The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy

November 25, 2012 at 19:41 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , , )


“The technical aspects are covered in a way which is rare in the modern novel,” reads one enthusiastic review on the dust jacket of Red October. There is a good reason for that. Clancy has made a career for himself out of knowing stuff about tanks, but it is here in his earlier work that the reputation was made–indeed, where the tail wagged the dog just a little too much. It is unsurprising that Clancy had trouble finding a publisher for this book; equally unsurprising that his eventual publisher was an arm of the US Navy. There is simply far too much jargon, far too many detailed descriptions of trivial machines and dated technology, too many parenthetical and bracketed explanations of rambling groups of acronyms–to make this a good story.

“‘We cannot shoot. Your men cannot shoot. We cannot run from him–he is faster. We cannot hide–his sonar is better. He will move east, use his speed to contain us and his sonar to locate us. By moving west, we have the best chance to escape. This he will not expect.'”

-The Hunt for Red October

Later, Clancy would realise that good books need things like characters and plots, and while he has never abandoned his roots in technical manuals and tactical theses, his writing today is worlds away from Red October. One of the book’s key problems is the misnomer contained in the title. A more apt name might be The Finding of Red October, for the secretive boat has one fatal flaw: it is a Soviet creation, and therefore is located by the plucky American heroes within a chapter of disembarking. This sets the scene for what is really alternate parts propaganda for the West in general and the USA in particular, and a crude and mostly dull litany of bungling and tomfoolery by the inept Reds.

It is difficult to feel much in the way of suspense when presented with Clancy’s ubermenschen in shining armour. Certainly it is impossible to consider for a moment that the utterly incompetent and pantomime Soviets will salvage even a pyrrhic victory. In one jarring chapter, the virtues and blessings of the magnificent world of capitalism are extolled for pages on end, with one character noting offhand that nobody who wants a job and financial security in the West can fail to find both.

This is a fantasy, but with too much technical realism to be a good fantasy. It is a technical manual, but written sarcastically and bitterly. Tom Clancy has never been lionised as a particularly brilliant author, but this is one of his harder books to engage with.

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Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank

November 18, 2012 at 17:57 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Dystopia, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books, War and Politics) (, , , )


A deeply interesting and occasionally exciting piece of speculative fiction, with some surprising and rather drastic swings between poles of optimism and pessimism. The lure of this book is the story and the hypotheses, not the quality or skill of the writing, but Frank does a better job than might be expected of him under the circumstances, and comes away with something better than the common-or-garden airport novelist. As thriller writers go, he is a good sight better than Ludlum, and might be ranked between Puzo on a bad day or Clancy at his best.

“Edgar rocked in his chair, furious. It wasn’t a reason. It was a riddle. He repeated Randy’s words. They made no sense at all, unless Mark expected some big cataclysm, like all the banks closing, and of course that was ridiculous.”

-Alas, Babylon

Considering the bleak and horrific subject of the story, the book is extremely mild, and would make an excellent choice for teenage readers, perhaps as part of a curriculum. That is to say, it is neither provocative nor grotesque, and is at least as sociological as it is geopolitical. There are more questions of small-town politics and living off the land than there are of tactical decisions or ethical dilemmas.

It ought to be asked: should a book be panned, simply because there is little sensational about it? Should a story remain unexplored, simply because the problems and crises faced by its inhabitants generally last no longer than one of the chapters? Alas, Babylon is heavier on the speculation than on the fiction, and Pat Frank is not the most imaginative of writers, but for all its mildness this is an interesting book, and one which succeeds in keeping a patient reader on his toes, and even sometimes surprised. Those left disappointed or wanting more must stop and wonder if Pat Frank has cheated out of a more meticulous story, or if he has neglected to tell the sort of story they were expecting. The choices he makes particularly in the omissions of certain details and subjects are blinders he chooses to wear out of respect for his blinkered and isolated protagonists, not necessarily because of his inability to tell a more holistic story, but because of his keen interest in his smaller scope.

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Peter and the Shadow Thieves, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

November 4, 2012 at 23:04 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )


The startling success enjoyed by Barry and Pearson in their striking debut, Peter and the Starcatchers is not, strictly speaking, quite so startling as to compell doubt in their ability to repeat it. As noted in the review of that book, they neither set out nor managed to write great and towering literature (in spite of very deliberately dangling their toes into that hazardous pool), but found themselves with a very successful and modest adventure story.

In the sequel, some dramatic improvements and some glaring pitfalls will immediately confront the reader. It will not take readers long to realise that there really is no plot in this book that has anything to do with Never Land or the Lost Boys. This is a Peter-and-Molly adventure, and neither James nor Captain Hook are to be invited. With this established, it would have been a wise decision for the authors to abandon pretense of telling a dual narrative, the second of which is anaemic, scatterbrained, and woefully neglected.

“In the distance lay London’s familiar landmarks–the Tower, Tower Bridge, Parliament–looking majestic even in the coal-clouded air. On the right lay the vast, busy complexity of the London docks, a forest of masts rising from hundreds of ships.”

-Peter and the Shadow Thieves

Perhaps a hidden blessing in the abortive second storyline is that Barry and Pearson do realise very quickly where their strengths lie. The tantalising threads of storyline strewn through the first book are taken up again with a vengeance, and both authors set about moulding a book that is not just an origin-story for Peter Pan, but a detailed and layered foundation on which to grow their own creation.

It must also be noted that a constant annoyance has leaked over from the first book, and even grown in proportion. The narrative voice seems more than a trifle rushed, as if the authors have enthusiasm and pluck, but a dearth of real penmanship. London, a city deftly and brilliantly sketched by a hundred authors and songwriters and poets, is muzzily construed at best, with a postcard reconstruction that conjures up exactly nothing. The street urchins are halfhearted, the scrapes and japes fizzle out almost as soon as they begin, and as the characters scurry hither and yon on various brief and unfulfilling quests, there is the distinct feeling that they too are trying to pick up the pieces of a dropped story.

But in the face of this frankly disappointing canvas upon which a good half of the book is played out, there are several reassuring notes. The authors build upon the main characters they had begun, and manage to do so while re-covering precisely the right amount of ground, and unveiling precisely the right amount of mystery to encourage reticent readers to warm to and even grow excited by them. The progression of the starcatcher tale is excellently paced, and it is difficult to accuse this book of dragging its feet.

An encouraging sequel to an impressive beginning, and one that largely improves on its predacessor. Mistakes were made, and this book is far from perfect. But it is enjoyable, and enjoyable is sometimes better than perfect.

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