Book review: The Dead Key delivers

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An absorbing novel by D.M. Pulley. The book alternates between two time periods in Cleveland—one in the late 1970s and the other in the late 1990s.

In the 1970s, sixteen-year-old Beatrice leaves home and starts a new life as a secretary at the First Bank of Cleveland. Although Beatrice doesn’t know it, the reader quickly learns that the bank was shut down not long after she starts working there.

In the 1990s, Iris, who is a new employee at an architectural firm, is sent to the First Bank of Cleveland’s old building to survey it. She has to take very careful measurements, notes, and drawings of all the floors of the high-rise building. We learn that the bank closure was very sudden. Consequently, many desks and files were left intact and untouched. The only apparent continuity is Ramone, a live-in security guard employed by the property owner.

At the heart of the book is a mystery surrounding the safe deposit boxes in the basement of the building. During her onsite inspections, Iris discovers a key to a safe deposit box maintained by her aunt that serves as the initial clue into the mystery.

The highlight of the book is the atmosphere. We are one with Iris in feeling palpable mystery from the big broody building. During the scenes with Beatrice, we are equally bewildered about what’s going on behind the scenes at the bank in the boardrooms and executive washrooms. Both young women are outsiders, not taken seriously by older, higher-ranking employees. Like them, the reader is shut out from understanding the truth. But through painstaking efforts of the heroines (on the part of Beatrice, some deceit and improvisation, and for Iris, intelligence and persistence) we gradually learn the story of corruption and theft at the bank.

Neither young woman is perfect. They are both flawed—almost dangerously so—which makes them more vulnerable in a high-stakes world where the powerful will stop at nothing to keep their secrets hidden. Their vulnerabilities increase the realism, intensity and suspense of the novel.

There are some cluttered elements in the book that could have been improved upon. For instance, there are a lot of middle and upper management male executives at the bank. It’s hard to distinguish and remember each of them. That makes the resolution of the mystery more difficult to follow.

Also, despite the title with a singular pronoun, The Dead Key, be prepared for many keys. So many keys that, like the businessmen at the bank, they become difficult to distinguish. Keys get left in desks, hiding places, bags, and keyholes. This key leads to that key leads to another key. And the keys are hidden or forgotten in the two distinct historical periods. So your brain better be firing on all cylinders when key placements are mentioned. I’m not saying this to help you solve the mystery, I’m saying it so you can follow subsequent scenes.

Like some contemporary fiction coming from India, this thriller presents us with savvy young women in danger in a financial den of wolves. In the Indian novels, there is typically an avuncular figure mentoring or looking out for the young woman. There is a little of that in The Dead Key, but it is mostly every woman for herself without much help from the boys. This could be seen as a feminist novel or women’s fiction, but categorizing it that way would be unfairly limiting. Even as a male reader I could certainly appreciate the position that Iris found herself in.

Final comment: this would make for a suspenseful Hitchcock-style movie.

Book review: Sting of the Drone

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Sting of the Drone by Richard Clarke offers a nuanced perspective on the U.S use of drones to kill terrorists.  It depicts scenarios where drones are more effective with less collateral damage than alternatives.  It shows that there are many layers of experts and decision-makers involved in each drone strike.

It also presents legitimate causes for concern.  Should drones be used in allied, first-world countries where terrorist cells are operating?  You might say no, if the ally wants the U.S. to kill a terrorist in their midst who is plotting an attack, you may arrive at a different conclusion.

The book also makes the reader question whether the individuals involved in making drone strike decisions the best people to be making the decisions.  It would be beneficial to have more transparency about their deliberations, but the challenge would be keeping national security secrets secret.

As a thriller, this novel could have used some improvements.  The first half of the book is more of an ensemble cast than a story with one main character.  Eventually it settles on somebody.  I read the book two months ago, and I can’t remember any of the characters’ names.  There is a reasonably compelling villain, and he’s plotting an attack against America’s drone infrastructure, which is a great concept.  But the failure to ground the story in one main hero limited how engaging it was.

Another issue was an exaggerated treatment of drone operators.  There is a group of Air Force pilots in the book who take their drone piloting seriously, but quietly wish they were still flying “real” planes.  They become racked with guilt after some bad publicity about one or two strikes that Al Qaeda made to look like civilian massacres.  They start exhibiting PTSD.  That is all sort of interesting, but overblown.  Most UAV pilots are normal, well-adjusted people.

Overall this is a fair and balanced glimpse into U.S. drone policy and its ethics presented through a vivid story.  Just don’t expect to fall in love with the characters.

Book review: Darktown illuminates

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As an Atlantan who thought I had a good grasp of local history, Darktown by Thomas Mullen was a splash of cold water in the face. Very informative.

Two rookie black officers must investigate a murder case that the whites don’t care about, or worse, are covering up. In the first few chapters, Darktown reminded me of other police procedurals where the clean/honest cops (in this case, the black rookies) have to investigate around the dirty cops (here, the ultra-segregationists on the police force).  But the further the story develops, the clearer it becomes how severely the deck is stacked against the black officers.  They are dealing not just with discrimination in the police force, but when they’re off-duty as well, which complicates their unofficial investigation even further.

The book vividly illustrates the effect of segregation on the black community in Atlanta and rural Georgia in the 1940s. Highly recommended.

The dinosaurs of my enemy are my friends

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Impressive artwork. His fellow native Americans tease him, but Turok is naturally a stronger, cleverer, nobler warrior than them. Fresh from battles in the Holy Land, the English invade the New World bringing dinosaurs with them. (Yeah, a lot of timeline problems there and a touch of Dan Brown-style conspiracy theories, but try not to overthink it). Turok has to outwit the invaders and come up with a way to use the dinosaurs to his advantage. Volume 1 includes the first four issues and Greg Pak’s script for the first issue, plus bonus artwork. Those bonus features offer an interesting glimpse into the making of this reimagined 2014 version of the classic Turok series.

Book review: Great Zoo of China is clever tale

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In my review of Planet of the Dragons, I complained that there weren’t enough dragons.  Not so here.  The Great Zoo of China is bursting at the seams with dragons of every color and size.  Prince (horse-size), king (bus-size), and emperor (airplane-size) dragons.  Yellow, red-bellied blacks, swamp dragons, etc.  Possibly even too many dragons.  Chalk it up to being careful what you wish for!

Regarding the debate about whether this book is too similar to Jurassic Park, I would say that the first half was too reminiscent, but that wasn’t a deal killer for me any more so than The Land That Time Forgot capitalizing on the Lost World a hundred years ago.  Building on the popularity of another book isn’t a new development in the publishing industry.  But like TLTTF and Lost World, the predecessor was superior to the successor.

The explanation for the origins of dragons and why different cultures have their own dragon legends is superb.  It’s a truly great premise.  Coupling that with the military and cultural ambitions of modern China is even better.  My qualms are not with the fundamental story, but more so with the execution.

The writing in the book is uneven.  There are excessive explanations of exactly who is located where with exactly which groups.  It’s as if an attempt is being made to prove to the reader that the author hasn’t forgotten where all the characters are.  Too many times when Chinese people are speaking, the text reiterates that they spoke “in Mandarin.” That got old.  Generally, I assume the English speakers in the book are speaking English, and the Chinese ones are speaking Chinese.  The only time it’s somewhat helpful is when the main American character, CJ, speaks in Mandarin, but even then, it’s not always needed.  I didn’t really care what language anybody speaks as long as the book is in English.

The book was also marred by an awkward transition from happy albeit VIP tour of the dragon zoo to a nightmare.  One passage we’ve had a great experience learning about the exotic dragons.  We step inside for a nice lunch, and by the time we come out, the dragons have pulled off their electronic monitors and eat the humans.  It was too abrupt.

Another problem in the beginning and middle was a lack of suspense.  I guess I was supposed to sense that something would go terribly wrong, but I never got too worked up or engaged wondering what would happen next.  Maybe it was because the characters weren’t quite compelling enough, or because the foreshadowing was too subtle or non-existent.

But the book definitely picked up toward the end.  The various details gelled together and Frey presented several very clever ideas.  A great concept and a solid ending earn this book a favorable rating.

Book review: The Ascendant satisfies

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First, the pacing. Good. Fast paced. This book had the right balance of plot, action, and switching between long scenes with our main character friends in the U.S. and shorter scenes with minor characters abroad.

The characters are colorful. Even if they feel like TV characters. There’s the title character, Garrett Reilly, a brilliant jerk who hates the military but ends up drafted. There’s another soldier who wants to die for his country but can’t get deployed because of a medical condition so he has to be a stateside desk analyst. There’s the beautiful but tough-as-nails love interest with leadership chops. Plus others, they make up a band of quirky geniuses who must unite to save the world.

From whom? With a clever twist, the novel has a wag-the-dog scenario but it’s precipitated by the China, not the U.S. The China scenes are handled a bit better than I would have expected. Especially being written by somebody without a foreign affairs or national security background.

But the U.S. government isn’t blameless in this book either. Garrett’s brother was killed in action, but the details of his death were covered up by the military. And even though the government recruits and trains Garrett, elements of the government turn on him. When he doesn’t answer their questions, they waterboard him. A bit sudden and extreme? Yes, and it doesn’t quite work. It’s the weakest and most paranoid part of the book.

Three out of five stars.

A quick summary which is a spoiler appears below/after the jump. Continue reading

Throwback Thursday: A book review of Planet of the Dragons

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Choose Your Own Adventure book #75

Although I read dozens of Choose Your Own Adventure books growing up, this is one of the few whose contents I remember.  The evocative title, Planet of the Dragons, appeals to me as much today as it did as a youngster.  While rummaging through a box of old books in the attic (literally), what choice did I have but to rescue this volume from storage and re-live the old adventure?

Your escape pod crash lands on Tambor, hundreds of light years from Earth.  You crawl out.  Smoke rises from the plains—a sign of battle.  Do you venture in that direction, or take to the hills?  The choices you make will determine the story unfolds for you.

Broadly speaking, there are three main potential storylines in this book, each involving a mysterious race of mechanical dragons which are not native to Tambor.  In one plotline, you meet a human girl named Millie who is worried but knowledgeable about the dragons.  If you choose differently, you never meet Millie, but you meet a strange race of Hyskos, humanoid creatures with bird faces who live on giant bubbles in the sky.  They are threatened by the dragons, and they would be thrilled to come up with a way to defeat them.  The third big story involves the Derns, a hobbit-like terrestrial race that is scared of the Hyskos and of the dragons, but has scientific knowledge that could be useful in the fight.

The various sub-stories involved with Millie are probably the most relatable and fun with some of the better endings in the book.  The interactions with the Hyskos can go well or badly, and they are a vivid species that I think captured my imagination as a young reader.  I don’t remember the Derns when I first read this book, and now I realize that may have been because the Derns bore me.  Their story takes up a lot of the book’s 117 pages.

The common thread is the threat of the dragons.  This creates a sense of wonder, suspense, and doom, and some neat artwork, but the fact that the dragons are mechanical devices is a letdown.  Also, there are a few storylines where you never encounter the dragons at all.  Additionally, you never really figure out the origins of the space dragons either, despite foreshadowing about “the Taurans, an evil race” on the first page of the book.

The natives of Tambor tell you that there is a race of indigenous dragons who are different from the evil machines.  But the native dragons were driven into hiding when the space dragons attacked.  As near as I could tell, there is only one single sub-storyline that leads you to meet the native dragons, and they are only described for barely one page.  I felt that was a missed opportunity.  I would have loved to see some storylines where you end up joining forces with the local, genuine dragons against the invading robot dragons!

Anyway, I loved the overall concept, obviously enough to read it and enjoy it at two distinct times in my life.  The options you get to choose from are reasonable, and the endings are fair, as in, “Okay, my choices didn’t end well for me, but that was still fun,” or “Yes, I made the right choice!”  I feel this book is a very good example of the series.  But I would have chosen more flesh-and-blood fire breathing dragons!