Friday, June 28, 2019

The Dragon Reborn

The Dragon Reborn
by Robert Jordan
Recommended Ages: 13+

This review of the third book in the "Wheel of Time" cycle is based on listening to the audiobook read by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer. I'd like to start by giving them a hand for delivering superb vocal performances, each of them doing characters of both sexes distinguished only by who the point-of-view character was in a given chapter and, in a few cases, by their pronunciation of the names of persons, places and magical objects.

Way back in The Eye of the World, a group of young friends left the town of Emond's Field in the semi-autonomous region of Two Rivers and discovered a much larger world, a world torn by conflict, aswirl in magic, threatened by cosmic evil and full of strange cultures, competing agendas and dangers worse than death. In spite of all the books being rather thick and this being the third one, they don't really get very far in their overarching adventure; it's pretty much just one leg of a larger journey. This may be the besetting flaw of this series, and one that I have heard some readers comment on, to the tune of "it just gets worse and worse." Still, I can't complain about the entertainment it provided during a couple of long road trips – definitely a situation in which a too-long-by-half, flagrantly unabridged novel is most welcome.

During this installment, our original Emond's Fielder friends and their close allies find themselves split into approximately four parties, only to meet again at the very end. Everything in the book seems to lead toward that reunion, but their relationships will never be the same. In Unit 1, as I'll call it for now, are three novices of an order of female magic who are on a mission to recover magical talismans stolen by a group within their order that has been secretly serving the Dark One. The Black Ajah, if you'll forgive my likely misspelling – going the audio route does make it hard to name names in a review – is practically taboo to speak of, and most Aes Sedai are conditioned to deny that it even exists; but the three young women have seen more evidence of it than anyone, and now they have to put everything on the line to keep the Black Ajah from accomplishing a dark ritual and making the return of Ba'alzamon even more imminent than it already is. Meantime, Unit 2 includes a sometime blacksmith's apprentice named Perrin, who is starting to identify, more closely than he likes, with wolves. Perrin and his companions are in pursuit of Unit 3, Rand al'Thor, who has now all but publicly revealed himself to be the Dragon Reborn, i.e. the reincarnation of a guy who centuries ago broke the world and was driven mad by the male principle of magic. Finally, there's Unit 4, light-fingered Mat, who barely recovers from being poisoned by a cursed blade, just in time to join a minstrel who was previously thought dead and now exhibits freakish amounts of luck in addition to his skill with a quarterstaff.

The three male friends, at least, are all ta'veren – people whose actions have a greater than average pull on the strings of fate whose weaving will shape their age. The girls, including a bonus initiate who happens to be a royal princess, also have incredible power, if only they'll allow someone to teach them how to control it. The trouble with these kids, and perhaps what makes them so appealing to today's reader, is that they're more exactly like people in the world we know than the heroes of most sword-and-sorcery adventures. They are so self-absorbed, stubborn, flawed in their motives, resistant to being guided or ruled over, that they get in their own way and create more trouble for themselves than the initial state requires – and that's bad enough. The world seems to be about to come apart. Ba'alzamon's disciples are breaking loose from the seals that have protected the world from them for so long, and once all the seals are gone, the Heart of the Dark himself will return. Even dreams aren't safe any more. And the Black Ajah are only one of many groups that would happily stick Rand's head on a pike. But in its gradual, scattershot way – dropping a thread here or there – this book does perceptibly move the storyline ahead toward the conclusion of its (gulp) 14-book arc, authored toward the end by Brandon Sanderson.

Next on deck is book 4, The Shadow Rising. I'll have to plan ahead and request the audiobook from my regional library system in time for my next big road trip. Till then, for now at least, I'm still interested in where the weaving leads from here.

Tripwire

Tripwire
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this third of 24 Jack Reacher novels, the ex-military modern-day knight errant faces a challenge to everything that defines him as a pop culture icon. First, he's the guy who never settles down anywhere, more than content to move on down the road every couple of days, carrying nothing but the clothes on his back (which, when they're filthy enough to stand up in, he'll throw away and put on a fresh outfit). Now, someone offers him a place to call his own, to settle down and be a homebody. Second, Mr. Love Them for a Few Days and Leave Them Without Looking Back gets a chance to start something lasting with the love of his life. And third, from the beginning of this book to the end – though he's the last person to realize it – the guy who has always been tougher and more dangerous than anyone who goes up against him is on a collision course with a bastard of epic proportions. The guy calls himself Hook Hobie, and he has an office in one of New York's Twin Towers (this was before you-know-what), and he has vast resources, a diabolically brilliant criminal mind, a complete lack of conscience and a set of short-term goals that include destroying Reacher and the woman he loves, even before they know he exists.

Reacher finds himself on the case after a private detective traces him to the Florida Keys and gets knifed to death for his trouble. Tracing the trace back to its source leads him to the funeral of his Army mentor and commanding officer, who died trying to give a pair of grieving Gold Star parents closure about a son who never came back from Vietnam. It also leads him to Jodie, the old soldier's daughter, who had a mutual attraction with Reacher 15 years ago and who now convinces him to finish what her father started. Unbeknownst to them, however, their line of inquiry has set off a trip wire of sorts, alerting Hobie that his edifice of lies and murder is about to tumble down. Hobie just hopes he can finish one last, deadly scheme before he has to run for it – and that means adding Reacher and Jodie to his list of victims.

For those joining the series late (among whom I count myself), this is a super-violent type of thriller that probably hews closer to the conventions of spy fiction than mystery. To be sure, Reacher is going to kill anyone who seriously threatens him without hesitation or remorse. However, he's also going to try to find stuff out – disturbing stuff dating back to the confusing and devastating era of the Vietnam war – stuff that will blow his mind as surely as he's going to bust some heads. Maybe what he finds out will give peace of mind to an elderly couple. Maybe it will put a spoke through the wheel of a crooked soldier of fortune. Maybe it will be on time to save Jodie and a few other relatively blameless people – including one Manhattan socialite who seriously qualifies as a hero in this book by herself. But until you find out whether he does, or what he does, you'll be in the grip of fear and excitement for page after page, inch after inch. And whatever happens, there's no way his itinerary (see the U.S.A., with or without a Chevrolet) will be unaltered at the end.

The next book in the sequence, which I'm already reading, is alternately titled either Running Blind or The Visitor. Lee Child, a British transplant to New York, most recently released the 23rd book in this series, Past Tense, and is scheduled to put out number 24, Blue Moon, in October 2019.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Cruel Limerick

Our tongue's spelling rules beget laughter,
But weeping will follow soon aughter.
Correctly to draught
Is a treacherous craught,
To which children are led as to slaughter.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Dogs, Cats, Aliens & Robots

The Secret Life of Pets 2 – This is a sequel to an animated film I never saw, and though I enjoyed it, I don't plan to go back and see the original. I'm all about moving forward, you know. An Illumination/Universal Pictures animated feature, it capitalizes on the voice talent of Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, and Harrison Ford to depict an eccentric cast of cats, dogs, and a bunny having adventures in the big city as well as (in a fish-out-water side plot) down on the farm.

Hero dog Max (a Jack Russell terrier) struggles to accept that the little boy in his family, whom he is sworn to protect, is about to start school. Then he finds out about country life and has to accept an entirely new level of risk. Meanwhile, back in town, the other pets in the apartment building get involved in a caper to save an abused tiger from a cruel circus trainer and his pack of hench-wolves.

It's full of cuteness, comedy that mostly works, and some exciting action sequences, including a car-train chase assisted by the ultimate crazy cat lady. Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Rooster, the old sheepdog, forces Max to save a sheep from falling off a cliff. (2) Gidget, a perky Pomeranian, has to impersonate a cat to infiltrate crazy cat lady's apartment and rescue Max's favorite toy. (3) The climactic battle on the train in which Max heroes up against the evil Sergei and his pet monkey.

Men In Black International – The MiB mythology moves on without Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. With a globe-trotting mission based at the secret E.T.-policing agency's London office, it features Ray-Ban wearing Agents named mostly after letters of the alphabet, played by the reassuring Emma Thompson, the intimidating Liam Neeson, the always punchable Rafe Spall, the studly but also punchable Chris Hemsworth, the beautiful but weird Rebecca Ferguson (OK, she's a crook, not an Agent) and no-nonsense point-of-view player Tessa Thompson. It has terrifying twins who seem to have been ripped off from the Matrix trilogy, a tiny comic relief alien voiced by the guy from The Big Sick, and a bunch of stuff about opening a rip in space to let in bad things from beyond the stars. I'm not saying it wasn't a fun movie to watch, but I think the last time this franchise made an indelible mark on movie culture was Movie 1.

I've actually let this review go too long to remember a lot of the details, but the passage of time has boiled it down to the Three Things That Made It For Me: (1) The cute little baby alien whose first words, spoken to the girl who saved him from being scrobbled upon arrival on Earth, translate roughly (we find out much later) to "I'll kill whoever you want." (2) The realization that Agent H (as in Hemsworth) has been neuralized, conveniently explaining his recent erratic behavior. (3) The weird battle in the street with the twin aliens, seemingly defying the laws of spacetime.

Lost in Space, Season 1 – This review is about a DVD of the Netflix original series, not the 1960s TV show – although Bill Mumy (the original Will Robinson) makes a cameo appearance early in the series and gamely tries to get the cast and crew hip to the original-series catch phrase "Oh, the pain" in some special features. The main act, however, is a terrifically written, produced and acted arc of serialized sci-fi storytelling, featuring a boy, his robot, his interplanetary colonist parents and siblings (who have gotten separated from their space caravan and land on the wrong planet), a cunning and manipulative outlaw who calls herself(!) Dr. Smith, a hotshot pilot who ends up being one of the Robinson girls' main squeeze, and a pet chicken – apparently because none of the chimps who tried out for the role had the bird's charisma.

The family drama is solid. The alien environment, creatures, gizmos and space itself are very convincing. The storylines are fraught with tension and emotional power. The suspense achieves heretofore unrecorded levels as the Robinson family ekes out a narrower and narrow margin of survival at every turn. What doesn't happen to these poor folks? One of the girls gets trapped in ice. The other girl is stalked by blind, apex predators in their home cave – sort of like "A Quiet Place," only full of fossilized poop. The parents get sucked into a tar pit. The boyfriend is inside a space ship when it falls off a cliff. The dad and the boyfriend are in a rocket that explodes in takeoff. A weather balloon tries to drag the mom off a cliff. And poor Will, realizing that the robot who listens to nobody but him is a danger to others, has to order his best friend to walk off a cliff. Seriously, this world has too many cliffs. Something should be done.

Toby Stephens and Molly Parker headline an excellent cast as the Robinson parents. Parker Posey, playing the heavy, is surprisingly effective. If these three needed to carry the whole show on their talent, they could. But they don't have to. Cheers to the people who put this cast together and gave them the material to create excellent TV.

For now, however, all I can do is tell you about the Three Things That Made It For Me – in the case of this spectacular series, a difficult choice. (1) Mom to Dad (as his two-man rocket is preparing to lift off): I love you. Dad: I love you. Hotshot pilot: I love you, too. (2) Younger daughter tells her first boyfriend that she doesn't think they should see each other again – after he's betrayed her and her family multiple times. I couldn't help yelling, "Good girl!" (3) Hotshot pilot: No. Older daughter: *puppy dog eyes* HP: No. OD: *puppy dog eyes* HP: No, no, no, no, no. OD: *full blast puppy dog eyes* HP: Dammit! OK, so Will Robinson and his robot aren't in any of my top 3, but they're a pretty good piece of a very good show that I fully intend to watch in future seasons.

Broken Ice

Broken Ice
by Matt Goldman
Recommended Ages: 14+

I actually met Matt Goldman in person, at an author fest in the town where I write for the newspaper. I had a little chat with him, quoted him in my story, and got him to autograph a copy of this book – the sequel to Gone to Dust and, with the recent publication of The Shallows, the second of three Nils Shapiro mysteries. It was neat to get to meet an author whose work I have enjoyed, and even ask him questions like "Is Nils you?" (He said no, but Nils has a lot of his attitude and his way of thinking about things.) But an even bigger payoff was getting another Minnesota-based mystery involving the wisecracking, lonely, Nordic/Jewish private detective whose dialogue comes from the mind of an Emmy-winning sitcom writer.

Since the previous novel, ex-Minneapolis cop Nils has joined his suburban police buddy Anders "Ellie" Ellegaard to start a P.I. firm. Soon after a couple from the remote town of Warroad hires them to find their missing daughter amid the madness of the state high school basketball championship, another girl from the same school is found dead in a cave under downtown St. Paul. That something could happen to two girls from the same small town at the same time seems unlikely to be a coincidence. Nils is especially convinced of this when he goes to look at the second girl's body and gets hit in the shoulder by an arrow. A couple more bodies drop – shot by identical arrows – making the connection even harder to miss. The deeper he is drawn into the mystery, the crazier it becomes – and the more danger Nils finds himself in.

One takeaway from this novel, still lingering in the back of my mind as I write this way too long after reading it, is a depressing reflection on the way today's parenting styles and other current influences on kids' character development seem to promote the growth of young sociopaths. Case in point: Linnea Engstrom, a teenager who blithely sows tragedy in the lives around her, and who (up to a point) doesn't seem concerned about the consequences of her choices. Nils feels concerned, though, absorbing a lot of sorrow and guilt while he solves the crime (or rather, crimes) with only grudging cooperation from law enforcement, takes a physical and emotional beating, and sees all his personal relationships tested to their breaking point. It's as if he takes on the hurt that other people should feel about the wrongs in his world.

I like Nils. I like his smart mouth and his swift mind. I feel for his tortured soul. And though sometimes I thought the energy level of this book dropped a little compared to his first outing, it left me hopeful that I had my hands on the second book of an enduring and worthwhile detective series.

In my chat with Goldman, he said he has fallen in love with the book world and has other novels in progress, including (I think) a couple that are all written but aren't published yet. I believe one of these will turn out to be another Nils Goldman novel, which is good news to me. His blend of humor, danger and intrigue, combined with his evident love of Minnesota rediscovered after spending years away – a development I am experiencing in parallel – make them seem like a gift to me personally. His books are not just good entertainment. They have an intelligence and emotional insight that deepens the pleasure of reading them.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Even

Even
by Andrew Grant
Recommended Ages: 14+

David Trevellyan is minding his own business, to the extent that can ever be said about a Royal Navy intelligence agent on assignment in New York City. He has just finished a job, dined alone and started walking back to his hotel when he spots a dead hobo lying in a pile of garbage. No sooner does he observe that the hobo has been executed by a professional than the police show up and arrest Trevellyan for the crime. They have an anonymous tipster's voice describing him as the guy who done it. Their case is so solid, the English consulate sends a colleague to tell him he's been disavowed. Then FBI agents show up, accusing him of killing five real hobos, besides the fake hobo he found, who is actually an FBI agent. Awkward.

If it seems a bit like the opening act of a Jack Reacher novel, you'll have spotted a family resemblence about which more will be said later. But although Trevellyan is a big, hard, highly capable guy somewhat lacking in teamwork skills (to say nothing of empathy for other people), he is also part of a bigger organization and he spends the better part of this book working alongside the FBI to solve an increasingly alarming series of crimes. At first, it seems like it's just a matter of gangsters hanging fake IDs on dead bums as part of a Social Security scam. Then a link emerges between the victims and a private security company that guards a hospital in post-war Iraq. But finally it proves ever so much bigger than a cover-up for some medical jiggery-pokery.

A team player he is not. In this fast-breaking case, however, it pays to be the guy who charges recklessly forward, rather than dotting all the Is and crossing all the Ts FBI-fashion while the evidence disappears and the bad guys get away. On the other hand, hewing to the naval tradition of "Never mind the maneuvers, just go straight at them" (plausibly if fictionally attributed to Horatio Nelson) has its risky side. Like dealing with a female psychopath who literally castrates any man who disappoints her. Like questioning a suspect whose goons are ordered to kill you if you refuse to be bribed. Like having to choose between stopping a weapon of mass destruction and saving someone you care about, because you can't do both at the same time. At least, if you're a man like Trevellyan, there's always the consolation of getting even.

Part spy thriller, part mystery procedural in which the protagonist blows up all the procedures, part case study of the making of an international action hero – especially during the thematic vignettes that head each chapter – this is a gripping, keep-you-guessing piece of entertainment with a hard-to-forget character at the center. Some of his memories of naval intelligence training and prior assignments would be entertaining enough without the main event, for which they are meant to serve as instructive examples. I especially got a kick out of the bit about an office in France where everybody was obsessed with milk. But there's a kick of another kind at the end of the book – a weapon's recoil – which leaves us free to imagine exactly what Trevellyan will do next. It's one of the tightest, toughest, most disturbing and most daring book endings in my recollection.

This is the first of three David Trevellyan spy thrillers by a British author who happens to be the younger brother of Lee Child. Not to be confused with a New Zealand-based author who goes by the same name, this particular Grant is also the author of three Cooper Devereaux novels (False Positive, False Friend and False Witness), the standalone novel Run, and the Paul McGrath novels Invisible and Too Close to Home. The sequels to this book are titled Die Twice and More Harm Than Good.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Third Gate

The Third Gate
by Lincoln Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this third novel featuring history prof and "enigmalogist" Dr. Jeremy Logan, the sometime co-author with Douglas Preston of the Agent Pendergast series takes us to one of the most haunting, and possibly haunted, places on earth: an inhospitable swamp called the Sudd at the headwaters of the Nile, where – a certain adventurer named Peter Stone believes – the greatest archaeological treasure in history lies beneath 35 feet of sucking mud and rotting vegetation. If Stone is right, it's the authentic burial site of the first pharaoh to unite the two Egypts, Narmer (3100-3050 B.C.). His tomb may even contain the original double crown, which has been depicted in lots of tomb paintings but never actually recovered.

On the downside – and this is where Jeremy comes in – Narmer's tomb sports one of the nastiest curses ever recorded. They haven't even found it yet, and weird things are already happening. It's a job made for the guy who specializes in getting to know the unknown. But this time, a rational, scientific explanation may not be possible. Logan, who apart from everything else is a sensitive empath, is picking up on an evil presence. A woman whose near death experience broke all previous records is starting to channel an angry spirit. And the little accidents that happen whenever a few people are packed into an isolated facility are getting bigger. And less accidental.

Paranormal creepiness seems to be the order of the day, any day you're reading a book authored (or co-authored) by Lincoln Child. When I first started reading his books, in alternation with Lee Child's Jack Reacher series, I worried about confusing them. I now laugh at that concern. Once you get to know them, you'll laugh, too. But quietly, lest whatever hobgoblin dwells in the nearest eldritch pit should hear and turn its evil thoughts your way. Did I just make you shiver? No? Well, I don't pretend to be a Lincoln Child, who can make you wonder whether a hero in his third adventure will survive, even when you've already read his fourth and fifth. (I'm also, as I've admitted before, bad at reading series of books in order.) Read this book all through the night, if you want to. Just keep the lights on.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Aladdin and The 15:17 to Paris

Aladdin – REVIEW IN PROGRESS!






















The 15:17 to Paris – REVIEW IN PROGRESS!!

Walking Shadows

Walking Shadows
by Faye Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

I might as well face it. I'm terrible at reading series of books in order. I skipped straight from The Ritual Bath, the first Decker/Lazarus novel, to this 25th and latest installment – mainly because the paperback was available. Meanwhile, I put in a request at the library for Book 2, Sacred and Profane, so I can get back to canon order again.

When I previously looked in on Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, he was an LAPD detective, and divorced father of a teenage girl, investigating serial rapes and the occasional murder; she was a fetching young mother of two small boys, a widow who ran a mikvah (ritual bath) at a yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish community). At the end of that book, it wasn't certain that he, a lapsed Baptist, had any chance of winning over her, a very religious Jew. But there was a gleam of hope.

Obviously, that hope was realized, because Book 25 finds them married, sorta-halfway retired in the upstate college town of Greenbury, N.Y. Their nest is empty, unless you count a junior detective with the Greenbury P.D. named Tyler McAdams, who has kind of adopted them and takes every opportunity to invite himself over for dinner. Apparently, this arrangement has been going on for a couple of books, because the Deckers have a bit of history in Greenbury by now. In the grand tradition of "trouble finds him," the veteran homicide cop finds himself dealing with one homicide after another in a town that never had that kind of trouble before.

This year's crop of murder starts with a young man from the neighboring, mostly blue-collar town of Hamilton turning up with his skull bashed in just over the Greenbury side of the town line. It hardly seems possible that Brady Neil's death could be unconnected to his father's conviction for the murder of a wealthy Hamilton couple – though the dad, Brandon Gratz, is still safely locked up. Twenty years ago, the Hamilton PD seemingly did a good job catching him and his accomplice. Now, the very fact that Decker is looking into the case puts a lot of backs up – and, quite possibly, puts another killer on the warpath.

The result is a convulted mystery in which the integrity of an entire police department comes under scrutiny. Multiple people suffer gruesome deaths. A young cop has her grit tested. A bombing, a hostage situation and some close-quarters combat ensue. I don't mean to spoil anything, but the reader should be prepared for the rather unusual possibility that this time, Peter Decker may not get his man. He'll solve the mystery, sure, but like reality, it won't be neat.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Bone Collector

The Bone Collector
by Jeffery Deaver
Recommended Ages: 14+

Lincoln Rhyme’s career heading the NYPD’s forensic science unit ended three years ago when an accident at a crime scene rendered him paralyzed from the shoulders down, except for his left ring finger. He’s pretty much decided to kill himself, if he can find a doctor to help him do it, when a series of kidnappings and murders perks him up. Being needed by the New York Police Department can do that, I guess.

Amelia Sachs is a 30-something uniform cop who discovers a dead body on her last day of patrol duty before transferring to the department’s public affairs office. Supermodel gorgeous, afflicted with arthritis and a few self-destructive habits like fingernail chewing, and still emotionally hollow after losing her undercover vice cop lover in a worse way than being killed in the line of duty, Sachs resents being pulled into Rhymes’ investigation. But he needs someone to be his eyes, ears, hands and feet at the crime scenes – someone unburdened by the preconceptions of an experienced criminalist.

Besides putting a fresh twist on the “race to catch a serial killer” storyline, this book really shines in the scenes set in the ad hoc evidence lab set up in Rhymes’ bedroom, where he watches what the tech is doing on a computer screen and yells out orders, observations and deductions. It’s a high-pressure, fast-paced case that can only be solved by the rapid interpretation of clues left, mostly on purpose, by a monstrous nutcase with a fixation on the history of crime in New York City. And even though anyone familiar with the genre will mentally add the word “of course” when I say that the battle of wits builds to a climax in which Rhyme faces terrifying personal danger, exactly where that danger comes from is guaranteed to surprise.

Amped up with a range of vividly described horrors, tinged with character conflict between a crime solving duo here matched for the first of many mysteries, torqued by psychological perversion, and sporting at least one spectacular red herring, it’s an unputdownable first outing for a serial sleuth who, all by himself, is sufficiently brilliant and original to make readers want more. So, you’ll be happy to know, this is the first of 14 Lincoln Rhyme mysteries and the basis of a 1999 movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. I have previously read the only 12th, The Steel Kiss. The latest installment is titled The Cutting Edge.

Deaver also co-wrote with John Sandford the cleverly titled crossover novella Rhymes with Prey, as well as three Rune thrillers, three John Pelham novels (under the pseudonym William Jefferies), four Katherine Dance novels, several short story collections and novellas, and the standalone novels Voodoo, Always a Thief, Mistress of Justice, The Lesson of Her Death, Praying for Sleep, A Maiden's Grave, Speaking in Tongues, The Devil's Teardrop, The Blue Nowhere, Garden of Beasts, The Bodies Left Behind, Edge, The October List and The Never Game.