This is a exanguination of Tinker, Tailor. It co-opts the media and is the first novel to swim among the Chinese client states of Laos and the shadow state of Hong Kong.
The production quality and voice is horrible. Edward R. Murrow's tremulous nicotine and tar baritone, accompanied by the kettle drums of Heinkels and snare of crumbling slate and brick was clearer
Christ, this sucks.
I've listened to or read the previous books. I bought this the moment I saw it. That's the power of Dean Koontz's sweet, resilient hero.
But now, five books in, the cloying mythology, the 1950s television mores, the Mysterious Character Who Will Not Answer The Damn Question are tiresome. Koontz has not written a snuggie, he's written a straightjacket.
We get to the point dozens of chapters (and in some cases two books) before Odd Thomas does, and this is effective for a while. Koontz makes us a spectral companion with Odd, as if we were Elvis or Sinatra. Like his ghosts, we cringe when Odd makes mistakes, and when he hasn't quite put two things together, and all we can do is wave our arms since he's deaf to us. It's a classic technique, and Koontz does it very well.
And Odd does not curse. His characters may, but he does not. He is unfailingly polite yet ruthless when required. But his Oddness seems more an affectation, and I imagine Koontz performing the "Odd Character Trait Edit" on the novel to spackle in expected adorableness. This helps turn the last act of every Odd novel into The Ransom of Red Chief. And I admit that by not accepting Odd--kumbaya--for what he is I am on the losing side.
But there is a living character who can answer questions, who does answer questions, but she responds in the unique language of the hack writer: koan and gibberish, all while denying her answers are rhetorical questions. Koontz brilliantly turns this around. Her character pushes Odd to ask more questions, but here Odd is scared--the only time Odd is truly fearful. But this, too, is snuggie into straightjacket.
Set in a cross between the Winchester House and San Simeon, the inanimate objects surprise us more than the characters. Until we reach the heart of the novel, and Koontz opens doors into evergreen evil.
This is the fifth of seven Odd Thomas books, and there are two crossing arcs in this novel. The first is towards the seemingly predictable end of the seventh novel; if there were any more foreshadowing I would need a miner's helmet. The second arc is towards film. This book smirks at the film business in Odd's new companion, and by being set in the Xanadu of a long-forgotten Hollywood mogul. Perhaps Koontz builds these bridges so reviewers can remind reader that the Odd Thomas movie arrives in 2013.
I recommend this book, for all its faults and visible clockwork because Odd is a sweet guy, and I wish him happiness. I just wish he could find it in fewer than seven books.
David Aaron Baker, at 49, plays Odd, aged 20 or so, very well. He captures the sweetness, but also the duty and burden forced on this young man. Baker does women well, but his older men are played from the mouth not the heart--there is no depth in their vocal characterization.
This is an intellectually weak, self-indulgent book.
In his boyish Audible introduction, Sawyer tells us this is his first venture into the thriller since TV poured money into his garage for "Flash Forward".I
He treats the thriller reader with disdain, twisting and turning the workings of the United States government. We expect character compression--a single FBI agent, not three or four, but we do not expect a single Secret Service Agent to stand in for almost the entire Justice Department and Homeland Security. After the destruction of Independence Hall, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Sears Tower, the President and the Secretary of Defense decide to (and this is the MacGuffin) murder 107 million Pakistanis to defeat Islamo-Fascism*, and the Congress and military leaders are never mentioned. The head of the Secret Service and two of his minions convert to Islam for money and Heaven and conspire to assassinate the President, presumably finally swayed through Imam Voldemort's Imperio curse.
Sawyer ignores democratic safeguards to make his point: we could achieve peace if we just understood each other. While I do not expect a wonkish recapitulation of "The West Wing", I do expect, given his needless diversion to LA to give a cameo to an actor friend on the set of his fictional White House drama "Inside the Beltway", some recognition that we do not make decisions in a vacuum. (Many Presidential Libraries have an Oval Office; all are closer than LA.)
But for this book to tell its simplistic tale, Sawyer needs the contrast of every-man-is-an-island to the tapioca utopia of his group mind. He cannot show successful cooperative systems or else risk undercutting a variant on The Shared Moment from Dan Simmon's Hyperion Cantos. And if you do not know those works, you should. They are the books you should give those who hate science fiction. Simmon's books lightly twine Keats, Chaucer and Mark Twain in one of the greatest science fiction epics. Stop. Find Dan Simmons now.
But back to this thing.
Sawyer simplifies interactions and erases milennia of social contract--even in its admitedly flawed American model--to make his slushy ill-thought naive conclusion: if we knew each other as we know ourselves, everything would be fine.
Sawyer wants us to surrender ourselves to a group mind and the tyranny of the majority. He ends in the Galapagos and quotes Darwin but ignores the implications of redundancy, of evil, of madness, of faith, hoping that a compassionate Intelligent Evolution will mitigate the brutality of natural selection.
Sawyer is a Canadian, and in a slurry of factoids chooses to tell us that the man who created Superman is Canadian but not that among the treasures lost in the White House immolation is Teddy Roosevelt's Nobel Peace Prize or the desk where Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. America is a flawed and riven country, dating to the Articles of Confedration, always trying to be better, but Sawyer ignores this. Americans must be monochromatic for this story to work. There is not a single difficult decision in this book, and that makes it anti-American.
Nor is the book well-written. We open with a presidential speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial rallying the American people after attacks across the country. It is a bold move, and demands crisp rhetoric, but it fails in mushy simple phrases that echo a high school commencement speech. He evokes Gettysburg but Sawyer's cadences stumble, and the metaphors are weak.
I first heard Jeff Woodman in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close". He does well here, particularly in the role of a Sikh doctor. It is a voice that could easily slide into parody. Other voices echo Sarah Palin, a female Forest Gump and the Kennedy quaver. Here he is equal to the material.
* The Secretary of Defense convinces the President to murder millions by using the bizarre analogy that the United States used the atomic bombs to retaliate for a few thousand dead at Pearl Harbor. No. Dropping the Bomb was a complex and much debated decision and even now is a Rorschach test in American policy. But making it a complex nuanced decision erodes Sawyer's argument for the shared mind utopia.
These eight stories are a good companion for a long drive. They make you grateful for a full tank of gas, a bottle of water and a cell phone with a least a single bar.
"The Sagebrush Kid" is a sad, sweet tale of childless parents. "Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl" chronicles an ancient Indian tribe whose future relies on slaughtering a herd of bison. "I've Always Loved This Place" and "Swamp Mischief" are satirical pieces set in Hell. The remaining four stories are family tales, ranging from the days before statehood to the present. They are stories of loss, coping, continuity, legacy and erasure which anchor the others.
This is not a loose collection swept together by an author looking for a quick buck. “Fine, Just the Way It Is” is about the land, not the people. Even the Devil can’t homestead in Wyoming.
* * *
Will Patton, as usual, is terrific. My only fault with the collection is the lack of a pause between the stories. They just run up on each other. The effect of a half page of white space at the end of a story is not rendered, and that's a flaw in the production.
* * *
The novella begins and ends with cries to others, in between Robert Granier is usually alone in the Pacific Northwest.
Why four and not five? A few word choices took me out of Robert Grainer's introspection, during shifts between descriptions of the valley and Granier’s thoughts, and the narrative leaps were jarring at times.
Will Patton does an excellent job. His voice is weary, optimistic, intelligent, detached. But this is a laconic open man, and while the characterizations are distinctive, Patton’s voice is better suited for Saigon (“Tree of Smoke”), New Orleans (James Lee Burke) or Manhattan (“Cosmopolis”).
(Train Dreams was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. For the first time since the 1970s, there was no award for Fiction.)
A complaint: the cover is a desaturated Thomas Hart Benton-like scene, a race between horse and Iron Horse across the dull lumpy prairie. It is misleading. The train dreams are not those of man against machine; this is not John Henry. I interpreted the title as a command: train your dreams.
“ ... with the breakdown of the medieval system, the gods of chaos, lunacy, and bad taste gained ascendancy.”
- Ignatius J. Reilly
The story of the book and its place in the American canon is well-known. Ignatius J. Reilly is a man of New Orleans and the 13th century. He has been called Don Quixote, but he is the windmill, leaving chaos in a swath larger than his blubbery odious arms.
Two of the books characters are New Orleans and the New Orleans accent. It is the New Orleans of the 1960s, where one twisted wires until the television resolved itself into only two ghostly images, where nickels and dimes could buy things, and when pornography rhymed with photography.
The introduction is by another son of New Orleans, Walker Percy, who tells the story of the novel's publication and praises the authentic dialogue and the portrayal of a black man in the 1960s as a man instead of a charcoal caricature.
Toole's prefaces the novel with a quote from A J Liebling, the great New Yorker contributor, journalist and war reporter. Liebling cites the New Orleans accent--which is not antebellum julip tones but the clipped sounds of a working port, "closer to Hoboken".
Without the right performance, this book fails, and this performance is perfect, from the port city clip to the black man standing up to his racist employer to Ignatius's own blustery indignant quaver.
Alex Berenson is the best American spy novelist writing today. Richard North Patterson is a close second. Daniel Silva now creates automata. Oleg Steinhauer has yet to prove himself. Alan Furst is trapped in the fading sepia of the Second World War. David Ignatius keeps spinning on the Washington Merry-Go-Round.
(Any British spy novelist nukes the Americans from orbit, so I will ignore them.)
Point is: Berenson moves the internal conflict past the expected--alcoholism, divorce, The Botched Mission, to a crisis of faith: John Wells is a Muslim, and this brilliantly reflects our own unease and mistrust. Islam is more than teachings, it is encompassing, a way of living your life, and Wells must balance his belief with every action.
The second front is against al-Qaeda. Wells risks exposure and death as he fights the terrorists in the United States.
The last front is among his CIA superiors. It is disheartening but not surprising to think that Berenson's characters are based in truth. They are deeply, and rightly, suspicious of a CIA officer who spent years with al-Qaeda but was unable to provide knowledge of 9/11, but they are unable to relent once Wells proves himself.
This is the most nuanced and well-drawn of the John Wells novels. By the latest, there is dering-do and his superiors have apps on their iPad for Plot Complication and Snide Jerk. Still. Berenson writes thoughtful books, and I recommend him.
This was the first John Wells novel; there are now five.
There are points in New Orleans where you can look out across the water--not from a pier--but almost at eye level, where you realize you are vulnerable, and the Mississippi chop cuts across your vision like fins.
This is Dave Robicheaux's New Orleans. Pressure internal and external. Robicheaux weaves past the tourists and sticky pavement of Bourbon Street into the heart of New Orleans, the back rooms, clubs and places where you can get a good shrimp po boy and Coca-Cola. Robicheaux is a Vietnam vet and recovering alcoholic and police detective who navigates the brutality, cynicism and corruption to find peace in the guise of justice.
The deciding factor on my purchase of this book was Will Patton. Patton has a clear steady genuine tenor that can, in a moment, change from older brother to captor, and he has the rare ability to perform women's roles without sounding like a drag queen.
Written in 1987, this was the first Dave Robicheaux novel; there are now nineteen.
Ward Just is one of the great American writers. His reporting in Vietnam stands with Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin as some of the sharpest war reporting.
Later in his career, Just turned towards political thrillers, but "The Weather in Berlin", despite it's Len Deighton-like title is the story of a Hollywood player past his prime, a museum piece who is suffocating in his glass display case.
When a German institution invites him to teach, and relive his greatest success--a scandal-laden masterpiece of cinema made in Germany decades-ago--he accepts. The trip renews friendships and scandals and allows him a rare second chance.
Just manages to paint his characters in vibrant HD digital color, in the black and silver of 35mm and the sun-softened pallet of memory and the independent film of the 70s. I admired the writing, and the characters, but as someone in his 40s, this book came too soon in my life, and I was left with, mercifully, an intellectual understanding and not a shared experience for this older man.
Soli writes with passion, not merely of what we expect--red dirt and thick canopied jungle and the Casablanca-seediness of a French province in decay--but of the quiet moments that bonded a love triangle.
The war weary photographer, running his foot along the edge of the precipice is a familiar one, but he is joined by a colleague and lover. There is a third member of the triangle. It is not the estranged wife bottled up in a ranch-style house in the US--although she does appear--but the Vietnamese 'native guide' who respects him, loves her, and is torn by the Vietnamese civil war.
Soli, like her characters, is best when away from the war, protecting what is left. There is a scene in Cambodia's Angor Wat where the great trees are breaking the stone temples apart as if they were fresh bread, and again in the spidery capillaries of the Mekong, on a small sacred island, where the Buddhist dead replenish the soil and nurture orchids.
The performance is good, with a touch of Kathleen Turner's weary sultry voice, which, unfortunately, reflects the prose as both the writing and voice crackle with static in the more passionate moments.
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