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.

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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: 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

Book review: The Whistler

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The Whistler by John Grisham

I enjoyed this legal thriller.  I figured that lawyers investigating a corrupt judge would be an interesting angle on the legal profession, and it was.

The judicial conduct investigators are Lacy and Hugo.  As they near the truth, their lives are in danger from a shadowy Gulf Coast syndicate.

I complain when books have too many characters.  The Whistler had many characters, but for some reason this was not a problem for me this time.  It may be because Grisham’s writing style is very lucid.  I never felt confused by who he was talking about.  The characters were crisply drawn, and the scenes and their motives were well defined, so the characters didn’t blur together.  One character in particular was very colorful—Lacy’s pugnacious real estate investor brother, Gunther.

That being said, there is probably one character that could have been cut.  Feeding information to Lacy and Hugo are three layers of snitches.  There is a mole, an intermediary, and an ex-con lawyer conveying information from the intermediary.  I was never quite sold on the need for three characters to be involved, when this could have been condensed fairly easily into two characters.

A number of Goodreads reviewers have suggested that the writing is good and the plot is fine, but that there’s a “missing spark” in this book, although they can’t put their finger on what it is.  I’d venture to say that it may have to do with a lack of conflict among the main, “good” characters.  Lacy and Hugo never bump heads.  Lacy and her boss Geismar have different approaches on how the investigation should proceed, but they never have a major difference.  Lacy’s love life is totally vanilla and progresses without fireworks toward the second half.  All the conflict is on the side of the villains/antagonists.  I think that the lack of a conflict or a personal transformation in Lacy’s life is probably how the air leaked out of this book’s balloon.

As usual, Grisham serves up various flavors of the South, with scenes in different cities throughout Florida, but also Mobile, Valdosta, and Mississippi.  Comments about race, real estate development, management of Indian casinos, and how organized crime in the South are all included.

Without spoiling anything, I would say that the ending was satisfying enough and brought closure to most of the plot elements.  However, there is a related case in the book about a wrongfully convicted inmate.  How things end up for him doesn’t really get spelled out.

The Whistler is nothing too deep, and everything comes together a bit too smoothly in the end, but it is still a pleasurable read with justice served.

Book review: Sabotaged

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Alaskan Courage #5

The premise of a thriller against the backdrop of the Iditarod sled race is an exciting one.  The novel (Sabotaged, 2015) starts strong.  Kirra’s cousin Meg is abducted.  Kira’s uncle Frank, a musher in the race, is coerced by criminals into doing a mysterious job for them before they will release Meg.  Frank is able to tell Kirra and her burgeoning love interest, Reef, what happened to Meg.  He wants them to rescue Meg without involving the police.

At first, Kirra and Reef appear to have a testy relationship.  The development of the romance between them is fairly predictable, and once it has developed, it unfortunately becomes a bit saccharine.  More conflicts or disagreements between the two as they investigate Meg’s abduction may have helped.  Though Kirra is nervous about Reef’s trustworthiness early on, he is generally depicted as strong, caring, tenacious, and faithful.  Kirra is scarred and impulsive, but he appears to have no faults, and I think because of that I became bored by their romance.

I was prepared to accept the exclusion of the police, but it did bother me after a while.  Kirra and Reef virtually become the police, seeking out leads and questioning them like characters are questioned in police procedurals.  The detective-style was an interesting but unexpected approach, and to me it almost became more technical than thrilling.

That being said, Dani Pettrey is a gifted writer who has a way with words.  The characters are grounded in Christian beliefs which is refreshing compared to other novels these days.  The Alaskan Courage series also has great covers, conjuring up a spirit of beautiful outdoor adventure.

I read this book partly because it’s on a Goodreads list called “Fiction: Police, Military & Service Dogs.”  It isn’t the fault of Pettrey that the book has been branded by readers this way, but unfortunately the listing (and cover and dust jacket involving the Iditarod) set up an unrealistic expectation for me.  I thought the Iditarod and the sled dogs would feature much more prominently in the plot.  Growing up in the South and being accustomed to labs and hounds, the idea of huskies and sled dogs always seemed very exotic and compelling to me.  I got my hopes up that I would learn something about the dogs of the Iditarod in this novel.  There was some information about the race itself, most of the action took place outside the Iditarod trail, and nothing about the dogs.

Oh well.  It was still an enjoyable romantic suspense novel if that type of book appeals to you.

Book review: a star is born with Carrion Safari

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Jonah Buck's book about Denise DeMarco, who want to retire from the big game hunting business, but she gets an offer she can't refuse

I read a lot of novels about monsters on the attack.  Carrion Safari (2016) is the best one published since James Patterson’s Zoo (2012).  If Jonah Buck, its author, were a stock, I’d advise my clients to buy as many shares as possible, because he has a great touch and potential for growth.

Denise is a South African big game hunter and safari guide in the 1920s.  After being sickened watching a group of Belgian dentist clients mercilessly shoot a herd of elephants, she hangs up her elephant gun and quits.  But Herschel Hobhouse, representing the research arm of deep-pocketed corporation named Yersinia, offers her $100,000 to capture a specific animal.  She agrees, and travels about the Shield of Mithridates toward Malheur Island, an island of natives under vaguely Dutch colonial influence.  She finds that nine other hunters have been enlisted on the mission too.  It’s difficult to say too much more about their expedition without giving plot spoilers.

The reason that it is difficult not to reveal plot developments is because this is a well-crafted book that reveals significant developments in chunks over time.  I wouldn’t necessarily call the developments “surprises” or “plot twists”; more like miniature mysteries that are solved incrementally as the book progresses.  It makes for a nice atmosphere of uncertainty, anxiety, and even wonder.

Through pithy comments and crackling soundbites by colorful characters, Buck exhibits a great sense of humor.  Carrion Safari includes vivid and grizzly descriptions.  Buck could easily write horror if he wants to.  The plot and pace of the novel are good, so he could write thrillers if he prefers.  I’d read more of his work either way.  If this book were made into a movie, and it certainly could be, I’d be there on opening night.

Before reading this book, I read a review or two somewhere complaining that Carrion Safari has too many anachronisms.  But the thing is, the whole premise is obviously made up.  It’s about a mysterious island with actual monsters.  Readers accept that, but somebody is upset that words and traits from the 2000s being used by characters in the 1920s?  Lighten up!  Check out blockbuster contemporary movies like “The Legend of Tarzan” and tell me that transplanting our values and catchphrases a century or so is that serious of a problem.  The anachronisms are designed for entertainment purposes—the modern-sounding comments and sarcasm are funny!—they are not for the purposes of rewriting history, and should be understood as such.

My one complaint is that there are too many characters.  Each of the nine or ten hunters has his or her own traits and backstory, and it’s way too much to keep track of.  I confused a couple of them and never really understood who some of them were, which impaired my ability to follow certain plot developments.  I wish there had been a way to condense the number to five or six, tops.  That would have made things tighter, clearer, and would have earned this book a fifth star.