Book review: Orca starts with a bang, ends on ice

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Before there was “Blackfish,” there was “Orca.”

And alongside Orca the book (1977) was Orca the movie.  And a dreadful movie it was.  My main memory is of a whale fetus ejected from its mother’s womb, landing on a ship deck, and squealing like a human baby.  It put the “ick” in flick.  As others have pointed out, the novel is superior.

Jack Campbell, the main character, is an alcoholic who is hopelessly uninterested in anything life has to offer, barely keeping his father’s charter boating business in Florida afloat.  His sister Annie’s boyfriend finds a newspaper article about a $125K reward from the Japanese for the capture of a great white shark.  Campbell’s crew, including surly Gus, head north in the Bumpo.

While hunting fish, Campbell finally finds that the activity excites him.  He begins to step away from the bottle.  Ending up in Canadian waters, the Bumpo fails to capture a shark.  Netting an orca, the killer whale, is more feasible.  Campbell and the Bumpo’s crew gain the blessing from the leaders of a South Harbor, a Newfoundland fishing village, to ship out on a whaling mission.

During the expedition, a pregnant orca delivers a stillborn calf.  The orca father, dubbed “Nickfin” by a local Indian chief, blames Campbell.  That sets into motion a series of attacks against vessels, Campbell’s loved ones, and South Harbor.  The Bumpo is damaged, and Campbell is stuck back in town awaiting repairs while the entire town turns on him.

There he falls in love with Rachel, a whale expert who doesn’t want Campbell to kill the orca.  He doesn’t want to tangle with Nickfin either, since he knows how dangerous the whale is.  But the town becomes so antagonistic that Campbell has little choice but to ready for battle with the orca on the high seas.

Campbell is a strong, engaging character.  The succession of events leading to the final battle is compelling.  The orca’s attack scenes are gripping.  The fickleness of the villagers—cheering on Jack at one point and trying to run him out on a rail later on—is frustrating but true to life.  Overall, I liked the book.  People who like sea monster fiction like Jaws and Meg will find this to be a quick and entertaining read.  The audiobook was fun because of the sly narration by Mark Moseley.  I’d give the novel three out of five stars.

Why not a higher rating?  There’s an odd theme in the book involving Campbell’s bonding or soul connection with Nickfin.  Campbell perceives that the orca represents freedom.  That doesn’t make sense since the whale seems as obsessed with revenge as Campbell does.  At other points, the orca represents Campbell’s own demons—perhaps his alcoholism or sense of worthlessness.  At times the connection borders on the paranormal with Campbell practically reading the whale’s thoughts.  That element didn’t work for me, and the final page or two made for a limp ending.

Book review: dive into MEG for deep-sea thrills

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Cover shows blood at the bottom of the Mariana Trench

Even if you’re not going to the beach, you should read Steve Alten’s first book about a giant shark this summer.  The fifth book of Alten’s series came out just last week, so it’s time to start catching up.

Though MEG is similar to Jaws (giant shark goes on rampage) it is distinct and stands on its own.  The novel is about Carcharodon megalodon, not the great white shark of Jaws fame.  The premise is that extinct megalodons still exist.  They live so deep in the Mariana Trench that nobody knows.  They survive on the warmth of the thermal flows from the earth.  The water above them is too cold for them to swim in, so they are confined to the basement of the sea until an accident happens that unleashes one of them to the surface.  Mayhem ensues.

While the premise may sound far-fetched, each step toward the megalodon’s surfacing is presented in a believable fashion.  Even if somebody pooh-poohs the scientific plausibility of the anatomy and behavior of the meg, the idea of prehistoric mega-sharks among us is an imaginative and exhilarating concept.  The meg is so big that it poses a threat to ships and whale pods.  Its ability to destroy marine life and destabilize entire ecosystems of shallower waters is believable and scary.  This sets up the rationale for extreme measures by humans to stop the meg.

Jonas is the expert in the middle of all the action.  At first nobody believes him.  Then they begin to believe him but don’t see the threat as seriously as he takes it.  Will they catch up to his way of thinking in time?

MEG is fast-paced and somewhat short (my copy has large font and generous spacing but still falls under 300 pages).  The action, like the location of the meg swimming across the Pacific, keeps moving so there’s no threat of getting bored.  MEG is also satisfying because bad things happen to characters who are jerks.

The imaginative premise, high-octane plot, and characters you’ll enjoy rooting for or against earn this book five stars.

Book review: Fragment delivers ecological fun

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Fragment

A remote, tiny island in the Pacific teems with unique, aggressive species.  But they aren’t dinosaurs from The Land that Time Forgot; they are distant relatives of mantis shrimp that evolved on a separate track from the rest of the earth in Fragment, a 2009 eco-thriller that is more plausible than a living dinosaur book.  The new species are first discovered by the crew of a reality show called “SeaLife.”  The U.S. Navy takes over because of the risk that the dangerous species could leave the island and destroy continental ecosystems, or hostile regimes could exploit the island to develop biological weapons.

Some reviewers have been critical of the “pseudo-science” in Fragment.  But ask yourself, is the science in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein believable?  How about Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World?  Or Michael Crichton’s Congo?  Those books all stretch science as it was understood in the era of the authors to create a compelling story.

Fragment isn’t in the same league as those classic tales of scientific exploration, but it is an exciting, contemporary story.  The setting of the book, “Henders Island,” is an imaginative place.  The best element of the book is the characters’ struggle to survive in the ominous setting.  Thatcher Redmond, the villain of the book, is fun to hate, and his imperious voice was the highlight Robin Atkin Downes’s narration in the audiobook version.

The U.S. government has several possible ways to deal with the threat of the aggressive species on Henders Island.  Without spoiling the ending, I will just say that I was not a fan of the solution.  That is my number one complaint about the book, but it made for good drama.

A book review to kick-off the summer: Jaws

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Variety rates “Jaws” as one of 10 movies that was better than the book.  Several lists on Goodreads also put the book Jaws in the same category, such as “The movie was better than the book” which puts Jaws one notch above The Silence of the Lambs.

So my expectations were low when I finally got a chance to read Peter Benchley’s classic.  Reading it easily blew my expectations out of the water.

Like the movie, Jaws opens with a topless teenager splashing into the waves after dark.  We all know what happens next.  But the true horror grows after the first shark attack as we meet the men pulling the strings in Amity.  They call the shots and have the power to make or break the lives of the locals.  The chief of police comes under their nasty pressures to keep the beaches open.  Amity is totally reliant on a very short vacationer season to sustain itself economically for the year.  Brody caves, but he remains a very sympathetic character because we know he wanted to do the right thing.

The biggest difference between the book and film in terms of the plot is that Brody’s wife cheats on him with Matt Hooper.  One Goodreads reviewer calls the sex “utterly pointless and adds nothing to the story,” but that comment misses the point.  Brody’s wife is from “the city,” and grew up vacationing with her middle class family in Amity.  The rift between “summer people” and the townees is one of the big themes in Jaws.  The shark doesn’t just threaten swimmers, but it threatens the fabric of life in Amity.  Hooper, the shark expert, offers the sophistication and care-free adventure that she misses as an Amity housewife.  The shark forces the characters to reexamine where they are in life.

Benchley depicts the escalating threat of the shark very effectively.  Each attack scene is scary and reveals something additional about the shark’s nature and the severity of the danger.  The text may not have the visceral impact to scare you out of the water the same way that the movie could, and it’s true that Stephen Spielberg made a terrific movie.  But that is hardly Benchley’s fault.  If I had written Jaws, I would have been thrilled for a great director to turn my book into a fantastic film.  And if I were Spielberg I’d count my blessings for the good fortune of starting production with such a great book.

Book review: Zero Alternative skewers “too-big-to-fail”

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From the recession of 2008 was born a litter of woes.  Mortgage defaults.  Foreclosures.  Cram downs.  Lay-offs.  Furlough days.  Stagnant wages.

Was the recession caused by exotic financial instruments like mortgage-backed securities?  Was it the result of excessive pressure from the federal government on banks to issue home loans to borrowers who couldn’t pay the bills?  Or just the boom and bust of the business cycle?

That’s not the way that Scott “Yours” Walker (surely, an unintentional homonym with no relation to the governor of Wisconsin), the main character in Luca Pesaro’s financial techno-thriller Zero Alternative (2014), sees it.  Walker, an investment banker with a skeptical mind, inhabits a darker world, where friends and enemies alike work for larger, shadowy entities pulling strings behind the scenes.

The story begins with a banner performance by Walker, making millions in one day of trading when everybody in London but him predicted the worst.  It’s all downhill for Walker from there.  Walker’s friend D.M., who is just finishing the creation of a powerful predictive analytics software that can anticipate ups and downs in the market, is murdered.  The killer attempts to frame Walker, who has the next most knowledge of the software.

Walker goes on the lam with a hired gun on his tail.  Hired by a rival investment bank, perhaps.  The sexy woman at his side, Layla, was working for the hired gun, after she quit working for a foreign spy agency.  While on the run with her, Walker must trust her when she says she’s working for herself now.  They travel from London to France to Switzerland to Italy to the U.S., facing close shaves at every turn and doubting but seducing each other along the way.

The computer program is valuable enough to kill for.  While Walker isn’t above using the program to make money for himself or his allies while in hiding, he mainly wants to use the application to bring down an odious investment bank.  This is his act of rebellion against the too-big-to-fail financial system which is rigged to make money for itself regardless market direction or morality.  The adventure of Zero Alternative is in Walker’s personal, international life-and-death cage match against overwhelming forces of greed.  Whether Walker’s his pursuers will steal the computer program, whether he will be able to use the program against the financial system, and the question of Layla’s reliability, are compelling elements.

There is stock market terminology and information technology jargon in the book, but it is not excessive.  The movement of Walker and Layla across the borders of Europe into Italy are plausible for a man of Walker’s resources.  Where things get a little shaky are the oracle-like foresight of the computer program.  It might have been more plausible if the application occasionally predicted the wrong outcome, required input of more data in order to make a prediction, or if it had a lot of bugs to be worked out.  Also, the politics—the allegation that the recession is mainly the result of corporate greed—is not for all tastes.  But the excitement of the international chase and the tense romance make up for that.  Recommended.

Book review: cold case heats up in Atlanta

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In Out of the Blues by Trudy Nan Boyce, an experienced police officer (but homicide newbie) nicknamed Salt must reopen an investigation into the suspicious death of a blues musician.  Fortunately for Salt, she is a bigtime blues fan and already knows the major players and venues in the Atlanta blues scene.  She’s also smart and has a knack for finessing the truth out of suspects and witnesses.

Unfortunately, the homicide unit assigns no partner to Salt.  She’s on her own even though it’s her first case.  This is dangerous because the case involves a criminal, drug-dealing, pimping syndicate.  The investigation also involves links to powerful men in Atlanta, including the pastor of a big church and a fellow police officer who is an unofficial gatekeeper for cops working part-time jobs for extra money.  Salt is strong, but she is also vulnerable and has to work diligently and carefully to overcome these obstacles.

Salt is also the only woman on her shift.  This causes some awkwardness and necessitates some heroics to prove herself.  But the gender roles in the book are handled with a fairly light touch—not nearly as heavy-handed as Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, which focused on the stacked deck against women and resistance to social change in the Atlanta police department 40 years earlier.  Out of the Blues is much less focused on cultural commentary than Cop Town.  Those looking for a more straightforward police procedural in Atlanta without the social analysis will prefer this book.

One weakness of Out of the Blues is the dialogue.  The characters use long words, speak in long sentences, and have very long conversations without major payoffs.  Nevertheless, Salt is engaging and the story is strong enough to carry the reader’s interest to the tidy ending.

Recommended.

Book review: Island 731 delivers non-stop chills

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A 2014 bio-thriller

In Jeremy Robinson’s thriller Island 731, an ecological expedition in the Pacific runs aground on an unknown island.  A crewmate flees and Hawkins, a hero who earlier survived a grizzly bear attack, sets out to find him.  Hawkins and his love interest, the risk-taking Joliet, plunge inland despite initial signs of danger.

Why their geeky but likable crewmate Kam would have run away makes no sense at first.  Hawkins and Joliet speculate that Kam went into hiding after killing another crewmate:

“That’s my best theory.”

Joliet sagged.  “I came up with the same thing.  Do you really think Kam would run?  If it was an accident—”

The search is complicated as Hawkins and Joliet quickly learn that the island is teeming with dangerous lifeforms that are blends of more than one species.  The discovery of an island with previously undiscovered creatures makes this thriller reminiscent of The Land That Time Forgot.  And like Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic, the threats to the protagonists aren’t only from the island’s beasts, but from frictions within the marooned crew.

An island full of chimeras is exciting, foreboding, and mysterious.  It creates a great, dark atmosphere.  That being said, some of the chimeras have so many progenitors that they are difficult to visualize.  For example, one chimera has a face with features from a bat, goat, tiger, and crocodile.  Tough to picture.

The search leads the main characters into more danger and closer to the truth of the island.  Without giving any spoilers, Robinson’s work shows a broad familiarity with biology, history, and conspiracy theories.  Island 731 delivers plausibly on these themes.  There is some background and technical information that must be conveyed for the story to make sense, but Robinson handles those passages economically without retarding the action.

The characters are engaging.  Larger-than-life villains and bald faced evil make for an ambitious book, but Robinson pulls it together.  Hawkins’s jovial sidekick Bray is fun, and the romance between Hawkins and Joliett is well done.

Parts of the book are gruesome:  one character is crucified hanging from his own entrails.  “Patients” are dissected alive.  If you didn’t like the bloody, gross-out scenes of the movie “Saw,” this may not be the right book for you.

Some thrillers have great beginnings and the action falls apart toward the end or doesn’t pay off.  That’s not the case with Island 731.  The action builds throughout and the stakes get higher toward the end.  Robinson has a good sense for plot, pace, tension, and momentum.  The characters are always on the move and run into one obstacle after another.

For readers who are drawn to thrillers because they enjoy non-stop thrills and chills, look no further.  If you’ve got a dark streak, you’ll want to bring this apocalyptic island adventure on your next cruise.

Review of Caught in a Past Reflection

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Young couple Asa and Rebecca step through a portal in time into 19th Century America.  The novel Caught in a Past Reflection tells their story.

Rebecca works as a seamstress in modern day Colonial Williamsburg.  Her alcoholic mother makes home life unbearable.  Rebecca gets away from it with picnics in the woods with her new boyfriend, an apprentice silversmith from the other side of town.  She and Asa stumble upon a time portal in the woods.  Rebecca comes back later, alone, to start her new life in the past.

Although he enjoys a good life in modern times, Asa chases after her.  They reunite and begin their relationship anew in yesteryear.  Given the boom and bust cycle of American cities in those days, Asa and Rebecca must soon leave Williamsburg for Dumfries, Virginia.  There they live as a married couple and become better adjusted to the old days.  Asa is homesick but Rebecca flourishes.  Eventually they have to leave Dumfries to go west to Kentucky.  With each of their travels come unexpected dangers.

The strongest aspect of Caught in a Past Reflection is the two main characters and their relationship.  Rebecca and Asa are very well developed and the reader gets a sense of each of them as genuine people.  Their affection for each other is warm, intense, and believable.  Sometimes their love seems to be poured on a bit too thick, but that is balanced out somewhat by strains that crop up periodically in their relationship over the years.

Movies like “Forest Gump” and books like Winds of War use an everyman character to highlight big historical moments.  There is some of that in Caught in a Past Reflection, but Cochran mostly uses Asa and Rebecca to highlight smaller, ordinary aspects of early American daily life including work habits, food, social norms, gender roles, church life, and politics.  Although there is quite a lot of historical detail in the book, it is appropriate given the storyline and it does not suffocate the story.

The novel would best be categorized as historical fiction with a generous dose of science fiction and a dash of romance.  There is some suspense too finding out what happens to the couple in the long-run.  I recommend this book for readers interested in early American life.  Caught in a Past Reflection is available on Kindle for $5 or $18 in paperback.

After the Crash partly succeeds

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A plane crashes in France.  All passengers are killed except an unidentifiable baby girl.  The premise of After the Crash, a newly translated thriller by Michel Bussi, sounds unbelievable and silly.  But the more you read, the more plausible it becomes.

A custody battle ensues between possible grandparents from the rich de Carville family and possible grandparents from the poor Vitral family, each with plausible claims that the baby is theirs. Custody of Lylie, as she comes to be called, is awarded to the Vitrals, who are also taking care of their grandson, Marc. After 18 years, Marc has developed an attraction for Lylie, who does not look or act like the rest of the Vitral family.

After the custody battle, the de Carvilles hire a private eye, Credule Grand-Duc, to keep investigating the case. He uncovers many clues but mostly dead ends in a maddening 18-year search.  Throughout the novel, Marc is reading passages from Grand-Duc’s journal about the case.  That is primarily how we learn about validity of the competing families’ claims.

The story is mysterious and suspenseful. Bussi intentionally frustrates the reader by withholding crucial information.  For example, after Grand-Duc writes that he arranged for a secret DNA test, he doesn’t record in his journal what the results were.  Instead he simply writes about how shocked and dismayed he was by the results.  Much of the book is like that—one tease after another.  The teasing starts out fun but becomes tedious and annoying.

Bussi wants the readers to root for Marc and Lylie’s relationship. Several of the main characters hope that Marc and Lylie aren’t actually brother and sister so that they’re love affair will be acceptable.  However, the whole concept grossed me out.  Even if they are not biological siblings, they still grew up together.  Their romance didn’t work for me.

Some of the prose is stilted and the word choice is uneven, which I assume is because of the translation.

If you want to read a clever mystery that doesn’t start with a murder, this book will fit the bill.  There’s enough intrigue, clues, and red herrings to motivate you to keep reading.  But overall, the purposeful withholding of information got old. I wanted the book to end.  For that and the incest/yuck factor I’d give this book a two-star rating.

Corrupt general gets the payback he deserves in Two Thieves and a Puma

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Toward the end of the Indian wars, the U.S. military surplused property it no longer needed.  A few corrupt supply officers and clerks cashed in by selling property off the books.  The Western Two Thieves and a Puma (1980) by John Reese tells the story of two men, one who served as a general and one who was a sergeant, who participated in such siphoning.  The fates of the two men are tied together because they marry a pair of Italian-American sisters, whose family is always looking for financial opportunities.  Each of the men go into the cattle business for themselves on neighboring ranches in California.

Decades later, the wife of the former sergeant Whiting has died.  He is struggling to make ends meet because his herds have diminished.  Meanwhile, the ranch of former general Hethcutt, who is arrogant and incompetent, is thriving somehow.  A high number of Hetchutt’s cattle exhibit Shorthorn traits although Whiting was the only one of the two ranchers to buy Shorthorn stock.  Whiting keeps a detailed, encoded log book of Hethcutt’s cattle to use as evidence in a cattle rustling lawsuit.

Whiting’s property is often used Lon Tsan, a roving opium den operator.  Lon Tsan has mostly Chinese customers.  His other main customer at Whiting’s ranch is a cougar named Sneaky.  The puma had been orphaned and raised as a cub by Whiting’s daughter.  The puma becomes partly domesticated and totally addicted to Lon Tsan’s product over the years.  Although the premise sounds far-fetched, it works.  Sneaky becomes a lovable, sympathetic, and not entirely docile character throughout the book.

Jefferson Hewitt, a full partner and field agent of a bonding company (a detective, really), arrives and offers to help Whiting with his claim.  Hewitt is an excellent marksman with sufficient resources to hire a lawyer for Whiting and a temporary gang of men to pull security around the ranch.  Although Whiting has a very solid lawsuit, he suspects Hewitt is involved in the case for bigger, undetermined financial reasons.  Those reasons don’t become clearer until the final third of the book.  The action culminates to a final confrontation between the forces of Whiting, Hewitt, Lon Tsan and Sneaky versus the forces of Hethcutt.

Overall, Two Thieves and a Puma is a great read.  Although nobody in the story is without blame, it’s satisfying to watch the little crook take on the big crook and win.  In this regard, the book is similar to the Walter Matthau movie “Charley Varrick,” which was based on a book also written by John Reese.  The characters in Two Thieves and a Puma jump off the page, warts and all.  The financial intrigue is very compelling and Reese has a good sense of timing for revealing critical tidbits and explanations as the plot progresses.

It’s impossible to describe without spoiling the end, but there is an aspect of the ending that isn’t very good.  I wish Reese had written the ending just a little differently.  But overall the book was excellent–very satisfying, tight, clever, and lively.