Sunday, October 18, 2015

Cluster Critiques

Circling the Sun: A Novel By Paula McLain
I love Paula McLain’s writing, but her female characters have no backbone when it comes to men! In her 2014 best seller, The Paris Wife, McLain writes hypnotically about the halcyon days of 1920’s Paris and endless cocktails and repartee with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Then she nearly ruins it all by weaving in the nauseating and never ending infidelities of a rakish Ernest Hemingway against his wife, Hadley Richardson, a little mouse who thinks it’s all really her fault because she’s not worthy.

Now in Circling the Sun, she takes much of her story from one of the most robust and charismatic female characters of the twentieth century, Beryl Markham (pictured), and interspersed with writing so cinematic that you can smell the rain creeping across the African bush, turns Markham into a woman (Beryl Clutterbuck) whose taste in men relentlessly veers towards abuse, and the betrayal of other women.  It’s like finding a pubic hair halfway into the best lemon panna cotta you’ve ever tasted.

OK, now that I’ve got that off my chest, I recommend you read Circling the Sun because it is about a woman who (when she’s not chasing after some good-for-nothing) lives life on her own terms, as a race-horse trainer, farmer and pilot at a time when women didn’t do these things. I also recommend you read it because the setting (colonial Africa) is exotic and brilliant, and because the story is riddled with intoxicating and seductive passages like these;

Before Kenya was Kenya, when it was millions of years old and yet still somehow new, the name belonged only to our most magnificent mountain. You could see it from our farm in Njoro, in the British East African Protectorate -- hard edged at the far end of a stretching golden plain, its crown glazed with ice that never completely melted.

…the beautiful thrashing we do when we live.

Have you ever seen stars like this? You can’t have. They don’t make them like this anywhere in the world.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

David McCullough (pictured) does history better than anyone I know. It’s as if he has a portal into the past like no one else, and a unique and enviable capacity to meld bits and pieces of history together in compelling humanistic stories, bringing it all to life as few can. Some of my favorites include The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, and the topic of this review, The Wright Brothers.

Who knew that a 26 second flight that basically consisted of a very large kite, could start something that would change the world forever. But Orville and Wilbur Wright never thought for a minute they were just flying a kite. They knew they would eventually get on that kite and ride it like a glider, and later, add the power of a motor.

There are three things about this book I will never forget. First, neither brother had a college degree. They were not engineers or aviation experts; they were not even scientists in the strict sense. They built and sold bicycles. But what set them apart and made them famous was a seemingly crazy dream, implacable curiosity, and their willingness to research and learn and to try and fail as many times as it took to succeed. I cannot help but draw a parallel between the Wrights and Elon Musk, one of the most tenacious inventors of my generation, who too refuses to listen to naysayers.

The second thing that stuck with me was the story of competition between France, England and the United States for the rights to reproduce the Wright brother’s “flying machines” for military purposes in World War I. Although the Wright brothers patriotically wanted their airplane to benefit the American military, the American military, unlike the French and British, was not that interested. In fact they came very close to selling their patent to the French government.

And finally, on a sad note, instead of living their later lives in wealth and comfort as a result of their fabulously valuable invention, the Wright brothers went to their graves fighting a continuous legal battle over various patent and claim disputes.

In between these three outstanding moments in the Wright brother’s history is a very detailed view into the lives they lived, the arduous experimentations they pursued in their belief in the reality of manned flight, and a satisfying story about two brothers who worked shoulder to shoulder to achieve a world-changing dream.

Broken Monsters By Lauren Beukes
Broken Monsters starts off at a good pace and a titillating storyline. The bodies of a young boy and a deer are discovered in a tunnel in the growing degradation of Detroit.  What makes this scenario super creepy is the boy and the deer are stitched together – the front half a boy, the back half a deer – code named “Bambi”. Detroit police, who thought they’d seen it all, are shaken, not stirred. But Detective Gabriella Versado charges head first into the case, determined to find out what is going on before the situation escalates into a full-on community panic. Meanwhile, her teen daughter and her best friend are recklessly baiting then exposing pedophiles online.

As if the story needed any further “saucing” there’s a sort of morality play on the 21st century dismantling of Detroit, to the point that it’s becomes a disaster tourism magnet, attracting documentarians, including one particularly annoying reporter who’s a little to enthusiastic for his own good.  Add to that a Detroit underground art scene just weird enough to hint at the psychosis behind the killings and you’ve got a pretty unconventional “who dun it” going on.

Unfortunately, some authors can’t seem to see the line in the sand between psychological thriller and sci-fi, or can’t figure out how to write a plausible ending to a good psychological thriller, so they just default into a whacked out creature solution that may appease some, but not this gal. Sure enough, much to my disappointment, author Beukes (pictured) does exactly that, undoubtedly thrilling lovers of illogical, amorphous, gooey villains born out of someone’s vivid imagination. If you can groove on that tripe, I mean theme, you’ll love this book. Otherwise, just don’t read past page 400.

I Am Pilgrim: A Thriller By Terry Hayes
Years ago, tiring of the formulaic sequels of le CarrĂ©, Ludlum and Clancy, I sort of stopped reading spy thrillers. So when I saw the I Am Pilgrim recommendation, I was more than a little skeptical. But I wasn’t 20 pages into this book before I stopped and said out loud to no one, “Who is this guy”?” Meaning, I was already so impressed with the book that I had to stop reading and go research the author, Terry Hayes (pictured). Originally a journalist, then a screenwriter, Hayes has an abundance of screenwriting credits under his belt for the Mad Max series, Dead Calm, Vertical Limit, and several dozen other movies and TV mini-series’. It was the fact that this was Hayes first novel that persuaded me to take as chance, and I’m sure glad I did. 

I Am Pilgrim begins when the protagonist of the story, a retired yet youngish CIA operative, is called to a low-rent hotel room in Manhattan, one day after 9/11, because the macabre murder scene looks suspiciously like a scenario of “how to get away with it” described in a book the operative penned under a pseudonym. The murder scene involves lesbian sex, drugs, a dead woman whose face and fingerprints are burned off in a bathtub full of acid, and the number to a phone booth in Turkey written down on a piece of paper salvaged from the drainpipes. And then it gets complicated.

The case leads to an unlikely jihadist with a resolve that is both appalling and engrossing, and a race against a ticking clock to save America from an annihilation that would make 9/11 look like child’s play.

I Am Pilgrim moves at an amazing pace, hopping all over the world, chasing deceptively unrelated clues, and a plot placing the protagonist and antagonist worlds apart, but methodically moving towards each other as each exciting piece of the mystery unfolds. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll enjoy I Am Pilgrim.

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