Friday, September 23, 2016

Tom Clancy Commander in Chief: Powerfully Entertaining Read

Book Review: Tom Clancy Commander in Chief by Mark Greaney
Version: Public Library

The next novel in Mark Greaney's Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan series is Commander in Chief. When you look at the Russia of Vladimir Putin, you see a vivid reflection in the plot behind this spellbinding 2015 novel.

In this story, the Russian president is named Valeri Volodin. He has many ambitions, but many of his plans have failed, thanks to world economic sanctions and the dropping price of oil. The Russian economy is in free fall and the oligarchs who support him aren't happy - aren't happy enough to consider deposing him. This calls for drastic actions on his part.

Volodin begins a series of bold underhanded attacks around the world planned to boost the price of oil. Of course, they are made to look like the actions of others, but the United States has an inkling who is really behind them. And U.S. President Jack Ryan and independently his son, Jack Ryan, Jr., who works for a CIA-tied security consulting firm, work to figure out all the twists and turns and conflicts behind the actions to prevent more world chaos.

Knowing he hasn't much time to please the oligarchs who have threatened him, Volodin decides to hedge his bets by trying to secretly move his multi-billions in cash to offshore accounts. He hires a hedge fund manager he can trust and who doesn't work for the other oligarchs to move his money quickly and quietly, sending along his most trusted security agent to make sure his money stays his. But Jack Ryan, Jr., and a host of other security consultant characters, track them down with the goal of boxing in Volodin while they can still track his money.

The biggest contest, however, is a chess match Volodin has set up in Eastern Europe between members of NATO, as he threatens to invade Lithuania and Poland, recognizing the unwillingness of NATO members in Western Europe to defend its newest members against a battle they refuse to accept is certain to happen. And President Ryan must decide whether to commit U.S. troops alone in defense of NATO allies or give in to Volodin's misadventure. Jack Ryan, Jr., and his colleagues are sent in as intelligence assets, putting their lives further at risk, too.

Commander in Chief is detailed, well written, and suspenseful. The characters are well drawn and the scenes are vivid. As a political thriller, it's a top notch read and in today's geopolitical world, it's totally believable. If you've read Greaney's Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect, which preceded this novel, you will know what a powerfully entertaining read this novel is, too. I'm happy to say that I highly recommend it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect: Relevant Riveting Read

Book Review: Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect by Mark Greaney
Version: Public Library

Tom Clancy novels have a habit of ringing true to the events of the day. As I read Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect, the North Koreans were testing more ICBMs and nuclear weapons, and here these very actions were appearing in the words I was reading in this excellent novel from October 2015, written by author Mark Greaney. (Note: Tom Clancy passed away in 2013.)

The main plot is a young North Korean dictator who wants to exert power and enhance his own prestige by building a bigger, better nuclear missile program. To do so, he must break through world economic sanctions and blockages of ships delivering parts, and he needs a new source of income to afford it all. His Chinese neighbors help him discover a wealth of rare earth minerals buried in the North Korean fields, and the dictator moves heaven and earth to extract it and refine it, with the help of a North Korean intelligence leader and a new minerals management official - both under threat of death by attack of hungry dogs, including their families, if they fail. U.S. President Jack Ryan knows he must thwart this effort at any cost to protect the U.S. West Coast from North Korean missile attack, and with the help of the CIA and a private consulting company of ex-CIA agents, including the president's son, they expose the dictator's scheme and foil the dictator.

This is one among several Tom Clancy novels in the familiar theme of CIA analysts and operatives living a life of danger preventing world chaos and imminent danger to American interests. They are good quick reads, well paced, and thoroughly believable owing to their detail and how closely they track to current events. In this case, it was a Tom Clancy franchise novel written by author Mark Greaney.

It isn't one of those thoughtful, feel-good books or even something you will leave thinking a great deal about afterwards. But it is a relevant, riveting read that, given free time, you can knock off quickly. I enjoyed what is likely a very good look at life inside North Korea and the thrill of the chase.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Nominations for the National Book Awards Announced

Nominations for the 2016 National Book Awards were just announced. There are four categories, with 10 nominees listed for each category:

  • Fiction
  • Non-fiction
  • Poetry
  • Young People's Literature

Winners will be announced on November 16. Congratulations to all the nominees. See the complete list at the National Book Foundation site here.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Summer Reads Lists

Just found an article in Google News headlined as "The books critics say you should read this summer" (via Quartz blog). Take a look and let me know what you think. Any titles you'll be picking up for your bookshelf this summer?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Chasing the Last Laugh: More Documentary than Interesting Read

Book Review: Chasing the Last Laugh by Richard Zacks

This will be a short review. I found this book tedious reading. Although I was once a fan of Mark Twain and, in fact, have a collection of his works, this biography of his latter years came off for me as more documentary than interesting narrative.

At the end of the 19th century, Mark Twain was once America's best paid author. But through faulty investing and a senseless trust in those who handled his money, Twain fell on hard times. His wife Livy had a rich inheritance and Twain spent through a good part of that as a result, but she felt honor bound to pay back their debts, even as they faced the embarrassment of bankruptcy.

This book is about the solution Twain and a close associate devised to help pay off their debts and earn money to live on. And that was a year long trip across the United States and to Australia, New Zealand, India, and other parts of the world on a speaking tour, where Twain could entertain audiences with his wit and wisdom. It gets into very specific detail about his debts, their causes, and those who tried to help him overcome them.

In all fairness to the reader, I didn't finish the book. It was a depressing read and I found it not humorous as his writings often were. The detailed accounting of his life's miseries and setbacks dragged me down. I suppose it was important to tell the whole story, but it wasn't my kind of read.

Mark Twain was an American original. Knowing about his later years probably makes this an important read, if you can wade through the detail and get through the morbidity of his failures. But then you lose the sense of the mythological humor figure that was Samuel Clemens. In this case, you aren't chasing the last laugh at all.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Sleeping Giants: Science Fiction, Mystery, and Not So Thriller

Book Review: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (Library Copy)

I haven't read a good science fiction since The Maze Runner series. The back cover sells Sleeping Giants as "Reminiscent of The Martian and World War Z," but believe me, Sleeping Giants isn't anything like The Martian. I can't speak for World War Z, having not read it. It also sells itself as a mystery, but it doesn't get to the mysterious intensity of the The Maze Runner stories.

Clearly, the science fiction is apparent in this book. There is much mystery in the book, too. There is the strange giant hand discovered in the beginning of the story, and the giant forearm a bit later on, plus the rest of the body parts, not to mention the overall purpose of the "sleeping" giant once they put everything together. The entire story surrounds a small team of researchers from academia, the military, and a leader we even unto the end of the book know nothing about, all trying to unwrap the conundrum that is this ancient alien battle bot that as we read on learn has enormous powers. Neuvel handles that story line deftly.

In the sense that it involves an indestructible robot sent by aliens that is meant to ensure peace, that is there for defensive purposes, not offensive, and that we are strung along until near the end of the story to learn of its true purpose and power, Sleeping Giants really is more like The Day the Earth Stood Still. In that it involves no interceding alien being spokesperson, it falls short of that classic film - either version.

This book has lofty goals and meets many of them. It is interesting. It's characters are multidimensional and likable, even the enigmatic leader. The main plot behind the story is even mildly possible. The narrative style is unique, using memos, interviews, lunch discussions, phone conversations, and other inventive techniques to tell the story. Unfortunately, as much as it succeeds it also disappoints. For one thing, he fails to finish the story. It suggests that there may be more than one sleeping giant, yet we are never provided even a glint of that part of the story. We are told that the purpose of the sleeping giant may be to defend against alien invasion, but we are never allowed to witness that prospect. And worst of all, Neuvel doesn't resolve the dilemma of the characters - we leave them in limbo. Perhaps he is going to resolve this in the sequel. But even so, Neuvel should have written an ending, a conclusion from which the sequel might spring.

I guess my conclusion would be that Sleeping Giants was definitely a science fiction and a mystery - an interesting read, even enjoyable for the most part - but with missing elements and no ending, it was also a no thriller. As the first part of the Themis Files series, let's hope it gets better from here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pan: A Fantasy Voyage of the Imagination

Movie Review: Pan (2015)

I'm tired of movie retreads. But I wasn't tired of the Pan remake of the classic Peter Pan story. It was imaginative, colorful, fluent, evocative, and most of all, it was fun. For all ages.

This version of the classic Peter Pan tale tells the story of Peter's origins. He is an orphan, left as a baby on the doorstep of a nunnery in World War II London. The nunnery runs an orphanage, and the orphanage sells the young boys to pirates, who arrive in the night to drop down from sailing ships in the sky to take them away to Neverland. In Neverland the boys are "freed" to mine for "pixem" (fairy dust) on behalf of the most famous and fearsome pirate of all time, Blackbeard. But when Peter's mother left him at the nunnery, she left him with a small token around his neck: a tiny pan or flute that proves that he is no ordinary boy. He's a foretold boy who can fly, who will save the inhabitants of the island.

Lifted up to Neverland with other boys one night, Peter is taken to Neverland to toil away on Blackbeard's behalf. And the battle to save Neverland and kill Blackbeard begins. Along the way, Peter meets Hook, an adventurer who befriends the young lad, and Tiger Lily, who protects the fairies from the pirates. When it is discovered that Peter can fly, the conflict between Peter and Blackbeard is set up and the battle between them begins, with Hook and Tiger Lily at his side against Blackbeard and his band of merry pirates.

The acting in this film is superb. Hugh Jackman is barely recognizable but brilliant as Blackbeard. The film introduces Levi Miller as Peter, commanding in the role for one so young. Garrett Hedlund is Hook, surprisingly likable for the scourge of a character he is usually portrayed. And Rooney Mara is Tiger Lily, a beautiful but fearsome tribal princess sworn to protect the fairies.

The staging, the set decoration, the visuals, the color, the effects are all wonderful. Even the flying sequences are accomplished effortlessly. One example of the brilliance of this film is that gunshots are seen not simply as gun flashes with shot flying but as bursts of powdery color. The fairies are winged sparkles of color. The tribe's encampment is a concoction of colorful wigwams and tents and tree houses, almost carnival like. The Neverland island is an amazing amalgam of jungle-like rain forests and caves. Mermaids are beautiful swimming creatures with shimmers in their tails. And the crocodiles are giants that can leap through the air. Neverland and the trip there are a fantasy voyage of the imagination.

In Neverland mythology, the boy who can fly comes to kill Blackbeard. And Blackbeard is intent on mining the entire island of pixem, which rejuvenates him, the last part of the island not yet mined being where the fairies live, hidden. And so the final epic battle is between Blackbeard and Peter, who doesn't believe he can really fly. But when all of Neverland is at stake, Peter's faith in himself is put to the test. Ships fly, fairies fly, crocodiles fly - oh why, oh why, can't I?

I've seen a lot of the Peter Pan films and I think this is one of the best. For sheer fun and imagination it tops all the others. Pan makes for a great evening of family entertainment. Watch it on DVD.