a threat or avert the war when he started invading other countries? I just don’t buy that they’d wait to play that card until England was about to be invaded rather than much earlier. (hide spoiler)]
Still, for all the excess detail and slow pace, I did very much enjoy some aspects of this. Simmons is a writer who can really make you feel what it’d be like to climb the highest mountain on the world, and he provides some very gory details to make you appreciate the peril. I had never thought about what would happen to human bodies that go tumbling down mountain faces, and now I have those mental pictures in my head thanks to this book. So that’s another one I owe Dan Simmons…["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review.
This should teach me to pay more attention when I ask for an ARCI received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review.
This should teach me to pay more attention when I ask for an ARC.
I requested this from NetGalley on a whim when I saw the title, and I didn’t realize that I was getting a book that was almost a thousand pages.* I also didn’t consider that a kitten-squisher of a biography about a notorious Nazis wasn’t going to be ideal summer time reading. I’ve done my best to give it a fair review, but any critical comments I make should probably be taken with a grain of salt by anyone interested in it.
Peter Longerich uses Joseph Goebbels’ diary as a guide post from the time when he was a wannabe writer and radical through his rise through the Nazi party to become the chief architect of its propaganda. By contrasting what Goebells claimed in his journals against other documentation Longerich gives us the real history.
This portrayal shows that Goebbels was a raging narcissist that achieved the recognition he craved by dedicating himself to Adolf Hitler who Goebbels helped elevate to the supreme leader of Germany. (We all know how well that ended.) By making Hitler into an almost god-like figure, Goebbels could then validate himself as great by earning Hitler’s respect and praise. Hitler’s opinion was so important that Goebbels and his wife Magda (Who it seems Hitler had a bit of a thing for.) made him a de facto father figure that they treated like a member of the family and consulted on domestic decisions.
Perhaps what’s most interesting is how Longerich uses what Goebbels claims against other historical documents to show how much Hitler used him like a chump. While Goebbels liked to brag about his close relationship with Hitler and boast about his many accomplishments, the records show that in fact Hitler often kept him out of the loop, ignored his advice, and even occasionally used him as a diversion. If Goebbels had more self-awareness he might have realized that Hitler saw his value as a talented creator of propaganda but didn’t credit him as much more than that, at least until the end of the war left him with few other options.
After establishing what he believed about Goebbels' personality, Longerich is content to relay the facts of his life in chronological order while letting quotes from the diary clue us into what Goebbels was thinking and correcting the record with a minimum of commentary aside from occasionally pointing out patterns. This approach gives a remarkably detailed and rich portrait of Goebbels as well as the inner workings of the Nazi party.
However, it’s also one of the problems with the book. Everyone has habits and routines. When you read something that covers 20+ years of a person’s life, it’s going to get repetitive no matter what they’re doing even if they’re Nazis perpetrating some of history’s greatest crimes. So whether it’s Goebbels kissing Hitler’s ass or Goebbels having some bureaucratic squabble with another Nazi or Goebbels feuding with his wife or Goebbels launching another anti-Semitic propaganda campaign, there comes a time when the point has been made so it seems like the same thing is being rehashed over and over.
In a weird way the strength of the book became one of its irritations for me, but I’m not sure what could have been done about it. It’s tempting to say that it could have used more analysis and less detail, but the details are what eventually give you such an understanding of what made Goebbels tick. It seems unfair to fault Longerich for being too thorough, but in the end that’s almost what it feels like.
If you’re looking for a seriously detailed in-depth biography of Joseph Goebbels that also provides a lot of behind the scenes history of the Nazis, then this is the book for you. If you’re in the mood for a lighter pop-history that tells you the basics about Goebbels, you should probably look elsewhere.
* About 40% of the book is its bibliography and notes....more
Maybe we Americans were just a little bit hasty when we said that we won the Cold War? ‘Cause it’s seeming more and more like that we were really justMaybe we Americans were just a little bit hasty when we said that we won the Cold War? ‘Cause it’s seeming more and more like that we were really just leading at halftime.
Modern Russia with Vladimer Putin running the show is essentially the Soviet Union with a better public relations department, and the old spy games between their Foreign Intelligence Service and the American Central Intelligence Agency are back with a vengeance. Young and ambitious CIA officer Nate Nash is the Moscow handler of a highly placed Russian code-named MARBLE. When a planned meeting goes sideways, Nash manages to save his asset, but blows his own cover so badly that he’s exiled to Helsinki where he sulks about the setback his career has suffered. Russian intelligence knows it has a leak and is desperate to find it so they send junior agent Dominika Egorova to see if she can pry loose the name of the mole from Nash.
Dominika was a talented ballerina as well as a true believer in the new Russia. She is also secretly a synesthete who sees sound as colors as well as auras around people that clue her into their mental state. When her dancing career was derailed she is sucked into the spy business by her uncle who promises her position but really sees her as just a beautiful woman that he can whore out for his own purposes. Despite how her uncle uses her and the bureaucracy that thinks she only has value on her back, Dominika manages to earn a place in the intelligence service with her brains and will as she nurses hidden grudges at the way the system has treated her. After Nate and Dominika meet, a delicate dance of manipulation begins, but who is recruiting who?
I’m a big fan of FX’s The Americans as well as currently being surrounded by a bunch of Russian consultants at the office. I’m convinced they must be secret agents running honeypot operations because there’s just no way that many good looking people are a representative sample of the Russian population. (Or I’m just jealous that they’re making us American office drones look like jeans wearing mole-people by comparison. Seriously, if the Cold War is really kicking off again, I’m putting my money on them.)
The point is that I was in the mood for a good spy vs. spy novel, and this one delivered. It won the 2014 Edgar Award for best first novel, and the author Jason Matthews is reportedly a former CIA officer who had over 30 years of service. The book is filled with the kind of details about spy operations that just feel authentic, but it never devolves into a Tom Clancy-style recitation of hardware and proper procedures because it’s got plenty of human drama as well.
Dominika is the engine that runs the rest of the book. She’s an intriguing character because of the anger and frustration she feels as someone who just wants to be permitted to do her job but is constantly used and humiliated by brutal men of limited imagination. The only false note to her is that it feels like Matthews wrote her synesthesia as giving her almost telepathic abilities when it comes to reading people. Why couldn't she just be smart and institutive instead of using a neurological disorder as a way of making her ‘special’? It’s becoming an overused fictional trope these days.
Another minor nitpick is that Matthews uses a gimmick of having the characters constantly eating or preparing food and then putting the recipe for what they had at the end of a chapter. This was kind of a neat touch at first, but after a while it felt like he was really straining to find new dishes to shoehorn into the action. Also, (This spoiler does not give away the ending but does involve a major character introduced halfway through the book.) (view spoiler)[ I initially enjoyed the female American senator character who sells secrets to the Russians. She’s a complete narcissist who is so self-involved and annoyed at any potential inconveniences that she refuses to take the most basic security precautions. This seemed like the kind of motivation you might find in a traitor in the age of Facebook. However, after a while with her relentlessly bashing the US intelligence agencies at every opportunity it left me wondering if Matthews suffered at the hands of some politicians during his career and was getting a bit of fictional revenge by portraying such a character as a villain completely devoid of conscience. What started as interesting became an over the top cartoon. (hide spoiler)]
Still, none of my complaints seriously hurt my enjoyment of the book which was filled with great characters playing tense spy games for high stakes.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Among the many jobs I’d never want is working as a journalist in Russia, and probably right behind that one on the list is being a detective in RussiaAmong the many jobs I’d never want is working as a journalist in Russia, and probably right behind that one on the list is being a detective in Russia.
Moscow police investigator Arkday Renko is back in his eighth book that finds him getting mixed up with the events surrounding the death of famous investigative reporter Tatiana Petrovna. The official verdict is that Tatiana killed herself, but official stories aren’t worth anything in a Russia where the police and government are available to the highest bidder. Renko begins to connect her death to the murder of a wealthy mob boss and also to a translator who was part of a mysterious business deal.
As usual Renko finds roadblocks everywhere from apathetic and corrupt fellow cops to his own boss who’d rather work on his golf game than see a police detective actually investigate anything. Renko’s also got problems on the personal front in his role as legal guardian of the brilliant but strange teenager Zhenya who is pressuring Arkday to let him join the army. Worst of all is that his doctor pops in with the news that the bullet he carries in his brain from a previous misadventure has started to shift and strenuous activity could cause a sudden case of death.
Re-reading Renko’s introduction during the Cold War in Gorky Park and then this one immediately after that was a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Back then Arkday had to play a dangerous game of trying to do real police work in a communist society that never wanted to admit any flaws. Now he plays a dangerous game of trying do real police work in a society so consumed by capitalism that the government has become a relentless stealing machine that ruthlessly cracks down on anyone would dare expose the corruption.
It’s a quality mystery in which Martin Cruz Smith does his usual thing of using his much abused but still stubborn detective to tell us what it’s like living in the Russia of the moment. Renko remains one of the more interesting fictional detectives with a pragmatic nature that doesn’t try to change the world but still insists on driving himself to find answers even when it puts him in extreme danger. One of the more interesting new elements in this one is that Renko starts listening to audio tapes Tatiana recorded as her notes, and he starts getting more and more intrigued by the dead woman.
My only complaint is just that of familiarity. Smith has been been writing Renko for over 30 years now, and the rhythms are pretty much the same since about the fifth book. I guessed a major twist in this book not because of anything in the plot, but just because I thought it seemed like the kind of thing that would happen in a Renko book. That’s not to say that it’s completely predictable or that I didn’t enjoy it, but I did have a pretty good idea of where it would end up....more
(I received a free copy of this book from New Pulp Press for this review.)
This book starts out with infidelity, murder, more murder and political/poli(I received a free copy of this book from New Pulp Press for this review.)
This book starts out with infidelity, murder, more murder and political/police corruption.
Then things really get dark.
Robert Dell is a white South African journalist who protested apartheid. He’s a liberal, a committed pacifist and married to a black woman. His father, Bobby Goodbread, proves that sometimes the apple falls a long way from the tree. Goodbread is an American who got up to all kinds of evil deeds as part of his job as a CIA agent fighting communism in various hot spots. He worked with the right-wing whites in South Africa to keep apartheid in place and liked to brag that it was his information that led to the capture of Nelson Mandela. As you would expect, the two have little to talk about.
Dell is framed for a horrible crime by Inja Mazibuko, a brutal enforcer for a high ranking government official. As he’s about to be transferred to a prison where he’ll almost certainly be killed Dell is rescued by his estranged father. With no other options, Dell reluctantly joins Goodbread on a mission of revenge.
Mazibuko has returned to a remote region that he runs like a warlord so that he can marry his fourth wife. Sunday is a young girl who has essentially been sold to Mazibuko, and the prospect is terrifying since she witnessed him murdering her family when she was a child. Her desperate attempt to seek help in the form of a fax to an old phone number lands on the desk of Disaster Zondi, a police officer who just saw his department gutted by corruption. Zondi is from the area and used to be part of the same crew as Mazibuko before changing his ways. He also knew Sunday’s mother, and he returns to his old stomping grounds for reasons he doesn’t fully understand.
The opening chapters of this made me think that his was going to be a fast-paced violent thrill ride, and while the pace is brisk and there’s no shortage of carnage, there’s a lot more going on in this book than just a story about people trying to kill each other in the wilds of Africa. The poverty stricken area here is a mix of Zulu tribal rituals and superstitions mixed with bits of the modern world like BMWs, cell phones and AK-47s.
The major characters are all extremely well developed, and Smith makes you completely understand them all from the liberal and educated Dell to the teenaged Sunday who has never used a modern bathroom. Zondi’s return to the place he grew up stirs mixed emotions about the boy he used to be and the man he became once he left. Goodbread is fascinating as an aging Cold Warrior who thought he was doing the right thing at the time. Particularly disturbing is Mazibuko whose is almost a force of nature in his ruthlessness, and he makes for one spectacularly evil villain.
Just when you think you know where the story is going, there’ll be a surprising but logical twist and nothing goes as expected. It’s not a happy read, but it’s an intriguing one.
It’s odd how you think your opinion of a bunch of murderous assholes couldn’t sink any lower, and then you read something like this that makes you reaIt’s odd how you think your opinion of a bunch of murderous assholes couldn’t sink any lower, and then you read something like this that makes you realize that they were even worse than you thought. Nazis weren’t just xenophobic bullies who institutionalized mass murder, they were also thieves. They were probably lousy tippers, too.
During World War II a handful of art experts in the Allied military forces took on the challenge of trying to protect the cultural treasures of Europe. As the war raged, these guys did their best to save historical buildings and art from the general destruction going on around them. They also tried to track down and recover what the Nazis had stolen. Hitler and his pals took advantage of the war to pull the biggest art heist in history, and this included looting the culture of countries they invaded as well as stealing the private collections of people they killed or imprisoned.
This is one of those stories that I knew the basics of but hadn’t realized the scale of the crimes committed, and I knew nothing about the men who tried to mitigate the damage. The Nazis literally stole trainloads worth of art and stashed away so much that it required massive logistical efforts just to get it all recorded and returned after the war.
What’s more shocking than that is how few resources were initially dedicated to the preservation effort. Eisenhower issued a general order instructing his troops to avoid damaging anything of cultural significance unless there was a military necessity, but only a handful of Monuments Men were scattered around Europe and they had no official support staff or supply sources. Simply getting transportation was often difficult or impossible. One of the men was briefly arrested as a suspected German spy when a zealous MP soldier refused to believe that anyone carrying out such a large and important mission would be wandering around by himself.
Even though there weren’t many of them and they had to improvise constantly, the Monuments Men did manage to save countless pieces of art including helping to track down huge stolen stockpiles that the Nazis had stashed away in mines and other hidey-holes. It was dangerous work and a couple of them were killed in action while trying to carry out their mission.
It’s an interesting and important story that gave me a new appreciation of some of history’s forgotten heroes so why only 3 stars? I dunno. This is a weird one. I can’t point to anything of significance. The writing is fine, and the research seems solid. There’s enough detail pointed out about the people involved to give you a sense of their character and make you appreciate their struggles.
I was planning on seeing the movie version, but then came the ‘meh’ reviews for it so that killed my interest in the film and may have dampened my enthusiasm for the book. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, and I don’t regret learning the story, but for some reason it never hit that next level where I couldn’t wait to read more while I was in the middle of it. ...more
It’d be a bad idea to challenge Tim O’Brien to a round of Truth-Or-Dare because he’d find a way to pick Truth, launch into a story, recant it, then maIt’d be a bad idea to challenge Tim O’Brien to a round of Truth-Or-Dare because he’d find a way to pick Truth, launch into a story, recant it, then make you think he really chose Dare, but in the end, you’ll be pretty sure he actually told you the Truth after all. Maybe…
That’s kind of the point about this account of his time Vietnam as an infantry soldier that warns us that war stories are tricky. The ones that sound true are probably lies and the ones that seem outlandish probably have a healthy dose of truth in them. By telling us some fact and some fiction, then revealing which is which (Allegedly.), O’Brien shows that sometimes a well told lie based on fact has more power than a real story accurately told.
Taken together, O’Brien’s stories make it clear that he spent the decades after the war mulling over the various things he took away from it. This isn’t the memoir of a guy who obtained some kind of closure by writing it, it’s the story of the fear, doubt and confusion he still wrestled with decades later. In order to convey that experience, he had to tell the reader some war stories and let us decide just how true they were. ...more
(I received a free copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for a review.)
Apparently Nelson DeMille wrote the first version of this book back in 1975,(I received a free copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for a review.)
Apparently Nelson DeMille wrote the first version of this book back in 1975, and it’s about people having an adventure while trying to find the Holy Grail. Even though I’ve been reading DeMille since the ‘80s, I’d never even heard of it. So despite his best-selling career writing thrillers about cops, spies and terrorists, I’m gonna assume that the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code really chapped DeMille’s ass, and that he decided to rewrite and rerelease this to get in on that gravy train.
Set during the mid-1970s, three reporters are in Ethiopia trying to cover the civil war. Henry Mercado is an older British gent who spent several years in a Soviet gulag and credits his survival to his finding faith in Jesus while there. Henry is accompanied by the much younger and beautiful Vivian Smith, a Swiss photojournalist, and they invited veteran American correspondent Frank Purcell along to get a first-hand look at the fighting. Purcell is wary of dangerous situations thanks to a year spent in a Cambodian prison camp, but a few too many cocktails at the hotel bar and a long look at Vivian convinced him to go along.
While spending the night in the ruins of a spa, a wounded Italian priest staggers out of the jungle with an incredible story to tell of how he has spent 40 years imprisoned after coming across a mysterious monastery in the jungle that he claims housed the Holy Grail. The priest’s info gives the three journalists a starting point to try and locate the monastery, but traveling in Ethiopia during a war is a dangerous undertaking.
If you read the official summary of this it states:
"Thus begins an impossible quest that will pit them against murderous tribes, deadly assassins, fanatical monks, and the passions of their own hearts."
That is a complete lie that is trying to market this as a rollicking adventure such as other stories about looking for the Holy Grail like Brown’s book or Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade. It’s false advertising that seems to be biting the publishers in the ass based on the reviews from DeMille fans I’ve read.
While there is danger to the group, it mostly comes in the form of one crazy Marxist general, a badly maintained airplane and the Ethiopian jungle. The murderous tribes are much discussed but never seen. The fanatical monks are just a bit of stage dressing, and as for ‘deadly assassins’, I don’t know what they're talking about there.
Like a lot of DeMille’s work, there’s a lot of talk and discussion about potential dangers, but the actual moments of the heroes in jeopardy are few and far between. A long interlude in the middle of the book revolves around doing research at the Vatican where the biggest threat is the love triangle that could end the quest. There are no ninja monks shooting poison darts or albino assassins running around killing people. Mainly they eat a lot of meals and drink a lot of wine and talk about what they’re going to do.
It’s not a terrible read. I find DeMille’s stuff generally enjoyable even in ones where not a helluva lot happens at times other than his protagonist sitting around being suspicious of the motives of others. The early stuff with the priests and the journalists being caught up in the Ethiopian civil war was exciting and compelling, and the third act with the actual hunt for the Grail wasn’t bad. I also learned a lot of interesting stuff about Ethiopia that I didn’t know.
But the middle section is almost entirely dialogue about research, relationships and faith which killed a lot of momentum and went on far too long. Overall, this didn’t provide much excitement for a book marketed as a thrilling adventure about the hunt for a religious artifact. Indiana Jones made it look like a lot more fun when he did it. ...more
Maybe if more people would have listened to T.E. Lawrence after World War I then an American president wouldn’t be at the UN today speaking on the SyrMaybe if more people would have listened to T.E. Lawrence after World War I then an American president wouldn’t be at the UN today speaking on the Syrian crisis as I write this review.
It’s hard reading a history of lost opportunities because I always have an irrational hope that it will somehow end differently this time. (There’s a marketing ploy. Write up a non-fiction book, but then switch to alt-history fiction in the last chapter. “And they all lived happily ever after. The End.”) There are certainly no shortages of miscalculations and mistakes that have haunted the world since the ‘war to end all wars’.
As the title suggests, this is primarily about T.E. Lawrence (a/k/a Lawrence of Arabia) whose exploits in the Middle East during World War I became the stuff of legend. However, this is not just another biography, rather it examines all the political intrigue, double dealing, back stabbing and outright espionage that went on in that region during the war, and how all this plotting created a mess that we’re still dealing with today.
In addition to Lawrence, several other people and their actions are detailed. There was William Yale, who worked for an oil company that pulled all the kinds of sleazy maneuvers to secure future profits, and then he went on to be America’s chief intelligence officer in the region once the US entered the war. Curt Prufer was a German diplomat in Cairo that ran a variety of intelligence and propaganda operations. Aaron Aaronsohn was a Jewish agronomist who set up a spy ring as he supposedly worked for the Turks in the hope that he could use it to convince England to set up a Zionist nation after the war. Mark Sykes was a British diplomat who secretly negotiated a treaty to divvy up the area with France after the war, and then promised the Arab leaders independence if they’d revolt against Turkey.
All of these people and many more played a role in the ultimate outcome with their competing agendas, but it’s Lawrence who remains the fascinating pivotal figure in the story. As anyone who’s seen the classic movie about him knows, Lawrence was a conflicted man. As a scholar who knew the Middle East, he started as a lowly mapmaker for the British, but eventually became a critical part of convincing many Arabs to fight against the Turks. He was aware that he could be setting them up for betrayal and hated himself for it. At times he’d try to subvert the plans of men like Sykes, technically committing treason in the process by flat out telling his chief Arab ally Faisal that the British would double cross them for the French after the war, but he also risked his life countless times carrying out British war plans in the desert. By the end of the story, Lawrence has become a tragic figure who was left shattered by the war and his failure to help the Arabs achieve a fairer deal.
It's an interesting account of the region during the war both in terms of the military and political machinations that every player was engaged in. Ironically, the Arabs so mistrusted Britain and France by war’s end that they would have preferred the Americans to step in as honest brokers, but Wilson’s administration squandered yet another chance to achieve stability by keeping the mess at a distance other than making sure the oil companies got what they wanted.
At the end, when Anderson lays out how lies and greed wasted a prime opportunity to restructure the Middle East, he’s realistic enough to note that there were far too many groups with differing motives involved to make everyone happy, and that there would almost certainly have been major problems no matter who was in charge. Still, he paints a convincing picture of how things could have been better. More’s the pity. ...more
You gotta love a book in which the weapons used by the bad-ass hero include a pair of socks and a ruler.
Skinner was raised in a closed environment asYou gotta love a book in which the weapons used by the bad-ass hero include a pair of socks and a ruler.
Skinner was raised in a closed environment as part of a screwy experiment from his autistic parents, and as an adult he worked for an international security firm called Kestrel where he became legendary for his unique method. Skinner’s Maxim dictated that if anything happened to anyone under his protection, that he would wreak bloody vengeance on anyone and everyone responsible. This scorched earth policy worked well for a while, but eventually Skinner outlived his usefulness and had to go underground when Kestrel tried to arrange a permanent retirement for him.
Terrance was Skinner’s boss who was forced out of Kestrel, but they want him back to track down the people responsible for a cyber-attack on the US. Terrance recruits Jae, an analyst with a talent for building robots and OCD tendencies that allow her to find patterns in the chaos of world events, and he contacts Skinner and talks him into providing protection for her. Jae had a bad experience with Kestrel previously and doesn’t trust them so she and Skinner have that in common. The two race around the globe uncovering a vast conspiracy that somehow involves a slum in Mumbai.
Charlie Huston used to crank out hard boiled books featuring criminals and/or vampires and then fill them up with enough attitude, atmosphere and graphic violence to make them highly entertaining reads. He was good enough that he probably could have had a successful career if he had no bigger ambitions, but Huston has been showing a remarkable capacity for growth over his last several books. In Skinner, he takes what could just be a good set-up for an action spy thriller and gives it a huge amount of depth by using a couple of complex characters to throw around some very big ideas.
Skinner’s story examines how a bunch of variables like economics, political unrest and climate change have combined into a murky threat cloud that always hangs on the horizon and perpetually seems about to engulf the world. Huston has nailed that general unease that comes with scrolling through a day’s worth of news stories and realizing that the problems far outnumber the solutions. The Jae character is particularly good at conveying this since she has a tendency to start following patterns obsessively to conclusions that indicate the world is doomed. While there’s plenty of action, gee-whiz tech and the usual tropes of covert thrillers like suitcases full of fake passports and money, it’s the bigger picture that makes this feel a lot more important than just a typical spies-on-the-run-against-a-vast-conspiracy story.
My one gripe is that there’s almost too much in the book. I would have liked to get more with Skinner and Jae because they’re both such intriguing characters, but it kind of feels like we’re racing through their history to keep the core story moving. It almost seems like this could have been the conclusion of a larger series, but it was nice to get a self-contained story rather than an author just kicking off a new multi-book narrative so I won’t bitch too much about it.
This book made me such a nervous wreck that I developed a facial tic and had to take antacids while I was reading it.
Desmond Pepperdine is a 15 year oThis book made me such a nervous wreck that I developed a facial tic and had to take antacids while I was reading it.
Desmond Pepperdine is a 15 year old lad living in a very rough part of England where life expectancies are short and violence is common. Des is a bright and gentle boy with a big secret. His 39 year old grandmother Grace has seduced him, and Des is worried that his uncle Lionel will find out.
Lionel took Des in after his mother died a few years earlier. Des loves ‘Uncle Li’, but he’s also terrified of him. He should be. Lionel is the kind of guy who laces his pit bulls’ food with Tabasco to make them meaner, and he took such pride in being the youngest person to ever receive an Anti-Social Behavior Order after a violent spree at age 3 that he had his name legally changed to Asbo. He'll put a man in the hospital over some perceived grievance and then complain when his victim has the nerve to file a complaint with the police.
As a career criminal specializing in loan shark collection and reselling stolen goods, Lionel is constantly in and out of jail. Lionel also has a strict policy that his mom is too old to be dating men, and he doesn’t like it when he hears from a neighbor that Grace has been seeing someone. Des keeps his mouth shut as Lionel finds another young man to blame and forces Des to help him get his revenge.
Years pass as Des lives with his secrets and tries to establish a quiet normal life by going to college and getting a girlfriend. He still lives with Lionel but with him always in jail, Des usually has the place to himself. However, after Lionel wins a small fortune in the lottery, he becomes a tabloid sensation. Unfortunately, becoming wealthy does nothing to make Lionel Asbo a better person, and dealing with his whims and moods becomes an even worse minefield for Des.
The odd thing is that Lionel doesn’t seem quite as monstrous as he should. Amis does a nice job of depicting the affection that Des has for his uncle even as he has absolutely no illusions as to what Lionel is. With Des’s secret about Grace and Lionel’s skewed logic regarding right-and-wrong, every conversation between the two has an underlying tension that really got to me after a while. And the ending nearly killed me. (view spoiler)[ I wasn’t sure whether I was relieved or angry about the plot twist when it turned out the baby was safe after the extended wringer Amis put us through to learn the final outcome. (hide spoiler)]
While I enjoyed the story about a bright young man trying to create a life for himself while dealing with the constant threat presented by his sociopathic criminal uncle, I was disappointed in the satire aspects of Lionel becoming famous. It seems like Amis just hits all the obvious points of tabloid culture or wealth enabling someone to act like an asshole. (Which he did a better and more subtle job of in the superior Money.)
As a family story, it’s tense and darkly funny. As cultural satire, it seemed obvious and without much bite.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I was going to write a review for this but after reading it and watching True Detective I’m convinced that all of existence is meaningless anyhow so wI was going to write a review for this but after reading it and watching True Detective I’m convinced that all of existence is meaningless anyhow so why bother?
*sigh* Fine. I guess it’ll fill some of the cold empty useless minutes spent walking around this pitiful ball of mud until I’m finally snuffed out forever….
As you might guess, this is not a feel good story.
Set in London during the mid-80s, a murder is investigated by an unnamed police sergeant from the Department of Unexplained Deaths. The victim was a nobody named Charles Staniland who was found brutally beaten to death. Staniland was just a middle-aged drunk with a writing career that went nowhere. However, he left behind a bunch of cassette tapes as an audio diary. As the sergeant listens to the Staniland’s reflections on life and his personal history, he begins to feel a kinship with the dead man as he makes pronouncements like this:
Every day you amass knowledge in a frantic race against death that death must win. You want to find out everything in the time you have; yet in the end you’ll wonder why you bothered, it’ll all be lost. I keep trying to explain this to anyone who will listen.
How would you like to take a long car ride with this guy?
The sergeant is surrounded by apathy and crime, and he has almost as much disdain for his fellow police officers and the civilians he deals with as he does for criminals. His investigation consists of obsessively listening to Staniland’s tapes and leaning on the people in his life to get answers. No one else may give a damn who killed Staniland, but the sergeant is determined to make someone pay for the crime.
If you’re looking for a tightly plotted whodunit police procedural, then just keep on walking because this ain't for you. There’s very little of the kind of methods you’d find on CSI or Law & Order, and frankly it’s pretty unrealistic. (I'm giving up the end of the book here to discuss those points so don't click unless you've already read or just don't care.) (view spoiler)[ The idea that the sergeant would romance Staniland’s ex-girlfriend and have sex with her is a pretty big no-no for cops as I understand it. Especially since she turns out to be one of the killers. Oops. Plus, it seemed ridiculous that the sergeant would essentially offer himself up to be murdered to make sure the bad guys don’t get away with it. That's really taking the dedication to your job to a whole new level. (hide spoiler)]
But realism isn’t the point. This is about a cop who sees reflections of himself in a victim who refused to compromise himself for a world that he could barely stand to be a part of. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Two thousand years ago a Roman named Lucretius wrote a poem that described a universe guided by physical laws rather than the whims of mystical deitieTwo thousand years ago a Roman named Lucretius wrote a poem that described a universe guided by physical laws rather than the whims of mystical deities and also advised that people should pursue happiness rather than spend their lives trying to appease gods who don’t exist . As I write this in 2012 certain parts of the world have been rioting and people are dying because some felt that a You Tube video insulted their religion. My own country has a constant political tug of war between the people who want to run things with that whole “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” part of the Constitution in mind while others think we should just throw that out and use the Bible as our rule book.
We are a race of slow learners.
Lucretius’s poem was apparently not only an extremely thorough explanation of Epicurean philosophy, it was also a well constructed and beautiful piece of writing that was almost lost to history. Greenblatt does an outstanding job of laying out the significance of Epicureanism, how it was almost stamped out by the rise of Christianity and why the poem rescued by chance by an Italian humanist and scholar was a spark that helped usher in the modern world.
I especially liked the section where Greenblatt describes how the Christian faith turned most of the public against one of the central principles of Epicureanism; seeking pleasure. ‘Seeking pleasure’ in the Epicurean sense doesn’t mean maxing out your credit cards in Vegas to hire a couple of hookers for a cocaine fueled weekend. It’s more in the ‘How about a nice cup of tea and a good book by a warm fire on a rainy day?’ kind of thing.
Yet the church managed to convince the faithful that it was more spiritual to seek punishment from an angry God, and they tagged Epicureans as a bunch of wild orgy types when in fact it’s not about hedonism, it’s about finding ways to avoid pain and making the most of your existence in this world because you’re gonna have a short shelf life and then you‘re done for good.
This is a fascinating history of how one piece of exceptional writing changed the world....more
I have said it before, and I'll say it again: The jungles of the earth must be DESTROYED. *
* Before you break your fingers on your keyboard in your haI have said it before, and I'll say it again: The jungles of the earth must be DESTROYED. *
* Before you break your fingers on your keyboard in your haste to flame me for that comment, take a moment to ask yourself if I might be joking.
In the last months of World War II as America worked its way towards Japan, a plane load of military personnel took off for a sight seeing tour of a remote valley in New Guinea that had been dubbed Shangri-La. Previous flights had noted tribes of natives numbering in the thousands, but the terrain prevented visits and viewing them from the air had become a treat for bored service men and women.
Unfotunately, this trip turned deadly when the plane crashed, killing almost all the passengers. The survivors had serious injuries and were trapped in a thick mountain jungle. They were also surrounded by natives who had never met anyone outside their valley and had a culture based on constantly warring on each other.
After the survivors were spotted by rescue planes, the immediate problem of treating their injuries and protecting them from potentially hostile natives became the priority. A squad of gung-ho Filipino paratroopers led by a frustrated American captain volunteered to parachute down to deal with the immediate problems with no idea of how they’d be getting back out. After they drop in, weeks pass in Shangri-La as the crash survivors are treated and guarded by the paratroopers.
Resupplied by air and in radio contact with the overhead planes, the survivors and the paratroopers become instant celebrities, especially a pretty WAC named Margaret Hastings who gets dubbed the ‘Queen of Shangri-La’ by the press. As the world watched, the army tried to figure out a way to get them out of the incredibly inaccessible valley. What they came up with for a rescue plan was so bat-shit crazy that it defies belief.
This was entertaining and exciting pop history about a story that was huge in its time but had been forgotten as the end of WWII overshadowed it. Zuckoff does a good job of telling a compelling tale and relaying the history of the people involved to make you care what happened to them. He also gives an interesting anthropological account of the native tribes as well as tracking down some who were still living to get their version of how the strange incident played out. ...more
As children we’re all told that there are no such thing as ghosts. However, when a former hitman for the IRA starts seeing the victims of his murdersAs children we’re all told that there are no such thing as ghosts. However, when a former hitman for the IRA starts seeing the victims of his murders and seeking revenge for them, it doesn’t much matter whether they’re real or not because if he decides that someone is responsible for their demise, that person will get a chance to investigate the after-life first hand in the very near future.
Gerry Fegan was once a feared and respected killer for the Irish cause, but while serving a long stretch in prison, he started seeing twelve ghosts of people that he killed at the command of others. After getting out of jail, Fegan turns into a hard drinking loner who avoids his old IRA pals. With peace at hand and his old bosses now part of the new government, there isn’t much demand for the services he used to provide any so they’re content to pay him off and let him drink himself into oblivion.
When the ghosts start indicating that they want Fegan to kill off the people who had ordered their deaths, Fegan obeys in an attempt to finally get some peace. However, in the politically delicate climate, the murders of powerful former IRA leaders kicks off a new wave of violence and could derail the peace process.
I enjoyed this as a dark story about the consequences of murder and how some men use causes to further their own agendas. While some of the internal government stuff went over my head, I could usually figure out what the major players were scheming about.
My only complaint was that I found the story of Fegan turning into an instant protector for a young mother and her daughter who has gotten on the bad side of the old IRA leadership as being too quick and easy a way to make Fegan the ‘good’ guy in this story. I would have been more intrigued if it would have just stuck with him being a broken and damaged guy taking a twisted kind of revenge on behalf of people that he killed himself. ...more
Read it quick before North Korea decides you can't.
If I wasn’t glad that Kim Jong Il is dead before reading this book, I certainly am now.
Pak Jun Do nRead it quick before North Korea decides you can't.
If I wasn’t glad that Kim Jong Il is dead before reading this book, I certainly am now.
Pak Jun Do never knew his mother and is raised in the orphanage his father runs. Because of this, he is constantly mistaken for an orphan for the rest of his life. Eventually Jun Do winds up as one of the tunnel fighters who work in secret passages under the DMZ into South Korea, but he’s recruited to be part of a team that goes out in boats and snatches random citizens from Japanese or South Korean beaches. From there he goes to being a radio operator on fishing boat where an elaborate lie the crew is forced to cook up to save their skins turns him into an unlikely national hero and gets put on a delegation going to Texas to visit an American senator. Eventually Jun Do’s fortunes take an odd turn that will eventually bring him face to face with the greatest actress in the world (According to North Korean propaganda.) Sun-moon, and The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.
Propaganda plays a big part in this story. That fits since this is a country where the leader supposedly shot the lowest round of golf in history the first time he played and where the citizens are expected to proclaim North Korea is the greatest nation on earth even as they’re starving to death or being sent to prison mines. One of the pieces I liked most was how much of the second half is told to us via third person narration and then we get the North Korean loud speaker version of what occurred.
I also liked the character of Jun Do quite a bit. From the beginning, he’s a guy who finds himself constantly trying to survive by doing terrible things while saying that he has no choice, but he still finds himself sucked into more and more trouble.
Unfortunately, I didn’t buy the developments with the actress Sun-moon or the wilder plot twists late in the book. Another character, an interrogation expert, gets involved, but his first person narration didn’t do much for me. I would have preferred more stuff with Kim Jong Il because those scenes were alternately hilarious and terrifying.
There was a lot to like here, but in the end I felt it was too drawn out, and the author got too cute for his own good in places. And one part really bugged me. (view spoiler)[ The wife of the American senator who has shown incredible warmth and intelligence to Jun Do on his visit to Texas insists that he take one of her puppies back to North Korea. Why would any dog lover think that sending one to goddamn North Korea of all places is a good idea? (hide spoiler)]
It’s one of those books that will make almost anyone appreciate what they have, though. Like now I’m grateful that I live far from any beaches or national borders so that I don’t have to worry about being snatched by one of those secret Canadian kidnapping teams. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
As promised in the title, Skippy dies. In fact, he dies in the first few pages when he falls off his stool in a doughTalk about truth in advertising….
As promised in the title, Skippy dies. In fact, he dies in the first few pages when he falls off his stool in a doughnut shop. Who was this kid and what happened? Well, that’s what the rest of the book is for.
Skippy was Daniel Juster, a shy and nerdy boy at a Catholic boy’s school in Ireland. In the time before his death, we meet a variety of characters that are unknowingly part of the chain of events that lead to his untimely demise. There’s Skippy’s roommate, an overweight student named Ruprecht who is fascinated by the promise of multiple dimensions hypothesized in M-theory and who makes bizarre inventions that never work. Lorelai is a girl from a neighboring school that Skippy has developed a crush on, but she’s also the object of a creepy obsession of one of his fellow students who is also a pyschopath and novice drug dealer. Howard ‘The Coward’ Fallon is Skippy’s history teacher with his own complicated history at the school and who hopes to cure his dissatisfaction with his life by sleeping with a beautiful substitute geography teacher. Greg Costigan is the acting principal who cares so much about the school that looking out for its students has slipped far down his priority list.
What becomes apparent before Skippy’s death is that something is seriously troubling him, but all the characters are so wrapped up in the details of their own lives that no one takes the time to really help the young man. The resulting guilt causes a wave of bizarre repercussions.
I’ve seen this book compared to Infinite Jest and Jonathan Franzen. Those are apt, and I’d also say that it reminded me a bit of the film Donnie Darko. However, this is also a unique and moving book that had me at times laughing, angry, sad wistful, depressed and hopeful. The characters are incredibly well drawn and believable. Greg Costigan in particular is such a son-of-a-bitch that I wished he was real so I could get on a plane to Ireland just so I could kick him in the junk.
The teen characters are also very well done, and Murray absolutely nailed that weird contradiction where kids that age have well-honed instincts about some things like the hypocrisy of adults but are still naive enough to think that you can get pregnant from oral sex.
Also, I listened to the audio version of this and it was done with a full cast doing all the different dialogue. It was one of the best listening experiences I’ve had yet with an audible book. ...more
Damn, but this book exhausted me. It wasn’t just having to hold up it’s 127 lbs. of bulk while trying to read that wore me out either.
Stephenson hasn’Damn, but this book exhausted me. It wasn’t just having to hold up it’s 127 lbs. of bulk while trying to read that wore me out either.
Stephenson hasn’t made it easy on his fans since Cryptonomicon in 1999 with it and every book since being about 27,000 pages long while spanning the late 1600s in Europe to World War II to another world complete with it’s own languages and customs, and each book was also crammed with detailed information about topics like finance and code breaking. When I saw that this was going to be a modern day thriller that had something to do with a MMORPG, I thought Neal was finally taking pity on us poor readers of only average intelligence and attention span and giving us an easier book.
At over 1000 pages with a plot that races around the world and includes multiple characters in wildly different circumstances, Reamde is not a thriller you just breeze through, but like most things Stephenson, I found that the effort I put into it was rewarded with a wild and unique story and top notch writing.
Richard Forthrast fled the US for Canada to avoid the draft during Vietnam and once the war was over he made a small fortune as a marijuana smuggler. Years later, Richard put his pot money into the development of a MMORPG called T’Rain and is now enormously wealthy and successful as the game is one of the most popular of its type around the world.
Richard’s relationship with his family in Iowa is strained, but he loves his niece, Zula. An African refugee, Zula was adopted by Richard’s brother and grew up as an Iowa farm girl and recently graduated college with a computer degree. Richard offers her a job and is thrilled that he’ll get to spend more time with her. However, hackers have put a virus called Reamde in the T’Rain game and this inadvertently begins a chain of events with deadly consequences.
The story roams from the US to the Isle of Man to Canada and China as well as various other locales and a huge cast of characters is involved. Russian gangsters, fantasy novelists, British spies, on-line gamers, a Hungarian money launderer, Chinese hackers, American survivalist nut jobs and Islamic terrorists all get mixed up in the plot, and the book culminates in an epic way with 100+ tense pages that stressed me out and left me needing a nap afterwards.
While Stephenson still never met an info dump he didn’t like, he keeps the focus here mainly on the characters without taking long detours to explore concepts like he has in some of his other books although he does spend a fair amount of time explaining the nature of the T‘Rain game while working in some pretty funny observations about the fantasy genre and gaming. Fans of his earlier work who grumble about the length and pace of his later stuff will still find plenty to bitch about here, and there are some dead sub-plots that could be trimmed with no damage done to the overall story.
But to me, that’s what makes a Neal Stephenson book special. Yes, he probably could have written a 300 to 400 page book that got most of the same plot into it, but without the backstories and the time spent in the mind of each character as they think through their respective situations, it’d be just another book with a bunch of people running around with guns and laptops. Part of the charm for me is Stephenson’s quirky way of telling a story, and he’s delivered another great book here....more
Picture Principal Skinner from The Simpsons and Paris Hilton going to Nazi Germany, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this book is like.
I wasPicture Principal Skinner from The Simpsons and Paris Hilton going to Nazi Germany, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this book is like.
I was split on Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City because I found the half of the book about the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair incredibly interesting but thought the other half about serial killer H.H. Holmes to be just another true crime gore fest. Then in Thunderstruck he again gave us some nice pop history with the story of Marconi and the invention of the radio, but then he stretched the inclusion of a crime story to a ridiculous exteme by trying to tie in a manhunt for a killer across the Atlantic that used early wireless.
I was hoping that In the Garden of Beasts would allow Larson to play to his strengths with a story about Nazis in the 1930s because I thought he could give a detailed look at life in Berlin as Hitler was consolidating his power, and this time he’d actually have a legitimate horror story to tell without it feeling like something just tacked on to sell books. Instead, I got a story about a couple of people who were surrounded by evil and didn’t do a helluva lot about it.
The story centers on William Dodd and his daughter Martha. Dodd was a history professor in Chicago with minor political connections and a dream of obtaining a quiet government post somewhere so he could finish writing a history of the American Civil War. When President Roosevelt couldn’t get anyone else to take the job, he asked Dodd to be the ambassador to Germany. Dodd accepted and took his wife and two grown children along with him. Like a lot of Americans, Dodd was worried about some of the stories of Nazi violence coming out at the time, but thought that Hitler might be nudged towards controlling the extreme factions since he‘d just taken over as chancellor. His interactions with the Nazi power brokers and the rise of German nationalistic fervor eventually convinced Dodd that Hitler and his people were bad news for the entire world.
Here’s where the book falls down for me. Larson got me interested in the Chicago World’s Fair because I knew nothing about it, and he made it come alive. I already know about how the Nazis came to power so the history piece of this is old news to me. While there’s some interesting slice of life details and Larson does a nice job of giving you a sense of the weird combination of paranoia, pride, terror and zeal that pervaded Germany in the 1930s, it’s really nothing I haven’t heard before. Maybe I would have been more interested if I would have found Dodd’s story more intriguing, but frankly, the ambassador seemed about as interesting as a saltine cracker to me.
Dodd comes across as a decent enough guy for his time. He did advocate policies of getting tougher with Germany when most of America was in full isolationist mode, but aside from irking the Nazis with a couple of speeches and boycotting a couple of official functions, he really didn’t do anything. (And as one of his critics of the time pointed out, an ambassador who refuses to meet with the government of the country he’s in really isn’t accomplishing much.) Dodd irritated others in America’s diplomatic service with his constant criticism of their spending and seemed more concerned with cutting costs at the embassy rather than dealing with the Germans.
The odd thing about this book is that Larson all but ignores Dodd’s wife and son in favor of giving a detailed portrayal of his daughter, Martha. Martha came along with her father as her first marriage was ending, and to put it mildly, she got around. I mean, it’s good that a woman in her time was sexually liberated enough to carry on with guys like the poet Carl Sandburg. However, once she dated the head of the Gestapo and a top Soviet spy as well as many, many others, I had the impression that Martha was less than discriminating with her affections. Hell, she even kinda went along with a half-assed scheme one of the Nazis had to try and hook her up with Hitler himself.
So this becomes the story of a mild mannered diplomat dealing with the rise of some of the most evil fucks in history, but he’s pinching pennies at the embassy instead of giving visas to every Jewish person he could find. And his daughter is a sleeping her way through Europe while at first extolling the virtues of the Nazis, then deciding that she’s kind of a communist, but in the end Martha doesn’t do much but put a smile on the face of any guy who gives her a wink and a smile.
In this case, I knew the history and only got a story about a couple of people who seem like they should have been maybe a chapter in larger history of the time and place. Dodd and Martha just didn’t impress or intrigue me enough to warrant reading a whole book about them. It’s disappointing that Larson decided to make them the center of this....more
Attention crazy people! If you are one of those poor souls who thinks that the Central Intelligence Agency is reading your thoughts and/or manipulatinAttention crazy people! If you are one of those poor souls who thinks that the Central Intelligence Agency is reading your thoughts and/or manipulating your brain waves, I have good news for you. You can take off your aluminum foil hat and stop trying to pull out that tooth with the tracking device. Here it is:
The CIA is too incompetent to do any of the things you are worried about. Seriously.
After reading Legacy of Ashes, I’m amazed that we weren’t taken down by the Soviets during the Cold War or that China hasn’t invaded and turned the US into a giant sweatshop that sews cheap clothing for its citizens or that some terrorists haven’t reduced the country to pile of radioactive rubble.*
*Kind of odd timing to read a book that bashes the CIA this much shortly after Osama got his much deserved bullet to the brain, but this book outlined how the CIA muffed multiple opportunities to kill him before 9/11 during the Clinton and W. Bush years. After repeated stories of just how incredibly bad the CIA is at actually collecting human intelligence, it’s really not that surprising that bin Ladin had been living in a posh neighborhood for years while American forces searched caves in Afghanistan.
If you read something like a Tom Clancy novel, you’ll get the idea that the CIA is really good at its job and that the occasional snafu like the Bay of Pigs or claiming that Iraq had WMD are just aberrations. Per Tim Weiner, the real story is that the for the CIA the Bay of Pigs and Iraq WMDs are the typical performance levels, we just only hear about the really big screw-ups.
After World War II and with the Cold War ramping up, America needed an intelligence service, but all Harry Truman really wanted was an agency to boil down all the information that the military and state department collected and summarize it for him daily. However, when a bunch of former OSS guys were put in charge, their brilliant idea of an intelligence service was parachuting half-trained dissidents behind the Iron Curtain to lead resistances and perform sabotage missions. Unfortunately, the people were so poorly prepared and the Soviets had already so thoroughly penetrated the Agency that they were almost all captured and/or killed. Oh, and they completely missed the Soviets developing their own atomic bomb thanks to stolen intelligence.
From the Korean War through Vietnam to missing the economic decay of the Soviet Union that caused it’s ultimate collapse, the CIA was so consistently wrong and bad at their supposed main job of gathering intelligence that it boggles the mind. Weathermen are jealous at how these guys were able to be so repeatedly and completely wrong yet somehow none of them lost their jobs over it.
The only thing that CIA seems to have been really good at was backing the most evil fucks around as long as they claimed to be anti-communist. If there was a strong arm dictator or leader of a military coup waiting to take over from a government with the slightest bit of left leanings, the CIA was there with bags of cash and support for assholes to take over countries like Iran and Guatemala , and the result has been countless deaths of innocent people and the trashing of goodwill towards America in many parts of the world.
To be fair, there’s a few parts of the book where it seems that Weiner doesn’t give them credit for the few things they did right. Accurately predicating the outbreak of violence in Rwanda or running a successful operation to help convince Libya to ditch it’s WMD programs are barely mentioned. And despite documenting how the CIA has bowed to political pressure and repeatedly told several presidents exactly what they wanted to hear, the Iraqi WMD claims are portrayed almost exclusively as an intelligence failure with little mention of poltical pressure from the Bush administration which is hard to believe.
Overall, Weiner used recently declassified internal CIA reports and histories to document a long history of spectacular failure. The book explores how a combination of politics and a bureaucratic nightmare has left America deaf and blind at the times it could least afford to be so even as the myth of an all-knowing intelligence agency has been perpetuated. Billions upon billions of dollars have been spent trying to keep tabs on America’s enemies. Frankly, we all would have been better off if the US would have used that cash to buy everyone in the world some cake and ice cream every now and then. At least maybe so many people wouldn’t hate us because how could you be mad at someone who gives you free cake and ice cream? ...more
Nicholai Hel is such a stud duck bad-ass that even if James Bond, Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne and the Dos Equis’s Most Interesting Man in the World baNicholai Hel is such a stud duck bad-ass that even if James Bond, Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne and the Dos Equis’s Most Interesting Man in the World banded together to try and take him down, he’d just kill them all with a drinking straw while lecturing them on the evils of their materialism. Then he’d have mind blowing sex with their girlfriends.
Hel was born to a exiled Russian countess in Shanghai in the ’20s and a Japanese general thinks the young man has such an exceptional talent for the game Go that he sends him to Japan to train. Hel spends years before and during World War II learning the game and immersing himself in Japanese culture. After the war, he gets on the bad side of the occupation forces and spends years in prison. Once released, he becomes an international assassin.
Decades later, Hel has retired to his chateau in the mountains with the Basque where he indulges in his hobby of spelunking. However, when the niece of an old friend gets caught up in an international conspiracy led by an oil corporation, Hel will have to decide if an old debt to that friend extends to protecting the woman against powerful international forces.
I only vaguely knew about Trevanian after reading Incident at Twenty Mile, but since Don Winslow, one of my favorite crime writers, just released an authorized prequel to this book, I had to check it out. What I found is that Trevanian has done a sly parody of the spy novel here with the incredible Hel being a character of pulp superhero style attributes. Not only he is brilliant with a gift for languages, he is also a mystic capable of going into trances where he becomes one with the universe and he has a ‘proximity sense‘ that allows him to sense other people and their moods.. In addition to all that, he’s a martial arts expert and a world class cave explorer. Oh, and he’s the world‘s foremost lover who can literally ruin a woman for other men if he unleashes his full power upon her.
Trevanian’s playing with the format of the spy novel extends to the structure of the book. The first half of the novel consists of the minions of the evil “Mother Company” researching Hel’s origin story after the become worried that he may try to ruin their plans. (The whole idea of the Mother Company being an energy conglomerate that is the real power behind the government to the point where their man Diamond has set up his own office in the CIA and started giving orders to everyone is a conspiracy theorist’s dream come true.)
After half the book is spent discussing what a bad ass Hel is, the next quarter of the book is an account of Hel and his friend exploring a cave. It’s only in the last part of the book that the action picks up, but even then, we barely see Hel actually do anything although he does manage to pile up a respectable body count in the last chapters.
I liked this book and the way that Trevanian was having some fun with the genre by creating such an over the top character but playing it completely straight. However, there was one aspect that kept bugging me. Trevanian was a staunch anti-materialist. Hel shares this attitude and looks down his nose with contempt at the ‘merchants’ of the world. He has claimed the moral high ground by living in his mountain house with few modern comforts.
Yet, even thought Hel is continually portrayed as being the superior person for his way of life, there’s no mention made about how a guy who claims to hate materialism spent years killing people for money, and then spent a fortune on a house in the mountains to live in isolation. So I guess it takes a huge amount of money to truly live a non-materialistic lifestyle. After a while, Hel’s smug and hypocritical attitude about this annoyed the hell out of me because it seemed like the one part of the book Trevanian was serious about....more
There’s a popular website called Chuck Norris Facts that has funny sayings about how tough Chuck is like “When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every nightThere’s a popular website called Chuck Norris Facts that has funny sayings about how tough Chuck is like “When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.” and “There is no chin behind Chuck Norris’ beard. There is only another fist.” Well, if Chuck Norris ever met Nicholai Hel, Chuck would beg for mercy after wetting his pants, and then the Chuck Norris Facts website would become Nicholai Hel Facts.
Trevanian introduced Hel in Shibumi in 1979, and Don Winslow gives us a prequel that fills in a major gap of Trevanian’s original. In Shibumi half the book was spent on Hel’s growing up in Japan as a student of the game Go before and during World War II. Then Hel spends several years in prison after the war imprisoned by the American forces. Trevanian told how Hel was finally released after getting an offer to take on a suicide mission for the Americans in return for his freedom, but then we just got an overview of Hel’s career as an international hitman until the story picked up when he was in his 50s.
Winslow takes on the task of telling about Hel’s first assignment, and it’s a doozy. While the Korean War is wrapping up, the Americans need someone to pose as a French gun dealer to murder a Soviet diplomat in Beijing so that they can sow discontent between China and Russia. With his mastery of multiple languages and ability to kill with his bare hands, Hel fits the bill nicely.
In Shibumi Hel was built up into such a superior being that the original book would have been ridiculous if Trevanian hadn’t winked at the reader now and then to let them know that this shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Hel was one of the world’s foremost assassins, a martial arts expert, a former mystic, a master Go player, a world class cave explorer and the world’s greatest lover. (Seriously.) Plus, he also had a proximity sense that allows him to be aware of people and their moods before he can see them.
Winslow tones this down a bit and plays it straighter than the original book. He was also smart enough not to try and match his style to Trevanian’s. Instead, he focuses on delivering the same essence of Hel in a fast paced action story set against political intrigue in Southeast Asia in the ‘50s. It works like gangbusters with a pace so furious that you don’t have time to think about how outlandish the plot is.
And Winslow also dealt with my main complaint from Shibumi which was Hel’s smug and condescending attitude towards almost every country except Japan and his hypocritical stance about materialism. (Guys making fortunes for killing people shouldn’t climb on their moral high horse about how the world is full of ‘merchants’.) While Hel still has the aloof demeanor and attitude, Winslow toned it down so he’s not nearly as annoying.
This was a fast paced and fun international thriller set against the Cold War with a stone cold bad ass main character, and I’d like to see Winslow revist Hel again to tell us more of his story. ...more
The on-going discoveries of priceless books and comics found in a stack of Rubbermaid containers previouslTreasure of the Rubbermaids 6: Made in China
The on-going discoveries of priceless books and comics found in a stack of Rubbermaid containers previously stored and forgotten at my parent’s house and untouched for almost 20 years. Thanks to my father dumping them back on me, I now spend my spare time unearthing lost treasures from their plastic depths.
I bitch about having to mow my lawn, but when I’m done, I usually sit on my deck and have a few ice cold beers. Then I take a hot shower and get in my car to go to the grocery store where I buy a cart full of food without giving it a second thought.
Chinese farmer Wang Lung (I wanted to type Wang Chung there. Damn you ‘80s!) spends all day doing back breaking labor in his own fields and there’s still barely enough food to keep from starving. His big reward is a cup of hot water in the morning with maybe a few tea leaves in it on special occasions, and he sponges himself off with hot water every couple of months whether he needs it or not.
So maybe I shouldn’t complain about walking around behind a power mower for an hour or two a week during the summer?
The book begins on Wang Lung’s wedding day. His bride, O-Lan, is a slave in the great house of his town, and they’ve never met. He splurges by taking a bath, buying her a couple of peaches, and getting a little pork and meat for their wedding feast which O-Lan prepares. For a honeymoon, they go work in the fields together. This whole section made me laugh thinking about the women on those reality wedding shows like Bridezillas.
Wang Lung and O-Lan make a good couple. They’re both hard working and she soon bears him sons which is kind of important to the Chinese. (And she returns to the fields right after giving birth with no assistance. O-Lan is a dream client for an HMO.) Together their family will go through bad times including droughts and famine, but O-Lan’s steady nature and Wang Lung’s farming skills eventually bring them prosperity.
The one thing that sets Wang Lung apart from other farmers is his constant desire to acquire new land. Part of this is pride, but Wang Lung realizes that owning good farm land is the key to providing the necessary cushion to keep from starving during bad years. Plus, he genuinely loves working his crops and bringing them to harvest. His fierce love of the land is the one constant in his life, but he obviously never went through a real estate crash. (Diversify, Wang Lung! Diversify!)
This book works on a lot of levels. As a depiction of a culture that little was known about when it was published, it’s fantastic. I liked how Buck never comments or judges on things that are kind of horrifying like selling girls for slaves or binding their feet, but treats them as just the way things are to all the characters. She just let the facts speak for themselves. It’s also works as a family drama with trials and tribulations worthy of a soap opera. You could also read it as a plain old rags-to-riches success story.
Despite being set in a time and place so alien to me, the characters still seem very real and relatable despite the cultural differences. Wang Lung doesn’t seem that different from any modern American farmer I’ve known. I think it must be universal that farmers everywhere like to gather and shoot the shit whether it’s at a Chinese tea house or a diner in Kansas.
And when a successful Wang Lung experiences a mid-life crisis and falls for a younger woman, you realize that it’s no different from any modern guy divorcing the wife who stood by him for years. It’s just that the sports car hasn’t been invented yet so Wang Lung can’t go buy one.
This is one of those classics that has an easily readable style and a compelling story that still seems fresh even though it was published over 70 years ago....more
Today I’ll be reviewing Matterhorn, a novel about the Vietnam war. Play your favorite classic rock song of the era while reading. Buffalo Springfield’Today I’ll be reviewing Matterhorn, a novel about the Vietnam war. Play your favorite classic rock song of the era while reading. Buffalo Springfield’s For What’s It’s Worth is always a popular choice. You could use Credence Clearwater’s Fortunate Son. For myself, I'll be listening to The End from The Doors and then plan on going into a full-on Martin Sheen-Apocalypse Now-freak-out as I lay on a bed staring up at the ceiling fan in a pair of tidy whiteys until I drink enough to punch out a mirror and then break down crying.
I’ll admit that I didn’t really think there were any more stories to tell about Vietnam that I hadn‘t heard. As a teenager in the ‘80s when every male action hero from Thomas Magnum to Sonny Crockett was supposedly a ‘Nam vet, and movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket were coming out regularly, I just didn’t think there was a scenario that someone could come up with that hadn’t been done to death. Plus, I used to have a neighbor who was a Vietnam vet who would tell me some hair-raising stories when he got a few beers in him that had the ring of authenticity that even grittiest fictional stories can’t convey.
But Matterhorn had a lot of good buzz about it so I finally picked it up. I got worried in the first chapter where there‘s a lot concerning leeches in the jungle. There wasn’t anything there that I hadn’t seen on film or read dozens of time before. Until one of the Marines discover that a leech crawled inside his penis. That’s when I realized that Karl Marlantes may be doing a story in a familiar setting, but he had the knowledge and ability to make it horrible and fresh all over again.
Marlantes is a decorated Marine Vietnam veteran with a chest full of medals. He spent 30 years (30 years!) writing this story off and on before finally getting it published. The story centers on a company of Marines circa 1969 with a young and ambitious lieutenant named Mellas taking over a rifle platoon in Bravo Company as soon as he arrives.
Mellas may be inexperienced, but he could turn into a good officer. He’s got skills with maps and a feel for terrain and tactics, but his political instincts may keep him from being an effective combat leader. Mellas and the Marines are trying to fortify a mountaintop position called Matterhorn and patrol the surrounding thick jungle. Between jungle illnesses and always being exhausted from the patrols, night watches and the hard labor of establishing the camp, the Marines are stretched thin. Racial tensions in the company aren’t helping anything.
But things get much worse when drunken battalion commander Simpson and his manipulative operations officer Blakely decide to use Bravo to try and locate NVA forces they’re sure are in the area of Matterhorn. Simpson sends Bravo out on long jungle recons when they’re dangerously under-supplied and exhausted and when bad weather prevents helicopters from reaching them. When Bravo can’t meet his aggressive timetable, Simpson simply demands more of them and labels them as whining malcontents, and eventually Marines start dying because of the orders that Simpson is issuing.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything that infuriated and angered me as much as Simpson and Blakely’s treatment of Bravo Company. I spent most of this book hoping that some of the Marines will make good on their threat to frag the two asshole officers.
Marlantes’s 30 years work on this really paid off. While Vietnam stories may have become somewhat clichéd, he’s managed to craft a story that transcends all the slang and trivia we’ve become acquainted with. His Mellas character is probably a bit of a Mary Sue, but considering Marlantes’s background and time spent on this novel, it didn’t bother me a bit.
My only complaint is that some of the parts concerning the racial tensions do seem hokey in places. There’s one part where Mellas has a conversation with one of his black Marines, and it comes across as earnestly sincere as one of those old After School Specials. Only with guns and saying, “fuck’ a lot.
All in all, this is a terrific war novel that’ll tear your heart out as it teaches you something new about Vietnam. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to do some drinking and stare at my ceiling fan. This is the end…...more
I was cleaning up after the wife and I had dinner last night and there was a small amount of green beans left. There weren’t nearly enough for anotherI was cleaning up after the wife and I had dinner last night and there was a small amount of green beans left. There weren’t nearly enough for another serving to make them worth saving so I dumped them in the sink, but just as I was about to turn on the garbage disposal, I realized that to the POWs described in Unbroken those few green beans I was about to mulch would have been a feast they would have risked torture and beatings for. I was disgusted with myself for the rest of the night. You know the book you’re reading is hitting you hard when you feel that much shame for letting a tiny bit of food go to waste.
Louie Zamperini is one of those guys who definitely earned that Greatest Generation label. The son of Italian immigrant parents, Louie was a rebellious kid who was constantly into one form of mischief or another, but when he finally channeled his energy into running, he became a high school track star in California. Louie was so good that he made the 1936 Olympics in Berlin at the age of 19, and even though he didn’t medal, he ran one lap of a race so quickly that he electrified the crowd and even caught Hitler’s attention.
As a college runner, Louie held several national records and many thought that he’d be the man to eventually break the four minute mile. He was poised to do well in the 1940 Olympics, but then World War II cancelled the games. Louie left college and ended up in the air corps even though he was scared of planes. He became a bombardier and went to the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. Louie survived several missions, including one where their B-24 barely made it back with over 500 holes in it.
While on a search and rescue mission, Louie’s plane crashed in the ocean, and only he and two others survived. With few supplies on two tiny life rafts, they’d endure exposure, starvation, thirst and sharks.
However, after finally reaching an island and being captured by the Japanese, Louie’s hellish experience as a POW would make him miss the raft and the sharks. Starved, beaten, tortured and degraded, Louie also faces extra punishment at the hands of a brutally sadistic guard who singled him out. Louie and the other prisoners desperately try to hang on long enough for America to win the war and free them.
I didn’t care anything about race horses, but found Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit an incredibly interesting read. She’s surpassed that book here with this well researched story. Hillenbrand creates vivid descriptions of Louie’s childhood, the Berlin Olympics, the life of an air man in the Pacific, and a Japanese POW camp while also telling the stories of the people around Louie.
She also does a superior job of describing a phase of World War II that tends to get overlooked, Japanese war crimes against prisoners. The number of prisoners killed by the Japanese through starvation, beatings and forced labor are staggering, but Hillenbrand also shines a light on the Japanese policy of killing all POWs if that area was about to be invaded. Per her research, they were preparing to begin slaughtering prisoners in Japan in late August and September of 1945, but the dropping of the atomic bombs and the surrender of the emperor probably saved those POWs lives. If the war would have carried on or a conventional invasion done, then mostly likely those prisoners would have been killed.*
*(Do not take this as my personal feelings about whether nuclear weapons should have been used or not. I’m just relaying a part of the book here, and Hillenbrand makes no argument as to whether dropping the bombs was justified. She writes that many of the POWs believed that the bombings probably saved their lives and leaves it at that. And if you feel like trying to start a comment fight about it, I’m just going to delete it so don’t bother. I left my sword and shield at home today and don’t feel like battling trolls.)
Ultimately, while this is a book about people enduring incredible hardship and cruelty during war, it's a hopeful book, not a depressing one. Great writing and the care that Hillenbrand took with the people and places make this compelling reading. ...more
Humanity has struggled with a lot of problems over the course of history. Most of these are issues that we continue to deal with like war, poverty, diHumanity has struggled with a lot of problems over the course of history. Most of these are issues that we continue to deal with like war, poverty, disease, discrimination, Sarah Palin, etc. It’s rare that we as a species get a ‘win’ and are able to check something off our To-Do List once and for all, but it does happen. For example, it took a while but it seems like that pesky smallpox issue is under control.
So when the news was dominated by reports of attacks by Somalian pirates, it really pissed me off. Seriously? Freaking pirates? I thought that was one issue that got settled a long time ago. What’s next? Do I have to worry that Spanish conquistadors are going to start looting their way through North America looking for gold? Should we be concerned about the resurrection of the old rum-slaves-sugar triangle trade? We don’t have enough to worry about, goddamn pirates gotta make a comeback??
Oh, well. At least it gave Elmore Leonard a topic for a book. Unfortunately, the results are mixed.
Dara Barr is a documentary filmmaker fresh off an Oscar win, and she’s gone to Djibouti with her assistant Xavier LeBo to get footage of the Somalia pirates in action. In typical Leonard fashion, Dara and Xavier meet a colorful cast of characters, all with their own agendas. Idris is getting rich off piracy, and he’s got a charming but shady colleague called Henry. Billy is a rich Texan sailing the area on his yacht with his companion Helene and an elephant gun, and he thinks that a recently captured tanker filled with liquefied natural gas is involved in an terrorist plot. The two Al-Qaeda operatives on the ship, including a murderous American born ex-convict, seem to confirm Billy’s suspicions.
Leonard’s characters usually see themselves and each other in terms of an on-going story. A Leonard book usually has characters relating events to each other and trying to frame the story to make themselves look cool, and they tend to think in pop culture terms. Get Shorty is a prime example with the main character using the events that are happening as his on-going pitch for a movie.
In Djibouti, Leonard uses a different technique. The book takes a jump in time forward to a point where Dara and Xavier are reviewing footage they shot at sea. As they’re editing and trying to craft a narrative, they’re re-telling the story to each other and trying to make a coherent plot out of it. That continues throughout the book as Dara struggles to put a theme and an ending to her movie. That was a new way for Leonard to frame the story, and it's one of the more interesting aspects of the book.
But he leaves that behind to launch into a pretty typical Elmore Leonard plot, it’s just happening in Africa instead of Florida or Detroit this time. The book consists almost entirely of dialogue, with characters describing the area and events to each other. With an exotic locale, Leonard might have been better served to do a little more descriptive writing.
Plus, the plot gets a little more convoluted and confusing. When the main villain finally emerges from the cast, I had to go back and try to find his introduction to the narrative because I couldn’t figure out when the others had met him. Dara didn’t grab me as a main character, either. Leonard has done some strong female protagonists before like Karen Sisco and Jackie Brown, but Dara just didn’t have the same zing.
Nice to see Leonard playing with his structure a bit, but it was a little sloppy and confusing. I give him credit for leaving his writing comfort zone to try something a little off-beat....more
Courtland Gentry was once a top operative for the CIA, but they issued a burn notice and shoot-on-sight order about him for unknown reasons. A burn noCourtland Gentry was once a top operative for the CIA, but they issued a burn notice and shoot-on-sight order about him for unknown reasons. A burn notice? I wonder if Court gets to hang around Bruce Campbell drinking beers like other burned spies?
Court went underground and became a legendary contract killer known as the Gray Man in certain circles, but things aren’t going well. Circumstances have forced him to start working with a sleazy Russian gangster, and he’s picked up a prescription drug habit while recovering from injuries suffered in the last book.
The Russian has a contract for Court to assassinate the president of Sudan, but the Gray Man doesn’t trust the Russian and wants nothing to do with it. However, Court’s old CIA team leader shows up with an offer. He wants Court to pretend to take the Russian contract, and the Americans will piggy back their own covert operation into Sudan on it. In return, the CIA will drop the kill order and even let Court work for them again.
Court takes the offer, but things almost immediately start going off the rails in Sudan. His first headache involves an incredibly naïve and very annoying Canadian woman working for the International Criminal Court regarding violations in Darfur. Despite Court saving her ass a couple of times, she insists on busting his balls over how he’s dealt with a gang of genocidal thugs. (Here’s something that seems like a bad idea: If you wind up alone in the desert with a highly trained killer, threaten to have him arrested as soon as he leads you back to civilization.) For some reason, Court doesn’t just pop her head off, but the problems with the operation have just started.
The first book featuring Court, The Gray Man, was over-the-top action fun with a Jason Bourne-style manhunt across Europe. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first one. Since Court is dealing with his old boss and a CIA paramilitary team for a lot of this one, there’s a lot of G.I. Joe stuff and combat-talk like “Contact right!” or “Sierra 6 to Sierra 1.” Plus, Court doesn’t seem nearly the legendary bad ass in this one that he’s supposed to be. Granted, he’s fighting a pill habit, but he doesn’t seem nearly as fearsome.
It still had a lot of good crazy action scenes, and the plot did zigzag in surprising directions I didn’t see coming. But having Court as part of a team and having to follow other people’s orders isn’t nearly as much fun as Court on his own and leaving mayhem in his wake. ...more
Russian cop Arkady Renko has been solving crimes in novels for almost three decades now. When he was introduced during the Cold War in Gorky Park, RenRussian cop Arkady Renko has been solving crimes in novels for almost three decades now. When he was introduced during the Cold War in Gorky Park, Renko had to tread carefully because of a communist government that didn’t like to even admit that there were any crimes, let alone appreciate someone being independent enough to actually try and solve them. He‘s been exiled to a Siberian fishing boat, recalled to Moscow during glasnost, witnessed the final gasp of communism, gotten embroiled in plots in Havana and taken a lovely trip to Chernobyl over the course of his career. He’s survived clashes with the KGB, the CIA, corrupt cops and politicians, ruthless capitalists, the Russian mafia, Cuban thugs and being shot in the head at one point.
Despite almost always being vastly overmatched both politically and physically, he‘s somehow managed to get the job done. Arkady isn’t particularly idealistic, political or brave, he just has an unerring sense of justice that won’t let him go along when something is being swept under the rug, and he’s got a knack for screwing up the well laid plans of powerful people.
Renko’s bosses have finally figured out a way to keep him from pissing in their borscht. They aren’t giving him any cases. He still has his job title as investigator, but since he isn’t allowed to look into any crimes, he can’t poke his nose into delicate situations they want left alone. However, his superiors underestimated Renko’s ability to find trouble.
Renko’s friend and fellow detective, Victor, is about to be fired for his constant drunkenness. Trying to save his job, Renko pulls him off a vodka bender and helps him answer a call to what is supposed to be the routine overdose of a prostitute. Renko and Victor soon suspect that the girl was actually murdered and try to push an investigation forward, but Renko’s boss sees it as a chance to finally get rid of the pain-in-the-ass detective for good.
As Renko deals with the murder that leads him to a shifty Russian billionaire and a sassy female fashion journalist, a parallel story is being told about a missing baby. Maya is a teenage prostitute who has just given birth and is on her way to Moscow to hide from her pimps who want the baby gone and her back to work. When the baby is snatched from her on the train, Maya’s only help comes from Zhenya, a brilliant but withdrawn Russian street kid that Renko has tried to help.
As always, Smith delivers an intriguing and gritty picture of a Russian culture that features a privileged few getting rich from the rise of capitalism while average Russians have to hustle to survive. Renko still has his stubborn refusal to quit no matter what he’s threatened with, and he’s retained his black sense of humor. One of the parts I always enjoy most about the Renko books is how the other characters think that he has a death wish or is too stupid to know when to stop. As Victor tells Arkady at one point:
“ You are so fucked. You have no authority and no protection, just enemies. What are you looking for? Blood on the sidewalk and a round of applause?”
While it’s always good to get another book from Smith, this one is very short at 241 pages. There’s more of a frantic pace than I’m used to from the usually more brooding and atmospheric Renko series. Since the book is essentially split into two parts, it almost feels like you’re reading two short stories about Arkady that got mixed together. Still an entertaining read, but not quite up to the better entries in the series....more
Read it quick before North Korea decides you can't!
Kim Jong-il wasn’t just another fascist dictator whose only hobby was firing cruise missile over JaRead it quick before North Korea decides you can't!
Kim Jong-il wasn’t just another fascist dictator whose only hobby was firing cruise missile over Japan when he got bored. He was also reportedly an incredible golfer. According to the state newspaper, the first time he ever played, Kim finished 18 holes in just 34 shots. Which would be 25 shots lower than the best official round ever played and would mean that he hit multiple holes-in-one in a single round.
With the whole country so completely locked down, it’s hard for us to know how the people of North Korea really feel about their leaders. We tend to think of them as this oppressed but possibly brainwashed sea of humanity that lives in a combination of fear and awe of Kim Jong-il. But people are people, and surely there were some in North Korea who read that their Dear Leader shot the lowest round of golf in history, rolled their eyes and thought, “Just how stupid does that asshat think we are?”
Inspector O is kind of like that. He routinely ‘forgets’ to wear his pin with Kim’s picture on it that everyone is required to wear, and he shows a surprising amount of rebellious spirit when having to navigate the treacherous bureaucratic waters of running criminal investigations in a police state. O is given a mysterious assignment to go outside Pyongyang and take a picture of a car that is supposed to drive by at a certain time. O isn’t happy about being sent on this errand, and since nothing works in North Korea, the camera he was given has a dead battery so he isn’t able to take the picture.
This draws O and his boss Pak into a dangerous games where they’re being used as pawns between two powerful rivals, Kim from the Military Security forces and Kang from the Investigations Department. Despite their efforts to say out of the fight, O has to follow Kang’s orders to a dangerous town on the Chinese border and then into investigating the murder of a foreigner at the Koryo hotel.
The obvious comparison to this series is Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series that started in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Like Renko, O is a decent man who has no illusions about the government he serves, but he also isn’t stupid enough to try and change it. Just trying to do a little honest police work is dangerous enough.
James Church is supposedly the pseudonym of a former Western intelligence agent. The details of everyday life in North Korea ring true, and O is a fascinating character. The writing is also very good, but the plot is pretty confusing. O spends a great deal of the book just blindly being sent to different places, and neither he nor the reader knows why until very late in he book. Plus, there’s a large plot point regarding O’s hated brother abruptly dropped into the middle of the book with no history or explanation. Maybe the later books in the series get into that more, but it seemed kind of random though.
Still, this was a well written thriller with an interesting main character in a setting that most of us outside of North Korea will never know. ...more