30 November 2006

The Templar Legacy, by Steve Barry

November 30 2006 (21:39:00)

480 pages. Ballantine Books, 2006.

I hardly ever read books that I don't like. If I do, it's usually for work or a requirement for some course I'm taking. I started out reading The Templar Legacy, and considered putting it down unfinished. What do real book reviewers do? I guess they finish whatever they're reviewing, whether they like it or not. And in many cases they may not. Partially as an exercise in feeling like a professional reviewer and also to satisfy my curiosity about the book, I did finish it.

Templar is a "thriller," that is, it's in the genre that includes books by Ken Follett and Robert Ludlum. In my mind, a thriller is not exactly a novel about espionage, or war, nor is it a mystery -- although there is usually some type of mystery involved -- or crime novel. Generally these books will involve unlikely people caught up in large events that may affect much of the world, if not all of it. International travel is frequently involved, and as a result the writers of these novels are often travellers themselves, and there will be much description of various far-off places, and a great deal of atmosphere imparted from various locations. Successful thrillers -- that is, successful in entertaining me -- include good, complicated, multi-dimensional characters that we become very involved with. Ludlum often uses "ordinary" people who get caught up in big events, events that force them to act heroically in dangerous, exciting conditions. There is suspense, and it keeps us turning the pages.

There's a mugging and a suicide in The Templar Legacy's first chapter, so the action starts right away -- after a disturbing prologue that describes some grisly events from the 14th century. We are introduced to Cotton Malone and Stephanie Nelle right away, and we begin to understand that there are major issues at stake. The plot has to do with an ancient order of monks who defended the route to the Holy Land after the Crusades, their lost treasure, arcane knowledge of the true nature of Jesus Christ, resurrection, and redemption. It's probably got something in common with The DaVinci Code but I can't say for sure, as I haven't read that book. But I sense that DaVinci has some pretty attractive coattails, and Berry wouldn't be the first writer to see such an opportunity and take advantage of it -- but that really isn't what I didn't like.

What I did not like about Templar is that the writing is just too thin. The characters are not believable, and I didn't feel involved with any of them. There is some real tragedy mentioned in the plot, such as the suicide (or murder) of a man who was husband to Stephanie, and the father of her son, Mark. Perhaps this is a reflection of excessive sang-froid on my part, but I just didn't care about them. Cotton Malone should be, during the reading of such a novel, like my old friend -- warts and all, but an old friend nevertheless. He wasn't. I just didn't care about him, either. They all reacted strangely, and their dialog was unnatural.

And how about the main bad guy? First of all, I couldn't help waiting for the punch line that must have been set up by his name: De Roquefort. The big cheese? Granted, I betray my pedestrian tendencies in pointing this out, but Mr. Berry would have been well advised to name his villain something that doesn't make me want to snicker every time I read it.

There are too many distractions in this book. Several times, Berry puts an illustration on the page of some mysterious tombstones and versions of a cryptogram that his characters eventually must decipher. If the cryptogram was as simple as he represents, it would have been solved five hundred years before and saved his characters a lot of work and trouble. Malone is, we are told, possessed of an eidetic memory. "Not photographic ... an excellent recall of details that most people forgot." But it seems that Mr. Berry forgot -- if this remarkable asset figures in the plot again after it is mentioned, I totally missed it.

I am learning something about book reviewing here: it is much harder to write a negative one. I really just didn't like the writing, but that's not a good thing to say. I need to show you exactly what I mean. So I have to go back through the volume now, looking for examples. This is a lot like work.

"He carried the book to one of several club chairs that dotted the store, settled himself into the soft folds, and started to read. Gradually, a summary began to formulate."(page 59)

"The first assailant lay sprawled on the floor. The other man was likewise prone and still... he spotted something at the back of one of the necks. He bent close and plucked out a small dart, the tip a half-inch needle.

"His savior was privy to some sophisticated equipment." (page 70)

Ideally in a novel like this I shouldn't really even notice the writing -- it should be hard-wired to my brain and I should be turning the pages too fast to analyze sentences and wrinkle my nose at phrases like "privy to some sophisticated equipment." Templar lost its grip on me too often, and I was too tempted to pick it apart.

"...'the mayor said the grave was in danger from treasure hunters.' She shook her head. 'So a few years ago they dug the priest up and moved him into a mausoleum in the garden. Now it costs three euros to see his grave ... the price of a corpse's safety, I assume.'

He caught her sarcasm. (page 113)

An easy catch.

There are loose ends in this book, a thing to be abhorred in a genre chiefly based on intricate, suspensful plotting. For example, on page 135, Malone and Stephanie Nelle read a note to the deceased Ernst Scoville that warns "prend garde l'Ingeneur. 'Beware the engineer...'" We are later introduced to an unbelievable and fantastic character named Cassiopeia who is identified to be this engineer. There is, however, never any reason to beware her, nor is this warning ever sufficiently explained.

I probably should have been taking notes while reading this book, it would make the task of explaining what's wrong with it much easier. The next time I decide to finish a book out of professionalism, I'll get a pencil and paper.

Don't pay money for this book, but if you need something to read on a plane and it's available for free, it's probably fine. Sorry, Steve Berry -- I'll admit up front that you're a better writer than I am, but then nobody's paying me.


27 November 2006

"F" is for Fugitive, by Sue Grafton

November 27 2006 (19:29:00)

Random House Audio, 2001, 8 CDs, approximately 8 hours. Narrated by Judy Kaye.

I listened to an abridged version of this book on compact discs. It's a typical alphabet mystery, I've read several of these. I have always had a problem with Grafton this way: I can't remember if I've read one of these or not, the titles are so interchangeable (to me, that is), so I don't know until I'm well into one of them if it's new to me or not. That's one problem this blog should solve for me.

I don't think the alphabets will be recognized by literary critics as great classic works but then I've been wrong before. They are generally entertaining and enjoyable, and as audio books they are ideal. I use audio books to keep from getting too bored when I'm driving. This makes me a more patient and I hope a safer driver, but there is a certain division of attention involved. What I find is that anything too heavy, complicated, or serious doesn't work in this environment. Fortunately I seem to automatically just tune the "book" out and concentrate on the driving when it gets heavy. If the book requires strict attention or mental gymnastics to follow, I will lose my place and need to rewind when I get a chance. So something light like an alphabet mystery is perfect. With some of my attention I can easily follow the plot and enjoy the entertainment, with the rest I can notice the moron following too closely behind me since I'm only exceeding the speed limit by five or ten miles per hour.

Having said all this I suppose Ms. Grafton could be insulted, in the unlikely event that this lowly journal should come to her attention. If such should come to pass, however, and should she take offense at my cavalier reduction of her labor to mere brain-fodder to keep me from falling victim to boredom and road-rage at the wheel, let me say that whether I am reading her in print or by ear, I have always greatly enjoyed these novels and I think that she is very talented. Grafton creates a world for me that I am loath to leave at the end of a book. I have no higher compliment for any writer.

In this mystery, Milhone is summoned to a small town on the California coast to help exonerate the son of a moderately wealthy but terminally ill man. The son is an escaped convict, imprisoned for the murder of a young woman many years in the past. Recaptured, it seems his only hope is for Milhone to discover who did commit the murder, and expose the fact that he was wrongfully imprisoned.

Kinsey Milhone gently but firmly takes the town apart, person by person, and exposes its past and how the principals in the intrigue are connected. Bit by bit she works the mystery to its dramatic solution and we are left as usual, in admiration of this modest young woman's skill and power.

If you haven't read "F," by all means, do so!

24 November 2006

Ride the Wind, by Lucia St. Clair Robson

November 24 2006 (07:17:00)

Ride the Wind, The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker and the Last Days of the Comanche.
By Lucia St. Clair Robson
Ballantine Books 1982, 595 pages.

This book is historical fiction, the life of a young girl kidnapped by Comanche warriors in the early 19th century. The girl's name was Cynthia Ann Parker, later named Naduah or Keeps Warm With Us by her Comanche family.

The story begins in 1836 in Fort Parker, where a family of pioneer settlers from Illinois lives in the wild Texas frontier. A band of Comanche warriors raids the fort and amidst terrible violence kidnaps Cynthia, her brother, and some others. The book begins with action and gets our attention right away, but if one is at all queasy or sensitive it may also create a great deal of discomfort as there is much graphic description of rape and murder in the first few pages.

Naduah's story, told here and elsewhere, is one about the violent confrontation between the Europeans and Native Americans in Texas in the 19th century, and the adaptation of a child to a new culture and way of life. Pahayuca and his band, having captured her by force, commence to win her loyalty and love by treating her with love and respect. She is adopted by a childless couple, Sunrise and Takes Down the Lodge, who give her her new name and raise her as their own. She becomes one of them in every way except for the details of her birth.

Robson depicts the Comanche, the People, as a grand and ancient civilization that has lived on the plains of North America for many centuries. She spares us much sentimentality, depicting the People in what seems a very believable way. We can respect them but we can also see the violent and harsh manner in which they lived, and appreciate this as an adaptation to the unforgiving environment in which their culture developed and flourished.

Naduah became the wife of Wanderer, or Nocona, who became one of the last great chiefs of the Comanche before their effective destruction by the European invaders. The story of their life together, their children, and their love is certainly the product of great imagination on the part of Robson but at the same time seems to give us an accurate feeling for at least what it might have been like to be alive at that time and involved in this monumental upheaval and downfall of a civilization.

While the story is greatly sympathetic to the Comanche, it is also unafraid to depict the harshness of their ways. The Comanches in this book are kidnappers, keepers of slaves, fierce, warlike people willing to torture their enemies to death. At the same time they are strongly spiritual and at one with their country, the Great Plains. They waste little and ask for little except the freedom to roam the plains and hunt as they had done for centuries before the arrival of the "white eyes."

The Comanche, like so many other Native American people, were defeated by technology, disease, and the sheer population force of the European emigrants. Cynthia Ann Parker and her family provide a good factual historical basis on which to hang this story of that defeat, and with which to celebrate the humanity and greatness of many of the people involved on both sides.

We are indebted to our friend Trudy for loaning us this book, which we likely would have missed otherwise.

Internet reading about Cynthia Ann Parker:

Wikipedia entry for Cynthia Ann Parker.

Outlaw Women article on Cynthia Ann Parker.

Woman Spirit, by Julia White

Handbook of Texas Online article about Cynthia Ann parker.

Do your own search: put "Cynthia Ann Parker" in Google's text box, you'll see these sites and many more.

17 November 2006

The Neddiad, by Daniel Pinkwater

November 17 2006 (00:42:00)

Daniel Pinkwater is publishing his new book, The Neddiad, online, a chapter a week. It's probably considered a children's book, and I suppose it says something unattractive about me, but I've been enjoying it immensely.

The Neddiad is (so far) a story told first-person by a young fellow named Ned, who has a rather remarkable family. The story is set in the late 1940s, just after World War II. As it begins, Ned and his family set out for Los Angeles, travelling by first-class train. During the trip Ned becomes separated from his family in Flagstaff, Arizona, but is rescued by an actor and his son who are driving to Los Angeles by way of the Grand Canyon.

The chapter that I just finished has Ned, the actor, his son, and a ghost (yep), visiting the Grand Canyon. They take an airplane ride into the canyon and have a strange adventure with a passenger on the 'plane.

I don't think you have to be a kid to like this book. I eagerly signed up to get email reminders when new chapters come out.

06 November 2006

Clockers, by Richard Price

November 06 2006 (05:22:00)

Houghton Mifflin 1992 599 pages.

On the back cover of this book there's an endorsement by Scott Turow. Turow is the author of The Laws of our Fathers, among others. Of Clockers, he says "...its complete knowledge of life in our most reviled places, [is] riveting..." I point this out because Clockers picks up where Laws left off in its depiction of the drug-dealing underworld in the "projects" of a big city. Turow's novels are set in a fictional city said to be Chicago, Price's in another, Dempsy, New Jersey. Dempsy is close enough to New York City to be any of the minor urban areas that make up that megalopolis.

Two major characters from Clockers are Rocco, the police detective, and Strike, the budding career criminal. The novel has a lot to do with the relationship between the police and the broken, sick, African-American community in Dempsy, and the relationship between Rocco and Strike is in part a metaphor for this. In some ways it could be seen as the "good guys" hunting the "bad guys," but there's an element of interdependency here -- and I couldn't help thinking of the worn-out observation about prison guards and prisoners, how little difference there is between their lives.

Strike is an up-and-coming drug dealer working directly under a gangster named Rodney. Rodney is a type of godfather in this world of nearly universal drug addiction, poverty, and general deprivation. These people do not live like animals, animals do much better. Rodney has several children by various partners, and is a father figure to Strike and other members of his gang/enterprise -- but he's a cold, calculating, homicidal sociopath. He manipulates Strike into a situation where Strike must kill (or cause to be killed) a rival in order to advance his own position in the gang.

The situation becomes complicated when Strike's brother gets involved. Darryl, Strike's rival, is murdered in a parking lot, and Strike's brother confesses to the crime. It seems completely incongruous and even impossible, but suddenly Victor -- Strike's older and relatively straight-arrow brother, quiet, hard-working family man -- is not only involved in the sordid dealings of Strike and Rodney, but arrested for committing the murder that furthers Strikes ambitions.

Detective Rocco is another family man, married and a father somewhat late in life. He's an alarmingly heavy drinker who seems to be inoculating himself with booze against the disease that is all around him. Convinced that Strike is truly guilty of the murder (he is not, as far as we can tell) he pressures him with his brother's fate if his confession is accepted. While this does bother Strike a bit, the actual twisted mess that ensues on both sides is complicated enough to keep us reading to see what will happen next.

Price has certainly created a believable world, or underworld, here in Dempsy, NJ. I understand that this novel has sequels, and I may have to pick them up soon. I bought this book for about a dollar at Book World in Kent, WA, and didn't have high expectations, but I found myself quickly immersed in what I consider to be a very good work of fiction and an excellent commentary on our society. The American Dream has become something of a nightmare for the generations of impoverished people that have inhabited our cities in recent centuries.

Digging to America, by Ann Tyler

November 06 2006 (18:43:00)

Ann Tyler writes beautifully about families. Her families are always real and believable, made up of quirky, impossible people, suffering from pain and benefitting from love as real families do. She has the gift of putting the right words in their mouths, the right thoughts in their minds. She tells us the parts of their story that we want to know. I've never been disappointed in a Tyler novel, and Digging to America was another winner.

Digging is the story of two children from Korea adopted by middle-class Americans in the late twentieth century. It's the story of two families, the Yazdans and the Donaldsons, who meet at the airport when the babies arrive. Driven by the outgoing Donaldson family they stay in touch and a years-long relationship begins. Every year they have an "arrival party" to celebrate the day when they all met at the Baltimore airport. The novel follows the families as they change, grow, die, argue, fight and love.

Tyler has the knack of being contemporary and timeless at once, blending the interactions of human beings of all kinds, as they exist in families and outside of them, with external social and political issues and events. The Yazdan family are Iranian immigrants and their descendants. Iranian culture and Iranians living in America in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century becomes one of the themes of the novel, and we are treated to a loving yet realistic (one believes) look into the lives of these new Americans.

Digging to America includes death as well as birth, and has more than a little to say about what it's like to get old in this country. Ann Tyler's voice is gentle yet truthful, she looks on our people and their lives with a loving sense of humor, never failing to penetrate to the core of the human condition.