Thursday, March 26, 2015

Blood Is Dirt

Despite my reservations about the first novel in the series (Instruments of Darkness), here I am already reading another Bruce Medway mystery by Robert Wilson. It is the evocation of the West African atmosphere, and perhaps the stench of corruption that Wilson has mastered that drew me back. It's an easy read, though he may have lost me on a twist or turn or two in the convoluted plot of a double scam within a scam, preceded by a fake scam and accompanied by a fair amount of mayhem.

Nonetheless, the corruption and hypocrisy oozes out of every pore of most of these characters, with the first-person narrator (Medway), his girlfriend Heike and his partner Bagado being the notable exceptions. This plot involves a British shipbroker who ships toxic waste and colludes with a British financier to cheat an Italian oil dealer (I think) -- which predictably does not end well for many of the people involved.

There are some outlandish characters -- the shipbroker's daughter, Selina, who becomes Medway's client and is a man-eating vixen; the Nigerian chief running for president of the country who needs financing for his campaign; some small-time Russian thugs who craft their own chili vodka, and others.

The portrayal of a key "queer" character betrays more than a whiff of homophobia, so I'm not sure what planet Wilson is living on or if he is deliberately being politically incorrect. There is considerable brutality but much less of the masochism that marked the earlier book. Medway doesn't get hurt too badly nor are Heike (too much of her in this book) or Bagado (too little of him) ever at risk from the bad guys.

And there's the driving along the coast between Nigeria and Benin, the ever-present heat and threat of malaria, the exotic forests and bays and beaches of the coastal setting, the cynical lifestyles of wealthy expatriates -- the stuff, in short, of a pretty good story.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Wool

Hugh Howey's science fiction epic is a satisfying post-apocalyptic thriller that keeps the reader turning pages. His vision of a remnant of civilization confined to a silo buried 140 stories into the earth is convincingly claustrophobic. The physical restrictions are stifling and require an equally stifling society where books are banned and every individual is assigned a work category (and silo level) with the appropriately colored overalls.

In a Q&A tacked on the end of my paperback edition, Howey says his time at sea and the confinement of living on a boat gave him the insight into silo life. The interminable climbs on the spiral stairway down the length of the silo are depicted so graphically that your legs are sore. Trips from top to bottom take days, with rest stops at various levels. "Porters" are the specialists who carry every pound of food and supplies on their backs from the garden and farming levels to the top and bottom. Communication is severely restricted. There are no computers for general use and paying a porter to carry a message is expensive.

All of this is effectively ruled by IT, a satirical touch that would be hilariously funny if it were not so grimly realistic. Sham elections choose a mayor, who appoints a sheriff (with the advice and consent of the head of IT). This is the world that Juliette, a mechanic housed in the lowest reaches of the "down deep" disrupts. When the mayor, Jahns, defies the head of IT, Bernard, to choose Juliette as the new sheriff, he quickly moves to frame Juliette with one of the numerous offenses that condemns a resident to "cleaning," the euphemism for being sent out into the toxic outside world in a suit designed to fail quickly. The cleaning refers to their obligation to wipe clean the monitors that are the only view the silo's inhabitants have of the outside world. Oddly, the condemned individuals invariably comply with this requirement, even though they gain nothing by it and die almost immediately afterwards. The wool of the title, by the way, appears to refer to the material they are given to clean the monitors, though of course the expression "pull the wool over your eyes" quickly comes to mind.

There are surreptitious references to an "uprising" that occurred several generations ago, when some individuals became impatient with restrictions of silo life and rebelled. It was put down violently and it is now a capital crime to discuss it. Just how many centuries people have been living in the silo and how many uprisings there have been are all vague. The novel begins, in fact, with the wife of Juliette's predecessor as sheriff, Holston, discovering some of these historical truths still preserved on IT's servers. She loses it and demands to be sent out to "cleaning." After grieving for three years, Holston follows suit. Neither makes it up the hill surrounding the silo. They curl up and die in view of the silo monitors and the residents up top who regularly enjoy.

This is the setup, and it's not too much of a spoiler to conclude that making it over that hill or fomenting a new uprising might be part of the narrative. The cynical nature of IT's control and the origins of the silo are revelations that drive the narrative as well.

Wool is often compared to The Passage by Justin Cronin, but I actually found this to be a tighter and more readable narrative. It eschews the supernatural element that makes the earlier book fantastical, and in fact revels in the low-tech expertise of Juliette and her companions in Mechanical. Her ability to survive comes to depend on that practical knowledge.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Cairo Affair

I've blown hot and cold on Olen Steinhauer and this is the first thriller of his that I've finished. Comparisons to Le Carre are more aspirational than actual, but this book succeeds in creating an atmosphere of moral ambivalence that is quite convincing.

What attracted me to the book, bought on remainders, was the setting in Cairo -- which is where I would like to situate the second Lord Leighton adventure. There is the obligatory passage through Budapest because Steinhauer seems to really like that city (his first novel, Prague, was actually set in the Hungarian capital). Cairo itself is conveyed a little too sketchily, but the desert scenes are good. Also, interestingly, the drive along the coast into Libya was like those coastal trips of Robert Wilson's protagonist in Instruments of Darkness, giving the reader a new sense of place by bringing alive a stretch of the map.

Steinhauer's narrative here from multiple points of view means there is no single protagonist. Rather, it is like a relay race with first one, then the other character taking on that role. The author makes it clear which of these runners he finds most sympathetic, but even in that case there is some moral ambivalence. The end result, however, is somewhat less than satisfying, because none of the characters then is fully developed.

The action revolves around an American couple, a diplomat who is murdered early on and his wife. We meet Emmet Kohl again in flashbacks to their oddball honeymoon, which for some reason they decided to take in the war zone of Novi Sad. Sophie Kohl is the one thread from the beginning of the book to the end, but she shares screen time with the other characters. She improbably decides to go from Budapest, where her husband was killed, to their previous posting in Cairo to see if she can find out why he was killed. It is a premise already that requires considerable suspension of disbelief and we are never given a convincing motivation for it.

The rest of it, however -- the CIA staff in Cairo, the Egyptian secret service, the rogue operators stretching from the Balkans to the Maghreb -- is full of betrayal and twists that are indeed Le Carre-esque. Above all, the inescapable bureaucratic element of intelligence services is convincingly portrayed. The plot, based on the Arab Spring and the Libyan overthrow of Qaddafi, is quite timely.

It is, in short, an ambitious novel, reasonably well executed and well written. Le Carre it is not, but worth reading on its own merits.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Lexicon

Max Barry's neurolinguistic thriller has a ton of blurbs praising it and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. He creates a conceptual world and a great cast of characters; he keeps the narrative rattling along with suspense and a big dose of humor. For the most part, he keeps the time frame of the disjointed narrative clear enough, though by the end there are so many folds into folds as the times converge, that it's a bit confusing just which one you're following. At that point, though, it hardly matters as you just want to finish in a blur to the end.

A shadowy "organization" of so-called poets maintains a discipline of what they call persuasion, and the rest of us would call manipulation. They categorize people into "segments" that allow them to use certain nonsense words to penetrate the psychological barriers each of us sets up and leave the individual powerless to resist a command -- even if it means shooting yourself or killing others.

Emily Ruff is recruited into this organization at 16 and shows an aptitude for persuasion but lacks the discipline expected of members. The plot is driven by the conflict within her between neurolinguistic manipulation and basic emotional drives. Much of it concerns retrieval and use of a "bareword" -- a potent symbol that penetrates anyone's defenses regardless of segment.

But the story doesn't start with Emily. It starts with Wil Clarke, who is kidnapped in the Portland airport by individuals who think he has the bareword because he survived the annihilation of the entire population of Broken Hill, a dying mining town in Australia. The mysterious death of 3,000 people was attributed to use of the bareword by a person first identified as Wolf, then Woolf, marking her as a renegade poet (members of the organization are given the name of a famous poet). Wil has no idea why he is being kidnapped, no recollection of ever having been in Broken Hill, and no knowledge of anything like a bareword. However, his abductor, Tom Eliot, is convinced he is the "outlier," the only survivor of the Broken Hill massacre.

Only then does the scene switch to Emily's recruitment into the Academy, the training school for the poets. The reader soon realizes this narrative is in a time preceding the opening scene and it doesn't take too long to figure out what poet name Emily is going to get when she graduates. The narrative then alternates between the two timelines, eventually introducing timelines within those timelines.

It is, then, an extremely high-concept scifi thriller, but one that bears its concepts lightly and peopled with sympathetic characters. The villain of the piece is the leader of the poets' organization, Yeats. We know he is evil because he has "flat" eyes. It turns out he also has a simple fetish that makes him vulnerable. He is of course not sympathetic and in fact the least convincing and most two-dimensional character in the book. His motivation is unclear, though his role is less ambivalent as the narrative draws to a close. As a result of the weakness of this character, however, the denouement is something of a letdown and not up the drama Barry has created.

Much of the action takes place in Broken Hill. I've never visited that town but I did spend several weeks in Australia and wrote often about Broken Hill Proprietary, the mining company headquartered there, during its heyday. Barry apparently is Australian and has some fun portraying the pros and cons of his native country and its residents.

The notion of neurolinguistic manipulation is of course very topical in our digital age, and one of the riffs by a member of the organization regarding a project they have to feed people only news they have shown they like so that anything else seems biased is scarily close to what is actually happening.



Thursday, January 22, 2015

All the Great Prizes

I've enjoyed reading this long biography of John Hay by John Taliaferro. What intrigued me is that he began his career as private secretary to Lincoln throughout his presidency and ended it as secretary of state under Teddy Roosevelt -- what a span! When you encounter him in other biographies or histories, he pops up so often, you think there must be several people named John Hay, or father and son, or some such -- but it always the same person.

The time with Lincoln and his subsequent career as a journalist and writer who knew everyone from Mark Twain to Brett Harte were interesting. His various friendships, especially with Henry Adams (so close they built houses together on Lafayette Square that are now the Hay Adams Hotel), are also interesting. I'm abandoning the 600-page book more than halfway through, however, for a couple of reasons.

One is that as admirable as Hay was in many ways he is not a particularly sympathetic individual. He was something of a dandy, and, having married into an industrial fortune, something of a playboy. He put off entreaties of his father-in-law (the source of his fortune) to return home because of the latter's growing depression over a fatal accident on one of his railroads, so that Hay could gallivant around in Europe visiting all his wonderful friends. While he dallied, his father-in-law committed suicide. The author then relates in excruciating detail Hay's infatuations with a couple of the belles of Washington and his letters that would make an adolescent blush. Taliaferro would have us believe that these relationships, if not exactly Platonic, were not consummated, which is a stretch even for that period.

But that brings us to the second reason. Taliaferro has taken Hay mostly through the interim period between Lincoln and Roosevelt without giving much sense really of what was going on in the Gilded Age. The biography seems driven by research in Hay's correspondence and makes little effort to put his activity -- or for much of the time, his inactivity -- in the context of the times. We get glimpses and glances of social ferment as labor forces rise up against the oppression of the plutocracy, but nothing more. Hay, of course, a Republican and plutocrat, has little use for any of that while he writes his gushing letters to his current infatuation, but a true appreciation of his role in history would make such context desirable.

The long and short of it is that Hay has justifiably been forgotten, except for those elusive appearances in the lives of others. Interesting and prominent in his time, he was not a great man. He was in fact a snob and a social climber who lived by his wits and charm, with enough of each to be a zelig in American history. I have too little time to read biographies to spend it on a second-rate figure. So now I'm tackling The Last Lion, William Manchester's epic biography of Winston Churchill.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Breed

This horror thriller by Scott Spencer writing as Chase Novak is a real page-turner, as a deep under-current of satire keeps it buoyant.

Miranda July referred to the book in the By the Book column in the NY Times Book Review on Sunday and I was intrigued enough to download it on my Kindle. I interrupted my reading of Gutenberg's Apprentice -- a good book, but somewhat ponderous -- for this romp through Gothic horror in modern Manhattan.

Leslie and Alex Twisden have tried every form of fertility help and are desperate enough to make the trek to Slovenia to see a specialist who has had miraculous success in helping previously infertile couples produce children. Dr. Kis is successful once again and the couple raises the twins Adam and Alice. The narrative resumes when the twins are 10 and at a critical point in their lives.

It was evident from the beginning that Dr. Kis's treatment -- which relied on an injection of "completely organic" extractions and a special serum -- had some peculiar side effects. In using what we later find out are lupine and ursine hormones to enhance fertility, the good doctor transmitted some other physical and psychological traits from the animal kingdom.

Spencer/Novak is having a lot of fun with this book. Modern obsessions about appearances, prestige, food and, well, having children, are all mocked mercilessly. The horror is real enough -- you never know terrible thing is going to happen next -- but much of the narrative is tongue in cheek, with a sly irony that is profoundly satirical. Dr. Kis, after all, and a novel called Breed where the first litter is named with A's.

Spencer is an accomplished writer. His prose breezes along with occasional lyrical flourish as he shifts effortlessly among various points of view interspersed with old-fashioned commentary as an omniscient narrator. The characters are sympathetic and the reader stays with both the parents and the children as the tension between them comes to a head.

It was a good tip.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Dominion

It's been a long time since I ripped through a 600-page book as quickly as I did with this alternate history thriller by C.J. Sansom. It's another variation on the theme of Hitler winning the war. This time, Lord Halifax becomes British prime minister in 1940 instead of Churchill and signs a separate peace with Germany.

The story picks up in 1952 as a disaffected civil servant, David Fitzgerald, joins the resistance, led by a Churchill in hiding, opposing the pro-Nazi government of Lord Beaverbrook. He photographs secret documents in the Dominions Office where he works, playing on the affections of a coworker to get access to files. Then he is given a special mission to rescue an Oxford classmate, Frank Muncaster, who has been confined to an asylum after he pushed his brother out a second-floor window in his home. His brother, a scientist working on weapons research in the U.S., had confided information on his project to Frank, who was horrified and went into a rage at the information.

The plot turns on this, admittedly, far-fetched premise, but part of Sansom's artistry is that he convinces the reader to go along with it. If any novelist's task is to make the reader care about his characters, Sansom achieves this with flying colors. He carefully controls the suspense as he takes time to explore extensive backstories not only for David, but for Frank, for David's wife Sarah, and eventually for the German Gestapo agent set on their trail, Gunther Hoth.

David and Sarah have lost their only child, who died in a tumble down the stairs. David learned from his mother on her deathbed that she was Jewish, a fact concealed after her family immigrated to Ireland, making him half-Jewish -- or, as he reminds his friend in the novel, since there is no such thing as a half-Jew in the Nazi world, making him Jewish. The only other person who knows this is his father, safely emigrated to New Zealand, but David lives in fear his secret will be revealed.

Much of the narrative tension comes from the growing strain between David and Sarah, as he pursues his life of secrets and lies. She of course first suspects an affair, and David's mission-related flirtation with his coworker fuels this suspicion. There is also the fragile trust between Frank and David, who was one of Frank's few friends in university. Frank is unstable, an odd child bullied and shunned through school and fearful of the secret he has learned from his brother.

And so the plot progresses through a credibly rendered 1950s London unmarked by the ravages of a war that never took place, with forays to the asylum in Birmingham, and eventually the flight of Frank, David, and his resistance colleagues as they seek to keep Frank and his secret out of clutches of the German, or even the collaborating British.

This builds to a satisfying climax over a couple of hundred pages as the resistance mission scrambles to achieve its goal against the backdrop of an ailing Hitler nearing death and the prospect of civil war in Germany over his succession. Sansom even makes an historic smog in London an important factor in the plot.

Sansom is a skilled writer and the book is a pleasure to read. I had read Dissolution and perhaps another one of the Shardlake novels, set in Elizabethan England, as well as Winter in Madrid, but I am fascinated by these alternate histories. This one bears comparison to Fatherland and is at least as good if not better.

There is evidence of sloppy or nonexistent editing. A car's headlights are turned off twice within the space of a paragraph. We are told one of David's resistance colleagues bonded with Frank after sharing the story of her brother, but then several pages later treated to a scene where she is actually doing the sharing.

But these scarcely interfere with the flow of the narrative, enlivened by sharp sketches of the other characters -- David's pompous superior at work, a Special Branch officer assigned to work with the Gestapo in tracking down Frank, a female resistance operative who falls in love with David while assisting him in the rescue of Frank, complicating his strained relationship with Sarah, and several other skillfully drawn minor characters who don't remain two-dimensional plot devices.

Sansom discloses in passing in the acknowledgements that he was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer during the writing of the book and underwent (apparently successful) treatment, making his accomplishment even more admirable.