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.

Book Review: Cybersecurity for Everyone

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Cybersecurity for Everyone: Securing your home or small business network by Terence L. Sadler is an informative guide to securing your electronic devices at home.

One risk of writing or speaking about cybersecurity is that it can quickly devolve into “gloom and doom” that terrifies audiences, sends them away chilled, but results in no behavioral changes among computer users.  Sadler’s approach is different, focusing less on threats and more on preventative measures.

Cybersecurity for Everyone compares information security to safe sex:  the only guarantee against contracting an STD is abstinence, and the only guarantee against a compromise of your network is to not have a computer.  Since there are no guarantees on computers, the best we can do is use appropriate prophylactics and practice safe habits.

Sadler suggests starting with router security.  Until reading this book, I did not realize how vulnerable to intrusion typical residential routers can be, or that superior models and configurations are available.  One thing computer owners can do is to blacklist all electronic devices but their own, or expressly whitelist their own devices.  Sadler also suggests using a service like OpenDNS for home internet security.  A few suggestions in the book may go overboard, but I’m glad to know what the best practices are so I can make informed decisions, rather than mindlessly renewing my anti-virus protection every year and patting myself on the back for it.

The book is a pretty quick read, and it provides valuable context for understanding of cyber threats and safety measures.  It came out in late 2014, but is still fresh.  There are some tables and lists of resources that will probably become dated quickly or already have, but I mostly skipped over sections.  To me, the more important takeaway was the basic point that amping up your security at home is feasible and affordable without sacrificing performance.

As for the title, this book isn’t really “Cybersecurity for Everyone.”  It’s more like “Cybersecurity for Fairly Technically Literate People,” or “Cybersecurity for Whoever It Is in Your House That Installs Stuff.”  Much of it would sail over the heads of people who don’t already have some interest or knowledge of technology.  Furthermore, the subtitle of the book adds “or small business network,” but the tips within are truly geared toward a household, not to businesses.

Book review: The Looters is an overlooked gem

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Bank heist book cover

What an underappreciated storyteller was John Reese.  In some ways an heir to James Cain and Dashiell Hammet, Reese was able to create visceral plots infused with palpable greed, criminality, and menace in sunbaked California landscapes.

The Looters (1968) was billed on some book covers as “The exciting and violent story of a bank robbery.”  Indeed, the book includes such a story, but that doesn’t do it justice and the story doesn’t end there.  The Tres Cruces National Bank isn’t exactly as clean and pure as the wind-driven snow.  Investigators initially suspect that the robbery was an inside job orchestrated by somebody within the shadowy, mostly Italian owned parent entity that controls the bank.

Everybody loves money, but few people like numbers or financial complexity.  Even fewer can tolerate reading about the subject.  Reese is one of those rare authors who is able to convey a complicated financial caper to thrill his readers rather than crossing their eyes.  He did it with Two Thieves and a Puma and again with this book.  His quirky characters and their motivations are what carry the readers through the turning points in his plots.  Reese also usually takes time to explain what the financial interests of the different players are so readers don’t get lost.

In The Looters, Reese also shows that he is the master of creating characters who are complete jerks.  Take J. J. Schirmer, a bank executive who is not only prejudiced against Italians (constantly referring to his business partners as greasy Sicilian bastards or “Sicilian perverts”), he’s vile to work for.  In one of several scenes like it, Schirmer needlessly berates his driver, Eddie, at 8 a.m.:

Schirmer put down the phone and shouted for Eddie.  The chauffeur had slept in the lounge outside, and was still not dressed. ‘I been waiting to hear you was awake, Mist’ Schirmer,’ he said.

‘All right, you heard. Go get me a pot of coffee.’

‘I cain’t go like this, seh. I phone for it and have it here before—’

‘God damn it, I could have phoned for it. I want to use the phone!’

‘I go fetch it.’

‘Never mind! I’m going to take a shower. Call for some coffee and then put in a call for Sybil at her place.’

The Looters is filled with deliciously nasty dialogue like that, and characters like Schirmer who show their cruelty, caprice, and superiority complexes at every turn.  Molly, a hired gun working for the Italians, is a world-class sadist and creep tasked with hunting down the bank robber before law enforcement gets him.  They are all harsh to take, but fun to read about.

The downside to the host of characters is that there isn’t a single antagonist or a single hero.  There are good qualities and bad qualities on all three sides of the character triangle:  the bank robbers, the bank owners, and law enforcement.  The lack of a single main character gives the book a different style and impact than the movie, which focused on Varrick (and made him more genial than the hard and ruthless robber in the book).

Reviews of this book have noted that the ending is different from the movie.  That is true, and in several ways, the film’s ending is superior to the book.  The memorable biplane chase from the movie is nowhere to be found in the book.  Whoever came up with that idea for the movie deserves credit for the exciting addition, which was quite sensible considering that Charley Varrick and his partner were crop dusters in the book.

The book’s ending was jarring.  The scene where Molly finds Charley occurs too suddenly, with very little build-up.  It would have been improved if Molly had to chase a few more leads prior to finding Charley, and if their physical confrontation had been more drawn out.  Because of that and the murkiness about the main character, I bump this book down from five stars to four.

That being said, this is still a sweat-inducing pistol of book ideal for a late-summer read.

Book review: Where Angels Prey is informative read

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Indian financial thriller

In Ramesh S. Arunachalam’s thriller, Where Angels Prey, Bob, a Western journalist, arrives in India to write an article about Prasad Kamineni, a micro-finance executive.  He teams up with Chandresh, an eager local journalist aware of the darker side of micro-finance in India.  Veena Mehra, district magistrate of Ranga Reddy (in Andhra Pradesh), is also conducting an investigation into Prasad’s business.

Many of the micro-finance debt collectors, including those employed by antagonist Prasad’s SAMMAAN bank, are conducting loan shark style tactics.  They humiliate and threaten borrowers to the point where the debtors, such as a sympathetic widow named Mylaram, commit suicide.  Another case unfolds during the action of the book, where Rammaiyya, who was going to serve as an informant against SAMAAN, is mysteriously killed.  These cases are a continuation of the ruthless tactics used by money lenders that Maoist insurgents fought against in earlier decades.

Micro-finance is a much celebrated concept in the West, and the leaders of the micro-finance movement such as Muhammad Yunus are lionized as heroes ushering in a new era of equity and opportunity in the developing world.  This informative book sheds much needed light on a concept that is not so rosy in reality.

 As narrative fiction, Where Angels Prey could have been improved.  The syntax takes some getting used to for an American reader.  While the author is a skilled writer, there are grammatical oddities and formatting issues that could have been reduced with a more professional editing job.  The present tense verb choice throughout the narrative is awkward.  A constant parade of characters gets confusing, especially since many of them are not substantially developed.  Just as soon as you learn about a new character and start to get a feeling for him or her, they disappear.  It is more of an “ensemble cast” than a book with a single main character. Either Bob or Chandresh is the hero of this financial thriller, but the story probably would have been strengthened by picking one of them to develop further.  Veena’s investigation was duplicative of the journalistic one.  Also, there is a lot of “telling not showing”: abusive tactics are described in general, rather than experiencing them all through eye-witness accounts in real time.

On the plus side, the novel was suspenseful.  One wants to learn how it all turns out for Prasad, who is a compelling villain who is also sympathetic in several ways.

People who are interested in predatory lending, poverty, international development, and socioeconomics should check this novel out.

Book review: Zoo 2 is fast and fierce

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2016 thriller novella cover

Clever scenes, exotic locations, and, for an animals-attack thriller, nothing too over the top.

James Patterson’s Zoo 2, which Patterson and his marketers call a “bookshot” is actually a novella and a sequel to the longer 2012 novel, Zoo.  It picks up where the original left off, with intrepid, un-credentialed scientist Jackson Oz and his family in Greenland taking refuge from the resurgence in animal attacks ongoing in the U.S. and other temperate regions.

The President summons Jackson back into action.  Jackson decides to leave his wife Chloe at her parents’ home in France while he goes to research the possible spread of aggressive behavior from animals into isolated human cases.  Some readers don’t seem to like the concept that “humans are evolving” in this sequel.  There is a ‘feral human’ story line, and it worked for me!  The dangerous human theme doesn’t go overboard into full zombie apocalypse mode, but it’s a serious enough threat that it changes the dynamics from the original Zoo book or the “Zoo” TV series. If this sequel had only been another series of animal attacks, it probably would have unsatisfying, boring, or both. The feral human angle gave it an extra dose of horror.

Zoo 2 is well-written—a step-up in professionalism compared to some other monster novels out there.  (This may be thanks to Patterson’s co-writer, Max DiLallo.) The shorter novella platform was just right for the subject matter and for me. A quicker read than the original Zoo with fewer hokey set-ups.

The only thing I didn’t like about the book is something that happens early on at Chloe’s home in Paris.  Let’s just say that two people end up dead, when killing off one character would have worked just as well.  Especially considering that Chloe didn’t seem to be that upset—you think she’d have been devastated, possibly for the rest of the book.

Book review: Two Stars for Second Life

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second-life-of-nick-mason-steve-hamilton-review

Clever idea that got off track.

A Chicago mob boss in prison arranges for the release of a fellow inmate 5 years into a 25-year sentence to become his assassin on the outside.  Once free, Nick Mason, a former car thief, finds out that being released to kill people is worse than being in prison, even though his targets are mostly dirty cops.

It is an intriguing concept.  Quintero, Nick’s handler on the outside, tells Nick early on that freedom is different from mobility—don’t get the two confused.  Great line.  And it sums up the plot of the novel.  Nick is mobile because he left prison, and can basically go where he wants, but he’s on call 24/7 to carry out a hit.  The mob boss, Cole, controls Nick, and threatens his family if he tries to wiggle out of the 20-year deal.

However, for a man who had only stolen cars to become a cop killer almost overnight is tough to swallow.  He’s able to run circles around all of his targets and almost all of the other characters in the book.  Maybe if Nick made more mistakes, or had a somewhat darker past, it would be more plausible.

Just as easily as Nick becomes a master assassin, he proves himself to be quite the lady’s man, quickly meeting a woman who wants to know “what five years feels like.” Eh hmm.  Most of the female characters seem interested in either getting in bed with Nick, or with scolding him for ruining their lives in the past.  There’s not much middle ground.

While Nick is running around killing people, a homicide detective named Sandoval is on the trail of the corrupt cops.  The scenes involving Sandoval and the SIS, an elite police unit, are a bit complicated and tricky to follow.

I listened to the audiobook which was a mistake.  The narrator’s tone was extremely bitter in the first 20 percent of the book, which makes some sense because it is set in prison.  However, some lines that I would have read as factual commentary are dripping with venom in the audiobook.  In other words, the tone was overkill.  The mob boss’s voice sounds like a cross between Lucious Lyon from “Empire” and Barack Obama, which was distracting.  Each female character sounded identical, flippant, and naggy.  The narrator has great vocal talents but overall this narration didn’t work for me.

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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Old-fashioned looking page from Shakespeare's play

Get ready for sex and a big party!  So says Theseus, Duke of Athens: “Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments.”

Now comes Egeus, unable to govern his own daughter, with a complaint.  The overprotecting father is incensed about the sweet things young Lysander has done to woo his Hermia, rebuking Lysander’s “feigning voice, verses of feigning love.”  He wants Hermia to marry Demetrius instead.  Let me kill her if she disobeys me, Egeus tells Theseus.

Theseus tells Hermia “your eyes must with his [your father’s] judgment look.”  He gives her until his own wedding date with war bride Hippolyta to make up her mind.

Hermia attempts to elope with Lysander, but she is chased by Demetrius into the woods.  Helen, Hermia’s friend, chases after Demetrius, hopelessly in love, telling him “I am your spaniel.”  More insightfully she adds, “We cannot fight for love as men do:  We should be woo’d, and were not made to woo.”

Elf king Oberon sends his jester Puck to spread love potions around.  Lysander, under the influence, falls for Helen, asking her, “Content with Hermia? No:  I do repent / The tedious minutes with her have spent.”

Theater people plan a production for Theseus’s wedding.  Their hope for the ladies in the audience is “not to fear, not to tremble.”  They settle silly details about the play, and Quince adjourns them, saying “Come, sit down, every mother’s son, and rehearse your parts.”

Bottom plays Pyramus, who wears an ass’s head.  Oberon’s queen awakes to fall in love with Bottom, who says “reason and love keep little company.”

Oberon sends Puck to fix his mistake with Lysander by making Demetrius love Helen.  She thinks both men are mocking her and complains excessively.

Oberon and Puck make things right:  Titania comes to her senses, Lysander loves Hermia again, and Demetrius keeps his love for Helen.  Upon Demetrius explaining his feelings to Theseus, the Duke says, “These couples shall be eternally knit” in a triple wedding ceremony.

In the play-within-the-play after the wedding, Pyramus thinks his lover Thisbe has been killed, so he kills himself.  Finding his body, Thisby does the same, in the style of Romeo and Juliet.

In the final scene, Shakespeare says it’s late, and tells everybody to have a good night.  Wink, wink.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a fairly quick read, appropriate for spring or summer, with great lines about the fickleness of love.  We should each read it at least once in our lives, no?