I read Brad Thor's The First Commandment last week, a book I likely otherwise would not have read. By an author I likely otherwise would not have read. And this simply because I read of his choice to make free ARC's available to non-professional reviewers, bloggers like me, for the promise of a review. No guidelines or limitations were specified, hinted at or implied other than a request for no spoilers. Which is actually the hard part because there are two specific things in this book that first cripple and then collapse it for me. I'll have to see how well I can dance around this.
Without knowing anything about the book prior to picking it up, it is clear early on that it is part of a series, that many of the characters have past histories with each other, and that the hero has established himself as being good at what he does. And what he does is take out the bad guys with, as they say, extreme prejudice. He's been so successful at his job that he is on a first name basis with the President of the United States, and it seems that in previous books he may have actually saved his life.
This is useful back story because it add a lot of weight to circumstances later in the book where the President orders the hero stopped at all costs, even if it means killing him. So what can make the most powerful man in the country order up a potential death sentence for not only perhaps his best counter-terrorist operative but a man who has previously saved his life? Sadly, not a whole lot, as it turns out.
When the book opens a small group of terrorist detainees are being released from the U.S. facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Shortly thereafter, someone begins gunning for the friends and family of the hero, Scot Harvath. When Harvath tries to retaliate, to not only stop these attacks but do the job he's trained to do, he is personally called in front of the President and told to stand down. Without explanation. Harvath doesn't understand, doesn't have faith that the government can stop whoever it is that's responsible, and inevitably decides that he can't stand by as his girlfriend, mother, and others who are close to him are horribly attacked.
The book is easy to read and when I say that, I don't mean it as a pejorative. The chapters are very short, a consistent three pages, and gradually serve to rapidly advance the story. I found the early part of the book a bit annoying that just as something happened, another chapter would be devoted to either back story or earlier series history. I had a sense of a two steps forward, one step backward kind of a rhythm rather than a varied but constantly advancing pace.
I found the settings, the technology, and the tradecraft all well portrayed and believable, with only a few exceptions. Unfortunately it is these exceptions that kill the book for me.
Despite the initial lurching pace, the book had me thinking of it much as I thought of Lee Child's first Jack Reacher novel: it wasn't selling me completely but there was enough there to get me to a second book (which, after four years, I still haven't gotten to). But then the first of three "book killers" took place. Harvath, with two no less high powered individuals then himself, capture and subdue one of the released detainees, convinced that he is the likely killer. Hands bound, repeatedly tasered, the man still manages to head butt Harvath and render him senseless. Somehow, the bound and abused man runs past the two armed super-agents and crashes through a window. Then he runs into the street where he apparently can't see the traffic and the traffic can't see him because he runs in front of a cab who, despite being in a residential area, hits him hard enough to kill him instantly.
That was the first bad sign, but not potentially a killer. I've always thought that readers will give you one thing, one item of banality or coincidence, but after that the author better toe the line. And even so, this was stretching it thinly for me. As a plot point, they simply needed to liquidate the man and move on. He was a loose end that needed to be tied up or excised, no more, and it was disappointing that this deadly familiar and unbelievable TV movie device was what was used as a solution.
The second problem, the one that undermined the entire novel, was the guiding motivation of the President and his advisers. We don't negotiate with terrorists, they say. Um, except when they threaten children in their school buses, then we do. You don't have to kill anybody, you just have to stage a demonstration and then promise something worse. Based on that the U.S. government will release known killers of thousands and issue a shoot to kill against the hero, a man personally responsible for saving the President's life and perhaps the best hope to stop the person or persons who originally made the threat.
Yeeeaaaah, righhhhhhht. Not find those who made the threat, not find ways to protect the school buses, not do anything but knuckle under based on one incident and a single threat. And just like that, the book goes boom and has rendered itself meaningless to me.
Now don't get me wrong: The First Commandment is a good read, a fast moving, suspenseful story peopled with many of the kinds of people you hope are actually out there fighting the good fight on behalf of us all. It's just that I find the underlying concept unforgivably flawed and unbelievable. Maybe it's just that I want it be so, that I don't want to think that the government of my country can be so wrongheaded and full of poor judgment.
This not only sets my Hemingway B.S. detector ringing off the wall it blows up any chance I have of looking past it and immersing myself in the events of the rest of the book. Perhaps that is not true for everyone. I'm sure that there is probably a host of people who will read this and find it eminently believable. There are perhaps more who will read it and not care, the ludicrous proposition not even registering.
Does it matter? After all, the only thing that is important is that the reader is entertained, feels there time and trust were well spent, and, especially to the author, that they will buy his next book. That group is unlikely to include me, unfortunately.
Would I recommend The First Commandment to others? Certainly, but not to everyone and only with heavy qualification. Much of popular fiction requires a suspension of disbelief but this is more than buying into one man's ability to evade the concerted efforts of the U.S. government to capture him. To enjoy this book without reservation you'd have to look past an over-familiar situation or two, which can be difficult enough, but you'd have to be able to believe that the government would act in a horribly self-destructive way.
It was too big a pill for me to swallow mostly because it serves as the underlying enabler of much that happens in the book. In other words, it is merely a plot device, but a colossal one, and ultimately it renders the book as unbelievable as it is. Which is too bad; I had the feeling, like with Lee Child, that if the author cared to put more into it, the book would have been a hell of a lot better. And it would have gotten me to a second one.
A few weeks back, Ed Gorman wrote a blog entry he called "Whoring by any other name." It was inspired and partially quoted an item from the GalleyCat site, and was overwhelmingly down on a marketing effort for Brad Thor's forthcoming book, The First Commandment.
The gimmick essentially comes from another blog site, Dr. Blogstein's, where he made it known that he had a number of signed ARC's (Advance Reviewer Copies) that he would send out to anyone with a blog that would commit to posting a review.
Apparently there are a number of people who feel that this actually intrudes upon the territory of professional reviewers, somehow causing harm to their reputations or their industry, while at the same time unduly influencing the posted reviews. Professionals can be impartial reviewers but recipients of free, autographed ARC's cannot.
This I think is hogwash. So much so that I sent an e-mail to Dr. Blogstein and thereafter received one of the copies in question. I am now part of the anti-professional-reviewer conspiracy.
I really have only two points to make in all of this. The first one is that when I read a book review, I either come to respect the reviewer or not. If I don't believe in the reviewer's viewpoint, conclusions, or even their writing style, I don't read the review. And I stop reading that reviewer.
There are a number of reviewing "fouls" to my mind. Review the book that was written, and don't tell me how it would have benefited from this or that because then that wouldn't be this book, it would be a different one. Don't give away spoilers to mysteries or romantic entanglements in the book. Don't compare it to books from other writers: what good does that do?
Discuss the book, comment on its style, pace, viewpoint, uniqueness, how enjoyable was it to read, etc. Give me the inside scoop on why the book may have been written or come to published by so and so. Did it make you think? Feel? Dammit, was the book fun to read? Would you read another book by the same author?
My second point is that if I recommend anything to anyone and it turns out to be a lemon, my influence, such as it was, will be correspondingly reduced. It's a self regulating problem. If someone gives me a free book and I issue praise because of it, I only lose my credibility. And why would I write a blog, or anything for that matter, if I undermine any confidence a reader may have in what I have to say?
A few months ago another writer decided to post some of his earlier works on his website and make them available for free. This too was condemned. I gotta tell you, I don't see anything wrong with this, either. It would be difficult to argue with the notion that if a person (consumer) likes an author's works, he or she will buy the author's books. Is this guy hurting another author's sales by posting his work for free? I don't see how. Is he hurting his own? I think not. His fans will already be buyers; if there are a few who would have bought this book because they are already fans, they get a nice bonus. If they're like me they couldn't/wouldn't read a book on screen, anyway. But for the people, the mass majority of people, that would not blindly plunk down (too much) money on an author they don't even know if they like, this exposure could serve to convert them from readers to buyers.
I've always felt that the music industry comes down way too heavily on what they call pirating. I think that there's a huge benefit to the industry when people make copies of albums they've bought and give them to friends who WOULD NOT OTHERWISE have bought the album themselves. There's exposure. If they like the album a lot, they will be much more likely to buy the next one themselves. The uncomfortable parallel between music CD's and printed books are that both are currently way overpriced and in the case of music encourage much more egregious piratical ventures. But that's another story.
So I received a free copy of The First Commandment. It is inscribed "Thanks for your support" and signed by Brad Thor. I read the book last week. It was a book that I likely would not have otherwise read by an author of whom I was previously unfamiliar. He wanted a reader and he got one. I applaud his efforts to increase his readership. And in this he has my honest and enthusiastic support. As for the review, well, he'll get that in the next post.
I was supposed to be a smart kid. I skipped a grade, could have skipped another, and throughout my childhood had adults earmark me for great things. So what the hell happened?
I've rarely felt myself smarter than anyone else. I had a neighbor once who, after the neighborhood voted to move ahead on some canal maintenance and share the cost, bemoan the state of the country and claim he was seriously considering moving to South America. This used to be a democracy, he told me. Um, I thought. We took a vote and majority ruled. Can it get more democratic than that?
That gave me a small boost.
Once, though, my Santa had brought me a Rubik's Cube for Christmas. I was tacitly expected to master that thing in record time. Could never make it go, not for a second. I could not, and to this day can not, comprehend the underlying mechanics that allow each individual cube to rotate on a vertical plane as well as a horizontal one. I can't get past that.
Worse for me could be the common ball point pen with the click button at the end. You push it once and the tip locks down for writing; you push it again and it pops back into the pen cylinder. Push it again, it comes down. Push it again, it goes up. HOW CAN IT DO THAT? I've sat down with pen (!) and paper and tried to puzzle it out and I can't come up with anything short of a Rube Goldberg concept.
How smart can I be? I can pick up the telephone and call someone far, far away and not only will they hear the words that I speak, they will hear them in my voice. How can this be? I've spent thousands of hours in airplanes of all sizes. I can't lift them and if any of them fell on me I'd be crushed. Yet the damned things fly and when they do I nearly always pound on the floor and marvel at the solid ground soaring thousands of feet above the Earth. Boggles the mind.
I've always had a good memory, not eidetic but maybe the next best thing. This has made me wonder if having a good memory has fooled people into thinking I was intelligent. On the other hand, couldn't a good memory be a side effect of an extra dollop of smarts?
Unfortunately, now that I'm afflicted with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, my memory has suffered terribly. Does this mean I've become dumber? Do I even need this excuse? On the plus side, my memory seems to be improving gradually so maybe I'm getting smarter again. Or my ability to fake it is on the rise.
I don't know. If anyone can explain it to me, call me (!) or write me a note with a clicking ball point pen (!) and then send it air mail (!). How it will get to me I will, apparently, never understand. But if I'm lucky I'll forget all about it soon.
Everything we say is arguable. Probably. As a guy once told me when he was upset at something I'd done, "Opinions are like a*******: everyone has one and nobody else wants to be exposed to it." Which is kind of silly and since it applies to blogs, that guy's statement comes to mind. What an a******.
Anyway, in previous entries I've bitched about talented writers whose first two or three books are fresh, wonderful, and make one feel that modern fiction may not be so bad after all. But almost inevitably, they parlay the readership they've won with their initial brilliance into a mindless throng of steady readers slopping up each subsequent bland, formulaic book in whatever series they happen to be writing. Dead yuck. Way too early, the books have become extensions of the author's name, not a unique novel capable of standing on its own.
This leads you to that review line that I've heard over and over again: "It's not his/her best. Fans of the series would be better served to pick up an earlier book..." Sometimes there is no "best," all the books by a writer may leave you cold which is especially bothersome when there is a strong style or character that is appealing enough to warrant reading further.
All that being said, John Sandford is a writer who paradoxically seems to get better and better. He's written 17 books in his "Prey" series, 4 in his "Kidd" series, and 2 standalones. I read the first few "Prey" books, his "Kidd" books, then more "Prey" books, essentially letting him go for a few years and then bingeing to catch up. Early on I thought his books were glib, easy to read, but somehow unfulfilling. They were more realized than, say, an Elmore Leonard novel, which always leave me feeling the book was too thin, the reading experience stays too much on the surface and never takes me deep into the story.
And then a few years ago I realized that Sandford's not writing the same formula over and over again (arguably), his books are still easy to read yet are deep and immersive (arguably), and other bestselling writers should be learning from this guy.
Sandford's a master of misdirection: some books you know who the killer is immediately, in some you thnk you know immediately, some it comes out of the blue. In all of them, there's a strong psychological component, a procedural one, and a level of suspense and tension that should serve as a model for all those who are coasting along on the sales value of their name.
Sandford doesn't cheat the reader. His dialogue is spot on, funny where it needs to be, serious where appropriate, and never used as multi-page filler. If I ever meet the guy, I would ask him, "What makes you try harder with every book rather than phone it in like those other a*******?" You may not like his books, you may not like his characters; but Sandford is a writer in whom you can sense a passion for what he does. He's trying to write compelling books when with his name and past record he could easily coast along for years into the future. Good on ya, mate, and I wish there were more like you.
And that's my opinion, and my blog, and I'll keep my you know what to myself. Hmph.
Volumes have been written attempting to analyze noir, both literary and cinematic. I won't go anywhere near that here; virtually all of the discussions of definitions seem to devolve into a search or declaration of hard and fast examples. Forget about it, can't be done. Nor, probably, should it.
It's a feeling, a sense of atmosphere, a bleak world view. To me, I don't even need a down ending. For me, I can have a noir sense throughout a book or movie and still give in to the human tendency to root for the underdog, even if sometimes they're not such good people or have done some pretty rotten things. But I've no wish to argue...
Far too often people lampoon noir and riff on the stereotyped rhythms and language that seem to have emerged in the general public's consciousness (i.e. Garrison Keillor's "Guy Noir" character); I think this short changes the genre for the uninitiated and helps to keep them that way. Which is too bad.
Anyway, I just finished re-reading Gil Brewer's The Vengeful Virgin, last month's offering from Hard Case Crime. On page 51 this line jumped out at me as a perfect example of the charms of this kind of writing. I'm not talking about noirish themes or elements, but simply noir as a style of writing, boiled down to a simple, clear sentence:
"She looked hot enough to catch fire, but too lazy to do anything but just lie there and smoke."
Contrast that to the language and imagery of the Cormac McCarthy examples I quoted two posts ago. Completely different kind of imagery and emotional impact and in this case, much more accessible to your normal reader. Great stuff, good book, wonderful author, priceless publisher. Heard that before (from me, anyway), eh?
When I was a kid in grade school I was in a bunch of special classes (I'll leave you to guess at why and what was so special). As part of this program we were taken out into the school hallways and sat in front of a movie screen with a special projector that showed filmstrips containing nothing but sentences. The machine could be set for particular speeds and would essentially flash a sentence on the screen, pause, then flash the next one. The rate at which you could read and comprehend the sentences was recorded and your progress was graphed, all with an eye toward increasing your reading speed.
What the hell for?
Later, in high school, I went to one of those free Evelyn Wood Dynamic Reading seminars at a Holiday Inn in Burnsville, MN. Their method is to teach you to read without subvocalizing, or saying the words "aloud" in your mind, thereby increasing your reading speed because you learn how to recognize the words more by "looking" at them then listening to your inner voice read the words to you.
If I recall correctly, and who can from that long ago, I was the fastest filmstrip reader in my special classes. And during the Evelyn Wood course I tripled my starting reading speed. In between those two events, though, I had tried to slow down my reading rate to some more rational seeming speed, one that made reading more enjoyable. At the time of the Evelyn Wood experiment, while interesting, I knew it wasn't something I was going to pursue.
It might have something to do with growing up as such a comic book fan. Who wants to blow by the text and finish the book in nine seconds? What about the art? What about the pacing and variations thereof? What about the ambiance, the atmosphere, the suspense, the mood, of the work? And for god's sake, what about the writing?
A while ago I blogged about books so full of typos that I wondered where the publisher was, or the agent, or anyone who would have read the manuscript had gone. Were there no galleys, no proofreaders, or what? I actually sent an e-mail to one of them complimenting them on their willingness to publish the books but expressing how unreadable the presence of so many typos rendered the books. I ended up offering to proofread the books for the publisher, to be paid by receiving a "corrected" copy of the books, and my offer was accepted.
I worked on my first book, a "twofer" containing two novels by Peter Rabe, a wonderful author in clear need of rediscovery. I tried to figure out the best methodology for the proofreading: do I read through a chapter once, then go back and do it again? Do I do it a paragraph at a time? A page?
The first goal, of course, was to catch every damn error and inconsistency. I found a word spelled "goddam" one time, then "goddamn" every other time. I found an ellipsis with four periods instead of three. Quotation marks facing the wrong way, or raised up half a line above where they should be. I found typos, missed paragraph breaks, and periods that should have been commas. I think I did a good job.
Unfortunately, tomorrow marks the third week since I sent the corrected pages back to the publisher. They have not yet been received. This does not make me happy.
In any case, the method I ended up using was simply this: slooow and careful reading. I was worried that if I re-read units of the text over and over, I'd lose focus and concentration with each pass. And with that, my mind would be taken out of the story and the loss of engagement, I felt, would hurt my ability to concentrate on the text. So the hard work I put in, and it was an adjustment, at slowing down my reading all those years ago was useful.
What else does slow reading do? I found I was really struck by the sentence structure and the words used by the author. Constructs that when read at "normal" speed simply register as "good" or "engaging" or "fast moving"; when read slowly, though, it dawned on me that probably no other writer would have chosen those particular words or written a particular sentence at a particular length. The writer's style really shone through.
My conclusion in all of this is that a) there's a reading speed that I think is appropriate to the work that you are reading, and it's one that is in harmony with the pacing of the writing and the story, the events that unfold within. And b) the post office sucks. Every time I mail something it seems like it costs two dollars more and they have an utter inability, despite the fact that you can pay for it, to track anything. They can show it came in, then they can show it was delivered. In between, they have no clue. Aaaargh.
Once there was just re-reading. Now it looks like there will be re-proofing. The glitter fades. I took ten days to do the two books the first time and now I think I might have to take longer to ensure that I'm completely focused. Reading slow I can do. When's the last time you heard someone brag about that?
Much of what I read is chosen because a) it's good in some significant way, and b) I think it contains something significant I can learn. About writing, I mean; otherwise I'd still be stuck in the encyclopedia. But plans in life tend to be untidy and so, of course, is this. Especially when I run into someone like Cormac McCarthy.
I read his "Border Trilogy," which includes All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain. Loved 'em, especially Horses which won a National Book Award. The dialog is amazing. Not only does it read true in the unique voices of each character but the way that he defines his characters through the words of the people they interact with is pure brilliance. You don't really know that John Grady Cole has a rare gift with horses until another character, almost in an aside to another, says something about it, in such a way, as to be truth and revelatory at the same time.
I have Suttree packed away with the rest of my library but in an effort to get all I can from McCarthy's work, I picked up his classic (especially according to Harold Bloom) and his recent Pulitzer Prize winning The Road (I had to make sure I could still get a copy without the "Oprah's Book Club" seal). With great anticipation I began Blood Meridian. With great disappointment, I write these words: I don't think I like it.
In the four books I've read so far, McCarthy does some things in each that may blur the line between "style" and "formula," albeit one his own. In each book he'll have characters tell stories to other characters that seem only to illustrated a broad philosophy either of the character or possibly the author, and that have only tangential value to the plot. These stories run for a few thousand words so if they're detours, they're major ones.
Another thing he does is he writes whole conversations in Spanish and without any attempt whatsoever to indicate, in English, just what the hell folks are saying. I don't know Spanish and I don't feel like I'm reading the entire book. I did look up some of the words and phrases used in Horses but it's not something I found enjoyable.
Lastly he writes his dialog with absolutely no punctuation whatsoever, including quotation marks. I'm not sure of the point. Most of the time you can do without it but many times you have to re-read the words several times to make sure what is dialog and what is not, and often even to discern who is speaking. Like the translations, it takes me out of the book and I can't think that's a good thing.
Blood Meridian is a violent book and when I say that know that it is an understatement. It's so violent and often sadistic that I found myself sometimes dreading reading on when I knew a conflict of some sort was about to occur. The books theme may be redemption through violence and if that is accurate, there is much redemption here.
But here's the real problem I had with the book: too often I didn't know what the hell he was trying to say. My brain may be too small to cope with the elevated usage or my imagination too stunted to follow on the heights necessary to his soaring text.
On page 195 of my Vintage International trade paperback edition, there's a sentence that reads:
"The muleteers benched out in a swag on the trail where the precipice was almost negotiable and they rode and fell crashing down through the scrub juniper and pine in a confusion of cries while the horsemen herded the lag mules off after them and rode wildly down the rock trail like men themselves at the mercy of something terrible."
"Benched out in a swag?" I simply cannot picture in my mind what these guys were doing; I don't get it. The rest of the sentence is clear enough that I get the gist of what's going on but again, the uncertainty takes me out of the book. Bad thing.
On page 229 we have a sentence that clearly overmatches my little brain:
"Horseblood or any blood a tremor ran that perilous architecture and the ponies stood rigid and quivering in the reddened sunrise and the desert under them hummed like a snaredrum."
It doesn't matter how many times I read it, I can't make sense of it. Is it my poor comprehension of the language? Is it a poor use of the language? Is it so stylistic and my imagination so stunted or rigid that I simply cannot grasp his meaning?
If Meridian had been my first McCarthy, it would have been my last. I can take the side stories, the lack of punctuation, and even the Spanish dialog, but I've got to at least be able to understand the passages written in English. He uses far fewer run on sentences in the Border Trilogy as in Meridian; did that become his rule or is it his exception? I guess I'll find out in The Road. Bottom line, All The Pretty Horses belongs on your shelf, perhaps next to Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, because it is truly a beautiful book. Especially if you can read Espanol. When McCarthy's sentences stay to a more conventional format, the words evoke imagery and a style that reminds me strongly of James Lee Burke. That, at least, is a very good thing.
As for Blood Meridian, I'm open to anyone's interpretations of the words that have so confounded me. Apparently I'm not alone as there are a number of published reader's guide to the book. I'm just not sure what it says about a contemporary novel when it needs such things to make it understandable.