Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Return: A Novel, by Michael Gruber

Michael Gruber’s The Return is the literary equivalent of a Sergio Leone western.  A larger than life protagonist, well-defined and interesting characters and a landscape that really comes to life.  

Gruber manages to flesh out a large number of characters while still leaving them with enough mystery that you don’t entirely figure them out until the end of the book, if then.  Richard Marder is a fascinating character and protagonist.  A gun-owning New York book editor who is former Air Force who served in Viet Nam along with a tough as nails Marine(Skelly).

Once Marder is diagnosed with a terminal condition (no spoiler here, it’s revealed on the first page), he decides to head to the birthplace of his now-deceased wife and take care of some unfinished business.  Along the way his former Marine buddy decides to join him and, unexpectedly, his daugher.  The motives of all of these characters, as well as the criminals, drug lords, government and army personnel and natives at their destination in Mexico are murky and difficult to fathom.  This is part of the genius of this book.  There is plenty of action, and a lot of maneuvering and preparing for the larger conflict, but you are constantly wary of everyone’s motives and trying to figure out who is the manipulator and who is the manipulated.

Richard Marder is magnetic personality and knowing that he is going to die is liberating and makes him plausibly fearless.  Episodes from Marder and Skelly’s time in Viet Nam are interspersed and add depth to the story as well as shine a light on their personalities and friendship.  The conclusion of the book is both realistic and satisfying.

Michael Gruber is a talented writer and The Return is a cut above your ordinary thriller.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Full Ratchet: A Silas Cade Thriller by Mike Cooper

Full Ratchet:  A Silas Cade Thiller is the second Silas Cade book by Mike Cooper.  The “hook” of this series is that Silas is an accountant who uses his military background to even the score for financial malfeasance.  It seems like an interesting premise, and the book is well-written, but ultimately it does little else to distinguish itself in the crowded thriller field.

The major failing of Full Ratchet is a muddled plot where even at the end I’m not entirely sure what they were fighting for or why they were fighting.  Silas is engaging enough as an action hero, but he doesn’t really seem overly competent, as is shown later in the book when he partners up with Harmony, a woman hired to find him for murky reasons, who proves to be seemingly much better prepared, skilled, and financed than Silas.  

A significant plot point is Silas meeting the brother he didn’t know he had in a small town outside of Pittsburgh.  The meeting is part of Silas’s reason for taking a job that leads him to Pittsburgh, but both brothers seem to quickly become very reliant on each other and far too trusting.  Silas’s brother Dave is just too inconsistent of a character for me to like or trust him.  He makes a big deal about his “baby” a souped up race car that he only drives to race, but ends up driving around in (somewhat out of necessity) for most of the book with no reference to his earlier misgivings.  His treatment of his friends, even viewed through Silas’s somewhat forgiving eyes, is too unlikeable for him to be a sympathetic character.

Cooper does several things well in this book.  The description of Pittsburgh as a contrast from major metropolis to rusting steel belt city, as well as his description of the more rural suburbs and surrounding countryside have an authentic and genuine feel to them.  The action scenes, gunfights and car chases are all exciting and well-paced (with the exception of one eye-roll inducing scene above a closed auto body shop).  The villains, however, don’t really have a face to them.  They are generic Russian thugs, one of whom is exceptionally tall and strong, but their motives or their employers motives are never sufficiently conveyed.  At least not in a way that identifies a clear path for Cade to counter.

The writing here is solid, but the plot is too muddled and the characterization, particularly of the secondary characters could have been stronger.  Full Ratchet is an interesting read, but it doesn’t really motivate me to pick up more books in the series.

I was provided an advance copy of this book.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Excalibur Alternative by David Weber

The Excalibur Alternative by David Weber is based on the short story Sir George and the Dragon.  It’s a story of Englishmen ripped out of their timeline by an advanced alien civilization and forced to fight battles on their behalf on other worlds.

Like sometimes happens with short stories expanded to novel length, this book slows considerably in the middle and suffers bouts of over-long self-examination and overwrought exposition.  Setting those parts aside, though, the rest of the book is a lot of fun.

The concept of transplanted ancient earth warriors has been done before (namely the excellent Misplaced Legion/Videssos Cycle by Harry Turtledove), but it is done very well here.  The characters are richly drawn and sympathetic.  The aliens are very alien in their appearance, if not as much in their thoughts and actions, however inscrutable they may appear.  The battles are exciting, if one-sided.

As Weber sometimes does, he throws in a pretty big game changer or two about three-quarters of the way through the novel.  Things move pretty quickly and decisively at that point and lead to a thrilling if somewhat predictable conclusion.  

I’m a big fan of Weber’s and have never failed to be entertained by one of his books.  Sometimes, however, it seems as if he is trying to cram an entire series into one book.  He starts off with a great plot concept, slowly plays it out, and then suddenly introduces rapid changes and a big conclusion.  He has either the seeds of an extended series or the foundation of a single non-stop action book, but with inconsistent pacing manages an uncomfortable marriage of the two.

The Excalibur Alternative is a fun read and definitely worth the time.  It may leave you with the feeling it could have been much more than it is.  Recommended read.  3.5 stars