Potboilers...and better...for the Plane

These are books, usually paperbacks, to pass the time between time zones. If they're good, time flies and soon you'll be hearing the captain's local weather report. If they're bad, well, you needed a nap, right?

Dixie City Jam by James Lee Burke. The hero is a hard boiled, Cajun Catholic, former New Orleans cop, now part-time rural deputy sheriff, part-time coffee shop owner, part-time boat charterer. Notwithstanding these many jobs, our hero spends most of his time hunting down really bad people (neo-nazis, rich hoodlums, corrupt cops, etc.) and giving them what they deserve - forcefully. Actually, aside from the simplistic premise, the writing is pretty good - very evocative of place and roughly suggestive of the potential of a religious ethic in our squalid society.

The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy. The world is at peace in its new world order. The Russians are no longer threatening. Even the Middle East seems to be working out its troubles. Only one fly in the ointment - nuclear terrorists. Here we have another typical, captivating Clancy novel, but he is improving in characterization. Check out a web site constructed by a Clancy admirer.

Jurassic Park, Congo, and Rising Sun by Michael Crichton. Crichton is to "regular" science what Tom Clancy is to military science: a populizer. He takes complex ideas and theories and makes stories out of them, parables really. The human characters don't catch our interest, but the ideas and theories and technology that these characters grapple with do. And Crichton knows how to craft a page-turner. That's why he's a kazillionaire now. This trio is a good Chrichton sampler. The dinosaur movie is great fun and may be becoming the Mona Lisa of contemporary popular flicks, but the book is darker and more intelligent. Rising Sun is odd; science and technology, though present, give way to xenophobia. Congo is less well-known but has the thematic elements of the two later books and is as quick and easy to read. Yes, a Crichton fan has put up a web site.

The Picador Book of Crime Writing edited by Michael Dibdin. This book is an outstanding collection of short stories, essays and excerpts from novels. You will find here a cross section of the genre's best writing, and it is very good writing indeed. The selections span time and geography, which is perfect for time-zone travelers.

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Follett's fictional epic about the 12th century revolves around the building a cathedral just when the gothic style begins to inspire and literally enlighten Europe. Follett paints a compelling and detailed picture of life in the 1100s at all levels of society. We see peasants, kings, thieves, monks, merchants, bishops, knights, minstrels, bakers, builders and more. The novel's only drawback is that, with a few exceptions, the characters are all pigeon-holed a little too easily into good guys and bad guys, and good guys are very good while the bad guys are very bad. Triple is more standard Follett fare, which is to say it is entertaining and readable, another good book for those long airplane trips. The hero is an English Jew, a soldier in WWII, who emigrates to Israel after surviving the German camps. His antagonists are a Russian and a Palestinian, who attended college with him in England right after the war, but who also went on to serve their respective countries and causes. Most of the story takes place in the sixties.

The Day After Tomorrow by Allan Folsom. Here is a so-so thriller that begins engagingly enough in a great locale (Paris) where an everyman-type American tourist has his life turned upside down when he recognizes a man coming out of a Metro station as the man who murdered his father many years earlier. It's decent enough airplane fare, but the story fails as it becomes gradually but increasingly improbable with each turn of the page right to the very end.

Neuromancer by William Gibson. One of the seminal works of the cyberpunk genre, Neuromancer inspired the cinematic atmosphere of movies such as Bladerunner. The 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic is based on a story by the same author. The genre poses a high tech but dark future in which certain hackers and other techie types operating on the fringes (or beyond) of the law can be good guys, because the rest of society is either impersonally amoral or actively evil, and the cyberpunks are the only folks who can effectively resist. This is a good book with some flaws.

Fatherland by Robert Harris. I started this novel skeptically. The setting is Germany in the early 1960s, but the book assumes that Germany won WWII. A lot of pulp could be written around such a premise. But instead Harris gives us a study of professional integrity and moral responsibility in the face of totalitarian evil. The characters are realistic. The plot is captivating (a mystery/ police story ala Gorky Park). This is a fine book.

Storming Intrepid by Payne Harrison. Hard as it may be to believe, we now must deal with derivatives of Tom Clancy. The technothriller has become a genre. It comprises good guys vs bad guys in the context of state-of-the-art technology - in this case military and space technology. In these books the high-tech gizmos are more important than the characters, and more interesting. If you like the genre and you must endure a long airplane trip, give this one a try - it's not great, but it held some interest.

Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. Smilla is half Inuit, half Danish. She lives alone in Denmark, where she is an outsider in many ways, both obvious and subtle. Despite her natural and nurtured reclusiveness, she involves herself in a mystery and an intrigue where she is definitely not welcome. Hoeg's sense of irony and of the modern struggle is as keen as is Smilla's sense of snow. This is an intelligent and strangely beautiful novel.

Without Due Process by J. A. Jance. Northwest USA (Seattle) pulp, standard-fare crime fiction. The author and hero both live in Seattle. Enjoyable

Insomnia by Stephen King, who is, at his best, a truly fine writer. His technique is expert, and his writing has a dimension of moral thought that few popular writers possess. Insomnia has passages of great writing, but in the end it seemed to lose focus and become a little too weird and self-indulgent for one's taste (and patience). But The Stand is intriguing. Is it a masterpiece or an overwrought piece of pulp? It's part fantasy, part comedy, part melodrama, part satire, part romance, part allegory. It's religious, ironic, inspiring, grotesque and frightening, an odd mixture of the real and the surreal. It's weird. For something else kind of weird, click here.

Dark Rivers of the Heart by Dean Koontz. Koontz serves up a techno-thriller wannabe that grabs the reader's interest right away and proceeds to lose it bit by bit, but not completely until the disappointing finale. The author also attempts to weave a cyberpunk theme through the book, which might have been better appreciated by somebody at this site.

The Night Manager by John Le Carre. Now that the Cold War is over, what will keep the West's spying bureaucracy busy? If you guess dealing drugs, laundering money, and selling illegal arms, you're right. And, just as in Le Carre's Cold War novels, telling the people in white hats from those in black hats is difficult. The Le Carre world is a grey one, where folks trust other folks at their own risk and where political infighting within the ranks often causes more damage than does the enemy. The protagonist in this book isn't as fully realized as some of the author's other heroes.

The Deus Machine by Pierre Ouellette. Ouellette is a Portland, Oregon writer and this is his first published novel. It is a techno-cyber-thriller about electronic design automation, genetic engineering, chemical engineering, cyberspace and artificial intelligence all gone wrong in the near future (a future that doesn't look so great politically or economically either). The book starts out very strong but loses steam in the last third. Still, it's worth reading. Who knows? Ouellette may be on the cutting edge of the next generation of techno-fiction.

Double Deuce and A Catskill Eagle by Robert B. Parker. I was wary of Parker, because the "Spenser" TV series always seemed suspect. (I admit that my suspicion was based on nothing more than 15-second ads surrounding other programs, because I've never actually seen the show.) But I liked the books, Double Deuce more than Eagle. Parker's style is simple and often stark. Yet now and again the reader encounters a lyric, nearly poetic paragraph. Underlying the tough-guy realism is a subtle and gentle parody of the genre. Intelligence is at work here. By the way, Spenser has a home page.

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. This piece of non-fiction is not for the squeamish. Preston is a prominent science writer, and this book is the true story of the emergence of the Ebola virus. It's graphic and scary and very well told.

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. I figured that as long as everyone would be talking about the Tom Cruise movie, I might as well check out the book. I admit I was surprised by how good the novel is. In fact, if one can ignore Rice's occasional lapses into the repulsive and lurid just for the sake of being repulsive and lurid, this is a beautifully written, thoughtful novel about the human condition. It resembles a 19th century novel in its narrative style, development of character and evocation of place. Yes, there's a web site, but some places the Faithful Reader just won't go!

Copyright 1996 Anna Read-The Faithful Reader. This page last revised on 24 September 1996.