Month: January 2006

Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Morrow, 2005, 242 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-073132-X

As a reviewer, part of my mission is to single out worthy books that deserve your attention. There’s nothing better in this hobby than to discover an unjustly forgotten work and sing its praises in the hope to convince even just another reader to seek it out.

In the case of Freakonomics, though, it’s far too late to be celebrating anything: Published in early 2005, this book of practical sociology quickly became one of the best-selling books of the year, topping the charts even as I write this, even after finding a 24th hardcover printing copy at the local remainder bookstore. Critics ranted and raved, blogs embraced and dissected, readers bought and enjoyed: At this point, there doesn’t seem anything left to proclaim about Freakonomics, the book of choice for everyone who was looking for a brainy-but-not-too-much gift for Christmas 2005.

So much for trying to find a hidden gem. But what about celebrated gems? Knowing its massive runaway success, it’s difficult to read Freakonomics, without trying to identify what made the book such a hit. There’s the catchy title, there’s attractive green-apple-and-orange cover, there’s the short page count, there’s the enticing cover blurb by global best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.

But there’s more. As the subtitle suggests, Freakonomics describes how “a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything.” The premise is simple: Apply the dismal science of economics to study how people behave. While sociologists have been doing this kind of social science thinking for a long time, Steven D. Levitt has the added distinction of being a certified economist. Is it possible to suppose that Americans, fascinated by the comforting certitude of numbers, would flock to a kinda-scientist if he promised to make sense of the world?

Maybe. But that kind of description severely belittles the sheer fun and impact of Freakonomics. The book doesn’t lose any time in announcing its colors. In the introduction alone, we’re told that legalized abortion lowers the crime rate; that real-estate agents demonstrably shirk their clients; that money doesn’t buy elections. Then Levitt promises to overturn conventional wisdom through hard numbers. In short, Levitt promises a better understanding of the world. Think of is as unlocking the inner working of society’s engines. Who could resist such a call? It’s like the intellectual appeal of The Da Vinci Code… for real.

Culled from Levit’s academic work (with, presumably, prosaic glue by Dubner), Freakonomics upsets a few bandwagons, teases fascinating results out of spreadsheets and does a fine job at applying the analytical tools of economics to real-life conclusions. The result is closer to sociology than economics, but who cares when you’re having so much fun?

And if Freakonomics has one particular distinction, it’s the sheer reading pleasure with which readers will tear through it. Dubner’s style is crystal-clear and Levitt’s conclusions are fascinating: It doesn’t take much more to blaze through this book without slowing down. The only thing to stop anyone, in fact, may be the desire to slow down and think about what’s just been written.

Because there is plenty of food for thought here. Among the book’s controversial assertions is the elegant deduction that the current slide in crime rate is partially due to legalized abortion: Disadvantaged people who would have committed crime starting from the early nineties were simply never born thanks to 1973’s Roe-vs-Wade decision. While the proof of such an argument is left to people curious enough to track down the references (Freakonomics is exquisitely well annotated), it’s certainly a decent conversation item at your next cocktail party. This shock-conclusion also announces Levitt’s twin interest in both parenting and crime. Levitt has spent a lot of time thinking about both, and Freakonomics spends most of its length studying the interactions between incentives, crime and parenting, teasing out conclusions that you will either find self-obvious or provocative.

Levitt concludes, for instance that pools are far more dangerous for children than keeping a gun at home. Similarly jolting conclusions are to be found throughout the book, whether it’s the revelation that teachers cheat, that seven million American “children” disappeared on April 15, 1987 and, perhaps more amusingly, that parenting doesn’t matter as much as you’d think in raising a child.

(I might as well explain that last one rather than tease you about it: Levitt, looking at the data, figures that who parent are is more important than the explicit steps they take in order to be good parents. Simply put, well-adjusted individuals are, almost by definition, more likely to be great parents than problem personalities trying to compensate through fancy educational programs and techniques. Good parents will have books in the house, for themselves, before the baby is born: they don’t rush out and buy a library for the kid in the hope that proximity to books will somehow increase their child’s IQ. It’s cause-and-effect all the way, baby.)

Freakonomics rates highly on the idea-per-page scale, with at least one provocative fact or one inspiring conclusion every few pages. Beyond just being good conversation fodder, this is a good that does present some sensible ideas about today’s society.

There’s a flip side to the book’s razzle-dazzle, though: For one thing, it’s very short at less than 250 loosely-packed pages. Even though the book contains both a great “Notes” section and a complete index, it often feels like an advertisement for more serious research. Readers with a greater craving for details, methodology and “proofs” will have to go digging in academia to be satisfied. There are also times where the authors make sweeping assertions and fail to connect them satisfactorily to their specific proof, leading me to think that any of the book’s fantabulous theories should be taken with a grain of salt. Finally, I wasn’t taken by the quotation of Dubner’s New York Times article about Levitt here and there between chapters: Why not reprint the article as an introduction and let the rest of the book expand on it?

But those disappointments seem minor compared to the intellectual charge that Freakonomics contains. Even hyped as it is, it’s well worth a read: Like most ideas-driven work, Levitt’s theories expand your mind in strange and pleasant directions. The last few years have seen a rise in this type of “let’s rethink the world” non-fiction (what with authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Friedman and others) and the result is a big cauldron of new ideas, counterintuitive theories and fresh approaches. Why not jump in and and see that’s brewing?

Persuader, Lee Child

Dell, 2003, 465 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24100-6

I like to think of myself as well-read in the modern thriller genre, but now and again I get a reminder that I still have a few blank spots in my evaluation of the field. Lee Child was one of those regrettable oversights: I had managed to avoid any of his nine novels so far. With Persuader, the seventh book of his “Jack Reacher” series, I finally correct the error.

Jumping in the middle of a series is supposed to be a difficult thing, but there’s no such trouble with Persuader, as the plot is quickly set in motion with a minimum of back-story fuss. Narrator Jack Reacher, we are quick to understand, is a man without a fixed address, a capable operative -last formally employed as a military policeman- with a tendency to take the law in his own hands. In Persuader, he’s called to action to protect a young man from a kidnapping attempt… or does he? The deliciously untruthful first chapter sets the tone with a sharp action scene and a frenetic escape sequence with a twist.

If you like thrillers, Persuader quickly becomes a compelling read full of developments, twists, counter-twists, shocks and suspense. Reacher, as a narrator, is the prototypical strong silent type, an attitude that sometimes clashes with the demands of storytelling. Still, we get a strong impression of a no-nonsense guy with a frightful amount of experience. The prose can be overly descriptive at times, but the overall impression is of a lean thrill ride with a sufficient amount of technical details to make it completely convincing. After reading the book, I was half-convinced that Child must have been a military operative himself, but from interviews I gather that’s he’s “just” unusually skilled as a researcher. Among other crunchy details, Persuader digresses on the advantages and disadvantages of Uzis, how to smuggle things past a metal detector and the way to beat Russian Roulette. (Kids, don’t try it at home. Or anywhere else.)

Persuader attains a comfortable balance between the thriller conventions and the need to be original. Even as we get the usual twists and double-crosses, Child often throws in a interesting sequence or two with a flair for the dramatic. Reacher is not someone who dawdles a lot on his convictions, and so the novel can ofter veer suddenly into hard-edged violence, which is always a good way to keep things interesting. But beyond surprise, Child also knows to to create suspense efficiently: One of the book’s standout sequence occurs late in the novel as Reacher knows that his cover is about to be blown by two escapees. What he does to stop them is suitably inventive and dangerous.

But as satisfying as it is, this is hardly a perfect novel. Perhaps the single sustained low-point of Persuader are the running flashbacks: While Reacher’s motivations in this book are more than partly personal, I’m not sure that we needed to read the entire subplot explaining his present-day attitude, especially since we already know where Reacher ends up. As a newcomer to the series, I can’t say whether this look back at Reacher’s career introduces incoherences with his story line up to now, but I suspect that Child may be running into the typical problems of a series writer trying to stuff too many significant episode in a character’s pre-series history.

On the other hand, Persuader makes very few references to Reacher’s previous adventures, which may or may not be a good thing: newer readers such as myself can enter the series without too much trouble, while seasoned fans may miss the development of the characters and the consequences of his previous actions. I keep writing that series fiction is double-edged sword, but this is one of the few times I find myself on the “neophyte” side of the equation rather than in the “established fan” category.

This won’t remain the case much longer, of course: While I’m stopping short of rating Persuader as a solid formula thriller, it does show that Child is an author worth investigating further. Don’t be surprised if reviews of other books in the series start appearing here soon, as I pick them up in used book sales and remaindered sections. There may not be anything completely fresh in the Jack Reacher books, but well-handled thrillers are always a joy to read.

Be Mine, Rick Mofina

Pinnacle, 2004, 344 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7860-1526-8

I’ve been following the career of local Ottawa-based mystery writer Rick Mofina with some interest, even despite my occasional reservations about the way he re-uses and overuses elements of his continuing series. As I mentioned in my review of his previous novel No Way Back, protagonist Tom Ridge has had members of his family kidnapped or threatened roughly once per book so far, and it was a fair question to ask whether Mofina could free himself from one of the cheapest thrills in the genre.

If nothing else, Be Mine shows that Mofina is capable of playing creatively in his own sandbox. While firmly set in the established universe of Mofina’s series, Be Mine has the good sense to focus on other things: The result is, despite a number of mis-steps, closer to what feels like a reasonable thriller as much as it’s a murder mystery.

While series protagonists Tom Reed (journalist) and Walt Sydowski (policeman) are in no immediate danger this time around, one can’t say the same about Tom’s colleague Molly Wilson. Molly, a supporting series character here getting a starring turn, is devastated when she learns that her cop boyfriend has been found dead, possibly murdered. Could this possibly be the work of a desperate stalker trying to kill any possible competition for her affection?

Of course it is. The only questions worth asking in this type of thriller are Who? and How long before he strikes again?

Quickly, efficiently, Mofina cranks up the tension. His real-life experience in newsrooms serves him well when comes the time to show how the media reacts to a crisis, especially when one of their own is concerned. As with the series’ previous novels, editorial conflicts, procedural details and deadline imperatives all add to the verisimilitude of the book and give a different spin to the usual police thriller. Tom Reed is once more on the case, and everyone will be overjoyed to learn that neither he or his family even come close to being kidnapped during the course of this adventure.

The prose is brisk and transparent, delivering the kind of efficient reading experience that Mofina fans have come to expect from the author. This is a classic paperback thriller, fit to entertain on the bus and be read in not much more than an afternoon.

Which isn’t to say that the book doesn’t have its occasional weaknesses. The identity of the killer (after multiple red herrings and a narration that pretty much lies to us), is a real let-down, completely ludicrous yet easily deducible by experienced genre readers. (For the second time this month, I found myself muttering “Don’t do that, don’t go there, don’t make this guy the real killer” as I was nearing the end of a book.) It’s fortunate that there’s more to mysteries than a simple revelation of the killer’s identity, because that “No! It’s him!” shtick is getting seriously old. (What happened to real procedurals? Eh, don’t answer that.)

Among other minor let-downs, I note a weak resolution to this book’s bit of newsroom infighting, almost as if Mofina was reaching the degree of diminishing returns with his series of Bad Editors. Then there’s the book’s last-minute slide from murder mystery to action thriller, in an explosive finale that feels disconnected from the rest of the novel. Maybe it’s time for Mofina to commit himself to a full-fledged action thriller from start to finish?

But all in all, it’s hard to be disappointed: After five books, Mofina fans know what they’re going to get with every book. While annoying, Be Mine is generally as enjoyable as Mofina’s previous novels and avoids many of the pitfalls that plagued his last few books. While I remain convinced that the Reed/Skydowski protagonists are played out as dramatic leads, Be Mine is fair in how it uses their particular skills in service of someone else’s story. I remain hopeful that Mofina will next tackle a different set of characters (Indeed, The Dying Hour seems to feature new protagonists) and maybe step up the ambition of his projects, but Be Mine is a solid entry that should satisfy his fans.

Woken Furies, Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2005, 436 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07326-8

I’d been waiting a while for Richard Morgan’s follow-up to Broken Angels in the “Takeshi Kovacs” SF/thriller series. After the unsubtle but strangely compelling singleton Market Forces, where would Morgan take his tough-guy hero?

Back home, of course. As Woken Furies open, Kovacs is back on his native Harlan’s World, trying to stay alive as he pursues his own little vendetta. Scarcely anything is left of the Envoy he once was, or the widely-respected operative he then became: Reduced to taking up arms with a mercenary unit, Kovacs looks as if he has nowhere lower to go. But just wait, for famous revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer just may be back from the dead… and few on Harlan’s World are ready for another uprising.

An amusing feature of the Kovacs series so far has been seeing how Morgan buried hints about his upcoming books in the previous ones. Altered Carbon mentioned Martians, which were covered in Broken Angels, which spent some time discussing Quellist philosophy, which is studied in Woken Furies. Also worth mentioning is how the flavor of each entry differs slightly: the first was a hardboiled mystery; the second was closer to military science-fiction; the third is more akin to a straight-up thriller.

Unfortunately, those are just about the most interesting things in the book. After three vivid novels, Morgan here displays a creative stall: Kovacs is too familiar to be interesting, his universe now seems too well-worn to be surprising and the quality of the novel’s individual scenes never reaches the level of his first three books. Wasted elements abound, perhaps showing a lack of interest in pursuing the story to its logical end.

There is a tricky equilibrium between being “intimate” and being “dull”. While no one will deny that this is Takeshi Kovacs’ most personal story so far, it’s a matter of preference to say that Woken Furies is the series’ most boring entry so far. Kovacs may be more involved in this story than in any of the previous ones, but it’s difficult to care. Indeed, it seems as if we learn even less about him than in either of the previous two books. His motivations become increasingly implausible as he is drawn into another uprising. The sad truth may be that there isn’t much left to learn about Kovacs.

But worse is the dawning realization that the same may be true about his universe. The joyously fresh “sleeving” tricks used to such great effect in the the previous Kovacs book here seem ordinary and expected. While Altered Carbon and Broken Angels each had a handful of dynamite set-pieces, Woken Furies is far less distinctive, fading in memory almost as soon as it’s completed. There is as much sex and violence here than elsewhere in Morgan’s oeuvre, but even it seems forced and featureless.

This lack of distinction further contributes to the sense of aimlessness while reading the book. At a dense 436 pages, Woken Furies simply doesn’t deserve to be that long. It takes forever for the ghost of Quellcrist Falconer to emerge from the morass, and when it does, the novel scarcely focuses on that aspect. It says much about the book that I’ve managed to come this far in the review without mentioning the sub-plot in which Kovacs is being hunted down by a younger version of himself. Unfortunately, the encounters between the two don’t seem all that worth a mention. Oh well.

But be careful: don’t jump ahead of me and presume that this is a bad novel. For all of my ambivalence regarding its length and impact, Woken Furies is still better than the majority of the books I’ll read this year. There’s plenty of political material, for instance, with assorted fundamentalist-bashing. (Or, in Kovacs’ case, rather more than just a bashing). There are musings on the nature of revolutions and popular movements. There’s action, sex and violence, as expected as they may seem from a Morgan novel. There’s an interesting development to the revolutionary ideal (when people essentially live forever, it become reasonable to say “if all else fails, enjoy life and wait until the time is right”). If that had been a first novel by an unknown author, chances are that I would have flagged the author as someone to watch.

But this is Richard Morgan we’re talking about. One of the brightest young firebrands of British SF. Despite the body count and the established series, Woken Furies is dull, and that activates a warning signal regarding Morgan’s next few novels. I really do hope that Black Man is a step in the right direction; at the very least, it appears to be disconnected to the Kovacs universe, and at this point, that can only be a good thing.

1st to Die, James Patterson

Warner, 2001, 462 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61003-8

If I had a subtitle to this review, it would be something like “A Twist Too Far”: James Patterson is a professional thriller writer, but with 1st to Die, it looks as if he got caught in the who-blinks-first game of twisty chicken, where authors always try to top themselves in shocking the readers out of their socks with unpredictable endings in which everything we know is wrong. With credibility-shattering circumstances.

Here’s a hint, thriller authors: It ain’t the twists, but what leads to them. There’s a reason why procedural thrillers are good fun to read: Everything is on the table and if the writing is good enough, there isn’t any need to twist the story. Because the most twists you try to put in a novel, the more you run the risk of wringing the story dry. And with that type of stuff comes the annoyed reactions of readers about a novel which doesn’t make sense.

First in a series titled “The Women’s Murder Club”, 1st to Die (Annoying title, grrr) is the story of a serial killer going after newlywed couples. As the overbearing prologue suggests, the officer on the case is about to drop straight through an abyss of madness trying to catch the killer. The rest is fairly standard thriller territory, what with a clever killer, an overwhelmed protagonist, twists and turns and alibis and fake-outs. We get first-person chapters told by the protagonist and third-person chapters from the misleading perspective of the killer.

But as the first novel in a series, it is also an origin story. Here, Inspector Linsday Boxer spends a bit of time making friends from different professions (journalist, lawyer and doctor; a handy bunch of people to keep around) and bringing them around a table to think about her newest case. Neat idea, which will probably pay off in a later novel, but not here: 1st to Die is first a foremost a novel about Lindsay Boxer, and she’s the one who does most of the work. The Club is really just a sideshow, a set-up for the series’ main premise.

While I’ve seen a number of films based on Patterson’s books, it improbably seems as if this is my first novel of his. I suppose that at this point, my first question is to ask whether Patterson always thinks he can get away with such obvious plot cheats. At one point, for instance, a prisoner escapes thanks to… an earthquake, which somehow snaps open his prison transport van. Hmmm. Elsewhere in the novel, the first big twist is fine (it’s well-announced, and somewhat reasonnable), but the last-chapter twist (which is predictable, but more in a “no, don’t do that Patterson, nooo” sense) is just one big piece of tripe that actually diminishes the novel’s impact. It only makes it obvious that Patterson isn’t content with the usual amount of misdirection –he actively cheats and lies in order to maintain a thin presence of plausibility when the final twist comes around.

To that, you can add a number of other flaws. The super-heroic abilities of the villain, for instance: I’m tired of antagonists who seem to know more than even the author. Patterson also crams too much stuff in too little space: The gratuitous death of one character is so predictable in an “no permanent attachment for the protagonist” fashion that it barely raises any emotional stake. There is also a medical subplot which doesn’t really lead anywhere nor do anything, but acts as, I guess, further set-up for the rest of the series.

And yet, and yet I must say that I’m not that disappointed, overall, by the book. The ending is often far less important than anyone may think, and so perhaps the only thing worth remembering about 1st to Die is the energetic writing. The story advances at a nice pace, and even if the upcoming twists are obvious, it’s a pleasant read. There are a number of interesting details that show that Patterson at least knows how to do research, plus a thriller-writer character that almost makes me wonder if the novel’s just an elaborate game of “screw you, reader”. That’s got to be worth something, even if only for audacity.

It all amounts to a fast novel that ends just as you realize that it’s not all that good. Fun to read, but unpleasant to think about, 1st to Die is, I hope, some kind of an anomaly in Patterson’s career. Of course, I’m not in too much of a hurry to find out right now: There may be no 2nd Chance.

Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson

Vertigo, 1997-2002 (1998-2004 reprint), ??? pages, C$???.?? tpb, ISBN Various

Originally published as a series of sixty comic books from 1997 to 2002, Re-published as a ten-volume series of trade paperback from 1998 to 2004

Well, that was an experience.

Over the years, friends having succumbed to the Transmetropolitan bug kept pressing issues of the comics on to me. “It’s great!” they said. “Spider Jerusalem! You’ll love him!” Oh, I was convinced all right from the first few issues… but finding the money to buy the entire ten-volume trade paperback run was another challenge entirely. I finally broke down and went ahead in January 2006, using the thin pretext of a New Year’s present to myself. The comic book shop guy and were both pleased with my choices, though they probably each kicked themselves for not having the entire series in-stock when I wanted them.

So I finally sat down and read the series in full, re-experiencing the issues I had already read and tearing straight through the remainder of the story. From a distance, it’s an admirable model of narrative simplicity: Journalist Spider Jerusalem comes back to a city he dislikes yet can’t live without. As a skilled stranger with a number of archetypal resemblances with Leone’s The Man With No Name, it doesn’t take a long time for him to start clearing the system. And then the system starts fighting back…

Transmetropolitan takes place in an unspecified future (even the characters aren’t too sure when) in a city obviously modeled after New York, complete with a Kafkaesque sword-raising Statue of Liberty. The city is a teeming mass of wonders and misery, and Jerusalem has a wonderful romantic relationship with it, simultaneously disgusted by its excesses, yet dependent on it to survive and thrive.

But if Transmetropolitan is such a success, it’s in no small part thanks to the character of Spider Jerusalem himself, a pushed-to-eleven take-off on Hunter S. Thompson’s model of a gonzo journalist with a cynic’s heart and a staccato vocabulary. Jerusalem is alive in a way that very few characters are, and if nothing else, Transmetropolitan is worth a look just for seeing him do what he does best. Great secondary characters complete the portrait, from a two-fisted editor to filthy assistants to a drug-addicted universal assembler to the vast cast of characters necessary to keep a 1,300-page novel running.

Surprised by the length? You should be: Unusually enough, this sixty-issues, five-year-long series was designed with a specific end in mind. As a result, the complete run of Transmetropolitan feels like an unusually satisfying complete story, along with a lengthy prologue (Book one sets up Spider; Book two sets up the series.), a few interstitial mood pieces and an issue-long epilogue. Transmetropolitan may at first look like science-fiction, and then like edgy comedy, but as it progresses it inches closer to political satire with a real heartfelt message. Fiction for budding revolutionaries, stuck between evils of differing statures.

I’m not completely sold on certain aspects of the series (the technological levels shown here seem mutually inconsistent, for instance) and I’m still smarting over the cost of the series (I could have bought six hardcover novels for that price! Six! That’s the rest of this month’s reviewed books alone!), but there’s little doubt in my mind that Transmetropolitan is one of the most important SF novel of the late nineties. Its drawn-out episodic publication nature made it difficult for non-comics SF specialists to evaluate properly, but now that everything is out in trade paperback format, it’s time for a critical reassessment, and hopefully a wider acceptance in the written-SF community. Here’s my Transmetropolitan low-cost guarantee: Buy the first two volumes. If you can’t stop at the end of the second trade paperback, forge forward with the confidence that you’ll enjoy the rest.

Hot Six, Janet Evanovich

St. Martin’s, 2000, 336 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-97627-5

There used to be a time, I imagine, where murder mysteries were deathly serious things. The very British origins of the mystery genre may account for it: It’s difficult to imagine Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple bitching about her sex life or dealing with mobsters with a flip remark and a few four-letter words. These days, of course, things are different: comedy and chaos go well with all sorts of criminal activities.

Janet Evanovich’s Hot Six, as the cheeky title suggests, definitely isn’t your grandma’s cozy mystery. Protagonist Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter with a complex caseload and too many personal problems. As the novel begins, her dynamo grandmother moves in her apartment. A dog soon follows. Tasked with finding and bringing back a fugitive who taught her everything she knows, Stephanie can barely deal with the lack of sex, grandma worries, casual threats and multiplicity of crises that soon overwhelm her life.

One thing’s for sure, there’s no chance to be bored when you’re riding with Evanovich: As Stephanie Plum finds herself juggling with half a dozen subplots, the action switches tracks faster than you can catch your breath. Scenes crash into one another without warning, and you can often find the protagonist juggling two, even three things in the span of a single page. This isn’t a quiet way to spend an afternoon: This is an all-point-bulletin, fire-alarm running, acrobats-and-fireworks carnival of plotting. It’s exhausting and still somehow highly satisfying.

The good thing is that this speed-metal riff on criminal investigations is packed with terrific characters and slick writing. Evanovich writes clearly and packs more meaning in a short conversation that most other writers can achieve in entire chapters. This is partly a consequence of the speed at which her novel flies by, but it’s certainly effective: Once you start reading the book, it will be difficult to stop. There are plenty of laughs along the way and few speed traps as the pages breeze past without effort.

But my biggest surprise with Hot Six is how quickly I got drawn into a series despite having no clue about the character or the setting. While I suspect a number of running gags (hmm… The bad luck with cars? The bad shooting? The donuts?), Evanovich does an excellent job at holding the newer readers by the hand and showing the main series landmarks even as the action starts. I suspect that some of the book’s romantic tension may have been heightened had I read the previous books, but that’s not really a significant complaint. (More serious are the shifts in tone required whenever the author needs to show that her heroine is in real trouble, but that comes with the territory when you’re writing a comic crime novel.)

If I have a single complaint about the book, it’s that it leaves a sweet but empty impression. Looking at the book only days after completing it, I remember having a good time, but very few of the specifics. But is that so bad?

As the title indicates, this is the sixth book in the series (which has since grown to include a twelfth volume, with no signs of slowing down) and I can only presume that the chaotic, pedal-to-the-metal style of Hot Six is representative of the rest of Evanovich’s fiction. If so, I’ve got plenty of reading to do. (Of course, it also remains to be seen if Hot Six is too representative of the rest of the series…)

Underworld: Evolution (2006)

Underworld: Evolution (2006)

(In theaters, January 2006) I like to start movie years with an indifferent film that resets my expectations for the next twelve months. Given that goal, I couldn’t have found better than this limp sequel to remind me of how ordinary movies can be. If you liked the first Underworld, this is pretty much the same thing: Vampires, werewolves, automatic weapons, a vague East-European setting (though less urban this time around) and Kate Beckinsale in tight clothes. On paper, it founds fabulous. On screen, though, it just doesn’t work. Despite Beckinsale’s form-hugging costumes, this film, like the first one, can’t be bothered to develop anything past banality: even the action scenes are dull. There’s a semi-neat five minutes at the end, but that’s about it. Fans of the first film (there are a few) will note how tightly this sequel integrated with its predecessor’s plot, but everyone else will spend half the film figuring out how’s who, who wants to kill who and, most importantly, why we should care. The flat bichromatic palette doesn’t help, and neither does the indifferent direction. The first film didn’t deserve a sequel, especially if it’s going to be a lackluster effort like this one. On the other hand, consider my movie-critic sensors properly calibrated for the rest of 2006.

Munich (2005)

Munich (2005)

(In theaters, January 2006) The disconnect between real-life and the movie-world is seldom as blatant as in the thriller genre, where reality seldom has anything to do with the feverish action-packed stories offered to us. Intelligence work, for instance, is more often a matter of statistical analysis than thrilling car chases, but how do you make desk work interesting? Sometimes, however, reality proves to be as exciting as fiction, and that’s the case here with this fictionalized account of one Israeli counter-terrorism operation following the 1972 Munich massacre. Director Steven Spielberg delivers a film with the look and feel of classic seventies thrillers, an uneasy mixture of the realistic and the luminous, taking place in a world recognizably our own. What’s more, Munich also borrows a little bit of seventies-era ambiguity in refusing to takes sides for or against the anti-terrorism assassinations. While Spielberg can’t escape a bit of over-the-top horror in depicting the initial terrorist assaults, the script also suggests that the quest for vengeance may be counterproductive. Good intentions, but they unfortunately lead straight to the film’s major flaws. While Munich stands on its own as a cautionary tale about the value of one’s personal and national morality, it overplays its hand during an overlong third act, using a hammer when a scalpel would have done just as well. It reaches a climax of sort during a wholly unnecessary sequence where lovemaking is interspersed with flashbacks to the Munich Massacre. Too much, too blunt –especially given how effective the film was in raising those very same issues in the previous two acts. Otherwise, there’s a lot to like in this film, from the acting (Craig Daniel even previews “the new James Bond”, and I’m reassured) to the often-unflinching violence. Truly a film that borrows well from a previous era, and may just set a good example for others.

Capote (2005)

Capote (2005)

(In theaters, January 2006) Given how Truman Capote himself was a character as much as he was a writer, it’s perhaps fitting that the best thing about this eponymous film would be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s title performance. The rest plays straight out of the low-budget independent biopic playbook, with long shots of empty plains and a finale that seemingly can’t stop dragging on. Students of In Cold Blood will probably find much to like here, but it all too often feels like a fiber-rich film (ie; it’s good for you) than a piece of entertainment. As a character study, it’s not bad, unless you’re not particularly tempted by character studies. Long and not particularly energetic, Capote makes one wish for a film about Truman Capote in manic party-mode. While there’s nothing egregiously at fault here, there also a definite limit to how much one can tolerate.

Battle Born, Dale Brown

Bantam, 1999, 555 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58003-5

Dale Brown’s last few novels have been a rough patch of reading. After a spate of steadily disappointing aerial thrillers ending with the dismal Fatal Terrain, he made a well-intentioned, but ultimately unsuccessful foray into more land-bound action with the techno-fantasy The Tin Man. While his early novels remain models of the techno-thriller genre, Brown has since been unable to re-capture that earlier spark. The bad news with Battle Born is that he still has a way to go. The good news is that his latest book is a step in the right direction.

For starters, perennial Brown protagonist Patrick McLanahan is back in the air. While I’m not too fond of series fiction and even less of Brown’s obstinate refusal to start completely afresh, there’s little doubt after the silliness of The Tin Man that McLanahan (and maybe even Brown) are at their best when they’re flying. As Battle Born opens with an exciting training sequence featuring B-1B bombers, we sense that, somehow, we’re back in a comfortable environment.

Fortunately, there is some evolution in this series. Time is catching up with McLanahan: His career has progressed to what may now be called a supervisory position. After a training accident, the Nevada National Guard Bombing unit has to be re-certified for active duty and the officer responsible for re-grading the unit is McLanahan. Of course, he may have plans of his own concerning the fate of the unit…

You see, technology also marches on. Dreamland, the gee-whiz research and development shop explored in previous Brown novels, is back in business and fiddling around with B-1B bombers rather than creaky old B-52s. More than just rejuvenating the jargon, this also gives a face-lift to the series: While B-52s are still expected to keep on flying for several more decades, Brown (himself an ex-B-52 crewmember) had definitely milked the plane for all it was worth during his previous novels. The new emphasis on the B-1B is a chance to explore a few more capabilities and update the limits of airborne military intervention. Series fans won’t be overly surprised to learn that Dreamland has now adapted the “Megafortress” concept to embrace the B-1B.

Battle Born is never better than when it follows the National Reserve crewmembers trying to regain their certification. In these scenes, Brown is writing from the heart and it shows: There’s a real spirit to the scenes between the fliers, and so the book’s best sequence comes during a highly unorthodox training exercise in which procedures are repeatedly broken –with consequences. Whew; it’s good to have the old Dale Brown back, even if only for a few pages. Once the Guard fliers are brought in the Dreamland fold under McLanahan’s supervision, well, it’s a clear signal that the series just got a boost of energy. (Unfortunately, it also includes a bit more silliness in the form of subcutaneous always-on transmitter/communicators.)

Given all of this, it’s a real shame that Brown had to go and include a full-scale war in the same novel.

Hey, it’s not as if wars aren’t a good and cool thing to read about in a techno-thriller. Unfortunately, the way through which Brown shows how a United Korea goes to war with China with nuclear weapons (!) just doesn’t ring true, nor does it make the most out of the tension offered by the situation. For every good scene in which the American Vice-President is stuck in the middle of an impossible situation, or in which departing Chinese soldiers are stopped from smuggling weapons out of the newly-united Korea, the novel bogs down in foreign minutia handled without much energy or interest. You can almost hear the gears and pulleys moving in Brown’s head as he makes up a war as a way to prove his new Dreamland crew. Sadly, it comes it too late and too predictably. Despite the wholly unnecessary final sacrifice of the novel’s best new character, Battle Born deflates as it suddenly sprints toward a finish. A shorter, snappier novel would have been more interesting.

(Add to that the difficulty of setting up a convincing international crisis in a series where nuclear weapons have been detonated a few times after Nagasaki. Whoever cares for series fiction as little as I do may start giggling as the characters remind each other of the fact that China atom-blasted an American base in a previous novel and… nothing much happened. The big problem with series thrillers is that their imagined geopolitics stop matching those of the real world, or require so much back-tracking that they become ridiculous.)

Still, Battle Born still feels a lot better than Brown’s novels since Storming Heavens. As characters repeat to each other, “Battle Born” is Nevada’s state motto. But it’s also appropriate for a novel that carries along a faint whiff of rebirth. If I had my choice, Brown should drop the McLanahan series entirely. But I’m just a lone reader in an ocean of commercial imperatives: If Brown is going to continue with the same characters, Battle Born shows the way to go. Now let’s see what happens in Warrior Class.