In the beginning, before there was any recognised form of writing, oral narratives were the only way of preserving memories of what had happened. People passed down the experience that would benefit those who followed. As writing developed, generational knowledge was easier to preserve. Faster progress could be maintained. Except, of course, people can lie to each other whether by spoken or written word. History is one of the more abused cultural artefacts, with facts misrepresented or manipulated to gain future advantage. Today, we’ve developed a multiplicity of different forms for transmitting information. However, one thing remains true. The line between history and fiction can and will always be blurred.
Stalked: The Boy Who Said No by Patti Sheehy (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) is the second and probably concluding volume that tells the life history of Frank Mederos, a Cuban who escaped from his native country and made a life for himself in the United States. It’s relevant to draw your attention to the author’s name. In other circumstances, this might have been an autobiography, ghosted by Ms Sheehy. As it incorporates a significant number of fictionalised scenes, recreating what the protagonist assumes happened, the “author’s” input is too substantial to ignore. We perhaps should therefore view this as a novelised autobiography, or a straight biography, or consider the whole a piece of historical fiction. Why, you ask, should this question of the label matter? Well, the book is presented to the readers as a “true life story of romance, suspense, and intrigue”. If we take this as an accurate version of what Mederos told his scribe, we can attribute all the prejudices on display to him. The American amanuensis is doing no more than channel his words to us. She is not at fault in any way. But if she is promoting the notion that everything that happened in Cuba was evil and most of what happens in America as the land of opportunity is good, historically speaking, that’s not uncontroversial.
For example, Mederos arrives in New York in 1967 and pays a quick visit to the race riots in Newark. What makes this interesting is that the riots are not given any real context or explanation. Even more interesting is that Mederos himself never seems to be the victim of any discrimination based on his nationality or his inability to speak English. His can-do attitude is lauded and he gets the results he needs in order to become a successful small-scale businessman. He’s the epitome of what’s often held up today as everything that’s wrong with America. By welcoming immigrants, America is depriving its own citizens of jobs, and so on. Ironically, the federal government passed a “dream act” in the form of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1959. Any native or citizen of Cuba who was physically present in the US after 1st January, 1959 and lived there for a year, was automatically deemed a permanent resident. In many circles, this was not a popular law and, under pressure, it was repealed in 1966. This book calmly glosses over all the racial and ethnic problems of the day and, instead, focuses on the inefficiency and corruption in Cuba to the exclusion of all else. Indeed, Mederos is a hero because he defects and Lazo, who stays behind and spies for the CIA, is held up as an example of how every right-thinking member of a society should react when confronted by a regime he finds repugnant.
In other words, this is a book written with every conceivable bias an American author should include to sell a book about the Cuban experience to the great American public. No matter what the truth might be, the black and white portrayed here is what sells the book. Even the fanatical communist who’s sent to stalk and kill Moderos questions his orders, seeing no threat to “his” country in the activities of this sandwich-maker. Hooray for America when even a trained assassin is subverted just by observing the lifestyle of a Cuban exile. This is not to say the book is without merit as a story of a man who joins the woman he loves in America, and tries to make a life for his family. I just wish that, as a book that’s promoted as “history”, it did not whitewash away all the problems in America, and see only the worst in Cuba. So if you are an American who wants a book to confirm your prejudices that America did everything right in dealing with the “threat” of Cuba on its doorstep, this view of American history from 1967 to 1980 or so is probably for you. But if you would prefer a book that presents the history with a little more depth and balance, Stalked: The Boy Who Said No is definitely not for you.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Elective Procedures by Merry Jones (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) sees us back in the confusing world of Elle Harrison. For those of you who have yet to read The Trouble With Charlie, the first in the series, a few words of explanation are in order. This is a woman formally diagnosed with dissociative disorder. This means her awareness of events around her can abruptly cease and then restart some little time later. If she’s involved in conversations or listening to others speak, that means she can miss vital elements in what’s being said. If there are high stress events, she’s likely to suffer amnesia. Indeed, at times, her grip on her own identity can be less than secure. The author, in other words, has carefully decided to feature an unreliable narrator. To add a further layer of confusion, there’s also the suggestion of possible supernatural powers at work. In particular, the first-person narrator regularly sees her husband Charlie whom we know from the first book to be dead. In this book, there’s a similar confusion as to whether she’s seeing real people, or ghosts, or merely hallucinating. To compound this confusion, she and a friend consult a fortuneteller who makes the usual generic predictions for the friend, but asserts our protagonist attracts the dead to her and that she’s likely to be in some danger (now there’s a surprise).
This is a kind of cozy mystery masquerading as a thriller. We have four women who decide to go to Mexico. One has decided to have cosmetic surgery (without telling her husband). She wants moral and physical help from her friends to get her through the door of the operating theatre and then to recover from the surgery. One of the remaining three is a lawyer who finds herself online for most of the time in the resort, dealing with urgent problems from the firm she works for. This leaves the other two with the chance to engage in a little holiday romance. The “other” decides one of the entertainment officers is for her. Our hero finds herself involved with the cosmetic surgeon who sees nothing ethically wrong in dating the friend of a patient rather than the patient herself. So far, we’re running along fairly predictable lines.
Early in the book, our hero finds herself attempting to rescue the woman occupying the next suite in the hotel where they are staying. But before our hero can cross from her balcony to the next, the woman falls to her death. At this early stage, it’s uncertain whether this is a murder, accident or suicide, but since the victim has just had cosmetic surgery and should be feeling good about herself, suicide looks unlikely. When another woman is killed in the same suite two nights later, we have the mystery set up and ready to run. However, our author obviously believed the plot would not sustain itself over the usual running length of a mystery novel, so there’s a further level of complexity introduced. For the record, it’s obvious from quite early on, given this particular protagonist, who the killer in the hotel suite must be. This leaves it up to the grafted element to carry the thriller aspect of the novel. Unfortunately, this is less than successful, leaving the whole novel somewhat thin. The romance plays out along predictable lines as well, so on balance, Elective Procedures is not a particularly impressive second book in what’s obviously intended as a growing series.
For a review of the first in the series, see The Trouble With Charlie.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
When I was beginning to explore adventure fiction back in the 1950s, the jokey approach was always summed up in the line, “. . . and with one bound, Dick was free!” The source of this line was the Dick Barton radio serial and, almost immediately, the phrase was hijacked to refer to any situation in which the hero appeared to be caught in an impossible situation by a villain determined to kill him but, with an ease that defied explanation, the hero was able to escape. Although mass market entertainment did quite deliberately adopt many of the clichés of cliffhanging, there was a emerging trend against the too-easy escape as we moved through the 1960s and 70s. Although the cinema continued to contrive almost parodic escapes, the written form of thrillers settled down into a more thoughtful mode in which the heroes actually had to fight to survive.
Then, as with one bound, we come to Terminal Life by Richard Torregrossa (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) which I take to be a kind of homage to the silliness of all the heroes who have found themselves in a hole and managed to dig themselves out without breaking sweat. Perhaps appropriately, the series has picked up the title, The Suited Hero. This is the sartorial elegance of Men in Black applied to an ex-SEAL who, after returning from the wars to find his wife dead, determines to take revenge. To explain the title, our hero who is always impeccably turned-out in bespoke suits, has been diagnosed with cancer. He decides he has no interest in seeking treatment and so has an externally imposed time limit on his investigation. This means he’s not going to sit around waiting for information to come to him. Rather he’s going to keep moving until he has all his ducks in a row and then he’s going to blast them all to pieces. When reading this, I was mentally playing “The Devil’s Gallop” written by the redoubtable Charles Williams. There’s a great sense of pace about the writing as the plot rapidly spins us from one fight to a chase to another fight. It deserves some period background music to match the style of storytelling.
Does that mean the book is a throwback to the 1940s and so of little interest to contemporary readers? Obviously, as an old geezer with the memory of an elephant, I’m always throwing up odd associations and finding past examples of contemporary phenomena. Modern readers would perhaps not be aware of the plotting styles of years gone by and might think this farrago of absurd chases and escapes to be fresh and original. After all, there’s a trend to acknowledge and embrace absurdity as being hyperreal. In other words, we’re invited to accept the obviously fake as authentic and real. Umberto Eco and other philosophers suggest postmodern writers are using simulations and fabrications as a way of creating something that’s supposedly better than real. That way, we readers find ourselves suddenly immersed in stories that are more exciting, more terrifying, or merely more interesting than the rather boring stuff we’re used to encountering in the real world.
Well, there’s one truth about Terminal Life. The hero has a remarkable level of indestructibility as he takes on the mobster’s world and wins. He may have been born with the instincts of a coldblooded contract killer but, as a man who was rehabilitated through the Navy SEAL training course and then killed for America, he now views breaking bones and variously exterminating those in his way as an entirely justifiable means of finding out who killed his wife and why. So if you want a nonstop brutal action story with a high body count somewhat in the same vein as the Jason Statham Transporter films, disconnect your brain, sit back, and enjoy this romp through all the conventions of thrillerdom as filtered through postmodern conventions of hyperreality. Otherwise, you might decide you prefer a thriller supposedly involving real humans to have some better roots in reality, e.g. by avoiding the need for FBI agents to be trained snipers and everyone able to walk away from all the legal consequences for what they have done, give this a miss.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Shark Fin Soup by Susan Klaus (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) is not a book that hides its light under a bushel. It believes in starting out with its message in the title and then relentlessly pushing it through the rest of the book. So here we go with fiction’s equivalent of fantasy ecoterrorism as applied to the habit of many in China and Asia to enjoy soup made solely from the fin of a shark. It might not be so bad if they would eat all the meat (and use the bones for stock), but the exclusivity of their interest means the fish are hunted for their fins and the rest is thrown away. This is waste on an epic scale as these predators are being hunted to extinction. Of course, the rest of the world is relatively indifferent to the fate of sharks. Just as the majority seem unmoved by the number of land animals that are either dying out naturally or being hunted for their valuable qualities, so humans seem not to care too much so long as they have enough to eat at a reasonable price. Of course, if overfishing were to mean the more common species disappeared or climate change inflated to cost of staples like wheat and corn to unaffordable levels, there would be an outcry. But until there’s a direct threat, only a few care.
This leaves activists to carry the burden alone. Many of these people take the view that all fish and animals have an intrinsic value. In Kantian terms, this would create a moral absolute to protect them because their value would be beyond all price, i.e. it would be morally acceptable to damage and destroy property and, in more extreme cases, to injure and kill the humans responsible for the exploitation or destruction of the given fish or animals, or their habitat. This is morality moving beyond mere beliefs, emotions, opinions or dogma. It’s seeking a justification for terrorism that will rank alongside divine law for those of a religious persuasion, or the philosophical analysis that will appeal to the rational. Obviously, this is not the place to debate the merits of such attempts to intellectualise and justify making all classifications of flora and fauna more important than the needs of the human community. However, you will understand that this book is firmly on the side of those who take direct action, including murder. This particular terrorist, the impressively named Christian Roberts, is to be the hero of this book and the author evidently expects readers to approve the outcome of what he does.
The first third of the book explains the circumstances in which the hero’s wife died and how this has come to motivate him to save the sharks. It also sets up a psychological study of the man who’s essentially depressed, sometimes drunk or high on drugs, and suicidal as a result of losing his wife (and what happened immediately afterwards). In practical terms, this loosens the man’s inhibitions. He no longer cares what happens to him. In this reckless state, he’s quite happy to commit a range of offences from arson, planting explosives, to murder. In this man’s mind, the end of saving the sharks from being hunted into extinction justifies all the means he adopts. Given that he’s a physically attractive man, he breaks the mould of terrorist stereotypes. Adopting the name Captain Nemo, he constructs ever more elaborate plots to disrupt the supply chain and indiscriminately kills diners to deter people from continues to hunt, kill and distribute the fins.
While not denying there’s a certain level of ingenuity to the way in which he achieves his aim, the practical mechanics of each step do rely on being able to find people who will help him, both in carrying out his attacks, and in escaping the consequences. Because this is a series character with a third book presumably already in the works, he emerges from the courtroom at the end without having to face trial and to the cheers of the now supportive citizens of New York. In the next book he has a choice of targets. He could hunt down those who tap baby seals on the head in Canada, or those who cut off the horns of rhinos in Africa, or those who stun and kill cattle in American slaughter houses. There’s no end of cruelties to avenge once you open the door to action against abuses in the food chain. Personally, I think the message gets in the way of the book without seriously evaluating the protagonist’s mental state and deciding whether he’s genuinely motivated by some degree of altruism to protect the sharks or is merely on a personal crusade because he’s enjoying the destruction and death. So, sadly, I find Shark Fin Soup unpalatable as a piece of writing. Worse, it also fails as a piece of propaganda. I might have forgiven the book if it had made out a good argument for preventing the further destruction of endangered species for human food production. But it emotes emptily and fails to construct even a token argument that might convince people to rise up and force lawmakers to enact and enforce strict controls.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
One of the more abused words in the English language is “simple”. I suppose most people take it to mean uncomplicated or, in a slightly less forgiving sense, plain which is one of these ambiguous words. Yet once you start thinking about the range of connotational meanings, it becomes obvious just how complicated the word “simple” can be. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the high praise of lucidity and transparency. We value material that’s intelligible or accessible. Yet the same qualities of simplicity can be described as facile and superficial. A person described as simple is not fully mentally competent.
So when I label Lamentation by Joe Clifford (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) as a deceptively simple book, you have to wait for clarification of precisely what I mean. This is a first person narrative featuring Jay, a man who’s quite intelligent but, for various reasons, prefers a life without full engagement and relationships without full commitment. This makes him a frustrating person who makes a few dollars here and there working at the coalface end of the antiques business. He’s one of these people who works properties that fall vacant when the owner dies and there’s no one immediately available to claim title to the contents. He strips the place of anything of value and passes them on to the trade. As winter takes a grip in the northern reaches of New Hampshire, he finishes his last job for the year and has a lean period to look forward to. This financial bind is more more extreme because he has a son and pays whatever he can to his ex to help look after him.
This hand-to-mouth life is disrupted when the police call. Chris, his junky brother, is in trouble yet again. Except this time, it seems more serious. When the brothers briefly meet up, there’s the same paranoia and bullshit. The next morning, Jay wakes up to find Chris has gone. Then it’s suddenly more serious. A man who was in a loose business relationship with Chris is found dead. Now the police are more determined to find Chris, and Jay gets sucked into looking for him. To say these efforts are amateurish and ineffective is high praise for someone like Jay. This is not something he’s ever really thought about before and, since he’s not overly fond of his brother, he finds the entire experience makes him increasingly angry. When he could be spending time with his son (and ex), he’s suddenly experiencing the possibility of being beaten up, closely followed by actually being knocked unconscious and having his apartment tossed.
At first, I confess this was not very exciting. I had little or no interest in our first-person protagonist and the basic situation seemed rather obvious. Except it winds up into a very unexpected climax of considerable emotional power. So what was initially, and even in retrospect, a pretty simple, by-the-numbers plot with a resolution we’ve seen before, turns out to be a genuine success. Despite all my forebodings, this simple little thing proved to be a real big hitter.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Life is considered “safe” when everything happening around you is predictable. Even when some of the possibilities represent a source of danger, the very fact you are aware of them means you can take appropriate evasive action. Insecurity comes from any lack of foresight. When you don’t know what dangers may be lurking or precisely when known dangers may manifest themselves, anxiety sets in and, if that’s not controlled, it can lead to hypervigilance and panic. It’s the same when it comes to reading a book which is published under the banner of thriller. If it’s easy to predict from one page to the next exactly what will happen, the “safe” plot rapidly grows boring and any thrills there might otherwise have been evaporate. The mark of a good thriller comes from some spark of originality.
At this point, we have to be honest. In practical terms, it’s very difficult to come up with a “new” plot. With several thousand increasingly sophisticated thrillers published each year over the last fifty and more years, the ingenuity of authors has been expended in the endless search for a different way of telling the same basic story. So we can’t expect novelty when it comes to the major plot elements. The protagonist will come under threat. Over the course of the book, the threats will become more severe until, in a major confrontation, there’s conflict resolution and the protagonist reaches some kind of accommodation with the world.
So here comes The Disposables by David Putnam (Oceanview Publishing, 2014). In a neutral voice, I’ll tell you this is a first novel. Our protagonist is Bruno Johnson. He used to be a tough cop who would dispense street justice and keep the streets safe by being more scary than gang leaders. This led to him being recruited into the elite Violent Crime Task Force. At this point, I’ll point to the ironic ambiguity in the name of this squad. Individually and collectively, these were violent officers who would stop at nothing to bring crime under control. For a while, Bruno was partnered with Robby Wicks. This worked well until Bruno was caught crossing a line and ended up doing time. He’s now out on parole, but planning to make a run for it.
Bruno and his current girlfriend, Marie, have been offering a safe house to abused children. They are the disposables of the title because the court system has little or no time to investigate claims of ill-treatment. Children are simply returned to the parent with custody. One of those liberated from the system was the son of an important man in Korea. He’s been pressuring the State Department and, in turn, the FBI has been tasked with recovering the boy. With Bruno in the crosshairs, he agrees to stage a robbery to raise enough cash to fund a quiet departure from American shores with the children. At first, everything seems to be going well but, when Robby Wicks appears looking for help to track down a serial killer, the situation rapidly grows complicated and the opportunity to slip away seems to be closing.
There have been so many books, television series and films exploiting the deficiencies of the Social Services. This means the idea of a tough cop rescuing the children suffering the worst abuse is hardly original. Providing a safe house or some form of underground railroad continues along familiar lines. In this version, there are also a number of classic stereotypes. Marie is a nurse who has seen the abuse first-hand in the ER and prefers intervention. We also meet a prostitute with a heart of gold, drug-pushers and other lowlife characters, hard-nosed cops, and so on. But two elements rescue this novel from the edge of the abyss of failure. The first is the way the familiar plot elements are put together. Although the plot is slightly busy, it maintains a good pace and provides just enough manipulation of expectation to keep the pages turning. For the record, there’s enough inside information about the working of the police force to have some of the content bleeding into the subgenre of police procedural. The second redeeming feature is the crispness of the prose. This author strikes a nice balance between telling and showing. Too often first novelists fall into the trap of believing we readers need more information. This gets on with the job in hand with good economy and a clear eye for detail. All of which leaves me with very positive feelings about The Disposables. It’s a very readable thriller that knows where it’s going and makes sure you’re still reading until it gets there.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Deadly Echoes by Philip Donlay (Oceanview Publishing, 2014), the fourth novel to feature Donovan Nash, offers me a chance to use a word I can’t remember ever using in a review before. Yes, this is a. . . wait for it. . . a ripsnorting adventure. Now I’m not entirely sure what gas emerges from the rip but, when you snort it, it gives you extraordinary vigour as a reader. Why use the word here? Well, there are times when you read a book and you wonder how the author can make the situation ever bigger and more over the top. Well this book is one possible answer to that question. To give you but one example. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare fell back on the then tried and trusted stage direction. If events have been slowing down and you can’t think of anything witty to say, have your characters chased off the stage by a bear. That was guaranteed to produce hilarity and vast applause from the pit audience. Well, in this book, if you’re not paying attention, the confrontation and pursuit involving a bear is almost gone before you have a chance to register it. Yes, the classic Shakespearean device has been relegated to a few lines as our hero fights his way from start to finish.
Does it all depend on “him”? I hear you ask. Well, our hero may be good in the flying, and fighting, and shooting, and the hanging from helicopters, and other stunts you would probably want to ask the stunt double to do should this ever be planned for the cinema. But when it comes to saving the Earth (well, perhaps only Alaska, parts of Canada and a few of the northern US states), you have to turn to his wife. Yes, this is a partnership effort. Although their marriage may be going through a rough patch, what with assassins trying to kill her and their child, she’s the one with the brains. When it comes to seeing the big picture and envisaging how the impossible solution might become possible, she’s the one to get the scenario from the planning stage to the go-decision in the shortest possible time. No, this is not science fiction in the literal sense of the words. Think science possible if you close one eye and squint through the other. Then it all becomes perfectly possible and entirely plausible.
Did I mention all the shooting and fighting? There’s a high body count by the time we’re finished.
So this book follows on from Zero Separation. This gives me a major advantage because I know who everyone is and how the whole backstory fits together, Had I not read that, I suspect I would be feeling fairly lost and not a little frustrated since this is one of those revenge thrillers in which a figure from our hero’s past re-emerges to a fanfare of bullets and dismemberments. Do I like these people any better than I did the last time around? Well, we’re not given a great deal of time to worry about that because once the action starts, it keeps going at a ferocious pace. But the answer is, “Not really.” Everything that happens in this book is deeply complicated by the threat to disclose our hero’s real identity. Everyone “in the know” has to lie to the CIA, the FBI, Mossad, Interpol and local law enforcement agencies in the US and France. As a hook, the continuous threat for our hero to be revealed is not the most attractive. In other books where our protagonists are living off the grid, there’s usually an explanation to engage our sympathies, to encourage us to root for them as the forces of the law swirl around them. But this lot just want to keep the money and avoid going to jail. Hardly the most laudable of motives no matter how much good they may be doing through their organisation.
This all leaves me feeling somewhat ambivalent. As with the last book, this has a gonzo terrorism climax. In fact, it’s the kind of scenario Hollywood would enjoy doing with full CGI effects. I suppose the extravagance of it all wins me over. This is not just a few punches thrown and an explosion or two. This is non-stop action featuring a lot of flying, something our author knows a lot about. So if you do decide to come on this ride, be prepared for not just a hail of bullets — there’s a positive blizzard blowing through the book. A few are wounded and many die. Some of the deaths would have been quick. Others are designed for their shock value. Deadly Echoes certainly exceeds the average wow factor in terms of thriller plot. If only the lead characters were more likeable, I would be strongly recommending this. As it is, I suggest you read Category Five, the first in the series, to see whether you are hooked by the situation to make you want to read through to this point. If you are sufficiently tuned in and are rooting for these people, this will certainly hold your attention as the pages flash by in full page-turner mode.
For a review of another book in this series by Philip Donlay, see Zero Separation.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.