Book Review: State of Fear by Michael Crichton

I don’t usually have high hopes for action thrillers by white male authors. They’re bound to involve super-efficient macho male protagonists, female leads whose greatest selling point is their attractiveness to the male leads, and the a plot that is basically all over the place. But, you know, you don’t usually care because your flight is late by three hours and you need to kill time.

I picked up State of Fear because I was chilling at my aunt’s place and my phone was low on charge. I’d very wisely left my charger at my friend’s place, so there wasn’t anything else I could do except read. And the collection my uncle had left behind was mainly a bunch of atheist propaganda and also action thrillers by white males. *Snore*

As I had recently had someone praise The Lost World to me, I decided to give Michael Crichton a try. (I outgrew Jackie Collins by the time I was 13.)

The book wasn’t even engaging enough to prompt me to ask my aunt whether I could borrow it. And yet, today, after I was back in Bangalore, I found myself wondering what happened with the rest of that godawful plot. (These books are like popcorn – you know it’s rubbish, but you still have to finish the tub.)

I finished the book in one sitting today, skipping pages at random every time I couldn’t remember where I’d left off – not that it matters to your understanding of the plot. And I found the writing to be… hackneyed. Lame. Painful. Cringeworthy.

Protagonist Peter Evans, a lawyer, is different from your average action hero in that he’s a non-confrontational wimp. He prefers women like gym instructor Janis, who has a great body and a voice you can just tune out (his words, not mine). Co-Protagonist Kenner, a secret agent of sorts, is always doing badass things in the background while Evans engages in extended hand wringing, and wanders around, hopelessly lost in the plot. Side-Protagonist and Main Female Protagonist Sarah Jones is an assistant who’s been having a tempestuous relationship with some random actor – that’s all we’re expected to want to know about her. She’s also blonde and tall and gorgeous. Duh. While flying from one dangerous situation to the next, she frets over the fact that wimp turned newly badass Peter Evans likes dark haired lawyer Jennifer Haynes more than he does her. Oh, and Peter Evans is no longer a wimp halfway through the book due to a near death incident that involved a crevasse in the Antarctic. Something “shifts” in him – and he feels as though he is 10 metres away from where he started, both physically and mentally.

????, basically.

There’s also a token Asian dude with a mysterious background and military and hacking skills, as well as a token loud arrogant dude whose sole purpose is to be eaten by tribals.

Anyway…

The book deals with eco-terrorism, ELF, and the question of whether global warming is real. It reads like a movie at times – one sequence at the end involves Evans dozing off and hearing Kenner give a legit righteous lecture on how climate change is inevitable and natural and good for the Earth and how humans cannot expect to control it at all. The whole thing would actually work as a voiceover, but I just scrolled down until it was done. There seems to be quite a lot of ideology pushing – not necessarily a bad concept, but there is such a thing as taking it too far. Crichton writes with all the subtlety of a giant hammer – we know Evans likes Jennifer because he thinks it, and then he suddenly likes Sarah, and we know that too because he thinks that as well. The plot could actually have been well written, if only some thought had been given to it, but nobody publishes one book a year that way. (Except Rick Riordan).

What is it about action thrillers these days? There are no plot twists anymore – if a dude mysteriously disappears at the beginning of the book and then seems to be orchestrating events from beyond the grave, then he’s not actually dead. Similarly, there will always be the woman that the protagonist sleeps with right away, as well as the one that he sort of ignores, whom he eventually ends up with. All of the misogyny in your book is automatically cancelled out by handing your cardboard cutout female characters guns and having them kill all the bad guys while the wimpy protagonist wrings his hands. Oh, and if someone describes a very unique and dangerous way to most surely die, you can take it for granted that the characters are going to almost die that way within the next few pages, and pull off a miraculous escape. There are no less than four miraculous escapes in this book – crevasse, weaponized lightning strikes, SUV goes over a waterfall in a flashflood, and honest-to-goodness tsunami.

Patterson, Child, Crichton, Ludlum… The success of their early books have meant that these guys are now expected to churn out a different book every year. The quality of all their books is absolute rubbish, but why have fleshed out characters and interesting plotlines when you can just change names and tell the same damn story a hundred and fifty times? As a former fan of the action genre (i.e. until I read more than five books and realized they were all the same), I really do wish they’d take a page out of the fantasy genre’s books and put some more thought into it.

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Book Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #5 – The Black Circle

Title: The Black Circle
Author: Patrick Carman
Year of Publication: 2009
Series:
The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt
#:
5
Goodreads Rating (Avg.):
4.00
Goodreads Rating (Mine):
1

the black circle.jpg

Plot Description: At the behest of a mysterious contact who claims to have known their grandmother, Amy and Dan Cahill travel to Russia to unravel a series of clues connected to the Lucian stronghold there, and also solve the mystery of whether Anastasia Romanova did really survive the assassination of the Tsar’s family.  And thus we come to my least favourite book in the entire series.

Over the course of the books so far, it has become clear that the clues they’re searching for are ingredients to an unknown compound. In Korea, Dan and Amy theorize that they may be searching for the Philosopher’s Stone. Gideon Cahill was an alchemist, but in the course of his efforts to find a cure for the Black Plague, he discovered a solution that would enhance the human body – intelligence, physique, artistic capabilities, ingenuity… When all the ingredients are combined, the Master Serum is formed, with the ability to transform any human being into something far beyond human.

The Black Circle does nothing new in terms of storytelling – the highlight of the book is perhaps the official alliance the Cahills form with the Holt family as they simultaneously search for clues in various Russian cities. But where the other books maintain a passable facade of being socially equitable, Carman manages to infuriate me by introducing some unnecessarily gendered rubbish.

Presumably as part of the Cahill kids’ character development, Carman has them driving vehicles through Moscow (thanks to fake IDs that establish them as being more than five years older than they are). Dan drives a motorcycle, and Amy drives the car. Now this… This! These roles could just as easily have been reversed. Now, I come from a country where women drive cars and scooters (like the Vespa). But if one were to take a census of the women who ride motorcycles in the country with the second largest population in the world, one would find that the number was so miniscule as to be practically invisible. I’ve been fighting numerous, numerous obstacles to be able to learn how to ride for a decade, and my younger brother practically had the lessons and the bikes handed to him on a silver platter.

No such obstructions exist in Dan and Amy’s world. It is a fictional world. It wouldn’t have killed anybody to have those roles reversed, and yet it seems to not have fucking occurred to them.

These things matter.

Next in this Series: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #6 – In Too Deep

Book Review: The Circular Staircase

Title: The Circular Staircase
Author: Mary Roberts Rineheart
Series: N/A
#: N/A
Year of Publication: 1908
Goodreads Rating (Avg): 3.66
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

Mild Spoilers

the circular staircase.jpeg

Plot Description: A spinster aunt, her inseparable companion, and her adoptive children (niece and nephew) rent a house in the country for a few months. Almost immediately, there is a murder in the house – the son of the owner is dead. What’s more, the servants believe the house is haunted, due to mysterious noises and intruders who somehow manage to get into the house no matter how many windows are barred, how many doors locked, and how many armed men keep watch.

This made for an enjoyable read, although I was under the impression that I was reading an Agatha Christie novel from start to end. The same thing happened when I read “The Man in Lower Ten,” although in that case I figured out halfway through the book that it was a different author.

It’s hard to imagine a book written a hundred years ago managing not to sound entirely too alien, but I guess this explains all the constant hysteria on the part of the women in the book. I’m rather glad that the female characters – and specifically, protagonist Rachel Innes – dominate the storyline entirely. Lady’s maid Liddy and niece Gertrude also play significant parts in the novel, and the book tends to focus on their perspectives and interests, as well as those of the numerous interchangeable (mostly female) servants and the delicately ill Louise Armstrong.

It is quite annoying to watch these women hear strange sounds in the night and then immediately rush into their rooms and bolt the doors, rather than go out and catch the culprits red-handed. It’s equally annoying that on the few occasions where they actually go out to try and catch the culprits red-handed, they faint with amazing promptness at the slightest whisper of contact with said culprits. All this serve as narrative devices that stretch the mystery out, and while they may have been believable plot devices in Rineheart’s head, they’re rather pathetic plot holes now.

The book rushes headlong through numerous twists, some of which would be easily guessed by a veteran reader of detective fiction. To be honest, I was more interested by Rachel Innes – her nosiness and spirit for adventure, despite the ever present danger of spontaneous fainting. Miss Innes is exhilarated by the prospect of going on an adventure involving midnight grave desecration and mischievously enjoys Liddy’s confusion at finding her mistress’ boots covered in dirt and smelling of the graveyard.

The description of Thomas Johnson (“the Armstrongs’ colored butler”) was something else I found interesting:

“Mrs. Watson had been glad enough, I think, to turn Louise over to our care, and Thomas went upstairs night and morning to greet his young mistress from the doorway. Poor Thomas! He had the faculty–found still in some old negroes, who cling to the traditions of slavery days–of making his employer’s interest his. It was always “we” with Thomas; I miss him sorely; pipe- smoking, obsequious, not over reliable, kindly old man!”

A perspective from the 1900s, written by a white woman, telling of the more “benevolent” conceptions of race and of black people in those days. At any rate, “poor Thomas” did not survive the novel – he had a heart attack upon seeing what he thought was a ghost, and died hiding in a cupboard. “Poor Thomas” was a complete narrative device – one dimensional and existing to enhance parts of the mystery through his actions, all of which were born of selfless devotion. I particularly dislike his thieving employer for having caused Thomas’ death – the man had faked his death, and then returned to search the house for his ill gotten goods, causing Thomas to assume that he’d seen a ghost.

I enjoyed this book much more than I did The Man in Lower Ten, quite possibly because this story wasn’t being narrated by a pompous prat of a man who seemed incapable of telling women apart, and incapable of assessing the female personality on any grounds except that of physical attractiveness. Rachel Innes is a great narrator and protagonist, her inquisitiveness and nose for adventure giving fresh breath to what would otherwise have been a very stuffy enterprise indeed.

Next Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #5 – The Black Circle

Book Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #4 – Beyond the Grave

Title: Beyond the Grave
Author: Jude Watson
Year of Publication: 2009
Series:
The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt
#:
4
Goodreads Rating (Avg.):
3.92
Goodreads Rating (Mine):
2

beyond the grave.jpg

Plot Description:  The Cahills are in Egypt, being clueless tourists and searching for statues of Al-Sakhet. Amy is still moping about Ian’s betrayal, which is silly, because there’s so much more betrayal to look forward to. (In relationships in general, as it is with the Clue Hunt in particular.)

It was revealed early on the books that the Cahill family consists of four distinct lineages descended from the four original siblings: Luke, Thomas, Katherine and Jane Cahill. Each branch specializes in something or the other – the Lucians are cunning and well versed in cold logic, ruthlessness and spycraft. The Tomas are athletic, and possessed of a slow and reliable intelligence. The Ekats are inventors possessed of great ingenuity. The Janus are the artsy ones. Amy and Dan are the only ones who are unaware of what branch they come from – their beloved grandmother Grace did not deign to tell them anything about the Cahill family, let alone what branch they’re descended from.

In each book, a new stronghold is discovered – and promptly broken into. It was Lucian in the first, Janus in the second, an ancient Tomas stronghold in the third, and now Ekat in Egypt. Amy and Dan’s dismay at not knowing their lineage only grows with each book, as they rue the number of disadvantages they’re saddled with as a consequence.

“It had been a seven-year string of bad luck, ever since their parents died in that house fire. How were Amy and Dan supposed to do this alone? The Kabras had money. Their parents supported them. Plus, they were working with Irina. The Holts were a whole family. Jonah Wizard had his dad planning every moment of his life. It was Amy and Dan against… families. Teams. Generations. They didn’t stand a chance.”
– The Sword Thief, Peter Lerangis, The Clue Hunt #3

Then there is the phrase they heard right in the first book: “Beware the Madrigals.”

Who the mysterious Madrigals are is unclear, nor is it particularly explained why they are so dangerous. But Amy and Dan finally get a firsthand look at Madrigal handiwork when they find that the clue they’re hunting in this book has been defaced and destroyed.

An interesting aspect of plot development is that every betrayal or otherwise act of violence perpetrated by one of the teams actually becomes a significant pivot that enables their characters to feel remorseful, and therefore take a 180 degree turn by the end of the series. Redemption is on the cards for (almost) all of them.

It would have, however, been great if Irina Spazky’s redemption wasn’t based on the latent maternal instincts that Amy and Dan evoke in her. Yes, truly, it would be nice to have a bloodthirsty Russian spy who switches sides because of some reason other than that she’d been a mother once upon a time. Also, Irina’s “spiritual experience” inside Nefertiti’s tomb sounds hella weird, and once again, smacks of the Oriental mysticism trope to me.

Pet Peeve: Also, can I just say that Saladin is the most unrealistic cat, ever? He behaves more like a dog than a cat. None of the cats I know would pass up the opportunity to take off once they’re anywhere in the great outdoors (with or without a healthy dose of panic on the side.)

Next Review: The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rineheart

Next in this Series: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #5 – The Black Circle

Book Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #3 – The Sword Thief

Title: The Sword Thief
Author: 
Peter Lerangis
Year of Publication: 
2009
Series:
The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt
#:
3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.):
3.87
Goodreads Rating (Mine):
2

the sword thief

Plot Description: Dan and Amy head to Tokyo, and then Korea in the footsteps of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. I’m guessing the antics of a brutal warlord are diluted because it’s supposed to be a book for children – one of the first things written about Toyotomi in his Wikipedia entry is the fact that he once ordered the death by crucifixion of 26 Christians.

I do not appreciate Peter Lerangis’ skill in writing, primarily because he seems to think that being a child means to be incredibly childish – indeed, he takes this to nonsensical levels:

I’m figuring maybe the subway was built into the already existing tunnels!”
The Holts shut up at once.
“Dan — ” Amy warned. “You’re telling this to them!”
Dan looked up, bewildered. “I was telling Uncle Alistair.”
“But we-ee-ee heard you,” Reagan sang in a taunt, and stuck out her tongue.

– The Sword Thief, The 39 Clues #3 by Peter Lerangis (emphasis mine)

Take the above exchange. They’re all sitting in a small car. Your typical 11-year old is not, in fact, incapable of understanding that sitting in the same car means that the people next to you can hear what you say.  Whoa. Did I just blow your mind, Lerangis?

I have absolutely no explanation for this passage, why the author thought it a good idea to include it, why the editors let it pass, and so on. None whatsoever.

This book is the big one for alliances. Irina and the Kabras are working together. Alistair and the Cahills are working together. And then Alistair, the Cahills and the Kabras all join forces so they can discover a clue in a cave… After Ian spends like, half the book flirting with Amy, the Kabras promptly betray the Cahills once the clue is found, and Alistair promptly abandons them so Amy is left holding onto all sorts of unresolved feelings.

There, there, Amy. Lack of closure thanks to unreliable males in your life is something I can assuredly relate to.

Fortunately for them, the Cahills are beginning to get with the program. Dan gives the Kabras the wrong clue, sending them haring off in the wrong direction.

Between alliances, a hint as to the real objective of the quest, continuous betrayals, and the Cahills beginning to understand that they really shouldn’t be trusting their opponents, plot development seems to take a few steps forward. Sadly, the book is very badly, childishly and unrealistically written, and the Ian-Amy angle reminds me that they are in fact cousins. Certainly, enough generations have passed since the first set of Cahill siblings for it to not matter much, but it’s still kind of icky.

Pet Peeve: “Schist” is mentioned – a joke that also appears in Riordan’s Son of Neptune. I wonder whether he asked Lerangis to put it in here, or whether Lerangis inspired him… If it’s the latter, let the record state that I’ve always thought that joke to be in bad taste.

“Schist,” said an angry voice from the grass.
Hazel raised her eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“Schist! Big pile of schist!”
– Son of Neptune, Rick Riordan (Heroes of Olympus #2)

Next in this Series: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #4 – Beyond the Grave

Book Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #2 – One False Note

Title: One False Note
Author: 
Gordon Korman
Year of Publication: 
2008
Series:
The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt
#:
2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.):
3.88
Goodreads Rating (Mine):
2

One False Note

With 11 books and half a dozen authors, The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt is a big series to review all at once. However, it’s also a children’s series, complete with interactive gameplay. The plot is actually quite simple and to the point, and each book is filled with adventures meant to spread the experience over a number of instalments.

Plot Description: The Cahills are apparently a great and influential family that has produced pretty much every famous person you’ve ever heard of – and even some you’ve never heard of. They have a family secret that will lend great power to whoever knows how to use it, and the 39 clues to that secret are spread across the world. Unfortunately, the family (which is divided into branches of descendants of the original Cahill siblings) is consumed by infighting and an utter lack of co-operation.
After their adventures in Paris, Amy and Dan Cahill, their au pair Nellie and Saladin, their grandmother’s cat, journey to Vienna, Austria – to the birthplace of Nannerl Mozart and her famous brother Wolfgang.

I appreciate the efforts to hammer home the idea that Nannerl, despite her talent being equal to (or greater than) that of her brother, lost out on the opportunities for fame and success due to her gender.  However, this fact is put across so repeatedly and bluntly that even the most understanding of readers will tire of it. It smacks of overcompensation.

And with good reason, because this shallow and ham handed attempt at feminism is as good as it gets. Nellie and Amy are shown to be very upset about the unfairness surrounding Nannerl Mozart, which is great, but I’d have deeply appreciated it if Dan was shown as having some reaction to their revelations other than eye rolling and dismissing it as “Boring girl stuff.” Spouting feminist content is no good unless little white 11 year old boys understand why it’s important, the significance of it.

All the characters are bluntly outlined caricatures. Amy and Dan are, of course, the best fleshed out, but even they fit the tropes of orphaned, lonely youngsters with pluck and spirit. I also don’t understand the concept of writing sibling rivalry in terms of “Cooties” and calling each other names. My siblings and I fought a lot, but there was no fundamental conception of each other as a “dweeb” or “Sisterus Dorkus” or anything else for that matter. We were who we were, and we were too young to try and quantify that with name-calling.

The other teams are: the Holts – a family of people built like “Neanderthals” (book’s words, not mine), obsessed with behaving like they’re a military unit, and excelling at athletics; the Kabras – a pair of siblings the same age as Dan and Amy, but who are rich, intelligent and cunning; Alistair Oh, an older Korean man with a flair for fancy clothing and enigma; the Starlings – incredibly intelligent and capable triplets; Jonah Wizard, a child hip hop star and Irina Spasky, a former KGB agent.

Irina speaks in what I suppose is “A Russian accent” – having never heard an actual Russian accent, I cannot judge, but it does seem to be a good approximation of the accents stereotypically heard on TV. In fact, Irina’s English reminds me of Anatoly Knyazev on Arrow.

Anatoly.jpg
Anatoly

Irina isn’t the only to be typecast – Jonah Wizard and Alistair Oh are a mess as well. As a hip-hop star, Jonah frequently refers to his homies, says “yo” or “word…” The fact that he’s a spoilt, rich kid pointedly clashes with his appearance and mannerisms, all of which faithfully follow the hip-hop image. He’s eventually shown to be a fan of Shakespeare, a fact that he tries to hide because he’d “lose his street cred.” I think that’s a pretty problematic description, since it equates “hip hop” with “lack of culture” (as culture is conventionally defined). I don’t think being a hip hop artist precludes anyone from enjoying Shakespeare or other classic English literature, and to imply otherwise is super messed up. The authors are so self-satisfied with their inclusionary antics that they overlook the deeper analysis of the dynamics of racism, and subtly end up implying that somehow Shakespeare (and speaking “Standard English”) are better than hip hop and AAVE.

Similarly, Alistair Oh being Korean means he must act in as “oriental” a manner as possible.

An Asian man with a placid smile, dressed in a silk suit with white gloves and a bowler hat.
“Greetings, my elusive relatives,” purred Alistair Oh.” – One False Note, The 39 Clues #2 (Gordon Korman).

Next in this Series: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #3 – The Sword Thief

 

 

Book Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #1 – The Maze of Bones

Title: The Maze of Bones
Author: Rick Riordan
Year of Publication: 2008
Series: The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.83
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

maze of bones

Plot Description: Orphaned at an early age, Amy and Dan Cahill developed a very close bond with their grandmother Grace. Now at her funeral, her will gives her relatives a choice between choosing a million dollars or a clue that will set them off on a curious quest for 39 different clues. Determined to honour Grace’s memory, Amy and Dan accept the quest that will pit them against various family members who all seem to be much better prepared and knowledgeable than the kids themselves are.

In the course of my reading of this series, I have frequently been given to consider the question of precisely what constitutes a good children’s book, and what a good review of a children’s book. It is obvious that the older you are, the less you are likely to relate to a book meant for kids. And it also goes without saying that all this makes reviewing an extremely difficult process.

What complicates this series even further is that each book is written by a different author. Of these, Rick Riordan and Gordon Korman are the only ones I’ve known of beforehand. The writing styles are therefore different, and there are inconsistencies in the tone, and in what kind of subliminal messages are prioritized.

Although I enjoy Riordan’s writing on the whole, in this case, I found that it grated. Particularly in the opening chapter, characterization seemed loud and unnecessarily bratty. Carter and Sadie Kane were a much better written pair of siblings than are Dan and Amy Cahill. Moreover, Riordan’s trademark humour seemed – at least to me – to be missing from this book. His comic timing has always helped me sail through his books before (indeed, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the single greatest thing about The Kane Chronicles).

As far as adventures go, this series seems to follow more along the lines of Katherine Applegate’s writing (or that of Lemony Snicket) than Riordan’s. While Percy Jackson and his cohorts also run into  (and out of) dangerous situations with alarming frequency, those situations seem much more natural and light hearted. Applegate and Snicket, on the other hand, seem to exist solely to bring misery to the lives of their child characters. I suppose The 39 Clues falls somewhere in the middle.

Pet Peeve: Unnecessary use of the world “spaz”, used apparently as a nickname for Irina Spazky, a Russian KGB agent and member of the Lucian branch of the Cahill family. Irina suffers from some neurological damage that gives her an involuntary eyeball twitch, but is never referred to by this particular nickname by anyone in the book. It’s just part of her introductory paragraph, serves no purpose whatsoever, and should really just have been left in the trash during editing.

Next Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #2 – One False Note