Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Palace of Treason, by Jason Matthews

The best spy novel I've read in decades. Instead of relying on a hero's absurd capabilities or connections, or on unbelievable plot bridges, Mr. Matthews wrote an intelligent and captivating story. There's terrific character development and well paced suspense.

The stars of the book are CIA agent Nate Nash and his covert spy, Russian Intelligence Service's Dominika Egorova. Apparently there's a prior novel with the back story on Egorova and Nash, but not having read it did not get in my way at all. Egorova hates the kleptocracy of modern Russia, and has no issue revealing secrets to the US. Many of the Russian characters are portrayed as pigs, and many of the CIA brass are also portrayed as incompetent fools who are in place only due to political reasons. There are heroes on both sides; Mr. Matthews takes shots at Russia's leadership and crooked oligarchy, but not its people.

(Probably a Russian novelist could draw the same dreary picture of US Congressmen in the pockets of their lobbyists and PACs, or awkwardly crooked deals like the President's placement of the former attorney for the railroad industry as the head of the Federal Railroad Administration... but I digress.)

There is ample suspense. It is quite difficult to put down, so I recommend allocating a long session to read the book through.

With the right handling, this would make a terrific movie.

Palace of Treason: A Novel

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The President's Shadow, by Brad Meltzer

I had no idea what was going on in this novel. Right up to the last page. My sense is that if I'd read the other books that feature the same main characters I might have had a chance of keeping up.

But here's what's worse: I didn't care. I didn't care about any of the characters, including the heroes. And the plot, as best I could figure it out, was incredible, as in not credible. Also rather horrible.

I'm not going to summarize it because I disliked it.  This one is just not recommended reading.

The President's Shadow (The Culper Ring Series)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

When to Rob a Bank, by Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner

It turns out that if I had been reading the authors' Freakonomics blog all along, I'd have had no reason to read this book. It is a sampling of 132 blog entries.  But ha! The last laugh is on the authors, as I read a copy of the book borrowed from my local public library and not purchased! (See also their blog entry, "If public libraries didn't exist, could you start one today." [p14.] I guess they're okay with it either way.)

When to Rob a Bank: ...And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Thief, by Mark Sullivan

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. The genre is "hero ex special forces operator does good deeds," but Mr. Sullivan found a unique angle which he executed quite well.

Our hero is a thief: Robin Monarch, who grew up in the slums of Buenos Aires and was rescued from a gang life by Sister Rachel, a nun and physician. She got him into the US Army, and after a career there and in the CIA, Monarch became a freelance thief who splits his ill gotten gains with the Sister's charity. Of course she believes the money is earned honestly. And similarly, the Robin Hood -like hero only steals from bad people.

If you go for this sort of book, you're likely to enjoy this one. I anticipate a sequel from Mr. Sullivan and I look forward to reading it.

Thief: A Robin Monarch Novel (Robin Monarch series)

Sapiens, by Yuval Harari

Sub-titled, "a brief history of humankind," Sapiens is a macro level view of the origin of our species. It is one of the more interesting of such books that I've read because Professor Harari has a great writing style and keeps things on pace. He does have a transparently cynical nature though, which comes through repeatedly. The general tone is, with all our cognitive ability and technological ability to harness materials in innovative ways, humans are trending towards destroying the earth rather than towards improving the planet.

Even the agricultural revolution, which you might think of as a positive because it increased the amount of available food, had the cost of population explosions (with resultant health disasters due to poor hygiene and overcrowding) and the formation of a class system ("pampered elites") thus leading to an oppressive society rather than the egalitarian one of nomadic subsistence.

I've made is sound as though Professor Harari beats one over the head with a hammer with this sort of stuff and that is not the case; he uses a small and painless mallet for these occasional comments. But at the end I found that he'd made quite the case. Not that I'm eager to collect nuts and berries, but from a planetary macro perspective, he may well be right.

In my view it is worth reading.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Collision, by William Cohen

Mr. Cohen came to fiction writing as a tertiary career; he'd been a Congressman and Senator and was President Clinton's Secretary of Defense. He writing, then, is what you might expect: competent but not phenomenal. He makes up for that with good plot line and reasonably strong character development.

The hero of this novel is a former Senator and national security advisor to the President, and current practicing attorney, named Sean Falcone. Falcone was a POW during the Vietnam conflict. (Yes, that puts our hero in his mid-60's. No ageism here.)

The book was surprisingly credible: no conveniently enabled super hero stunts per the typical suspense genre. Even Falcone's access to the upper reaches of US Government seems reasonable given the background of his character.

All in all, not fabulous, but I'll read Mr. cohen's next novel to see if he's improved with practice. But only if I can get it on loan from the public library; he doesn't pass the "I'm eager to pay for it with my hard earned cash" test. Yet.

Collision: A Novel

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Janson Equation, by Douglas Corleone

Apparently the characters in this novel originated with the late Robert Ludlum, so his name gets a large font billing on the cover of this book.

The first chapter of this book was a test: given such poor writing, is it worth going on?  The writing mysteriously got better. Or maybe I became inured to it. The plot movement is fast. It is the standard super hero spy can do anything kind of novel.

Let me justify my condemnation of writing style. The first sentence of this novel ran 93 words. Yes, in one sentence. And it wasn't a great sentence. Here's a sample from page two:
"Lynx fished around the inside pocket of his jacket and plucked out a small key to open the lock on his bicycle, then walked the bike away from the compound before lifting his right leg over the frame and straddling it."
Perhaps I'm too demanding. Why did the reader need to be told that the key was small, that the right leg went over the frame first, that the rider ended up straddling the bike? Still, this was a way better sentence than others (and yes, I'm too lazy to retype the first long line of the novel).

Having just finished the masterfully written "Fifth Gospel," my standards have been set high due to brilliant craftmanship. Maybe that's why reading this novel was so jarring.

So is this worth reading?  If you can get it at a steep discount, it is a good airplane book. You can leave it behind or at a hotel for the next traveler to pick up.

Robert Ludlum's (TM) The Janson Equation (Janson series)

The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell

This is a fantastic novel. It is a mystery, but really more than that. Mr. Caldwell's writing is exemplary, his plot line entirely believable, and his character development is outstanding.

The hero, Father Alex Andreou, is a Greek Catholic priest who works at the Vatican. Greek Catholic means that he can be married (and was, and has a child, and is a single parent as his wife left him) and still be follower of the Pope. (Unlike Greek Orthodox priests who can be married but who have disdain for the Pope.)

His brother Father Simon is a Roman Catholic priest, and gets into trouble as he reported the death of his friend Ugo Nogara in a dark unused park. Why was Nogara killed? Who did it? Why is Simon investigated by the Vatican (in a civil proceeding) for the murder?

The story is narrated by Alex. His role as a single parent is never abandoned as he pursues the mystery both on physical and also intellectual terms (as in, what secrets did Nogara discover in his reading of the Diatessaron gospel and his investigation of the Shroud of Turin).

You needn't be Catholic nor Greek Orthodox to appreciate this novel. It is simply great literature.

The Fifth Gospel: A Novel