Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #76: The Third Twin by Ken Follett

A heady mix of science, politics, thriller and romance, Follett’s The Third Twin is about the not-so-distant possibility of human cloning, and forces us to look at some of the ethical,social, and political ramifications of going there.

Jeannie Ferrami is a young scientist working at a respected Ivy League school and using corporate funding to look at the genetics of criminals through the study of twins. Steve Logan, a smart, mature and well-adjusted young man who is invited to join her study denies that he is a twin, but his parents vehemently deny that he is as well. Nonetheless, Jeannie’s brilliantly-conceived software has turned up Steve’s identical twin, who just happens to be a psychotic killer in jail but whose parents also deny that he was a twin. A mystery, for sure, but they are the perfect pair for her study on nature-vs-nurture, she thinks, until her university sponsor freaks at her discovery and plugs the plug on her project, and then on her career. But not before a “third twin” turns up, and the count-down begins on whether Jeannie can uncover the mystery and stay alive at the same time while the bad guys escalate their threats to protect their decades’ long illegal project..

Follett introduces the “third twin” in a rather contrived way, unfortunately—he’s a crazed rapist who just happens to enter Ferrami’s campus and rape her best friend. When the police get a description of the rapist, it fits Steve perfectly, of course, and he gets framed for the attack.  But Jeannie has interviewed Steve and is convinced he doesn’t fit the rapist profile, and goes to bat for him. Their budding romance adds to the plot, as Jeannie is stalked by the rapist and has to rely on her cunning (and our suspension of disbelief) to distinguish him from Steve.

Follett’s exciting writing and fully-developed characters enhance a challenging plot, more than making up for some of the contrivances he is forced to use to pull all his threads together. An enjoyable read.

Valyruh #CBR5 Review #74: The Son by Philipp Meyer

This is a second novel by this relatively new young writer, whose first book American Rust I reviewed favorably recently. The Son is brilliant, but a different creature altogether. Whereas American Rust took a close hard look at the industrial rust belt of America in the former steel center of Pittsburgh, Meyer’s newest work is a highly ambitious examination of that heady mix of cattle, oil, money and political power that both built and corrupted the state of Texas, and the America of which it is a part.

This epic focuses on the lives of the McCullough family spanning the pre-Civil War period through the present time. There are three primary protagonists whose lives and viewpoints define alternating chapters in The Son: Eli McCullough, whose capture and adoption by Indians in 1849 at the tender age of 13, defines him for the rest of his life as a lone wolf, equal parts courageous, ambitious and utterly ruthless as he sets about creating an empire for himself; his son Peter, who despises everything his father stands for but is unable to walk away from it; and Jeannie Anne, Eli’s great-granddaughter and inheritor of the McCullough empire.

Meyer very daringly experiments with his story, changing viewpoints from first to third and back again, and from the Indian perspective under threat of extinction to that of the white man and his imperative to expand. We see the Civil War unfold from the unique perspective of a recently-annexed Texas, we watch the land wars, the extermination of the Mexicans unlucky enough to be caught in those wars, the sacrifice of wives and children to the lure of wealth, the struggle of an independent woman to survive in a man’s world, the rise and fall of empires.

This sprawling book only occasionally wanders afield, but mostly is tightly conceived and woven through with a social conscience that doesn’t hesitate to show us the consequences of power run amuck. A challenging and thought-provoking book.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #73: The English Girl by Daniel Silva

This is a well-plotted Silva thriller, in which the bad guys this time is the corrupt new Russia under a beast of a president who remains nameless but is clearly meant to be Putin. Oh, and the pathetic world of dirty British politics (and morals) is on full display here too, a target which I found I enjoyed rather more than Silva’s tedious black-hatting of the Arabs in most of his novels.

Beautiful young English girl Madeline Hart is kidnapped during a vacation in colorful Corsica at a moment when she is rising to the top of her political career. Despite intensive searches, not a clue is found and after months, her disappearance begins to fade from the media. And that’s when a ransom note arrives for the British Prime Minister, giving him 7 days to pay a ransom for her or else. Turns out Madeline has been in a clandestine love affair with the married PM, and retired Israeli spy and master assassin Gabriel Allon is called upon by an old friend and British spymaster to do his magic and find and get her back. Allon ends up in an unusual alliance with the assassin who spared his and his wife’s lives in a previous Silva novel, and the two back each other up in unraveling the story of who is behind the kidnapping. Of course, Allon’s Mossad team is fully deployed as well, always a welcome addition to the plot. And finally, Silva adds just a touch of mysticism to ratchet up the tension.

There’s a lot of psychological manipulation on all sides going on, which gives lots of added nuance to Silva’s always masterful political thrillers, and a couple of major plot twists which had me gasping in disbelief. For fear of giving away too much, I’ll just say that Allon appears more vulnerable in this novel than in others I’ve read, which makes him an even more appealing protagonist. Silva’s politics are getting more interesting as well, and with Allon “back in the saddle” by the end, I think we can all safely anticipate more good reading to come. Hi ho Silva! (sorry about that! Couldn’t resist!)

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #64: In The Pond by Ha Jin

This sparely-written debut novel by Chinese author Ha Jin pokes delicious fun at the bureaucratic and collectivist mentality of post-Mao communist China. The lead character is Shao Bin, a worker in a fertilizer plant who shares a cramped one-room home with his wife and baby daughter, and yearns for more—specificallly, an apartment in the newly-constructed workers communal park currently occupied by the families of the (Communist) party leaders, plant managers and suckups. Unlike the majority of his colleagues and peers, Bin is self-educated and a talented artist and calligrapher who feels his talents are wasted in his present job, which he nonetheless cannot walk away from.

When he is passed over for an apartment despite his seniority, a furious Bin paints a political cartoon skewering the plant managers, which gets published locally and gains him instant notoriety—and the enmity of his managers, who immediately expose him to mockery before the corps of workers, strip him of his urgently-needed year-end bonus, and demand a self-criticism. His response is to get a second cartoon published, which leads to his further humiliation by the managers, and a physical beating. Even while expressing regret for having gotten himself into such a mess, Bin’s rage causes him to escalate his campaign beyond the confines of his town, involving a fellow artist, a newspaper editor from a nearby town, a prominent doctor, and ultimately Beijing itself.

All the while, we get to see first-hand the insidiousness of corruption and bureaucracy, the class divide in this supposedly class-less society, and the fickleness of “crowd-think,” against which the creative force of art, poetry, and philosophy can nonetheless prove a powerful antidote. Our “hero” Bin is, in fact, not a hero but an ordinary and indeed, rather flawed, character. He is prideful, spiteful, given to rages and jealousy. He is also stubborn, strong-willed, and a creative thinker who, almost despite himself, manages to wage a campaign of unexpected consequences against the system. Bin’s “victory” is ultimately nothing of the sort—his campaign is defused and he is absorbed into the very system he is battling. But our author leaves this resolution deliberately open-ended. From everything we have learned of Bin, new confrontations are in the offing.

While I enjoyed this quick read and appreciated the author’s subtle blending of political satire and humor, I couldn’t help but feel that the characters were too caricaturish, the humor too slapstick, and that Ha Jin’s light-hearted treatment of a mind-deadening system somehow downplays the seriousness of the condition he clearly wants to expose.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #27: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & The Prison of Belief By Lawrence Wright

Going Clear Book Cover - P 2013This book was so overwhelmingly thorough (and also just kind of overwhelming) that I’m not entirely sure what to say about it.

Lawrence Wright won the Pulitzer prize for his 9/11 book, The Looming Tower, but Going Clear is the first piece of writing I’ve ever read by him. Judging by this book, he very much deserved that Pulitzer. Going Clear is an exhaustive long-form journalistic look at Scientology. Wright must have spent years and countless hours researching, writing, and fine-tuning this thing. It’s evident in every page, every carefully chosen word and phrase. Then again, if his own research is to be believed, he couldn’t afford not to be as careful as possible, given what has happened to journalists in the past who have dared to go up against Scientology (bad things, life ruining things).

As it’s subtitle might suggest, the book is split into three parts. The first eases us into the waters with a brief biography of Paul Haggis, a writer and director most famous for Best Picture winner Crash, but whose other credits include thirtysomething, Walker, Texas Ranger, Casino Royale, and Million Dollar Baby. It was Wright’s 2011 piece in The New Yorker on Haggis’ decision to leave Scientology (see: “The Apostate“) that spurred Wright to investigate Scientology at a deeper level. From there Wright segues into a biography of Scientology’s founder, prolific science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, and the inception of the ideas that would eventually become Scientology. Using insider accounts, Wright paints a picture of a mentally unbalanced, narcissistic genius (he never actually comes out and says this, it’s just the impression I got) who seemed to have a lot of answers that comforted a spiritually empty, post-war generation. His bestselling book, Dianetics, enabled him to start his own religion, and the ingenious pyramid scheme nature of the organization itself (members take expensive classes to reach the next level in their spiritual enlightenment) brought in even more income. Wright paints an honest picture of Hubbard. I know this because even despite the crazy moments — and there were a lot — I found myself understanding how so many people could be drawn in by his message, able to ignore the warning signs (the physical abuse, the crazy demands, the belief that there was a conspiracy of psychiatrists who are trying to take over the world, etc.) Throughout the book, Wright presents facts and witness accounts and let’s us as readers draw our own conclusions.

From there it gets even scarier. Parts two and three chronicle the troubles the church faced after Hubbard’s death: a battle with the IRS and the media that could have ended the church once and for all if they had been declared a business instead of a religion, the rise of David Miscavige as Hubbard’s replacement (and his strange relationship with Tom Cruise), and the difficulties members in the church face. Miscavige comes off as a violent sociopath, which probably won’t be a surprise to anyone. The thing I found most surprising is the way the church’s clergy — called the SeaOrg — are treated. From the way Wright tells it, the vast majority of Scientology’s members have no idea what actually goes inside the organization: imprisonment, mental and physical abuse, forced separation of families, tampering of evidence, refusal of medical treatment, etc. The list goes on. Wright (and Haggis) seem to come to the conclusion at the end that if the incredible secrecy of the organization were breached, it would in an untenable position. Unfortunately this isn’t as easy as it would seem.

I’m going a poor job of explaining all of this, just like I knew I would. There’s just too much to tell, and it all adds up to one pretty frightening picture. What Wright has accomplished in this book is staggering, not just in the care and precision he took in writing it, but in the content of the story itself.  I’m glad I read it, and I think you should, too.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #3: Live By Night by Dennis Lehane

A new book by Lehane with a different flavor. It starts in Lehane’s Boston during the Roaring 20s, where prohibition is in full swing, and Joe Coughlin, the youngest son of a Boston police captain, has chosen the path of easy money, easy women and working for the mob to get where he wants to go. But the young romantic falls for the favorite girl of mobster Albert White, and he gets set up. A bank robbery “goes wrong,” a cop is killed, and 20-year-old Joe takes the fall, getting a multi-year sentence in one of the worst prisons around. As the son of a police captain, his days are numbered until he hooks up with old man Maso Pescatore, a vicious boss in the Italian mafia who recognizes Joe’s life as currency and offers mob protection for the son in exchange for the favors of the father. Maso plans to expand his turf into the rum-smuggling of the Florida coast, and recognizes that Joe’s smarts make him the perfect manager for his new enterprise, once he gets out of prison.

Joe heads down to Florida and the story at this point takes on a different coloration, with Joe having to learn fast how to survive the tropical political climes, the mob turf wars, the Ku Klux Klan, cross-cultural tensions, and organized corruption on a mass scale. He not only survives but rises to the top, dramatically expanding his influence and amassing huge fortunes, both for himself and for the mafia. But it’s too good to last, and Joe’s refusal to ultimately take a back seat in the empire he has helped create–and his resistance to the escalating violence that empire now demands of him–puts him back in the crosshairs of the mob.

Joe is a fascinating character, with a youthful exuberance coupled with tons of charm and occasional twinges of conscience to leaven the otherwise ruthless and amoral streak that runs a mile wide in the guy. His saving grace is Graciela, a lovely Cuban woman whom he eventually marries and fathers a child with. She helps him discover his better half, but the reader knows that sooner or later, Joe will have to pay for the life he has led.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find this book to have the subtly-drawn nuances of both plot and character that Lehane is so famous for. It was an exciting and fun read, to be sure, but I found myself often wondering why I was rooting so hard for a mobster just because he was less bloody-minded than the guys he worked for. Joe makes “soft” decisions in the management of his criminal empire, to be sure, but his redemption by Graciela never really rings true and the end, when it comes, is a sad but foregone conclusion.