Thursday, February 8, 2018

All Systems Down

By Sam Boush
Lakewater Press     2018
229 pages     Thriller

In what looks like it may be the beginning of a series of books, Sam Boush has created a compelling story line that is a real page turner. All Systems Down is an unsettling read because it is very close to reality.

We are first aware that something extremely bad is happening when a military pilot and her copilot suddenly find themselves without a connection to their flight carrier. Then we are introduced to Brendan who is applying for a job online at a business and the computers go goofy. Little by little, the entire infrastructure of the country comes undone. By chapter 3 we know that the cyber attackers are North Koreans operating out of China. (This is the “too close to reality” part.) It takes the government a while longer to realize that there may be a physical attack as well as a cyber attack in the works. A government hacker named Xandra is sent to the Oregon coast to try to stop an anticipated invasion and to try to counter the cyber attack.  All characters converge on the Oregon coastline. It is at this point that the action really takes off. 

This novel is all plot, suspense, and thrills. If you are looking for action, this is the book for you. If you are seeking great character development or eloquent narrative, try something else. The characters are awkward and the narrative is sometimes strange and unreadable. The book's best feature is that several women serve as both heroes and villains. One of the more interesting characters is the villain, Sierra, who appears about half way through the novel. Another major character, the military pilot, is a woman named Kelly. Xandra, the hacker, is also interesting because of the lack of warmth she portrays as she executes acts of heroism.

When All Systems Down ends, the reader is reassured that there will be a sequel.
Kelly shivered, “The war isn’t over.”
“No,” Xandra said. “It isn’t.”
“We have children to worry about, “ Ireana said. “War or no war, we need to find someplace safe.”
“Is anywhere safe?” Annalore said.

As you can probably tell, I didn’t much like this book. I expressed as much to my husband, who was incredulous. “Why,” he said, “would you continue reading a book you didn’t like when you have hundreds of books on your shelf and Kindle?”

I do have to admit that I was put off a bit by the second sentence of the book when I caught a proofreading mistake. The t and the he of the word "the" were separated by a space (t he). Can't separate myself from my editing career, I guess. However, many of the reviewers on Goodreads loved the book so I plugged on. Finally, I was turning pages as fast as I could. One small detail that fascinated me was that when the gigantic cyber attack happened, cars that had a lot of computer chips in them wouldn’t start or were stalled in the middle of the road. Ah---that would be me in my Toyota Prius!  

 Besides it was cold and snowy outside and I was sitting in front of the fireplace. Might as well read on.

This is Sam Boush's first novel. We will look forward to more from him.

Here is the Kirkus review.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Need to Know

By Karen Cleveland

Ballentine Books     2018
304 pages     Spy Thriller

Karen Cleveland worked for several years as a CIA analyst, and she has used this experience, as well as her experience as a wife and mother, to craft a very credible spy thriller.

Vivian is the married mother of 4 young children, who is also devoted to her job as an analyst in the Russian intelligence office at the CIA. Her world turns upside down one day when she is probing the files of a known Russian agent and sees her husband’s pictures among the agent’s “friends.” As she tries to figure out how it was possible that she didn’t know this about her husband, she begins to believe that everything in her life may be a lie—except for her beloved children. The plot consists of how she and her husband conspire to get out of the mess they are in, all the time seeking to protect their children. There are surprises galore and a very fitting ending.

To say more would be to betray the plot, which is skillfully drawn, although rather slight. Many times Vivian makes a decision based on protecting her children, and that  wears a little thin after a while. To be fair, the decisions she makes are most likely the decisions any mother would make, but because they are reiterated over and over, the plot becomes bogged down a bit. On the other hand I had trouble putting the book down to tend to my own family. In one scene early in the book, Vivian is home from work tending to a sick daughter. I read that portion while tending to a sick granddaughter. The portions of the book that deal with family life are spot on, and Vivian is a believable character. The book probes issues of loyalty, duty, love and marriage, and work/family life balance.

The other part that rings very true is the infiltration of Russian operatives in American life. I was reading rapidly during the evening, when I looked up at the clock. 9:00—Rachel Maddow time. I turned on the TV only to find that Maddow was talking about how Carter Page, a Trump advisor, was apparently compromised by the Russians. Is art imitating life, or the other way around?

Of course, in this time of trial in the US, this book will be a big hit. Movie rights have been sold, and Cleveland is hard at work on another spy thriller. So, stay tuned.

Here is an interesting interview with Karen Cleveland.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Neon in Daylight

by Hermione Hoby
Catapult     2018
284 pages    Literary Fiction
Neon in daylight is a
Great pleasure 
(Frank O’Hara)

Kate arrived in New York from England to the apartment of her mother’s friend during the extremely hot summer of 2012.  Ostensibly Kate is there to take care of the friend’s cat, but more purposefully (or not) to find herself. She is in the midst of finishing her PhD and may be trying to get away from a disappointing relationship. Her mother’s friend had said to her, “Oh, my god, your mom and I had such adventures when we were your age. Because you gotta travel! You gotta live, you know?”

“And Kate didn’t know. Didn’t know what live meant, in this context.” 

Inez, a teenager who has just graduated from high school meets Kate in the unlikeliest of places, a bodega in the neighborhood. Inez is also at loose ends. Her divorced parents want her to go to college, but she can’t see herself there. She has picked a couple of highly unlikely ways to earn money—selling Aderall on the street and satisfying men’s sexual fantasies. Inez becomes Kate’s summer friend by inviting her to the frantic and frenetic activities of New York’s teenage scene.

Bill plays the pivotal role in the unfolding drama. As a young man, Bill wrote a coming-of-age novel—a kind of Catcher in the Rye—and he has lived off the proceeds of the novel and the ensuing movie into middle age. He teaches creative writing, is a purposeless drunk, and is also Inez’s father.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on these three and the intersection of their lives. Because of the skillfully drawn narrative, the reader doesn’t question the logic about how these three find each other in the midst of America’s largest city. Kate doesn’t realize that Inez is Bill’s daughter until late in the book, but she never mentions to Inez that she is having an affair with an older man. Inez never mentions her father’s name to Kate, and Bill never mentions to his daughter that he has met a young woman named Kate. There is a constant state of ennui that engulfs all the characters. 

Meanwhile, the city of New York chugs on and on. It is alive and vibrant in ways that the characters are not. My favorite scene happens when Kate follows a man lugging a grand piano into Washington Square Park, where he sits down and begins to play Rachmaninoff. The city is so skillfully drawn that it becomes a major player in the story, as is the heat of the summer of 2012. As the narrative ends, Hurricane Sandy is drawing nigh at the same time there is some resolution in the relationships between the three main characters. As the city gears up for the rapidly-approaching hurricane, the book ends—the only triumph being the triumphant city. The New York Times reviewer says, “We can see what these characters cannot. Their lives seem so particular, so painful and noisy to them. But under the city’s “merciless” skyline, in the wake of a hurricane, how similar they suddenly are, how small, how human.” 

One reviewer says “that sentiment—the way unlikelihood fosters a sense of inevitability—is the book’s engine.” None of the characters are particularly likeable, but that is not the author’s purpose. Both the reviews in the New York Times and the LA Review of Books praise Hoby’s talent, her observational ability, and her gift of language. It is a brilliant first novel.

Here is a charming interview with Hermione Hoby on the Shelf Awareness website. Scroll down to find it.