Choices of One, by Timothy Zahn

November 26, 2011 at 13:58 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , )

6/10

The Star Wars franchise really is an interesting place. At its simplest, it is a good old-fashioned battle between good and evil. Occasionally, it is an interesting hypothetical look at human nature, the clash and compatibility of opposing philosophies and political theories, and an analogue of certain events in real-life history. It is not too much of a stretch, for instance, to compare the Roman Empire or the British Empire with the Galactic Empire: and then to take true problems and struggles of both of these historical entities, and apply them to this fictional creation. The Star Wars books that succeed above the rather muddled melee of third-rate science fiction and embarrassing fantasy are those that come up with heroes and villains with flaws and strengths, with complexities and conflicting beliefs. Timothy Zahn’s books typically top the list for the Star Wars extended universe, and it will become readily apparent to any reader that follows him that he is a man who can tell an interesting story.

Nevertheless, this is Star Wars, and Zahn is not writing his own ticket here. Star Wars means a battle between good and evil where good wins. It means a Rebel Alliance and it means Han and Chewie and Leia and Luke and the rest of the gang. It is disappointing, then, that Choices of One is a fairly decent and engaging story that has been mauled and twisted in order to fit in the “A-List” stars, but without any real need for them. This story is mostly about Mara Jade; a great deal of it is about LaRone and his friends; Thrawn and Esva are key (but underdeveloped) participants; and a totally unnecessary amount of space and effort is devoted to an entirely meaningless Rebel Alliance subplot.

“‘You, Captain Thrawn, will make that decision,’ Nuso Esva said quietly. ‘You will decide which of your Empire’s precious war machines you will order destroyed. You will decide which of your Emperor’s warriors will die.'”

-Choices of One

Now, this is not unusual. Many books in the Star Wars universe pack Lando off on some bizarre adventure, or have a baffling quest by a group of droids or children to distract from the main story. Honestly, the ensemble cast has grown so large that writers are forced to pack in a half dozen adventures and match up the most unlikely of characters, simply to shoehorn them all in there. But this might be one of the first stories in which the “Rebel Alliance” plot thread (including all of the above movie characters) might be easily removed from the book entirely without changing the story at all.

This plot difficulty (it might be ventured…laziness?) is a serious flaw. Thankfully, the rest of the book is interesting and engaging, though it falls massively short of the sort of thing we have grown to expect from Zahn. He is as melodramatic as usual, ending each chapter (occasionally it feels like each paragraph) with a starkly-worded cliffhanger implying certain death or destruction that never really happens. He devotes himself as always to quoting liberally from the Star Wars movies in his characters’ dialogues and interior monologues; perhaps because he feels his fans get excited over such references, or because he believes it ties his characterisation more closely to the movies themselves.

And that is it. A decent effort, though nothing at all special. Zahn works very hard to create dramatic tension, but the only drama in this book comes from wondering exactly how–not if–the heroes will succeed in their tribulations. It is good to see Timothy Zahn writing again, but he is resting on laurels of past successes.

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Murder in Tombstone, by Steven Lubet

November 23, 2011 at 19:45 (Biography, Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century) (, , , , , , , )

8/10

This was a wonderfully gripping history. Accusations of plagiarism and grandstanding aside, all history books should be written with the same passion and clarity that Lubet manages in his study. While he can come across as suspicious or stodgy at times (or, on the other hand, tenacious and deeply moral), Lubet also appears to rigidly adhere to the facts. His disinterest in a lot of the historical accusations, jibes and brouhahaing allows him to take a forensic look at the evidence and the laws in place, rather than stepping into the brawl himself. It is an irony, then, that his dryness and unwillingness to delve into pettiness is precisely what makes this book so compelling. As a history, this work has become contentious, based largely on the implications of Earp’s gunfight on modern day gun rights. There is no reason why this ought to be the case: and mercifully Steven Lubet has the good sense and professionalism to stay very well away from drawing any connections between the past and the present.

“When Tom threatened to ‘make a fight,’ Wyatt obliged him: ‘I slapped him in the face with my left hand and drew my pistol with my right…and I hit him on the head with my six-shooter and walked away.'”

-Murder in Tombstone

Lubet makes judicious use of plenty of period sources, including the local newspapers and the diary of the garrulous George Parsons, but at no point does he commit the schoolboy error that so many historians plunge gleefully into, and try and end up struggling with an unlikely and badly-drawn account of “what it must have been like”. He is not trying to take his readers on a field trip into the Old West: he is trying to open a court case and a potentially criminal act for study. In some very compelling summaries, the author echoes the reports of Judge Spicer, declaring Wyatt Earp innocent and rehabilitated to history…but not necessarily a wise, honest or good man. His own speculative additions are brief enough to be humble and subtle enough to be thought provoking, and this book certainly succeeds in its scope and stated aims. An excellent effort.

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Donnie Brasco: Unfinished Business, by Joseph D. Pistone

November 10, 2011 at 00:05 (Biography, Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , , )

8/10

As a follow-up to his bestselling and deeply interesting Donnie Brasco, this exposé of the fallout of that affair is a timely release. Thankfully it is also based on enough material to legitimately justify a sequel. The book picks up more or less where the other ended, and for the most part sticks to a straightforward and logical storyline, detailing the Pizza Connection Trial, the Mafia Commission Trial and the lives and times of some of the particularly colourful characters Pistone introduced in his earlier book. One of the interesting choices is his decision to discuss the details of his book’s publication and adaptation to film, and how the telling of the story affected the story itself. This becomes considerably more important later on, when he describes the fallout of other book deals (signed by the mobsters and their supporters), and the significant impact this had on later trials. It also sheds a great deal of light upon Pistone’s motivations and concerns in writing this book.

There are a few constructional problems in the way the book is laid out. Towards the final third of the book, Pistone is forced to jump decades backwards and forwards, and the cast of characters he describes is obviously enormous. This is difficult, but not really the fault of the author.

“‘I want you fired. I’ll have your job. You undercovers aren’t really agents.’
‘I’m a better agent than you are, ever were, or ever will be. It’s bad enough when you question my integrity. Don’t you ever question my ability as an agent. I’ll throw you out this window.'”

-Unfinished Business

Another interesting choice that paid off was the decision to describe Pistone’s miscellaneous adventures since the Donnie Brasco days, involving Triads, Russian gangsters and internecine politicking within the FBI. A dull life he has certainly not led. These stories are placed naturally in the chronology, and are not distracting to the general flow of the book.

It must also be acknowledged that Charles Brandt, Pistone’s acknowledged ghostwriter (his name is even on the cover!) does a sterling job. The voice of the streetwise yet businesslike FBI agent comes through clearly without reducing itself to a horrid cliche; the expletives season the work only enough to punctuate his most salient points, and the New York Italianisms are limited. It feels authentic, but does not feel as if the authors are trying too hard for their own good. Donnie Brasco was not noticeable for especially bad writing, but this book is noticeable for rather good writing. Anyone who has read or enjoyed Donnie Brascowill certainly find much to appreciate here, and this book even sets itself up as a good and informative starting point for histories of the modern American Mafia.

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The Kite Runner, by Kahled Hosseini

November 5, 2011 at 15:52 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , )

9/10

The Kite Runner is one of those rare things in modern literature: a good story about a human being. It does not rely upon unlikely coincidences or fantasies played off as a glamorous counter-culture existence; Hosseini does not drape a limp and flacid series of lukewarm adventures around an unlikely plot twist or a vivid but stereotyped hero. He has a very interesting and tragic story to tell about a boy and his father, and he tells it very well. He is not the cleverest author in the world, and his prose is not immune from occasional hiccups or dullness. His dialogue is sometimes a little crooked, and his habit of reverting to sudden italicised memories for a half page can be distracting: amateur, even. But through this, he manages to place his characters in an intriguing and historic setting, a stage bursting with life and dazzling colours and (for the western reader) mystery: and he does it without sacrificing or even lessening his chief goal of placing the twisted and conflicted heart of a young boy growing into guilty adulthood firmly in the centre of attention.

It is important to be clear: Khaled Hosseini is an excellent writer, and this book is incredibly good. He is not afraid of tragedy, and he seems not to feel the pressure to solve every problem he has raised throughout the book. In this sense he writes realism very well. There is closure, but only in spots; and he seems to relish his unanswered questions, even coming back to them and framing them in the mouths of new characters. He writes foreshadowing like a creative writing student–“and that was the last time that I ever saw him…again”–but works this heavyhandedness into the voice of his narrator, who dwells on such turning points and important moments broodingly.

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.”

-The Kite Runner

Philosophically, Hosseini mixes in an unpolished idea of fate and forgiveness, of the nature of God and the nature of belief, and vague kharmic principles, but readers hoping to find enlightenment in these pages will find (fittingly) only the confused thoughts of a badly wounded boy. Hosseini’s success in raising interesting questions without breaking out of the mould he has set for himself and preaching through his character is remarkable, even if it creates some frustrating moments where the narrator insists on talking nonsense.

This book clearly deserves most of the praise it has been given: if it has weaknesses, they are not fatal, and they are outnumbered by the book’s strengths; if it has unpalatable or dull or frustrating moments, these are subjective to the temperament of the reader. Not yet a masterpiece, but a rich and compelling book.

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The Man with the Golden Gun, by Ian Fleming

November 2, 2011 at 18:42 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Thriller) (, , , , )

4/10

Rather a slow book, and it feels like Fleming might possibly be running out of ideas. Thrill as James Bond sits in Third World airports. Pinch yourself as he checks into sensibly-priced hotels, and hold your breath as he makes small talk with waitresses. Immerse yourself in MI6’s psychological reports – now in triplicate!

And so on and so forth. Scaramanga is neither the debonair madman imagined by Christopher Lee, nor even the megalomaniac tyrant facing off against Bond in other of Fleming’s adventures. He is a third-rate actor in a dry and dusty squabble between East and West, and very much like Fleming’s portrayal of James Bond in many ways. Both are drawn as callous and cruel misogynists, and both are tired and grey almost to the point of exhaustion. Both are forgotten experts in depressingly unappreciated tasks, treated cynically and coolly by distant and faceless superpowers. They seem to recognise this familiarity in each other, but without either much enthusiasm or vigour.

“‘For instance?’ said M. quietly, knowing that death had walked into the room and was standing beside him, and that this was an invitation for death to take his place in the chair.”

-The Man with the Golden Gun

It is a peculiar exercise to wonder where Fleming might have taken Bond next, or if in recognising his own mortality (either unconsciously or intentionally) he began to allow his creation to gradually fade away. But the bookend to the debut of Casino Royale takes a vigorous and amoral superhero and departs with only the energy diminished. There is action (often suitably melodramatic) and plenty of tension introduced–but it does seem that much of the tension is nearing its breaking point: that there is very little at stake. If Bond survives, there is not much of him left to be celebrated. Likewise, if either the concrete-faced Soviet Union or the shabby and grey-suited West triumph, the world will have lost. A very bleak picture, and a book that is not so much gritty as it is sad.

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