Paul’s Book Reviews: Nonfiction, Thrillers, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction

English has a lot of synonyms for “fool” or “idiot.” Perhaps you take this to mean that English speakers are mean-spirited; I simply reply that necessity is the mother of invention.
—Kory Stamper, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries

word by wordWord by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries
by Kory Stamper

Without naming the book, I posted a mid-read review of “Word by Word” to Facebook:

“I heard educated-sounding people on NPR pronounce ‘dour’ and ‘banal’ in ways that were new to me. It no doubt says something about me that I immediately assumed I’d been saying those words wrong all my life. That, in turn, made me feel insecure about other words I might be mispronouncing. Well, I’m reading a cool book about the making of dictionaries, and one of the chapters describes how lexicographers nail down pronunciations. I learned that online dictionary entries now include speaker icons you can click to hear how words are pronounced. It turns out I was saying dour and banal correctly and the snobs on NPR were saying them wrong. My self-confidence has been restored!”

As you might infer, I obsess over language and words. As a writer, I own several print dictionaries (including a giant library Unabridged Random House Dictionary that once sat, open, on a special stand by the card catalog cabinet), Strunk & White, Fowler’s, multiple copies of the AP Stylebook, and more. I have all the major online dictionaries and style guides bookmarked.

Kory Stamper, I feel a strong kinship with you. If Sarah Vowell and I could hang out with you (that is if Sarah Vowell would let me hang out with her in the first place), I’d be in heaven. Until we disagreed on some definition or point of style, that is. Just kidding.

This is a language enthusiast’s book, engagingly written and full of fascinating detail, not just about the words themselves, but about the process of revising and updating dictionaries, an amazingly rich and rigorous field … I literally had no idea how much work and research is involved.

Sadly, the book ends with an epilog about something I knew of but didn’t want to think about: layoffs and the decline of the dictionary publishing industry. Online references have decimated print sales, and the dream jobs of lexicographers and English lovers are fast disappearing.

Persuader (Jack Reacher #7)
the enemy
The Enemy (Jack Reacher #8)
one shot
One Shot (Jack Reacher #9)

I’ve been working my way through Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers. I started with the first one, “Killing Floor,” and, if I outlive the author, may some day get to the last one (right now that is #22, “The Midnight Line,” scheduled out in Nov 2017). This is a combined review of the seventh through the ninth novels, “Persuader,” “The Enemy” and “One Shot.”

A couple of the first six Reacher novels are terrible. The rest are good to very good. The thing is, Jack Reacher in his natural state is a great character: he’s strong, skilled, smart, taciturn to a fault. By choice he has no job and no fixed address, but wherever he goes he winds up investigating a crime, either on his own volition or at the behest of strangers. He’s a keen observer. He figures things out. He gets into horrible scrapes, often (always?) winding up in jail himself, accused of committing the very crimes he’s investigating. He beds a succession of smart women characters who help him solve crimes. He beats up the bad guys. He’s the world’s deadliest sniper. And so on.

And yet in every novel Reacher breaks character to become another kind of detective, not the man of action but a tough-guy version of Hercule Poirot, subjecting possible culprits and baffled policemen or FBI agents to lengthy monologues where he explains what when down, how he figured it out, and naming the guilty. The culprit, dead to rights, makes a move, the lights go out, gunfire ensues, yadda yadda.

Which is to say Jack Reacher is a unique & memorable character trapped in a series of conventional & not so memorable mystery plots. Sometimes Child handles this well and you don’t notice so much. Other times he handles it poorly, and you want to throw the book across the room.

“Persuader,” Jack Reacher #7, is tightly-plotted and tense. Reacher is fully in character. So are the bad guys. So are the alluring women from Reacher’s past & present … surprisingly, he doesn’t bed the current woman until halfway through the novel. A subplot involving an investigation from Reacher’s military days is very well done, as are the descriptions of weapons favored by gangsters and terrorists. The fight scenes are as good as any I’ve read. I noticed that this novel is narrated in the first person. I think most of the earlier ones used the third-person voice. I liked this one better, and will be watching Child’s narrative technique more closely from now on.

“The Enemy,” Jack Reacher #8, is my favorite Reacher novel to date and earned four stars. I think I liked it as much as I did because it echoed aspects of my own military career, set as it is during Reacher’s time as a military police officer, working high level criminal activity inside the Army. The earlier novels are set at later dates, after Reacher left the Army and became a rootless solver of crimes and friend of the oppressed. I hope some of the later novels return to Reacher’s Army days. What I know of the Army (I was Air Force myself) seems well-researched, another reason to like the book.

“One Shot,” Jack Reacher #9, jumps ahead to Reacher’s post-Army days (as do the first seven novels), but some of the opposing characters in this one were known to him when he was in uniform, and his experience as an MP goes a long way toward helping him solve the case he’s investigating. There are a lot of 180-degree turns in this novel, so many that it became a bit of a distraction in later chapters. I came to believe that Lee Child was lurking over my shoulder, just waiting for me to think, “Oh, I get it,” before springing another loop on me. Child’s trickiness came across as gratuitous, and I rated this novel a little lower than the previous one.

All three novels are good reads for Jack Reacher fans, and I guess by this point I’ve become one. As with James Bond, Jack Reacher is bullshit, but what great fun his bullshit is!

tropic of kansasTropic of Kansas
by Christopher Brown

Most dystopias exist in a near future extrapolated from current events. Christopher Brown’s takes place in the present, the extrapolation point the assassination of President Reagan in the 1980s. In the assassination’s wake, Alexander Haig takes over, awarding himself a sixth star (a very Haig-like touch) and ushering in an era of powerful and autocratic governments headed by corporate and military leaders. In other words, the events in “Tropic of Kansas” unfold in an alternate timeline.

In Brown’s timeline, the civil and governmental structures of America have broken down. Wide swathes of flyover country, still nominally states, are under corporate control, the land denuded, rivers and lakes rendered toxic. Policing in the part of the midwest popularly called the Tropic of Kansas is performed by gang-like civilian militias. What power the federal government retains manifests itself in tight control over the media and internet, political dissent, and population movement. And prisons.

The novel’s two main characters are step-siblings: Sig, once the white foster child of a black family, now a feral teenager on the run in the Tropic; Tania, his older foster sister, now an FBI agent in Washington DC, in trouble with fascist agents of the current all-powerful president. Tania, threatened with persecution for subversive activities, agrees to go undercover in the Tropic in order to get the goods on revolutionaries who have figured out how to communicate and organize by exploiting obsolete radio and television technology. Sig has become involved the revolutionary movement, and Tania, working underground by posing as a friend of the revolution, increasingly focuses her efforts on finding him.

My trouble with the novel is the revolution. The dystopia is grounded and plausible. Sig and Tania, at least in earlier chapters, are well-developed characters. Their adventures, as Sig escapes from one trap after another and Tania penetrates deeper into the underground, are tense and exciting.

Then, somehow, the taciturn loner Sig becomes one of the leaders of the revolution and begins spouting hippie dippy mystic crystal revelation buzzword bullshit (I almost quit reading when he started talking about “crowdsourcing the revolution”), and credibility goes poof. At least Tania’s character remains consistent, and thank goodness, because Sig and his fellow revolutionaries go off the charts.

Which is to say I loved the book until the final chapters, when I quit believing Christopher Brown’s scenario. My overall impression? A fast, exciting read with a muddled and unclear end.

prussian bluePrussian Blue (Bernie Gunther #12)
by Philip Kerr

This is my second Bernie Gunther mystery. I decided to take another look at Philip Kerr’s Nazi-era Berlin cop after reading a glowing review of “Prussian Blue” in The New Yorker. I did not like the first one I read, “If the Dead Rise Not,” and reviewed it harshly. Here is part of that earlier review:

“When Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther uncovers high-level Nazi Party and American mob collusion during the bidding for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the historical backdrop is just that, a backdrop, and the presence of several infamous Nazi bigwigs feels a bit like name-dropping. … I would have given all that a pass and might even have read another Bernie Gunther novel some day, had it not been for the final chapter, where, to my shock and dismay, Philip Kerr tied up all the loose plot lines by having Bernie and Noreen, his main squeeze, explain it all in a conversation: ‘Then he did that, so I shot him and hid the gun in a laundry basket, then planted some false evidence to make it look like some guy you haven’t heard about until right this instance did it.’ ‘Oh really? What happened then, Bernie?’ A professional novelist wrote this shit?”

Well, “Prussian Blue” is chock full of Nazis (Kerr’s afterword reveals that, yes, most characters in the novel are historical figures, many of them close to Hitler), and here and there some “here’s what happened off page” explication worked into the dialog between Bernie and his interlocutors, but on the whole I enjoyed this novel a great deal more than the one I reviewed so negatively.

What’s different this time around? Names are dropped, to be sure (Martin Bormann and Gerdy Troost among them), but there’s more character development to go with them. Most importantly, we learn the ins and outs of the crime Bernie’s been sent to solve as he learns them, as opposed to having him explain it to us in a classical closed room mystery final speech.

I particularly liked the physical backdrop, the Bavarian alpine towns of Obersalzburg and Berchtesgaden, places I’ve been, shown here as they were at the height of Hitler’s power, a virtual second capital and nerve center of Nazi Germany.

People often bring up Martin Cruz Smith and his character Arkady Renko as a comparison point with Philip Kerr and Bernie Gunther. Personally, I think Renko is a fuller and more human character. I know Kerr intentionally gives Gunther the values, attitudes, and prejudices of his day, but I have a hard time getting past some of that. That’s on me, not Philip Kerr, and I promise to keep a more open mind from now on, because after reading “Prussian Blue” I do intend to read more Bernie Gunther novels.

by Neal Stephenson & J. Frederick George

I’ve read a number of Neal Stephenson novels. All have been deep and fascinating. All feature self-contained worlds science fiction fans can lose themselves in.

“Interface” is an older novel, written with a co-author a couple of years after “Snow Crash.” It’s science fiction set in a contemporaneous world, based on the social, political, and technological realities of its era, the mid-1990s. Some readers may scratch their heads over the novel’s pre-internet technology; those of us who embraced that technology in the mid-1990s remember how exciting and promising it was, and won’t have a problem with the extrapolations Stephenson bases his novel upon.

The plot is simple: a popular politician, William Cozzano, suffers a stroke; experimental tech in the form of an embedded chip helps his brain forge new pathways, allowing him to regain speech and motion, and he enters the presidential race. Ah, but there are forces behind Cozzano’s recovery and campaign, and it turns out the chip is being used to control him.

We learn about these forces through different characters involved in helping Cozzano recover, because each one of them is a part of The Network, the shadowy organization behind what turns out to be an even deeper conspiracy. These characters multiply like guppies, to the point where the reader can barely differentiate between individuals, and ultimately we learn there is an even more shadowy … and ancient … force behind The Network. But our plucky politician, helped by his daughter and a few trusted pals … well, I’d better not give away the store, so I’ll stop there.

Neal Stephenson is a windy bastard, and this is perhaps the windiest of his novels. There are far too many characters: every one of them gets pages and pages to show us what makes them tick; many are chock full of folksy observations and humor. It’s really too much: the novel would have been tighter if background characters stayed in the background, but no, every one of them gets a lengthy solo, padding the story to the point where the reader starts flipping pages in search of action.

The villains in “Interface” are basically decent people who think they’re doing good. Many of these basically decent people are campaign workers who, while nominally working for Cozzano, are in fact controlling him on behalf of The Network. As we learn every four years, decent people are few and far between in presidential politics: those drawn to political campaigns are venal, spiteful, petty, small, confused, incapable of working for any purpose higher than their own aggrandizement. As Stephenson peeled back the layers of his vast worldwide conspiracy, I couldn’t suspend disbelief. I started talking to the book in my lap: “this could never happen” “no way Jose,” “that’s bullshit.”

Despite the novel’s windiness and the far-fetched political conspiracy at the heart of the plot, I think parts of this novel will stay with me. Overall, an interesting if sometimes frustrating read.

split secondSplit Second
by Douglas E. Richards

No rating: did not finish.

Wow, what crappy writing. Tell, don’t show: long paragraphs of background information inserted into dialog between characters, sometimes entire chapters. A few action scenes here and there, but not enough to get me through all the explanatory dialog. People just don’t talk like this, unless to themselves.

Richards gets carried away with his explication: at one point he actually forces a character to define what another character calls a “ranch-style house”: “Oh, you mean a one-story detached dwelling.” He goes on to have the characters, who are supposed to be running for their very lives, discuss the high price of housing in southern California, even for basic “track homes.”

I just can’t. “NY Times bestseller” my ass. This book is shit.

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