Book review: The Valley soars

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Atmospheric war noir

In Afghanistan, Lieutenant Black is dispatched from the relatively secure and administrative environment of Forward Operating Base Omaha to investigate a complaint at Combat Outpost Vega up the valley to the north.  The Valley (published in 2015) is basically a detective novel in a war zone, or combat noir.

What Black investigates is an allegation that the infantry unit at Vega used excessive force in calming the villagers during a tense visit.  Nobody was killed or injured during the excessive force incident.  Black knows he will not get a friendly reception since he is basically a desk soldier being sent to interrogate soldiers who are spending every day fighting for their lives about a trivial incident.  But the reaction Black gets is more than chilly.  It is disrespectful, evasive, and venomous.  Through a painful series of interviews, a disastrous visit to the village, and glimpses of the commander’s personal possessions, Black becomes convinced that there is more than meets the eye at Vega.

Where The Valley soars is in its dark atmosphere, detailed military authenticity, and its careful ratcheting up of the tension surrounding the unknown mischief at Vega.  Black is not a conventional hero.  There’s a reason he’s been doomed to a desk job, although we’re not sure why.  He is cynical and almost friendless.  He appears to have a casual attitude about drugs, which is not impressive in an officer.  But the men he’s charged to investigate are even worse:  an insubordinate gang of sullen hotheads running Vega like a cross between Lord of the Flies and Kurtz’s station in Heart of Darkness.

Renehan manages to create true suspense and curiosity in the reader’s mind about what Black will uncover, and what will happen when he finds out the truth.  This makes The Valley worth the time to read.

The book also gives an on-the-ground flavor for being forward deployed in Afghanistan, which is essential to understand as an American, a taxpayer, and a voter 15 years into the war.  To be frank, it is amazing how little time and attention has been given by the news media and presidential candidates to discuss the vital subject of America’s involvement in Afghanistan.

A small, minor note:  it was tricky to keep mental track of the fictional COP Vega in relation to the village, the “Meadows,” the supply route, and the different observation points described in the book.  A one-page map in the front would have been helpful to understand what the characters had to go through to get from one point to another.

The first four-fifths of the book was great, but it became choppy and implausible toward the end.  It felt like the author, even at the end, didn’t want to come right out and say what happened, so we kept being fed crumbs and riddles.  That was annoying.  Don’t get me wrong, there is an explanation and conclusion, but it’s broken up across too many different scenes and characters throughout the final pages.  The ending is somewhat happy; for such a dark book with a cynical main character, that struck me as inconsistent.

But I would still highly recommend this book to anybody who likes thrillers, mysteries, crime, or military fiction.

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Book review: Blackout will keep you up late

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Blackout, a thriller by David Rosenfelt

This book really snuck up on me.  At first, I was put off by the prospect of a hero suffering from amnesia.  It sounded hokey and soapy.  I read this as part of a group read, and wouldn’t have selected it on my own, so I wasn’t expecting much.  But about halfway through, Blackout (published in 2016) really started growing on me.  The amnesia thing stopped being a contrivance, and set the stage for a clever and unique investigation.

New Jersey state police officer Doug Brock is investigating a white collar crime boss with potential ties to domestic Muslim terrorists.  Just as he’s about to crack the case, he’s shot and loses his memory from the past 10 years.  He has to retrace his steps with help from another police officer, Jessie, who is an ex-girlfriend doing computer forensics work for the department.  Using his GPS data, she is able to provide him with a list of locations he visited during his investigation.  The tricky thing is that he’s never sure why he went to most of the places, or who he talked to, or what they talked about.  They didn’t even want to talk to him the first time.  You can imagine how happy they are to see him a second time, being confronted by questions like, “What did I ask you about the last time I was here?”

“Is this a joke?” is a typical response he gets.  He handles it better as he runs into more situations like that.  “Hey, my partner wants to hear what we talked about last time from your own mouth.  Humor us.”  These scenes were very amusing.

Doug is rash and impulsive, repeating some of the same dangerous mistakes the second time around that he made during the initial investigation.  But this time he has Jessie working with him, and Nate, his old partner.

Time is of the essence in the case.  Doug can’t afford to wait on his memory coming back, which his doctors tell him may or may not come back at all.  Finding out how many risks he took to crack the case the first time, Doug realizes it must be important enough to take risks to solve again.

The relationship between Doug and Jessie is intentionally awkward since they started dating and broke up during the timespan of Doug’s missing memories.  The way they start getting back together didn’t quite work for me.  It seemed like Jessie was adamant about not getting back together, and then one night she seems to cave.  It was a little sudden and weird.

For me, the police investigation was the more interesting component.  Despite the GPS data, this is basically an old-fashioned, somewhat dark detective novel, which is a compliment.  Blackout is a short book with a built-in clock ticking toward the resolution.  I don’t usually stay up late to read anything, but as I came toward the end of this book I made an exception.

Book review: Elephant Company offers compelling details

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Cover of book about elephants in Burma in WWII and pre-war period

Marvelous.  For nonfiction, Vicki Croke has spun quite the yarn about Jim Williams (aka Bill Williams), elephant logging expert, and his life and times in the jungles of Burma.  Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II (published in 2014) reads almost like a novel.

In 1921, Williams signs on with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation as a forest assistant in the teak logging industry in Burma.  He supervises uzis who are the Burmese elephant handlers with multiple teams of elephants throughout his assigned territory.  He must contend with Harding, an older, grizzled Brit who likes giving newbies a hard time.  Williams is very sensitive to the needs of elephants and the Burmese people, often behaving more like biologist or sociologist than a corporate field manager.  He sets out to learn everything he can about elephants and their culture.  Eventually, Williams earns Harding’s respect.

Readers learn a great deal about working elephants in the process.  In Burma, the Asian elephant is domesticated up to a point—as somebody in the book suggests—domesticated for eight hours a day.  After working their shift, they go off to forage on their own and spend time with their elephant families.  In the morning they grudgingly report back to work, but seem to enjoy the cat-and-mouse relationship with their handlers.  We learn about elephant anatomy (for example, they can’t lie on their sides for long because of how their chest and lungs are configured), their habits (such as taking their time before river crossings until one female always steps forward to lead them across), but more importantly, their generosity of spirit, exhibited most vividly by Bandoola, the elephant hero of the book, who establishes a very close working relationship with Williams over the years, performing every logging and wartime assignment with enormous strength, responsiveness, and discernment.

Williams also meets a British woman, which isn’t an easy thing to do in the jungle, and they marry.  They are very compatible and both happy.  They experience hardships in the field, but like Williams, she is hale and hearty, and starts having children.

Then the war comes.  For those of you who are more interested in military history than in elephant husbandry, this book may not meet your expectations.  It takes a long time before this book gets to World War II.  When it comes, it is focused at first on the evacuation of women and children, which the elephants help with as pack animals.  The military wants to continue using elephants in that way, for hauling heavy loads during the war.  But Williams convinces them that elephants are smart enough that their skills be put to better use as master bridge builders.  That is the elephants’ primary contribution to the Allies in Burma during the war.  Do not read this book expecting a 20th century version of Hannibal’s elephant cavalry charge.  These are transport and engineering elephants, not cavalry elephants.

Croke’s respect for Williams, Bandoola, and elephants in general is evident throughout the book.  At a couple of points, the praise is laid on a bit thick, but it is difficult not come away with a similar respect for those depicted in the book.  For me, the highlight was the opportunity to learn about elephants and their interactions with humans in such fascinating detail.

Book Review: Night of the Crabs

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Paperback book cover of Guy N. Smith's Night of the Crabs

The cover of my paperback copy says “In the tradition of The Rats.”  But Guy N. Smith’s Night of the Crabs (1976) is a much better and tighter narrative adventure than the sleazy, booze-induced vignettes of Herbert’s Rats.

Cliff, a scientist, goes to the coast of Wales to investigate the disappearance of his nephew and his girlfriend, both strong swimmers.  While observing the coast, he is arrested by military personnel who think he is spying on them.  Eventually cleared, he is released.

He meets Pat, a young widow, who teams up with him to find out what is happening on the beach.  They discover that giant crabs are crawling out of the water at night, including the biggest and smartest among them, whom Cliff calls King Crab.  Battles follow, with the crabs seemingly impervious to conventional military power.  One wonders if there’s a light metaphor here for the British Army in the 1970s contending with Irish Republican Army terrorists, but this certainly doesn’t come across as a strongly political book or a novel with a social critique.

At any rate, Cliff proposes a plan to bomb the underwater cave system where they spend their days, which should trap them in a watery grave.  You should read it for yourself to find out what happens next.

The book is clever because it takes an animal, the crab, that isn’t scary, and turns it into a story that is.  Not horrifying in the sense of a Steven King horror novel, but scary in the sense of a good old-fashioned monster movie or a perfect campfire story to tell late at night after a clam bake.

While it probably was capitalizing on the success of Jaws (murky, underwater threat snatches innocent victims and their body parts) as much as it was on The Rats, it is not as credible as either.  It’s easier to imagine one deranged shark or an infestation of dangerous rats than it is to believe in the sudden surfacing of a group of giant, mutant, intelligent crabs.

But it still works.  Cliff and Pat aren’t particularly deep or complex, but they are likeable and worth cheering for.  They recognize the severity of the threat early on, and of course the community and the top brass of the military don’t take it seriously enough.  If you like that kind of story, you’ll love this.

Again, it’s a fun, tight little piece of fiction.  A short book, it’s readable in two or three sittings.

Book Review: Bone Labyrinth is over-the-top fun

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Bone Labyrinth

Congo meets Da Vinci Code.  Primate and human intelligence are explored against a backdrop of old Catholic secrets.  Throw in a larger than life team of heroes, stylish international travel, nail-biting firefights, nasty villains from China, and more narrow escapes than a Hardee Boys book, and you’ve got James Rollin’s Bone Labyrinth.

Bone Labyrinth alternates between an A-story and a B-story, each focused on one of two brilliant sisters separated by an ocean, and each accompanied by half of “Sigma Force,” an ultra-elite team of quasi-military-spy characters.

One sister, Maria, is the surrogate mother for Baako, a gorilla hybrid who is smarter than normal (and at least in the beginning, appears to be psychic as well).  Her love for Baako and his love for her proves that she is as tender and caring as she is brilliant.  Kowalski, a member of Sigma Force who knows sign language, is rough around the edges, but is able to communicate with Baako, thereby eventually earning love and respect from Baako and Maria.  They are all kidnapped for the secrets of Maria and Baako’s minds.

The other sister, Lena, has a knack for finding historical sites in Europe and South America that are easy to be trapped in by foreign assassins who are always right on her tail.  Thanks to Sigma’s Gray, who can see patterns when nobody else can, and his lover Seichan, who acts like Catwoman most of the time, Lena is protected as she finds one clue after another about the origins of human life, but not without almost being drowned or shot at every turn.

The alternating plotlines and groups of characters may not be for all tastes.  On one hand, the dichotomy keeps things moving along, creates cliffhangers, and prevents boredom with one topic or series of scenes.  On the other hand, it’s one tease after another.  Usually the switches result in delayed gratification, stretching out the resolution to whatever conflict the characters find themselves in, but there are some instances where the switching is just a tease without gratification.

Bone Labyrinth is an ambitious novel, offering the possibility of explaining the moment in evolution known as the Great Leap Forward, or explaining Adam and Eve, or both.  The book is like a treasure hunt, but the treasure is the understanding of human intelligence rather than material wealth.  By that measure, Bone Labyrinth doesn’t hit the bullseye, but at least it goes in the direction of the target.

It is a fun novel.  The characters all have their own back stories and very specific traits, and from that standpoint they are well developed.  They each have some weakness to balance out their enormous gifts and talents.  But I think even James Rollins would admit that they’re all a bit over the top.  I think it’s intentional, because it is kind of fun to watch these combat geniuses at work.

If you love thrillers, or loved reading adventures as a kid (I really wasn’t kidding about the Hardee Boys similarity), you will enjoy this book like I did.  Rollins’s ability to make science and history thrilling is impressive, but don’t expect it to be quite like a Michael Crichton book—ultimately Bone Labyrinth’s fun characters and rapid-fire action scenes are what animate this book, and science very important but somewhat secondary to that.