Saturday, July 7, 2018
How, might you ask, can a story set in the present also include Bell? Well, it’s a very clever conceit. In 2018, someone steals the Gray Ghost, a Rolls-Royce car from 1906. In the course of the story, Sam and Remi get involved in the search for the priceless car. You see, there has always been a legend that treasure exists in the car, but no one has found it for over a century. As soon as the Fargos get involved, they have bad guys trying to stop them, even while they try to help the actual present-day owners locate the vehicle.
Where Isaac Bell comes in is through a journal. Back in 1906, Bell helped an ancestor of the present owner thwart another attempt to steal the Gray Ghost. That ancestor kept a journal of the exploits, but that volume of the journal is missing in the present day. Stolen. Cussler and co-author Robin Burcell keep the action going not only with the Fargo adventures but the Bell investigation as well, interspersing passages of the journal with the current action.
As with all Cussler novels, I listened to the brilliant Scott Brick narrate the story. It was interesting to hear slight variations between how Cussler and Burcell treat Bell versus Cussler and Justin Scott, the team who writes the Bell novels. Brick brings so much to his narration that it enlivens the story above the mere prose.
If I have one criticism of this series, it’s in the back-and-forth dialogue of the two main characters. Often times, you don’t get the spark of passion between husband and wife. I’m not calling for a bunch of intimate scenes, and I’m completely fine with them walking to a hotel room with the knowledge of what they’re about to do, but I would like to see a little more fire to their relationship. In one of the dire moments in this book, I got the sense of it, but I’d like to see if when they’re not fighting for their lives. It’s a little thing, but noticeable.
For a good summer beach read, THE GRAY GHOST is a humdinger, and it’s propelled me to my next Fargo adventure, THE MAYAN SECRETS.
Tuesday, July 3, 2018
Two words come to mind: Nailed it!
PROJECT: NEMESIS starts with a military operation in the far north and two soldiers stumble upon the remains of a giant monster. This story is set in a nebulous future/present where Japanese soldiers work with Americans and train together. When a high-ranking general arrives, he promptly asks the younger Japanese soldier to shoot his American partner.
The story cuts to our main hero, John Hudson, Department of Homeland Security-Paranormal Division. He’s in Maine mostly to investigate a series of reports of a Sasquatch sightings. He arrives at a cabin where he’s supposed to sleep only to find a mama bear and cubs have staked out their claim. So, in a novel about a kaiju, you first get a bear attack. And it’s pretty darn exciting. Hudson survives—but not his truck—and he throws back quite a few beers to decompress. Well, the next morning, the local law officer in the person of Sheriff Ashley Collins and, through his hangover, Hudson accompanies Collins to interview the old man who called in the complaints. What they find is unexpected: a seemingly abandoned military base from the Cold War days. But if it’s abandoned, then why is the razor wire new? And why is the wire coated with a substance meant to look like rust? And why is there a man and his hidden partners there pointing a shotgun at them?
PROJECT: NEMESIS definitely earns the name ‘thriller’ because the action rarely lets up. Robinson throws in a lot of sequences that are just flat-out fun. Plus, there’s a kaiju, the Japanese word used to describe giant monsters like Godzilla, Mothra, or King Kong. What makes this story interesting is how the kaiju was created and birthed. It may not be totally unique in the entire oeuvre of monster movies, but I liked it.
The bulk of the book is told from Hudson’s first person, present tense point of view. It gives the story a breathless immediacy. When the POV switches, it’s all still present tense, including a few scenes featuring the kaiju itself. You actually get a ‘why’ to go with all the destruction. More importantly, you get a twist on a common story trope. Most of the time when an author introduces you to a character via their POV, you make the assumption you’ll be with that character the entire way through the book. Nope. He manages to make you care for a character and then have that character die. It was a shock, as in “Did [that character] just get killed?” Yup. It made the rest of the action higher pitched because you never knew if any of the main characters would get offed.
I listened to the audiobook and this is a perfect case for narrator giving that little extra something that comes across as greater than the whole. Hudson is basically your typical wise-cracking hero, and Jeffrey Kafer is pitch perfect. Robinson’s words and Kafer’s narration sucked me in almost immediately. Heck, I finished this nearly nine-hour book in five days. I started volunteering for household chores. Need the lawn watered? I’ll do it, just let me get my phone. Oh, we need to drive our empty glass bottles to get recycled? I’m your man.
PROJECT: NEMESIS is nothing less than a thrilling summer blockbuster in prose.
Sunday, July 1, 2018
But would the book be any good?
It’s an honest question, but let’s be honest: if it’s got Patterson’s name on it, the story will at least be serviceable.
And I’m here to tell you it’s more than serviceable. It’s pretty darn good.
The story opens as President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, newly widowed, is facing the prospect of a compelled testimony in front of a Congressional committee. Impeachment is in the air because Duncan recently ordered a special forces raid seemingly to save notorious terrorist Suliman Cindoruk, leader of the Sons of Jihad group. The Speaker of the House—a member of the unnamed ‘other party’; Duncan’s party affiliation also remains unnamed making it more bipartisan—who has designs on the presidency smells blood.
But Duncan has an even greater problem. Somehow, Suliman’s cyber hackers have implanted a virus in the computer systems of the Pentagon. Codenamed “Dark Ages,” if released, the resulting damage would be catastrophic. It would literally plunge the US into a modern dark ages. And one of six members of Duncan’s inner circle—including the Vice President—is a traitor because a young girl from the Republic of Georgia is asking to meet with Duncan. Alone. And she utters “Dark Ages” to prove her point.
How could this young woman know that? Who is she? And, after Duncan goes incognito and meets at the baseball stadium, who is this other guy pointing a gun at the President of the United States?
THE PRESIDENT IS MISSING clocks in at over 500 pages, but they read extremely fast. Duncan’s prose is all in first person and the entire novel is written in the present tense, giving it an urgency. Having Duncan narrate his own scenes is great, especially with his asides when he gives details you know came from Bill Clinton’s memories. There are other characters and all those scenes are related in third person. It’s the first time I can remember reading a book like this. Granted, as a writer, I noticed the differences at first, but as the story went on and my reading speed increased, it faded away and I was solely in the action.
By now, Patterson is a master at crafting a story and, while I’ve read few, I could see how one of his stories is made. And I really loved how the tension was racketed up. Sure, there were lots of cliffhanger chapter endings, but this is a summer thriller. It’s supposed to have cliffhangers.
And there was one passage of about five chapters that completely fooled me. I thought one thing was happening and it was something else entirely. Much like watching “The Sixth Sense” a second time when you know the truth, I re-read those chapters just to see how Patterson did it. Brilliant. Also brilliant was the skillful way Patterson kept the truth behind the traitor and other characters, revealing their identity at precisely the right time. This guy can tell stories!
I purchased this book from my local grocery store and I pointed out something to some friends who noticed the book in my basket. I indicated all the other Patterson novels on display—eight?—and then at THE PRESIDENT IS MISSING. Patterson’s name was listed on top of all save the new one. It takes a president’s name to shift Patterson to second billing.
I very much enjoyed this book and would easily recommend it as a good beach read.
Sunday, June 24, 2018
I'm a book dork. Are you?
I’ve read many, but not all, of Michael Crichton’s novels, but CONGO was one I had missed. I have the paperback, but it had remained on my shelf for years. Earlier this spring, a comment on the Doc Savage Facebook group said CONGO was a pretty good lost city novel. It landed back on my radar. I flipped it open and noticed one of the locations was Houston. How cool was that? Additionally, the action began on 13 June 1979. And I got to thinking: since I was already reading a book at the time, why not wait until 13 June to start the book?
So I did. Book dork? Guilty as charged. But at least I didn’t wait until 13 June 2019 to start it.
The story opens with a transmission from a team in the Congo back to their home base in Houston. The team is part of the Earth Resources Technology Services (ERTS), one of two companies searching for diamonds in the Congo rainforest. Just before the video feed is abruptly cut off, there appears to be what looks like a gorilla. Not just any ordinary ape, but something different.
Soon, a second team, led by Dr. Karen Ross, sets out to keep looking for the lost city and discover what happened to the original team. Coming along is zoologist Dr. Peter Elliot and Amy, a gorilla from the San Francisco Zoo that has learned American sign language. Along the way, Ross recruits the famed white hunter Captain Charles Munro to guide them.
I’ll admit it’s been awhile since I’ve read a Crichton novel solely written by him. (I read the posthumously published DRAGON TEETH last year.) I had forgotten just how much science the author crams into his books. What particularly interested me was some of the computer stuff the team had to do. In this age of cell phones and satellite phones and instant access, it was charming for Ross to have to wait six minutes for the satellites and her communication equipment to sync up. Then there is always the “As you Bob” moments that are liberally scattered throughout the book. With the zoologist being the outside member of the team, he gets to ask for clarification on things Ross and Munro know by heart. The science, however, was fascinating, especially regarding the attempts by scientist to teach apes communication skills. I found it ironic timing that I completed the novel a day before Koko the gorilla who learned American sign language died.
Unlike the JURASSIC PARK novel where, once the dinosaurs escape, you are in a series of chases and near misses, the action here is not as relentless. There are some political struggles that erupt in gunfire, and a few brushes with death, but CONGO is more a novel of discovery. In this, it’s a perfect book for Crichton’s talents. What makes the book even better is its seeming realness, almost as if Crichton is merely the author of a non-fiction book depicting events that really happened.
Friday, June 8, 2018
My wife and I are both foodies, yet she discovered him first and introduced him to me. We both quickly became fans. We watched his shows on whatever network. His zeal for life was palpable. He yearned for the whole story, the background of a story, and the story of a people through the lens of food. And told some amazing stories. Naturally, I appreciate his episode on my native Houston, but I also remember the one where he was trapped in Beirut. Or when he and President Obama sat in a little Vietnamese restaurant and shared a beer. Or the any number of episodes where he’d sit down with an old friend and reminiscence.
His storytelling ability started on the printed page with Kitchen Confidential. If you’ve never read it—or its semi-sequel, Medium Raw—do yourself a favor and listen to Bourdain himself read the audiobook. I wrote about Medium Raw here.
One of my favorite things about Bourdain was the tag line for this Travel Channel show, No Reservation: I travel. I write. I eat. And I’m hungry for more. I called it the Bourdain Quatrain. In that spirit, I created my own.
But man, does this news sting. It’s like a gut punch. My wife couldn’t believe it. One of her favorite traits of Bourdain was his general “F*ck you, I’m doing this” attitude. Where was that, she wondered. I don’t know. Clearly there was something dark festering inside of him that none of us saw. I pray that he finds peace in his rest. I pray also for his daughter and his family and close friends. The larger family across the nations also will mourn this genuine, unique, and ever-curious man.
If you’re reading this and think you are at your wit’s end, please seek help. Life is too, too precious. You are important and meaningful. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK.
Sunday, May 27, 2018
Unlike the previous four stories where someone came to McGee and basically hired him, A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD finds McGee visited by Sam Taggert, an old friend of McGee’s, who is on the run. He doesn’t initially tell McGee why but asks him to arrange a meeting with Sam’s old flame, Nora. He has something he needs to sell and, with that money, he and Nora will be able to pick up again where they left off…provided Nora doesn’t still hold a grudge against Sam for walking away three years ago. She doesn’t. In fact, she’s still in love with him. But no sooner than McGee picks up Nora and takes her to see Sam, they find Sam murdered and the little Central American golden idol stolen. Needless to say, McGee wants revenge…and so does Nora.
After a quick trip up to New York—where McGee does a little research and finds the time to bed Betty, the antique dearer, with whom he made a deal—McGee make their way down to Mexico. One of the best things about MacDonald’s writing is he seemingly effortless way in creating a scene. With a few pieces of description, you really get the feel, the smell, the sights and sounds of a small, out-of-the way Mexican seaside town. Various characters walk into and out of the scenes, each described in McGee’s now trademark world-weary cynicism. But of the five novels I’ve read to date, the McGee in GOLD is much more…well, I’d almost use the word ‘depressed.’ His friend has been killed, the people he interacts with in order to find the man who gave the order are all almost soulless shells, and it doesn’t help that he has some growing feelings for Nora. And she for him, apparently. She’s ready to exact her revenge, but is seems to be held back by McGee, by physically and emotionally. That they end up together is a spoiler not.
In reading up on the McGee novels, I found somewhere a comparison to James Bond. I don’t really see it in any aspect other than the female co-star. But when using this as the only metric, author MacDonald goes one step further with McGee than Ian Fleming does with Bond. In the Bond books and movies, the book ends or the camera fades to black and the credits roll with Bond and his current leading lady arm in arm. By the next book, the previous lady is long gone. What happened? Well, in the McGee books, John MacDonald shows you. Sometimes they are killed, sometimes they leave, and sometimes, it is something else. I actually enjoy and appreciate MacDonald doing this and, more importantly, McGee reacting to it, often with self-loathing or something worse. There are emotional costs to McGee bedding all these women, and yet he still does it.
Where GOLD suffers for me is its length. Yes, we get a lot more of McGee’s worldview explored and that’s wonderful. And in Nora, you have one of the more compelling female co-stars to date. But the plot rambles and wanders. In the story, McGee stresses to Nora that they must appear to be carefree lovers away on a vacation. Well, MacDonald seems to take that as an excuse to let the plot wander. I don’t know about his writing style, specifically if he wrote from an outline or not, but I’d venture a guess that he and McGee experienced this story together, simultaneously.
Interesting, right around the eight-hour mark, they story kind of ended…and there was still nearly four hours to go. I knew why McGee needed to move forward, and I knew more or less how it was going to end, but the level of caring dwindled. In many stories, the denouement is short, right after the climax. Here, it’s almost a third of the book. Which brings up the question if it even is a denouement or just the last third of a longer work. Not sure. Likely the latter. Still, the story kind of dragged on and on.
All of this is to say that A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD is my least favorite book in this series to date. I’ve only read five—in order—and I’m looking forward to reading the sixth and see if, in my mind, MacDonald righted the ship. These novels were originally published under the Fawcett Gold Medal banner. I’ve read many of them. They tend toward fast, action-packed little thrillers that one might devour in a weekend. Through these books, I’ve learned and appreciated Wade Miller, David Dodge, Donald Hamilton, and Day Keene. MacDonald clearly has the writing chops and the character to elevate this series above the rank-and-file of a typical Gold Medal book—and he did with books one through four—but GOLD missed the mark for me.