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Posts Tagged ‘political thriller’

Morningside Fall by Jay Posey

August 28, 2014 2 comments

Morningside Fall by Jay Posey

Morningside Fall by Jay Posey (Angry Robot, 2014) Legends of the Duskwalker 2 follows on from Three with the young boy Wren now the Governor of Morningside. The title to the book is a spoiler in its own right because it announces that this citadel that’s stood against the Weir for a significant period of time is not going to do all that well as the pages turn. So this is a book that straddles a number of rather different genres. At its heart, this is a political thriller which examines how a self-contained group of people that has been in a stable situation should react when their autocratic leader is removed. The senior citizens who had been in a supporting role now find themselves as council members with a young boy nominally in charge. Unfortunately, one of this boy’s first instructions is to allow the people who had been living outside the city to take up residence. Worse, he has been awakening some of the Weir and expecting the city dwellers to accept these “people” as safe to live alongside them. The general rule is that people don’t respond well to change. Those who now have more obvious routes to power might be inclined to plot against the boy. Those on the streets might take it personally if outsiders start moving into accommodation next to them.

 

Secondly, this is a science fiction, post apocalypse novel. We still have absolutely no idea what precisely has gone wrong with this world but we seem to have a rump of humanity surviving in fortified cities (although, in the first book, we did meet one community surviving outside without walls) and under threat from the Weir. Now these are not simple zombie-like creatures. They retain some level of purpose and can also communicate with each other. Indeed, under certain circumstances, they are capable of co-ordinated action. There are also a small number of human mutants such as Wren who has a natural ability to interface with electronic systems and he can reawaken the human personality of a Weir. When awakened, he or she will retain the changed body and, depending on the length of time between turning and reawakening, it’s possible for the personality to return almost unchanged.

Jay Posey

Jay Posey

 

Thirdly, this is a hybrid military SF or Wild West weird. There’s a considerable amount of fighting between what’s left of the human armed forces and the Weir. The humans have some advanced weaponry, but they are relatively small in number. It’s therefore not unlike groups of white settlers, militia or US Cavalry going into the land occupied by large numbers of less well-armed Native Indians. Finally, this is a coming-of-age story as Wren and the young “friend” he has awakened adjust to circumstances around them and find themselves forced to take responsibility for what they are or may become.

 

The first novel in the series was very impressive because the main character was the titular Three who acted as the protector of, and guide for, Wren and his mother. This gave us a chase across the landscape as Three led the inexperienced boy to a place where there might be some safety. They were being pursued by a small group led by Wren’s older brother. Although not much of the world was explained, there was considerable tension in the chase and we did pick up clues about the Weir and some of the different ways in which human mutants could operate. Unfortunately, Three is killed at the end of the book which leaves Wren as the primary protagonist in this book. This is unfortunate because, frankly, he’s not that interesting most of the time. We’re waiting for him to grow into his mutant powers. So far, he’s just dabbling and lacks the self-confidence to really get things done. So although he can occasionally say relevant and quite powerful things in the political arena, he’s essentially dependent on his mother for political decision-making, and the cast of bodyguards to keep him alive. When things get too hot inside Morningside, they take off into the desert and this leads to some quite repetitive chase and fighting sequences. If the editorial staff had been prepared to cut down the length by at least ten percent, this would have been a better book. As it is, the book starts off not unpromisingly, but lacks an adult point of view to deal with the political situation. It’s only as we approach the end that there’s more emotional investment in the characters and we get into the conflict that will leave us ready for the next book in the series. This leads to the general conclusion that even though this improves towards the end, Morningside Falls is significantly less successful than the first in the series.

 

For a review of the first in the series, see Three.

 

Dust and Light by Carol Berg

August 8, 2014 6 comments

Dust And Light by Carol Berg

Dust and Light by Carol Berg (Roc, 2014) (The Sanctuary Duet 1) is set in the same world as the duology of Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone which jointly won the Mythopoeic Award in 2009. In this first-person narrative, we join Lucian de Remeni-Masson as he falls from grace and slowly begins to find his feet again. He’s one of the children of high-status parents who’s never really had to worry about anything. He’s just bumbled happily along, never really feeling under pressure to learn anything or refine his magical skills. There was one minor peccadillo when he went to University. A young girl caught his eye. . . But his father was quick to intervene, smoothed over ruffled feathers, and found him a place where he could draw and paint, working for The PureBlood Registry. His skill, you see, is to use his magic to see the truth of those he draws. Should he see anything too unfortunate, he’s quick to apologise and adjust the picture when he comes back to himself. For the most part, this is a quiet and undemanding role, leaving him plenty of time to enjoy family life.

 

As in most books of this type, this quiet life is rudely shattered when only he and his younger sister avoid being killed when the rest of the family gathers together in another city. To compound the problems, he quickly find his sinecure at the registry terminated and his contract sold for a fraction of its value to Bastien de Caton, who serves the King as the coroner of Palinur. Going from high privilege to the necropolis is, in itself, an almost insupportable blow to his pride. But when he begins to draw the dead, he’s accused of deliberately underperforming to escape the contract. Of course, this accusation outrages the pompous one, who stoutly defends the quality of his work. Except he’s a little surprised at exactly what he’s been able to draw. There seems to be a lot of detail in the uniforms and style of dress that would only be apparent if he were somehow able to commune with the dead.

Carol Berg

Carol Berg

 

The first real sign of trouble comes when he draws a picture of a young girl. The coroner is reluctant to trust the image because it suggests this was a girl of real privilege. Yet, so far as he knows, all the nobility are accounted for. No-one of importance has been reported missing. But when the matter is tested by our hero producing a second drawing, it’s clear this is the drawing of one of the royal bastards. This more formally sets us off on the dual trail. First we have to discover who’s out to wreck the career of our young innocent. Then we have to discover who strangled this girl.

 

For all this is sold as a fantasy novel, it’s really a political thriller. With the death of the old King of Navronne, the two sons embark on a civil war to decide the question of succession. Over the generations, the families who have been lucky enough to develop magical powers sell their allegiance to whoever is rich enough to pay for them. Obviously, the best work for the nobility. Lucian’s father was a cartographer to the old king. One of the royal sons might wonder whether Lucian might be able to find lost treasures. This sets up a certain tension between some of the nobility who might see people like Lucian as a necessity to progress their own interests, while others see them as dangerous. In theory, the magicians preserve their neutrality by keeping to themselves. This is signalled to the world by their habit of going out in public wearing a mask. They are supposed to fly above the rough and tumble of political life. Except, of course, few can live in a society without being ambitious for power and success. This can mean neutrality is inconvenient. Some will take sides. Others like Lucian who was essentially inexperienced and somewhat naive are potentially just canon fodder, liable to be used and discarded as required. So, this is a form of coming-of-age story in which a young man is stripped of his dignity and slowly comes to realise he must start on a journey, both physical and metaphorical, to discover who he is and what powers he’s able to command if he takes them seriously. The result is both a very pleasing mystery in which a murder must be solved, and a nicely balanced political situation as the various factions try to manoeuvre themselves into the best position. Dust and Light is an impressive start to this latest episode in this fantasy world, leaving everything completely in the balance as we wait for the second instalment due in 2015.

 

For reviews of other books by Carol Berg see:
Breath and Bone
The Daemon Prism
Flesh and Spirit
The Soul Mirror
The Spirit Lens.

 

Bunshin or 分身 (2012)

Great Rift - Programme One

Bunshin or 分身 (2012) is a five one-hour episode serial based on Keigo Higashino‘s novel “Bunshin” published September 20, 1996. To give you the theme, “Bunshin” literally means “Doppleganger”. Over the course of the first two episodes, we meet two women, Mariko Ujiie and Futaba Kobayashi. They are played by played by Moka Kamishiraishi as children, and by Masami Nagasawa as adults. This is mystery meets near future science fiction. We’ll leave all questions surrounding the precise mechanisms involved before and during the birth of the children to one side and focus on the early life of Mariko Ujiie. She’s deeply concerned because she looks nothing like either parent: Kiyoshi Ujiie (Shiro Sano) and Shizue Ujiie (Sawa Suzuki). Yet when she gets a copy of her birth record, it shows her as the natural child of her parents, not adopted as she had assumed. To make the parent-child relationship even more distant, they send her off to a covent boarding school. When she comes home for the Christmas break, there’s a fire at her home. Her mother is killed and her father is injured. When she recovers consciousness, she’s outside the burning building. When she analyses her memories, she thinks both she and her father were drugged by her mother, who then turned on the gas and used a cigarette lighter to commit suicide. She assumes her father rescued her first, and was then injured by trying to rescue his wife. Now she’s grown up and has begun to specialise in child welfare.

Mariko Ujiie (Masami Nagasawa) and Megumi Shimojo (Asami Usuda)

Mariko Ujiie (Masami Nagasawa) and Megumi Shimojo (Asami Usuda)

 

Futaba Kobayashi was brought up in Tokyo by a single mother, Shiho Kobayashi (Satomi Tezuka). Although there have been times when she felt in social difficulties because she did not have a father, her mother always explained this as an advantage. Fathers, it seems, are constantly telling their daughters what not to do, whereas single mothers are benign and encourage their daughters to be positive and world-beating at whatever they do. Yet when she thinks back, she also remembers her mother sitting quietly in her bedroom weeping. In fact, Futaba Kobayashi is the trigger for the the modern sequence of events because she’s interviewed as a student in a television news item on the reaction to the latest earthquake (curiously, a government minister, Shunsaku Ihara (Masato Ibu), is deeply shocked when he sees the television program). In fact she’s pretty well known around Tokyo because she fronts a band popular on the university circuit, so she’s very surprised when her mother tells her she must never appear on television again. This instruction comes at entirely the wrong time because the band is approached by a television producer who wants them to appear in a series of Battle of the Bands. Mother and daughter have a big argument. The daughter goes off and, after getting drunk, sleeps with Yusuke Takizawa (Ryo Katsuji) one of the band members. That night her mother is killed in a road accident as she’s cycling home. Mariko Ujiie also comes to Tokyo and with the help of her friend, Megumi Shimojo (Asami Usuda) who’s studying medicine, begins to track down the story of her father at university. They are lucky enough to find two professors who remember him and one promises to dig out old photographs from their days in the hiking club. But things start to heat up when several students “recognise” her as the singer. Now she knows the “twin” is real (down to having a mole on her shoulder), she’s out to find out the truth.

Futaba Kobayashi (Masami Nagasawa) sings with the band

Futaba Kobayashi (Masami Nagasawa) sings with the band

 

The explanation for the police believing Shiho Kobayashi’s accident to be murder is simple and elegant, but none of the obvious people would have had either motive or opportunity. At the funeral, we get some information of the circumstances in which Futaba Kobayashi’s mother briefly came home to the family farm and then disappeared. Later she came back for a quick visit with a baby in her arms. When Mariko Ujiie looks through an album of photographs of the hiking club, a number of the photographs have been removed. Studying the notes beside the empty slots shows all the missing photographs feature one particular woman. Now things heat up as Mariko Ujiie overhears her father talking on the phone and distancing himself from the “murder” in Tokyo. When Mariko Ujiie discovers Shiho Kobayashi has died, she goes to the flat where she meets Futaba Kobayashi’s boyfriend. When they look around the home, they find out she cannot be an identical twin because the evidence on display suggests there’s one year between the girls. That means they must be the result of in vitro fertilisation with donor eggs from the woman missing from the photographic album. Meanwhile Futaba Kobayashi has agreed to go to Hokkeido to meet with a professor who knew her mother. It’s only when Mariko Ujiie finally tracks down a photograph of the missing woman that the identity of her mother becomes clear.

Yusuke Takizawa (Ryo Katsuji)

Yusuke Takizawa (Ryo Katsuji)

 

The story now morphs into a gentle political thriller, i.e. it’s a rather poor melodrama, and a quietly sensitive meditation on what it means to have a different form of conception and birth. I confess I’d assumed the basic plot mechanism from the outset, but made a number of critical errors in predicting how the plot would be worked out. The explanation of Mariko Ujiie’s mother’s death proves genuinely more tragic than I had expected. The reason for killing Futaba Kobayashi’s mother is also more interesting. All in all it boils up into a good climax which is mostly talk and all the better for it. Too often shows which have deaths and some political overtones become fixated on the need for some “adventure” or just general violence. Although this does have a little chasing around, it’s most a question of our two young women deciding how they are going to adjust to their new understanding of how they came to be born. This is made all the more difficult by their meeting with their “mother”. In the end, single mother Shiho Kobayashi and married parents, Kiyoshi and Shizue Ujiie, come out of it quite well. The situation in which everyone found themselves produced pressures difficult to resist. That the same pressures reassert themselves at the end is somewhat ironic, but no less dangerous. When you put all this together, Bunshin or 分身 is an impressive attempt to deal with a difficult emotional and ethical issue, and well worth watching.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

 

For a Galileo novel, see Salvation of a Saint.

 

Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann

July 25, 2014 3 comments

Blade of the Samurai Cover

Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann (Minotaur Books, 2014), the second Shinobi Mystery, is attempting something inherently difficult. As a historical mystery, it’s always problematic to take the reader back in time to a different culture. The challenge is perhaps less demanding when the number of years travelled is relatively small and the reader is moving back to an earlier time in his or her own country. As a British reviewer, I’ve had a lifetime to immerse myself in contemporary culture, but I also have the benefit of oral history from family members and older friends about how the culture has changed over the years. School began the process of introducing earlier times and subsequent reading has filled in some of the gaps. However, this all breaks down when the reader comes to a completely different culture and, in real terms, you can’t get much more different than Japanese culture in June, 1565. Our heroes are Matsui Hiro, a shinobi assassin, and Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. For reasons unknown, someone has paid the relevant guild of assassins to send one of their more experienced members to guard the priest while he’s in Japan. Ostensibly, our ninja is a translator but, through his guidance and practical assistance, he actually keeps the priest alive. From our point of view, it also gives us the chance for a running critique on how well (or badly) the Portuguese man is fitting in with local culture. This is an elegant device because it unobtrusively allows the author to explain how this rather opaque class structure and less overtly emotional culture actually works. For once, an author has satisfied my Goldilocks tests. Too often, authors overexplain, leaving the book as dry and rather didactic. This is just right!

Susan Spann

Susan Spann

The second impressive feature is the prose. If you’re going to write about Japan. it’s better to do so in a minimalist style. If you pick up any modern Japanese text in translation, authors do not go in for flowery language. It’s an essentially functional means of conveying meaning with very little adornment. As in the spoken version, there’s an implied subtext of meaning the reader is expected to supply from the few pointers given. While allowing for the need to explain much of what’s going on, Susan Spann has contrived to produce a text that’s surprisingly Japanese in spirit.

This leaves me with the plot which is set against a fairly well-travelled background of practical politics in the higher levels of the shogunate. As the shogun is the most powerful man in Japan, more important than the emperor, there’s always plotting to depose him and then control who succeeds based on family status and political power. Since a visit between the shogun (one of the Ashikaga clan) and one particularly powerful faction led by Lord Oda is about to take place, the murder of Saburo, a senior individual (and the shogun’s cousin) within the shogunate, is a dangerous warning sign, particularly because it was this individual’s job to set the schedule of guards within the shogun’s enclave. Because his knife was used, suspicion first falls on Ito Kazu, Matsui Hiro’s drinking companion and fellow assassin, who makes life difficult for himself by refusing to say where he was. When it’s explained why this man is unlikely to be the killer, suspicion then falls on Saburo’s wife, the current mistress, the stable boy who also loved the mistress, the master carpenter, and so on. This is also an excuse to look at different people within the rigid Japanese class structure and to see how they relate to each other. Put all this together and you have a beautifully balanced historical mystery with a clearly articulated murder puzzle to solve set in a particularly unstable time at the top of the political tree with different factions pushing for more power and influence. Blade of the Samurai is strongly recommended.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Garden of Burning Sand by Corban Addison

May 18, 2014 1 comment

The Garden of Burning Sand by Corban Addison

The Garden of Burning Sand by Corban Addison (Quercus/, 2014) sees us in sunny Zambia with Zoe Fleming, an idealistic American lawyer and all-round do-gooder. She becomes involved in the case of Kuyeya Mizinga—a fifteen-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome who is raped and dumped in a poor part of Lusaka. Our heroine teams up with local policeman Joseph Kabuta and, before you can say Jack Robinson, they are hot on the trail of a very high-profile suspect with all the right political connections to be able to avoid prosecution and/or conviction. So this is part legal thriller as our duo try to accumulate enough evidence to trigger a prosecution, part political drama in two countries (obviously the Zambian prosecutors are not overjoyed at the possibility of trying someone this senior and our heroine is the daughter of a US presidential candidate) and part thriller as a faintly menacing thug tracks our investigative duo and, well, threatens them (is that a snake? Oooh how scary). There’s a surprising amount of information about HIV and the strange set of attitudes that seems to pervade the response of those in Africa to this particular disease. Although the book does not offer any particular explanation for this denialist approach to the disease and treatments, it does at least highlight the dramatic effect it has on the populations in the different states, and the one or two key individuals caught up in this human rights plot. There’s also discussion of the general reluctance to use DNA evidence to prosecute for sexual offences in general and child abuse in particular. The way in which this culture relates to children with physical and mental disabilities will be distressing to some readers, i.e. there are a number of superstitions that such children are born disabled as a result of curses or the general application of witchcraft. There’s also the mandatory romance which, for reasons you may be able to predict, does not run as smoothly as you might expect.

Corban Addison

Corban Addison

I think the best way to characterise this heroine is as crusading saint. She’s a modern Mother Teresa with taekwondo skills should she meet nonbelievers. Because her father is a senior senator, she has the status to command the powers-that-be in Washington. This gives her a platform from which she can preach a sermon about the essential capacity of the human being for nobility of spirit. Yes, once the need is perceived, the human being will instinctively be generous, put petty prejudices and dogmatism to one side, and either give the money or do whatever is necessary to rescue poor people from their abject state of neediness and elevate them to a state where they can, for once, be treated with respect.

I found the tone of the book rather tiresome with everyone divided into the noble lot, the despicable lot, and the lot that might be pushed into doing the right thing if they get protection from the consequences. This is not to say I’m against message books per se, but I prefer my reading to have some connection to the real world. If this situation actually occurred, the politically powerful family would simply order their paid thugs to disappear the inconvenient investigators and their witnesses. The idea they would sit there and allow a foreign woman and a local policeman to embarrass them is ludicrous. The cover-up would be swift and not wholly hidden. Such a family would want to send a deterrent message to anyone else who might be tempted to threaten their interests in the future.

So, sadly, this is a book determined to sell a completely unrealistic message of hope. The corrupt families in these foreign countries can be brought down by American-inspired interventionism based on the rule of law. Medical knowledge can be allowed to help those currently oppressed by the bigoted and prejudiced. And, back in America, political extremists can be shamed into helping the scroungers and freeloaders they despise. And pigs may soon be equipped with wings. In other words, The Garden of Burning Sand will only be of interest to those who inhabit a bubble in which wish-fulfillment is the norm.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Supreme Justice by Max Allan Collins

April 28, 2014 2 comments

supreme-justice-300

A while back, I read one of these conspiracy theory books reconstructing the history surrounding the JFK assassination. Although I thought the writing good, I found the reading experience somewhat frustrating. As a Brit, I know little of the assassination and couldn’t distinguish between the actual history and the fictionalisation. Some might say this is a good thing. We’re not supposed to be reading a thriller based on a true story so we can just have the true story retold. The author must be going to add something and, in theory, it must be high praise if I can’t tell where the line is drawn between the fact and the fiction. Except I found I couldn’t care less which bits were true. Nevertheless, I decided it was distinctly unfair of me to judge the author on one book, particularly one coming so late in a series about a subject which left me cold. So here’s me picking up Supreme Justice by Max Allan Collins (Thomas & Mercer, 2014).

 

The hero of this political thriller is the usual candidate. Meet Joseph Reeder. He’s a former Secret Service agent who took a bullet for the standing president (Agent Frank Horrigan in In the Line of Fire (1993) has comparable demons in his past). Since Reeder didn’t really like the president or his politics, and was not as shy as he should have been about saying so, he took early retirement and now runs his own security business. To equip him as a top-class investigator, he’s a long-time user of kinesics: the art of interpreting body language and drawing appropriate deductions. A homicide detective with whom he’s friendly asks for his opinion when Supreme Court Justice Henry Venter is gunned down in a robbery. He and his clerk were in a high-class restaurant when two gunmen came in with drawn guns. The initial impression is a robbery gone bad but, when Reeder reviews the surveillance records, he classifies this as a hit. As soon as this is reported to the FBI, Gabe Sloan, a longtime friend and godfather to his daughter, insists Reeder joins the task force to investigate. This leads to Reeder being partnered with Patti Rogers, a youngish but experienced agent. Together, they begin to piece together what may have happened but they are quickly distracted when a second Supreme Court Justice is shot down in his back yard. Since both the justices were on the conservative wing and the current president is a democrat, this suggests the killers have an agenda to rebalance the political complexion of the Supreme Court — assuming the president will play ball and appoint two very liberal judges to the bench as replacements. Now the challenge is to protect the surviving justices while investigating who might be orchestrating this attack on “supreme” justice or injustice depending on your political point of view.

Max Allen Collins

Max Allen Collins

 

This leads me to the first of my problems with this book. I appreciate from the news coverage of American politics that the system has become increasingly polarised. Although this is near-future fiction, it doesn’t seem as though progress has been made in defusing the conflict between the two parties. Instead, the activist conservatives on the Supreme Court have exploited their majority and dismantled several landmark “liberal” precedents. This is assumed to be provocative. All the major characters in this book have rather different shades of belief, but they all share one faintly alarming trait. Not one of these people is politically indifferent. Instead they are slightly obsessive about placing each other on the political spectrum and modifying their behaviour depending on who’s in the room. I’m not at all sure whether this is realistic for Washington folk but, if it is, this has to rank as a very depressing book.

 

We then come to the plot. Now I’m the last person to want realism in the books I read — I do spend many hours a week reading science fiction and fantasy. Indeed, the more realistic a book, the less exciting it tends to be. But this is a plot depending on a number of rather implausible factors. Since I prefer not to engage in spoilers, you will have to take my word for it. Suffice it to say the conspirators go through some fairly convoluted manoeuvres to set their plot in motion and then fail to tie up the loose ends in a neat pattern. People with this level of experience would not have left any chance of matters being tracked back to them. But since our hero and able sidekick have to be able to solve the case, I suppose incompetence is required. So is Supreme Justice enjoyable despite this rather weak plot? Well, the prose has that same lucidity I enjoyed first time around and, so long as you switch off your critical faculties, I suppose you might find the twists and turns of the plot surprising and exciting. Sadly, I found this all somewhat predictable and less than riveting so I can’t honestly recommend it.

 

For a review of another book by Max Allan Collins, see Ask Not.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Ask Not by Max Allan Collins

March 6, 2014 6 comments

Ask-Not-Nathan-Heller--350675-e15dcee7eb269f071963

Ask Not by Max Allan Collins (Forge, 2013) (Nathan Heller Mystery 17) If you look back over the last fifty years, the most talked about event in conspiracy circles has been the JFK assassination. Over the years, everyone and his/her dog has had a theory about who might really have been behind the killing and why. So here we have a well-researched book with guest appearances from Bobby Kennedy, Jack Ruby, Jim Garrison and others. It begins with what most people take to be the agreed facts and then spins the author’s own interpretation on top. Frankly, I’m not really into the mythology of this sad incident. It comes of being born and raised on the other side of the Pond. I remember the British current events satire show called That Was the Week That Was, devoted all its running time to a commentary and tribute to JFK but, in 1963, it was just one more thing in a busy world to think about. To Americans, of course, it came as a shock that someone would be bold enough to kill the President in such a public way. Alongside the assassination of William McKinley, the combined shock effect was the equivalent of this century’s 9/11, scarring the psyche of America.

 

This is the final book in the JFK trilogy sequence of Heller novels and short story collections, and a direct sequel to Target Lancer. It starts in September 1964 immediately after a concert given by the Beatles. As Heller, the PI to the stars, and his sixteen-year-old son are crossing a Chicago street, a Cuban tries to run them down. The PI knows this man was involved in an attempt on JFK’s life in Chicago three weeks before Dallas and may also have been involved in “Operation Mongoose”, the failed attempt by the CIA, Cuban exiles and the mob to take down Fidel Castro. Since there are a number of reasons why interested parties would have a motive for killing him, Heller spends his money to place protection for his ex-wife and son, and begins to research who might be behind the attempted hit.

Max Allen Collins

Max Allan Collins

 

So what we have here is a PI novel which is playing the true crime game in a historical mystery format. I confess a lot of the history was completely new to be. Blame thousands of miles and a lack of motivation for my ignorance. I therefore have no idea how much of the content is rehashing what’s already in the common domain. All I can say is that, after a while, I thought the facts rather drowned out the action. If I’m going to sit down with a PI novel boasting potentially noir overtones, then that’s what I want. I felt this was trying too hard to fit into the straightjacket of history. Yes, there are no doubt some wildly speculative bits in there, but I neither know nor really care where the facts stop and the fiction begins. This has the assassination and the Warren Commission’s botched attempt to clarify matters as the backdrop. There are a surprising number of bodies. The majority are probably victims of a clean-up squad which is touring the country eliminating those who might be able to disturb the cover-story of a lone gunman. Assuming this to be a true recital of the number of deaths, it’s a sad indictment of the willingness of the powerful to sacrifice the innocent. Towards the end, there are other victims who more immediately surround our hero and may be killed because of his investigation. Heller joins forces with journalist Flo Kilgore, a fictionalized version of Dorothy Kilgallen (1913–1965). As the date shows, she also died in the real world while investigating the assassination.

 

I wanted to like this. The writing style is engaging and when we’re purely into fictional PI novel territory, the effect is very pleasing. But I felt submerged in factual information, much of which was not directly advancing the fictional PI story being told. Background which tends to suggest conspiracy and cover-up has a particular interest to those who want to consider whether the alleged conspiracy is real. PI novel readers want to see their hero fight his way through to the end and beat the bad guy. Because no-one actually knows the “truth”, there can’t be a convenient “Heller catches the bad guy” ending. The best he can do is survive. So Ask Not is less satisfying as fiction and too heavy on real-world history for a Brit like me.

 

The the review of another book by Max Allan Collins, see Supreme Justice.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Beloved Enemy by Eric Van Lustbader

Beloved-Enemy-A-Jack-McClure-Novel-Jack-McClure-All-311170-0402845eab65ea203cbe

Beloved Enemy by Eric Van Lustbader (Forge, 2013) is the fifth and final novel featuring Jack McClure and something of a conundrum. The question, always lurking at the back of a reader’s mind is why bother to read this particular book. The answer, of course, is we all travel in hope. Although the majority of books on the market are terrible, the thought this might be the one really good one this month keeps us motivated. Having thought the last book in this series pretty awful, I surprised myself by agreeing to review this. I think it was the news this was to be the final contribution to the series that tipped the scales. Often intermediate books in a series mark time and the best is saved for the last volume when all the loose ends are gathered together and tied up neatly. This allows us thoughtful ones to step back and admire the creativity of the author in having thought up something so ingenious or to walk away shaking our heads even more frustrated we got suckered into reading another one.

 

So where’s the conundrum? Well everything in a series often stands or falls by the situation at the end. For a moment, let’s think of books which were deeply annoying. Obviously there are so many to choose from but let’s focus on those mysteries or thrillers in which it turns out the hero is a criminal. Specifically, those books in which the detective or first-person narrator admits to one or more murders at the end. Or even worse, where it turns out the first-person narrator is killed in the last line. This runs so contrary to expectations that such books are either hailed as classics (like some by Agatha Christie) or they have been consigned to the pile of books we wish we’d never read. So when we start off reading this book, Jack is meeting with Dennis Paull, the Secretary of Homeland Security. They think there’s a mole at the highest level of the US Administration. Paull has a lead and passes the information over to Jack. The same night, Paull is murdered and Jack framed. He must therefore go on the run in the hope of clearing his name and identifying the mole.

Eric van Lustbader

Eric van Lustbader

 

This takes us first to Bangkok and then to Switzerland. On the way, we get to meet up with Jack’s (ex)lover, Annika Dementieva, and Iraj Namazi, aka The Syrian an all-round bad guy who’s actually having trouble accessing his money and so finds his influence slipping a little. I suppose the first thing to complain about is the extraordinary way in which our hero is able to fly out of America. You would think with all the security around airports, it would be next to impossible for anyone to get on the to tarmac and then from a cargo warehouse on to the right plane while it’s waiting for taxi clearance. But, with the help of a tiger, our hero makes it look easy. Don’t ask. It’s completely absurd. However this sets the trend for the rest of the book. There’s an escalating trail of violence as the pursuit of our hero is picked up by an “assassin”. As in the previous volume, there’s an amazing amount of brutality with our hero killing one of the people attacking him and seriously messing up the assassin’s shoulder with a knife. Fortunately, the assassin is impervious to pain and can continue the pursuit after a few well-placed stitches are inserted. The helper never did learn to bounce properly when dropped from a tall building. In due course there’s a lot more mayhem as, amongst other things, our hero is almost cooked in a sunbed and finds that jumping on to a helicopter in flight is actually quite a tricky thing to manage.

 

Meanwhile back in Washington, the powers-that-be suspect each other and generally run around like headless chickens. In various places Annika and The Syrian dance around each other in mutual distrust until, quite near the end, all the interested parties come together to debate who should have access to the legacy left by Annika’s grandfather — the McGuffin that’s been driving the series from the word go. Now any sensible reader is going to look at the title and understand the point of the book is that Jack and Annika, having been lovers in previous books, will get back together again. All we have to do is wait to see precisely how the stars will align to make the old romance blossom again. As to what happens. . . Well let’s just say it was not quite the plot twist I was expecting. Of course one way of interpreting it would be that the world will now be a somewhat safer place although we’re left uncertain as to the mechanics. The other way of seeing it would be that Annika’s grandfather was a better judge of character than we realised.

 

So there you have it. I thought Beloved Enemy painfully silly and the ending rather annoying. But if you like people running around doing thriller things, shooting at each other and fighting hand-to-hand, this is for you.

 

For a review of the last in the series see, Father Night.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy

January 15, 2014 2 comments

Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy

Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy (Scholastic/Arthur & Levine, 2014) is the first in a planned trilogy which sees me inadvertently straying into young adult territory again. Sadly, when I pick out books to read by title, I have no clear idea what to expect from a previously unread author. It’s part of the fun of being a reviewer in constantly trying something new in each new batch of books. Unfortunately, I find myself back in the black-and-white world of the YA market. It actually doesn’t start badly, briefly recreating some of the vibe from the original Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Yes, we’re in High School territory where the seventeen-year-old hero is something of a sporting jock whose coach also teaches the Civics (i.e. History and Moral Philosophy) class on what it means to be an American citizen. Unfortunately, instead of then going on to military training and into battle with the Bugs, we then grind into the preliminary moves for a Civil War scenario. Today Idaho, tomorrow the whole of America.

OK so here we go with a near-future political thriller. It’s not really SFnal albeit there are slightly more advanced AI interfaces for mobile technology and communication systems. For most practical purposes, we’re to confront this brave new world as equivalent to our own in terms of culture and the practicalities of day-to-day living. Our young hero is Daniel Christopher Wright. Because his father had been on active service, he joins the Idaho National Guard as soon as he’s old enough. Thus, when the book starts, he already knows how to shoot, but his knowledge of the US Constitution is almost zero. The trigger for events is a federal law requiring all US citizens to carry an ID-card. It’s a one-stop form of identification, whether talking about personal issues like access to medical records if the card carrier is injured and needs emergency treatment, or access to all state and federal programs. Ignoring the utility of such cards, this plan is deeply controversial because all the cards carry a GPS transmitter enabling those with authorisation to track where everyone goes. Many citizens and some US states see the card as an invasion of individual privacy, and they oppose the implementation of the law. President Rodriguez, however, is not in the mood to hear these protests.

This brings us back to Idaho and Governor Montaine who enjoys strong support both from the two houses of the state legislature, and among the voters. As an opponent of Big Government, the state exercises what it claims to be a sovereign power of nullification. Hence, the state will happily continue to comply with all the other federal laws, but ignore the ID law as unconstitutional. The federal government interprets this as an act of rebellion. There are legal routes for disputing whether any given law is constitutional. By denying the courts the chance to order a stay in the operation of the law pending a hearing on the merits, the Governor’s choice of unilateral action produces confrontation and megaphone diplomacy. Had this been a book written for adults, we could have had a sharp political thriller. There’s obviously dissent within Idaho as to the merits of this action. More importantly, the negotiations with other states and the federal government quickly escalates to brinkmanship. This could have been lovingly described with border incidents and local rioting adding pressure to the decision-making process.

Trent Reedy

Trent Reedy

Unfortunately, this is written for fourteen-year-olds and therefore gives us a young protagonist as the point of view. We’re treated to lots of infodumping on the Constitution and how it can be interpreted. That’s when we’re not playing high school football or going through the usual teen angst of first love and what that really means. The hook for the novel is that every last member of the Idaho National Guard has been called up for duty in Boise. There’s a major civil disturbance in the streets and the police can’t cope. The Governor would have preferred seasoned “troops”, but most of the experienced soldiers are overseas. This means our new recruit is sent out into a riot situation with a loaded gun. When someone throws a rock, it cracks both his head and the glass of the gas mask he’s wearing. In the confusion, his gun accidentally discharges. At the sound of the shot, bullets fly from both the members of his platoon and the rioters. People are wounded and killed. It’s one of these avoidable catastrophes. The Governor was wrong to allow raw recruits on to the front line. The officers were at fault in ordering troops into direct confrontation with the rioters carrying loaded guns. With plenty of blame to spread around, the Governor decides to defend the National Guard. None will be identified nor go through trial on homicide charges. So begins the cat-and-mouse game until Wright is outed as the one to fire the first shot. Then we deal with the local fallout as the tension between the President and the Governor intensifies.

The situation is interesting and the way in which the local people respond is credible. No matter what I might think of the romance between Wright and his girl, it remains within the YA limits and parents will not find anything to object to. But this is the end of the good things I have to say about the book. Frankly, I think it seriously misjudges the market, which is a profoundly ironic comment for me to make given my track record of actively disliking most YA fiction. But bear with me for a moment.

This is YA military fiction and aimed mainly at young boys who are not best known for their patience. Although there are set-pieces where our hero and his group of young supporters burst into action, there are also significant gaps between them. During this quiet time, we get discussions of the political picture which most of the shoot ‘em up brigade are likely to find boring. The result is a novel of very uneven pacing. Yes there are themes relevant to the young from asking what duty a son owes his ailing mother, how does any soldier balance commitment to the army against potentially higher moral imperatives, what role is there for honour in these difficult situations, what price should we be prepared to pay to defend our privacy, what does friendship really mean in terms of mutual help and support, and so on? There’s also a lot of discussion about the practicality of the more libertarian ideals of self-sufficiency, the right to bear arms, the relationship between the individual, the state and the federal government, and so on. So from a strictly educational point of view, the book is somewhat ambitiously advancing the agenda for discussion of civics and politics. Unfortunately it does so at some length and to the detriment of the action that might induce younger readers to keep turning the pages. I think the book would have been more successful if it had been less overtly didactic. As an adult, the discussion of these issues is painfully superficial and, given the blandness of the action, I found it tedious in the extreme to read this to the end. So Divided We Fall is a book that will appeal to thoughtful fourteen-year-olds and not to adult readers. As a final thought, the jacket artwork is seriously misleading. There are no scenes of helicopters flitting around the White House. That may come in later books. This is much less exciting.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Starhawk by Jack McDevitt

December 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Starhawk-A-Priscilla-Hutchins-Novel--377176-c8307a43ec60ff1583f8

Starhawk by Jack McDevitt (Ace, 2013) is the seventh novel featuring Priscilla Hutchins whom we last met in Cauldron. In a slightly unusual step, this proves to be a prequel showing us how Hutch first qualified as a pilot and set her foot on the ladder to the success shown in the other novels. Hence, we’re back with the now standard format which is essentially a political thriller set in Earth orbit and outer space now that FTL is up and running. This gives McDevitt the chance to suggest that human nature will essentially remain the same as we progress from now to 2195. For all the trappings of a major space station and the first steps to terraforming a planet in a distant solar system, we will still be parochial and isolationist. Indeed the ordinariness of this future world is continually reflected in aggregated news items as chapter endings. It’s all depressingly familiar.

Thematically, the politics comes down to two issues. The first is the current debate within the GOP between the purists who want small government and the “centrists” who see government as holding the balance between the corporations and the people. In the former camp, there’s no need to increase expenditure on exploring what’s “out there”, when there are so many unsolved problems here on Earth. The priority in the use of a deliberately limited tax revenue should always be the generation of a society in which entrepreneurs can use their muscle to make the world a better place. In the former, there’s an acknowledgement that capitalists tend to be self-interested and will not always take decisions which benefit the people. Government must therefore act as a brake on the pursuit of profit at all costs and force some redistribution of wealth to relieve poverty and provide opportunities for those less well-off. In this case, it might be acceptable to encourage a private corporation to terraform a new world for an overflow of humanity to occupy. This takes pressure off government and provides immense opportunities to people to build new lives for themselves.

Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt

This brings us to the second theme which is the potential of the environmental lobby to engage in terrorism for their cause. If we consider the current actions of groups like PETA which manage to get themselves worked up over the current mistreatment of animals, just how much more angry could groups get if the terraforming of this other world was significantly adjusting the oxygen/nitrogen balance and thereby eliminating many plant and animal species? It might lead to acts against the corporation responsible for the terraforming operations and the starships acting in support.

We start off with Hutchins going through her formal certification flight with Captain Jake Loomis to get her captain’s licence. This requires him to test her with hypothetical problems except, of course, their flight soon gets rather more practical as an emergency message comes in. They are required to divert to save a group of young scientists who have “won” a flight as a prize. Unfortunately one of the terrorists has planted a bomb on the ship and they are now stranded in a decaying orbit around an uninhabited world. The point of this introductory section is to identify the serious deficiencies in the then current system for dealing with emergencies. Today, there are teams of volunteers prepared to run up mountains to rescue those in distress. But if it was first necessary to transport these intrepid individuals a significant number of light years at the public’s expense, questions might be asked on whether this was money well spent. Fortunately, if this is rescuing photogenic school children, politicians might see mileage in voting funds for their rescue. But if this had been a ship owned by a corporation, politicians might think it was the responsibility of the corporations to maintain a fleet of rescue ships on stand-by should problems arise. There are not so any votes in using public funds where capitalists have failed to make their own provision (unless the corporations are too big to fail, that is).

The problem with the book is not so much the introduction of these themes to explore, but the amount of time to devote to that exploration. Since readers expect spaceships to zip around the universe doing exciting things, they prefer less time spent on discussing the practical politics of how these trips are paid for. Yet the less time spent on these discussions, the more superficial the politics. It’s the same when it comes to questions of morality. If a terrorist with an agenda that could have some moral validity plants a bomb not expecting casualties, who’s to blame when the more immediate reason for the casualties is a failure in government to send rescue ships in time? Yes these people would not have been at risk but for the bomb, but they could all have been saved if the rescue had been launched in a timely fashion. Picking the bones out of these knotty questions could keep a passel of philosophers dancing on the head of a pin for many a page, but this would not be considered sufficiently appropriate for a science fiction novel with space opera pretensions. Academic credibility counts for little when there are crises to navigate. So our heroic new captain has a host of dangers to confront as she moves from new star to potential superstar status. In the midst of all this, we’re also invited into the life of Jake Loomis who wrestles with his conscience and tries to find some peace of mind.

The result is a good pace to the first section of the novel. It then gets somewhat prosaic in the middle section, but ends with something of a bang (or perhaps the absence of one). I’m inclined to consider Starhawk a success albeit it’s not quite the best McDevitt can produce.

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