Aardy R. DeVarque (aardy) wrote,
Aardy R. DeVarque

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Books that I read in October

53. Clark, Mary Higgins. Where are the Children? (252 p.)

54. Buchheim, Lothar-Günther. The Boat (563 p.)

55. Crichton, Michael. The Lost World (430 p.)

56. Clark, Mary Higgins. While My Pretty One Sleeps (318 p.)

57. Crichton, Michael. Sphere (371 p.)

58. Dereske, Jo. Miss Zukas and the Raven's Dance (242 p.)

October total: 2176 pages
YTD total: 17,321 pages

Success! With two months left to go, I've reached my second unofficial reading goal for the year (ETA: due to an accounting error, I later discovered that I'd actually reached it the previous month), and this despite having the amount of time available for reading drastically reduced from what it was before this time last year. (I almost shudder to think how high my totals must have been for some of the years when I constantly had up to three or four books going at once, all year 'round--one at work, one in the car, one on the nightstand, and sometimes one by the couch.) The significant lack of time is most aptly demonstrated by the simple fact that it's now taken me an entire month to get this writeup done.

In any case, finishing two Clark suspenses, two Crichton techno-thrillers, a war (is Hell) novel, and a mystery is not bad for a month's work--certainly not nearly as lopsided a selection as Christie-Myst'ry Month was in September.

Where are the Children? is a suspense novel featuring a woman who seven years ago was convicted of killing her own children, then was acquitted on a technicality. She moved across the country, re-married, and had two more children. Now, the same serial killer who actually killed her first two children and framed her for it has tracked her down and has kidnapped her current children on the 7 year anniversary--which is also her birthday--in order to kill them and frame her again.

Clark does an excellent job of building suspense, though at times you want to yell at the characters for not telling each other what they know or not turning right instead of left. ("If she'd'a gone that way, she'd'a gone straight to the castle at the center of the labyrinth."--Labyrinth.) It's realistic, but to have so much of it crammed into one story makes it more obvious and thus feel more artificial, especially when all of them come to their senses at the same time, at just the right moment to help the protagonist discover where here children have been kept and figure out the true identity of the serial killer.

Written in the mid-1970's, the technology in the novel is a bit dated, but I could almost believe that a Cape Cod-area police department wouldn't have modern communication equipment (or at least radios that the dispatcher could patch through to a phone line). Thankfully, the story doesn't rely too heavily on that as a plot device, so it didn't ruin my suspension of disbelief.

This novel provided yet more proof to me how having children changes your outlook on all sorts of things. In this case, a few years ago, this book wouldn't have fazed me and would've been just another book; now, the raw emotions surrounding the possibility of one's child(ren) being killed were a bit much for me, so I glanced at the end to see whether or not the children survived so that the not-knowing would stop eating at me as the suspense ramped up.

I wouldn't call this one a "fun" read, but I definitely recommend it (unless of course, reading about the kidnapping and potential murder of children presses buttons in you that you'd rather not be pressed).

The Boat is better known by its original German title: Das Boot. The author, Lothar-Günther Buchheim, served on a U-boat as a naval correspondent during World War 2--he was one of the lucky few U-boat sailors who survived the war--and thus knew first-hand what life was really like for those sailors. He claimed that everything depicted in the book really happened, but that he heavily fictionalized all of the people involved into representative composites.

The Boat can easily be put in the same category as "All Quiet on the Western Front", and by all rights it should be considered every bit as much of a classic novel. That said, it is extremely raunchy; the protagonists are all sailors cooped up in a sardine tin for months at a time, with nary a woman in sight, but with hookers by the score when they're in port. As a result, they tell a lot of off-color jokes and stories.

Except for the opening scene, the book starts off slowly, and basically nothing happens for several hundred pages--there are even two chapters in a row titled "Frigging Around"! Buchheim takes the time to do character studies of the U-boat's crew, so it's not as boring as it might be, there's just no "action". This really drives home the life of a U-boat sailor as weeks of boredom suddenly punctuated by hours nail-biting terror (or, when they're stuck in the middle of a hurricane, weeks). Given the obvious technological superiority of the Allies by this point in the war (not the least of which is complete control of the air), it's a miracle any U-boats survived. The scenes where this one ends up on the bottom of the Strait of Gibraltar for too long really drives the point home. (Incidentally, that's one of my favorite bits in the movie--where the crazy engineer finally manages to get the engines re-started. In the book, the scene is much longer, and Buchheim explains just enough of the technology to make it quite clear the horror of losing all of the batteries for the electric motor and having to rely on the diesel motor while that far underwater--diesel motors require oxygen...)

(A bit of trivia about the movie I gleaned from Wikipedia: Apparently, one day in the middle of filming the scenes on the open ocean, the cast and crew went discovered their life-size, working submarine model was missing. It turns out the production company had, without telling them, rented it for a while to some American movie crew who were filming in the area and wanted a Nazi submarine for their movie--a little thing named Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

Overall, if you can put up with the periodic extreme raunchiness and find the gems in the "boring" parts, I highly recommend this book. It's well worth it.

The Lost World is nominally a sequel to Jurassic Park, but it's really just the exact same story all over again, except with brain-damaged characters. Including a cast consisting primarily of a male archaeologist, a female scientist, the Gary Stu mathematician who's an expert on chaos theory (the only holdover from the original), a greedy villain working for a corrupt corporation, and a pair of precocious genius middle-schoolers who can hack into any computer, just like the first book. Oh, and the dinosaurs, of course, though there are a few additional species this time around.

This time at least some of the characters know going in that there are dinosaurs there (though "there" this time is the secret island where the dinosaurs were actually bred and raised, as the scientific facilities on the first island are hand-waved away as being just for show for the tourists), but since one of our heroes went through all this the last time and, as we are often reminded, still bears the scars from it, you'd think they'd be a little better prepared this time around. Or at least that they would expect the multi-ton predators to act like, oh, I don't know, multi-ton predators. Oh, no, we can't have any of that, then it wouldn't be more of the same and thus there's no way it would sell.

The main difference is that the plot hammer last time was all about the folly of hubris and why one shouldn't muck around with Mother Nature. This time... this time I'm left scratching my head. All the same pieces are there, except that key plot hammer. Sure, this is a book about humans being chased by genetically engineered dinosaurs that are running amuck, but this time the dinosaurs aren't really the nigh-unstoppable force of nature they were in the first novel. There's a lot more of an attempt to explain their behavior (thus eliminating much of the mystique/suspense, like when a horror movie shows too much of "the creature"), and also an attempt make them scarier by making them even more unstoppable, more vicious, and more unpredictable--by giving them all Mad Cow Disease.

Yes, you read that right. The baby predators had been fed ground up sheep brains by the scientists, and passed the MCD along to any herbivores who survived their attacks, so now Mad Cow Disease is running rampant among all of the dinosaur species on the island.

And rather than nuke the island from orbit like happened at the end of the first novel, the dinosaurs are left alone to be a population of stark raving mad juveniles who have no real adults (or even puppets as pseudo-adult stand-ins) from whom to learn productive social behaviors (a point which Crichton tries to hammer at, but which is undercut by giving them all Mad Cow Disease), and even if they could learn, they all get wobbly and die off when they're a few years old anyway.

I started out wanting to like this book, as I really liked the original novel and generally at least like Crichton's books, but given how awful the movie sequels were, I went in with probably more realistic expectations than I sometimes do. While there's plenty of park-your-brain-at-the-door action and suspense, there are far, far too many annoying bits that really turned me off. My advice on this one is to read the original (it's better than the original movie was), and don't bother with this one.

While My Pretty One Sleeps is nominally a suspense novel, but it operates more as a mystery except for the last chapter and the denoument, and I thought that worked rather well. And there's a Chicago connection that's handled reasonably well, which is a quick way for a book to get on my good side.

Neeve Kearny owns a high-fashion clothing boutique in New York City. One of her regular clients, who happens to be a fashion columnist who was working on a tell-all story, goes missing and eventually turns out to have been murdered. There are plenty of suspects, and lots of good misdirection, and a bit of suspense as someone secretly hires a mob hitman to kill Neeve. Once the true villain is identified, the suspense part kicks into high gear, as Neeve--seemingly the only person who knows whodunnit--ends up in the killer's clutches without anyone knowing where she is.

I liked this better than Clark's Where are the Children?, not because it's any better-written, but just because it's more mystery than suspense. (Whereas Where are the Children is more suspense than mystery; though it, too, includes elements of both.) I wasn't too fond of the choice of antagonist, but it makes some sense in the story, and there are plenty of clues pointing in that direction.

I also found the novel interesting for having a female protagonist who is all about fashion and yet is a relatively strong character rather than being a stereotypical shallow fashionista to the core--showing that it can be done.

Sphere is set up as another "Man vs. nature" techno-thriller from Michael Crichton, this time set in a Navy deep-sea habitat at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

This time, a team of scientists is pulled together at short notice because a Navy team has found what appears to be an alien spaceship embedded a coral shelf in the Pacific (and thus some 300 years old), and they are all on the list as good candidates to be on a "first contact" mission. They get down to the habitat, and discover it's not an alien spaceship, it's from Earth--from almost 100 years in the future, apparently traveled through a wormhole, and picked up a strange spherical object somewhere along the way. One of the scientists has a close encounter with the sphere, and shortly thereafter, strange phenomena start killing off crew members one by one, culminating in a series of attacks by a telepathic giant squid.

It turns out that the sphere gives humans a limited control over reality (like creating objects out of nothing) simply by imagining the new reality, and the subconscious ids of the three scientists who end up with these psychic powers cause some of their worst fears to be manifested as reality. Which is pretty much what I predicted was happening after getting through the first set of clues, though some of the red herrings along the way threw me off the track for a bit. As happens with Crichton sometimes, there is a lot of what appears to be solidly researched science hiding some bits of what are possibly dodgy science, but for the most part I didn't let it bother me, as once you're off into the realm of reality-bending psychic powers and the story shifts into the mode of suspense bordering on slasher-flick terror, the science isn't necessarily as important as much as it otherwise might be.

Overall, I enjoyed Sphere and would recommend it, though I wasn't happy (and it wasn't clear, so perhaps I was just reading too much into it) to have a lack of confirmation that a plot point that would lead to a sequel wasn't conclusively closed off as it really should have been. Read one way, it's a relatively standard (given the story's unique weirdnesses) suspense-thriller ending; read the other, it's a relatively standard setup for a slasher-flick sequel. I much prefer the former type of ending for this sort of novel.

Miss Zukas and the Raven's Dance is the fourth in Jo Dereske's "Miss Zukas" series of mysteries, in which the amateur detective of choice is a late middle-aged female reference librarian who is a conglomeration of almost every librarian stereotype. Heavy on the shushing, wears sensible shoes, exhibits plenty of OCD symptoms, is overly enamored of classification systems (and in this book is given the opportunity to invent her own), looks down her nose at paraprofessionals unless they manage to prove they know something about the library field, etc., etc. I don't think her hair is mentioned much, but I wouldn't be surprised in the least if she always wears it in a bun. In short, the mere thought of the protagonist leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.

That said, it's not a bad story, as mysteries go; relatively light, and except for hammering the main character's stereotypes, its heart is in the right place. Speaking of stereotypes, this volume includes several Native American characters, and gets close to making most of them somewhat three-dimentional, or at least two-dimensional characters who don't rely too heavily on the standard Indian stereotypes for support. Except for the one who'd be right at home on the cover of a Cassie Edwards "Savage" romance, even down to his name: "Tall Darkheart". (Who turns out to be an Italian masquerading as an Indian, so I guess that makes it okay.)

As you've probably noticed by now, I tend towards science fiction, fantasy, and techno-thrillers for my "park your brain at the door and enjoy the ride" reading; light mysteries like this one aren't generally my cup of tea. But despite my reservations about the protagonist, and the distinct lack of followable clues pointing to the true killer, it's basically a fun read, and if you like "park your brain at the door and enjoy the ride" mysteries, you'll probably like this one, too.

Feudalism: Serf & Turf
Tags: books, reviews

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