Monday, June 28, 2010

The Rule of Nine: A Paul Mandriani Novel

The Rule of Nine: A Paul Madriani Novel
The Rule of Nine: A Paul Madriani Novel

by Steve Martini
William Morrow
June 2010

The Rule of Nine is the 11th novel that Steve Martini has written in the Paul Mandriani series. It is a sequel novel to the Guardian of Lies. The first nine novels were legal thrillers that centered on Mandriani as a defense attorney in the California legal system. In the last novel, Guardian of Lies and this one he has moved into the spy thriller genre. I don’t think that the plot and writing are near as strong in the last two books as in the earlier ones. Rule of Nine follows on the attempted nuclear attack in San Diego that was the core plot item in Guardian of Lies. One of the perpetrators of that attack stalks Mandriani, his daughter and other good guys. Another terrorist is planning attacks in NYC and Washington DC, with the US Supremem court as the ultimate target. The author introduces a love interest for Mandriani, Jocelyn Cole an NGO executive devoted to eliminating WMDs. As is usual with Martini’s books the characters are well drawn and developed enough that you care what happens to them. The plot progresses in a very straightforward way with few surprises. Mandriani and other good guys work to foil the attack but a number of loose ends are left for the inevitable follow-up in the 12th novel in this series.

While this was a good thriller read (I finished it in a little more than a day), I don’t think that Steve Martini fans will enjoy this book as well as some of his earlier ones. If you are looking for the terrorist/spy thrillers Vince Flynn and Brad Thor are better at it than Martini, if you are looking for legal thrillers try some of the earlier Martini books like The Judge, The Attorney, Prime Witness.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Invisible Boy

Invisible Boy

by Cornelia Read
Grand Central Publishing
March, 2010

I usually choose books either through recommendations or because they are written by an author I’ve enjoyed in the past. This one I picked off the library shelf because I liked the blurb on the back. Bad move. This was a story that was not terribly well put together. The main character, Maddie Dare is a wise cracking, down on the heels NYC debutante. Her character is fairly well developed and likeable. The dialogue in this story is good with very contemporary social references. The main plot concerns the finding of a body of a murdered three year old boy in an abandoned cemetery in Queens. There are no surprises in this who-donnit, the murderers are easily recognized and the story plods along in an uncomplicated way. Maddie’s relationships to police and prosecutors involved in the case defy belief. All become good friends! The secondary plot, an old friend of Maddie who appears to be sinking into madness is tangential to everything else that is going on and not developed enough to make anyone care about it. There is an epilogue that made little sense to me.

I considered not writing this review because I really didn’t like this book and hate to post a review that is this negative but I have committed to reviewing every book I read so here it is.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wild Swans

Wild Swans : Three Daughters of China
Wild Swans : Three Daughters of China
by Jung Chang
Simon & Shuster

This is an epic book. I can’t imagine that anyone will write a narrative of 20th century China that will approach the richness of detail, breath of topic and unsettling nature of this work. The author tells the tale through the stories of three women – her grandmother Yu-Fang, her mother Bao-Qin and herself. China’s 20th century included the demise of the feudal warlords, the Japanese invasion, the fall of the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government, the rise of Mao-Tse-Tung, the installation of communism as the national government, and the chaotic Cultural Revolution. Jung Chang’s family is caught up in all of these events.

Her grandmother was born into feudal China. Her feet were broken and bound in an effort to keep them from growing, a practice common in the first half of the twentieth century in China. She was essentially sold as a concubine to a warlord (translate gangster) general twice her age. She spent very little time with him but did conceive one child, the author’s mother. She then marries a Manchurian (Manchuria a place more foreign that China if that is possible) doctor, has some frightening experiences with both the doctor’s family and then during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s.

The author’s mother, Bao-Qin, is an early convert to communism. It is not hard to understand how communism engaged the people of China. The repressive nature of the Nationalist regime and the obscene difficulty of life (famine and starvation were common, women were held as property) made the communist movement an attractive egalitarian choice. The author’s father, Wang-Yu, is also with Mao early in the communist movement. He actually makes The Long March with Mao. Her father dedicates his life to the principles of the communist movement, an allegiance later betrayed. Both of her parents are senior officials, intellectuals and enthusiastic nation builders as the communists take over China and try to improve conditions for the populace. The early years of the communists are good, and much of China thrives. The government evolves into a personality cult of Chairman Mao and the country essentially falls apart in the 60’s. I found the descriptions of the events of the Cultural Revolution horrifying. Mao did not persecute the country using government agencies but he incited the people to turn on one another. It was heartbreaking and frightening to see the evil that people inflicted on their friends and neighbors. The author’s family survives this period, but barely. Her father who had dedicated his life to the communist agenda is denounced and arrested when he takes principled stands against corruption. He is “relocated” to the countryside for years of “reeducation”. He suffers a nervous breakdown and is dead at the age of 54. Her mother is also denounced and relocated. The author recounts her time as a Red Guard and her very gradual disillusionment with Mao and his actions. The Cultural Revolution which started slowly in the late 1950s doesn’t really end until 1975 – almost 20 years of torture for China.

The book ends when Chairman Mao dies, the Cultural Revolution is over and some semblance of normalcy returns to China. Education at all levels had been suspended for 8 years and is slowly reestablished. The author is able to leave a factory job and through merit become a university student studying English.

This is not a book to be read in a short sitting. You really could walk away from it for a couple days as some of the scenes are very intense and gripping. It can be hard to believe you are reading non-fiction. The author clearly and interestingly tells you the story of her family.   I think though it is an important book giving witness to cataclysmic events through the eyes of three incredibly strong women.  I was familiar with much of this history but had no understanding of the Chinese people and what they have endured until I read this story.   I’d recommend it for anyone traveling to China or interested in Chinese history. I was in China in 1984 and would have loved to have had read this story before that assignment.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Year of Wonders

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
by Geraldine Brooks
August, 2001
Viking Adult

This story is set in a 17th century British village that is dealing with the black plague. The village at the behest of the pastor decides to quarantine themselves to prevent the spread of disease to towns in the adjacent countryside. The story is based on a true tale from the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, where townspeople actually did decide to segregate themselves and let the plague run its course. The ravages of the bubonic plague provide the back drop for this feminist tale of Anna Firth. She is a young widow with two small children, who comes from a poor abusive family and works in service to the village pastor. She is uneducated but resourceful. The trials of the plague and her growing relationship to the pastor, Michael Millepellion and his wife Elinor provide opportunities for Anna’s development. The author does a good job of firmly setting this novel in 17th century Britain. The language is contemporary to the time and everyday life of the villagers is well portrayed. As the plague takes its’ victims, the plot deals with not only the tragedy of the losses but with the everyday problems of what to do when the blacksmith is dead, the herbalist is dead, etc. Anna becomes the unlikely heroine of this novel as she retains a clear focus on life as death is everywhere around her. As other turn from religion and herbal cures to witch hunting and sorcery she makes life affirming choices in the face of almost unbelievable circumstances. The characters are multi dimensional. Anna makes good choices and bad. Anna’s father, a despicable character is given a back story that helps understanding of his life choices. There are hidden complexities – both good and bad - to the pastor and his wife that are slowly revealed.

I think this book is excellent historical fiction. It is an engrossing and believable story of what life would have been like in a plague infected 17th century English village. The author takes a topic that in most hands would be depressing beyond belief and makes it an uplifting story. I liked this book so well that I overlook the last chapter which comes in from Mars or beyond.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Reliable Wife
A Reliable Wife

by Robert Goolrick
January, 2009
Algonquin Books

This is a wicked Gothic tale slowly unfolding in the despair of the 1907 Wisconsin winter. Ralph Truitt, richest man in town, has advertised for “a reliable wife”. Catherine Land, the chosen one travels by train to remote northern Wisconsin to become Truitt’s wife. Despite the title, no one in this story is reliable. Truitt, a fifty something businessman, mourns the loss of a family from twenty years ago. Land while presenting herself as from a missionary family is a courtesan with a hidden agenda. Slowly Land comes to love Truitt; slowly Truitt comes to realize that Land is less than advertised. This is a complex and layered story that advances in fits and starts. The deliberateness with which the author introduces the plot supports the character development of both Truitt and Land. To the credit of the author he makes Catherine a sympathetic character despite her nefarious plans. This is a true Gothic story with the requisite elements – a mansion in a remote location, a suspicious housekeeper, a dead first wife, a prodigal son. You are definitely required to suspend belief to accept some of the plot twists. There was lots of imagery in this story, some of which worked for me – winter and snow linking to despair and aloneness- other images which didn’t – water and birds linking to? The author makes the almost unimaginable love story between Truitt and Land ring true. His prose is delightfully relevant “that marriage brought a kind of simple pleasure, a pleasure in the continued company of another human being, the act of caring, of carrying with you the thought of someone else”.
I would recommend this book. The prose and the developing relationship between Truitt and Land were worth the read and overcame my criticisms of the too heated ruminations of Ralph on his sex life, imagery that didn’t work for me, and plot twists that require some patience. Ultimately this story of lust, falsehoods, murder is one that centers on forgiveness. This is a first novel for Goolrick, but he had a nonfiction memoir “The End of the World as We Know it: Scenes From a Life" that I’d like to go back and read.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Lion

by Nelson DeMille
Grand Central Publishing
June, 2010

I am happy to be reviewing a prerelease copy of this new Nelson DeMille thriller. No spoilers here. John Corey, the ex NYPD homicide detective who now works for the Federal anti terrorism task force is the main character. This is DeMille’s fifth John Corey novel (Plum Island, Lion’s Game, Night Fall and Wild Fire). You do not have to read these novels to enjoy this one although DeMille does make references to events in those earlier books.

This story is set in NYC thirteen months post the 9/11 attacks. Corey is working alongside his wife Kate Mayfield an FBI agent. In a terrifying, suspenseful scene involving a skydiving trip, they encounter the Libyan terrorist Asad Khalil. DeMille presents the motivations of both Corey and Khalil; unusual for this type of thriller you can actually understand the roots of Khalil’s terrorism. Events move along quickly following the initial meeting. The action is centered in the metro New York area and exploits the difficulties the federal/state/local agencies have had cooperating and sharing intelligence information. Corey stands above the bureaucracy and has a singular focus on bringing down the terrorist. The characters in this novel are engaging, funny and sharply drawn. Corey is non-stop with the wisecracks, I find them funny and occasionally laugh out loud funny but I can see how some readers might be annoyed by the frequency of these comments. I think you either like the Corey character or you don’t.

This is a top-notch action thriller. Differing from some of DeMille’s earlier novels, this one is tight and well edited coming in at around 400 pages.  The novel gathers in the reader with a strong opening, the plot is well organized and believable, the ending a little abrupt.  I think DeMille fans will be pleased with this installment in the John Corey series and no doubt staying up late to finish this thriller.